Generative artificial intelligence is coming for us, African writers. Wululu!
But should we be afraid? Maybe. We certainly shouldn’t be surprised. We should have seen it coming. Technology has always been about making machines replace us and take our jobs, from the wheel that rendered the carcass carriers in prehistoric hunting parties redundant, to iPhones replacing the guy with the camera who used to come to our boarding school once a month to take pictures of us in the designer jeans we borrowed from the S1 students.
Writers thought we were safe, assuming that work done by the brain could not be usurped by a machine. And we are still partly right about that. But AI is still coming for writers because most writing we do these days is not brain work.
Take the writing most at risk: professional mass communications, like public relations and marketing. It has been a long time since the job of a communications professional was to actually communicate. Nowadays their job is merely to assemble words so that they look like communication even though they are bereft of meaning.
A comms person is one whose job is to say, “The primary focus of this session will revolve around the critical components of ideation and operationalisation as we chart a course towards optimized efficiency and innovation within our organization,” instead of “Let’s get together and figure out what to do next.”
But it is unlikely that your employer will stop wasting money on deliberate gibberish from their jargonistas and instead waste money on deliberate gibberish from the AI.
You will probably be promoted to AI Prompt Engineer. What I have seen ChatGPT do when it is asked to compose a piece of writing is what I do when I don’t want to think: It rifles through a library of prefabricated phrases and then assembles something that looks about right, something that resembles what a competent person would say.
For example, if I were to write about Kampala, this is what both me, a charlatan in corporate communications, and the mindless AI would do. We gather words that are commonly found in references to cities, such as “heartbeat”, “bustling” “thriving”, “metropolis”, “pulsating”, “cacophony”, “diverse”, “kaleidoscope”, “nestled” and about two dozen more, then we just string them together with pronouns and conjunctions.
“Kampala is a bustling metropolis, nestled in the heart of the Pearl of Africa, boasting a diverse range of cultures. The dynamic city bursting with a kaleidoscope of colours and blah blah blah.”
Neither I, nor Chatty have created anything. We are just playing cliche Tetris. But that doesn’t mean we need machines to write the story of Kampala. Or Uganda. Or Africa. Before we even had printing presses in what was to eventually become Uganda, the various peoples on this land had different ways of disseminating the language arts that they created.
Yes, there was information and news that spread, advertising that shilled the wares of tradespeople, propaganda that subjugated the plebes of our pre-colonial despots, but there was also something different.
There was art, art made of language, productions wrought from the words of the people which encapsulated the general mind, soul and feeling the community. Ways in which words were composed into a record of our cultures and our history, who we were and how we were at that point in time. We know them as proverbs, poems, folk tales and songs.
When different technologies came along, our language artists transitioned into writers and made them books. Then the internet showed up and the artists became podcasters and youtubers and bloggers. We may no longer be creating proverbs in Uganda, but we are still creating.
That is something the AI cannot do. But it is something we can, and something we must. There is a place in our general psyche from which these language arts came, a place where AI cannot reach, a place of honesty, courage, freedom and raw, unimpeded humanness, and we as Ugandans need our artists to go there and come back with our art. The machine can’t do that. Only we can.
So, Ugandans, don’t worry about the AI. Let it do the mundane mechanical writing that has been masquerading as creative for too long, the banal cliches of simanyi “the bustling metropolis, pulsating with a kaleidescope of energy” and those who don’t mind reading what is essentially the same thing in different configurations of words over and over again (“the heart of the city pulsating with a cacophony of noise and colour”) can have it.
But creatives, get to work. Making things come to life that never existed before. Only you can do it. No machine can replace you.