Short Story: “Consuming Content”

A writer from the future laments being replaced by the AI chat bot ChatGPT. But are there some upsides?

Asian man with glasses is sitting alone outside in a park writing in a book with a pencil © Ika Larsson /

May 19, 2024 02:08 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Do you need to produce the art in order for it to belong to you?

My name is Alvin Rikard. The year is 2043. And I am a writer. I am still a writer. 

I think I can pinpoint where it all went wrong. The moment humanity decided to swallow itself up. It was with a phrase: “We think you might like this.”

That’s how it started. A harmless, helpful recommendation based on the previous books, films and TV you’d consumed. I always hated that word, consumed. 

Sometimes, these recommendations were on the money; sometimes they were pretty seriously wrong. But we didn’t care, did we? The idea of an algorithm suggesting things for us to read and watch. If anything, we wanted it to be better than it was. 

Then when ChatGPT3 came out, at the end of 2022, I was— well, I was probably in a bit of denial. “Yeah, it could write a cracking email. But when you asked it to write you a script or a short story it was seriously lacking. No warmth, no sense of personality. But I dunno, it’s hard to recall now, but I probably did think — I’m sure I did, I must have done — that it would be able to work it out. It made me realize I had to move pretty quickly. I had to write everything I wanted to write within a year, because otherwise it might be too late. And I said that to a lot of people at the time, but I don’t think I believed it. 

You see, I held onto the idea that people would never wear it. Even if a machine could write better than I could, or better than anyone could, it wouldn’t blow writers out the water altogether. I thought people would want to “consume” the work of real people. I thought we’d struggle to be moved by the writing of robots, even if it were brilliant. Or we’d maybe do half and half at least. We’d read a perfectly crafted book or a beautifully structured film, and then we’d try out something more human. The flaws would be, would be part of the charm, you know. And when we listened to someone else’s pain, we’d know it meant something, we’d know it came from somewhere deep inside. 

That’s what everyone said to me too. They said, “Don’t worry Alvin, we’ll never be happy ‘consuming’ content that’s entirely machine made.” And the thing is they weren’t wrong. They weren’t lying. They meant it, they needed that connection. 

What we missed in these discussions was the fact that ChatGPT understood this too. And it didn’t get rid of the connection, it ramped it up.

It combined with those algorithms, the “we think you might like this” ones. It went through everything you’ve ever watched or read and it created a story perfectly tailored to your tastes. You could give it a genre, or a set of characters or even the outline of a story, the seed of an idea, and in a few seconds it would present you with something that fitted your tastes entirely. And as you were reading, because it was easier to do it with books to begin with, as you were reading, it could detect how you were feeling and adapt the story accordingly. And it learnt — oh god it learnt — it learnt quickly, bloody quickly. People liked these stories so much they began to give ChatGPT access to their minds 24/7. and the AI crafted the most perfect, most detailed stories just for them, learning, learning, learning and adapting. 

And the clever thing was, the really clever thing, was that ChatGPT didn’t take the credit. If they made a book for my mate Mike, the name on the cover would be “Michael Evans.” He was reading himself repackaged as a literary genius. Every idea Mike had ever had was brought to life as though he had the combined gifts of all his favorite writers. 

Then they moved on to film and TV. Immersive, stunning, unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Michael Evans could be transported into his own imagination, shook into shape by a dream team of screenwriters and directors. And whatever actors he wanted to cast would pop up, in hyper-realistic CGI, and deliver the performances of their lives. And when the credits rolled, the words “From the mind of Michael Evans” would blaze into view.

And the thing is, they weren’t wrong. They weren’t lying. They meant it; it was his mind that had provided the basis for all the content he was “consuming.”

And of course, he could share his books and films with others and they could share theirs with him. The AI hadn’t severed the connection. It had ramped it up by a million. And it helped us in ways we never imagined. Lovers could write to each other as though they were Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning… or Selena Gomez and Justin Beiber. We could tell each other things we’d never have been able to say before. A book or a film for every occasion. Not the AI’s book or film, but yours, or your partner’s or your best friend’s. Not long after ChatGPT’s launch, we were all artistic geniuses and the workaday writers like me, we weren’t just out of business; we were out of everything. (Pause) I did it too, of course I did. All my unwritten ideas were fed into the system. Even the things I’d already written. And they came out perfectly. Better. Far better than I could have done by myself.

I used to say I didn’t care about success, the important thing was simply to do the writing. Produce a body of work. If people wanted to join in, great. If they didn’t that was also great. And then in one afternoon, I lent my mind to the sixth or seventh version of ChatGPT, and it produced a collected works that far surpassed anything I was ever going to be capable of if I lived for a thousand years. 

And yeah, there are still people whose creations have a special place in our culture. Whose imagination is so rich that, when combined with the AI, it creates something so special you have to consume it even if you don’t know them. But my work falls far below that standard. As long as it was just writers doing the writing, my stuff had half a chance of standing out. But now it was everyone. And I couldn’t compete with the dreams of the shy. 

I still got to enjoy my own content, and be surprised by it, and so too did a small circle of others. And isn’t that all I ever wanted? 

And when I try and raise any sort of objection with anyone, they laugh at me. Would I rather return to the inartistic world we’ve left behind when half the content we consumed was crap and practically no one fulfilled their artistic potential? If I loved being a writer so much, I should be delighted that everyone else has joined me, shouldn’t I?

And in a sense, they’re right. But also they’re so wrong. Fallibility was a key part of writing, and I know they can fake that too, but it is fake. And somehow, on some level, you can feel it. And even if you can’t… and even if you claim it’s you that’s doing the writing, even if you love seeing your name at the end of every film you watch, every piece of content you consume, those words, those fake words that confirm it was all a lie, “from the mind of insert name here,” “from the mind of this liar, this nobody, this fake,” you know, when you see those words, you know it isn’t really you. You know it’s a distortion of who you are, and you know you lose a bit of yourself each time. 

I used to love stories about time travel. And I still do; ChatGPT is a master at that genre. My god, the adventures I’ve been on. But all writing used to be time travel, don’t you think? One person used to press their hand against the page, and years or centuries later, it would spring up and punch someone else in the stomach. 

And now they’ve taken out the hand. I suspect it won’t be long until they do away with the stomach. Fast forward far enough, and you’ll just find ChatGPT, churning out endless stories written by no one for an audience who’s no longer there.

The minute we followed these algorithms, the harmless and helpful “we think you might like this,” the minute we did that, we stopped consuming content, and the content started consuming us. 

So I might be wrong, I might be out of touch, but I think there’s a difference and I think it lies in the physical act. Writing doesn’t just come from the mind, it comes from the body.

And as I’m writing this, with pen and paper, my right hand is in agony. It’s sending shooting pains up my shoulder; a vein in my temple is pulsing. And most of all, I feel the way I hope you still feel as you’re reading this, the way we’re all supposed to feel.

Unmistakably, unfakeably human.

That was ‘Consuming Content’ from the mind of Alvin Rikard.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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