We are an auto-immune disease
Can we learn to accept and love ourselves—and each other—a little more than our tech?
Last week a Note frompopped up in my feed. She said:
AI optimists say that AI will never replace knowledge workers' jobs. I beg to differ. I am already hearing from fellow professional writers that they are being told to use ChatGPT to speed up their work or "make it more efficient" - whatever that means.
The problem is, if there's a way, people will try to use AI to reduce human capital.
I’ve been hearing this too. I replied:
This is precisely the issue. It’s not AI. It’s us humans. We’re like an auto-immune disease: we attack each other. Humans telling other humans to use AI to “speed up.” Do more. Be more efficient. Never mind your intelligence, your creativity, your insight, wisdom, integrity, brilliance. Just get us the data, the profits, the stats. And STAT!
To which Elizabeth responded “Yes. They are exasperated that humans need time to think, need rest...” Another writer, JD McBride of, reminded us that we humans also need treats. Which, if you think about it, is a critical point. Anything that talks but doesn’t need treats is highly suspect (hello chat bots). Our talking parrots (not the stochastic ones) would wholeheartedly agree, methinks.
By the way, this is how JD and I discovered we are chocolate soulmates. For those of you who love chocolate as much as I do, stay tuned. Boy do I have a treat for you later this year!
Our problem isn’t technology. It’s not robots. It’s not AI. Our problem is us. There is no malignant evil lurking in your CPU, watching you while you sleep or… do other enjoyable things at night. No software has suddenly metamorphosed its code into dark incantations of destruction against its human authors. The spam that’s turning your Inbox into the Spamgasso Sea? Humans are sending those.1
Who’s using ChatGPT to write their essays or homework and pass them off as their own? Who’s packaging up boxes of prompts and selling them for profit? Who’s inputting their company’s confidential information into the bot thinking they’ll have less work to do? Who’s using it to write pickup lines, personal emails, and ripping off dead playwrights?
Who failed to ask permission of, and offer compensation to, the writers, artists, musicians, developers, and other creators of online content, before they firehose-fed the LLMs (Large Language Models) with billions of pages of content from the Web?
Who released the LLMs before they were fully baked and set up with the proper guardrails?
Who is now wringing their hands, leaving prestigious corporate roles, wishing they had seen this coming earlier? Who is—reluctantly perhaps—speeding up their own development and launch processes so they can compete with their arch nemesis and not lose market share?
Yep, you guessed it. Darn humans. (Remember corporations are people too.)
But let’s be fair. It’s not just the poor bots that are getting scapegoated as the villains of our latest obsessions. Think back to… oh late 2019. An innocent little virus called SARS-CoV-2 was carried by its human hosts on planes, trains, and automobiles to many other humans everywhere. Soon it was partying inside the bodies of people in just about every country on Earth.
Do you blame the virus or do you blame the humans who passed it on to other humans? Neither, or both? Maybe you blame the system that allowed the virus to get to that Patient Zero in the first place.
It’s not a coincidence we use the word virus in both biological and technological contexts.
WARNING: dictionary definition ahead 😱
A condition in which the body's immune system mistakes its own healthy tissues as foreign and attacks them.2
I would define certain types of automation (e.g. Large Language Models) as a condition in which human society mistakes its own extraordinary talents and abilities as disposable and neutralizes them. Just like the macrophages, neutrophils, and lymphocytes of the immune system that misinterpret healthy cells as dangerous invaders, some authorities in human society (e.g. managers, VPs, CMOs, CEOs) are misinterpreting creatives as no longer valuable and targeting them for professional destruction. In an auto-immune disease, the carnage is pretty gory on the cellular level. Shreds of burst red blood cells, frayed neurons and optic nerves, inflamed and eroded joints.
In an automated society, we may not see corpses on the streets or in corporate offices, but the damage is as pervasive as it is acute. The creatives who choose not to allow an AI to get between them and their work and add “prompt engineer” to their CVs might be left behind financially as the generative AI sector keeps plowing ahead. Artists, writers, and other creators have had their work scraped by the algorithms without their knowledge or permission, copyright be damned, and they have certainly not been compensated. In a survey I’m running to gauge generative AI usage among marketers, early results show that part of the reason some marketers are using generative AI is that AI “lowers my content creator costs—I don’t have to spend so much on writers and designers.” Some of the respondents also appreciate the fact that these AI tools work 24x7 and don’t mind if the client gets grumpy or demanding. Yes, just take all that messy human relationship and interaction stuff right out of the equation. Who wants to work with another human, gross.
