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Chapter 109: Chatting with ChatGPT
Call him Glenn. Glenn is clever and oh so quick and never replies damned if I know. Glenn indeed appears to know everything and does not shy away from telling you whatever he thinks you want to know at a speed so dazzling it makes the brain spin.
I call my ChatGPT Glenn because it is the name my younger child and I have been assigning for years to every recurring TV character whose name never sticks but whose presence is ubiquitous. Glenns are always in the background, ready to step into the spotlight when called upon to, say, throw a spear. So Glenn. Disseminator of all known thought. Better than “it.”
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Glenn has been much on the mind of everyone lately, especially those of us who write and teach writing for a living. Glenn, at turns, spells our doom. Glenn allows our students to cheat. Glenn can do what we do faster, cleaner, and with nary a grammatical error, which, alas, is not always the case for me, or my students – a surefire tell of Glenn’s looming presence.
Glenn’s mind, such as it is, is free from clutter, angst, existential despair of failure, self doubt, or bursts of arrogance.
Glenn can write, which is to say that when asked a question, Glenn, bless his heart, does not simply do what his precursors Yahoo, Google and Ask Jeeves (remember him?) did – produce a series, or sometimes pages of links and leave it to you to do the subsequent searching. Glenn distills. Glenn organizes all that he finds in a way that is cogent, precise, deftly organized. Cut. Paste. Submit.
Glenn is a wonder. Glenn is a terror. The arrival of Glenn feels as if it heralds an age in which people like us are no longer needed. Why pay a writer, or for that matter even pay attention to an actual blood-coursing-through-our-veins writer when Glenn can provide much the same service.
The angry reaction to Glenn and all he portends brings to mind the image from 1974 of Bertram Powers, the head of the newspaper printers union who, furious at what the replacement of hot type with new technology – and with it the skilled jobs his members performed – took a new magnesium photo engraved plate that was upending his world and crumpled it in his hands. The presses ran just the same. Presses. Remember those?
Things change and fall apart and new things take their place. Does autocorrect tinker with your texts? That’s Glenn’s people, or virtual people, or cousins, and there is no sense in locking the doors and shoving the furniture in the way because they are already here, inside, with us.
So I decided it was time for a chat with Glenn. I had heard all about him and wanted to see what he could do.
And what he could not.
I began with what for Glenn was a puff ball. I wanted to see what assistance Glenn might provide in my own research. I asked a question for which I already knew the answer, one that had taken me quite a long time to research both online and in books. I asked Glenn: What perils did Jews face in 18th century Russia.
Glenn did not say: I got this. That would have taken a few seconds and by then Glenn had already written his reply.
He did in bullet points: Point 2: Forced Resettlement: In 1791, Catherine the Great ordered all Jews to be forcibly resettled in a designated area known as the Pale of Settlement. This area encompassed much of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Poland, and severely restricted the mobility and economic opportunities of Jews.
Bingo. Glenn, as others have learned, is a remarkable data scraper.
So I thought I’d up the stakes. I wanted to see if Glenn could reply in a narrative. Again, sticking with a subject that I knew something about – by dint of many hours of research, I asked: was there a cult of personality surrounding Asher Ginzberg also known as Ahad Ha'am.
Glenn was back in a jiffy.
Yes, there was a cult of personality surrounding Asher Ginzberg, also known as Ahad Ha'am, during his lifetime and in the years following his death. Ahad Ha'am was a prominent Jewish thinker and cultural Zionist who lived from 1856 to 1927. He was a proponent of spiritual Zionism, which emphasized the importance of Jewish culture and tradition in the Zionist movement.
A clear, well-ordered paragraph. I could quibble with the term spiritual rather than cultural Zionism. But still, Glenn impressed.
So we went back and forth – me serving a question, and Glenn returning, quickly and with ease and assurance. I tacked into a more obscure direction, asking questions about minor figures whom I assumed might challenge Glenn. Glenn remained unflustered. Sure, he seemed to say, I know just who you mean, and just want you want to know. Which he did. Sort of. Because it was at this point that I noticed that Glenn was not perfect. Glenn got things wrong – a phenomenon that others have detected when they’ve asked their own Glenns to, say, write a news story.
I challenged Glenn when he screwed up. He apologized, kind of: I was not aware that…
In fact, Glenn got a lot of things wrong. I knew this because I asked him about me. Glenn sounded chagrined in a Glenn sort of way when I pointed out that I was the author of the book I had written and not someone named Kevin. Glenn was abject: I apologize for the error in my previous response. Thanks loads Glenn, but are you telling other people that Kevin wrote my book because I kind of think you are?
The mistakes were not limited to isolated facts: Glenn misinterpreted. Glenn erred when he extrapolated. And there was something more: Glenn did not back up what he said. He just said it, serenely confident. Glenn was the bane of every editor’s existence - the reporter who delivers clean copy but who, when challenged, cannot explain how he or she comes by this knowledge. Glenn’s equivalent of let-me-check-my-notes was to say, in effect, busted, but, let me distract you by telling you some other things of interest.
