There are reasons to fear AI. Creativity isn't one of them.
Learn the tool before the tool makes you obsolete—and fight for what's yours.
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I move to San Francisco a week after graduating college, determined to pursue my dream of becoming…a print journalist.
The year is 1997.
The problem: all my employment opportunities involve this emerging technology called the internet.
Computers aren’t new to me. My dad started working in the industry in the sixties. We had the first iteration of a laptop in our house:
I spent plenty of time on my Commodore Vic 20 growing up; I also survived four years of college with only a word processor. Though it only showed one line of text, I somehow pecked out 40-page papers.
Frustrated by my lack of opportunities in San Francisco, I move back to New Jersey to pursue my dream. It manifests quickly.
After a few glamorous months serving doughy breadsticks and overcooked wine at the Olive Garden, I land my first reporting gig at the Monroe Sentinel. A half-year later, I’m the entertainment writer for the Princeton Packet.
Having worked as a stringer for all the Jersey papers and Rutgers publications while in college, I successfully transition to the wonderful world of print journalism.
It doesn’t last.
By 2000, I’m designing websites, fully immersed in online publications. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I remained in San Francisco—I was employed at an aeronautical publisher in Silicon Valley when I left—yet I have no regrets.
I also promised myself to never fall behind again.
Which is why I’ve tried to approach AI with a level head. It’s not easy. Any technology with the capability of displacing millions of workers is frightening. I don’t have a ton of faith that corporations will do good by the worker when a cheaper option—one unlikely to unionize or lobby for regulations—becomes available.
Writing is among those industries facing a reckoning. I don’t mean the craft of writing—no one need abandon it. A pencil and paper suffice.
Earning a living is another story.
And yet: AI is just a tool, like that 24.5-lb laptop my father lugged home from his office, and that horrible little word processor, and this 27-inch iMac I’m typing into, and the software compiling these words.
Just tools: I worked for a year as a crossword puzzle editor, a job I couldn’t have accomplished without a giant dictionary and a cumbersome thesaurus splayed open on my desk. Flipping pages became a meditation.
Sure, AI tools are different. Canadian writer Stephen Marche recently published a generative novel using 95% AI-assisted software: ChatGPT, Sudowrite, and Cohere. Each platform has its speciality, and each requires experimentation and creativity or the output quickly becomes derivative.
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Reading through his process, it’s not wildly different from any writer struggling with a paragraph, erasing and typing and erasing and typing and thinking and typing again. Only in this case, Marche is prompting, which is just another way of thinking and writing and editing.
Prompts require as much imagination as inventing a fictional scene and as much attention to detail as investigative journalism.
As with every craft, some will flourish while others perish. Marche puts it into perspective when writing,
If you take a hammer and hit yourself over the head with it, the hammer did not give you a headache. If you make bad art with a new tool, you just haven’t figured out how to use the tool yet. Also, tools are just tools: Everyone has access to a thesaurus; some people have richer vocabularies than others nevertheless. Linguistic AI is no messiah, and it is no anti-Christ. It is a fundamentally mysterious tool whose confounding inabilities will be as surprising as its wondrous capabilities.
Inflection points are rare. We must reflect on who we are as a society, and a species, as AI becomes woven into the fabric of daily life.
Consider the Luddites, who were not anti-technology. They just didn’t want to abandon their livelihood. We have similar decisions to make, to advocate and fight for.
If we don’t partake in the creation of this next wave of technology, we’ll be swept away by it.
Comprehending AI is especially important given Google’s new AI search function. How we search for (and therefore how we understand) information is about to dramatically change.
I’ve worked as an SEO writer. Google’s system, while claiming to be based on authority, has always been gamified.
This AI project is different.
In the near future, you’ll receive an AI-generated response as the top answer. Google will scrape the most authoritative sources and construct an answer, which means few people will turn to the actual publishers providing the information—even though their work helps construct the response. As of now, there’s no indication those publishers will be compensated.
Considering 91% of global search traffic goes through Google, and that few people ever reach the second page (much less the bottom half of the first), the company is poised to control the planet’s information economy while simultaneously destroying numerous digital publishers.
Sure, the graveyard of internet sites spun up just to provide SEO juice is a sad consequence of the attention economy. But when authoritative publishers go bankrupt as little to no attention flows their way, this new system becomes ripe for exploitation. Some companies will figure out how to game it as well, and the credibility of their information (or propaganda) will be in question—or, and this is the problem, unquestioned.
As such, the [Google AI] demo raises an extremely important question for the future of the already-ravaged journalism industry: if Google's AI is going to mulch up original work and provide a distilled version of it to users at scale, without ever connecting them to the original work, how will publishers continue to monetize their work?
Google isn’t alone in the race to AI domination. With so much money flowing into the industry, and with established companies sensing opportunity, numerous jobs will be destroyed—not C-suite compensation reductions, obviously. If anything, upper management pay will increase while enjoying those record profits.
We should be alarmed.
But we shouldn’t fear the tool. Writing has always evolved. Communication mediums are always changing. Just because I’ve spent most of my life typing thoughts onto a keyboard doesn’t mean the machine I’m typing into hasn’t been dramatically altered. As my early dream of being a print journalist shows, the venues for communication also regularly shift.
AI opens up innumerable possibilities for creativity and collaboration. It’s only limited by your imagination.
Let it run wild.
And fight for what’s yours.