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Evidence of our connection
In all the debates and writing about AI, it's strange to me that words like emotion and spirit are rarely used.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about writing recently — unfortunately, much more time than I’ve actually been able to spend writing.
Trying to refashion my career after having a baby has been humbling to say the least. Many of the areas I’ve worked in or been adjacent to previously (journalism, content, digital media, social media etc) feel hollowed out and kind of lifeless. It’s made me question what I’m doing, and if it makes sense to keep doing it.
I’ve also been reading a lot about the writers and actors strike. It’s easy to dismiss the grievances of Hollywood or movie industry folks as rich people problems, but this post about the lengths writers and actors have gone to to keep their creative careers going really brought it home for me. As this great summary in the New Yorker put it, “the ways in which the studios are currently squeezing out profits—nickel-and-diming much of their labor force to the edge of financial precarity while branding their output with the hallmarks of creative bankruptcy—indicate a shocking new carelessness.”
Whether it’s Hollywood or journalism, the work of telling stories feels like it’s severely under threat. It all feels disheartening, doesn’t it? Like we’re moving in the wrong direction, like no one wants to pay for this thing that is at the core of who we are as humans.
At its most fundamental level, telling stories is about connection. Entanglement with other humans feels good, even if the reasons we feel connected to one another are sad or scary or dark. The daily practice of noticing our entanglement, of finding “evidence of connection,” can, as Ross Gay notes, serve as a working definition of joy. When we feel connected deeply with each other, we feel the most human. Little can change that.
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Which is why, despite feeling shaky about what my actual career is in 2023, I don’t worry too much about the forces that are trying to upend storytelling in its most fundamental form. Do I think AI will change the work of writers in one, five, ten, years’ time? Yes, I do. Do I think we’re going to be subjected to a lot of AI-generated “second-screen content” that’s made-to-order on Netflix? We basically already are. Will we need policies like universal basic income to counteract much of the ways that labor has become automated and people are being left behind? For sure. But that was already true long before the robots started coming for the jobs of professional creatives like me.
The big tell about AI is in contained in the name: artificial intelligence. Nowhere in there does it say anything about emotions, embodiment, or spirit — all the other parts that knit together to make a human being, well, human. I have no doubt that an AI will be smarter than me at some point soon, if it isn’t already. But fortunately, good writers, storytellers, and artists don’t create purely from their pre-frontal cortex. In all the debates and writing about AI, it's strange to me that words like emotion and spirit are rarely used.
Even ChatGPT’s founder, Sam Altman — a man who should do humanity a favor and ask his therapist to address his phenomenal god complex —hinted at this shortcoming in an April interview with Bari Weiss. Asked about the capacity of ChatGPT to write a convincing story in the voice of virtually any author alive or dead, he said :
[Yes, one thing] … that’s totally new is this ability to create. And again we could argue about the definition of create, and there’s many things it can’t, but it can give the appearance of creating. It can put something together for you from things it’s already known or seen or understood in a novel way. And we can leave arguing to the computer scientists and linguists and philosophers about what it means to create.
I added my own emphasis there, because the definition of create is at the core of this debate. Writing does not happen in the moment you sit down at the keyboard to type out words. Writers don’t spit out text on demand. Like everyone else, they live mundane lives punctuated by feelings of sadness, grief, joy, and wonder. They do repetitive tasks like wash dishes, fold laundry, and walk the dog, while turning things round and round in their head. They listen to podcasts, have conversations with neighbors, and read books that connect disparate nodes in their brain in unexpected ways. They notice the way the light hits, laugh at the silly-yet-profound question their kid asks, or overhear a priceless piece of dialogue in the corner shop. They bring all of this — the levity, the baggage, the frustration, the serendipity — with them the moment they sit down to write the words.
The reason art is compelling, the reason we continue to turn to it in our darkest times, is not because it is convincing or informative or persuasive. It’s because it makes us feel something. It activates all those those same feelings of serendipity and joy and grief and wonder within the rest of us. It’s that moment where you read a story and think “oh, so it wasn’t just me” — that feeling of entanglement.
That doesn’t work if the being telling the story never actually experienced that feeling as anything other than a collection of data points. It falls flat if it was generated from things other humans saw or knew or understood, and then repackaged and spit out upon request. The specificity matters. That’s why, as comedian and Writers’ Guild negotiator Adam Conover put it, audiences are already rejecting the AI-generated “digital chum” that the studios want to give us more of.
You know that scene in The Bear season 2, when the main character Carmy has the meet-cute with the high school crush in the freezer aisle? The reason that scene feels so undeniably electric and intense — despite the minimal dialogue — is because you yourself have probably had that moment before. The writers and actors who made that scene have, too. They know what it feels like to feel the edges of your skin tingle. To walk away from the unexpected interaction feeling like you might fall over. To have to suppress a smile as you leave the store and get in your car because holy shit what just happened?
Recreating that, translating that, landing that is what storytellers do. And they do it because they feel it, not because they remember the precise equation needed to replicate it in a convincing way. And even if AI can convince a human being that it is an embodied, feeling creature — as so-called chatbot boyfriends promise to — I see that as an indictment of the health of the actual human in question, not the power of the AI. If that person were more integrated, or at least living in a healthier society where they felt more supported, that forgery of human connection wouldn’t pass muster.
The more I read about AI, the more I see it as an extension of the value system that I often malign in this newsletter, one that’s present in everything from the climate crisis to journalism’s business model. The mistaken belief that our role as
humans participants in capitalism is to optimize and make everything more efficient, with the singular goal of growing and scaling and progressing, even when it goes against our fundamental cyclical nature to do so.
Everywhere I look, I feel like people with lots of money and power are trying to convince me that everything would be easier, more seamless, more profitable if I became a little less human. I guess that’s why the writing matters. It’s the way I ensure that I keep paying close attention to the world, continue looking for evidence of my own entanglement with it. Because contributing to this web of connection is, I think, the most promising form of resistance we have. It’s our most powerful rebuke to a value system that wants us to forget that connection is the thing at the core of it all.
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Things I enjoyed reading
How an uber-successful vegan wellness startup ended up making people very sick. [Bloomberg Businesweek]
I don’t agree with the thesis of this piece that if everyone claims they’re traumatized, then trauma becomes meaningless in our society. But I found it interesting nonetheless. [NY Mag]
Two things I loved from economist Emily Oster: The framework of “Total Responsibility Transfer” for dividing domestic labor and the important (and often ignored) role of pleasure in the rhetoric around alcohol. Let us enjoy our summertime glass of rosé!
I loved reading the origin story of Ms. Rachel, the incredibly successful YouTuber who somehow bewitches babies and toddlers and gives me 20 blessed minutes of peace each morning. [New York Times]
Things I enjoyed listening to
A Spanish tabloid star’s baby-by-surrogacy raises big questions about who gets to decide who gets born, and shows how the moral attitude about surrogacy differs around the world. [Tortoise]
How the clothes we wear can make us sick. [Fresh Air]
On the fascinating racial and identity politics of the show Yellowstone, which is basically a Republican version of Succession that swaps private jets for horses — and just so happens to be hugely entertaining. [Vulture]
In case you missed it
I loved the interview I published this month with my friend Philippa Young. It’s about communal living, and the ways we can build community in small and big ways, especially as new parents who are realizing how broken the system we live under is.
“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again—and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before.” —Joanna Macy
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