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Opinion / Tech
Content will be commoditized - but content isn't culture

Originally published on Substack by
Hamish McKenzie
Dec. 13, 2023

There's a billboard on one of the main streets in San Francisco that seems almost designed to trigger creative people. It's advertising an AI startup that has raised more than $126 million in venture funding to provide automated writing tools to large companies. "Empower people. Transform work," reads its tagline. But it's the name of the company that really rankles.


Many writers are anxious about how their lives and work will be affected as artificial intelligence becomes more powerful. Companies like Writer offer tools to instantly generate materials that might otherwise have been created by humans. Some news organizations have already started publishing automatically generated stories, even as they lay off writers and editors. With a one-sentence prompt and 20 seconds of thought, one can now get ChatGPT to turn out an essay that rivals something an experienced writer might have taken days to produce.

Whether you're for or against this development ultimately doesn't matter. It's happening. The AI hype cycle may go through some ups and downs, but the new epoch has unquestionably begun. These technologies are already real, effective, and proven, which makes this particular technomania different from other hype cycles.

Given this set of conditions, writers - and all other culture makers whose livelihoods will in some way be touched by AI - are entitled to feel worried and perhaps even a little pissed. After all, these new machines are trained on a vast corpus of work produced by humans. And those humans, most of whom have never found a way to turn their art into riches, aren't getting compensated along the way.

To many, this revolution might feel like the super-expression of a trend that has been commoditizing the work of writers and artists for decades. First, Google and Facebook broke the business models that once supported their work. Then social media turned everyone into content drones. Now here come the mega-robots to vaporize everything writers ever stood for. And of course the techies will make billions, while writers will get less than scraps.

Imagine how humiliating it might feel, then, for one of those opportunists to take the name Writer.

But now is when we tell you that we don't think this will be bad for culture makers. In fact, it will be very good. While AI will take over the rote and the replaceable, it will give superpowers to people doing original work, while at the same time increasing the value of that work.

When it comes to Substack, we have focused on using the internet's powers to serve, rather than subsume, writers. There's nothing in the AI revolution that suggests we will have to change this approach. From image generation and audio transcription tools we've already built, to a future where a single writer can make a feature film, and beyond, we will focus on harnessing the power of these tools for human users. If the computer is a bicycle for the mind, AI will be a jumbo jet.

The cost of "content creation" will be driven to almost zero. But content isn't culture.

This same surge in AI-led content production will simultaneously fuel a tremendous need for cultural connection: real humans in communion with one another. These relationships help us make sense of the world, and to know where to direct our attention. Their value will dramatically increase. Culture will become the most important and fastest-growing slice of our global domestic product.

Humanity has seen a story like this before. Prior to the industrial revolution, more than two-thirds of a country's labor force had to work in agriculture to be able to feed its entire population. Since the automation of agriculture, that share has fallen to less than 5%. And yet we have abundant food and more jobs to do than ever. Today, many people have the kind of work and prosperity that their great-grandparents could only have imagined.

No matter how advanced AI gets, there will be unceasing demand for human connection. We will want to show each other how we feel as people. We'll tire of getting what we want, and instead yearn to figure out together what we should want. We will share our hearts and compare our scars. We will long for the sound of each other's voices, and to shape our own and each other's stories, in wild and wonderful new ways.

AI will never be able to replace the dynamic that is most central to Substack: human-to-human relationships. New robots may rise and try to claim the mantles of writers and other culture makers, but none can seriously lay claim to what is most important about these people and groups - the human connections they are built on. That's why we are making Substack the place for trusted, valuable relationships between thinking, breathing, feeling people.

A hot new startup that is riding the revolution might call itself Writer, but it will never have the writer's heart. And that is where the opportunity of the next century is to be found.


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