ChatGPT has created an uproar in traditionalist teaching spaces – barely a week after ChatGPT went online hundreds of articles by teacher and writing organizations foretold the doom of English courses if it wasn’t outlawed, that AI plagiarism would run rampant, and new security measures must be installed to prevent its propagation. The paranoia around plagiarism has only grown worse as teachers have scrambled to respond – all the while without a full understanding of the technology’s real impacts and dangers.
This fear of seemingly positive technological advancement reveals a serious failure in the current order. Since the invention of the chalkboard, the projector, and even the calculator, the first response from the education system has been fear. While that fear is understandable it prevents real conversation. Mastery grading’s inability to adapt to technological developments has put educators in a position where technology is developed against teaching, not with it. This is a disservice to both educators and students, for it prohibits experimentation by students and distorts the conversation among educators to reactionary dogma rather than any real ethical conflict.
The initial concerns surrounding AI essays haven’t necessarily been wrong – but rather the focus has been misplaced. These tools are by no means perfect plagiarism machines, even calling tools like ChatGPT “AI” oversells their abilities, but by no means are they thinking machines but rather hyper-complex chatbots who’ve been fed an absurd amount of information without an understanding of how it relates to reality.
And there is a real danger to writing that seeks to reflect reality without any basis in it. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote extensively on these concepts, and in Simulacra and Simulation he argues that society has replaced all reality and meaning with signs and symbols; they are not reflections on reality nor even false mediations of reality. They do not contain hidden reality – simply that the way we perceive our lives has been completely disjointed from reality.
He defines four phases of an image, which are created in any pursuit that seeks to reflect reality.
“It is a reflection of profound reality;”
“it masks and denatures a profound reality;”
“it masks the absence of a profound reality;”
“it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.” (pg 6)
AI writing, by using all internet writing, both that which is a faithful reflection (stage 1) and a perversion (stage 2) – with an absence of any understanding of profound reality beyond simulation it is a reflection of a reflection. It has no profound meaning and rather “masks the absence of profound reality” the sign pretends to be a faithful representation while not actually reflecting reality (stage 3). If these tools were to draw on their own writing for material it would be nothing but pure simulation (stage 4). Thus to create even a deceptive reflection it must take from more faithful creations of humanity.
To satisfy those material needs – they cannibalize other’s writing, remixing “new ideas” from their fractured corpses. It is fundamentally parasitic, it cannot exist without new ideas – new human writers and writing being created. Rather than fear ChatGPT for its plagiarism, the concern must be how online writing has been used to fuel these systems without their authors consent.