I'm not concerned about AI (but probably should be)

First, a very important caveat for this essay: I don’t care about AI. I’ve had various opportunities to learn about it in the last ~decade and at no point did it pique my interest enough for me to think “this would be fun to learn about”. Perhaps I’ll look back on it as a horrendous career move and with huge regret, but the jury’s still out on that.

While out drinking with my programmer friends at the weekend, naturally the subject of ChatGPT arose. We laughed about it, comparing the way you can ask it to generate random pictures to Celery Man. While I laugh, there’s a slightly eerie feeling at the back of my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be. That at some point in time it might not seem so funny.

Often as someone “in the know” I feel differently on hot-button technology subjects to how my non-technical friends and family feel. Take WhatsApp being asked to create backdoors to make it easier for government agencies to hunt down terrorists and child abusers; I can totally see why you’d be concerned by those things, but knowing what I do about the benefits of encryption I’m aware of the other risks. I’m not very knowledgeable about AI or what it’s capable of, other than that I know its current limitation is that it requires human input, so we’re still some way away from something that “thinks” for itself.

One of my programmer friends thinks there is nothing to stop the proliferation of AI. “It’s unstoppable. It’s inevitable that some people will lose their jobs”, he says. He also works in tech and makes good money. The people working on the cutting edge of AI (and with vested interests in it) are hugely wealthy and have likely spent most of their lives in the belief that their work will push humanity forward. I wonder how much sympathy they have for the working classes, sympathy for the Customer Service Representative with no university education. Attempts to automate entry-level jobs (that our economy thrives on) like these with bots might seem silly now, but I’d hazard a guess they soon won’t be. Those of us who work in tech are all incredibly lucky; I think about this every day.

I don’t think I have any reason to be worried about my job. The application I work on is highly complex and configurable. By the time you’d explained what it does to a machine in English, you’d have built the entire thing from scratch anyway. English might not even be the ideal way to explain it but at least it’s how us humans think (and dream) about applications now. Perhaps I could describe a service and some endpoints to ChatGPT and it could probably produce an Echo server with working code, but the limit to how accurate it’s going to be is how much detail I’m willing to go into.

There’s a subculture that seems to have appeared on some parts of Reddit and Hacker News recently: choosing the prompts that your AI art is created from. I find it totally absurd that anyone would think this could be considered a “skill” but people already do, as though choosing 10 words requires anything like the level of skill required to draw or paint well. Thankfully we do consider skill when we think about the quality of art, which is why a Rembrandt knockoff doesn’t cost you anywhere near as much as the real thing.

I imagine the future (at least for programmers) will be some augmentation of what we currently do: auto generated code snippets. I can’t imagine a self-checking, self-moderating machine that turns Jira tickets into an application you never touch or see. There will still be code, edited and validated by humans.

But I don’t see people losing their jobs in the face of this technology as an “inevitability” either. It certainly doesn’t have to be, unless those in charge let it be. We’ve developed a much better understanding of how to live with technology than ~170 years ago. I only hope that we don’t give in to the lazy, big tech optimism that’s got us into so much trouble so many times before. The Silicon Valley CEOs and investors of this world don’t have all our best interests at heart, so let’s stop pretending like they do.


I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last few years thinking about why some things are better than others, particularly art. There’s a common view that if the purpose of art is to appeal to humans, the “best” art is that which appeals to the greatest number. I hold the view that popularity is not necessarily a measure of quality, but a bias.

When my girlfriend and I recently visited Arundel we came across Kim’s Books, with tens of thousands of titles on its shelves. I found myself gravitating only towards the authors I’d heard of and there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to discover something new (not that either of us had come with any particular titles in mind). The impression the experience gave me was that not all works are timeless; likely most will be forgotten about in time. For how long will people continue to read novels?

