Goodbye Trevor, Hello Mayor Bass & WTF is ChatGPT
Plus RSVP for my conversation with adrienne maree brown!
What Lensa AI thinks of me.
There’s a Puck version of this email which gives you access to the complete article at the end, but if you haven’t subscribed there, read on for some updates from my world and teasers about generative AI coming for creative work to help, to destroy, or both…
I spent last weekend in a tuxedo—this is becoming a thing for me—as I attended the IDA Documentary Awards run by the International Documentary Association. This time, I wasn’t the emcee, but an honoree for Best Episodic Series for my PBS show, America Outdoors. We didn’t win, and I thought this was just a cliché thing that people say, but it truly was an honor to be nominated! Congratulations to The Origins of Hip Hop and all the other winners. While waiting in line for a solid dirty martini, I kept hearing that the IDAs are a preview of the Oscar nominations in the relevant documentary categories. If that’s the case, I predict you’ll be hearing lots about the features All That Breathes and Fire of Love.
I left the event with my binge queue refilled, and atop my list is the public television doc Fannie Lou Hamer’s America. Fannie Lou Hamer is one of those civil rights leaders who had a massive influence, but whom we rarely hear or read about. She was a sharecropper-turned-activist for voting and women’s rights. She directly experienced every form of systemic oppression you could imagine: low-wage cotton picking, forced sterilization, police brutality, voter suppression, and ridicule because of her race, gender, and education level. Hamer helped plan the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive in 1964 and successfully pushed the Democratic Party of that era to adopt an equal representation clause for state delegations to the national convention, overturning the previous era of all-white delegations designed to stifle Black political power. When we see Southern states erecting barriers to voting, they are trying to undo Hamer’s work.
But it won’t be undone, not without one hell of a fight put up by people resisting backsliding and helping us imagine and pursue a freedom we can all believe in. On that note, I’m excited to share that our final live, public taping of the year for How To Citizen will be with the one and only adrienne maree brown! It’s going down this Thursday December 15 at 9am PT / Noon ET. You gotta RSVP, and space and time are limited!
On a related note, congratulations to Trevor Noah on his seven year run hosting The Daily Show! I was honored to be there at the very beginning after Trevor invited me to join him in helping build his version of the show. In his last episode, Trevor paid respect to Black women for teaching him and all of us. If you missed it, here’s a short video to catch up.
Finally thought on this thread kicked off by Hamer. Karen Bass is now mayor of the city of Los Angeles. She’s the first woman and first Black woman to hold the job. She was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, and both of these women are able to do the work they do partly because of Hamer’s work a lifetime ago. With an all-female board of supervisors and now L.A.’s first female mayor, it’s no surprise so many LA bros are moving to Austin! Seriously though, I wish my new mayor well as she takes on the city’s major challenges, like the crisis of unhoused Angelenos and so much more. I’m down to help! Early in 2022, I had a conversation with Aras Jizan on my How To Citizen podcast. He was the data and technology lead for Built for Zero, a movement to end homelessness through rigorous goal-setting and measurement.
I reached out to Aras to get his thoughts on what our new mayor should do, and he offered up the following: The mayor needs to create shared, quantifiable goals to decrease homelessness and do so with shared accountability across the city, county, and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. He also encouraged her to move quickly, by any means necessary, to build more affordable housing, and he repeated something that he shared during our podcast discussion: We have to be able to count and name our unhoused neighbors. We have to know them. Most of all, he said, “I think they need to begin to win back the narrative by demonstrating that homelessness is not an intractable problem in our city. It will be hard. I’m biased here, but I think only the voices of folks with lived experience of homelessness—those working as front line staff—and credible aggregate data showing decreases in homelessness are going to get it done.” Seems like good advice, Mayor Bass.
Meanwhile, what’s on my mind for my article this week is ChatGPT and the growth of “generative A.I.” Read on and let me know if you can tell whether I wrote this myself or if software did it for me.
Is the Next Tina Fey a Bot?
The rise of ChatGPT suggests how artificial intelligence is coming for the arts.By Baratunde Thurston
The robots are coming. That’s what we’ve been hearing for generations, with the assumption that artificial intelligence would soon arrive to replace human labor, especially the physical sort. First outsourcing, then automation, would further erode blue collar jobs in the developed world.
In some ways, the machine revolution is already halfway complete. We don’t have elevator operators or telephone operators anymore. Many of us check ourselves out at grocery stores or rental car kiosks or airport newsstands. People can push their own buttons, and the folks who did those jobs have other gigs now, including working with technology to produce or oversee production of exponentially more output than was previously possible. As time has progressed, so has the speed of automated systems and the range of their possible application, so that our fears have grown beyond labor displacement in certain sectors to include wholesale displacement of physical human work writ large.
