It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything.
I’ll admit, part of it is cynicism and disgust at my inability to form ideas (as a lover of fiction, I find my work, while often a joy once I’ve begun hitting keys, a thing of horror to review).
I’ve been ‘busy’, which is the same as saying I’ve found ways to distract myself.
I’ve been working for the last few years, which leaves you tired once the novelty wears off. I sit down to be tired, just as I did when I was unemployed, but now with a sense of justification.
I’ve also moved in with my lovely partner, started writing more for a climate column (which you can see here), written for other things, suffered in the heat and generally read some great books.
Yet I never seem to reach a point where I’ve read enough or know enough to do fiction. But that’s simple laziness. Hop to it, James. Write some rubbish and then refine, refine, refine. Or begin again and refine, refine, refine. It’s the only way short of being either a genius or a hack.
I have a great hope of being an author. I’ve never starved for my art, hitchhiked across the country for experience points, and never sat down daily for weeks to hammer out a thousand words of my work.
I also write professionally as a copywriter. Unless I make a contentious and aggressive effort, the sound of a laptop engine makes my brain think it’s time to begin the working day.
So yeah. But every small step equals a step.
One thing I have continued to do (as anyone whose read my other blogs can attest to) is read a lot of science fiction. It’s a guilty pleasure and often fails to defend itself. But then you can say that about any industry. I’m sure plenty of magicians, chefs, and plumbers are walking around right now, secure in the knowledge that they’ve done the bare minimum to qualify and that the thought of a poor day’s work won’t disturb their sleep.
So I read about the future and occasionally write something vaguely allegorical, wishing I was technical enough to master the science angle truly.
Because although it feels like maybe we’ve passed the fiction point now, I’d argue we’re living in a science fictional age. Sure, the interplanetary romances have to work harder to be believed, no one jumps on a rocket for a jolt across the galaxy, and a universal utopia makes us slant-eyed with suspicion. At least in hard science fiction (although not science fantasy, Marvel Movies and blockbusters, where the world logic doesn’t matter).
But we’re at a stage where we’re developing much faster than ever before, where the science might support those long-range terraforming projects we’ve always dreamed of. And if the stars are far away, perhaps we have other ways of bringing them nearer.
We’re also just now beginning to touch the depths intuitive software can plunge into. We’re nowhere near AI becoming a Lieutenant Data or Bender, but, in its way, AI has a mock intelligence that’s slowly becoming more and more practical.
In a long, roundabout way, I’m talking about ChatGPT. Among other things.
ChatGPT is an intuitive language software that can understand human commands and use them to write content (a copywriter’s word for writing). It can scour the internet, string together an intelligent statement without tripping the plagiarism alarms, and give you something that hangs together reasonably well. It’s often shallow and formulaic, but we’ve all seen worse.
Now, I’ve raved about previous copy editing software in the past (namely, Grammarly), which I use as an aid to my writing. I write many things during the day, and my eye misses a lot that’s wrong with it. Ouch.
ChatGPT won’t do this. It has flawless punctuation and spelling.
But, for all that and all the excitement of the machine that over a hundred years of science fiction have given me, I’m wary.
I’ll admit part of it is professional jealousy. I’m a copywriter, damn it. Words are my pick axe and shovel and are the tools of my trade. At least let me be beaten by a fellow tradesperson, not a coder.
Although, as an aside, I’ll admit that coders have given me my job in the first place. They’ve built the platforms we all talk, write and live on, and it was only a matter of time before they became smart enough and had enough data not to need my contribution. I’ve been living on borrowed time.
I object more as a reader to ChatGPT. And it’s not so much for marketing copy, which is used to move products and services, to get people results and play Google Search bingo. No, that stuff has me frightened for my job or lack of a career in the future.
But as a reader and a wishy-washy, ‘I would have if only this didn’t happen’ potential future writer, I find myself objecting now to what MIGHT come next because even the hacks I’ve enjoyed have put something of themselves into their work. I generally can only eat so much cotton candy, but even that has substance to it, to be picked over by literary nuts and professors in distinguished jackets and moustaches.
AI doesn’t have an opinion on what it writes. There’s no meaning implied, only meaning supplied later by us humans. And perhaps this, as an experiment, is interesting enough in itself. We’d still think about words, forming meaning and expression in our reading, and that’s fun.
But it also makes hackwork easier. It means the little effort put into creating something commercial has, for the people who aren’t programmers, become super simple and stupid. And I don’t think, looking around at the number of remakes, revamps and tired plots that pass as popular entertainment, we’ll think about the distinction between human and machine.
We’ll fail to notice that we’re projecting our ideas onto the generated text, and we’ll read whatever the fiction factories produce for us. Like processed food, our writing will become processed and treated as a normal part of the day rather than a bizarre binge into something our colons, which have barely begun to evolve in the last few thousand years, was never meant to digest. We will stuff our faces with sugar because it tastes good.
And yes, I’m being sceptical and reactionary, and I’m a terrible fan of science fiction by not embracing our technological process wholeheartedly.
I worry that is all. We all have a pillar to stand on, and mine is topped with a bust of Oscar Wilde, a literary buff who delights in the clever play of his language.
But like any new development, move on it shall. I hope there’s still room for writers in a world of computer programming and, in one part of my sceptical brain, I’m sure there is. TV didn’t kill the book as many authors predicted it would. We have a penchant for words as a species.
And a penchant for expressing ourselves, too, to be heard and to think. Some people will continue to carry the torch and do new, terrific things with language, while others will climb the high pillars of software development.
I get worried in a market that oversimplifies things, where one book series becomes the catch-call of the literary world to the point where it’s overdeveloped so much that it’s long since left behind the books.
And yes, I’m talking about you, Harry Potter. I loved you, and you were terrific, but other books are on the shelves, and some even have nudity.
And it does matter, to some degree, because the mass market dictates what gets published. There’s a reason I don’t write fiction for a living, and I’d suck at ensuring myself fed.
My gripe is with what ChatGPT will do to the publishing market. It’s always been formulaic, but how much more formulaic can it get now? When even the unintentional brilliance of hacks becomes part of an algorithm formed by ChatGPT. Will it, too, bring forth moments of accidental genius? Perhaps, but we’ll have to look hard to find them.
We’ve talked about robots replacing man now for decades, and it probably will happen in many industries. It will be a complete disaster for a long time until we figure out what we’re doing. But what concerns me now, in art, writing, and all creative pursuits that rely in some form on mass production to justify their existence, we fail to see the distinction.
We’re equally as amused by an AI as an artist when they’re two separate marvels creating something separately interesting, but not for the same reason. Just as a house is a marvel of human ingenuity and a glacier a marvel of nature. When we no longer care to distinguish between the differences, we no longer tend to think about the entertainment offered to us. We want our sugary treats, our hit of dopamine. Good writing, bad writing, all will pass the time.
Writing is very particular to me and means an awful lot. So when no one cares about the difference, I get a little steamed.
It’s not you, ChatGPT. You’re inevitable and interesting in of yourself. I’m just worried about the people that use you, is all.
But I’m happy to be proven wrong. We’ve no idea how much time the human race has left. All things could come to pass, or none of them.
And, to close off, I’d LOVE to read a book by a real, science-fictional AI. Artificial intelligence is aware of what it’s creating, which is the difference between humans and machines. When an AI must suffer for its art, the distinction blurs.
But then, it’ll probably still do my job better than me, so to hell with it. I want to keep earning money, please.