THR Web Features   /   June 11, 2024

AI as Self-Erasure

Humanity’s will to disappear is being installed in the omni-operating system.

Matthew B. Crawford

( Piranka/iStock.)

Elevated “deaths of despair” and declining birth rates in the West must be due to an array of factors, hard to tease apart. My hunch is that one of them is what the sociologist Richard Sennett called “the specter of uselessness.” He meant feeling redundant at work. But there is a deeper, existential version of this that may arise when the world feels already occupied, so there is no place for you to grow into and make your own.

In the normal course of human society, you are born into a culture that has prepared the way for you. It initiates you into its language and tells a story of where you came from. It is saturated with meaning due to a chain of begettings that reaches back in time, each generation of which started and grew through acts of love: at conception, and in the ongoing work of teaching, transmission and care. The world is welcoming, in other words. It was built by your ancestors, and they imagined you long before you arrived.11xThe “owned space” spoken of by our Nietzscheans is an inherited space, not a conquest of individual will. They wondered what sort of work you might do, before you knew there is such a thing as work. Your parents may have recognized the echo of a sibling or a parent in your face as you sought the nipple. They smiled at you.

This sense of a world handed down in love is interrupted when the basic contours and possibilities of life appear to be ordered by impersonal forces.

Small Language Models

I was at a small dinner a few weeks ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seated next to me was a man who related that his daughter had just gotten married. As the day approached, he had wanted to say some words at the reception, as is fitting for the father of the bride. It can be hard to come up with the right words for such an occasion, and he wanted to make a good showing. He said he gave a few prompts to ChatGPT, facts about her life, and sure enough it came back with a pretty good wedding toast. Maybe better than what he would have written. But in the end, he didn’t use it, and composed his own. This strikes me as telling, and the intuition that stopped him from deferring to AI is worth bringing to the surface.

To use the machine-generated speech would have been to absent himself from this significant moment in the life of his daughter, and in his own life. It would have been to not show up for her wedding, in some sense. I am reminded of a passage in Tocqueville where he noticed that America seemed to be on a trajectory that would have it erecting “an immense tutelary power” that wants only what is best for us, and is keen to “save [us] the trouble of living.”

In Aristotelian language, human “being” is an ergon, an activity or work that is distinctive of the peculiar sort of animals that we are, and in this the use of language is key. There have been rare cases of anatomically normal children who (whether by some monstrous crime or by circumstance) matured without human society, with no initiation into a language. They grew into feral creatures, resembling a human in form only.22x “Just before dawn on January 9, 1800, a mysterious creature emerged from a forest in southern France. Although he was human in form and walked upright, his habits were those of a young male animal. He was wearing only a tattered shirt, but did not seem troubled by the cold. Showing no modesty about his nakedness, he ate greedily, seizing roasted potatoes from a hot fire. He seemed to have no language skills, only grunting occasionally.” From the jacket of The Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck.

LLMs (large language models such as ChatGPT) won’t return us to a pre-linguistic state, but they do point to a post-human one. In The Language Animal, Charles Taylor points out that in our use of language, “we are continuously responsive to rightness, and that is why we always recognize the relevance of a challenge that we have misspoken.” In other words, we care.

This is because, unlike an LLM or a parrot, things have significance for us, and we search for words that will do justice to this significance. For example, you try to find words that are apt for a wedding toast: ideally something both true and pleasing, maybe built around some anecdote that is emblematic of your relationship with your daughter, hopefully funny, with just the right touch—warm but not maudlin, suggesting the subtle and evolving currents of affection (and maybe conflict, too) between you over the years as she has grown into a woman. You don’t want to over-share, but you want to take some risks too, because you sense that showing faith in the love of your daughter, and in the goodwill of your guests (some of whom you have never met) will create the enlarged circle of intimacy and witness that you are hoping to realize on this occasion.

As the father sits with pen and paper, he strives to encompass in words the elusive truth of his daughter, as seen from the unique vantage of a father, in a way fitting for this pivotal moment in the progression of her life. He may find that through the effort of articulating this relationship, it is more fully revealed to him. As Taylor says, the “right word” discloses, “brings the phenomenon properly into view for the first time. Discovery and invention are two sides of the same coin; we devise an expression which allows what we are striving to encompass to appear.”

We do this also with respect to ourselves; we “self-articulate” as part of the lifelong process of bringing ourselves more fully into view‚ how stand, the particular shape that various universal goods have taken in my own biography, and in my aspirations. This is a moving target. One may cringe at one’s younger self. What appeared to be an episode of courage at eighteen now strikes me as dickishness; what seemed righteous then looks self-righteous now as I fill in my own past with fresh articulations, corresponding to fresh intimations of the good, the fruit of a long process of acquiring depth as a human being. Or I may try to look back at my younger self with kindness, in the hope of overcoming regret about the decisions I made. We do all this with words, in our internal monologues.

What would it mean, then, to outsource a wedding toast? To use Heidegger’s language, some entity has “leaped in” on my behalf and disburdened me of the task of being human. For Heidegger, this entity is “das Man,” an anonymized other that stands in for me, very much like Kierkegaard’s “the Public.” It is a generalized consciousness—think of it as the geist of large language models.

LLMs are built on enormous data sets—essentially, all language that is machine-scrapable from the Internet. They are tasked with answering the question, “given the previous string of words, what word is most likely to occur next?” They thus represent what the philosopher Talbot Brewer recently referred to as “the statistical center of gravity” of all language (and I am following Brewer’s lead in viewing LLMs through the lens of Taylor’s account of language). Or rather, all language that is on the Internet. This includes the great literature of the past, of course. But it includes a whole lot more of the present: marketing-speak, what passes for journalism, the blather produced by all who suffer from PowerPoint brain. But put aside the impoverished quality of the language that these LLMs are being trained on. If we accept that the challenge of articulating life in the first person, as it unfolds, is central to human beings, then to allow an AI to do this on our behalf suggests self-erasure of the human.

