In writing and in dispensing my (very dubious, probably shady) writing advice, I am often keen to note that ideas are bullshit. Most writers treat them like precious gems when really, ideas are like costume jewelry: it’s all about how you wear them. It comes up because a lot of younger or untested writers I meet are all about The Idea. And they ascribe failures to finish with failing to have a Good Idea. They sometimes don’t even start to write because they cannot even summon a Good Idea. And the reverse can be true, too: sometimes, The Idea feels like enough. These writers have An Idea, and they’ll tell it to you, and then it’s like — well, they’re done. That’s it. They have ideated. The cool part is over. Lightning struck! They are complete.
But again, the idea is a seed, that’s it. Ideas are certainly useful, but only so far. A good idea will not be saved by poor execution, but a bad idea can be saved by excellent execution. Even simple, pedestrian ideas can be made sublime in the hands of a powerful craftsman or artist. Not every idea needs to be revolutionary. Every idea needn’t be that original — I don’t mean to suggest the plagiarism is the way to go, I only mean in the general sense, it’s very difficult (and potentially impossible) to think of a truly original story idea that hasn’t in some form been told before. The originality in a narrative comes from you, the author, the artist. The originality comes out in the execution.
It is there in the effort.
(And any writer or artist will surely experience the fact that the execution of an idea helps to spawn more new ideas within the seedbed of that singular garden. Put differently, driving across country is so much more than plugging the directions into Google Maps — when the rubber meets road, when you meet obstacles, when there are sights to see, you change the journey and the journey changes you, because choices must be made.)
And herein lies the problem with the sudden surge and interest in artificial intelligence. AI-generated creativity isn’t creativity. It is all hat, no cowboy: all idea, no execution. It in fact relies on the obsession with, and fetishization of, THE IDEA. It’s the core of every get-rich-quick scheme, the basis of every lazy entrepreneur who thinks he has the Next Big Thing, the core of every author or artist or creator who is a “visionary” who has all the vision but none of the ability to execute upon that vision. Hell, it’s the thing every writer has heard from some jabroni who tells you, “I got this great idea, you write it, we’ll split the money 50/50, boom.” It is the belief that The Idea is of equal or greater importance than the effort it takes to make That Idea a reality.
AI-generation relies on the idea, and executes upon it. (Often poorly — it can’t draw hands, it can’t help plagiarizing, it can’t not spit out the biases of its makers. Though note: it’ll get much, much better going forward. Its errors will become more invisible, and thus, more pernicious until it’s too late.) This sudden interest in AI has no interest in work. It has all the interest in doubling down on the fetishization of idea — like Tony Stark or Shuri in the MCU, all you have to do is — y’know, besides being rich — tell your free-roaming artificial intelligence friend to simulate a wormhole or design a new weapon, and it’ll do it. Who needs actual science? Who cares about effort? Just give Ultron the instructions and he’ll make it so. Who needs execution? Who needs institutional knowledge? Who needs hands-on experience? All you need is A GREAT IDEA and COOL ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and you’re off to the races, baby.
When it comes to making art and telling stories, the working writer and the working artist know the idea is really just a phantom. It’s something under the floorboards or behind the drywall. Present, yes, maybe even foundational, but the idea isn’t the house. Further, it’s certainly not the home. It’s more than just the keystone, more even than the structure you build around it. It’s in the choices made, it’s in the people who live in that house, the stories they experience inside it, and though this metaphor is definitely running away with itself, hopefully my point is clear — storytelling isn’t just a structure. It isn’t just physics, or a spreadsheet to fill out, or a series of data points on a graph.
And this is where I point you to Lincoln Michel’s very very good “The Unnecessary Is The Only Thing Necessary In Art” — while not about artificial intelligence, I think it plugs in a bit in that there is this occasional and maybe even increasing view that somehow there are Essential Components to storytelling, that if you plug in the right Plot Variables that is how the Art Calculator makes narrative. But story is far deeper, far stranger than all that, and it is certainly more than just Canonical Information or a Sequence of Events. Artificial intelligence, though, would view storytelling through this lens: it would distill it down to wires and pipes. It wants very hard to generate a house, but has no idea how to make it a home.
