Electric Pencil

Feb 1, 2023–Even during the dark ages of darkrooms, the world could not trust photographic evidence. Despotic regimes routinely manipulated pictures of leaders, artfully inserting or deleting faces according to their political status.

With the advent of imaging software, even kids quickly learned to swap out faces and use filters. The final step was AI–Artificial Intelligence–able to create images out of whole pixels. Everything we see in print or on film is no longer real.

Now, AI is taking on writing. Will AI make me obsolete?

All I can say is, “Get in line.”

Predicting the demise of writing stretches back to Socrates. The Great Debator lamented his students’ fascination with that new technology called “writing” would forever ruin their ability to think critically. He said that in 410 BC. And while some would say students stopped thinking ever since, the record shows that enough writers survived to come up with King Lear, The Screwtape Letters, and I-Hop menus.

Obviously, writing caught on.

And writers worked hard at adapting new technology to ease their task. First it was hammering letters into marble, then pressing sticks into wet clay, then dipping sharpened goose quills into ink made mixing burnt bones with tar. Dedicated monks slaved under candlelight to create those colorful initial capital letters as they copied Bibles. Did medieval teachers clutch their black pearls when monks introduced magenta?

Moving forward 22 centuries from Greek orators, we invented the typewriter, for the first time inserting a modern mechanical machine between an author’s mind and words on paper.

These clacked away for a century, until high school typing teachers sat gum smacking letter sweater wearers in front of IBM Selectrics, typing endless “quick brown foxes” while hypnotized with the bouncing ball embossed with every letter, plus its italic and ALL CAPS counterpart.

Next came word “processors,” which reduced our language into ASCII code, waiting to be chopped up and rearranged on the paper platter. No more literal “cutting and pasting,” Overnight a drawerful of Wite-Out, correction tape, and ink-erasing erasers became obsolete. (Though you’ll still find them in every writer’s drawer.)

When smart phones appeared, they not only allowed us to text, they texted for us.

Every message arriving via text or email now automatically pops up a list of potential responses based on the message content. Lazy lexicographers are spared the burden of typing out “Thank you” or “I’ll be sure to look into that”–the computer has the missive wrapped and ready to push out.

Now please welcome our new Overlords: Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence.

With rules of grammar built in and the literal entire world of human knowledge at its digital digits, the bot will take your prompt and spit out a missive of any length and style, complete with the same lame cliches that litter the average pundit’s prose.

I tried it. “Describe,” I typed into the AI Bot, “what Phil Houseal writes about in his blog Full House.”

The response:

“Phil Houseal writes about a variety of topics in his blog Full House. He covers everything from personal stories and experiences to advice on relationships, parenting, home improvement projects, travel tips and more. His writing style is conversational yet informative – he offers real-life examples that readers can relate to while also providing practical insight into the subject matter at hand. Phil’s goal with Full House is to provide an enjoyable read for anyone who visits his blog as well as useful information that can help people live better lives.”

Well, that’s a swing and a miss.

To my recollection, over 16 years and 1000 columns, I’ve never deigned to give anyone advice on, heaven forbid, “relationships.” And the only “home improvement projects” I’ve described are my utter failures, such as zip tying mattress springs to patch holes in my fences.

Mr. R.O. Bot did nail my writing style–“conversational yet informative.” But he loses me completely with his final line–“help people live better lives.” If you are looking for that kind of material, move on to Dear Abby.

Seriously, the sample paragraph could have been written about any blog by N.E. Writer. And that may be the issue with AI.

Just as predictive text provides you with a grammatically correct following word, a good writer doesn’t strive to simply be grammatically correct. If that were the case, all writers would be high school English teachers. A “good” writer seeks to continually surprise and please his readers, often by selecting the unexpected next word, even at the risk of violating some grammatical construct laid down by an 18th century pedant using a goose quill and ink mixed from the bones of peasants.

So, for now (what bot dare start a sentence with “So…”), I will turn back to my keyboard, safe in the knowledge that the Chat Bots will continue cranking out high school essays on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, while I amuse and divert my readers by “providing an enjoyable read.”

At least it got that part right.