In a presentation in Charlottesville in April that is yet unpublished, at University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Brewer referred to “degenerative AI.” Because the new AIs are language machines, they are “aimed right at our essence.” Brewer is not himself a Christian, but he finds Christian terms apt for thinking about the problem: We are created in the image and likeness of God, who is the Word.

Talking to an Anonymity

Self-erasure through absorption into a mass (as distinct from a community) is not a problem created by LLMs; it was noticed by Heidegger and Kierkegaard, and by Tocqueville before them. Around the turn of the millennium, we were fascinated with “the wisdom of crowds” and the generative possibilities of the hive mind. We were told that there is a superior global intelligence arising in the Web itself. This collective mind is more meta, more synoptic and synthetic, than any one of us, and aren’t these the defining features of intelligence?

Writing about the Web in 2006, Jaron Lanier said that “In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle.” He was referring to “consensus Web filters” that assemble material from other sites that are themselves aggregators of other sites. “We are now reading what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from what a population of mostly amateur writers wrote anonymously.”

Lanier points out that these developments aren’t confined to online culture. The elevation of the collective through the fetish of aggregation is “having a profound influence on how decisions are made in America,” in government agencies, corporate planning departments, and universities. He reports that, as a consultant, he used to be asked to “test an idea or propose a new one to solve a problem. In the last couple years I’ve been asked to work quite differently. You might find me and the other consultants filling out survey forms or tweaking edits to a collective essay.”

Lanier suggests there are institutional reasons for the appeal of collectivism in large organizations: “If the principle is correct, then individuals should not be required to take on risks or responsibilities.” This is especially attractive given that we live in times of tremendous uncertainties coupled with infinite liability phobia, and we must function within institutions that are loyal to no executive, much less to any lower-level member. Every individual who is afraid to say the wrong thing within his or her organization is safer when hiding behind a wiki or some other Meta aggregation ritual.

In his own participation in such rituals, Lanier reports that “what I’ve seen is a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an institution.”

At the same gathering in Charlottesville where Tal Brewer spoke of “degenerative AI,” sociologist Joseph E. Davis pointed out that AI is rushing into domains that have already been vacated of the full exercise of human judgment, making the substitution less obviously a degradation. Education is conceived as the mere exchange of information, unconditioned by relations of authority and care between teacher and student. The practice of medicine has been partly reduced to following guidelines that claim to advance “evidence-based medicine” (but with outcomes that are often worse than those produced by the judgments of experienced practitioners).33xSee Justin Mutter, “A New Stranger at the Bedside: Industrial Quality Management and the Erosion of Clinical Judgment in American Medicine” for an account of the exponential growth of guidelines that medical practitioners must follow, and its effect on care. Essentially, doctors have been proletarianized and are themselves the object of minute surveillance. Their incentives are to follow guidelines even when they know the outcome will not be good.  Dating apps render the process of selecting a mate as something machine-optimizable through search criteria and “cross-platform integration with social media accounts” (or something like that).

But let us go back further yet, before the rise of the Web, to see how AI expresses (and advances) a more general tendency of the democratic social condition. Writing in the 1840s, Kierkegaard noticed something significant going on with the rise of the newspaper:

Nowadays one can talk with anyone, and it must be admitted that people’s opinions are exceedingly sensible, yet the conversation leaves one with the impression of having talked to an anonymity.... Our judgments are “so objective, so all-inclusive, that it is a matter of complete indifference who expresses them.... In Germany they even have phrase books for the use of lovers, and it will end with lovers sitting together talking anonymously. (Kierkegaard, The Present Age)

The German lovers “go meta,” as we would put it today, which is a kind of effacing of one’s own perspective as an interested party, as someone involved. We instead think of ourselves as representatives of a general Public.

[W]e think over the relationships of life in a higher relationship till in the end the whole generation has become a representation, who is difficult to say whom; and who think about these relationships...for whose sake it is not easy to discover. The disobedient youth is no longer in fear of his schoolmaster—the relation is rather one of indifference in which schoolmaster and pupil discuss how a good school should be run. To go to school no longer means to be in fear of the master, or merely to learn, but rather implies being interested in the problem of education. (Kierkegaard, The Present Age)

Kierkegaard here connects the process of becoming a third party to oneself to the process of democratic leveling. This has the effect of effacing real human connection.

In the end, the whole age becomes a committee. A father no longer curses his son in anger, using all his parental authority, nor does the son defy his father, a conflict which might end in the inwardness of forgiveness; on the contrary, their relationship is irreproachable, for it is really in process of ceasing to exist... (Kierkegaard, The Present Age)

For Kierkegaard, differentiating relations of authority are the incubators of genuine attachments, and these in turn make possible moments of rebellion. It is through the attachments and the rebellions both that we become individuals. Fake egalitarianism provides an excuse—no, a principle!—for shrinking from this task. As representatives of a general Public, there is no complementarity between us, no differentiation and dependence, but instead a colorless cohesion of interchangeable, autonomous subjects. Liberal public culture is a culture of polite separation.

This mood of interchangeability is likely to deepen as AI saturates the world and we are tempted to let it stand in for our own subjectivity. But, like that father at his daughter’s wedding, we are still free to refuse it.

This essay first appeared on Matthew Crawford’s Archedelia Substack.