Do Not Go Gentle Into That AI Night


Recent AI advances hint at a world of not only instant retrieval but instant creation. The technology is here to request “Taylor Swift song, but MAGA” and get a dead-on rendition of “The Last Great American President.” While our current technologies make us all little CEOs—checking our messages and fetching information at all hours of the day—this next crop could make us little gods.

The problem is, our tastes of this sort of power have actually made us miserable. As Barry Schwartz describes in The Paradox of Choice, more options often lead to objectively better but subjectively less satisfying outcomes. And rather than personalization remedying this overwhelm, it exacerbates it. If there is nearly infinite content, and this recommendation is tailored to me, then anything short of perfect is a frustrating disappointment. This modern malady will be worsened once our options expand from the extant to anything imaginable.

Additionally, while there are clear time-savings in automating emails or chats on a dating app, our current productivity market already demonstrates the risk of productivity for productivity’s sake. Advances in labor-saving technology to this point have just led to us cramming more into each day—red lights and bathroom breaks, once dead space, are now utilized for texting, emailing, and surfing.

The pressure to always do more, at least for me, creates a crushing sense of opportunity costs, spurred on by my internal chorus of productivity gurus. To get the most done, I should: get up at 4:30 a.m. for fasted, un-caffeinated BJJ (Jocko Willink). Make my damn bed (Jordan Peterson). Take a cold shower, get direct sunlight into my eyeballs, and have my first coffee 90-120 minutes after waking (Andrew Huberman). Also, do three Morning Pages (Julia Cameron), meditate (everyone), and do a gratitude journal (ibid). Then timeblock my whole day (Cal Newport), and you get the idea…

More than just “tyranny of the urgent,” productivity without clear direction or purpose leaves me scrambling to heed every new fad and beating myself up for all my undone hacks. What starts as a method to optimize reading, exercise, or relationships becomes an end in itself. The native physiological benefit of the morning walk or bed-making is overshadowed by appeasing the voice of Andrew Huberman or Jordan Peterson. Oliver Burkeman calls this “productivity debt,” that nagging sense that you wake up each day in the hole, and only with great labor and discipline can you break even by day’s end.

Without reflection and conscious decision, expanding options and capabilities can leave us paralyzed and dissatisfied by all that we leave undone, all the roads untaken, and all the ways our lives remain imperfect. As we near god-like powers of omniscience and omnipotence via AI, the gap between our human limitation and divine aspiration will be all the more infuriating.

Jon Elster, writing in 1986, contrasted the hard work of developing mastery with the cheap pleasure of consumption:

Activities of self-realization are subject to increasing marginal utility: They become more enjoyable the more one has already engaged in them. Exactly the opposite is true of consumption. To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

Elster uses the example of learning piano versus eating lamb chops to illustrate this distinction. While piano starts uncomfortable but becomes more pleasurable with practice, lamb chops are tasty initially, but they lose their savor with repeated consumption. Today, TikTok offers a souped-up form of consumption—endless content with enough variation to keep a user hypnotized, chasing the next high.

Rob Horning expanded on Elster’s idea in 2008:

Consumerism keeps us well supplied with stuff and seems to enrich our identities by allowing us to become familiar with a wide range of phenomena—a process that the internet has accelerated immeasurably… But this comes at the expense with developing any sense of mastery of anything, eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or worth pursuing.

While Google makes us feel knowledgeable, ChatGPT makes us feel wise. If Google makes memory unnecessary, ChatGPT seems poised to make thinking unnecessary. If you buy the idea that external, digital memory is interchangeable with internal, biological memory, it follows that external, digital thoughts you approve are interchangeable with internal thoughts, biological thoughts you produce.

However, in Google’s case, this has already proven to be a techno-utopian farce. We conflate what we know with what we can look up, and rather than deeply research, we skim hyperlinks and abstracts to confirm our half-baked ideas. Internal memory, far from obsolete in the age of Google, has proven itself essential for deep knowledge and sense-making. Overreliance on Google hinders our ability to make connections and insights, reducing us to mere parrots of the recommended page.

