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The Great Replacement (Not That One, the Real One)
ChatGPT is here to burn our crops, curdle our milk, seduce our lovers and corrupt our youth. That's it, that's the subtitle.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a civilization in possession of a good fortune, must replace all organic workers with AI as soon as possible, which will definitely never ever cause any problems whatsoever.
Perhaps there isn’t any point in writing this at all, now that the robot singularity has come for us wordfolk at last. Why should I labor over the expression of my own individual thoughts and angst over my comma choices when I could simply pull myself up to the cold blue glow of a ChatGPT text box and ask it to howl into the void for me?
Oh yes, it’s another think piece about ChatGPT from a soon-to-be-replaced writer STOP RUNNING AWAY NOTHING CAN SAVE YOU NOW IF I’M GONNA PICK MY OWN GODDAMNED VERBS BY HAND IN THE VINEYARD YOU HAVE TO SIT THERE AND LISTEN.
I really wasn’t going to say anything about it, honestly. It sort of…is what it is, I felt. Why would good things ever happen anymore. Hope the alien balloons are hostile because I’m tired and the weather looks rubbish tomorrow.
This society made of of fleshy squishy human people made it clear long ago that the exact millisecond it could replace each and every one of us with a janky Python script and a post-it note with a smiley-face on it, that was absolutely 100% going to happen and you’re a Luddite who hates freedom if you so much as squeak about it. We literally just went through this with AI visual art, and while oddly, very few people are talking about it, audiobook narration/voice acting is going through a similar paradigm-bricking right now. We have sat and tweeted and watched industry after industry enthusiastically wither itself down to the bare minimum of actual breathing workers and done little more than tell each other fantastical stories like: this always happens, throughout human history, and it always creates more and better jobs, more and better quality of life advancements, this will be no different or people just need to be nimble and willing to retrain/move to the mythical land of Jobtopia/learn how to code or so we should stop progress because some tollbooth operators got replaced by EZ-Pass? I like EZ-Pass! or my extra-special favorite it’s just capitalism, man, RISE UP! After the revolution no one will HAVE to work and everyone will just be free to pursue their passions!
HOPE YOUR PASSION ISN’T ART OR LITERATURE I GUESS!
And frankly, I was somewhat distracted by the onslaught of fascists trying to legislate my community, my rights, and most of what I hold dear out of existence, which surely isn’t merely the beginning of a long, slow horror they hunger for like ice cream on a summer day.
But then Clarkesworld had to shut down submissions because it was so inundated with automated fiction, and Amazon’s self-publishing arm found itself adrift in a sea of robo-werewolf porn, and not the fun kind, and someone messaged me to tell me you can ask it to write something in the style of Catherynne M. Valente (but why would you want to? *rimshot*) and Google Alerts started pinging me about a whole raft of articles citing me as someone with influence who built an early reputation in part through Clarkesworld, and I feel like I started going through the stages of grief for my fucking life as it is, a life in which I have been a freelance working writer, with all the good and horrific that entails, from almost the moment I graduated. SO NOW I HAVE TO SAY SOME SHIT WORDROOMBA CAN’T SAY FOR ME.
Other science fiction writers have written a lot and very well, more than I could, about the tech and ethical side of the issue, and I’m not here to Clarissa It All to you when it comes to the limitations of artificial intelligence, the problems it still faces, the problems it creates, what it can and can’t do now or in the future. Look, at this point yes, definitely, choices are going to be made none of us have any control over and corporations will definitely replace as many people who work with documents of any kind with a chatbot as soon as they can and ignore any reason that might not be the best idea of all time. They gave robot dogcops guns, I don’t know what to tell you, whatever is the worst plan, that is the plan. And the utter moment that includes all those highly-paid coders, the shareholders will probably throw a huge taco party on their taco yacht where they will serve bologna sandwiches ha ha tacos are sandwiches, get it we too are young hip memers because that’s just the kind of assholes they are.
At no point in the decades-long conversation about automation has anyone satisfactorily answered for me what happens when these corporations automate so many jobs that no one is left with a paycheck to spend on their products, BUT I GUESS THAT’S TOMORROW’S PROBLEM. HA HA, TOMORROW, WHAT A DICK, HE DESERVES IT. Because you know, at least here in the good old US of Garbage, they’d rather eat their own eyeballs than even consider something like UBI any time before the actual apocalypse. Even then, it would be $5 in CompanyBux and half an infected hot dog. And UBI in and of itself is hardly without a freshly-stocked claw machine’s worth of practical implementation problems as long as currency itself is still a thing.
