Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Old Man's Lament

Five old men sitting around a table in the park and I’m one of them. Lamenting, as the old are required to do, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. A common complaint over the ages, but now there is something new—this basket made by a 3D printer and driven in the back seat of a driverless car following the directions to Hell on a GPS. 


Our topic for the day was the rise of AI and I had my two-hour lecture ready. How we’ve already outsourced our body to machines, reduced the complex intelligences of the hand to digits pushing buttons or clicking on keyboards, sold out our elegant working, walking and dancing body to other machines and sat with increased corpulence sunk into soft couches watching yet other machines, narrowed the delights of the senses to 2-dimensional screens with no taste, texture, warm-blooded touch or smell. 


Likewise, the complex shades and nuances of the human heart able to respond to the full range of subtle emotions in a Chopin nocturne, jazz ballad or Indian raga, now coarsened by the overamplified pounding of the disco beat. National discourse has shrunk to angry tantrums, mean-spirited insults or overwhelmed depression. Complex social skills with authentic conversations now find us hiding behind tweets, likes and hates, removing all accountability and unveiling the scared little boys and girls hiding behind their phones.


And now our very intelligence and capacity for critical thought and expression is being colonized by the imperialist overlords of our own making. Why read different points of view and form your own ideas from their confluence? Let chatgpt write your term paper for you—no thinking required. Why, it can also write our break-up notes to our current sweethearts! 


We are the modern Daniel Websters who have sold our souls to the Devil, not by armed invasion, but our own choosing. We have put the three gifts of a human incarnation— body, voice and mind— and locked them away in a vault in an offshore account. 


That was my spin on the subject. But then the conversation revealed yet worse. The power of AI to generate images, to steal voices and actual make videos of people doing things and saying things that they never did. And then posting it for millions to see instantly, show it to a population no longer capable of intricate thought, deep discussion, genuine emotion and as such, vulnerable to manipulation by those who seek to benefit and increase their billions already in the bank and take full control and power of a political system that requires informed citizens. Even the best amongst us might have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction as these images enter and hit below the belt, convincing us that we need to do what certain people say in order to survive. 


Suddenly, our handbasket trip to hell was entering territory with no speed limits and hurtling at high-velocity to a world nightmare so different from our 60’s dreams of peace, love and living in harmony with nature. How the hell did this happen?!!!


And yet. Just before we left, a young woman in a crazy-quilted skirt walked by and started playing parachute games with kids and making animals from balloons. A man stepped up to a microphone and strummed a guitar with his own fingers and sang a song with his own voice, with tune and lyric made from his own mind and imagination. Walking down the park, an elderly woman sat on a bench with her face so peacefully uplifted to the emerging sun. Five men were spreading dirt around a garden with their own bare hands. A school group of 20 high-school kids came bounding out of an elevator and skipped across the grass whooping and shouting, not a single cell phone in their hands. A mother rocked a baby in her own arms talking to her in her own words. I asked a worker something about this little park near the Salesforce Tower and we had an actual conversation. A tower wholly connected to the over-inflated hubris of building big with lots of money, but still with the sense of putting grass and trees at its base and a playground and an art center for kids and a book exchange.

So all is not lost. The Siren songs trying to lure us to our doom are on huge loudspeakers played 24/7 and few among us have the sense to tie ourselves to the mast or stuff our ears to hear the truer song inside. Yet here we still are. In our own bodies, with our own feelings, our own thoughts, our own delights in a world still beautiful with the smell of roses, the taste of a fresh early-girl tomato, the exquisite singing of a young Samara Joy, the sight of the sun setting over the cool waters of the Pacific on a hot October day. Still capable of playing a piano outdoors on JFK Drive and having someone walk by to listen, then pull out a trumpet and start playing along. Neighbors still making time to gather in the park with their young kids to sing Halloween songs with me and dance The Paw-Paw Patch Playparty (changed, of course, to Pumpkin patch). 


My friends, a word of advice from this old man. Resist, resist! Natural intelligence will always be superior to artificial intelligence, conversation always better than robotic voice mail choices, a walk in the park always more soul-satisfying than a Virtual Reality gamespace. Use machines we will and often must and sometimes they bring their own pleasure, but note, we must use the machines rather than have them use us. The horse pulls the cart, the dog wags its own tail (in regard to this AI manipulation of images, a good time to watch Wag the Dog again). Claim the treasures at your feet and be wholly in your own body, heart, voice and mind. 


Note: This piece could not have been written by Chatgpt.

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