Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Writing in the age of ChatGPT

Back in school, when rote memorization passed off for education, I could recount every country and its capital. The brain, alas, is a frugal organ and is strict about its “Use it or lose it!” policies, and hence, this kind of knowledge required constant gardening; spaced repetition was my favorite strategy. World events conspired to make the project harder. The iron curtain fell in Europe and birthed a couple of dozen countries and suddenly my atlas was outdated. I had to augment books with hand-written notes and maps that helped me learn the capitals of Moldova, Croatia and all those -Stans in central Asia. I had to rework the mnemonics to recall the lesser known countries and capitals. It was a whole cottage industry in my brain. And then search engines came along and made me feel silly about the whole enterprise, before Google finally killed all motivation for the task. Gen AI is doing a little bit of that to my writing.

Let me start with the effect it is having on my reading. Until recently, I allowed myself the occasional visit to LinkedIn to do some content snacking. Among all the humble brags (“I’m pleased to announce that I now have a PMP certificate”) and contrived listicles (“10 career lessons to learn from Paul the Octopus”) there were people expressing some nice ideas. And often the writing would be more interesting than the idea. A turn of phrase here or even a grammatical error there would reveal something about the author, say his vernacular influences. At least the voice was revealing and original. The same authors have clearly been using ChatGPT (why wouldn’t they!), because their now-sanitized posts are devoid of all the quirks and vulnerabilities that made it interesting to read them in the first place. More and more, I suspect, a majority of casual writing will just be prompt engineering. As the bar for writing anything is lowered, I’m not sure I still want to read any of it.

What does this mean to more serious writing? Great art stretches the boundaries of what humans can do with the technology of that age. Painting realistic landscapes may have made you great before the age of cameras, but if you do it now don’t expect to auction your work at Sotheby’s. This is true in architecture too. The big temple at Thanjavur is scarcely believable, Taj Mahal is sheer genius, but the Akshardham in New Jersey is probably stone that could have been put to better use (Go ahead, cancel me). The GenAI engines can already pass off for Jane Austen or P G Wodehouse (Don’t bother. I’m already canceled). Future versions may be able to do Dave Barry or Kurt Vonnegut (sigh!). We will still read for the great ideas, but I’m not sure I’ll struggle through Knausgaard if there was no clear human prodigiousness behind it. I’m sure authors will eventually innovate beyond LLMs, so what would the Guernica of writing look like?

As for my own hobby, I had long ago stopped writing for an audience. Instead I do it for two reasons; first it keeps the craft alive, and second it is the clearest way to edit my own ideas. Those reasons are still valid (for now!) but ChatGPT, by making writing easier, has ironically made it harder too.

1 comment:

Vani said...

Can so relate to the countries and capitals, I would also add currencies ��
Agree the personality of the author is invariably lost in the sanitized writing. And if you know the person well enough or have interacted with them, you know that’s not their style and the whole thing loses its authenticity. Writing well is aspirational for many and so, on the bright side, if it is helping someone learn and understand the intricate beauty of the language, probably a cause worth its while.