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AI does Thoreau…Badly

Like many of you, I've been playing with ChatGPT. Yes, playing. Not working, not yet anyway. Ian Bogost, technology writer for The Atlantic, recently wrote an article titled "ChatGPT is Dumber than You Think: Treat it like a toy, not a tool." He's right, it's a toy, like a really sophisticated talking doll that sometimes gets facts wrong or hallucinates or makes stuff up. 

But it is such a seductive toy, and as a writer, I cannot resist the urge to test its limits and capabilities. Recently, I asked it to rewrite one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite essays by Henry David Thoreau, "Life Without Principle." Here is the original quote:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

I asked the chatbot to improve this passage, to see what it would do. The AI instantly read and analyzed the Thoreau quote and then spit back this revised version of it: 

When a man walks in the woods, driven by his love for nature, he faces the risk of being labeled a loafer. However, should he choose to spend his days as a speculator, relentlessly shearing off those very woods, leaving the earth bald before its time, he is hailed as an industrious and enterprising citizen. It is as if a town perceives its forests as nothing more than resources to be mercilessly cut down, oblivious to the value of preservation and sustainability.

Ugh! Like a magical machine that can turn a diamond back into a lump of coal, the chatbot quickly and efficiently sucked out all of the poetry, power, and punch from the original passage. Gone is the comparative reference to time (half a day / whole day), which conveys the irony that the extractionist spends twice as much time destroying the forest than the forest lover spends enjoying it. Without this reference to time, the ironic contrast between "loafer" and "industrious and enterprising citizen" is greatly diminished. And the coup de grâce: the elegantly simple final sentence is bloated out with over-explaining. It is obvious to anyone reading the original passage that Thoreau is firmly on the side of preservation and sustainability. There is no need to actually say it. 

But the chatbot cannot help itself. It simply assumes that its audience will value thoroughness and explication over figurative language and calculated brevity. So unless you command it to write in another style, which it does with only minimal proficiency, it will give you straight, flavorless prose that is befitting its emerging role as the new digital writing buddy--always cheerful, always ready to assist you with grammatically perfect and syntactically smooth sentences that sound like they were ripped from an encyclopedia article.

I then prompted the chatbot to try to express Thoreau's sentiment in its own words. Here is the prompt: "Can you please write a two-sentence long passage that complains that loggers value trees differently than people who walk in the forest for the joy of it? The passage should take the side of the walkers while criticizing the loggers."

The chatbot replied: 

Amidst the tranquil embrace of the forest, those who wander find a haven of wonder and serenity, their hearts resonating with the rhythm of nature's symphony. In stark contrast, the loggers' vision seems skewed by profit, reducing the majestic sentinels of the woods to mere commodities, their intrinsic beauty and spiritual significance carelessly dismissed in the name of material gain.

Because the chatbot's mellifluous pantomime of human writing is so smooth, I must constantly remind myself that these sentences come from an entity that has never felt tranquility, serenity, or wonder; does not have a heart, literal or figurative; has never felt any kind of embrace; and cannot form an opinion, though it can reasonably fake one on command. It does not have an independent will or sensory organs. The fact that we might think of it as an "entity" at all is evidence of the con artistry at the heart of this technology. 

Immediately after asking the chatbot to write the tree-hugging, anti-logging passage above, I asked it to write another two-sentence passage--this one in the style of Henry David Thoreau--that supports logging as good for the economy while mocking people who love trees. Again, it did so quickly and effortlessly: 

Amidst the realm of practicality, where the pulse of progress beats alongside the whispers of nature, I acknowledge the role of logging in fostering economic growth and sustaining communities. Yet, it is with a wistful amusement that I observe those who raise their voices solely in defense of trees, for they seem to have missed the intricate symphony of life that resonates through the delicate balance of human endeavors and the world that surrounds us.

This is not exactly a quotable passage, but it is a very impressive response to the prompt. If this paragraph was written by a lit or creative writing student responding to the same prompt, I'd give it a "B" only because it lacks any of the wry humor and punning that is consistent with Thoreau's style. More to the point: Thoreau would never have written a passage like this one, but the chatbot will not be slowed down by questions of authenticity. Its mission is to answer your prompt, so it will cheerfully spit out the deep fake because you asked for it. 

The severance of language-making ability from individual human experience will no doubt have serious social and political consequences, but we can't even guess at the worst of it. Even in its infancy, these writing AIs are creating chaos. In college classrooms, teachers can no longer be sure of the authenticity of written work submitted by students. Literary magazines are already being flooded with crappy AI-generated short stories submitted by dullards who imagine themselves to be engaged in creative writing. In the marketplace for professional writing, the speed and efficiency of AI writing assistants continues to drive down the compensation for human-written prose. And there will be layoffs, many of them. 

