I was always drawn to the personal essay, which has -- fairly or unfairly -- been regarded as inferior to the novel, the play, or the poem, the runt of the litter in literature. The form has frequently been dismissed as an exercise in self-indulgence and navel-gazing.
It is also the perfect “anti-AI” literary device.
You devour essay collections by E.B. White, Philip Lopate, and David Sedaris. You enjoy nonfiction by Joyce Carol Oates, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, and George Orwell. You read essays by Filipino writers Conrado De Quiros, Jessica Zafra, Butch Dalisay, Simeon Dumdum, and Kerima Polotan-Tuvera.
You read those writers’ essays because you want a front-row seat to their experiences; you want to know their opinions, which might -- who knows? -- shape your own. You laugh out loud at Sedaris writing about his time working as an elf at Macy’s department store; you marvel at De Quiros’s wisdom as he deconstructs in a column why Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is as trapo as it gets and shouldn’t be reelected, and why you should instead vote for Raul Roco (I did; he was the first-ever Philippine presidential candidate I voted for, and I didn’t regret my decision).
An AI program might tell you his (or her? -- let’s stick to “its”) experience climbing Everest, for example, and how on the descent it unfortunately had to be carried down by a Sherpa to be airlifted to the nearest hospital. But the experience, obviously, is another person’s (or asshole’s); you asked (PROMPTED) the machine to tell you about its Everest experience, but it told you someone else’s, passing it off as its own.
A lot of people might say, why should we look for something anti-AI in the first place anyway? Majority of those who might say this, of course, have discovered that AI has made their jobs easier. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Just like there’s nothing wrong with opting for a dumbphone instead of the ubiquitous smartphone, if only to enjoy life at its fullest. (Six years ago when I backpacked Guatemala, I brought a rudimentary point-and-shoot camera, which was already going extinct at that time because of smartphones. I also bought a dumbphone and a local SIM, relegating the smartphone to my bedroom whenever I needed to message my wife, who stayed here in Mexico while I went on that backpacking trip. I can honestly say I enjoyed my time more with that dumbphone in my pocket for emergencies, and the obsolete digital camera to take pictures with, than if I brought along my smartphone, for which I would have surely been tempted to check my social media accounts instead of enjoying the beauty of my surroundings.)
I posted more than a year ago on Facebook that while people point to the Internet as one of the biggest problems plaguing us today, we should blame social media instead.
Life was good when we only had dumbphones. Life was good when we could only access the Internet through a desktop or laptop, and that everything started going to shit when Steve Jobs decided that we all needed a computer in our pockets, and when Android followed suit.
Of course, that I posted that rant on Facebook through a smartphone wasn’t lost on me.
Just like it isn’t lost on us that AI makes a lot of jobs easier -- that’s the reality now. Just like when article spinners a few years ago purportedly made content writers’ jobs easier. In a lot of ways, those article spinners were a precursor to today’s AI chatbots, much like the original T-800 terminator cyborg assassin was to the T-X or the terminatrix. (If you thought you’d finish reading this and not encounter a single reference to “The Terminator,” think again. LOL.)
When an employer reached out to me many years ago and asked me to work for them as a content-writer-slash-editor, I showed up at the interview. But when I found out that the work consisted of running articles through a spinner and then just cleaning up those “articles” before posting them, I declined the offer.
If I wrote, I wanted to write from scratch; if I edited, I wanted to edit human writers’ work. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that all these years. But with AI evolving as it has, I’m not sure how long I could still afford to do what I’m doing right now, what I had been fortunate enough to be able to do all these years.
My biggest issue with AI is that it has always relied on a repository of writers’ and artists’ work and passing off that work as its own. Let’s call a spade a spade: this is plagiarism -- stealing -- plain and simple. This blatant theft, in turn, has made AI companies a fortune -- at the risk, of course, of writers and artists losing their jobs. Artists and writers, by the way, who have always been underpaid but still decided to stay in their line of work anyway.
American artist and writer Molly Crabapple hit the nail on the head in an op-ed she penned for the Los Angeles Times late last year. Crabapple wrote:
“AI pushers have told me that AI is a tool which artists can use to automate their work. This just shows how little they understand us. Art is not scrubbing toilets. It’s not an unpleasant task most people would rather have the robots do. It is our heart. We want to do art’s work. We make art because it is who we are, and through immense effort, some of us have managed to earn a living by it. It’s precarious, sure. Our wages have not risen for decades. But we love this work too much to palm it off to some robot, and it is this love that AI pushers will never get.”
Of course those AI pushers will always say that there’s no stopping technology, and they’re right.
The book I’m currently reading is an account of Lance Armstrong’s climb atop the Tour de France’s record books as the only seven-time champion and his subsequent fall from grace as the drug cheat that he is. It was written by Irish sports journalist David Walsh, who claimed that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career. Walsh, who had been writing about cycling since 1984, was one of the first journalists to accuse Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs. Needless to say, Walsh, throughout his career, has been at the receiving end of Armstrong’s retaliatory attacks.
Walsh wrote in the book that the 1998 tournament -- the year before Armstrong won his first Tour de France -- was marred by a doping scandal known as the Festina affair, when a large haul of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs was found in a support car belonging to the Festina cycling team just before the beginning of the race. As a result, cycling authorities conducted an investigation, which revealed systematic doping involving many teams in the Tour de France.
The 1999 tour that Armstrong won should have been the year that the Tour de France had been cleaned of doping, a tour that organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc, at that time, declared “saved.” But as Walsh -- and other cycling journalists -- chronicled, it seemed as though the race had two speeds: the group of riders who were legitimately free of PEDs perpetually at the tail end of the peloton, and Armstrong and his ilk, who seemed to zoom by everyone else while hardly breaking a sweat. Anton Vayer, a retired cyclist who testified against the Festina cycling team, said he found it “scandalous” that Armstrong rode at an average speed of 54 kph. “It’s nonsense,” said Vayer. “Indirectly, it proves he is doping.”
Vayer added: “What is being achieved in professional cycling these days is a joke. It is way beyond man’s natural capacity.”
Armstrong had tried to soften the blow of being uncovered as a cheat -- and being stripped of his seven Tour De France titles as a result -- by saying that even if he doped, he didn’t have an undue advantage over his rivals because everyone in cycling dopes anyway. In an interview with Oprah, Armstrong also promised to apologize to Walsh.
The journalist never received an apology.
A lot of people would say, just stop the anti-doping measures, just let every cyclist take whatever drug they want, and may the best athlete win.
You can’t stop progress. You can’t stop technology. Doping is part and parcel of every Tour de France now. Records are made to be broken.
Others, though, pine for the good ol’ days when cyclists competed on a level playing field. The pace was slower, sure. But the struggle was part of the beauty of the sport.
Artists and writers can’t stop AI from stealing their output, which is part and parcel of how capitalists keep using the terms “progress” and “technology” to justify the theft, just so they could continue to enrich themselves at the expense of those who actually did all the hard labor.
But artists and writers, just like old-school cycling enthusiasts, can still dream; we can still cling to romantic notions. We’re still allowed to rage against the dying of the light.
We’re still human after all.