I’ve been lucky enough to have a few book launches this past month for a scriptwriting handbook finally published 11 years after it was first written. At one of the launches, a colleague asked me a few questions, the most pertinent one being whether the future of writers was doomed due to the success of ChatGPT, OpenAI and other artificial intelligence writing programmes.
As ChatGPT has dominated the internet since it landed in December last year, I thought about the question. As I answered, I realised that a writing bot would never be able to replace what is essential to me about the actual process of writing.
Writing is not just about creating content, in my view. For true writers, as I like to think I am, the process of writing “(is) the very thing itself”, as King Lear said to Poor Tom in the wilderness. The action of writing involves transmuting thoughts onto a page or a screen, from the brain to the hand, into the medium in which it will finally end up. That process, for the writer, is the most important thing.
Personally, if I don’t write in my diary for a few days, I feel very “omgekrap” as the Afrikaners would say. I remember being a bit rude to my family-in-law on the day I was about to get married in the UK — long story — when they wanted me to join in the family pre-wedding prep. I begged them to leave me alone for a while as I hadn’t even written in my diary that I was getting married and it was imperative that I do before I took such an enormous step.
Writing is a form of therapy for me and for many other writers. I need to set things down, often with paper and pen in my diary for example, and at other times, on a computer screen, to put life into perspective. The very process helps me make sense of what it is I’m going through in an intense and busy life. It helps me gain perspective on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which often assault human beings.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The future of jobs in the age of AI, sustainability and deglobalisation
I used to write regular opinion columns for a number of newspapers as a freelance journalist before working in education full-time. In those days I made sense of some of the worst moments of my week dealing with bureaucrats, getting children to school on time, PTOs and many other trials which are part of trying to live a so-called normal life.
When I wrote a column which would turn a distressing moment in a fraught week into an amusing anecdote for readers to smile at, the annoyance and irritation of the moment felt worth it. Writing allowed me to make sense of life’s tapestry which often unravelled. Even when writing plays, screenplays or other creative work, the action of writing has always been a search for answers to the sometimes confounding questions life has asked. Each one of my creative pieces allowed me to excoriate my lived experience, added to any research I may have done on the subject matter, in order to create a piece of writing which would hopefully entertain others, with a bit of luck.
So AI, with all its bells and whistles, doesn’t hold any threat for me. It’s a great research tool, yes, but to capture the real meat of human experience a machine would have to get into the harsh realities of real life, not simply regurgitate others’ experiences of it. For now, I don’t see any artificial intelligences queuing up to take on that challenge. At least, I hope not! DM