A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
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My friend Paul shared his out-of-office email with me. ChatGPT4 had written it.
The prompt Paul gave ChatGPT4:
“Write me a clever out-of-office email that explains I’m going to be slow to reply to emails because I’m traveling for a series of talks about artificial intelligence.”
The output read, in part:
“I am out of the office attending and speaking at a series of AI conferences, where I will dive deep into the trenches of machine learning, neural networks, and sentient toaster ovens (just kidding about the last one… or am I?).”
Look at the wink to the audience (“or am I?”). That’s good.
But I highlighted the really important part: The reference to Sentient Toaster Ovens.
It’s a joke I would have made. A clunky, dumb little toaster oven tricked out with AI is inherently funny—it’s like a golf cart applying for a job as a limousine.
You can imagine the ridiculousness of a Sentient Toaster Oven taken to an absurd extreme…
Perhaps it complains about the drudgery of reheating mozzarella sticks and chicken nuggets? Maybe it resents the job at hand when it’s capable of so much more? (“Put me in! I can compose a full Thanksgiving menu! While reciting the full catalog of e.e. cummings poetry!” says Toaster Oven.)
So ChatGPT is funny now?
It writes just like me?
And maybe like you?
I kept thinking about it. That night, it kept me awake.
Are you wondering why it kept me awake?
What exactly is bugging me about Paul’s OOO, which I’ve now internalized as my Sentient Toaster Oven Moment?
* * *
The concept of a Sentient Toaster Oven (or another household appliance that has gained consciousness or a personality) is a common theme in science fiction/fantasy/gaming—stretching as far back as 2008, as far as I can tell.
ChatGPT obviously pulled in the reference from somewhere, since it’s not capable of truly original thought.
But what’s significant isn’t the Sentient Toaster Oven Moment reference itself. What’s significant is that the reference is following a pattern called the Rule of 3.
The Rule of 3 is a principle of both comedy and copywriting. (Among other things.)
In comedy writing, the Rule of 3 holds that in a list of three, you throw a curveball at the end: One that doesn’t fit the mold. That’s unexpected. That’s as absurd as our Toaster Oven friend complaining about the nuggets.
The third item interrupts the expected pattern. It becomes the punchline.
Item 1, Item 2, Curveball Item 3
In Paul’s OOO email, above:
Machine learning, neural networks, sentient toaster ovens
* * *
Pattern-recognition/replication is what machines do best. But in this case… it feels fresh. It feels real. It feels like something a clever writer would say, yeah?
That’s why I’m sleepless. Lying in the dark. Feeling the blackness close in on my Sentient Toaster Moment. Feeling it wrap me in a grim despair as depressing as day-old mozzarella sticks.
“Why write?” sleepless me thinks.
💭 Why write an OOO when you can spin up a prompt and have ChatGPT4 do it for you?
💭 Why write a newsletter like this when you can ask AI to write one for you?
💭 Why am I awake at 3 AM thinking about this?
^^ that was a Rule of 3 right there.
Why write when the machine does it as well?
What is writing for?
I don’t know, I said out loud in the blackness. I don’t know.
From somewhere far away… I heard a Sentient Toaster Oven chuckle softly.
No… that must be my imagination?
* * *
You can’t wander through LinkedIn without tripping over post after post about how Large Language Models are transforming sales and marketing.
You have seen two kinds of posts:
😈 AI is the devil that will undermine our credibility, steal all our jobs, and leave us penniless and destitute living in cold-water walk-ups.
😇 AI is a sweet gift sent from the angels that will help us be more productive and creative and allow us to retire to our yachts in the Mediterranean Sea, wearing deck shoes stitched from hundred-dollar bills.
Which is it?
Both, maybe… depending on how we use these new tools.
* * *
The more interesting question to me isn’t whether AI is the angel or the devil.
The interesting questions:
What happens to writing?
And because writing is thinking: What happens to thinking?
If we stop writing… what happens then? Where will new ideas come from? How will we grow?
Writing is a form of discovery. It lets us evolve our own thinking. It helps codify and distill our ideas for ourselves and for others.
From programmer, writer, and investor Paul Graham:
“A good writer doesn’t just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing. And there is, as far as I know, no substitute for this kind of discovery.”
* * *
Why write? We write to…
- CREATE NEW IDEAS. Get them down! Plant a flag of this is what I think now right here.
- LINK ON IDEA TO A SECOND and discover offshoots growing out of ideas. Like spring seedlings that grow impossibly through a crack in the sidewalk.
- ADD SOME MIRACLE-GRO TO THOSE BABY PLANTS. Mulch the spidery roots. Maybe those ideas thrive and grow upright. Maybe they don’t.
- SHAPE AND CLIP THEM Edward Scissorhands-style. Make them attractive and help them stand out. You want others to understand, internalize… and add more mulch of their own.
If others love our ideas and mulch them—GREAT.
If they let them wither and die… that’s cool, too. At least we’ll understand each other.
It’s much better to be understood AND rejected than to be rejected AND misunderstood!
- HAVE THE CONFIDENCE TO EXPRESS IDEAS OUT LOUD, in public.
It’s scary to put your ideas out there. Sharing your ideas makes you vulnerable. People might criticize or disagree with you: You can hit reply and send me a mean note right now… because maybe you are a rep for the Sentient Toaster Oven community?
But writing down your thoughts and sharing them publicly is the only way I know of to boost your confidence enough to keep doing it. Which helps us grow as professionals. And as people.
- CONNECT WITH COMMUNITY. People like you—who are here right now reading this.
Ultimately, I write to feel less alone.
* * *
Why write? I had to write about it. I am writing about it.
And that’s the answer, isn’t it?
This is what writing it for. This, right here. What we’re doing together.
Writing is how we work through what we do not understand.
It’s how we realize that we don’t have all the answers.
Writing is how we try to see some truth.
And it’s how we realize that sometimes… a toaster is really just a toaster.