Handwriting

Suppose I asked you for a picture of your hand. Your first impulse, I imagine, would be to take one with your phone and send it to me. But suppose I wanted the picture to prove that you can actually see your hand, not just that you know where it is.

Bear with me, I have a point coming soon.

Consider another example. Suppose you asked me how many fingers you were holding up and I responded by taking a picture of your hand and showing it to you, perhaps saying, “That many!” for good measure. You would not be impressed with my ability to see and count, right? Indeed, you would become suspicious that I was trying to hide my inability to do at least one of those things.

In order to prove that we can actually see, i.e., perceive, we have to be able to represent the content of our visual fields ourselves. We can’t just let a machine show it back to each other.

That’s why painters can impress us so much with their work. They are able to represent what comes to their eye (and we can see the same or similar things from their point of view) using their bare hands. That picture of your hand will only demonstrate the quality of your vision if you draw it yourself.

Now, consider writing. If I ask you what an organization is, you’re not going to impress me simply by quoting some sentences in Chester Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive that happen to use the word “organization”. The real test lies in the words you come up with on your own.

You have to show me that you actually have ideas about organization. Not just that you recognize the word in someone else’s prose.

I’m saying this because, after all this writing about (and with) large language models, I need to rehearse some basic arguments for the value of being a good writer. It’s a little like the value of being able to do math and draw pictures. In some sense, sure, you don’t need those skills. You can let machines do these things. Still, in another sense, there is some value there.

But what is it? What is it that impresses us about being able to draw a picture of what you see right in front of you, or calculate (or even just estimate) the diagonal of a rectangle with given sides, or describe a current event in words? What does it show us about the person who is able to do it?

Why do we want (if that is what we want) students to learn these things in school. Why do we want them to demonstrate what they have learned (in art school, engineering school, or business school) in such media? Why won’t we just let them show us a photograph, fill out a spreadsheet, or quote from the news?

We want them to have something on their minds. We want them to have strong, healthy ones. And we think these skills are what makes them that way. As Oliver Senior puts is, “The better draughtsman has more ‘on his mind’ concerning his subject.” We want to encourage them to have such minds.

But there are limits to what we want them to prove. There was a time when we valorized neat handwriting as part of the skillset of a good student. I don’t know if this has been a requirement for working academics since, well, the Reformation, and it is certainly no longer something we care very much about. Most of us have atrocious handwriting and we’re not even embarrassed about it. No one sees it; we type everything we show to others.

But we do, I want to argue, make still make our texts “by hand”. We make them ourselves from materials that are lying around in plain view. We put words together that are given to us by a common language.

When asked what we have on our minds, we don’t take a picture; we make one. And if we can’t, our interlocutor begins to suspect we don’t have much going on in there at all. Indeed, on most days, most of us don’t have much on our minds about most things.

Now, an artificial intelligence, never has anything on its mind. It doesn’t have a mind to speak of. It always just responds to our “prompts” by converting it into an input and generating an output that it presents as a “completion”. It famously just predicts the next word. Here’s an exchange I just had with GPT-3:

How many fingers am I holding up?

You are holding up four fingers.

I was not. I’m sure DALL-E would be happy to draw you its hand.

Neither have any idea what a hand is. They know neither what they’re doing nor what they’re talking about.

At the beginning of this summer project of mine, I quoted Ezra Pound. “We live in an age of science and abundance,” he said. “The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to ‘the needs of society’, or to the conservation of learning.” Here’s what GPT-3 does with the same idea:

We live in an age of science and abundance. There are so many ways to get rich, but the challenge is that most people don’t know how. The good news is that there are people who do know how to get rich. And they’re sharing their secrets with the world.

Well, heaven help us! In any case, time is giving scope to Pound’s recommendation: “The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.”

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