Michel correctly notes: “But the best way to experience art is to experience it. Not to spend your time debating if every shot or sentence or lyric is necessary. What is the point of a flower in a painting? What is the necessary number of verses in a song? What is the utility of the archaic torso of Apollo?” And again, he’s talking about a whole different situation — this puritanical (and if I may note, fascist-adjacent) notion that sex in storytelling shouldn’t be present unless it’s necessary. (And how often do fascist-flavored critics also say this about LGBT content in books, or quote-unquote “woke” content in stories, where they say something like, Oh, I don’t mind seeing gay [or transgender, Black, etc.] characters in a story, but only when it’s necessary. As if there exists a plot equation that can be balanced and answered by the inclusion of certain diverse content and without that particular equation such content is now “unnecessary.”
As this is a post apparently in love with digression, I also make note of the great effort that is going into Book Banning across school districts nationwide, even in the blue-ish area in which I live, where the once-vaunted school district Central Bucks is now reviewing a number of sex- and LGBT- and POC-positive books to pull them out of school libraries so kids cannot access them. This shitty toxic pissypants Moms-For-Liberty-fed bullshit will harm students who need to see themselves represented and who need other kids to see them represented in books, and you’ll note that there is a similar puritanical vein shot through all of this, wherein it is believed that sex is not “necessary,” that LGBT content is not “necessary,” that reading about racism is not “necessary.” Or they use that most common of words — this material is (gasp) inappropriate. (I also note that Nazi efforts to ban and burn books began in part with the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a Berlin-based institution of sexological studies that was LGBT-and-intersex-positive and that also offered access to contraceptives. The attacks on LGBT citizens, on their rights, on drag shows, on abortion, it’s the same fascist playbook run by the Nazis. Just so y’know.)
(And if you don’t think artificial intelligence couldn’t become very fascist, very fast, well, you’re not paying attention.)
To loop this all back around — because, oof, I didn’t necessarily expect to land on NAZIS in this post, though I suppose in our current climate I probably should’ve figured on landing there eventually — there exists this core notion that art and narrative are just numerical expressions, that they begin with an Idea and that storytelling is just stringing yarn along a series of thumbtacks on a board, and that there’s only value in having the idea and no value in learning how to tell the story you want to tell. We can cut out the unnecessary parts, we can let artificial intelligence handle the rest, and all we have to do is feed it our Very Good Idea. We don’t even have to split the profits with some stupid fucking “author” anymore! We can just have ideas and that is all that matters! We’ll burp them up into the world, and an AI will run with them, creating only Necessary Fiction that has the Proper Ratios in it. A perfect narrative gumbo, every time. (Admittedly, with too many fingers and too much plagiarism.)
WHAT A GLORIOUS DAY.
Except, of course, you and me, we know that’s all bullshit, right? We know that stories are more than just their inception. Stories are the author. Stories are the execution. Stories are in the human experiences, the unexpected parts, and as Michel notes, the unnecessary portions. They’re the most flavorful bits. Everything isn’t just pure protein. The flavor is in the fat, okay?
So, fuck off, AI.
Fuck off, AI storytellers.
Fuck off, AI generated images.
We must be shut of the obsession with Idea.
It’s just idea, small-i. You’re not done when you have an idea. You’ve barely even begun. The wonder is in what comes after. The wonder is in the work.
(Related: Clarkesworld post — “A Concerning Trend” — about how they’re suddenly deluged with AI-generated bullshit, which is, I fear, only going to get worse from here.)
(Also, read WANDERERS and WAYWARD, because hey, they’re both about artificial intelligence. Also, pandemics. But definitely AI, and what happens when you give AI a whole lot of power and rely on it to solve your problems! Oops!)