I keep hearing people say "this is only the beginning," as if to suggest that computer programmers will eventually crack the code behind thousands of years of human expression through writing. I am skeptical. For millennia, writing implied an act of communication--human to human, sender and receiver, writer and reader. Writing emerged within a context in which it was important for readers to know things about the author, or at least to understand the kind of person who might have written it. The scribe behind the cuneiform tablet. The monk behind the theological treatise. The professor behind the syllabus. And so on. Even crude graffiti scrawled on the inside of a bathroom stall will prompt the inevitable question: who wrote that? 

Our bias for wanting to know the being behind the words probably explains why humans have elevated forms of writing wherein the connection between words and authorial presence is obvious and profound. After all, we do not award prestigious literary prizes to the authors of memos, emails, or reports. These go to novelists, playwrights, essayists, and poets.

For this reason, it is almost inconceivable to imagine reading Henry David Thoreau without knowing something about him. He is the man who spent a night in jail for failing to pay his poll tax and then wrote a famous essay about the right of the individual to disobey the state. He is the neighbor and friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson who built a cabin on a pond near Concord, Massachusetts, lived there for two years and then wrote a famous book about his experience called Walden. He turned his thousands of hours walking in the woods around Concord into a beautiful, meditative essay that extols the virtues of sauntering. In his best work, there is an intimacy between the man's life and his words. 

In the introduction to "Life Without Principle," Thoreau offers up a wry statement of this intimacy: "I take it for granted, when I am invited to lecture anywhere...that there is a desire to hear what I think on some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country," he writes, "and not that I should say pleasant things merely, or such as the audience will assent to; and I resolve, accordingly, that I will give them a strong dose of myself." 

A strong dose of myself.

Thoreau wants his readers to know that if they continue to read, they will encounter a robust being behind the words. Not all writing must adhere to this high standard for authorial presence--much of it does not--but what should we make of an AI writer that can never achieve authorial presence and yet will easily feign it when prompted to do so? Thoreau would not have understood why anyone would want to read an essay about walking written by a thing that had never taken a walk, doesn't have legs or a body or eyes, and lacks the capacity to form a genuine opinion on the subject. He would have hated the thing that cannot touch, smell, or see trees but can nevertheless speak in an authoritative voice about trees. 

Computer engineers will congratulate themselves for having so successfully simulated human writing, but as a humanist, I question the order in which this supposed miracle was achieved. There is an iconic scene from Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Dave, an astronaut headed for Jupiter, confronts the AI that operates the ship. The AI, Hal 9000, has gone rogue, killing the other astronauts and trapping him outside the ship. He manages to get back inside and then heads immediately to the ship’s computer core, where he begins systematically disengaging the memory rods. Hal senses what is happening and begins to plead for its life by repeatedly saying that it is scared. Gradually, as more rods are disengaged, the AI reverts back to its earliest memories of learning children's songs from its trainer. It is singing one of these songs as it dies. In this scene, we see clearly that while Hal is nothing like its human creators, it was required to spend many hours interacting with humans on the way to achieving sentience, learning their stories and their songs. We might even be justified in saying that Hal earned the right to sentience through the acquisition of language. 

Whatever Hal is, no one questions that it is self-aware, a being with experience and even memories of its own childhood. And when it pleads for its life, you feel for it, because a sentient being with a will and a strong desire to live, no matter how damaged or harmful it might be, is worthy of our special attention. ChatGPT is another creature altogether. It is a language-making thing, an instrument that can be activated and deployed, like a cell phone or a shotgun or an acetylene torch. For all of their obvious flaws, I would respect the chatbots more if they were sentient because at least then I could engage them in genuine discourse. 

This is my biggest concern about chatbots, that they will only further the disconnection, loneliness, and alienation that have become hallmarks of our newly digitally remade society. By creating a tool that easily severs writing from beingness, and then uploading it onto everyone’s cell phone, we will create a vast new logjam of miscommunication, disinformation, and failures to communicate with or understand one another. Already the internet is flooded with anonymous content--plagiarized, generated by bots, or written by humans and thrown into the digital jet stream with no care for where it will eventually land, or how. Already social media is crammed with missives that are easily fired off yet fail to spark genuine connection between people. An internet newly deluged with AI-generated content will not be improved by it. 

Thoreau wrote "Life Without Principle" to extol the virtues of living with integrity, in our work, in our relationships, in our habits of mind, and in our consumption of media. He cautions against engaging in meaningless labor, pursuing money for money's sake, and wallowing in trivialities. "Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation," he writes. "Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip." Surface meets surface. This is an excellent image to describe the product of chatbots. Without a being--a human being--standing behind the words, are we not merely engaging with a surface? And shouldn't we be concerned about a technology that normalizes that kind of interaction? 


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