Wednesday, March 6, 2024

AI: The Biggest Existential Threat to Medium and Other Content-Driven Platforms

Alenoach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whenever someone claps for one of my stories, comments, or follows me, I check out their profile and consider following them. It used to be that almost all of them passed my lenient screening.

I was pleased to be noticed in the sea of stories and didn’t set a high bar. You basically had to have a pulse and be attempting to write something. It didn’t have to be very good for me to support you as you’d just done for me. You never know what might lead to an interesting connection, I reasoned.

Nowadays, less than half make the cut. So what’s changed?

It’s simply that after reading their profiles, I’m not buying that many of them are real. Or maybe they’re real, but their beyond-bad writing surely couldn’t be.

I’m no expert at spotting AI-generated content, but a lot of what I read sounds strangely detached to me. I also find it odd that some of these profiles are only a few days old, yet they’re publishing prolifically.

Am I to believe someone saved up thirty of these painful-to-wade-through articles and dumped them on the platform all at once? I almost admire someone who’s that awful at something yet persists with it.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

I’m talking multiple stories a day on all kinds of topics. Whether they can write a lick or not, no one is an expert on Bitcoin, relationships, vegetable gardening, stuffed animal restoration, cigar box guitars, Texas Hold ’em, and content marketing.

It’s not just on Medium that I’ve been noticing this, either. Something’s off about a lot of the content in my Google newsfeed, too.

Several online stories published by Sports Illustrated that showed up in my 2024 feed have been a mess. They ended abruptly in the middle of half-baked thoughts, included obvious run-on and incomplete sentences, and flowed like blood through clogged arteries.

Was an editor even glancing at this stuff? It was as un-SI-like as Amazon’s horrid The Rings of Power was un-Tolkein-like.

This was a few weeks before news broke that SI had been deceiving us all by running AI-generated content and attributing it to real authors. With that little transgression, a reputation built on decades of impeccable writing and reporting was ruined overnight.

To think this is the same publication that legendary writers of my youth like Paul Zimmerman called home. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

“Motivated by the preachings of a noble mama and propelled by his mighty legs, Earl Campbell has left plank-shack poverty far behind.”

Dr. Z didn’t write that. A fellow named Bruce Newman did.

Either way, AI had no hand in that magical lead sentence from the cover story on my favorite football player from the September 3, 1979, issue of SI. How about the alliteration of the “p” sound to punctuate (see what I did there?) the sentence’s impact?

As a ten-year-old boy from a middle-class white family, I had only a vague idea of what “plank-shack poverty” was, but the one-of-a-kind phrasing made me admire Earl even more than I already did. I’ve remembered it all these years and strive to pen something so succinctly descriptive every time I sit down to write. You might provide a quick dopamine hit, AI, but your tired rehashings will never create that kind of lasting impression.

Whether SI’s AI misconduct was willful or a careless oversight matters little. The damage is done, and given the widespread layoffs that followed, it’s no exaggeration to say it may never recover its esteemed position in the sports writing world.

Take heed of this cautionary tale, Medium, or any other platform that depends on high-quality written content. Identifying and eliminating AI-generated garbage is the biggest existential challenge you face over the next few years.

Otherwise, the Discouraged and Displaced humans may Disappear, relegated to Dark Ages tools like pen and paper that can’t be stolen for AI butchering. Not bad, right?

Maybe that’s the destiny of the entire AI-era Internet — a wasteland of parasitic chatbots drowning in their own drivel.

Is it wrong of me to hope so?

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Progress: An illustrated poem about human nature

A heavily wooded forest with a stream running through the middle and a partially obscured buck behind a tree. All illustrations are in black and white.
Illustrations by Willem van der Merwe

A long time ago, the forest extended everywhere, in all directions, a dense canopy of trees.
A majestic sight, it was truly the land of the free.
Then along came a group of settlers who cut a path inland from the sea.


More boats arrived bringing throngs of people.
We should worship inside a church with a steeple.
Let’s harvest some wood from this wild place and build something regal.


A man dressed as a pilgrim wearing a prominent wide-brimmed hat and chopping a tree with an axe. Other trees can be seen in the background, along with a pile of stacked logs.

The colonists multiplied and hungry villagers needed a bigger farm.
But man was so smart it was no cause for alarm.
We’ll clear another plot for planting right over here. What could be the harm?


Approximately 20 tree stumps in the foreground with a buck sniffing/pawing at one of them. In the background are a church with a steeple and approximately 12 rectangularly shaped homes crowded together. The homes have steeply pitched roofs and chimneys with smoke billowing prominently from them.

Soon the village became a town, and then the town grew rapidly into a concrete-filled city.
Our wilderness is disappearing, they lamented. The beautiful landscape has turned gritty.
On one thing they all could agree. This state of affairs was indeed a pity.


Several tightly packed high-rise buildings that are approximately eight stories tall with a street running between them. Three people can be seen walking on the street, heads down in an almost zombie-like posture. Two cars are parked on the right side of the street as you look at the drawing and a lone cat is walking down the left side of the street, away from the viewer.

Let’s set aside a wooded sanctuary where all God’s creatures can roam as they please.
We’ve bulldozed enough in search of opportunity.
Now we must live in harmony.


For a time, birds chirped, deer frolicked, and wolves howled.
Until one day a thick, black liquid bubbled up from the park's ground.
It was a discovery so profound.


A buck, a fox, a bear, a rabbit, and a small cat (possibly a bobcat) crouch around a small, round pool of black, bubbling liquid (oil). All five are peering at it curiously. The background is comprised of three trees and overgrowth, indicating they're at a clearing in the woods.

Such a stroke of good fortune to power our machines.
Our consumption borders on obscene.
But man is the rightful king of beasts and should reign supreme.


We’ll chop a few more to capitalize on our good luck.
Letting our unbridled greed run amuck.
So what if we break our promise as long as we make a buck?


With this feeble logic, our actions were justified.
Willingly, we carried out a campaign of genocide.
Ignorant to the fact it was actually suicide.


And so the pattern repeated.
Soon, every last tree had been defeated.
In this barren wasteland, our home overheated.


An apocalyptic scene shows a small oil drilling rig in disrepair on the left and a junked car on the right. They're sitting in the dirt on a flat landscape with sparse patches of grass interspersed. The car's front bumper and the visible tire have both fallen off. The roof, hood, and driver's side door are badly dented. In the background are approximately eight high-rise buildings that also look badly dilapidated. In most, the tops are missing as if destroyed by a bomb.

The end should come as no great surprise.
Upending nature’s delicate balance, how did we think we would survive?
In this universe of infinite connections, we caused our own demise.

Progress, finally

A human skull lying sideways on the ground with a small plant growing through one of the eye sockets. A mouse rests its front paws on the skull's forehead and sniffs one of the plant's leaves and a beetle crawls on a rock next to the skull. With humans extinct, the scene conveys a sense of hope that nature is beginning to regenerate.