IF AI can replace what you do without anybody noticing, the problem isn’t with the technology

AI is ready to muscle in on our ability to create and consume vast quantities of content. So we need to look at things in a new wayPerhaps the least surprising news from the current AI media frenzy is that Buzzfeed has already been using the tech to publish a lot of its stories. There’s an obvious response to this and it’s not about how amazing the AI is. If an artificial intelligence can write vast quantities of formulaic clickbait stories on your website without anybody noticing, then the problem is with your original approach to ‘content’ and how it’s consumed.

In a previous post I mentioned how the music industry had already laid itself open to the AI takeover by acting like an algorithm in the first place, producing formulaic, digitised stuff for an audience conditioned to expect it. Now it’s the published media that needs to face up to this harsh reality.

Meaning us. And also meaning the PR and marketing industry. Both sectors have been churning out large quantities of bland, laundered, interchangeable, faddish nonsense for years. AI can do it quicker, better, cheaper and in vastly greater quantities.

So if you think the world really needs yet another blog post or whatever about how ‘hybrid working is here to stay’ or something about the non-existent Great Resignation, quiet quitting or another here-today workplace trend, expect a thousand bots to muscle in on the action very soon. No doubt they’ll also be coming for those who try not to create that sort of ‘content’ too.

Freddie De Boer offers another perspective on the way we create and respond to content on his Substack here. He focuses on the amount of online content that has no content. All of that bullshit TikTok and Reels virality that we can find ourselves drawn into, looking for things that aren’t there which confuse us into engagement.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The monetization of attention leads inevitably to the weaponization of attention[/perfectpullquote]

“All of this was eminently predictable based on the values that we baked into online life years ago. This road was always going to lead to nowhere. The internet is like a person you know who you think can’t possibly stoop any lower, and then manages to pull it off, over and over again. Years ago, the idea that online life would be dominantly funded by advertising coalesced into conventional wisdom, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since. The utopian assumption that views and clicks would accrue to the highest-quality content failed to understand a basic lurking reality – that the monetization of attention leads inevitably to the weaponization of attention. You can get eyeballs on your work by having talent and working diligently. Or you can get eyeballs by exploiting the system. And the worst part is that the big players have no particular financial incentive to challenge that exploitation.”

This is the trap that we have created for ourselves. We’ve fallen into it – maybe jumped – and now AI will bury us up to our necks.

According to De Boer, there is a way out, but it’s a retreat from what we have created.

“Unfortunately, advertising has been ingrained into the internet as the basic model for so long and to such an extent that it’s hard to envision online life without the systematic manipulation of attention and all its evils. So we’re bound to wind up here, at the bitter end of “content.” Which is a good excuse to withdraw deeper into books, movies, albums, and art, stuff that was created for a deeper purpose than mining fleeting bits of attention for fractions of a penny. The question is whether generations who have grown up immersed in these platforms can imagine life without them, and whether we’re cursed to live with them ourselves.”

I don’t know if this is a solution of any sort, but I know we’re all going to have to think very carefully about how we respond to what is happening and what is coming. If we think we’re going to beat AI in that distraction fuelled world we have created in which it can flourish, we are likely to be disappointed.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We deceive ourselves into thinking that we can do multiple things at once[/perfectpullquote]

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes a related argument in this interview about his new book.

“What humans do when they’re at their best is focus. I don’t even know that I need to give a lot of examples of distractibility because the audience right now may not be able to focus 100 percent on what I’m saying. It’s likely that they’re also looking at another screen or device.

“Attention is finite. There is increasing competition for it, and what happens when you have more companies, vendors, devices, and technological tools competing for our attention? It becomes commoditized, and then we’re left with very, very little [attention], which in turn values the little we have left even more.

“We deceive ourselves into thinking that we can do multiple things at once, when in fact all the signs suggest that multitasking is a myth, and we’re just splitting the resources we have between lots of different activities.

“I think the dominant feature of the AI age is that life in itself—if not the world in itself—has turned into a big distraction, but we’re only focused on what algorithms and artificial intelligence want us to focus on.”

This is not a new argument. But it is one we should heed.


Things that caught our attention this week

How Americans view their jobs

Pissing away millions is fine if you don’t look like you’re pissing them away

Banks and commercial property sector gather around a dumpster fire

Mental health is communal

There will be fewer people alive in 2100 than now

Fifty years of Studs Terkel’s Working

Our big problem is not misinformation; it’s knowingness

Nobody knows yet how much energy ChatGPT consumes. But it’s a lot