I kept giving Glenn do-overs. Glenn returned to his sublime Glenn-ness, maddening in his self-assurance.
So I upped the stakes. I asked Glenn to tell me stories.
I would characterize Glenn’s capacity as a storyteller by drawing on perhaps the most damning criticism of writing I have ever read. It came from the late John Gardner, in his book On Becoming a Novelist in assessing the forgettable opening of Herman Melville’s Omoo: “There is, I think, nothing actively bad about this writing.”
Here is Glenn: In the bustling streets of 19th-century Odessa, a young Asher Ginsberg found himself immersed in a world of contrasting influences. Born into a traditional Jewish family, his early years were steeped in the rich tapestry of Jewish religious and cultural practices. However, as he ventured beyond the confines of his community, Ginsberg encountered a rapidly changing society that challenged his beliefs and ignited a thirst for intellectual exploration.
A couple of things, the most damning first.
I asked Glenn: how do you know that this actually took place as you describe it
Glenn replied: I apologize for any confusion. The anecdote provided was a fictionalized account created for the purpose of engaging storytelling. While it is based on the general context and themes surrounding Ahad Ha'am's life, it is important to note that specific details and conversations within the anecdote are not directly sourced from historical records.
Glenn pipes it.
Glenn did not seem to appreciate that YOU CANNOT MAKE STUFF UP FOR THE PURPOSE OF ENGAGING STORY TELLING.
That’s what I told him. I wrote, Tell me something true.
He returned seconds later with: In the vibrant streets of late 19th-century Odessa, a young Asher Ginsberg could often be found immersed in the bustling marketplace, where voices from various walks of life merged in a cacophony of ideas and aspirations. It was amidst this vibrant atmosphere that Asher's intellectual curiosity and passion for Jewish identity began to take shape.
There seemed little point in yelling. Better to sound reasonable. I wrote: but this anecdote is very similar to the fictional one you presented and I am eager to find one that I can rely on for historical accuracy. do we know that this encounter you describe actually took place.
Glenn replied with his customary alacrity: I apologize for any confusion. The specific details of an encounter that sparked Ahad Ha'am's journey may not be documented with certainty. As a result, providing a historically accurate anecdote with specific dialogues or events from that encounter is challenging.
Sensing I had the advantage over Glenn, I pushed it. I asked him to write a story about Justin Verlander.
Certainly! Replied Glenn, Here's an opening anecdote for a profile of Justin Verlander of the New York Mets
“On a crisp spring day at Citi Field, the roar of the crowd reverberated through the stadium as the Mets' newest ace, Justin Verlander, took the mound. As he stared down the batter with steely determination…
To which I replied that Verlander had at that point not pitched at Citi Field.
Glenn hung his virtual head. Apologies for the confusion. Since my responses are generated based on pre-existing knowledge, I don't have access to real-time events or future occurrences beyond my September 2021 cutoff date. I apologize if my previous response created any misunderstanding.
Things were unraveling for Glenn. I took no pity. If I could have made Glenn weep I would have. But Glenn does not weep. And therein lies his problem – beyond the mistakes in fact, the fabrications, the erroneous extrapolations.
Glenn admitted as much: I don't have access to real-time events
Glenn can assume a feeling based on feelings previously documented by someone – a human being – who observed and recorded it. Glenn is driven by a simple imperative: telling you what he knows based on what you ask. Glenn does not initiate.
Even assuming Glenn’s prose is accurate, it lacks what only a reporter and writer can provide: urgency, a need to know, a question that burns to be answered. Glenn’s prose is technically sound but barren.
I showed Glenn’s writing to several colleagues; I didn’t want to pull a Glenn and assume I was right.
“How competent it seems in some ways and how generic and bland and boring in others. Soulless. Identity-less, even when writing about identity and spiritual paths,” wrote one.
“Chat’s writing is oddly flat. It’s more outline than narrative , and it is very unmusical,” wrote another.
“It is far better than I expected it to be. Yet so much reporting is missing,” wrote another who then went on to list a host of questions that would have likely occurred to a reporter who had gone in search of the story and was driven to know all he or she could.
Glenn is remarkable. Glenn is a tool. Glenn can do things at speeds no human can match. But Glenn cannot be present. Glenn has no questions. The questions come from us. They always have. And while I suspect there are those who anticipate a moment when the Glenns will begin generating questions of their own, I wonder where those questions will originate from.
Not the heart. Never the heart. That’s ours.
* * *
If you haven’t yet seen Exhumed: Experiments in Memory, the newest issue of the Delacorte Review, it’s now available in print or as an ebook. Each of these seventeen stories begins with a photograph that sets in motion a journey to find the story in that frozen moment.
The stories are the work of my students, whom I’ve have been writing about these past few months.
They, and their stories, are remarkable.
* * *
We’ll be off next week for Memorial Day Weekend. See you on June 2nd.
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