In the face of AI, humanity needs Emerson more than ever
Do you ever read an article and get goosebumps as you read it because you know you can use it in your classroom? Well, that happened this morning as I was reading my new printed copy of the July-August 2023 The Atlantic. And since my last post was way back in April, I decided to put together a short post to tell you about it. You really need to read “In Defense of Humanity” by the magazine’s executive editor Adrienne LaFrance. I think it would be a great pairing for Ralph Emerson’s Nature, Self-Reliance, and even Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.
In short, as we grapple with the AI revolution and its unknown implications, LaFrance calls for a return to an exaltation of the human experience.
LaFrance starts with a short introduction to Emerson and his visit to the Jardin des Plantes in 1833 where he received his epiphany that inspired “Nature.” She then discusses Emerson’s 19th-century world and describes the proliferation of technologies that informed the national mood as “a mix of exuberance, anxiety, and dread.” Sound familiar? Drawing parallels to the rise of artificial superintelligence, LaFrance observes that many have simply accepted the growth and intrusion of technology into our lives. Among the “triple revolution of the internet, smartphones, and the social web,” she suggests many of us need to step back and reassess the power we have allowed technology to claim.
LaFrance’s thesis: “We would be wise to rectify the errors of the recent past, but also to anticipate — and proactively shape — what the far more radical technology now emerging will mean for our lives, and how it will come to remake our civilization.”
Read my previous post on how I refuse to embrace generative AI such as ChatGPT and other similar programs.
Obviously, you can read The Atlantic’s article for yourself. (It’s just under 2,500 words and fills three pages of the magazine.) However, LaFrance advocates that we follow six concrete “ideals” — she also calls them “cultural norms” — as we grapple with the new reality that AI is bringing to our lives, including our lives in academic settings.
- We should disclose when AI has been used in communication in order to “prompt more human (and human-only) spaces, as well as a less anonymous web.” Readers need to know when they’re reading AI-generated content.
- We should avoid anonymity by using their names. “Anonymity should be used as a last resort,” she writes, as “any journalist can tell you.” Anonymity should be reserved “for rare scenarios for the public good.”
- We should recommit to making deeper connections with other people in face-to-face meetings. “Relationships…should not be sustained in the digital realm alone, especially as AI further erodes our understanding of what is real,” LaFrance advises.
- We should stop recording and sharing everything. She says it simply: “Privacy is key to preserving our humanity.”
- “We should trust human ingenuity and creative intuition,” LaFrance adds to the list. We should also decrease our reliance on tech tools. In other words, we should see, feel, and discover for ourselves as we observe the world using our own senses. Yes, tech can be used to aid our senses, but we should not rely on “tools that dull the wisdom of our own…intellect.”
- Last, LaFrance writes we should “put more emphasis on contemplation as a way of being.” Students need to know that it’s okay to not know something, or to think about something and never arrive at an answer. After all, she adds, “We are mortal beings, driven to know more than we ever will or ever can.” There’s so much mystery to our universe that we should accept our limitations in solving that mystery.
LaFrance ends her piece with a return to Emerson’s home in Concord, Mass. (It’s still on my East Coast bucket list!) She lists ways that technologies (photos, memes, social media posts, holograms, et al) will never replace the face-to-face human experience. We should “make the trip, cross the ocean… watch the sunset,” she wraps up stirringly.
This article hit me hard. It’s poignant and hopeful. But it’s also a little bit sad. I say that because I fear that Silicon Valley isn’t listening.
However, this fall, my students will be listening. I’m collecting a stash of current articles to read with my freshmen and seniors at my new school. We’ll read and discuss this article, use it to launch into a chapter or two of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and of course, use it to introduce Emerson, which I realize is usually reserved for junior-level English classes. That’s okay. There are plenty of other “nature” writers we can read.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you take a few minutes to check out this article for your high school units on the transcendentalist writers. It’s worth a look when you find contemporary writers discussing the foundational thinkers of the nineteenth century and drawing direct parallels to our lives today.
ALSO: A note about my Site Shop. I have moved nearly all my resources to Teachers Pay Teachers. If you reach a broken link when accessing a resource on my Site Shop, please know you can find that resource on TpT. Thank you again for your continued readership!
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