It seems that every day brings news of a development in AI technology, whether advances in the medical or tech fields, new threats to (cyber)security, or concerns for industries that might have jobs overtaken by computers or robots. Some commentators exhibit great excitement about possibilities for change and improvement, while others fear our lives might end up resembling a futuristic science fiction story or a dystopian movie. Several years ago, I participated in a summer seminar with faculty colleagues on the topic of technology and Christian faithfulness. I remember that we spoke a great deal about our smartphones, the incredible tools that we held in the palms of our hands, and yet also how they sometimes seemed almost to take over our hands. I found myself thinking of the Promethean admonition, the words delivered along with the gift of fire, that fire would be a good servant, but a bad master. Was our technology serving to help us exercise our potential, or was it encroaching upon our capacities, and even our humanity?
In his essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson comments on how humans become “subdivided” by their functions and lose sight of the whole of their humanity. He notes the example of a man who becomes a “farmer,” instead of a “Man on the farm,” or a scholar, who becomes, instead of a “Man Thinking,” a “mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”1 For many teachers in the humanities, the most difficult recent AI innovation has been ChatGPT. As society increasingly begins to view writing—and perhaps along with it critical thinking—as outsourceable skills, I have wondered how we might teach our students to become not writers but Humans Writing.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates discusses writing as a new technology that he is wary to adopt. He tells the story of an Egyptian divinity, Theuth, who introduces writing to the Egyptian king Thamus as a “potion for memory and for wisdom.” Thamus responds, however, that it will instead teach forgetfulness, since people will “trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own,” and will “imagine that they . . . know much” when they have not truly assimilated what they have heard. Socrates further explains that while a written word appears to speak as though it were alive, when it is questioned, it only ever signifies the “same thing forever,” and when it is attacked, “it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”2
For Socrates, too, the concern is that a technology would limit instead of extend human potential—the capacity for memory and, perhaps, also original thought—while deceiving people into thinking they are wiser than they are. He also worries that writing would cause thoughts to become separated from their person of origin. As he says, “once written down, a discourse roams about everywhere” and becomes like a defenseless orphan without its “father’s support.”
The significance of the bond between a person and his words is also emphasized in the idea of troth, the Middle English variant of our modern “truth.” But whereas “truth” indicates reality in an objective sense, regardless of who is communicating it, troth conveys a sense of the connection between the speaker and the words spoken. As in the Shakespearean expression, “by my troth,” the meaning is of pledging faith, or holding one’s character to vouch for one’s word. Contemporary usage of the expression “my truth,” perhaps represents a kind of return to a personal connection to truth, but one built more on perception or feeling, rather than honor or integrity.3
The integral relationship between the speaker and speech underlies our understanding of plagiarism. There is an inherent sense of disharmony in the recognition of a mismatch between speaker and speech when we realize that someone is speaking words that are not theirs to speak. This dissonance was made apparent in Melania Trump’s 2016 plagiarism of Michelle Obama, an event that also foregrounded the ordinarily inconspicuous role of speechwriters. The effect was further heightened by the irony that the very words appropriated were an affirmation of a kind of troth concept: “your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do.”4
If a person’s words are bound up with their character, then a disconnection from a person’s words inevitably leads to a disconnection from the person. In the book of Genesis, the first act of the serpent is to separate Eve from God by separating her from his words: “Did God really say . . .? ” (Gen. 3:1). In Rostrand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the titular character who writes love letters on behalf of his less intellectual friend, causes the loss of his friend’s, as well as his own, voice and identity, when the lady falls in love with the purported sender of the letters. Both triangulating appropriations seem to offer a promise of endearment but result in estrangement not only from the intended object but also from the self. And perhaps we might also view ChatGPT as performing a similarly insinuating function. Like the clever friend who offers to help win the lady, or attain divinity, it may offer to help obtain a grade, but, in the process, lead those who submit to its intercession to become separated from their own ideas and words, their relationships, and themselves.5
