The Writers Guild of America —the labor union of Hollywood’s screenwriters—recently voted to strike in part because TV and film studios wouldn’t negotiate limits on the use of AI to write scripts. Reducing a room full of writers to one “writer,” whose job would no longer be to actually write but to prompt and edit the output of an AI program like ChatGPT, would of course save studios a lot of money. But that money would be saved at the expense of both the humans replaced by AI and the humans whose entertainment would be created by it. If audiences are already complaining that shows and movies are too formulaic and repetitive, how much angrier would they be if Hollywood produced only “content” constructed out of the rearranged pieces of already existing shows and movies? The writers’ strike can therefore be seen as not only a move to protect jobs in Hollywood, but, in a sense, to protect Hollywood itself.
At the same time, teachers at schools and universities are scrambling to adapt to the threat of ChatGPT and other increasingly ubiquitous and difficult-to-detect “generative AI” programs. It’s unclear how to evaluate homework when teachers can no longer know for certain whether students are the real authors of their work. On the traditionalist side of the debate, there are calls to fight AI by turning to oral exams and in-class, on-paper writing assignments. On the more progressive side, there are calls to embrace it by explicitly asking students to use ChatGPT as part of the writing process. Students would learn how best to prompt ChatGPT to write essays that they would then assess and edit. If the AI we use to detect plagiarism cannot keep up with the AI that plagiarizes, then embracing AI seems to many administrators and instructors a better solution than waging a hopeless war against it. Then again, if Hollywood writers would rather strike than work with AI, then asking students to work with it might be regarded as preparing them for jobs no one really wants in a world no one really wants.
Do we really have no choice beyond this binary: to either fight AI or embrace it? If fighting AI seems self-defeating and embracing it self-destructive, then why are we letting tech companies continue to develop ever more powerful AI programs? And if even the CEOs of these tech companies are worried about the potential threat to humanity, then why should we continue to pursue AI at all? Of course, it could be argued that the fears concerning AI are either the result of misunderstanding or mere hype designed to make AI seem more powerful than it really is. Is AI really a threat to humanity? Or is it just a complex—and scary-seeming—tool that, like any other tool, is designed to make life a little bit easier?
A compelling answer to these questions comes in the work of an intellectual who died long before ChatGPT, or even AI, came into existence. Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) was a French philosopher, sociologist, theologian, and professor who authored more than fifty books covering topics such as politics, propaganda, violence, and Christianity. In a recent book about the life and work of Ellul, Jacob E. Van Vleet and Jacob Marques Rollison argue that Ellul’s writings can be separated into two strands: sociological and theological. Alternatively, these two strands can be labelled as pessimistic and optimistic, for while his sociological texts have led academics to dismiss Ellul as a dystopian fatalist, his largely overlooked theological texts instead center on hope and the need for political engagement. Most importantly for our purposes, Ellul’s work in the 1950s focused on the growing concern about the relationship between technology and society.