HackGPT, More Like
April 25, 2023
So far, AI composition only helps terrible writers. (Including at least one who works for The New York Times.)
Did anyone else read the piece on Sunday by New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, who said ChatGPT is already changing the way he goes about his craft?
“Once you start using ChatGPT you pretty much can’t stop,” he began, stealing the sales pitch of the worst drug dealer in the world.
Next, he introduced a terrible metaphor. “Other tech-friendly journalists I know have been going through something similar: Suddenly, we’ve got something like a jetpack to strap to our work. Sure, the jetpack is kinda buggy. Yes, sometimes it crashes and burns. And the rules for its use aren’t clear, so you’ve got to be super careful with it. But sometimes it soars, shrinking tasks that would have taken hours down to mere minutes, sometimes minutes to seconds.”
Ummm, isn’t this why the jetpack never caught on?
Manjoo (which my AI spell-check keeps changing to “Mango”) then gave a couple of examples of how ChatGPT makes writing easier, one being: “Take the problem of transitions—you’ve written two sections of an article and you’re struggling to write a paragraph taking the reader from one part to the other. Now you can plug both sections into ChatGPT and ask for its thoughts. ChatGPT’s proposed transition probably won’t be great, but even bad ideas can help in overcoming a block. … ChatGPT functions as … your always available, spitballing friend.”
Well, I guess if ChatGPT keeps some jackass writer friend from calling me to “spitball” why an article he or she is writing doesn’t hold together, it could save me some time. (Yes, I’m starting to get impatient with this piece.)
The only other writing example Mango offered was this:
Where [ChatGPT] does really help, though, is in digging up that perfect word or phrase you’re having trouble summoning. In my jetpack metaphor up above, I’d originally written that when the jetpack is working, it “screams.” I knew “screams” wasn’t right; before ChatGPT I might have used a thesaurus or just pounded my head on the wall until the right word came to me. This time I just plugged the whole paragraph into ChatGPT and asked it for alternative verbs; “soars,” its top suggestion, was just the word that had been eluding me.
A New York Times columnist can’t, on his own, come up with “soars” over “screams” to describe the functioning jetpack in his dysfunctional metaphor? So he’s going to get paid to write a column praising ChatGPT for giving him remedial writing help. I think he buried the lead.
Though I’m not yet the least bit tempted to use ChatGPT in my own writing, any more than I’m sanguine about turning to Oxycontin to ease my worries about ChatGPT—I’m not taking a hard line against the possibility that ChatGPT can eventually help semi-competent writers become more competent and competent writers add the occasional editorial touch. And maybe it’ll provide all writers, as Google has, with a bionic research assistant. (Before Google, did you know you could call your local library and ask the librarian to look up which year Napoleon was exiled to Elba? Otherwise, you had to call your Uncle Jack, and hear about his prostate first.)
But as for AI, I’m waiting to see even one powerful example of how it has assisted a serious writer before I offer full-throated encouragement to my flock of speechwriters to start snorting this stuff. Because I think it can be at least as bad for a writer as it can be good.
Mango quotes Nicholas Carlson, the global editor in chief of Insider, who “sent a memo to members of his staff last week, encouraging them to begin cautiously experimenting with ChatGPT. Carlson floated one idea I liked: to think of ChatGPT as a semi-reliable source. ‘Trust it the same way you would trust a blabbermouth blowhard at a bar three drinks in who is pretending to know everything,’ he suggested. You check everything that the source says—a lot of times it might be nonsense, but sometimes the blabbermouth turns out to know what he’s talking about.”
Or, you excuse yourself to take a leak, and you climb out the bathroom window.