What Does The Rise Of AI Writing Suggest About Human Creativity?

In this notion of distributed intelligence, there is something both democratizing and destabilizing—a sneaky but egalitarian mode of murdering the author. Tenen insists, though, that we shouldn’t agonize too much over the source of intelligence. Who cares if our thinking is closer to the synthesis of LLMs, rather than the divinely ordained originality held dear by the Romantics, as long as we have an effect upon the world? Certainly not Aristotle. “In the Aristotelian model,” Tenen writes, “intelligence is the GOAL of thought.” (The caps lock letters are Tenen’s, not mine or Aristotle’s.) It’s Plato who held intelligence to lie within the department of the interior—a private, nebulous thing that occasionally led to enlightenment. Pick your philosopher.

Even at the summit of literary creation, fiction writers yielded to the seeming inevitability of recombination. Tenen’s potted history of authorial hacks, the richest section of his book, begins with Georges Polti, an enterprising Frenchman who in 1895 published a book called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, to help dramatists write new plays. Once you’d eliminated supplication, deliverance, vengeance, pursuit, disaster, revolt, and the other 30 symptoms of the human condition, he implied, what else was left? (Polti wasn’t afraid to get specific: Among the subtypes of the “pursuit” situation were “pursuit for a fault of love” and “a pseudo-madman struggling against an Iago-like alienist.”) “They will accuse me of killing imagination,” Polti wrote, but in fact, his primer aspired to free playwrights from the pursuit of mere novelty, so they could devote themselves to truth and beauty. Mark Twain invented a self-gumming scrapbook for authors, into which they might paste notes, newspaper snippets, and images, for subsequent inspiration. (His secretary once filled six scrapbooks with clips about the Tichborne trial in London, involving a no-name butcher who claimed the title to an English peerage. Twain concluded that the tale was too wild to be of use to a “fiction artist”—but it did form the basis of Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud.) Companies sold devices like the Chautauqua Literary File and the Phillips Automatic Plot File Collector, into which writers stuffed their reference materials, so that they could later pluck out a setting, a character, or the seed of a plot. It was ever thus, Tenen implies—the magpie approach to thinking, the collage as the modus operandi of writing. Why are we unnerved by LLMs following those same principles?

When I reached this juncture in Literary Theory for Robots, I let out a silent, screaming plea for our species. The art of the novel doesn’t lie in the combine-harvesting of details and plotlines. It lies in how a writer selectively filters some of them through her own consciousness—her deliberations, the sum of her life, the din of her thoughts—to devise something altogether different and more profound. This, and only this, makes any piece of writing meaningful to those who read it. The AIs of the future may meet other yardsticks for creativity. They may, say, grow aware of themselves as creators, satisfying the neurosurgeon Geoffrey Jefferson’s dictum that a machine will equal the brain when it not only writes a sonnet but also knows that it has written it. Their cogitations may seem as bleary and inscrutable as those of humans. (Already we are hard-pressed to say how precisely some hallucinations emerge from AIs.) But they will never have experiences the way we have experiences, I quarreled with myself. They can’t lose a friend to suicide, or feel the pain of a twisted ankle, or delight at their first glimpse of the rolling Caucasus, or grow frustrated in a job, or become curious about Dutch art. (And that was just my 2023.) Any texts they furnish will be intrinsically hollow; they will fail to hold us, like planets without gravity. Or so I contended.

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