The downside of technology

By Joe Diorio

My former employer, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and human development (Yes, lowercase “human development.” I forget why that is and – admit it – you don’t give a fig, either.) became embroiled in a ChatGPT debate when a letter about a mass shooting at Michigan State University, a letter written by the AI system but holding a byline of two faculty members, was sent to Vanderbilt students. The authors neglected to remove the last few lines of the letter where there was an acknowledgement that it was the AI system that did the writing.

The “how dare they” outrage over the idea that an impersonal AI tool was used to write about a human tragedy led to the two faculty members stepping down from their assistant dean responsibilities, and Peabody College Dean Camilla Benbow promising a full “how’d this happen?” investigation.

I like my colleagues at Peabody and feel sorry they were in the middle of this brouhaha. But the story for me says a lot about how ChatGPT fits in with our writing toolboxes.

More than once I have been asked, “Hey, you’re a writer. Whaddya think of ChatGPT?” The truth is, I don’t think about it much at all. ChatGPT is a tool. Just like spell check. Just like Grammarly. These tools have their good and bad points.

I still maintain that spell check systems make us bad spellers, because we let the system do the thinking for us. Grammarly can do that, too. (“Affect or effect? Ah, let Grammarly figure it out.” Yes, someone once said that to me.) Sadly, the folks at Peabody had a similar lesson when they let ChatGPT do the thinking. 

If you want to let ChatGPT write something for you, then go for it. But what it spits out should be treated as a first draft. And remember the admonition from Ernest Hemingway, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Enough said.

“The French?” “The homeless?”

The Associated Press took literal aim at its foot recently, when in a tweet it suggested writers avoid use of the word “the” when speaking about groups. That is, say, “French” rather than “the French.” Or say “homeless” rather than “the homeless.” AP (not “the AP,” I guess) says use of “the” can be dehumanizing. Eventually the AP modified its position, apologizing if its advice was an inappropriate reference to anyone.

Nicholas Kristof used this as an example of how language wars continue, noting arguments over “homeless” versus “people without houses,” or saying “birthing people” versus “women.” Kristof’s op ed takes a look at language in its role in culture wars. It’s a good read.

Word of the moment

Kudos to Mike Tannenbaum, former general manager of the New York Jets and current football analyst for ESPN. On a February 21 episode of the morning sports talk show Get Up Tannenbaum used the word “prolificity,” generating a wave of playful ribbing from his TV coworkers and causing one newsletter editor to turn to the dictionary. Well, prolificity is a noun, referring to power or character, and Tannenbaum was talking about the power and influence some NFL players can have. Well played, Mike T.

Subject/noun agreement anyone?

I heard the following in a local TV news story, “A bullet was found in a driveway the size of a quarter.” All I can say is, man that is one small driveway. Let’s write carefully out there, people.

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