Study Hacks Blog

My Thoughts on ChatGPT

In recent months, I’ve received quite a few emails from readers expressing concerns about ChatGPT. I remained quiet on this topic, however, as I was writing a big New Yorker piece on this technology and didn’t want to scoop my own work. Earlier today, my article was finally published, so now I’m free to share my thoughts.

If you’ve been following the online discussion about these new tools you might have noticed that the rhetoric about their impact has been intensifying. What started as bemused wonder about ChatGPT’s clever answers to esoteric questions moved to fears about how it could be used to cheat on tests or eliminate jobs before finally landing on calls, in the pages of the New York Times, for world leaders to “respond to this moment at the level of challenge it presents,” buying us time to “learn to master AI before it masters us.”

The motivating premise of my New Yorker article is the belief that this cycle of increasing concern is being fueled, in part, by a lack of a deep understanding about how this latest generation of chatbots actually operate. As I write:

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On Taylor Koekkoek’s Defiant Disconnection

An article appearing last month in the Los Angeles Times book section opens with a nondescript picture of a young man in a Hawaiian shirt standing in front of a brick wall. The caption is arresting: “Taylor Koekkoek is one of the best short-story writers of his (young) generation. So why haven’t you heard of him?”

On March 21st, Koekkoek (pronounced, cook-cook) published his debut short story collection, Thrillville, USA. Those who have read it seem to love it. The Paris Review called it a “raw and remarkable debut story collection.” The author of the LA Times piece braved a blizzard in a rental car just for the chance to interview Koekkoek at his Oregon house. And yet, the book has so far escaped wide notice: At the time of this writing, its Amazon rank is around 175,000.

The LA Times provides some insight into this state of affairs:

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Meta Rediscovers the Cubicle

Back in 2016, I reported on a rumor that was circulating about employee dissatisfaction at Meta (then, Facebook). Developers, it seemed, were unhappy with the company’s trendy, but also unbearably noisy and distracting, 8-acre open office floor plan.

“Developers need to concentrate,” explained an amused Joel Spolsky at a conference that year, before going on to add that Facebook was paying a 40 – 50% premium for talent because people didn’t want to work under those conditions. A commentator on my essay pointed to a podcast episode where Facebook insiders claim that the open office was never more than 30% occupied. “Apparently, the majority of people that work there make sure that they are away from their desk when they need to get work done,” he explained.

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On Section 230 and the Dream of a More Human Internet

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that has the potential to fundamentally reshape the internet as we know it. As you might expect, this caught my attention.

The focus of the case is a single sentence, found in Section 230(c)(1) of 1996’s Communications Decency Act:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This so-called Section 230 has since been interpreted through multiple court rulings as providing broad immunity from liability for internet platforms that publish content from third-party users. If I defame you in a Tweet, in other words, you cannot sue Twitter.

The case in question was brought against Google by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a college student who was killed in a terrorist attack in 2015. The Gonzalez family claims that the terrorists responsible for their daughter’s death had been radicalized by videos recommend on YouTube, and therefore Google, which owns YouTube, should be held liable.

At the core of their argument is that Section 230’s protections should not extend to information recommended by algorithms. There’s a difference, the lawyer for the Gonzalez family argued, between passively hosting third-party content, such as on a bulletin board, and actively pushing it toward users, such as what happens on social media services.

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Pliny the Younger on Happy and Honorable Seclusion

A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing letter, reproduced a few weeks ago in the always-impressive Areopagus newsletter, that was originally sent from Pliny the Younger to his friend Minicius Fundanus around 100 AD. Among other topics, the letter touches on the difficulty of completing meaningful work in a distracted world.

