by Dan Cohen
[Place mat by a student of the textile artist Mariska Karasz, c. 1950-60, via Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum.]
An update: Earlier this year I wrote a piece for The Atlantic on an important court case between publishers and the Internet Archive over the lending of digitized books. The publishers won that case, and based on some further developments on Friday, it sounds likely that IA will have to stop loaning books published by the large publishers who dominate the market, as well as others who object. Yesterday, the New York Times covered this ongoing battle. (In related news, the big record labels filed a similar lawsuit against IA on Friday opposing IA's program to digitize and stream old 78rpm albums.)
I have nothing to add to my Atlantic article, which I think explains the issues in depth, except to note that in almost all of the coverage of the conflict, including that piece in the NYT, there so many words about publishers, writers, and libraries, and so few words about readers. To me, readers are the most important constituency, and yet they remain undercovered and mostly voiceless. We should be asking: What is the best ecosystem of books (and ebooks) for readers?
As the new school year approaches, the first full one in the wake of AI tools like ChatGPT, here is my imagined message from professors to the entering Class of 2027.
Dear First-Year Students,
Welcome to college! The next four years will be filled with opportunities, challenges, and temptations. And those temptations will not just be extracurricular — one of the biggest allures right now is roiling the classroom.
You know what we're talking about. You may have used ChatGPT to help you write that history essay in high school, or maybe (don't tell us!) part of your college admissions essay. These AI tools are remarkable, and they are getting better every day. For the mountain of words you will be expected to produce in the coming semesters, it is understandable that you might want to inject some computer-generated filler here and there.
But don't get too addicted to the giant autocomplete button.
You know how you can scrutinize every word of a text from a friend, and even its capitalization and punctuation (or lack thereof) for traces of meaning — real or imagined, intended or unintentional?
As you will soon learn, in your adult life all of the most important moments of communication will feel like that. You will carefully parse each heartfelt sentence from a potential partner, each urgent email from your boss about a critical project, each hazy message from an aging parent.
Which also means that the people who are receiving your precious words will be doing the same thing, paying careful attention to how you speak and write. Not all of the time, not even most of the time, but at the most crucial times, the ones that will make a difference in the trajectory of your life or career.
And that means that you will need to learn how to create the best possible representation of your thoughts and feelings in language. People can hear a false note, see a wrong slant to a word, so easily. It's what we do as human beings. Maybe it's a gift, or a curse, but we are social creatures highly attuned to the tiniest details of communication with each other. You will want to stride forward with a minimum of missteps.
Using automated writing from an AI bot, no matter how good it may sound as a decent substitution for your own words, will not be what you really want to put into the world. The attentive reader or listener will sense its shallowness.
If you are trying to calm or cajole, you will need deeper, more tailored words than those a bot can produce on the fly. If you cultivate the talent of writing well, you will be able to summon these special words because you're a human and a computer isn't.
You have lived your life, read a quirky selection of books, appreciated certain kinds of art and hated others, assembled an eclectic music playlist. In college, you will do much more of that, and sample entirely new genres of writing, sights, and sounds that will expand your palate.
Out of this distinct set of inputs will arise your distinct set of outputs: your personal style, your unique inflections, the little ornaments of language that help us project ourselves as us and get across our ideas, needs, and wants. ChatGPT was trained on a gigantic but generic mass of inputs — why would you want to reuse the outputs from that?
Yes, many class assignments don't ask you to be so distinctive. We professors have to catch up too. We've been used to assigning standard essays and offering rote exams — hey, we're just trying to get through our busy weeks too — and so of course it's tempting to respond to such mundane assignments with good-enough words from the bots.
Instead, a pact: Let's work together to be more creative in what we do in courses, to maximize the opportunities we have to study and discuss how others have expressed themselves and how you, in turn, can express yourself in ways that truly mean something.
AI will undoubtedly have a place in our new world, but it's up to us to locate that place, and to rightsize it. The future is not auto-generated like text from ChatGPT. We are its authors.
In human solidarity,
Speaking of professors, with the start of the academic year almost here, I will shamelessly plug my old post from 2006, "Professors, Start Your Blogs." The references are perhaps a bit dated, and maybe it should be a newsletter rather than a blog, but I believe the central point remains vibrant: the open internet is greatly enriched by people who are obsessed about particular areas of knowledge, and who are willing to share notes from those areas in plainspoken language for a general (if small, who cares!) audience. As Robin Sloan more succinctly put it, in this new season let us "cultivate small, sturdy networks of affinity and interest." In a similar vein, Alan Jacobs' recent post on "Outreach and Generativity" outlines a way that this kind of public writing could become a more accepted part of academia. I had hoped for this seventeen years ago, but I'm joining my friend Alan in dreaming once again in 2023.