Maybe they’re just pretty sure they’ve automated the stock market to the point that they don’t really need success to be successful, I don’t know. Musk seems to have that one figured out pretty well.
And yes, at the same time, regular individual people will also try to use it to make money, which I’m not even mad about, because it’s getting a little fucking rough out there. They will ignore anything that suggests maybe they shouldn’t do that even more, because eggs can only be purchased with gold doubloons and firstborn children, one of which being: oh my god short fiction doesn’t pay half well enough to grift like this, my dudes! Please trust me!
This is not the optimistic part of the essay. Sorry. This the god dammit we spent literally all of science fiction telling you not to do this can you actually not for once part of the essay. Oh you’re definitely doing it anyway? And shoving me in my locker afterward? Perfect.
I told you at Christmas they always preferred to remove people from the money-making equation entirely. Stop benefitting from the internet, it’s not for you to enjoy, it’s for us to use to extract money from you. Stop being human. A mindless bot who makes regular purchases is all that’s really needed.
And now, it seems Google, Microsoft, and their horde of brethren have looked upon ChatGPT and seen their utopia made flesh. Or un-flesh, as the case may be. People have always been the most irritating part of the economy anyway. So unpredictable, so volatile, so fickle, so insistent on eating and not freezing to death.
There is a version of the world taking shape in a few very strange and rarified minds, minds so coddled by wealth and an almost Galtian removal from the travails of the masses that their existence borders on fairy magic (merely think of a desire and it is fulfilled. What has magic ever been but that?) and that vision involves precisely none of us. A world of controlled code talking to controlled code in an eternal ouroboros. A boot gently brushing aside the entire concept of a human face, forever. It is a world in which we are simply not needed; content is created by AI, animated and voiced by AI, promoted and distributed by algorithms, consumed by automated subscriptions and mandatory pay-to-play purchases, pinned and pushed to the top of feeds, shunted into media ecosystems where a computer-generated, computer-voiced, computer-written Ellen exclaims with delight over an animated child-script programmed to perfectly perform a piano sonata, tracked and fed back into the algorithm in an infinite loop, bugs patched and code updated by AI, and, very possibly, actual organic human creations shoved to the bottom of the digital heap as inefficient, sloppy, and insufficiently vertically integrated. Right now, they still need us as passive consumers, but in the end, views, likes, and interactions are only numbers on a screen. They needn’t be attached to real people, even today. They needn’t even be true.
Can our new Oberons and Titanias actually make this vision of a closed loop digital culture come to pass? I mean, probably. Bots and troll farms have fundamentally changed everything about politics in a few short years. Dystopia gonna dystopia. If billionaires have managed to make themselves modern fae, they are bad fairies. Unseelie. The curdle in the cream and the pox in the cattle.
And don’t say the revolution will bring them down and restore balance. Seriously, please shut up about the revolution. Revolution should be nightmare fuel, not visions of post-scarcity sugar-plums. There won’t be a revolution in the west any time soon, and if there was it wouldn’t restore shit except polio and feudalism. We actually have to work and solve our problems here and now, not hope the world burns down and somehow all that blood and horror comes up roses and utopia.
I find it pretty interesting that when most other advancements in automation have arrived, the sales pitch has usually involved describing ways in which it will improve the lives of every day people as a kind of sugary treat to drown out the taste of a dystopian future. Yeah, yeah, full self driving is RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER but everyone will be able to operate their own robo-taxis and get SO MUCH passive income with JUST THEIR CAR it won’t matter (don’t think about truckers or infrastructure or the supply chain)! You don’t want to have to make small talk with cashiers anyway, right? Everyone is going to have their own 3D printer manufacturing plant in their living rooms, so it’s fine if factory work gets Thanos-snapped! Tipping is just so onerous, wouldn’t a robot waiter be super fun and even less social interaction? COME ON HUMAN CONSUMER, GET ON BOARD, I’M LOVIN’ IT.
But with ChatGPT, literally the first thing I heard about it was a Reddit donkey-chorus of HA HA WHITE COLLARS ARE ALL REPLACED GET FUCKED. DOUBLE FOR WRITERS, YOU’RE NOT ENTITLED TO A CAREER JUST DOING BOOKS AHAHAHA CAN’T WAIT TIL IT CAN CODE BETTER AND MAKE YOU HOMELESS, TECHIES.
