On Human Worth
in a world bat-blind to it
[Image: “Peasant with a Hoe,” c. 1882, Georges Seurat, courtesy National Gallery of Art Open Access, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon. Public domain. And before you ask, yes, I have dug a garden before—though like Tolstoy’s Levin I never got especially good at it, being likewise kind of a maladroit intellectual type.]
Labor Day greetings to all of us laborers in the vineyard, here in a world that tabulates every cost but defines for us not a single value. I consciously use the word world in its old religious sense, evoked by the triad world, flesh, devil. I also use it in its Wordsworthian sense (“the World is too much with us … we have given our souls away: a sordid boon!”).
If this starts to frighten you off, don’t let it. You don’t have to believe in the malevolence of this World, though you might be helped by knowing that it believes in you.
Still I don’t suspect, as some folks do, the presence of lurking devils in the architecture here with us online. That doesn’t mean I deny the existence or malevolence of same. I just differ about their location. They are not hiding in any program, site, or fancy neural net. They are not so consolingly identifiable and comfortably far away as that. They are too smart to pose as all too obviously New and evidently Other—to raise our easy suspicion.
No, they hover now where they always did: right beside each individual human will, somewhere near the extended finger or the twitching pupil or the busy thumb, waiting to watch it comply—become complicit—with our species’ characteristic sin: the voluntary dehumanization of another human, or of the self, for the sake of scoring public image-points.
Evil, in other words, wants us to believe that evil does not exist, or at most that it is just an expression of something disowned and as yet insufficiently loved in us: that there is no meaningful differentiation between its purposes and our own innermost truths. When we fail to resist this lie, the glee in Hell is palpable.
Now about half of you have been frightened off. Anyone still hanging in is confused. This is not my usual line. I don’t go in for jeremiad. What is different today?
It’s true I’ve been reading Old Testament prophets (always a wild ride), so as to have something more cogent to say about a recent piece of fiction which deserves to be discussed in light of contemplative realist ideas. But more than that, this particular day’s questions of work and human value have meshed for me with current discussions on how artificial intelligence touches our art and craft.
And now there’s fire in my bones.
Please understand: I am not raising some kind of dystopian or declinist or doomsday alarm. That tactic might serve the utilitarian end of riveting new eyes to screens (and, possibly, persuading new fingers to click Subscribe). Beyond that it’s not purposeful.
But I am genuinely asking: what in the first place is the point (beyond mere play, beyond the whee-look-what-I-can-do of it) of asking a computer to do your writing, or generate any kind of art, for you? Come to that, why on earth anyone would ever even have wanted to invent programs that would compose text for humans in ways that mirror or imitate how humans themselves compose texts? The motive, I admit, wholly escapes me. Why would you want a program to write for you? This strikes the born writer as similar to wanting a technology that will do your reading, praying, befriending, lovemaking, or childbearing for you.
Then I remember: Oh right, these absolutely are all laborious human functions that at least some humans have started trying to offload in various tech-assisted ways. (No example links, for obvious reasons; supply your own; or better yet, don’t.) It so happens that people do from time to time give up on ourselves, on humanity itself. It so happens that people instrumentalize, weaponize, or commodify the acts that most express our humanity, so that what should be joy becomes tedium, pain, or trauma.
It happens, because human cultures have been sick unto death for something like the past three hundred or six hundred, one thousand or three thousand or three hundred thousand years, depending on who you ask and when. You’ll always find someone ready to pinpoint a moment of incipient decline, ready to lay blame. It goes all the way back to the Garden: She did it. No, he made me do it. Anyone you like did it: anyone but me.
And then, too, if the art of the past century tells us anything, it tells us this: Don’t put anything past people. If something good is wreckable, we’ll find a way to wreck it. Exploitable? We’ll find a way to exploit it. Consumable—we’ll consume. Horror and pity compete for place. What will we—or, as the temptation runs, what will they—casually ruin next?
But then it's so easy to lay blame. It’s far harder to take responsibility. Our feeling of powerlessness blinds us to what power we own. What—from our keyboards, right now—can we do, as Solzhenitsyn so urgently asks us to do, about restricting the evil within each person, within ourselves? To that end, what can we do about what Joshua Hren calls our “raging post-truth unreality,” which is only magnified when machines pose as humans while humans are increasingly judged and measured by our ability to perform as though we were machines?
On their own sites, Seth Haines and Hadden Turner have lifted up a standard: They are calling, urgently, for online “Refuges of Authenticity” where all the writing is pledged to be done by humans. I’m all on board with this. Depth Perception henceforth flies the Refuge of Authenticity flag. I promise, not like it’s a hard promise to make, that I will never use a machine to make it sound like I already know how to say that which I could and should and must learn how to say for myself and by myself.
Otherwise what would be the point. Of anything. Truly. Words are “a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons,” or else they are worse than nothing. I mean what I say here. If a text does not bring us to better understand how to honor at least our common humanity, not to mention our divine origin and destination, we are far better off without it. If a text does not bring us closer to the Real—and closer to being able to articulate just what exactly we mean by using that phrase—then it does not serve any good I ever recognize.
I think here of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: a novel deeply occupied with the phenomenon of total devotion. Every word in it is insistently asking: What is it in human life that is worth a whole human life—worth, as one character puts it, “dying for twice without thinking”?
It’s easy to lose this forest for the trees of Wallace’s maximalism. But once we see how every least detail is bent toward it—the project of a human intelligence desperate to discover its own meaning, trying in desperation to keep itself awake and alive by the sheer volume and intensity of its own effort at staying wakefully alive—I think we won’t so lightly dismiss the value of human effort anymore even if, in the event, that effort alone was sorrowfully not enough for its author.
I think, too, of a story I’ve often read to my children: one about a little girl who thinks she is making more art than her classmates because she churns out seventy pages in a single class period. Her pages all have some simplistic slap or dash or swipe on them: an egg, a ball, an arrow. Meanwhile, another classmate sits and draws a cat. One cat. The cat has whiskers; the cat has stripes. The cat is detailed. The cat almost seems to meow, nuzzle, purr.
Which child has made “more art,” the teacher asks them to consider: the one who fills more pages, or the one who brings a more truly seen thing to life? We shouldn’t need to think too hard about this. If we can still tap into anything like the simplicity of the children we once were, we already know. So does the little girl in the story, who spends all her next art period on one picture whose beautiful shading and texture and detail matter less than the fact that she made them.
So what is the worth of human effort? Let’s not mistake its quantity for its quality, or its reach for its relevance. I humbly submit our work’s worth is not ever, not ever, measurable in the eyes that land on its results or in the dollars that change hands over it. If we set out to measure it at all, we must start seeing it in terms of the amount of the Real it enables those who encounter it to receive. Anything else sets its value—and ours—far, far too low.