How does that make you feel, dear creative? You used to be “healthy tissue” in this body societal. Your art, your music, your words have held society together for millennia, but it’s all coming apart now. You have been reduced to a number—and the painful irony is that you are the wrong number. You are now a net loss on the balance sheet, while the pixels you generated over your lifetime are a net gain for generative AI companies, and likely the clients using their tools.
To be fair—generative AI is not a data vampire out to suck creatives’ blood (well maybe a little—artists, be sure to always include a picture of garlic in your online portfolios!) Artists are using these new tools with some stunning results. I personally have been entranced by a morphing animation loop one digital artist created. But here’s the thing: it’s their choice and intention, their art and their invention. It was neither their choice nor intention to have an invisible algorithm scour the arteries of the Internet and suck up the years of training, effort, imagination, and emotion that went into their work. It was neither their choice nor intention to have their worth devalued and diluted by the rising tide of content that now threatens to engulf the entire global web.
Amazon is clogged with books and other products of less-than-stellar quality. The Internet suffers from contentiac disease, its bowels ridden with filler blog posts, incessant ads, and keyword stuffers. Social media has built up life-threatening levels of narcissistic plaque; its blood pressure is through the roof. And YouTube? A case of monumentally botched Botoxic operation. Let’s not even go there.
To be still more fair, this didn’t happen yesterday, and AI is not the San Andreas fault line of the cataclysmic data-driven economic earthquake that has been ricocheting around the global economy. It’s just the tsunami triggered by the quake.
One human telling another human they are no longer valued—because they weren’t truly valued to begin with.
History teaches us we don’t need technology to be malicious to one another. How many wars have we fought. How many bodies eviscerated on the battlefield. How many psyches gaslighted, how many minds warped by psychological manipulation and torn apart by trauma. Somehow we always manage to effect harm—either on ourselves, on others, or other living things.
Artificial intelligence is only the latest twist in this long, winding road humanity is traveling. Not too long ago we had crypto. Before that, social media. Before that, smartphones—and pagers and faxes and CD players. Yes even the TV, the refrigerator, and the car were futuristic incredible things, once upon a time. We like shiny new things. But the shiny new things don’t necessarily like us back—not because they hate us or want to annihilate us (trust me, they really don’t), but because they are not alive to experience any sort of emotions. They’re our creations. Trouble is, we don’t always know how to use our own creations to our greatest benefit.
Whatever “intentions” or “impacts” we assign or attribute to these creations, are just tactics to deflect responsibility. You’ve no doubt seen the headlines screaming that ChatGPT is coming for our jobs. But it’s not ChatGPT, or any other AI. It’s the humans using this technology. That’s what Elizabeth was talking about in her Note—it’s the clients, the bosses, telling the writers they’re on notice. One human telling another human they are no longer valued—because they weren’t truly valued to begin with. Let’s be real: if a client really respected and valued your work as a writer, would they be quite so quick in replacing you with a half-baked language bot? If ChatGPT really were so much better than a human writer, how come we’re seeing media publications and companies starting to come out with AI rules and restrictions?
Point is, just because we now have the tools to do the work others have trained for years to do, and have dedicated their entire professional lives to, does not make all of us the same type of professional. I’m a writer, but I can’t sing. I’d love to be an opera singer in my next life, but in this one, I’ll let the rock bands get up on stage and cheer them on from the floor. Let the artists paint, the writers write, the singers sing, the programmers code, the bakers bake. Let us, all of us, enjoy our work.
The goodness of human things
So if your client or boss tells you to get up to speed on ChatGPT or else, thank them. Yes, THANK them—for letting you know up front that they do not value your work, your experience, your creativity and talent, and for giving you permission to work with others who do.
I remain the eternal believer in the goodness, integrity, and intelligence of humanity. No matter how much we mess up, we make up for it a thousand fold. After all…
Who’s working through the night to crack the code of terminal illnesses? To find a viable alternative to plastics? To protect our forests and wildlife? To eradicate homelessness and child poverty?
Who is tucking their children into bed at this very moment, having read two bedtime stories and dishes still to clean? Who is sending their hard-earned money to their family overseas so they can pay the rent and buy food? Who are all the unsung heroes who keep us safe and all of our systems running, that no one writes about?
It’s all us, humans.
We may be an auto-immune disease to ourselves, but we are also the cure.
You might say, oh but people don’t send spam individually, it’s all automated now! Whether or not it’s manual or automated is irrelevant, sadly. Some human somewhere either hits “send” on a mass spam mailing or writes an automation script. Dig deep enough, you’ll always find a human. Or at least a chipmunk posing as one.
Source: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/autoimmune-disease (viewed online on May 4, 2023).