Roland Barthes, however, in his essay “The Death of the Author,” appears to call for the dissociation of the person of the writer from the writing. He celebrates what Socrates had been fearful of, characterizing the author not as the father of a work, but rather a mere “scriptor” that is occasioned by the act of inscription. For Barthes, to recognize a text’s “Author” would be to limit a text with “a final signified,” a “single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God).” By “refusing to assign . . . an ultimate meaning to the text (and to the world as text),” he ultimately “refuse[s] God.”6
And perhaps it may be ChatGPT’s generating of authorless texts that achieves Barthes’s vision of replacing the “author” with the “reader” (now a kind of recipient of a message without a sender) as the determiner of a text. But, for Christians, the elimination of the notion of the author—along with the authority it entails—has troubling ramifications. Augustine, in On Christian Teaching, asserts scripture as a unique text, whose stability and meaning—notwithstanding hermeneutical complexities—are guaranteed by a divine author who desires to commune with the reader through the word.7 Indeed the Christian God emphasizes the union of word and person to the point of incarnation, validating word with flesh, and calls those receiving his words to be united with him through them: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10), and “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22).
Just as Dante imagines Adam’s first word to have been a joyful cry by which he uttered the name of God in a language formed by God,8 for Christians, the Word and words have always served the sacred function of fostering relationship between God and humans, as well as of allowing humans to reflect, and participate in, the divine acts of creation and authorship. The essential bond of author and receiver of words is also fundamental to the trust and fellowship of human relationships. In the academic context, every teacher who reads student papers will surely be able to sympathize with the dreaded moment of doubt, the moment when all joy as a teacher is stolen and when one seems almost to hear an echo of the voice in the garden, “did the student really write…?”
In the coming days, students will likely need to develop new competencies in using AI because of a changing job market, and teachers also will likely need to befriend AI technology. ChatGPT, which is distinct from Google or other search engines in that it can have a conversation with its user, offers possibilities for “ethical” use as a kind of “tutor” or “study buddy” for students wanting to brainstorm, go over practice questions, or practice a conversation in a foreign language. It may have special usefulness for students in online or independent study programs, students in underserved areas with limited access to resources, or students needing accommodation for social anxieties or disorders.
And yet, even as we adopt, and adapt to, its tools, I wonder if ChatGPT may not also offer an opportunity for teachers and universities to refocus on what technology cannot provide, namely, a valuing of the human person and community. If writing could be viewed, more than as a final product, as a process of continual thinking, reading, and writing, involving (inter)personal, and even spiritual, growth dimensions, perhaps we could revive the kind of embodied education described by W.E.B. Du Bois as “the contact of living souls.”9 After all, the thrill of authentic connection and the freedom of relational trust—allowing teachers to be unburdened of suspicion and students of the indignity of surveillance—may be our hope in the face of an interposing external “intelligence” that could lead us to become alienated from our discourse, from one another, and from ourselves.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays (New York: Penguin, 2003), 85.
- Plato, “Phaedrus,” In Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 551–2.
- Troth remains today in “betrothal,” an oral agreement that is still culturally regarded in our society of written contracts.
- Alexandra Jaffe, “Melania Trump Republican Convention Speech Bears Striking Similarities to Michelle Obama Address,” NBC News, July 18, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/melania-trump-appears-plagiarize-michelle-obama-convention-speech-n612141.
- The recent writers’ strike in Hollywood has also helped to highlight the cost of such a separation as a kind of “alienation” of the worker from his labor and from his humanity (Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Classes, Power, and Conflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates, eds. Anthony Giddens and David Held [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982], 16-17.)
- Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), 145-7.
- See Augustine, On Christian Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 24, 33, 68-9, 99-100.
- Dante, “De vulgari eloquentia,” Princeton Dante Project, I.iv.4, https://dante.princeton.edu/pdp/vulgari.html.
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 71.