I feel a couple of ideas coming together. Long have I been preoccupied with quality but there are many books, movies and songs that I like that aren’t considerd critically-speaking “good”. Not by critics, not by anyone. I like them because they resonate with me, on an emotional or intellectual level. I don’t mean to say that “all art is subjective” which the majority seem to believe these days, because I don’t think the subjective/objective model is the be all and end all; there are “better” forms of art than others and the right answer is probably a bit more nuanced; I’ve skirted around what I think this is in various blog posts here. I’m starting to feel that to create something that resonates with at least one other person (someone you know even) is just as much the mark of “success” as anything that resonates with many people, but I do fully-well appreciate that “great” works are usually popular.

I’ve been writing poems for the last three or so months. I always thought poetry was for hacks, but I’ve never really had the patience for long fiction and I find writing fun little verses accessible (at least on the surface). In this sense, writing poems feels like what photography is to painting: both involve the study of light but the former is at least in this day and age easier to get started with. But I say “only on the surface” because like many of the arts, to create something truly resonant takes time and patience.

Sometimes I find writing poems difficult when I’ve been listening to a lot of music by a single artist, as I often do (I almost never skip around). It influences me so greatly I find it impossible to write anything not in the style of, or to the beat of the music I’ve been listening to. In fact the other day I wrote an entire poem only to realise it had the exact same rhythmn as John Prine’s “One Red Rose” (though I prefer the Iris DeMent version).

Pirsig wrote about something similar. After the publication of “Zen…” he said:

”…there’s an adage to remember, ‘Reading is the enemy of writing.’ I remember telling that to Kay Sexton at B. Dalton who threw up her hands and said, ‘Don’t say that! You’ll put us out of business!’ But it’s true. Any time I did read a book during the years of writing ZMM and Lila it would stop the writing for as much as a week while memories of what I just read or heard gradually faded. That was also true of movies, TV, and parties.”

What is inspiration if not emotional resonance? Artists are inspired by other artists, probably more indirectly than we think, since to read Seneca is not to understand Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. The latter is inspired by the ideas of the former but after all when the dust settles, they are separate works by separate authors.

Embracing the heterodox

At the denouement of the 2018 film “Under the Silver Lake” a character staring into the eyes of the protagonist delivers the following monologue with great conviction.

“This isn’t a world that anyone with much sense stays in or spends much time worrying about. You’re living in a carnival, throwing plastic rings at oversized pop bottles, hoping to win a prize. What are you going to win? A two-week vacation? New car? A little money to retire on? It’s all just a shitty, sawdust-filled rabbit. The things you care about are useless when we’re gone.”

Often when a character delivers their “master plan” monologue we’re suppose to write them off as delusional, but I think the director had other ideas. I’m sure there are lots of us who would likely share this character’s cynicism - many people today describe themselves as “realists” but the divide is increasingly narrow when the world feels so depraved; the news seems to only show us stories of death, corruption, greed, injustice etc.

I think it’s important to separate “the world” from “my world”. The former is how I perceive wars in foreign countries I’ve never been to, the election of the next prime minister, generalised ideas of human behaviour etc. I experience almost all of these things through television and the internet and by-in-large my actions have very little effect on them (more on this later). The latter is my personal, direct experience: things I see, taste, hear, people I have conversations with, my family, friends, colleagues. What should be more important, the former or the latter?

One of the attitudes that I feel is most prevalent in the West is “those things are happening the other side of the world and so don’t affect me”. While our news sites do sometimes cover stories about atrocities in other parts of the world these are quickly forgotten about as journalists and news outlets choose other things to draw our attention to. But mostly these events are not likely to influence how we live our lives (as deeply saddening as they are) because we don’t think anything like them is ever going to happen to us.

At the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, many of us thought there was no likelihood of the virus (that was at the time infecting thousands of Chinese citizens) ever reaching our shores. For one of the first times in my life I saw first-hand an intersection between “my world” and “the world”.

I think it’s becoming increasingly easy to accept ideas outside of the box of rationality and correctness most of us live in. That’s not just because when things feel so bleak we naturally look for alternatives, but being right all the time and believing everyone else to be wrong is also tiresome; it’s freeing to not feel the need to scrutinise every belief that falls outside of what you consider “true”. What also seemed to quickly emerge during the Covid pandemic was the need to live our lives by the empirical and undeniable Truth. It was what scientists told us about the virus that influenced how we behaved, except the message wasn’t always singular and clear and there were people in our lives who seemed to be more in-the-know than the rest of us - who we gave a voice (and a sense of self-importance) to. In the end there was really no single truth, only our many varied individual truths.

