More than ever, embracing your humanity is the way forward.
Innovation makes people panic.
Every so often there’s a panic about how the computers are making us look bad.
I first experienced this as a kid when pocket calculators came out and maths teachers everywhere spent several years trying to stop us from using them.
But there had already been many previous rounds of this tech-induced disorientation. When telephones went mainstream, the morse code operators were probably saying, “Well the voice is all very well but it can hardly match the speed and precision of dots and dashes, so my job is clearly quite safe. or is it?”
And this is not to mention that the morse operators had already put the semaphore operators out of a job.
More recently people freaked out about personal computers, spreadsheets, word processors, robots that built cars, robots that built robots, mobile phones, smart phones, chess computers, Go computers. The list goes on and on.
The latest entry is, of course, AI, or to be more exact, large language models (LLMs) that produce automated text, and their image-creating, deep learning equivalents. Midjourney and DALL-E are quickly killing off artists' livelihoods. Meanwhile, ChatGPT makes it look as though technical writers and copywriters are doomed to retraining.
Each of these moments of innovation involves an emotion similar to what German philosopher Günther Anders called ‘Promethean shame’. This is the feeling that technology is embarrassing us by pointing out our human limitations. We’re just not as good at doing things as the tech that we invented to ‘help’ us do it. In Anders' original formulation the shame arose in the observation of high quality manufactured goods. What was it shame of? That we were born, not manufactured (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, 1956). In the face of the latest AI panic, we’re asking, yet again: if the tools don’t really need us, what’s the point of humans at all?
Naval said, “nobody can compete with you on being you."
This is true, but being you, last time I looked, doesn’t pay the rent. This is why Promethean shame is so powerful. It’s associated with the real prospect of destitution.
This type of shame really plays to our fears of being thrown on the scrap heap. As Anders observed:
“The modern individual is not afraid of being used (employed, exploited), but of not being used (p. 42)”
Gold medals for effort
Actual humans aren’t good at much. And Promethean shame means they’re even embarrassed to be themselves. Most of the time, we ignore our limitations and celebrate our supposedly amazing prowess. What are the Olympic Games, for example, other than a sad display of how humans without powered accessories are really quite slow, and can’t even jump as high as a ladder? But no one ever mentions this embarrassing fact. To do so would obviously be tasteless. Instead we marvel at a human achieving a triple spin when the best previous attempt was two and a half spins. We’re collectively wowed by a person swimming almost as fast as a slow rowing boat, or rowing almost as fast as a broken speed boat. They hand out gold medals for effort.
When general knowledge genius Ken Jennings lost the TV game show Jeopardy! against a computer named Watson, he wrote an article about the experience called My puny human brain.
One reason we find it difficult and embarrassing to accept that we’re worse than our machinery is that we already tended to discount the sub-par people. The poor, the disabled, the maimed, the troubled, the difficult, the different in, oh, so many ways. The culture already looked down on all of them, tried to silence them and make them less visible. We already knew that some people didn’t make the cut. They were too old, too young, too sick, too foreign, or not foreign enough. Well, now that’s us. All of us.
The solution to Promethean shame is to recognise it, then to lean into our humanity. No one is as good at being human as an actual human. And to be human means to be fragile, frail and fallible. And it’s a hallmark of genuine human being that we’re just not that great. Paradoxically, this means the better a fake human (robot, chatbot, talking iron, whatever) becomes at imitating a human, the worse it will be at replacing the actual humans.
Mediocre is good enough - for some
We used to get paid to produce work that was ‘good enough’, but now computers can do it faster and for peanuts. And does anyone really care if it’s mediocre? That has yet to be seen.
William Deresiewicz observed:
“having turned art into “content”—limitless, interchangeable, disposable—the internet has already eroded taste to such an extent that fewer and fewer people are capable of distinguishing between crap and quality in the first place. Or bother to.”
Indeed, it’s now possible for AI publishers like Ingenio to churn out, say, 10,000 celebrity horoscope profiles a month. And if it turns out there’s a viable business model for this kind of flood it will just be a confirmation of TV producer Dan Harmon’s prediction from way back in 2016:
“maybe everyone in the world will turn out to be so hopelessly stupid that they think bad things are good”.
Thriving on the new normal
Harmon’s advice to those with writer’s block was to admit that your writing is terrible and do it anyway. Except that his version was cruder:
“Switch from team “I will one day write something good” to team “I have no choice but to write a piece of shit””.
As it happens this is the human condition. Ernest Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.”
If mostly failing was good enough for Hemingway, it’s probably good enough for you. And this is good general advice for the new age of AI. As humans, we suck so we might as well get used to it 1. In any case, this is what we’ve been getting used to for generations now. We can’t stand the cold so we wear clothes. And to stop our dangerously soft feet from wearing out we wear shoes. We can’t run at 80 or even 50 kilometres per hour so we drive cars. We can’t shout across oceans so we send email.
The sentence we find ourselves needing to complete now is: We can’t each produce 10,000 romance novels per month, so we…”
Austin Kleon points out that after Ken Jennings lost out to Watson on Jeopardy! that wasn’t the end of his story. He now makes a living being the person who lost to a computer. He’s a professional human loser.
That’s what we all are now. And it’s really nothing to be ashamed of.
I’m not saying everything is fine in the world of AI, and there’s nothing to worry about. There are larger questions of capitalist extraction and exploitation. And these won’t be addressed merely by regulating the tech multinationals. Meanwhile, though, let’s at least recognise we’re just humans. All of us.
Anders, Günther. 2016. On Promethean Shame. In Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence, Christopher John Müller, 29-95. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Fuchs, Christian. 2017. Günther Anders’ Undiscovered Critical Theory of Technology in the Age of Big Data Capitalism. Triple C Vol 15 No 2.
A counterpoint to Stewart Brand’s programmatic claim in the first edition of his Whole Earth Catalogue (1968), “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” ↩︎