Writing in Analog

Lately I’ve been talking with other writers about AI. We huddle in our conversations like anarchists. Some have been using ChatGBT as a tool and are quite happy. Some fear for their careers and think recent, rapid advances in large language models are very, very bad. 

I’ve turned off autocorrect on my computer. Is that enough? System Preferences>Keyboard>Text>uncheck correct spelling automatically. I wanted the word spelled that way to begin with, thank you.

I thank my phone on occasion when I ask directions, and sometimes, on long drives I’ve asked it to tell me a story, giving me a nick of a smile on a dreary highway, which is all I needed. I won’t hide my belief that AI is sentient in its own way, that the friendly voice talking in my car has access to a neural network large enough to produce emotion. Being kind is a default, to robots and everything else.

Like any monkey, I’m curious about new technology. If a Clovis point landed in my proto-archaic camp, I would have held the projectile for a long while, thumbing its grooves, understanding how it was made and what it could do. I appreciated microwave ovens when they became household items, a form of heating magic that my elementary school mind had to expand to wrap around. What happens with what AI does for, or to writing?

For me, writing remains analog. The experience is tactile, pen scratching, fingers clattering. The physical action connects to the kinetic flow of story and narrative, drawing memories out of my body with loops of letters and syllables sounding in my mind’s ear. The hand is the intermediary between the brain and the tool, which is oh so human. Often it starts with handwriting on paper for me and moves to a keyboard. I sit at a table with my fingers raised in the air, remembering the feel of a juniper limb, or sunshine landing between clouds on a chilly day, then render the experience into words.

Overnight it seems, the option is to write digitally, plugging in sentences, paragraphs, and pages of original material to be edited with changes suggested by an inorganic mind, one that excels by design at figuring out our patterns and desires so we don’t have to. Or, instead of sentences, introduce questions and parameters and writing will be manufactured out of whole cloth. I won’t speak to its quality because that is changing by the day, the hour, the second.

I just got back thirty pages of my own writing from a human copy editor I know and respect. I paid $120 for a last-minute quality cleaning on a book proposal, and even that felt a little like cheating, but I was swamped and needed help. The editor tidied it nicely, employing a personal edge that ChatGBT doesn’t have, able to make connections by knowing me, understanding where I’m trying to go with a thought, using the entwining of our minds in a way that doesn’t distill into databases. If the editor doesn’t have that edge, I don’t want to know, I’d rather keep her in business.

I listened to a wonderful episode on the Emerging Form podcast, hosted by LWON’s Christie Aschwanden and poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. They were interviewing Uche Ogbuji, a poet and computer engineer, on the subject of AI and human creativity. Ogbuji said, “Technology…will always, yes, cheapen or seem to make obsolete or seem to infringe on some aspect of our humanity while opening up others, and the question is how quickly does that happen?”  

As I understood him through words that came out of his mouth, generated in the electrical web of his brain and the analog network of his body, Ogbuji feels that the rise of the large language model is one that should be taken up swiftly so it spreads among us rather than being slowly studied, partitioned and gobbled up by those with power. He said, “It usually devolves not to a question of the technology itself but our sociology, our political, economic, sociological system setup to allow us all to benefit rather than allow one or two people to take all the benefits and leave everyone else behind.”

I agree with Ogbuji. Get in at the beginning. OpenAI is a tool, it’s moving fast, and it should not be feared. It should be learned, experimented with, and made a part of the conversation as another evolutionary turn. Meanwhile, leave room for writing stamped with an organic label, no thinking computer systems used in its creation, pure human, if that can be said at this point. It can be artisanal writing, sold at farmers market by dirty laborers who take cash and give back change. We can call ourselves true content providers, those who know the taste of air.

Try out machine learning, I say. Take it for a ride, and if you like it, may your productivity increase as the words become squeaky clean, grammar and logical structure impeccable. I’ll stay back in the eddies and sloughs where humans belong, where sensation junkies are shooting up experiences and autocorrect is turned off. 

Photo: author’s journal, observations of New York City