Writing Is the Good Kind of Work

Not all work is created equal

George Dillard


Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Later today, I will pull up an app on my phone and push a little button. The button will make a robot clean my floors for me.

I’m happy to let my Roomba do the vacuuming. I don’t think I’m missing out if I don’t haul a vacuum cleaner around my house for half an hour, pushing it back and forth. I don’t want to do that work, and I’m glad I don’t have to. Nor do I think I’m really losing much when I load my dishwasher and push a button rather than hunch over the kitchen sink and scrub plates for 20 minutes after dinner. I’m not about to surrender a number of other modern conveniences like my washing machine or my electric lawnmower so that I can do more work.

So why am I bothered by the fact that AI can now do the work of writing or making art for people?

Remember the scene from The Matrix where Neo learns kung fu?

Neo’s compatriots plug him into their computer, pull up the kung fu program, and, voila, 10 seconds later he knows kung fu.

This scene is meant to be impressive, but it has always bothered me. Maybe my reaction is simple self-preservation. I’m an educator, and I’d become irrelevant pretty quickly if people could, in seconds, just download what I teach them over the course of a year. But I think it’s more than that. Skill acquisition is just part of what happens when you put in the work to become better at something.

I don’t know kung fu, but I would imagine that learning martial arts is similar to learning other physical skills. I was a tennis player as a teenager, and I played for a long time into my adulthood. Tennis, like most sports, was hard work. I spent hours going to lessons, hitting with my friends at the courts down the road from my house, and attending school practices. I got better over time, but most of the time my progress was imperceptible. I would usually leave the court sweaty and tired but not much better than I had been an hour before. I’m sure that, had you offered my teenage self the opportunity to instantly learn tennis, Matrix-style, I would have taken it.

Over the years, by putting in the work, I learned a lot of tennis skills — how to put certain types of spin on the ball, where to position myself on the…