In the nineties, Clippy lived inside the Microsoft Office suite. It was an avatar of an actual paperclip that would interrupt your writing with tips. Did it provide lots of value? I can't remember. I recall there were good easter eggs. But I don't think it really fixed our productivity in some groundbreaking way. A cute relic of the past, in a time where a lot less people were using computers daily.
Fast forward to this week. I used the current version of Microsoft Word, on the web, to write a thing for work. I wrote a headline. Let's say it was “Marketing 2024”. You won't believe what happened next. A blue circle appeared next to the headline. When I hovered over it, it asked me if I wanted it to insert an image. “An image?”, I thought, somewhat surprised. Was this what the future looked like? Did Clippy return? It certainly got in the way of my writing. When I obliged, it put in a random image that felt very marketing-plan-y. It also showed me a gallery of other images for me to pick instead.A blue dot appears. When clicked, it inserts an image into the writing flow
It left me with lots of feelings, the main one being how unnecessary all of this was. All that computing power!
The “AI” feature I described assists with images, but Microsoft are rolling out Copilot across many of their products. It can also write new text, or improve existing text in ways you specify, the kinds of features we've seen large language models provide. Copilot is a clever name, and a clever framing of what these chatbots can do: they're not the main driver, that's you as a user, but they can be there alongside you.
And yet, I'm not convinced these features are helpful. They interrupt a flow, the actual content production. And they're actively pushed onto users, from in-software notifications to promotional webinars. If that push is successful, everyone in the world will have to put up with the fruits of these features. It's to be seen what those fruits are: content that is better, content that is more superfluous or a bit of both?
Do these features empower users? They appear to, from the onset. Of course, a lot of the world's marketing plans look very similar, people probably already copy pasted them from one another or used boilerplates. This just makes recycling old ideas available through a different interface. It makes it easier to make something to that seems ok.
But ultimately, is it the right kind of support? Personally, I want software to push me not towards reusing what exists, but away from that (and that's harder). Whether I'm producing a plan or hefty biography, push me towards thinking critically about the work, rather than offering a quick way out.
To be fair, Word has some features today that help you improve content, but mostly to correct style, grammar and punctuation (nice!). Well, and, I'm not making this up, to help remove “sensitive geopolitical references”.
I did ok on formality and sensitive political references
Writing as trying to discover something new
When I write or (publicly) talk, I hope to write or say something that is relatively unique. Obviously, I don't have the illusion I actually do, unique things are rare, everyone's always iterating upon the work of others. But to at least try to find a new perspective is the point of most writing (if it's meant for reading or convincing). That's what we're all trying to do, right?
Whether it's marketing copy, a techy blog post, a stage play or a philosophical treaty, would anyone set out to produce something similar to what already exists? Would the stage play sell tickets if it sounded like the same old? Would your product sell if you use the same copy as your competitor? (Ok, that last one happens all the time)
Discovering new ways is central to creativity. When Miles Davis recorded his groundbreaking album Kind of blue, he gave musicians scales and melody lines, and asked them to improvise. They hardly practiced and did not know the music inside out before they started. Herbie Hancock explains this made the whole album a lot more spontaneous:
Miles' idea was that… he wanted to capture the spirit of discovery in the music. (…) He wants to capture discovering the music on the record.
(in: The making of Kind of Blue, 6:22)
I recommend that video, it's full of people who understand music and this music in particular. They try and explain some of the creativity of this particular piece.
Of course, most writing doesn't have to yield a creative masterpiece. But it's probably that sense of discovery where, like making music, writing gets most interesting. For writers and for readers. More than recycling old and making grammatical and stylistic improvements (quite useful), writing assistants could drive us in the direction of discovery more.
It's not just for fun that I'm calling “unnecessary” on this feature (and who am I to judge, or, frankly, who do I think I am?). This is feature that people probably worked on hard and that some users may find very useful. But still, it's worth considering the need. Large language models, that most “AI” features are based on, cost a lot of computing power, both training them and running them. The training also involves a lot of (underpaid) labour of people, who classify content to make the magic work. And then there's all the knock-on effects on society of having harms perpetuated and being stuck with lots of content that nobody thought was worth writing in the first place.
We've got to think about whether or not the features we build with this are actually useful, actually unnecessary or somewhere in between. We don't have to add “AI” to every product, even in an industry where we see investors push for that, we can choose to do otherwise. (
</man-yelling-at-cloud>). One company stood out thinking about this especially carefully in the last while: iA wrote Writing with AI.