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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

No One There

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

I am a writing snob. In fact, I'll say it upfront, so I can get a head start on the visual and performing arts people who will come after me: I think writing is the highest form of human expression. I like to read great writing, and I like to think that I have made my own writing better over time. My favorite moments as a teacher were when my students were genuinely proud of something they'd written or excited by a passage in something they'd read AND could tell me why.

I also know that many people are not engaged by writing. They find its creation tedious, often frightening. No doubt, some have had writing experiences in school where they felt judged by arcane standards they couldn't hope to understand much less meet, like the nightmare where you have to sit an exam for a course you've never bothered to attend. In my darkest moments of reflection on my own teaching, this was my greatest fear, that I had left some students feeling powerless and unengaged as readers and writers.

I also know people who never fell in love with reading. Once they left school and were no longer compelled to read, they read now only when absolutely necessary, to gather information. They would never choose to pick up a book or an article, even to fill empty time much less for pleasure. Psychologists tell us that the super computers we walk around with gradually erode the reading habits (and comprehension) of committed readers. For people without a reading habit, they make reading a choice as unthinkable as choosing a 70s vintage educational filmstrip over a contemporary superhero blockbuster.

Enter into this scenario new AI writing generators like ChatGPT. I'll add no more to the volumes already written on how educators can (and must) embrace AI writing generators and help students learn how to use them wisely. For my own professional purposes, it holds enormous potential. For instance, I conduct a lot of demographic research for clients, analyzing census data, academic writing and reliable media sources and then writing it up for easy digestion by busy school leaders. It is the kind of writing that is very purposefully not creative. I enjoy the research and think I've gotten better at it, but the writing is, frankly, no fun, and I would happily outsource it to a machine--if I knew it was using reliable research and not relying on its low rent crowd-sourcing cousins.

What I would like to say about AI writing is that it elicits the same fears I have about the many other aspects of human interaction that are mediated, often invisibly, by machines. The music that you listen to, the products and services that you buy, the communication tools you use at work and for leisure, the "teachers" your child encounters at school, increasingly come to you through flattering self-teaching algorithms that offer a kind of efficiency or convenience, but come at the expense of the ineffability of human presence. They strike at our freedom and dignity as autonomous actors. I worry that we will become inured to this version of personhood, accept the emptiness that echoes through the prose or songlists they generate, or the sham "relationships" we build with the avatars. Let's keep elevating the human voice, teach kids what it sounds like, how their voices can join, speak to the other voices that have come before.

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