Yes, AI can now generate a good summary of nearly any book, but that necessarily renders the prose and ideas sterile and facile. Moreover, it entrusts interpretation to an AI that appears impartial but is not immune to bias. As the psalmist says, we become like the idols we worship, and techno-utopianism risks reducing us to, like our machines, creatures that view ideas and people without curiosity, pleasure, or attention. As Jaron Lanier remarked, the Turing Test cuts both ways: Are computers becoming more human or are we becoming more like our computers?

Tech critic Evgeny Morozov described in an interview with The Guardian his approach to handling technology:

I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card—so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing…

To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me. It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself. I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation .

It is not that technological encroachments—whether on a conversation, car drive, or term paper—are irresistible, they just require constant energy to resist, and our willpower is finite. And to Elster’s point, quick checks offer diversion rather than the satisfaction of sustained focus on a difficult task. To enjoy everything from a joke to a book requires attention and commitment. The energy for these gratifying activities is sapped by having a phone on the table or the internet one click away.

This temptation will only be heightened when the entertainment can be not only targeted but generated to titillate or soothe you specifically or when ideas can not only be found but synthesized to ease your scholarly effort. Morozov’s example is instructive because his self-imposed limitations create some discomfort necessary for growth. The hipsters, self-helpers, and curmudgeons are, for different reasons, converging on the necessity of the physical, with all its attendant imperfection and difficulty, over the digital.

In an age of smut, marriage is the more challenging path, but one with indisputable benefits for mental health, personal fulfillment, and societal good. Against the idolization of career and productivity, starting a family has proven a hard-to-beat treatment for the gnawing fear that your life is optimized but meaningless. The fatigue of creating bespoke spiritual, gender, and sexual identities is pushing some to the structure of institutional religion. Social media has only proven the inability of digital, curated lives to replace their in-person, honest counterparts.

The human pace of reading a book, drinking coffee with a friend, or listening to a record resemble less and less reading a hyperlinked webpage with ad sidebars and video pop-ups, snapchatting and texting numerous friends simultaneously, or streaming music with infinite alternatives and distractions beckoning. AI will only increase the pace and pull of life online while tech companies try to blur the distinction between the digital and physical world altogether. It’s worth considering whether further and faster is the way we want our lives to go.

Lana Del Rey has a track on her new album titled “Kintsugi.” The word refers to a Japanese pottery style that adorns the cracks in pottery with gold rather than hiding them. The imagery of the song—pottery breaking, chests caving in, frozen ground too cold for a burial—is all physical, and the sentiments are uniquely human: the cracks are where the light gets in, the failures where the learning happens, the uncertainty that makes life precious.

An AI could have written the song—its themes and melodies are classic Lana Del Rey—but its power and coherence come from its mortal, limited, human source. A human artist can disappoint, delay, and frustrate unlike any algorithm, but she can also surprise, delight, and move you unlike any AI could. I’ll take that trade.

Image credit: “Artificial General Intelligence Illustration” via Wikimedia


  1. A good description of “tyranny of the urgent”. Thanks, Ben.

    “eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or worth pursuing.” — not really. The word “personal” is missing before “mastery”. We still seek authorities who are deemed experts. One problem is what I dub “the cult of transferrable expertise”: a CEO can become Sec of Defense, a famous songwriter can get praised for painting. This goes hand in glove with devaluation of the term “polymath” into a form of casual flattery.

    And ChatGPT isn’t so different from Google. Both are crowd-sourced, which means they respectively derive their explanations and definitions from the internet, which is now a vast ocean of opinion as well as a source of reference information. Read my short experiment exposing ChatGPT regurgitation of folk etymology and urban legend, because they appear more frequently in the mass of “data” that the AI was trained with:

    The tyranny started long ago. Consider how original the typical high school essay or college term paper is, relying on quotes to prove a point (or at least prove the student read something). When echoing is embedded in our educational process and daily thinking patterns, it should be no surprise that an AI that echoes us feels like a threat to replace us.

  2. “in Google’s case, this has already proven to be a techno-utopian farce. We conflate what we know with what we can look up, and rather than deeply research, we skim hyperlinks and abstracts to confirm our half-baked ideas.”

