Where You Come From Is Gone: Why Our Anti-human AI Moment Needs Donna Haraway

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

“But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid. Now we are not so sure”

Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto

There is a desire, in our current AI haunted moment, to defend “the human.” To engage with AI writing tools, image generation tools, or even deep learning methods of any kind, is criticized as potentially abandoning an essential humanity. It’s seen as giving up what makes us “really human,” namely the crafting of meaning that we share with other humans.

For example, during my podcast conversation with our teaching and learning center about generative AI and teaching, my co-guest, Professor Justin Rademaker worried about losing some of our humanity when we use AI to do the work of writing:

I think it’s important to be critical to ask ourselves what labor are we circumventing when we use A.I. to do writing. Is it labor that’s perfectly fine to circumvent or are we somehow stepping around an important part of being human? Right. And language exchange is, for me, I guess I’m biased. But that’s the heart of humanity, and being human.

Justin Rademaker, ODLI On Air “Generative A.I. in Teaching with Dr. Famiglietti & Dr. Rademaekers (Part 2)”

In another, higher profile podcast conversation with New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, novelist Adrian Tchaikovsky used the metaphor of Minecraft to suggest that the human crafting of fictional text and fictional worlds creates a human connection between author and reader that algorithmically generated content can’t replicate:

Minecraft uses procedurally-generated landscapes. […]And this is amazing. It’s just this whole world and no one else has ever seen this world. It’s only me and it’s incredible. […] at the same time, it’s kind of meaningless, because it is just being thrown […] together by an extremely sophisticated algorithm. But basically if you compare it to a world in a game that’s been crafted, there is a difference. And that world — the crafted world — will be a lot smaller, because you can’t just go on forever because obviously every inch of it has taken human work.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Ezra Klein Show, February 23 2023

Interestingly, this elevation of symbolic production as something essentially human is often paired with a hierarchy of that same symbolic production, with the very best “art” at the top, and other human symbol production somewhere below. For example, in an earlier moment in the podcast quoted above Ezra Klein asserts that:

What ChatGPT, what DALL-E-2, and what all the similar programs are able to do in terms of writing text and making images, they are able to make quite remarkable art, or stories, or essays. And in most cases, it will fall short of the best of what humans can do, but it can also go far beyond what most humans can do.

Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show, February 23 2023 (Emphasis Mine)

While these are just podcast sources, the concerns expressed aren’t so far off the heavier debate of intention, meaning, and AI found in more scholarly venues.

I don’t disagree with the authors above that we want people to remain engaged with writing and thinking and writing as thinking. It’s the sense that we can define a “most human” activity and link it to symbol production that I want to push back against, and that I think Haraway helps us think past. The desire to set a boundary around “the human” and stabilize it is understandable, given the many forms of precarity that surround contemporary human existence. However, as I see these defense of the human/inhuman border spring up in response to AI, I’m always reminded of this passage from Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (which seems in our current moment of both AI writing and the struggle for trans liberation more prescient than ever).

The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden—that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.

Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto

Here, Haraway warns us against any singular, essential definition of identity. She’s particularly interested in avoiding essentially definitions of gender, of course, but given the “Manifesto’s” extended reflection on how the boundaries between human and machine and human and animal are broken down by (then) contemporary cybernetics and biological science, I think Haraway would be equally dubious of any singular definition of an essential human activity. Especially one that might be ranked, with some examples of symbol production (those deemed “art”) held up as “more human.” Than others.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that human beings and AI systems are in any way interchangeable. Like Haraway, I want us to resist the “informatics of domination” and imagine new cyborg futures. However, like Haraway, I think we must first let go of the comforting illusion that there is a clearly defined “human” that we can defend and return to, first.

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