As Pliny writes:

“I always realize [that city life is distracting] when I am at Laurentum, reading and writing and finding time to take the exercise which keeps my mind fit for work. There is nothing there for me to say or hear which I would afterwards regret, no one disturbs me with malicious gossip, and I have no one to blame — except myself — when writing doesn’t come easily. Hopes and fears do not worry me, and my time is not wasted in idle talk; I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honorable, more rewarding than any “business” can ever be. The sea and shore are my private Helicon, an endless source of inspiration.”
Pliny’s advice led me to do some more digging on what exactly he meant when he quipped: “when I am at Laurentum.” It turns out that Pliny maintained a rambling villa on the sea, southwest of Rome. According to an article I found, written by a British architect, Pliny’s property had been specifically configured to support focus:

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On Email and Horses

Cal's image on New York Times with red background.

Earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine published a conversation between me and the journalist David Marchese.  We touched on a lot of the ideas about digital technology and the workplace that I elaborate in my 2021 book, A World Without Email.

At one point during the interview, however, I came up with a new metaphor on the fly, which now, looking back, I recognize as potentially adding a useful new wrinkle to my thinking on these topics. Here’s the exchange:

Marchese: But hasn’t the cultural-technological ship sailed when it comes to this stuff? Or, to mix metaphors, part of me is wondering if what you’re suggesting is a little like saying that getting from place to place by horse is a lot more cognitively rewarding and humane than driving everywhere — which may be true, but no one’s going back to horses. What company is going to tell its employees to cut back on email and Slack?

Me: The right metaphor here is not “Let’s stick with horses, even though automobiles are around,” because automobiles were clearly a more energy and monetarily efficient way of moving things from A to B, just like email is clearly a more efficient way for me to deliver a memo to you than a fax machine. The metaphor is that it took a while before we figured out traffic rules and understood that it can’t just be cars going wild through the street. Eventually we figured out we need stoplights and lanes and traffic enforcement.

Almost by definition, if a technology rapidly spreads it’s because it’s doing something notably better than what came before it — be it delivering business information or drool-bucket distraction. Given this reality, nostalgia is often counter-productive: returning to an older generation of tools, in most cases, would be returning to less effective tools.

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Guillermo del Toro’s Inspiration Machine

When the Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro was a boy growing up in Guadalajara, his mother bought him a Victorian-style writing desk. “I kept my comic books in the drawers, my books and horror action figures on the shelves, and my writing and drawing stuff on the desk,” Del Toro recalled in a 2016 profile. “I guess that was the first, smallest version of my collection.”

As the director began to find success as an adult with his beautifully imagined, macabre fantasies, like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Nightmare Alley, he was able to indulge his collecting instinct more seriously, amassing “a vast physical collection of strange and wonderful memorabilia.” Eventually, Del Toro’s objects became too much to manage.

As he explained in an NPR interview:

“We were living in a three-bedroom house and I magically had occupied four spaces. So it came to a point where the collection was much bigger than the family life. I was hanging up a picture, a really creepy painting by Richard Corben. My wife says, ‘That’s too close to the kitchen, the kids are gonna be freaked out.'”

So Del Toro took the natural next step: he bought a second house in the same neighborhood. His plan was to use the new residence to organize and store his growing collection and provide a quiet place for him to work. As an homage to Charles Dickens, he called it Bleak House.

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On Quiet Quitting

In my latest essay for The New Yorker, published earlier this week, I tackled the topic of “quiet quitting.” This idea careened into mainstream discourse last summer, powered by a viral TikTok video posted by a twentysomething engineer named Zaid Khan.

Here’s the transcript:

“I recently heard about this idea of quiet quitting where, you’re not quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work.

You’re still performing your duties, but you’re not subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that your work is your life.

The reality is that it’s not. And your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

Khan’s earnest declarations earned him acclaim on TikTok, where numerous other videos took up the theme; some outraged in tone, others satiric.  As word of the trend spread beyond social media, mainstream commentators weren’t so nice. In a CNBC appearance, Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary described quiet quitting as “worse than COVID.”

It was exactly this confused reaction to this trend that caught my interest. As I note in my article, when it comes to quiet quitting, “we’re simultaneously baffled and enthusiastic.” I set out to understand why.

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