Salvaging humanism in an era of ubiquitous generative AI

Underlying the contemporary discourse about generative AI (which it seems clear to me will soon be ubiquitous in an utterly mundane fashion, even as the existential concerns raised about it seem fascinatingly inflated) is a series of more or less unexamined propositions about creativity. The procedural generation of text has been practiced for almost a millennia and creativity which involves the more or less conscious filling of pre-defined placeholders is so familiar as to be rarely recognised:

It may be that some people see writing in general this way, as nothing but an assembly of placeholders, so many TKs that need to be methodically filled. When everything is finally compiled, it magically becomes more than the sum of its rote parts. (I should have made this a dissertation-writing mantra.) When I was in middle school, I had an English teacher who taught essay writing by passing out a mimeographed Mad Lib for students to fill in with details from whatever short story they had been assigned to analyze. “In AUTHOR TK’s story TITLE TK, the theme of THEME TK is explored. In this essay I will show …” It seemed like a pointless exercise to me at the time, but it was probably meant to help students past the paralyzing fear that writing requires special inspiration or intuitive leaps or imaginative juxtapositions. It doesn’t have to be original to be functional. Whereas I stupidly thought that the teacher actually wanted my profound insights into Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”

This predictability was essential for the early iterations of generative AI (see companies like Narrative Science in the 2010s) whose ‘robo-journalism’ began with sports stories and business stories because these had such predictable formats in which stock X rose by Y leading to comment from figure Z etc. There’s a high humanism embodied by someone like Nick Cave (who remains a hero of mine in spite of my relativisation of his position here) which imagines that ‘real’ creativity is the expression of a human soul in all its concrete particularity:

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

I’ve written so many thousands of words in the last year about Cave’s existentialism and song writing process that I believe this is apt description of his creative experience. I just think it’s important to recognise how exceptional this is, as well as how much of his creativity is predicated upon the autonomy which comes from past success. As soon as creativity is inflected through anticipation of the factors which shape how the creative outputs are packaged, circulated and received then the creative soul has descended into the realms of the algorithmic; at which point the lofty humanism which conceives of creative output as a direct expression of existential particularity comes to seem untenable.

My concern is that the Renaissance ideal of the creative genius should and will die under these conditions. But that we must not lose our conception of the human sui generis in the process. The category has already been eviscerated by platformisation and its last redoubt is now under siege by a phalanx of consumer-facing services which will soon be omnipresent throughout the technologised lifeworld. There’s a need to salvage humanism under these conditions but to do so in a way which leaves behind the liberal individualism which has tended to dominate the humanist imaginary. Humanism in its Marxist and Personalist in fact offer important perspectives on the challenges and opportunities implicit in the prospect of being all watched over by machines of loving grace.

There is also a parallel romantic conception of creativity as working through us which is much better suited to life in an era of ubiquitous generative AI, though far from unproblematic in its own right. This is well described on pg 56 of All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly:

But there are disadvantages to Gilbert’s pure receptivity view as well. For if the poem is a purely external force that rumbles through us—if the sacred and the divine and the meaningful can’t be earned but depend on God’s inscrutable grace—then this receptive view is just as incapacitating as Wallace’s kind of Nietzschean nihilism. Whereas Wallace gives us an unachievable task, Gilbert gives us no task at all. We can pray for inspiration from the genius, of course, just as the mature Luther can pray for the grace of God. But what really matters in the end has nothing to do with how we live our lives. What matters is only whether we happen to be near a pencil at the moment the poem rumbles through. Perhaps this is good news for pencil companies, but the rest of us can feel little joy in such a vision.

Dreyfus, Hubert; Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining (p. 56). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

The humanism I subscribe to would imagine creativity as sitting between these two extremes, grounded in a receptivity to the world which expresses itself in ways defined by the particular trajectory of lived experience we have had within it. When I was going through a cybernetic phase some years ago, I toyed with framing this in terms of reflexivity as ‘vectors of deviance amplification’. I don’t think that did what I hoped it would but it is still lurking in the back of my mind as a perspective on this wider philosophical question. To salvage humanism we have to start from the ontology rather than the ethics.

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