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  • Rainey Knudson

Writing is Not Thinking (455 words)


Image from Animal Man #25, published by DC Comics

Now that AI is here, writing will soon be an activity almost nobody does out of necessity anymore, like spinning yarn. Machines will do it for us.


I said recently to a sharp older woman who was visibly appalled at the yarn comparison. She shot back, "So my sweater is like your thoughts?" I answered that her sweater was not like my thoughts, but with AI, her sweater was like a job description for a big corporation, i.e. a piece of writing for which human wordsmithing is no longer necessary.


Even as I spoke it, I knew “corporate job description” was a cowardly example. The truth is that AI will eventually make all writing, even the most inventive thing I or anyone else could ever write, like her sweater: mechanically produced. Sure, human wordsmithing will still exist, just as spinning yarn by hand still exists—quaintly—but it will become increasingly rare in the coming century. Humans will no longer be required to do the work of stringing words together to express ideas.


Put another way, through sheer computing power, we have arrived at the apocryphal monkey typing for infinity and eventually producing Hamlet.


So, what is the difference between that Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet?



A fellow of infinite jest: Laurence Olivier cuddles Yorick's skull in the 1948 film of Hamlet

For any requested text, AI programs sift through unimaginable amounts of existing writing to make predictions about what word should follow the next. This is incredibly useful—I like AI particularly for coming up with recipes when I tell it what ingredients I have on hand. But it’s not like AI is thinking about food.


Similarly, it’s not like AI understands Hamlet’s existential dilemma. AI just predicts that “be” should come after “To”.


I’ve heard the phrase "writing is thinking" in the past, usually in the sense of “bad writing means bad thinking,” but the sharp old lady's question equating her sweater with my thoughts got me wondering: is writing really thinking? What is writing, and how well does written language capture thought?


When someone asks you, "What are you thinking?" you instinctively reach for language to answer the question and express the thought. But it’s unlikely that you were visualizing written words in your mind as a thought; if it even involved language, it was more likely words you were "hearing." Probably, it was an amalgamation of image, sound, and the kind of wordless knowing that occurs inside our heads before we give it form—however crudely and imperfectly—with language.


In other words, language is a shoddy tool for expressing thought. But it’s the best tool we have, so far anyway. Perhaps as AI takes over the job of written language, our species will come up with a more elegant way to communicate thought. This is my hope.



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