The Economist‘s column Johnson recently wrote about the extent to which artificial intelligence can compose prose, and claimed we need not fear the “Writernator”.
The reason? Because during an experiment:
Each sentence was fine on its own; remarkably, three or four back to back could stay on topic, apparently cohering. But machines are aeons away from being able to recreate rhetorical and argumentative flow across paragraphs and pages.
Well, most of my students can’t do that either.
So while the article was trying to reassure writers that they need not fear losing their jobs to a computer, I saw quite another angle, a trail of thought that goes something like this:
Computers cannot create sustained arguments. Neither can most of my students. And only the best journalism seems to bother. Educated people can both follow and create sustained arguments. But to whom are they writing? We have many voters and public figures who are anti-intellectual, and only interested in the realms of fear, emotional expression, and personal identity. They have no interest in sustained argument. The media reflect this, with the emphasis on factoids. Articles have gotten shorter, even in journals like The Atlantic. Computers can’t do it, and computer programming is a reflection of ourselves. Perhaps the very idea of sustained argument needs to be defended. But how can one defend it except with sustained argument, and a reliance on the very intellectualism being increasingly rejected?
If I had read the article 20 years ago, I might have nodded along, not because computers weren’t writing then, but because I felt that sustained argument was a norm. It’s perfectly obvious to me why it needs to be preserved, as obvious as the preservation of free speech, democracy, respect for the opinions of others. These things aren’t obvious anymore.
Today on BBC4’s PM program, Evan Davis reported on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s insensitive statement that he would have got out of the Grenfell fire by ignoring the orders of the fire authority to stay in the burning building. He interviewed Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP of North West Leicestershire:
Davis: Do you think he meant to say that he thought he would not have stayed put?
Bridgen: That’s what he meant to say…
Davis: And that in a way is exactly what people object to, which is he’s in effect saying, I wouldn’t have died, because I would be cleverer than the people who took the fire brigade’s advice?
Bridgen (Sigh.) But we want very clever people running the country, don’t we, Evan?
Well, I’m not sure people do. In fact, I’m pretty sure many people don’t see why having educated people run things is a good idea. They think that educated people run things to the detriment of uneducated people, and sometimes that is true.
People, Bridgen noted, tend to defer to authority, as they did in the case of the fire.
When people trust these authorities and the authorities fail, there is popular anger. At some point people will ask from whence does this authority derive? And one can say “from your votes”, but they feel that isn’t completely true. The response is to elect uneducated populists.
Intellectualism, and education itself, may have a much tougher advertising campaign to run than we suppose. The old norms are suspect, and assumed ideas need a cogent (or, better, non-intellectual) defense. I don’t think saving writers from computer-generated text is quite going to do that.