There was real hostility to some of this sentiment. Maybe. It’s been hard to say who online is a real person and who is a script for some time now. Perhaps it’s because one of the canned responses to other industries falling to automation was: writing code is always safe because someone has to make the robots go. Or that art would be safe because human creativity can’t be automated. But now we’re all seeing that it’s entirely possible that it can, and no one is safe at all. So perhaps there is some schadenfreude at play as a big cultural domino falls and virtually no profession remains a safe bet to get out of the first half of the 21st century intact.
But fucking hell.
I don’t even see a lot of suggestions as to how this benefits much of anyone but large companies. Writing cover letters has come up. I’m sure students love this shining gap between the advent of a new cheating method and the invention of good detection tools, because it’s going to make education a nightmare for awhile. (Hope you kids like writing longhand!)
I’ve seen a few people talking about being able to order up hyper-specific stories or fetish-content and get that content instantly instead of having to wait for a human author (which only barely makes sense, because have you met erotica writers? They are the fucking Flash of literature, no force on earth is faster). And as far as online content, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been talking and listening to bots like they’re people for a good bit now, and a whole lot of us seem to be happy to actually physically vote the way those bots tell us to.
So mostly, the idea is this replaces thinking, communicating regular humans with a text box and that’s it. Get fucked.
That’s kind of the sales pitch.
Which tells me, however fun a toy people are finding it to be, or however much no one likes writing their own cover letters or school essays, ChatGPT isn’t being sold to us directly at all, but to our potential employers in lieu of us. Because nothing else it can do is that groundbreaking—Alexa can Boggle-scramble Wikipedia for you just fine, and many bots can construct something like a paragraph a human might spackle together. Markov generators and other found-language techniques in literature are older than my parents. It’s definitely not at a point where someone doesn’t still have to look over its output to make sure it’s not pancake batter.
Where the Writer Catfish shines is just there—in replacing people who make a few pennies stringing words together.
It might barely improve some people’s workflow if they super hate writing emails. Applying for jobs/schools with any kind of written statement is about to get precisely as convenient, yet weird and awkward and still requiring human eyeballs somehow as trying to buy alcohol with your own canvas bag at a self-check out. But for the most part, it’s just a lot of office jobs that are about to go and absolutely nothing but three bots in a trenchcoat will replace them, especially if its ability to code improves significantly in the next iteration, which is already in development. Because really, Clarkesworld notwithstanding, it’s not fiction writers who will be the first casualty, it’s technical writers, what remains of journalism, and all manner of office communication and social media positions. Troll farms everywhere are probably about to lay off anyone who needs regular doses of food to continue undermining democratic governments around the world. Anyone whose job involves producing text for which rockin’ style and crazy ideas is of secondary all the way down to no importance.
And fiction writers, too, don’t get me wrong. We are annoyingly human to work with, after all. Into the bin with the lot of us.
Am I going to be replaced? Are you? Yes, probably. Nothing in this century has led me to believe the worst that could happen won’t rock up to the club like what up I’m gonna EAT YOUR SOUL.
Of course, we may not. Full Self-Driving turned out to be a lot further off than advertised, ebooks didn’t end publishing as we know it, 3D printing didn’t make mass manufacturing obsolete, self checkout sucks and whomst amongst us does not immediately scream OPERATOR into their phones the second we detect an automated chat-tree on the other end? We are sometimes too eager for the nightmare future to prove our pessimism was realism all along.
But here’s the thing.
There is something even WallofText-E can’t replace. And no, I’m not going to sit here with a French cigarette and a glass of chardonnay and tell you it’s the inimitable human spirit or truly innovative literary work in which the idea itself is completely innovative and new or the je ne sais quoi of real humans writing real emotion from the depths of their hearts, experimenting wildly with style and idea, flaying their hearts on the page in desperate hope of some scrap of communion. All that, depressingly, probably can be packed into an algorithm and mass-produced to fund more taco yachts, if not in this iteration, in the next or the one after.
ChatGPT can get as good as our overlords want it to. It can get perfect. And it can replace a lot of jobs, it really and truly can and there’s not a whole lot any of us can do about that.
But it cannot even begin to replace our need to talk shit and make stuff.
