I was trying to keep things light last week on my personal blog Writing Boots, when I made fun of this ad for an AI writing program that “will write high-quality posts for you in minutes.”
I decided to take a more serious crack at this conversation when a veteran communicator—one highly decorated by his professional association and admired by many hundreds of his peers, myself included—confessed to some other writers online that he’s open to using Jasper to write things his boss or his colleagues want written that he doesn’t have time to do. Jasper, he says, “prevents me from saying, ‘no.’”
As an example of what Jasper can do, this communicator posted this.
The communicator said, “I would edit any of [the Jasper graphs], but it gives you a solid idea of the kind of content a decent AI can produce based on very little input.” The communicator might have said, “Gadzooks, this amoral android will write just about anything you ask it to, no questions asked!”
There’s a term that some writers used to impolitely call some other writers, who would do the same thing: a hack. A hack was a literate cynic who would write anything she or he was told, as quickly as possible and without too precious a regard for precisely chosen language, or any sacred belief in the connection between words and truth.
But it’s just a first draft! the communicator will say.
Joan Didion said this, and many other famous writers said something similar: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” And it is in the writing of the first draft, after all, that the writer begins to discover what she or he thinks about a thing—by how easily the concept translates from thoughts to words, how those words feel to write, and whether you warm to the idea of signing your name to this. If you delegate a first draft to a robot, you’re no longer a thinking writer, no longer a moral writer. You’re a professional hack. Jasper, tell me why my springer spaniel should care about the metaverse!
Thing is, I know the Jasper-happy communicator I’m talking about is not a hack. He’s very serious about his work and always has been. But I’m afraid that like so many corporate communicators before him, he’s become so harried that he’s temporarily lost his bearings. He would never advocate cranking out a news release just because a stupid boss suggested it, and he would agree with a mentor of mine who taught me long ago, “an editor becomes an editor” when the editor politely says no. And yet, here he is telling me he would rather foist computer-generated pink-slime prose onto his audience than say “no” to a colleague or a boss.
But I’d just use Jasper for dumb old employee recognition stuff! the communicator protests.
You know why people like dumb old employee recognition stuff in the first place? For the dumb old reason that they know that some human being on the organization’s payroll took the time to write the dumb old thing thing up.
As soon as people sense that the kudos they received for completing their certification training or working five years with the company was spit out by a corporate robot—and sense it, they surely will—employee recognition will lose whatever motivational power it ever had.
And you’ll never get it back.
Now imagine living in a whole media world where, with lots of the stuff you’re reading, you’re wondering if byline should included a hat tip to Jasper—or a Jasperisk, as it were. You read a listless graph in a piece and you have to think: “I wonder if that’s a Jasper graph the writer forgot to humanize.”
Jasper may save semiliterate entrepreneurs some time and agony by auto-puking the customer newsletter that nobody ever read in the first place. Indeed, Jasper may be good for lots of prose that nobody will ever read. But any prose that anybody will read, down to and including corporate benefits communications and Ikea assembly instructions—that deserves one human mind trying to make a helpful deposit in another.
And a professional writer turning to Jasper is a physician consulting WebMD.
Or so it seems to me.
“If you try to put a lid on progress, you will be blown to pieces. Sorry to say,” another pro-Jasper writer told me last week.
“What twaddle,” I replied. (I wonder if Jasper has “twaddle” in its bag.) I have questioned communication “progress” since we started being told 30 years ago that the internet, and later social media, were going to make our lives better, and our society more enlightened and democratic.
And yeah, I’m questioning “progress” now that professional writers are sounding sanguine about making robots an essential part of what they produce, and what their readers consume.
For chrissakes, aren’t you? —DM
Postscript: The AI-advocating communicator named above has rebutted my post on his blog. If you’re interested, have a read.