Artificial intelligence threatens our capacity to listen to others—and ourselves
Recently I dreamed of a home invasion. I realized someone was in the house and thought I’ve got to get everyone out—didn’t think really, just grabbed the kids and ran. The intruder was big, really big, Michael Meyers big, Jason Voorhees big, with the same drab clothes, sallow rags, which camouflaged him in the shadows. I knew he was close, moving toward us. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his face; just the proximity felt malevolent. When we left I glanced back and could see him in the window.
I don’t remember where we went, exactly, but it was pleasant, some kind of market or fair. My wife and I talked while our children laughed and chased each other. When our youngest was tired I carried her on my shoulders. We returned home at dusk, and I knew he was still in the house, waiting.
Now what if I told you that even before I woke up I knew it was Death himself, knew the dream was no less true because it was a dream, knew there was nothing I could do to protect us, not really?
Here’s what prompted the dream, I think: I had just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the story of a man and his son struggling to survive in a ruined, post-apocalyptic world. The novel was inspired, McCarthy said, by his sleeping son and a nighttime vision of fires burning in the dark.
Literature reads us, I tell my students, different as we are each time we return to a story. I first read The Road in my twenties, and I saw my dad in the omnicompetence of the father in the story—his ingenuity, love, and self-sacrifice. When I recently picked up The Road I could barely finish it: The child’s vulnerability was overwhelming. I identified with the way the father marveled at his son. Even with the novel’s grisly backdrop, I identified with the father’s fear, his striving (and failing) to speak with patience, his effort to protect and provide in the midst of a world “ceasing to be.”
With its oblique relationship to reality, fiction can wake us up, can help us see what we otherwise wouldn’t. In our own world, one “ceasing to be,” at least as I knew it, I’m trying to do the same as the father in McCarthy’s novel, trying to explain the world in a way that’s true both to what is and what’s in store, trying to give my kids something of the good I’ve seen—in the presence of their need for meaning, to make sense, to understand. “The boy sat watching everything,” says the narrator.
I think of all the ways contemporary life differs from my experience growing up in a rural farming town, with its stability and the community’s commitment to one another. I assume and expect coherence, that life will be predictable and constant, in a way that is no longer true. I know, too, that try as I might, I can’t protect my children from darkness.
In post-apocalyptic fiction we can recognize in the characters’ striving a foundation of meaning, what’s all the more valuable after inestimable loss. In the case of The Road, the boy’s innocence sustains his father in the midst of blood cults and a blighted landscape. “If he [the boy] is not the word of God God never spoke,” says the father.
But reading The Road again I recognized another sustaining good: their shared language. As a community of two, father and son fashion a micro-culture based on survival but also on hope, a value inscribed in their speech. As they travel, the father communicates beliefs to his son, who repeats them back. They are the “good guys,” and they are “carrying the fire.”
Both the story and its manner of expression demonstrate the power of voice, the voices of the characters and of the author himself—because it’s McCarthy’s language that makes such a grim story endurable. In spare prose he offers a poetry of desolation. Often his descriptions are as exquisite as their referents are heartbreaking, a valediction for all that once was. When he writes, “We’re carrying the fire,” he speaks out of his vocation, his preternatural facility with language, and a lifetime of experiences—including his experience as a father. I would recognize McCarthy’s voice anywhere.
As a teacher and writer, I think a lot about voice—about the voices of favorite poets, playwrights, and novelists, and the presence of voice in student writing—how our expressions reveal us, how what we say and how we say it are inextricably linked, and how our words testify to our experiences, sensibilities, beliefs. Like the Roman rhetorician Quintilian who believed in the distinctiveness of every human voice, I argue that our writerly voices echo the particularity of our actual ones. Each of us bears witness to the world, and each with a distinct voice—that wonderful word that signifies identity and perspective, constitution and convictions.
As students cultivate their writerly voices, they develop their inner ears, attending to the voices they hear in print—including their own. We listen to other writerly voices, distinct and recognizable, powerful in their insights and reflections, bewitching in their lyricism or white hot in their prophetic warnings, and such voices prompt us to formulate and modulate our own. We join a conversation.
At a time in which the benefit of a liberal arts curriculum is in question, I have seen the value of this kind of education: Students learn to listen to their lives and to the voices of others. Students can be plagued by concerns of identity, and writing affords them greater self-awareness in pursuit of voice and all the influences that shape how they see themselves, others, and the world. This kind of writing is about nurturing habits of thought and expression. It’s about cultivating discretion, a disposition, wisdom even.
Given this, I’m inclined to regard developments like ChatGPT as curious and quaint—like Joseph Faber’s nineteenth-century speaking machine that could talk in multiple languages, whisper, laugh, and sing. But what if we rely on such devices to do the writing for us? Given how technology changes us, it’s easy to believe we’re headed toward an uncanny era of communication when fewer and fewer are really speaking in print—or listening. One of my favorite creative writing magazines says it doesn’t accept AI-generated submissions—yet.
Using AI to compose might save us the trouble of writing out of all that we have experienced. But in doing so we forfeit the chance to cultivate our voices. AI’s verbal vivisection produces only a plausible sequence of words, an approximation of voice. And surely it will affect how we listen, our capacity to attend to the voices around us. And that, finally, is the poison at the heart of the thing: AI is dangerous because it moves us away from one another—and ourselves.
Robert Erle Barham is Associate Professor of English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. He is the deputy editor of Current.
Yes, this image was generated with AI ∙ December 19, 2023 at 5:55 AM