AI Can't Touch Us
AI was bumming me out ... until I looked at all the beauty that people create
I’ll admit it: I’ve been letting this AI crap bum me out.
No, it’s not the 10-to-30% chance that it will end life as we know it within the next decade(s) that gets to me.
Nor is it the likelihood that AI is going to increase the quality and volume of bullshit—that is, misinformation and disinformation—that clogs the public sphere (and simultaneously decreases the number of humans producing it).
Sure, these things worry me, but in distant, abstract, what-can-I-really-do-about-it kind of ways.
AI has been bumming me out closer to home, in more personal ways. It’s bumming me out because AI has moved into my neighborhood, in the way that big box stores like Walmart and Home Depot moved into small towns and undercut the mom-and-pop stores that had sat on Main Street forever.
Yup, AI has come for writing and painting. That’s my neighborhood.
Two years ago, my wife and I decided that we’d quit our corporate gigs, figure out how to live on a lot less money, and chase our creative passions. I’d write, she’d paint. We didn’t expect to make a lot of money, not soon anyway and maybe not ever. But we counted on it being a hell of a lot more fulfilling than slaving away inside the bullshit machine. And sure enough, it has been—at least until AI came to town.
Not so long ago, AI-driven text and image generators produced laughably bad crap. But in the last year, they began to produce art and writing that was, well, plausible. Acceptable. Serviceable. Even, in a very few cases, interesting.
And if this is what AI is doing now, just think what will happen as it accelerates in its capacity. We mere humans might as well hang up our keyboards and our paintbrushes and find another line of work.
Yeah, the idea that an entire domain of creative work could now be done at an adequate level of quality but much faster and cheaper by “robots” ... well, that feels kind of shitty.
But then I reflected on how I actually live my life: on where I walk and how I eat and where I shop and what I read. I reflected on the kinds of things I value, and that helped me realize perhaps I was framing the issue incorrectly.
For example, we grow a lot of our own food. In fact, this year we added a bunch of space to our garden so we could grow more. When I needed supplies and starts for our raised beds, I didn’t go to Home Depot, I went to the local hardware store, McDaniel’s Do-It Center. The guy who helped me figure out what I needed was Kaden McDaniel, the grandson of Bob McDaniel, who has been running this store since 1966. When we needed compost, we got it from Bailey Compost, a fifth-generation farm out in the valley. And what we can’t grow, we get from Skylight Farms, which grows food upriver from Bailey. (And if I need a pain au chocolat, I’ll stop in at the Snohomish Bakery, run by Andy Papadotos and Ingrid Harten.)
These folks offer something I can’t get from a big box store: they offer knowledge and experience and commitment and personality. They aren’t trying to be everything to everybody. They are trying to do a couple things well, for a select group of people.
The stuff I like to read is similar, as I was reminded the very morning I wrote this piece:wrote about bird migration in South New Brunswick, shared her passion for composting (please, go look at Friday’s post!), wrote about mangos, and about bread. All of this people are writing about stuff they are passionate about … and it shows.
Sure, I could go off to some pirate-run content mill to read a crappy book review—but why would I waste my time on something so blandly impersonal? In a world so full of unique and expressive humans, why would I bother with machines?
When I think about it this way—when I think about the stores I visit and the writers I read; when I walk through the nearby forest seeing all the fabulous shades of green; when I water my garden and marvel at the light coming through the trees; when I hear the beaver slapping his tail to warn his family that humans are near; when I sit down at the keyboard to write about what it all means to me, and I try to connect to my readers in this intensely personal way—it’s actually hard to imagine that AI matters much at all. What could AI possibly have to do with the richness of human experience?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I’d take a punch on that like button as a signal that you like humans better than AI.
Here are just a few of the experiences that keep me from getting bummed out about AI: