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Fuck You and Your Word-Stealing Machine
A Luddite stands against AI language models and their plunder
This week, The New Yorker, an august magazine from which I resigned in national disgrace five years ago, dedicated its entire issue (and a lovely signature cover!) to A.I., in all its fearful possibilities. Articles included a long and characteristically detailed profile of the “godfather of A.I.,” an A.I.-augmented short story, reported features on facial-recognition technology, an artist who uses AI to create “infinite art,” and a dire warning about deepfake videos. I know from experience that all of these articles were robustly fact-checked (I used to do it, and it was the greatest job I ever had or will have, before aforementioned disgrace), carefully written, and put into place by a nimble, underpaid team of copy-editors and editorial assistants and artists and layout designers, all of whom are human.
I, a human, am writing this response to The New Yorker and A.I. in general with my human fingers, will send it to my human editor, and we will do our best to turn this out to our human audience of human readers in between doing human stuff, like eating, pooping, yearning for the divine or a surcease from sorrow, or having a bit of a nap.
I think things should stay that way—human—in the writing business, and I don’t fucking care who knows it.
Perhaps I’m standing athwart progress. Feet planted, arms akimbo, ignorantly declaring that I think human beings are better than machines at stuff like observing the world and distilling it into reasoned observation. I think humans are better at journalism and art in an inviolable and sacred way, and a bunch of turds with a lot of money soullessly remixing creativity they’ve stolen into pixel batches should be hurled into the sun with a cannon. This is perhaps the wittering of an ignoramus, or worse, a fanatic.
The traditional term for people who oppose technology—and more specifically automation—is “Luddite,” named after a loose collective of skilled textile workers who, during a severe economic downturn in England during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, got fed up with automated looms taking away their jobs and started fucking shit up. It was a labor movement led by workers who were living on very thin margins, and saw factory owners using steam-powered looms, gig mills and other machinery to make stuff that was inferior to their own products. They broke machines, starting in Nottingham and spreading across England, and writing letters to factory owners and politicians under the pseudonym “Ned Ludd,” a mythical weaver who supposedly, in 1779, got really mad and broke a knitting frame. They were also murdered in great numbers: the Luddite uprising ended with factory owners shooting at crowds, military intervention, and either death or deportation for the laborers involved.
In the intervening centuries, all the violence and precarity underlying the story got erased, and “Luddite” became a cheapjack punchline used to jeer at anyone opposed to the human consequences of technological advances. Perhaps I am a Luddite at that, because the idea of a machine-breaker fighting for bread is one that evokes profound sympathy in me. Besides, according to workers, the machines produced decidedly inferior lace.
Speaking of broken machines: Thinking about the recent and already-notorious statement from a16z, the VC juggernaut run by cone-headed billionaire Marc Andreesen, about generative AI and LLMs (Large Language Models, aka programs trained by dumping an enormous amount of text into them) fills me with a kind of red mist of rage, a pea-souper smog of anger that refuses to dissipate. In response to inquiries from the U.S. Copyright Office about generative AI, they gave away the game, and in the process revealed it to be not so much a game but a kind of intellectual fracking at massive scale. The billionaire-backed firm argued that “imposing the cost of actual or potential copyright liability on the creators of AI models will either kill or significantly hamper their development,” and that LLMs require something approaching “the entire corpus of the written word” to further develop.
Not incidentally, one of the myriad AI-driven companies in which a16z has invested is actually called “Loom.” Plus ça change, plus la même chose. The profit, the machine, the disappeared worker—this is a song that rhymes, and its brutality and ambition has only expanded over the centuries.
Meta, Mark Zuckerberg’s monster of a company, which is creating its own LLM (named Llama, get it?), made this even more explicit: “Generative AI models need not only a massive quantity of content, but also a large diversity of content,” Meta wrote to the USCO. “To be sure, it is possible that AI developers will strike deals with individual rights holders, to develop broader partnerships or simply to buy peace from the threat of litigation. But those kinds of deals would provide AI developers with the rights to only a minuscule fraction of the data they need to train their models. And it would be impossible for AI developers to license the rights to other critical categories of works.”
