That Flesh is Heir To


by Brian Rosten

A good number (though not all) of lit mags have yet to put out a position statement on submissions from artificial intelligence engines at the time I compose this. I’ve been thinking about writing one for a while, and have honestly been procrastinating. So I thought about why, and I think I have an answer. I think we’re actually discussing a different, more complex question, and it’s a question that I don’t really want to answer.

But I’m going to anyway, because even this obscure, poorly funded rag should have a policy.

Spoiler alert: We’re not going to accept submissions from AI…for now. 

Essentially, I have two philosophical beliefs working against each other here. So I’d like to flesh out this problem in this space so I can clarify the magazine’s official stance while also hedging for any changes we might make in the future. 

As an editor, I believe the author is dead. I’ve never read the article which explains this concept (by Roland Barthes), but I have watched the Crash Course literature video in which John Green gives a summary of it. And I’m here for it. I’ll take it a step further, then, and argue that the most radical interpretation of this stance dictates an acceptance of AI-generated art. If the artist is dead, and all that exists is the piece, then it literally doesn’t matter if a human created it. If it moves you, it moves you. 

I also think a lot about what art is. Any definition that I, a scientist and philosopher by education, and a teacher by trade, would be crude. But I don’t see “created by a human” as a necessary precursor. I think computers can make art. I think that’s the question we’re all really asking: Are computers allowed to make something that we then allow to be placed in the “art” category? I say yes. And in a vacuum, I don’t see anything unethical about consumers purchasing art created by AI.

But the in a vacuum addendum is important. I read a really great article a while back (which I cannot find) about why Robert Nozick’s thought experiment viz a viz Wilt Chamberlain is stupid. The article posits that Nozick also uses the Chamberlain example in a vacuum, not accounting for actual market fluctuation and research-based business practices. I find this analogous to my feelings on AI. We have to take information on its face as it plays out in real time.

So how is AI playing out in real time? Well, it’s taking work away from artists, firstly. That’s sort of the thrust of the issue, as far as we’re concerned. It’s not taking away huge chunks of work yet. Most creative fiction is still written by humans. But graphic design artists are quickly seeing their field overtaken. And I imagine that soon companies will be using AI to write copy (ad copy, articles for newspapers, descriptive information, etc), if they’re not already. 

But there’s an even nastier side to all this, which we must also consider as an organization. AI creation is also exploitative in its current infrastructure – ChatGPT takes up so much processing power it’s a carbon sinkhole; workers in other countries are paid in pennies to give feedback to the system; and AI uses other forms of work like fanfiction and blog posts that aren’t currently monetized, but it’s making money off of their work anyway.

Recently, the Screen Writers Guild of America has requested its affiliates to refrain from using AI in creative writing. As we’ve mentioned previously, we’re pro-union here at The Maul. Therefore, we will also be refraining from accepting AI-generated submissions. You can still use a word processor for editing purposes. We don’t really care. But the author has to try and hammer out that first draft on their own. 

I just want to say one more thing. There may come a day when we accept AI submissions. That day would come when an ethical AI infrastructure takes firm hold. AI would need to have developed a system to compensate the artists whose work has affected their algorithms, and there would have to be fields of jobs created that use AI to increase the number of creative writers in the world. That day may never come. But we also know that in 1920, 60% of America’s workforce were farmhands. That number is now 2%. Agricultural technology eventually allowed the job market to shift to new types of work. AI may have the same effect. But anyone who’s read The Grapes of Wrath knows that we need to be careful about how that transition takes place.

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