With the shift toward rapid software development, cloud computing, and the ability of machines to build learning models based on vast troves of images and text, we are realizing that A.I. might be coming much more rapidly for the jobs we didn’t think were as easily replicable: artists, screenwriters, and even software developers themselves. The very people who pontificate about the impact of artificial intelligence might have their pontification taken over by artificial intelligence. Robotic poetic justice?
The latest entry into the A.I. debate is ChatGPT, a chatbot trained on a massive dataset and capable of producing answers to questions and prompts that are indistinguishable from human-generated text. The chatbot was created by OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research firm largely funded by Microsoft, but also by Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and others. ChatGPT ingests information from myriad sources and pattern-matches and correlates in such a way as to produce often-accurate answers delivered in human-enough voice, but it will not and cannot ascribe sources to any parts of its answers (at least not yet). Beyond decent paragraphs, ChatGPT can generate full essays, poems, even software code.
Of course, it’s probably too early for ChatGPT to replace screenwriters like Tina Fey, but it’s got a decent chance of putting all those WikiHow scribes out of work. “As a writer, I was initially excited that a robot could possibly take over the part of my job I hate the most, which is actually writing anything,” joked my friend Matt Klinman, a comedy writer and former colleague from our time at The Onion. “So I messed around with it and like everyone I was initially really impressed. But then I tried to use it to do anything useful for me and it turns out it’s mostly just a bullshitter that rips off Wikipedia articles without even donating. Plus I had to check its facts, so not only is my shitty employee trying to take my job, but now I also have to babysit it so it doesn’t get both of us canceled.” Still, Matt noted, while he doesn’t yet know what he’ll use ChatGPT for, he’s “having fun messing with it,” and foresees a world where it might soon take over the most annoying parts of his job, like organizing notes—something that an assistant or a freelancer might otherwise help with. (By the way, Matt has a history of “messing with” technology for the sake of comedy. Back in 2013, helped build his own satirical version of a text generator that manufactured satirical conspiracy theories, and it’s worth a look at the hilarious horror that emerged.) It’s perhaps too early to say definitively whether ChatGPT is a good or bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing, and it’s definitely not the last we’ll be hearing about this kind of spooky disruption.
Back in the ’80s, my mother and I would plot our trips to campgrounds up and down the East Coast on another once-transformative technology: paper. Her AAA membership included access to “TripTiks”—printed, vertically-oriented maps that we’d receive in the mail, highlighting our routes and turns and exits, rest areas, and hotels. In the ’90s, I swapped out TripTik for Microsoft Streets and Trips on my Windows laptop, a stack of CD-ROMs pre-loaded with different roadmaps of the United States. I gave voiceover turn-by-turn directions to my mom as I rode shotgun. She called me “The Navigator,” and I loved that job.
When Garmin and TomTom made GPS systems that any driver with some money could install themselves, I was excited about that too, opting for the upgrade to my rental cars and happily choosing the Snoop Dogg voice option whenever possible. But the pace of change came with a learning curve. As these dashboard GPS systems became widely available, people began getting into new kinds of accidents: not just with other cars, but with bridges or ramps or roads that weren’t finished. Drivers were so deferential to the “intelligent” technology, they failed to see what was actually in front of them. The GPS didn’t stutter or pause or deliver its instruction with any hesitation. The GPS told these people with absolute confidence to drive off the damn bridge, and some people did. They trusted the virtual display more than the real world—until they literally collided with the real world. (Another analogy might be what happened with media coverage of the 2016 election, where reporters over-relied on models and forecasts).
The rise of ChatGPT, I think, is following a similar trajectory. It’s obviously innovative and possibly useful, but it also allows humans to become lazy and lose touch with their surroundings—if not our physical geography than our history, knowledge, and curiosity. ChatGPT confidently offers up false or even dangerous answers. There are scores of news stories documenting ChatGPT’s errors in identifying countries, inventing quotes by company executives, and worse. It’s a search engine that offers up only one answer and doesn’t reveal it might be wrong unless you already know the correct answer.
Read the full piece on Puck where I continue thinking aloud on
the lack of transparency or citation by systems like ChatGPT
the trend toward industrializing the process of creativity
the lack of consent in using the works that train the AI models
the positive possibilities of this tech
my own citations of the work and words of Gary Kasparove, Molly Crabapple, and Cleo Abram
Enjoy the rest of your week!