For a 21st century invention, our reactions to ChatGPT and its succeeding clones have been reflective of the times too— superficial, irreverent, and unwise. While many critics of such tools have pointed out that AI writing is nothing more than stringing together of sentences which ultimately lack meaning and insight, the chorus around their potential continues to grow and so it becomes important to understand them better.
But to gauge whether AI can really write or not, we first need to understand why we write and read at all. That is a question that has been elegantly tackled by the American journalist and author Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Having grown up in an age before the Internet, he found that he was rapidly becoming more and more incapable of reading articles online because he simply couldn’t hold his concentration for long. He writes of peers who grew up reading books in libraries, enjoying the process of hunting for the right book for years, but now find it difficult to read books at all. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore, I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it”, one of these peers say to Carr.
While it may be reliably argued that the vast majority of humanity would anyway never have the patience to read War and Peace cover to cover, it is a cause for concern when devoted readers who want to read more find it difficult to do so. Carr makes the point that it’s because the Internet has now made it possible for us to skim through a truckload of information in a much shorter span of time. We can now get a sense of a narrative on a topic that seems to be rooted in facts but is ultimately as vacuous as it comes. In the case of Carr and his peers, this hunting for information online and stringing it all together for a narrative is done by humans themselves. But what we’re seeing with the advent of ChatGPT and the like is that from now on, even that will be done by an algorithm.
What seems to be lost on AI evangelists are the internal stages of questioning, processing, and resolution that are associated with good writing. A reader in love with the elegance of literary writing may think that the writer’s talent lies in being romantic but there’s a whole lot more to enduring texts. A text of any nature— literary, academic, religious, and so on— if it endures through the years does so because it answers some of humanity’s most persistent questions, processes, and resolutions. We do not talk about the Bhagavad Gita or Phaedrus (or even a Pride and Prejudice) today out of religiosity or idle philosophizing but because they encode within themselves universal challenges and solutions to being human. But why do such texts come into existence at all?
To understand that, Carr takes us to ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece. He writes of a dialogue between the Egyptian god, Theuth or Thoth, who invented writing, and one of the kings, Thamus. Theuth obviously has all the good things to say about writing but Thamus disagrees with him, saying, “should Egyptians learn to write, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. It is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance. Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing. They will be filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom”.
This ancient story resonates louder than ever before in the age of writing bots. But that’s not all. For Carr now moves the proverbial mic over to Socrates. He writes that unlike his prodigious student Plato, Socrates was more of an orator than a writer. While the teacher acknowledged the benefits of writing to capture one’s thoughts, he also argued against a dependence on the technology for he thought it would alter our minds and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, Carr paraphrases Socrates, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers and prevent us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness.
And so, it follows that anything worth writing and reading about comes from deep within us. Any text is a repository of our inner life— our fears, confusions, aspirations, dreams and more. When a writer captures them, he or she does so by tapping into both their inner life and its conflicts with the external world. Through this difficult and sustained churning we get a writer’s insight, which can be literary, philosophical, or moral, but which is nevertheless intrinsically human. Ancients, then, understood the importance of an inner life that was constantly questioning, processing, and resolving the external environment in creating wisdom, whether idealistic or practical, that was necessary to living a good life in a given age and culture.
The emphasis on memory is found in many cultures around the world with the underlying reason that it helps us build and sustain an inner life. This inner life helped us tap into universal and eternal ideas of a good life through which we could deal with changes in our external environment in a more meaningful way rather than becoming herd-like.What artificial intelligence contributes to is this continual erosion of an inner life. While technology was only meant to make our physical lives easier, it is now coming for our emotional selves. Carr writes how much of this has seeped into modern academia, journalism, and arts as well as the ordinary life with most of us following “scripts” or algorithms laid out by search engines like Google or even online academic journals. ChatGPT and artificial intelligence tools may still help us become more innovative and creative, helping us chart new horizons in understanding the world around us. But we must heed Carr’s The Shallows in the disadvantages that these tools may cause us in near future as well.
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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