English Majors and AI: Will Our Creativity Save Us?
AI has already begun to transform academia, but how will it shape the future for young writers?
As an English student, having a successful literary career with which I can support myself often seems like a hazy pipe dream. And with every new generative AI program that enters the cultural limelight, I feel as though my skills as a writer are becoming more and more obsolete.
Of course, job insecurity due to the increased use of automation is not a new phenomena. But in modern times, technology has yet to cause mass job loss in writing-centric fields such as marketing and journalism—programs like ChatGPT could change that.
Maybe I’m being overdramatic, or maybe my liberal arts sensitivities are clouding my judgment. I’ve always held a kind of belief in the sanctity of writing, like it’s a hallowed art form that could never be replicated or some mystic practice that connects modern writers to the great authors and poets of generations past. I also believe that having such a romantic, strictly humanist mindset in a technology-driven world is soft career suicide.
And students of literature should know better than most that the development of advanced artificial intelligence was only a matter of time. As early as Homer’s “automatons,” science fiction authors have been speculating on the nature of sophisticated AI in their work for centuries. I guess I just wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.
For the record: I’m not condemning anyone for using programs like ChatGPT, certainly not my fellow students. On the contrary, there are many who think it foolish for writers to not incorporate AI into their creative process. As Yoav Shoham, the co-CEO at AI21 Labs, puts it: “AI won’t replace writers, but writers who use AI will replace writers who don’t.” So with Mr. Shoham’s cold but likely truthful advice in mind, I swallowed my pride and tried ChatGPT—late to the game, per usual.
First, I gave it a prompt for a fiction short story and asked it to write a plot. After a few regenerations with guiding input, the results were still lackluster. That said, I see a million uses for an author struggling with writer’s block—a never-ending source of interesting plot points and alternate endings. Need it to be more tragic? More romantic? With ChatGPT, ask and you shall receive.
Next, I gave ChatGPT a research paper prompt straight off of the syllabus for my senior seminar. This one was the kicker: not only did it answer the prompt extensively, it gave me some fleshed-out analysis that I didn’t anticipate. Now I understand what they mean by “AI is the death of the essay.”
Finally, I asked ChatGPT to write a blog-style article on Tyler the Creator’s latest album, “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST: The Estate Sale.” After a couple of regenerations, here’s some of the excerpts:
“From a production standpoint, the album is a masterpiece. Tyler's ability to create intricate beats and layer different sounds together is unparalleled. He seamlessly blends elements of hip-hop, R&B, and jazz to create a sound that is both refreshing and captivating. The attention to detail is evident in every track, with each instrument and sample placed with purpose to create a cohesive and intricate sound…
But the real standout of the album is Tyler's storytelling. The album tells a cohesive narrative, with skits and interludes that tie each track together. Tyler's alter ego, DJ Drama, serves as the album's host, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the project…
Lyrically, Tyler is at the top of his game. His rhymes are clever and often introspective, with each track exploring different themes and experiences. He raps about love, loss, and his own personal struggles, creating an emotional connection with the listener…”
Let’s say you’re still a better writer than any current generative AI—the speed alone at which ChatGPT is able to synthesize is simply unmatchable.
Sure, AI may never be able to capture the nuances of humanity—personal experiences, family bonds, cultural ties, etc—with their output like an artist can. But they can produce large amounts of content instantaneously. They don’t need rough drafts or late-night inspiration. They don’t need to bleed for their art like people do or go into debt for a college education. Hell, they don’t even need to get paid.
In a capitalist economy, AI is the ideal candidate. Whether or not it’s capable of compelling or even “good” artistic creation, AI will likely replace more than just writers in the job market. And let’s not forget that we, as users, are training it. If an entire generation of contemporary writers utilizes a program like ChatGPT to hone their craft, I wonder how long it will take until it is able to complete the authorial task on its own, start to finish.
On that note, here’s a somewhat relevant quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” At this time, I’d say generative AI programs fall squarely into the “bad poet” category. But as language models continue to expand and evolve over the next couple of years, I’d wager that AI achieving “good poet” status is not a distant reality.
As far as mitigation goes, I doubt there is much to be done to temper the ever-increasing presence of AI in professional creative fields, so we must ask ourselves: as writers and artists, are we prepared to adapt? And if we don’t, what happens?
Unfortunately, I think I already know the answer: sink or swim.