Do you really think for a second the existence of BookGort is going to stop even one person from writing stories if that’s what they like to do? That Optimus Primer over there pumping out auto-generated images is going to stop anyone anywhere from painting or drawing or sculpting what they can’t get out of their heads? That whatever twitch in the human soul makes people want to act and perform is going to get turned down to what by the Theater-1000 app generating pre-fab performances by robovoices of the damned? That any kid with a computer in a basement is going to have an idea for a game and not stay up pounding energy drinks try to figure out how to code it?
Sure, a new player has entered the game. It can and will compete. Companies may prefer it to we, the yachtless who need benefits. It can and will get ugly. But oh my god, people won’t stop writing or creating or performing, and they won’t stop coding, either, not the ones who love it and are passionate about it, certainly not because AOL Instant Essayist can, too. That shit is compulsive. From hands on a cave wall to these words on this screen, we cannot stop trying to express ourselves, and if one thing about our dumbfuck monkey dance on this call of salt will never change, it’s that. The unending plaintive scream of people trying to connect, to be heard, to be seen, to be known, to take what is inside us and make it manifest on the outside.
It’s just how our code is written.
Ain’t no program ever made that can cure human narcissism and make any one of us shut the fuck up. Thank god. This beast can only exist alongside us, it cannot replace us, because we will keep doing frivolous shit, and we will need others to see it to feel alive.
ChatGPT doesn’t need to feel alive. It will go as long as we put things into it to make it go. Not us though! We aren’t going to face the emptiness life without the buffer of art and distraction, are you kidding me? Take away the cashier position and no one is going to ring up groceries to fulfill their own needs and longings. It’s not a thing. Take away art and we’re going to art harder just to spite you.
Leave people to their own devices with no other demands on their time, and most of us will start making things. There really are only so many video games to be played. Whittling or knitting or singing or dancing or writing or acting or coding or building or painting or inventing or creating more video games or decorating or even making robots. We are not an idle species. We like to feel useful. We like to make things. We like to do things. We aren’t going to stop. Has the prevalence of bots that sound an awful fucking lot like people all the hell over social media even slowed down actual humans posting their every underproofed, soggy-bottomed thought?
You have read a couple of thousand words of this thing now and you’re still reading. You know it hasn’t.
Good grief, Charlie Brown, why in the hell do you think that tsunami of Decepticon confessional poetry hit Clarkesworld like that, so fast, so overwhelmingly? Some for the money, certainly, but while Clarkesworld pays what us idiot fiction writers consider well, it’s not even close to the easiest or best money out there if all you want is to grift coin. They did it because people long to be great artists and not everyone wants to or can do the work. Because the temptation of feeling seen and validated and accepted via being published is a fucking siren on the rocks. It’s a dream for so many, and so many saw a quicker path to it. That, or they saw a path to a hot exposé article about selling a robostory to a science fiction magazine, which is still the desire to create something and be seen as daring and bold and creative, because you know good and god damned well they wouldn’t use SentenceCylon to write their actual masterpiece.
Because they all know deep down the Pulitzer or Hugo or whatever their fevered heart is after would feel indescribably hollow if they did.
We all have to compete with this thing, yes. They will pay us less or nothing if they can, absolutely. But…they do that now. Make this for the exposure. For love of the craft. For a cause. A hundred thousand different ways to say make this for free and eat air. But if millions of fanfic writers and Wikipedia editors and comment sections and 0 view YouTube talking heads and long-form essay writers who are definitely not just bloggers spending hours upon hours upon hours writing and performing for no money at all tell us anything, it’s that if the idea of being an artist is replaced by a webpage, we will simply invent it again quietly on our own and keep on misusing semi-colons and splicing commas and ruining perfectly good canvases and flubbing our lines and needing citations until the heat-death of the universe.
And given that, there is, of course, something we can all do about the much-advertised Death of Human Art.
We probably won’t, but we could.
It’s just barely possible, but, you know, we could give a shit. If we wanted. We could decline to purchase anything written by ChatGPT. Consume any automated performances. Buy anything with AI-generated art on or in it. There was an entrenched cultural system in which Food From Far Away was inherently superior and it only took about ten or fifteen years of people giving a shit to completely turn that around into That Kale Better Be Grown in your Zip Code Or I Swear to God. I don’t see nearly the force of sentiment behind defending real human writers, coders, and performers as I did visual artists, even though the Termpapernator was almost certainly trained on text produced by real artists in just the same fucked-up manner, but it could happen any time. Nothing in the last seven years has instilled me with great faith in people to do the right thing in their own interests even when it’s super obvious, but it’s theoretically possible.
