Human writing is creative writing; the publishing charade; atheist Dennett meets his maker: Newsletter 24 April 2024

Newsletter 41: When you subtract AI from writing, what’s left is creativity; ending garbage books; remembering Daniel Dennett; surprising truths about book sales; plus three people to follow and three books to read.

Soon, only creative writers will remain. Huzzah!

There are things AI excels at.

Summarizing long documents.

Finding patterns.

Turning formulaic content into prose.

Searching through massive databases — including the Web — to find what you are seeking.

Detecting grammatical errors and inconsistencies in writing.

Humans can also in theory do many of these things. We are paying humans to do them now. Very soon, AI will do these things better than humans, and we will no longer need humans to do them.

As a writer, to this I say, hallelujah!

AI is increasingly good at meeting expectations. My job, as a writer, is to defy expectations.

I am happy to concentrate on the qualities that make my writing mine, and hopefully, interesting. Other writers with wit are likely to feel the same.

I can makes jokes and smartass remarks. AI writers are poor at that, because it requires going in an unpredictable direction — and AI tends to go in a predictable direction.

I can look at a topic that a hundred people have seen one way, and write about a unique perspective that none of them have seen. That’s far more interesting to read. And an AI is pretty bad at that. AI writers follow well-trodden paths, they don’t hack their way through vegetation in strange directions.

I can examine information and conclude, “there is nothing interesting to see here.” I can therefore choose not to write about it. AI writers have no trouble writing about boring things in boring ways, and that adds little value to the world. They don’t refuse to be boring, as real writers do.

I can identify the start of a trend and know exactly what individual is likely to be able to have a productive discussion about it with me, based on that individual’s background and perspective. That person will likely want to collaborate with me, because it’s interesting (and I’m interesting). The result will combine viewpoints in a way that an AI would never think of.

I could take a trend to an absurd extreme, then back off just enough to write about what’s unlikely, but interesting. AI models are not known for going to absurd extremes, except by mistake.

I can look at boring prose and think of a dozen different ways to make it interesting. Some of them will follow no known formula — and will therefore be unknown to AI writers.

I can vary my tone to be angry, whimsical, analytical, prescriptive, sarcastic, or authoritative, depending on the audience and situation — sometimes even in successive sentences and paragraphs. This is style. AI writers lack style.

In a word, I can be creative in hundreds of different ways. This is not egotism: all of us can be creative in a hundred different ways, and your ways and mine are not the same.

Many of us took “creative writing” classes in school. Now we are writing copy, reports, blog posts, press releases, case studies, news articles, and books. Those may not have been what our teachers had in mind when they taught creative writing, but creative writing is all that is left for us to do.

Non-creative writing is what AI is going to be good at. Creative writing is what each of us would most enjoy reading, even on mundane topics.

Writers today must concentrate on creative writing, and leave the rest to the AI tools.

As I contemplate a world like that, I feel awe. Bring it on!

News for writers and others who think

Vox documents how easy (and “fun”) it is to create AI-generated garbage ebooks and upload them to Amazon. Rohit Bhargava has some ideas on how to use Wikipedia-type editors to stem the flow of sewage. I hope he’s right.

The amazing philosopher Daniel Dennett has died (gift link). A committed atheist, Dennett challenged readers with ideas about consciousness and reality. I can honestly say that everything he wrote, I read with wonder. (See book links below for some recommendations.)

Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Anxious Generation argues that social media and smartphones have damaged the minds of our youth. Mike Masnick’s review dismantles this moral panic argument: demonstrating how Haidt has cherry-picked evidence to reach an enticing, but dubious, conclusion.

On The Elysian, a shocking set of quotes from publishing-industry experts on what a crap-shoot publishing is — and why almost no one earns out their advances.

Three people to follow

Jason Feifer, editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine and spreader of constantly challenging ideas.

Dharmesh Shah, founder and CTO at Hubspot, a tech wiz with a massive creative streak.

Mindy Diamond, the advisor’s advisor for financial professionals.

Three books to read

Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett (Back Bay Books, 1992). Why we imagine that we are conscious.

B2B PR That Gets Results: A Guide to Simple and Targeted Public Relations Practices by Michelle Garrett (Gatekeeper Press, 2024). PR tactics that actually work.

Tech Agnostic: How Technology Became the World’s Most Powerful Religion, and Why It Desperately Needs a Reformation by Greg Epstein (MIT Press, 2024). A humanist asks why we worship our gadgets and how we might stop.

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  1. Nike recently produced an ad honoring Caitlin Clark with the headline “You break it, you own it.” The day AI can come up with something that good, I’ll stop writing. Until then, no.