As far back as 2008, Kenneth Goldsmith was saying that, through the Internet, writing had ‘met its photography’ – referring to the supposed crisis painting faced once realistic images could easily be produced. ChatGPT is another part of this long-running crisis, rather than something new.
Like most people, I find the output of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT miraculous. Being able to put a few words into a system and receive a picture matching that description is incredible. I keep reading claims that ChatGPT can pass the bar exam, or can think at the age of a small child, or generate computer code.
While ChatGPT can produce very good undergraduate essays on certain themes, it is not able to generate spontaneous writing about obscure texts. And while it might be able to create specific examples of code, that is not the main problem in programming. (Describing what a programme should do, and seeing whether it works are far more time-consuming). These tools are remarkable but they cannot easily synthesise new things.
I’ve had a lot of debate with a friend about whether these tools are creative. They definitely do some tasks that would be described as genuinely creative. However, this is a brute-force approach to only one type of ‘creativity’. These models are huge statistical analyses of existing content, a huge multi-dimensional data table. They are not artificially intelligent in the way we normally understand that term, rather they are reliant on a huge pool of imported data.
ChatGPT is very good at is producing styles of writing seen on the Internet. It can automatically generate the sort of text that provoke reactions, but it has trouble producing sustained and detailed texts. This tool will be able to flood the Internet with the sort of writing that already appears on the Internet. It is wickedly good at listicles, short blog posts that seem to say something, and arguments about major franchises.
This sort of language was already being crafted for the Internet. People were writing web copy to fit in with SEO. Buzzfeed was producing headlines that would be popular, and then crafting the stories to fit them. Twitter was promoting a particular style of discourse. The algorithmic ranking of text was a problem long before, because it was shaping the sorts of writing being produced.
ChatGPT arrives at an significant time. More people are reading than ever before, but they have changed what they are reading, moving on from novels and newspapers to smaller pieces of text. This is an fascinating time to be writing stories. ChatGPT is going to make certain types of content worthless (it’s a bad time to be producing small blog posts to increase engagement). It’s time to leave basic writing to the machines and move on to more interesting things.