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Superimposing the Human Voice (Or, Why ChatGPT Isn’t a Better Writer than You)

By Fionna Farrell

Opinions Editor

Illustration by Maia Hadler

It’s common fact, among writers, that writers are the saving grace of humanity. How heavily it weighs on us, the burden of making people want to keep living in 2023. While churning out the old ‘stone last semester, not once did I think about being Lena Dunham (for Girls is a well-written show) or about being on Seth Myers (for he is far too good-natured to even be real). I thought about the children. I thought about the friendless. I thought about people in house fires and people who had been left on read. I am here to be miserable, but to make others less so, Seth.

(That may or may not be a line from my capstone.)

It is clear that ChatGPT was invented to rob me of this unstinting duty. What can be said of my capital-p Purpose when the bot attends to not only matters of the mind, but also those of the modern heartless heart? My friend, who is going to Iceland, could ask it how long it would take to walk across the island. Or for a list of the best restaurants in Reykjavik, or perhaps the name and home address of the doctor who delivered Bjork. Meanwhile, my, uh, other friend could ask the bot why she is no longer capable of looking anyone in the eye anymore, or why true evil lurks in the hearts of—-well, nevermind. I digress.

Don’t get me wrong. To a certain extent, that might be well and good, that we now have an incorporeal counselor who (unless we are Joaquin Phoenix in the Spike Jonze film Her) will not leave us when we start to love it. After all, the amount of us who can’t afford therapy is surely commensurate with the amount of us who lost all our friends during the pandemic. There’s no denying, either, that sometimes the cold weight of reason, the callous yet emotionally vulnerable INTP-droid of the internet, is the best advice-giver out there. They may lack certain things called “nuance” or “empathy,” but many humans lack those things, too. What’s “dangerous” about Chat GPT isn’t necessarily its inherent bent towards the objective. It’s where we get to the subjective area of human experience—which all creative endeavors are supposed to represent—where things get murkier.

Like that one overzealous, morally ambiguous intro-level professor we’ve all had, the old Generative Transformer is a polymath of all voice and language. It can rev up the sweet nothings as well as the more common nothings, the nothings that hurt. It can write anything like anyone. Chat conjures up a violent brunch time incident in the style of Franz Kafka. Chat has Chaucer become preoccupied with Harry Styles’ contribution to fashion. Chat has Joan Didion pretend she feels real human emotions. Here is an excerpt from Hemingway-Chat’s long-lost work, Swifter than Death, where protag attempts to acquire Taylor Swift tickets in the wave of nuclear apocalypse:

The world was in chaos. The streets were filled with the sounds of explosions and screams. The air was thick with smoke and the scent of death. But I was determined to get Taylor Swift tickets, even in the face of a nuclear apocalypse. I stumbled through the rubble, dodging falling debris, searching for a ticket vendor. My heart was pounding, and my hands were shaking, but I refused to give up. I had to see her perform, to feel the power of her music, to find a moment of hope in this dark and desperate world. Finally, I spotted a small booth, and I sprinted towards it, dodging burning cars and fallen buildings. I pushed my way to the front and shouted my request. The ticket seller looked at me with a mix of confusion and horror, but I didn't care.

I have never been a Swiftie and those train chemicals haven't yet reached my frontal lobe, but this piece failed to move me. It’s nothing against Hemingway; The Sun Also Rises did stir a wide set of emotions in yours truly, mostly because I felt bad for poor, dickless Jake. No, this piece is rather lacking a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that made old Ernest so…err…literary? Revisittable? Riper than a summertime peach for zoomer cancellation? Perhaps that thing is casual misogyny. Or perhaps it is a penis-lacking protagonist, or maybe the daunting sense of spiritual emaciation looming over every character because of the big war going on.

The Missing Thing very well could be one of those things, but it also may be something more…ineffable. A humanity to the language. A voice unafraid to say, yes, this process of creation was like bloodletting, no different than a trip to the Mercy ER. This masterwork was written in demented ten-minute spurts between chronic periods of crying and masturbation. This took every part of me, and parts outside too. The result is something I want to give to others (because obviously, my writing would make a great gift). This is for my brother. Or my dog. Or my friend.

But I’d never give anything to anyone I’d attempted on a first try. My third-favorite writer and second favorite George, George Saunders, says that “what writers really do when they write” is…learn how to be human. (Oh my god, no, he didn’t actually say it like that, could you imagine? No wonder everybody hates us.) What you write is not going to be perfect the first time. In fact, like when (some of) you lost your virginity, it will probably be pretty terrible and animalistic the first time, the floundering dredge of hyperbole and cringe-angst, of lazy epithets and lazier platitudes about love (after all, the only reason you’re writing is because Tinder Adonis #3 ghosted you after the second date). No, the first draft, if it’s worth something, will probably make you regret you were even born. For reasons other than that you came out wanting to be a writer. For being an average one.

The human voice, though, isn’t something that’s found in the utter shit-pile that is the first draft. Like our loyal GPT, it is more than something that can be automated through simple syntactic strategies and perfected if we could only “tap in” to the secret code, live the worst human experience imaginable. Despite how I may sound, the point of writing might not be to make everything about yourself (I know, I know), but to learn how to communicate. Because we don’t, in fact, already know. It takes time. A lot of time—far more than the three seconds it took Chat to indulge your horribly perverted prompt.

Saunders uses the sample sentence, “Bob was an asshole.” You can change that sentence to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista.” And then, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife”... “who passed at Christmas.” We understand more about Bob now with every unraveling of a new, different, and more human sentence. He is no longer simply a caricature. He is no longer just you and your self-referential mess. Caricatures are what the first-draft writers and what Chat GPT are pretty good for. A sterile and hollowed-out shell of what one might be meaning to say, when they haven’t learned what they really want to. Those original thoughts are usually the least empathetic ones. It’s stupid to think that “great writers” touch us with only one reach. That hand is always shaking, and the grip only grows closer, more confident after multiple tries, an infinite sum of fistfulls of air. But, in the end, you learn to understand more. You learn to forgive more.

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