My friend, Renee, recently mentioned The Red Hand Files to me, and she shared this post with me as an example of Nick Cave’s writing and engagement. The post was a response to a question from a reader asking about the benefits of using ChatGPT to write song lyrics. The whole post is lovely and funny and short, but here’s a taste:
In the story of the creation, God makes the world, and everything in it, in six days. On the seventh day he rests. The day of rest is significant because it suggests that the creation required a certain effort on God’s part, that some form of artistic struggle had taken place. This struggle is the validating impulse that gives God’s world its intrinsic meaning. The world becomes more than just an object full of other objects, rather it is imbued with the vital spirit, the pneuma, of its creator.
ChatGPT rejects any notions of creative struggle, that our endeavours animate and nurture our lives giving them depth and meaning. It rejects that there is a collective, essential and unconscious human spirit underpinning our existence, connecting us all through our mutual striving.
As humans, we so often feel helpless in our own smallness, yet still we find the resilience to do and make beautiful things, and this is where the meaning of life resides. Nature reminds us of this constantly. The world is often cast as a purely malignant place, but still the joy of creation exerts itself, and as the sun rises upon the struggle of the day, the Great Crested Grebe dances upon the water. It is our striving that becomes the very essence of meaning. This impulse – the creative dance – that is now being so cynically undermined, must be defended at all costs, and just as we would fight any existential evil, we should fight it tooth and nail, for we are fighting for the very soul of the world.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: There’s a little sweet moment, I’ve got to say, in a very intense book — your latest — in which you’re heading out the door and your wife says what are you doing? I think you say, “I’m going to buy an envelope.”
KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: What happens then?
KURT VONNEGUT: Oh, she says, “Well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet?” And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.
I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.
And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.
I think there’s a lot of truth to what both Cave and Vonnegut said, and I think it’s helpful to keep in mind as machines continue to push us to remember what it means to be human. But maybe there’s a middle ground.
Today is my nephew’s birthday. This morning, Google Photos put together a little montage of photos of the two of us over the years. I spend more time than the average person looking at and curating my photos, but I was still moved by the arrangement this tool had pulled together automatically without any creative struggle or farting around on my part.
I know there’s a world where tools like ChatGPT augment rather than try to replace the human experience. We do have agency as to whether or not this happens, although how much, I do not know. Either way, it helps to be reminded that we are dancing animals over and over and over again, and to proceed accordingly.