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Ya’ll are over there writing mass-generated text and I’m still writing letters

Sometimes I write letters to people. Real, hand-written, folded, stamped, and mailed letters. I do this for three reasons:

  1. Writing by hand slows me down, which is a feature, not a bug.
  2. Writing letters is a genuine way of showing someone, “I took some time for you.”
  3. It’s far more permanent than an email, text, or phone call. Unlike even a greeting card, people are less likely to throw it in the trash.

Thing is, almost no one replies to my letters (props to two of you out there). At best I get a cursory text, “Hey, I got your letter.” And that’s it.

Now the “least you could do” is becoming even lesser with AI-generated mass-market slop.

Neven Mrgan wrote about this recently in how it feels just getting an ordinary email from a friend written by AI:

It felt like getting a birthday card with only the prewritten message inside, and no added well-wishes from the wisher’s own pen. An item off the shelf, paid for and handed over, transaction complete.

…prior to this email, I never even pondered whether I wanted AI to call me up on behalf of people in my life. It had simply not occurred to me—and now that it has occurred to me, I definitely do not want small talk and relationships outsourced to server farms. This stuff shouldn’t feel hard or taxing; it’s what our presence here on Earth is mostly made up of. The effort, the clumsiness, and the time invested are where humanity is stored.

Thing is, I know we’ve all already lost the battle, the war, and the hearts and minds on this. All the people who for years clogged your social media feeds with Minion and “I love coffee” memes will go in for AI-generated text and images. Now that Apple is building this into iPhones as a dedicated app, the images will be everywhere.

A class of people will not use them, which will make one group seem snobbish when, in truth, it ought to be like people who don’t curse. They just care about that part of their communication.

I won’t be using it because I recognize they are just this generation’s clip art. The cutesy, vague things that don’t really show much. They just sorta take up space. And I know clients will send me AI-generated stuff, and I know someday soon someone’s going to send me an AI “logo” that is not actually a logo file but instead a garbled mass of lines and pixels you can’t actually do anything with.

But the text thing bothers me more, even if I also recognize it’s just “calculators for words.” No one thinks calculators are a bad idea. And reasonable people know that being able to do basic arithmetic in your head is a vital and useful skill.

But “the calculator for words” is different because words matter. My favorite example of this comes from, of all places, the Massachusetts Constitution:

Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them…

…for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. 

Massachusetts has the oldest constitution still in force in the world. Massachusetts’ constitution was written by John Adams a few years before the U.S. Constitution and the words he chose and used matter.

A few years ago the Massachusetts legislature reduced funding for the arts that resulted in cuts to music and other art departments at public schools in the state. Teachers and other boosters sued on the notion that arts were guaranteed in the constitution. And they won, because the language is plain and simple.

John Adams’ words reached out across 200 years of history to remind everyone, even the government itself, to “cherish the interests of literature and sciences” for the promotion of arts and the public good, charity, liberty, and the dealings of sincerity and generous sentiments.

Words matter. And the actions we take with them impact our feelings and emotions in a way numbers don’t necessarily evoke (except on bank statements, perhaps).

This is why text generation feels different. When a calculator works with numbers, it’s working with empirical fact and hard numbers. When you do it with words, the humanity and dealings of sincerity and sentiment are entrusted to a computer.

Now that all of Apple’s devices and new Windows PCs will have the “rewrite it for me” or “write it for me” prompts everywhere, I expect to see it used everywhere. I already see it used everywhere. Even if, in a few years, the AI could really understand your writing style, what happens when no one has a writing style because some people are “flattened” by the AI?

When I send people a letter, I almost write it as if not to expect a reply. This makes me terribly sad for a few reasons:

  1. They either live a life so hectic and burnt-out they can’t “find the time,” or,
  2. They don’t care. And that also has an emotion and humanity to it.

When I write someone a letter, I want you to know it is because I care about you, I made time for you, I am actively thinking about you, and I wish to strengthen a friendship or bond with you.

I will, as a matter of principle, probably never use AI to write anything in my life. Not because I am somehow snobbish or feel I’m better than someone who genuinely struggles with writing and needs it to sound remotely employable or professional or adult. But because I do consider even one-off emails and frequently do revise them to be shorter, punctual, or with a different tone. I ask people questions about their weekend or family. I try to show good humor. Because that’s the humanity of it all.

But I am not blind to the notion this is “just another tool.” But as I get older, the technology in my life seems less and less designed to help me do work, but more or less designed to help further consumption and capital. A hammer does not hammer for you. A saw does not saw for you. It feels like we are stretching the definition of “tool.”

I do not know what will happen. Perhaps the AI stuff will get dialed back. Maybe people will revolt and reject it like we did Ping. Or, maybe it’ll be just like cars: something no one wants to go without that we have become trapped by, even when we know it’s probably done more harm than good to communities, lives, and the environment. But, in the meantime: hey, it really generated a lot of growth in the Q2 financials!


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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