Sustained argument

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.





2 thoughts to “Sustained argument”

  1. A great many worms in this can. First: why do we WANT computers to do our writing for us? If writing is our best vehicle for communication–the most precise, the most readily available, transportable, persistent–why on earth are we trying to offload it? How has our primary means of communication turned into drudgery, a grubby chore we try to foist on someone else, like washing dishes or taking out the trash? Is our instinct to avoid work so strong that it overwhelms our desire to thrive?

    Second: American (to be entirely fair, maybe human) anti-intellectualism. Some of us don’t trust people who are smarter than we are. This has always struck me as incredibly stupid. I actively seek out people smarter than I am, on the theory that they’ll have better ideas/strategies/methods than mine. Ultimately it’s completely self-serving: I benefit from other people’s expertise. I can avoid (some) problems if I get information from people-smarter-than-me.

    But I automatically exclude *predatory* smart people from this argument–people who use their intelligence to exploit the vulnerabilities of others. In those cases it’s not the smartness that’s the problem; it’s the sociopathology. What makes them untrustworthy is their selfishness, not their intelligence. “Don’t trust sociopaths” seems like a reasonable rule of thumb, not “don’t trust smart people.”

    “Homo sapiens” as a descriptor may have been a tad optimistic.

    1. Yes, more worms that you can shake a stick at.

      Perhaps we want computers to do our writing for us because so much that is written now is both trivial and brief. I also understand the desire to see just how close computers can get to human, a mainstay of science fiction.

      Smart people actively seek out smarter people, particularly in areas where we want help or advice. But yes, it is an issue of trust, and abnormal psychology.

      That said, neither of us are followers. Or perhaps, we chose who to follow based on more rational criteria than others do. People who are followers need leaders, and increasingly they seem to think they need leaders like themselves (tyrants), and either don’t realize the contradiction, or live a great deal more comfortably with contradiction than we do.

Comments are closed.