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!)
16 responses to “A.I. and the Fetishization Of Ideas”
This has to be your most spot-on essay ever! Your sense of humor often makes my day, but you have outdone yourself with this one. It’s a keeper. And thanks for sharing.
Hey, Chuck! Thanks for the good words. I’m careening through Wayward, and enjoying the trip. I can almost sense wine-dark writerly moods as you constructed and revised. Love to geek out while following your trajectory. Thank you for your work, in composing and in writing about the process.
Yeah, fuck off, AI!
I like the idea of denying ai derived works any copyright. But I’m not sure how we would know as it gets better, but also how much ai is too much. Grammarly is essentially ai, for example. Should a work that used grammarly at any point be denied copyright? Where do we draw that line? can we? I fear that the human created story will go the way of the horse drawn carriage, no longer an essentially part of people’s lives and just an interesting tourist experience done with the old horses and worn out buggies.
Thinking here about a certain simple enough idea — what happens if a horde of killer ants is unleashed on society — and turning that simple idea into one of my favorite kick ass stories. That was some great execution right there.
Often, my first draft is garbage, and its through revising and reshaping where I truly feel like an artist and make my story sing. I keep wondering if there is room for AI assisted text generation to be a useful tool in the toolbox, that generates a bunch of crap (which fertilizes) and allow me to get straight to editing.
I don’t know, though. I love drafting, and the discovery of it all, which AI generated also eliminates.
Just finished Wayward, really enjoyed it. Will post reviews “me read good book!”. Although I almost stopped reading (okay – listening me audiobook nerd) when I thought that the “very good boy” was going to be snuffed. Love that character and also Glorious Rock God. Keep on fighting the good fight and Death to AI, this coming from a former IT guy.
Chuck, as usual you’ve scraped off all the bullshit trimmings and obfuscations to get right to the heart of it. AI will never do what real writers do because it lacks the one thing we have that it will never have: humanity.
Thank you, sir.
Art and insights are waiting in the digressions, too. Thank you, yet again, Sir.
This post reminds me of when I was 17 and came up with VAMPIRES IN SPACE! I’m sure it has been done, but I was so self-satisfied with this “cool idea” that I never wrote it.
I also read “A Concerning Trend” and that’s the second editor I’ve seen in recent weeks frustrated by the deluge of AI spam content. The other one ended on a positive note that this just means there will be more of a market for real, human stories that don’t sound like they came out of an algorithm blender, because that’s very much where the tech still is, in my opinion. As the thing learns from itself, it will only spin into increasing incoherence. Bing is having some real fun with a frustrated-sounding, argumentative AI that’s clearly learning language from the garden variety Reddit troll.
But it still sucks that editors should have to put up with this. As an LGBT and autistic writer, the road to publishing my fiction was already like chipping through the Great Wall of China with a sharp stick. Editors say they want that content on their websites… until they don’t even have time to read your manuscript.
I appreciate your point on this as it pertains to the rise of AI in the equation. As you note the devaluing of the process and the craft in comparison to the idea isn’t something that just occurred. In fact, the development of such AI bots comes directly out of our devaluation of the craft and our desire to jump over those difficult parts as quickly as possible. So in my mind, the question is why have we lost that sense of value and what can we do to help get it back? People are going to keep using tools to do a poorly executed end-around on the work as long as we think of it as something that is “in the way” of our idea.
I will never forget when a children’s author came to our middle school to talk about here book. She was wonderfully direct in answering a question about writing books, and I have heard variations on this quote from many corners since. She said “you need to look at yourself and think very carefully and honestly about your desire to write. Do you want to write a book, or do you want to have written a book? If you only want the end result, then don’t even start.”
“Devaluation of craft” is a very good way to put it, so thank you.
Chuck, I love a very large portion of all your words, but this, THIS, piece right here articulates every thought I’ve had on the subject of AI, and ideas in general, in the past three years better than I could have ever done myself. Not in ten tries. Not in a hundred.
Brilliant. Thanks for writing this. It gets to the heart of what I’ve been lamenting about regarding AI. I teach students to write and have been doing a lot of soapboxing lately about using AI as a tool because I know it’ll be tempting for them to use it to produce their assigned work… My point to my students is that I don’t mind if they use it, but to think of it as a tool they can leverage – and not let it steal their creativity. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the originality of ideas and how we all learn through mimicry. My daughter is applying to a graduate program in science writing and I’ve been giving her feedback on her application materials. Science writing is a perfect example of your point about ideas. The “big idea” behind what she wants to do is more like translation because the writer takes the idea from peer reviewed scientific research papers and makes it into something that non-scientists can read and enjoy. There’s no originality to the idea at all. It’s entirely up to the writer to turn the idea into art.
J. Michael Stracyzinski once told a story of his days working as a co-producer on ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Someone came in to pitch a script blind, which would periodically happen with new writers. JMS called the prospect into his office and asked for the pitch. “AMNESIA!” the writer exclaimed loudly and proudly. JMS waited patiently for more, but no more was forthcoming. “What about it?”, he asked. “That’s it. That’s the idea.’ Not even Jessica Fletcher gets amnesia, just ‘amnesia’. As if he thought that he was the first person to think of it (let alone pitching a story on like the 9th season of a top-rated TV show).
The idea is just that, little ‘i’.