The Future of All Human Creativity

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

This is an admittedly heady title for a little blog post. And while I can’t possibly write anything remotely worthy of that title here (in a thousand words or less), the topic itself is one that will keep coming back. Our vision at M&T is “to cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world through the celebration of handcraft.” While there’s a lot to unpack in that statement, it basically means we’re going to talk about more than just how to make nice furniture by hand. So for example, when society starts down a slippery slope of creative self-immolation, Joshua or I might casually bring it up. And while the topic might not seem to initially relate to woodworking, trust me – it does.

I wrote recently here about writer’s block. So it’s been coincidental, serendipitous, or perhaps devised by the digital overlords that I’ve received (and seen in website sidebars) a number of ads for AI (artificial intelligence) content generation. Here is an example of the ad copy from one of these apps:

“Write Blogs, Articles, and Books with AI. Say goodbye to writer's block! [Company name’s] AI-powered long-form content writer can instantly generate new, engaging copy for blogs, articles, essays, and even books. Get powerful AI copywriting that writes and sounds like you. Plus, in Long-Form mode, our AI writes as you would in a word document, so you can make edits, add content, or move paragraphs around in real time. Keep your writing flow going and get from draft to done in minutes.”

Junior-high students around the world, rejoice! Now with only a few keywords, your research paper can be spit out in seconds by bots dedicated to the task of sounding just like you! No more struggling, no more hemming and hawing, no more crumpling up a mostly blank page topped with the classic title, “What I Did Over the Summer.” Now, utilizing the breadth of human knowledge, artificial intelligence can glean what it is you want to say (or would be saying if you’d actually done the research...) and quickly generate several different versions of your paper for you to peruse at your leisure. Want to sound witty yet professional? Maybe impassioned and fervent would suit better. Simply plug those terms into the interface to alter the tone of the writing. Then click “print,” and guarantee yourself that well-deserved “A”. You earned it.

Or did you?

Work back through the scenario. Do you really have to do all the creative work to take credit for writing a compelling paper, essay, or article? I mean, what if you use a thesaurus? Most would agree, no big deal, right? A novel word here and there doesn’t cause any harm. And the use of technology to aid the writing process isn’t the problem. I, for example, am typing on a laptop, rather than pecking away at a mechanical typewriter (Wendell Berry-style) or using a pencil. The words are my own, and I make it a practice to ignore the phrase suggestions and hints that my computer drops from time to time. But what if I get stuck? What if those tips I suggested a few weeks ago fail to get my brain moving? What if I just stick a string of words into an AI content-generating app and have it spit out a paragraph for me? Whose creativity is it then?

AI-generated art using Midjourney, using prompt "swimming pool filled with a galaxy on a moonlit night." Public Domain.

A few months ago, a headline was making the rounds about an art contest in which an AI-generated image won first place in one of the categories. This caused a great deal of fallout from artists who claimed that entering a string of keywords to spit out an image was not the same as, say, laboring for hours with brushes and oil colors in some wind-blown forest scene. The man who submitted the winning entry, Jason Allen, said, “Rather than hating on the technology or the people behind it, we need to recognize that it’s a powerful tool and use it for good so we can all move forward rather than sulking about it.” Aha – AI tech is a “tool in the toolbox,” as they say, just another piece of an artist’s kit. Never mind that it fundamentally changes the creative process. Taking the democratizing approach, Allen further stated that “I think the AI technology may give more opportunities to people who may not find themselves artists in the conventional way.” By that logic, I, who do not find myself to be a toaster in the conventional way, can utilize a small countertop device to delicately brown and crisp my slices of bread and so personally enter the world of toasterhood.

Is making art through the use of a complex interface or device the same as being an artist?

Is making toast through the use of a complex electromechanical device the same as being a toaster?

You might see where I’m going with this. Regardless, stay tuned. Joshua and I have been thinking a lot about this stuff. There's more to come.

Merry Christmas, everyone. We're grateful for every one of you who support and follow the work of Mortise & Tenon!



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