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In other words, paying writers for their work—as opposed to stealing it outright—would nullify the ability of these programs to grow to a point where they could usurp human writers and artists, thus obviating the need for humans to be part of any form of creation.
Fucking good, obviously. I mean, if your work depends on theft at a massive scale in order to proceed with its goal of stealing bread from people’s mouths, that work should not exist. Am I right? I think I am right. I’m not tremendously confident in the U.S. Copyright Office’s inclination or ability to oppose billionaire-led investments in “the future”—little precedent suggests that the US government is willing to stand against very rich people in any capacity—but if they do, so help me god, I’ll be standing behind them with a big plaque saying “WRITING SHOULD BE DONE BY HUMAN BEINGS OR NOT AT ALL.” Or, to quote Jay Caspian Kang in the New Yorker, “Perhaps the personal quality in writing is a happy accident, and a lot of journalism could be replaced with an immense surveillance state with a GPT-4 plug-in. But the reason we read books and listen to songs and look at paintings is to see the self in another self, or even to just see what other people are capable of creating.”
The historic WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes were in significant part animated by the same principle: don’t ask us to lie down and die while you make up weird machine composites of our souls. Insofar as I believe in a soul (which is further than I’d generally admit), I think the human urge to create is a large part of it; I may not believe in an immortal afterlife, but there is a kind of immortality in the artistic work I love, so that centuries or decades after their deaths I sup from the tables of Breughel, Auden, Pessoa, Butler, Le Guin, Hurston, Bosch, Goya, Chandler, Roth (Joseph and Philip both), Remarque, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Celan. This is the corpus from which I draw—but it is not an infinite and undifferentiated soup of words and images; it’s a product of chance and love, the many precious crossroads at which one word meets and begets another.
As a Millennial, I have witnessed explosions in progress every year of my life (I grew up without, and then with, a dial-up modem, have evolved from no phone to a Nokia Brick to my current iPhone 13; I was a first generation Gmail user, and I’ve seen every bit of now-ubiquitous tech arise and then permeate every aspect of my life). In recent years, the boosterish idea that progress is in and of itself a good thing has lost its savor; everything that one seemed so rosy is falling apart in the great enshittification of the Internet, and innovation itself has run aground in nonsensical and harmful offroads (crypto! I’m talking about crypto!), and the more you look under the hood, the more you just see carelessness and greed.
I’ve begun to be skeptical of progress itself; the techno-utopianism of the ‘90s feels quaint and naive. Increasingly, the promises of the rich lords of technological advancement are looking more and more like Tesla’s bizarro Cybertruck: weird and unnecessary polyhedrons that you have to rent forever, created by people isolated from human need and also the desires of the ordinary person. The derisive naming of all techno-skeptics as “Luddites”—in addition to erasing the scarcity and pain that led to that uprising—is also an effective erasure of legitimate reasons for criticism, a brush to tar those who point out all the broken people left behind under the “move fast and break things” ethos that has led us to this precipice.
I mean, obviously I’m not neutral on this; I write words for a living, generally words that are excruciatingly earnest or at least interestingly florid, and I would like to be paid for them and not have them exploited as abstracted, minute pieces of a “corpus” used to feed a machine that will eventually make money for grotesquely rich people. Living as a writer is increasingly precarious—with staff jobs for an vanishingly privileged few, the rest of us clawing at the margins—and the idea that these mega-conglomerates are eager to wrench even the few bucks from our hot little hands disgusts me.
It may be simple selfishness or a profound love of the art that shaped me as a person, or a quasi-religious veneration of the human soul as the locus of creation or simple ire at the recursive cycle of greed and destruction that won’t stop fucking up our lives that causes me to take such a stand. But I’m sick of this shit. I think it is time to get out the hammers and make like Ned Ludd. Take our books back, our photos and paintings back, our lives back, extract our beings from the bowels of the program. Suffer no inferior lace. Or, to quote Lord Byron, a horny and majestic poet who was extremely human, sing the Song For the Luddites:
Song For The Luddites
As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!
When the web that we weave is complete,
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
O’er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep in the gore he has pour’d.
Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!