Navigating Back: Stargazing and the Threat of AI
As I contemplate a changing creative landscape since the unleashing of generative AI, I can’t help but think back to grade school math.
I had the coolest compass in class. All the other kids had those cheap dime store models with the crappy ball bearing that might, or might not, allow you to draw a neat circle. But mine was state-of-the art: masterfully crafted, precise in its measurements, fluid in its movements, and armed at one end with a wickedly sharp lance to plant it in the navigational charts for which it was designed.
It was U.S. Navy issue, at one time my dad’s while he was a navigation officer on the USS Galveston from 1968-1969. With help from that compass and my dad’s skill, the Galveston circumnavigated the globe, sailing first to Vietnam, then through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean, and continuing on to Texas, where Glenn Campbell declined an invitation to perform his hit song Galveston, on the Galveston, while docked in Galveston. Finally, Dad guided the ship back to Mom and me, just shy of my second birthday.
Dad accomplished all this with that compass, a slew of paper navigation charts, encyclopedic maps of the nighttime sky, and a sextant—a venerable sailor’s tool for measuring the angle between the horizon and a celestial object to calculate a ship’s position at sea. Vigilance, a magazine read by Navy men featured a photo of Dad on the Galveston’s deck peering into his sextant with the caption: “Shoot that star!” Thinking that my dad was pretty cool, I wanted to shoot some stars too.
What does this have to do with how a modern-day writer might think about AI? I’m getting there.
Decades later I hovered on the fringes of an exchange between Dad and some of his longtime shipmates. They were grumbling that the Naval Academy, their alma mater, no longer taught these skills of celestial navigation to aspiring officers. And while their conversation was tinged with the rose-colored nostalgia of grumpy old men pining for past glories, they were also genuinely concerned that the Navy had abandoned what they considered an essential skill for any self-respecting mariner.
Apparently, those old sailors were right. The Navy came to regret their decision, and celestial navigation was reinserted into the Academy’s curriculum. The top brass had become concerned that if, during a conflict, the radars and satellites went down, their ships might wind up spinning aimlessly in the ocean, easy targets for an enemy. Old skills, it turns out, should never have been displaced completely by new machines.
Perhaps this lesson learned can encourage writers as generative AI threatens to disrupt the literary world, and even—according to some— displace human authors altogether. Like my dad and his friends, many fear that something essential is in danger of being lost by those rushing headlong to adopt a shiny new technology. But it’s my hope that, as with the Navy, those who do will come to see that what they embraced isn’t a fully reliable solution, and reappraise the value of what had been cast aside.
When accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner insisted that a writer’s duty is to “speak of the human heart in conflict with itself.” And that’s possible only by sharing the human condition and all it entails: the highs and the lows, the joys and pains, hopes and fears. Technological wizardry cannot do that now, and never will. It can mimic those who can, their genius having been shoveled into its maw, scraped without attribution from cyberspace, generating a logical sequence of words from a prompt. Its product might sound human. But it’s a fraudulent facsimile.
Imitation, it’s often said, is the sincerest form of flattery. And plenty of aspiring writers imitate authors whose work they admire. It’s a common step on the journey to develop a unique voice to share with the world. But now, if one can simply prompt a bot to spew text in another writer’s “style,” flattery is replaced by piracy, and the craft of human creation is supplanted by a parlor game. Instead of striving to stand on the shoulders of giants, we can content ourselves to slouch in their shadows.
Perhaps I’m overreacting. I’ll admit to catastrophizing at times. But I maintain that I have good grounds for being concerned. Because why would young people today dream of becoming a writer? To borrow from Faulkner’s Nobel speech, why would they risk “a life’s work in the agony and the sweat of the human spirit” when their labors may well be drowned in a tsunami of robotic “content,” their own original writing never to be discovered or appreciated? Who then will write of the human heart, when that’s been surrendered to what has no heart at all?
Some of AI’s creators regret what they’ve unleashed, terrified that this beast will annihilate humanity unless it’s quickly caged. Their dire warnings bring more of Faulkner’s Nobel speech to my mind. It was delivered amidst fear from an earlier existential threat: the atomic bomb. “When will I be blown up?” Faulkner said, was the one thought on young writers’ minds. And while he acknowledged their anxieties, he warned that despair leads to inertia. Then he offered a word of hope. Humanity would prevail, he insisted, precisely because of what makes us human: “a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
I am no longer a young writer. While I’m not yet a grumpy old man, I’ve seen that the grumpy and the old are sometimes right, just like my dad and his fellow ancient mariners. Their lamenting a human skill’s displacement by technology was vindicated when, on reflection, that human skill was deemed essential. I hope that anxious writers, like me, will be vindicated too. Technology might have an assisting role in writing. But it should never replace. Faulkner asserted that a writer’s vocation is to remind humanity of “the glory of (our) past.” I plead that we hold this vision firm as we navigate into the future. Because I still have stars I wish to shoot. And many things left to write.
Scott Hurd is the award-winning author of five books, including Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach. Recent essays and reviews have been published by, or are forthcoming in, Streetlight Magazine, The Smart Set, Allium, KAIROS , Salvation South, Ohio History, Medicine and Meaning, and Pembroke Magazine, which nominated him for a Pushcart Prize. Scott is married to fellow writer Diane Kraynak.