Ethan Mollick discusses the impact of ‘The Button’ on our writing. The Button is in Google Docs but similar GPT-LLM tools are or will soon be available in many other writing tools. They can immediately create a credible piece of writing, such as a letter of recommendation or a proposal, increasing anyone’s speed of writing and avoiding writer’s block. These tools are exceptionally convenient, so of course most people will use them. But at what cost?
“But then The Button starts to tempt everyone. Work that was boring to do, but meaningful when completed by humans (like performance reviews) becomes easy to outsource – and the apparent quality actually increases. We start to create documents mostly with AI that get sent to AI-powered inboxes where the recipients respond mostly with AI. Even worse, we still create the reports by hand, but realize that no human is actually reading them. This kind of meaningless task, what organizational theorists have called mere ceremony, has always been with us. But AI will make a lot of previously useful tasks meaningless. It it will also remove the facade that previously disguised meaningless tasks. We may not have always known if our work mattered in the bigger picture, but in most organizations, the people in your part of the organizational structure felt that it did. With AI-generated work sent to other AIs to assess, that sense of meaning disappears.” —Ethan Mollick
These tools are likely of most use for mediocre writers. In Roald Dahl’s 1954 short story, The Great Automatic Grammatizator (PDF), Adolph Knipe invents a machine that can write novels. At first it’s a hard sell, but he soon finds his market.
“Thereafter, Knipe wisely decided to concentrate only upon mediocrity. Anything better than that — and there were so few it didn’t matter much — was apparently not quite so easy to seduce. In the end, after several months of work, he had persuaded something like seventy per cent of the writers on his list to sign the contract. He found that the older ones, those who were running out of ideas and had taken to drink, were the easiest to handle.”
Mollick however, makes some positive conclusions.
“But there is a potentially empowering outcome as well, if we want to pursue it. We can view the destruction of busy-work as freeing. We do not have to set our time on fire as a signal. We don’t have to do work that is mere ceremony. Doing that will require thoughtfulness from organizations and leaders as they redesign work for our new AI-haunted world. But the incentives are huge as well. Stripping away meaningless work removes a huge burden from workers, while reducing inefficiencies and broken processes. This is an amazing opportunity, but only if we are forward-thinking about the future of a world where most work starts by pressing The Button.” —Ethan Mollick
I am not so positive, given how the fruits of improved productivity from personal computers did not result in improved wages, as I noted in augmentation vs automation — “The productivity software that ran on personal computers was a perfect example of augmentation rather than automation: word-processing programs replaced typewriters rather than typists, and spreadsheet programs replaced paper spreadsheets rather than accountants. But the increased personal productivity brought about by the personal computer wasn’t matched by an increased standard of living.”—The New Yorker