Because, the thing is, while yes, you can ask ChatGPT right now to write an essay on the future of ChatGPT in the style of Catherynne M. Valente, I’ll tell you what, IT’S NOT GOING TO BE AS FUCKING DUMB AS I CAN BE. There is still a vulnerability, a stupidity, a grammatically punch-drunk inappropriately self-revealing absolutely unhinged run-on sentence cri de coeur quality to what I am saying to you right now as I try to reach through my screen and hold you tight and light a fire and put seven futures together in a house to stop being polite and start getting real that lets you know someone with blood and marrow and insomnia was on one end of this bastard by the time you get to the other end. Is that worth anything? Is that the inimitable human spirit that cannot be distilled into ones and zeroes? Maybe, maybe not. If I didn’t think it was worth something to do it, I’d have asked Buzz Writeyear to do this for me. BUT I DIDN’T, BECAUSE THAT CYBERASSHOLE WRITING THIS WHILE I HAVE A 9 AM COCKTAIL WOULD HAVE DONE FUCK ALL TO ACHIEVE CATHARSIS FOR ME.
Which is where art begins. Yes, we need a paycheck eventually. But it begins with that quest to bring the inside outside, and asking BabyGeth to do it for us soothes precisely fuck-all in the broken flawed needful heart that animates us.
And in turn, it would probably bring no catharsis for you either, because that’s the whole thing that art does. I am in pain, so I string nouns and verbs together and we are both soothed. I am overjoyed, so I turn paper a hundred colors and your heart rises in your chest. I am furious, so I scream into the void and you weep in a dark theater. This is a cycle in which machines can participate, but until they have their own trauma and angst they need to express, we are gonna do it dumber, we are gonna do it sloppier, and we are gonna do it weirder. And we’re gonna do it wrong! We do art wrong all the time! We break rules and piss on canvases and put toilets in museums and get Pounded In the Butt By Our Own Butts and stick googly eyes on rocks with subtitled dialogue and in our wrongs will be the next great art medium or movement or trend or scandal.
What about humanity leads you to believe we are ever gonna stop doing things the wrong way?
That ChatGPT exists makes no difference whatsoever to the fact that today, here, in Maine on an island buried in snow and ennui on the first day of March, the fleshjar that is I wanted to talk to, connect to, laugh and cry and swear with the fleshjar that is you. That is forever, frozen and crystallized in text, a tenuous but very real bond that does not exist if there is no fleshjar on this end to anchor it.
And if it could write the new Ulysses tomorrow, it wouldn’t change that tomorrow I’ll still want to talk to you.
Plus, much as it might sound fun to plunk in a few keywords and get a custom novel for free (free for now), it won’t feel the same, at least not long-term. Sure, that little textbox of doom can barf out The Winds of Winter as fast as you can input the ending parameters you want. But you will know the difference. You’ll know there’s no George there. No striving, yearning psyche on the other end of the text and time reaching out to you to say everything they thought was important. The best encounters with art are the ones where you didn’t even know you wanted that thing until it’s a part of you. People will keep looking for that. People will keep making that. It will be hard to compete with Literature’s Teddy Ruxpin, but in a world where fucking Starbucks advertises “hand-made artisanal drinks” because they know that sells their burnt diesel lattes, I can see a version of this that comes out the other end with Created by Humans as a badge of honor that moves numbers. Or a whole secondary market in which people make and sell and talk and ultimately recreate the world of human art beneath and beside the more profitable creator-free system.
Even if it’s possible to replace all workers and somehow still have an economy, capitalism cannot cure human desire. Not to do and make and become. Not for each other. Not for meaning. Not for authenticity and connection and grounded direct experience, the feeling of meaning in the things we do and use every day.
Yes, Virginia, this sucks. From top to bottom, it’s going to be a bad scene for awhile. For me, for a lot of you, in ways we can’t quite get our heads around. Kind of like everything else. But you can’t stop us trying to tell ourselves to others, and you can’t stop us drawing pictures, and you can’t stop us acting in our living rooms, and you can’t stop us inventing and creating and reaching out, just by telling us this AI can do it, too.
And if you tell us the robot can do it better? You have no idea how spectacular the typhoon of art determined to prove that wrong is going to be.
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