Essay: Is Writing As We Know it Dead?
How the art of crafting a sentence will go the way of long division
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Will it matter if we stop writing for ourselves?
With every new technological advancement, we extend our reach and simultaneously atrophy some muscle that once defined us. In one view, it seems like the natural order of things, to evolve. In a different light, it appears we are walking across a bridge that is crumbling behind us. I don’t know which view is correct. I think it’s both.
The innovations that have brought us comfort, convenience, and efficiency have changed us. If early humans had never seen the ripe fruit and straightened up to reach it, we might still be knuckle-draggers. If nineteenth-century humans hadn’t figured out how to preserve that fruit, 42% of Americans might not be obese. And this is just how our bodies have been transformed. Think of how our brains have changed with the invention of books, calculators, computers, mobile phones, and VR gaming rigs to name a few examples.
With the recent explosion of A.I., large-language models in particular, we are on the precipice of yet another evolution/devolution and it has both energized and terrified us in equal measure. Writing “The Memory of My Shadow” over the past five years has been an immersive thought experiment for me. What will we do when we’ve created an intelligence to offload so much of what occupies our brains? What problems would we want it to solve? What new problems would we have? Would we still be human? I found so many questions around this and nothing is better fertilizer for writing fiction than questions.
A World Without Writing
The first thing that occurred to me was that simply having a sentient intelligent being to talk with wouldn’t be enough. The act of composing sentences would seem clunky and antiquated compared to communication at the speed of thought. Ultimately, we would strive to communicate without the hindrance of an input device like a keyboard, mouse, screen, camera, or microphone. This innovation became a key element of my novel.
If we do a quick retrospective on how the communication of our thoughts has evolved, it’s dizzying. We went from grunts to pictures to symbols to alphabets to words to sentences to paragraphs to chapters to novels. In tandem, we invented increasingly more sophisticated and abstract methods for recording and replaying our ever-evolving language. In this era, it seems we’ve reached the pinnacle of writing and are quickly plummeting down the other side. Don’t believe me? Look at the last text exchange you had or the last Google query you composed. With ChatGPT and the host of other large language model engines to come, what will happen to our ability to compose sentences as we have for millennia? It seems probable that it will fade away just as our ability to do long division did when the calculator became as ubiquitous and freely available as the pencil.
So, if we offload written language which occupies such a massive amount of our brain’s processing, what will we be preoccupied with? I believe the answer is the search for meaning. After every tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been summited, that is what’s left. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Why are we here? These big questions are what I wanted my protagonist, Magdalena to grapple with in “The Memory of My Shadow.”
We Are Because We Ask Why
As a species, our curiosity is insatiable, matched only by our boundless imagination. Science and religion are two sides of the same coin. If we are able to create an intelligence equal to or greater than our own through scientific means it will introduce a fascinating collision/convergence with faith and spirituality. How can we deny the existence of God or an afterlife once we’ve created sentient beings that exist in an intangible form that ultimately defies our ability to truly comprehend?
Magdalena, my main character in the novel embodies this insatiable drive to want answers. She wants to know what it was in her brother’s brain that made him become the shooter in the deadliest act of gun violence in American history. What makes some of us killers and others selfless martyrs? She wants answers and she uses every tool within her considerable toolbox to try to get them decades after the death of her brother and their fellow students he killed have been forgotten by history. What she gets for her trouble is more of a spiritual experience than a scientific one.
This imperative to know why is the pilot light of humanity, at least in my view and it’s a big reason why I chose to write the book. Writing a novel is always an exploration, but this one was different and special for me because it stretched my mind and forced me to reckon with my own patterns of thinking and my beliefs. It led me to explore other complex issues like gender identity. I included a non-binary character which forced me to retrain my brain to use they/them and deal with all the awkward feelings I had as the grammar Nazi in my head stomped and shouted.
I’m glad to be finally releasing it to the world so it can hopefully find an audience and I can move on to other projects. I hope you’ll consider reading it. I’d love for you to explore these big ideas with me.
I don’t know if I really believe that we will stop writing once machines have the ability to do it for us or maybe I just don’t want to accept it. Writing does a thing that nothing else can do for us humans. It slows our thoughts and brings order to them. The discipline of wrangling the chaos of our thoughts into a linear stream has curative benefits for our damaged souls. As we write, we rethink, we reexamine, we reimagine and we get better, not just as writers, but as human beings.
When we write anything, we are forced to practice empathy, at least we do if we want someone else to read what we produce. I believe empathy is the one thing that we could use more of in our society. So, I will keep writing and I hope you do too. Thanks for reading up to this point. If you have, it means I’ve done my job.
Join Me in the Comments
I’d love to know how you’re feeling about all of this as a writer but more importantly, as a human. Are you energized or terrified? Let’s have a conversation in the comments below.
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