In an earlier post, I discussed some of my recent thinking on the topic of “What do people do better than computers?” Keep in mind that these thoughts will change over time, as the only constant we have in our work is change. In response to this post, Matthias Melcher shared this great post on what humans can do better than AI. Melcher’s emphasis on the importance of subjectivity and individuality in human thought really inspired me.
This post will unpack some of my thoughts about the self, individuality, and subjectivity as we think about the impact of generative AI in society.
Be warned, I get into the weeds a bit down below. I’ve been thinking a lot about consciousness and “what makes us human.” I’m also deep into the development of a GenEd course for my students, and I’ve been parsing out the differences between the humanities and social sciences.
Before the Advent of Generative AI
A range of theoretical stances influenced the definitions and conversations around self, individuality, and subjectivity in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences prior to the development of artificial intelligence. The examination of these concepts has a long history in these disciplines, and interpretations have changed over time. The following summarizes the general approach to these terms:
- Philosophy: Traditionally, philosophical discussions about the self focused on questions of identity, consciousness, and personal experience. Philosophers such as René Descartes explored the nature of the self as a thinking, conscious entity (“I think, therefore I am”). Other philosophical traditions, like Eastern philosophies, approach the self as an interconnected part of a larger whole, emphasizing unity with the universe.
- Humanities: Stories and representations of individual experiences are frequently used in literature and the arts to examine the self. Artists and writers aimed to convey the intricacy of personal identity, feelings, and existential concerns. Social, historical, and cultural contexts all had an impact on this investigation.
- Social Sciences: Psychology and sociology study the self in relation to society and personal growth. Social scientists looked at how personal experiences, cultural norms, and environmental factors influenced people’s identities and social interactions.
- Philosophy: Individuality in philosophy is often discussed in relation to the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each person. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre stressed the importance of personal autonomy and accountability in determining one’s true nature.
- Humanities: Literature and the arts celebrated individuality through portrayals of unique characters and personal journeys. The Romantic era, for example, placed a strong emphasis on the individual’s emotions, imagination, and subjective experience.
- Social Sciences: Psychology investigated individuality through the study of personality characteristics, thought processes, and the formation of a distinct self. Sociology examined how people navigated their identities in relation to societal institutions.
- Philosophy: Subjectivity refers to the interior, personal experience of individuals. Phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl studied the subjectivity of perception and the structures of consciousness. Phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: the appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.
- Humanities: Subjectivity involves the expression of individual viewpoints and feelings in literature and the arts. A common goal for artists was to share their distinct perspectives and understandings of the world.
- Social Sciences: Sociology and anthropology consider subjectivity in the context of cultural practices and norms. People understood subjectivity as a lens through which they viewed and understood the social environments in which they lived.
With the Advent of Generative AI
Through the lens of AI, we have an opportunity to navigate through these complex landscapes of self, individuality, and subjectivity.
The study of self asks us to consider what makes us special, like a special blend made of our friends, family, and the knowledge we pick up. We not only discover the richness of our individuality but also question traditional notions of the untouched self, setting the stage for a transformative dialogue about our authenticity and uniqueness. Meanwhile, the concept of “subjectivity” unfolds as a dynamic interplay of roles, akin to donning various superhero costumes.
AI has the potential to serve as a creative companion, narrating stories that unveil the special qualities within each of us and showcasing the ever-changing nature of our roles. It also challenges us to reevaluate these ideas and rework how we conceptualize personal identity in new and novel contexts. Here are some possible future directions.
Rethinking Uniqueness in the Era of Generative AI
The possibilities of generative AI are upending the conventional wisdom regarding the “self” as an unexplored, singular entity. We are compelled to recognize the complex ways that culture molds our identities as we engage with artificial intelligence-generated content. The multiplicity of viewpoints generated by AI forces us to reconsider what it means to be truly original and authentic.
Subjectivity as a Fluid Concept
Because generative AI can replicate a wide range of subject positions, the idea that certain roles are inherently associated with specific individuals is called into question. As AI algorithms create content from multiple perspectives, the placeholder “subject” becomes a dynamic and fluid concept that emphasizes the malleability of subjectivity and blurs the lines between predefined roles.
Unveiling Social attributes in AI Outputs
Although AI has great promise, it also reproduces and reflects social prejudices. Analysis of AI results exposes the intrinsic prejudices in the technology, igniting debates concerning algorithmic justice and the moral ramifications of using AI in decision-making. Generative AI turns into a mirror, reflecting the prejudices ingrained in our societal systems.
AI-Driven Identity Formation: A Tapestry of Possibilities
Generative AI presents fresh accounts and viewpoints on the construction of identity. We are exposed to new perspectives on ourselves and the world around us through stories, artwork, and expressions created by AI. This rich tapestry of options upends established conventions and has the potential to promote a more flexible and inclusive understanding of personal identity.
Ethical Considerations in AI-Driven Social Construction
A growing number of ethical concerns are raised by AI’s involvement in social construction. What legal rights and obligations should be assigned, and who is responsible for content created by AI? The legal “subject” assumes novel forms in the AI context, compelling society to consider the moral ramifications of incorporating AI into our everyday existence.
Facilitating Critical Reflection on Cultural Phenomena
Generative AI turns into an effective instrument for provoking thought about cultural phenomena. AI challenges us to consider the societal norms that influence our identities by producing thought-provoking content. Engaging with AI-generated narratives forces us to consider the underlying presumptions and biases that shape our perceptions of subjectivity and the self.
The Journey Awaits
In conclusion, the integration of generative AI into society marks a transformative moment in our exploration of self, individuality, and subjectivity. As we navigate this evolving landscape, we must embrace the complexities and possibilities that AI brings to our understanding of individual identity within a broader societal context. The intersection of philosophy, technology, and culture invites us to embark on a journey into generative horizons, where these boundaries are continually redefined.
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