The reason why a lot of us don’t seem to care very much about climate change is because it too falls victim to the “that’s happening on the other side of the world and doesn’t affect me” mentality, the key difference with Covid-19 being that its effects are not yet obvious and immediate to us where we live. Despite temperatures here in the UK being higher last week than they’ve been for almost fifty years, nobody’s death certificate will have any mention of climate change (but it might say heatstroke).

What I find overwhelmingly sad is the people who truly believe this (whom I so desperately want to be wrong) are in some ways right. The first people to be affected by climate change, to die, to be displaced, to starve aren’t anywhere near the UK. They’re in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the hottest regions of the planet.

It will take a majority of people challenging our notion of what is “correct” for us to figure out how to slow down the effects of climate change, to embrace the heterodox ideas and the moonshots, to remove the carbon already in our atmosphere.


When my girlfriend and I go on walks in the New Forest we regularly talk about the sense of presence we have.

We note the colour of flowers and the different types of tree. We comment on the smell of sap. We see birds dart across our path and listen for each of their distinct calls. We keep our eyes peeled for deer, taking care not to step on any dry twigs, the crack of which would reverberate through the forest.

I feel the warmth of her hand in mine.

When I am present I’m most receptive to the world immediately around me. While I find it possible to be present in my own thoughts I think I am most present when feel part of the environment I’m in, like a character within a scene in a play.

Being present requires focus; It is almost meditative but not tranquil; Instead of clearing my mind I open it to everything. Sometimes it’s hard to speak at the same time.

The thoughts I have in this state of mind are likely to be only temporary but since I’m observing everything, there’s no need to remember specific events. Some of this I’ll remember and some of it I’ll forget.

I find it impossible to be present under the influence of any substance like alcohol, or even a stimulant like caffeine. To be present I must experience the surrounding environment in my truest form.

My presence is not limited to sight. It is enhanced by touch.

Sometimes when I’m alone in the forest I close my eyes and listen.

If my sense of presence is perceptual then it cannot be measured, but I suspect that it is noticeable to those around me. However it’s a state of mind only I feel and understand.

The benefits I have found to being more present include: remembering things more clearly; stronger relationships with those around me; no longer a desire to be elsewhere or thinking about the next thing; noticing things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.

Some Quality Biases

It’s so often that topics like “why film X is better than film Y” come up in conversations with friends. “Better” is an assessment of quality, something I’ve been thinking about ever since reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance” a few years ago.

According to Pirsig, quality is a “perceptual experience preceding intellectual thought”. If one’s to believe this, there can be no universal measure for quality; It must be an internal matter.

We often don’t consider our own personal biases when deciding whether something’s good or not (good meaning “high in quality”), but in this post I’ll describe some common ones I’ve encountered.


When something has been created in a complex way we often assume it’s because a great deal of thought has gone into its creation. This is especially true in programming where complex code can appear quite impressive. However it’s usually the simplest code that is the highest quality; that has been refactored.


It’s perfectly possible to dislike the themes discussed in a novel but still consider it to be well written. Conversely, it’s possible to like the content and think the writing poor. However this is usually not the case: more often we think of things we like as being well executed and things we don’t like as being bad. The same can be said of most of the arts.

It would be negligent of me to make no mention of “The Last of Us: Part 2”, which I wrote about here when I played it first. I’ve since played it several times and still do not believe that the story choices (as sad as they may be) make this game “bad”. Our feelings about a story make our perceptions about the quality of writing biased.


To see that other people liked or disliked something usually influences how we feel about it. In “How Art Can Be Good”, Paul Graham says:

And yet the Mona Lisa is a small, dark painting. If you found people who’d never seen an image of it and sent them to a museum in which it was hanging among other paintings with a tag labelling it as a portrait by an unknown fifteenth century artist, most would walk by without giving it a second look.