    The tyranny of the urgent has become the tyranny of the immediate. It’s not only that we urgently need to have the info, we need to have it NOW.

    I’ve mentioned this before, but a seminary professor friend says that the biggest problem with the new students coming in is that they are so used to googling answers to questions that they have lost the understanding that “knowledge takes work.” He says that most of them have no concept, for instance, of the idea of wrestling with a difficult text whose meaning is not immediately evident. If they don’t grasp it first time around, they want to look online for answers rather than reread it and try to suss it out themselves.

    In one sense this is just another instance of the old capitalist program of changing luxuries into conveniences, then conveniences into necessities. This one’s particularly insidious however, as it affects not just the physical aspect (in this case, the dependence upon the various devices) but our actual thinking, feeling and reasoning processes as well. Being dependent on the telephone to contact each other is one thing. Being dependent on the cell phone in order to answer questions and solve problems is quite another.

  3. “A human artist can disappoint, delay, and frustrate unlike any algorithm, but she can also surprise, delight, and move you unlike any AI could.”
    I’ll be honest, I don’t actually think this is true. There are billions of people out there, and an awful lot of them try to write books, songs, etc., and most of them are complete trash that thankfully we are never exposed to. It is only a very tiny fraction that are recorded, disseminated, etc. I have no doubt that “AI”, now or in the future, can and will write great songs as well as terrible ones.

    Somehow we’ve arrived at a point, starting maybe in the “Industrial Revolution”, certainly accelerating during and after World War II, where the societal consensus, whether implicit or explicit, is that people are just cogs in a machine, whether we think about that in analog or digital terms. The masters think people are basically just bots, so if they make a decent enough bot, they can replace people. And a serious component of the masters now think that people are in fact completely disposable, and that they in fact should be disposed of, and it would be good if they were. Dealing with that is going to be the dominant issue of the 21st century.

  4. Ben,

    Thank you for your insight. Your thoughts mirror mine, as I am familiar with almost all of the podcasters you mention, and like you, I wake each day with a “debt.” Huberman especially haunts my day with thoughts of short-coming. As a Peterson super-fan (est. 2013), I long ago had to cut back. I was able to catch up a bit during his absence due to illness, but now he is almost full throttle once more, and he has brought along all the other great thinkers to the discussion. I am currently reading Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary” because he was a guest on Peterson. Not only Peterson, but the “whole” of it pains me. Lex Friedman, Bari Weiss, and not to mention all the literary and philosophy podcasts. And I mean “pain” – a mental, physical anguish akin to FOMO. Perhaps a Fear of Not Knowing (FONK) – a concern about ignorance…being wrong, doing it wrong – missing out on a better, flourishing life. This is none more salient than when I read Chesterton or Lewis…or any number of Great Books…it is worse than the podcasters…as I follow the footnote trails and realize how much “more” there is for me to learn, to know, to live…to think about.

    This morning I am listening to Shakespeare and reworking all of my fall courses to include ChatGPT as a tool for writing. I am working through what the new world in the AI classroom may entail, but more importantly, how do I continue to encourage humanity, while incorporating more machinery? Jaron Lanier is someone that I use in my classroom already, as we discuss the consequence of all the ideas that bombard my students, as well as myself. I am hoping that less time in teaching grammar and essay writing will redound to more time in teaching critical thinking. We will see.

    For now, I am diverting my attention away from the life of the mind, to look for patterns on how to make a teddy bear from baby onesies. My first grandchild was born in March…and since that time I have done much less consuming, and more time crocheting. Yours is the first article on FPR that I have had the opportunity to read in months. It hit the mark. Thank you again.


  5. I am about to finish reading Jenny Odell’s new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. One subject she discusses through humor and references is how time management can negatively affect both businesses and leisure time. I can see her grasping for answers, and she does mention Christianity once, but only in passing. As I was reading, I saw through her eyes the reality of Romans 1 which states that we can know God because He has shown it to us. It’s like she is on the cusp of discovering this, because she mentions how our physical world is not static.

    But one thing she does not address at all is the role of AI, which does enable the worship of saving time.

    Great article. We need well-written articles like this to push back against technocracy and to push back into God, who made it all.

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