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Virginia Woolf chose soulful words, GPT cannot.

I. LIT UP BY WORDS

The value that GPT brings to human communication is put into perspective when its outputs are compared to “Woolf Works”. The three-act ballet is an example of what humanity’s highly evolved faculties of communication can produce. The show is an interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves, her essays, and her personal writings. Wayne McGregor directed and choreographed the contemporary ballet and Max Richter created the original score. The 2015 premier at the London Royal Opera House electrified audiences’ hearts and minds. It has since been restaged multiple times and a good friend insisted I see it. On 18 March 2023, I too was set alight by this experience powered by 4 billion years of biological evolution. AI bots’ statistical programs look like a giant stick that a chimpanzee uses to fish out termites from the earth, when compared to the rich, complex faculties that Virginia Woolf and the creative team behind “Woolf Works” used to enrich my soul.


II. PRECIOUS HUMAN FACULTIES TO CHAT

In May 2023, Khan Academy CEO Sal Khan presented Khanmigo, a GPT bot that could offer students personalized learning on subjects like literature, geography, and history. He told the story of one student who needed to write a report about The Great Gatsby. The student struggled to understand why Jay Gatsby, the protagonist, stares repeatedly at a green light. Then, she wrote to Khanmigo, “I would love to meet Jay Gatsby”. It outputted, “Ah, splendid choice, old sport!” She asked, “Why do you keep staring at the green light?” The bot outputted a summary of what author F. Scott Fitzgerald might have meant by the symbol of a green light: “I gaze at it longingly, as it represents my past and my hope to reunite with Daisy the love of my life. The green light is a constant reminder of the elusive nature of the American Dream and the distance between reality and our aspirations.” Khan Academy branded this a “Chat with a literary character.” It is developing this feature so children will be able to “chat” with historical figures or the Mississippi River.


The issue with this story is not that a student used technology in an inventive way to access literary analysis about a canonical text. Her imagination was sparked by engaging with this bot and I cannot fault anyone for that. My issue is with Sal Kahn and other tech executives’ use of words like “chat”, “talk”, and “language”. They market this information retrieval tool as a human conversation. But, just because this information is packaged in text bubbles, like your and your mother’s WhatsApp conversations, does not mean that this technology executes anything like fundamental, organic human communication.


The tech industry’s marketing lingo threatens to distort our understanding of what good and meaningful human communication is. It’s a pity, because it took 4 billion years to develop our abilities to communicate. Virginia Woolf and the creative team of “Woolf Works” remind us that human communication is rooted in our biological organisms, rather than pure statistical programmes that compute 0s and 1s. Our biological faculties for communication include, among others, performance, aesthetics, feelings, emotion, and reason. We animals need these faculties to share truths about the human experience with one another. We need these faculties to teach one another how to become the best, highest versions of ourselves and to live good, meaningful lives in community with one another.


Cannes-winning filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky reminds us what the purpose of human communication is. It is not “to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example.” Rather, the aim of art, the highest form of communication, “is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” Real communication involves a person feeling catharsis, seeing the truth of who they are, and finding hope as they pursue their highest ideals.


Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of Woolf’s work reveals how humans use (among other faculties) performance, aesthetics, feelings, emotions, and reason to communicate basic truths of the human pursuit for perfection.


AI is just a statistical stick, like the monkey’s twig. It is an extension of our rich and complex biological faculties of human communication. As we create these AI twigs, we need to respect our biological faculties and their ultimate purpose. Otherwise, these dumb sticks will wreak havoc on humanity.


That’s why we turn to Virginia Woolf and McGregor’s “Woolf Works”: to remind ourselves of how human communication works and its ultimate purpose.


III. WOOLF’S SECRET TO CHOOSING WORDS

Virginia Woolf shares a secret in “On Craftsmanship” about how human beings chose words to express truth and beauty. It stands in stark contrast to how word prediction models apply brute statistics to find patterns in terabytes of data and collage words. Woolf herself examines the idea of generating masterpieces from lexicons, like text-generation models. She articulates that the very nature of words makes such a thing impossible:


”Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look again at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra; poems more lovely than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together.”


Woolf cautions us that when you try to apply mechanical laws to words and pin them down to a useful meaning, they die. Select a word so that you can pass an examination or find a train and it dies. This is because words have many meanings. They are many-sided and ever-changing. That is their nature because the truth that they try to catch is also many-sided, slippery, “flashing this way, then that.” Pure statistical logic can never pin down their meanings. Rather, we human beings must use other faculties for words to stay alive:


“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? (…) Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. (…) Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light…”


Selecting words and ordering them to express truth and beauty involves both thought and feeling. OpenAI will readily disclaim that GPT has no feelings. But, more importantly, selecting the words involves not thinking about words and their relationship to one another. Not at all. Woolf observes that a writer must pause to think and feel about something else. That something else is the writer’s unconscious human experience. To access that, a writer relies not on pure mathematics, but on a range of biological faculties that include and are not limited to performance, aesthetics, feelings, emotions, and reason. It is only by using these faculties that the truth can accessed and expressed. It is not likely that these faculties are reducible to computations of 0s and 1s, because they rely on biological and chemical processes. But, these are the faculties that Woolf used to make human truths resonate in words.


Ask GPT, “What truth does Mrs. Dalloway express about the human experience?” It outputs five perfectly formatted bullet points, like this one:


“The intricate layers of consciousness: The novel delves into the complexities of human thought and consciousness, showcasing the multitude of thoughts, memories, and emotions that weave together to form our inner lives. It reveals the intricate web of our thoughts and the interplay between our past experiences and present realities.


At first glance, the output looks insightful because the bot outputted words like “intricate”, “consciousness”, and “human thought”. A closer look reveals that no real point is made or expressed. There is no reasoning or logic here. All that is given is a collage of text symbols that are likely to correlate with one another. Each word points to another and another to ultimately create a meaningless pie of nothingness. There is no mind that has peered into the darkness to select words to tell YOU a truth that Woolf worked hard to unearth from the human experience. No, GPT simply indicated what words are statistically likely to appear next to one another.


Ask Wayne McGregor and his creative team what the essence of Woolf’s writing is and after 30-seconds of listening to their interpretation, you realize that they have unearthed a truth that resonates with your soul. The difference is that GPT uses the brutal force of statistics to select text symbols that refer to one another in a solipsistic nightmare. McGregor and his team instead use biological faculties like performance, aesthetics, feelings, emotions, and reason to interpret Woolf’s work, reflect on their own lives, and express truths that can touch your very being.


IV. HOW TO KEEP WOOLF’S WORDS ALIVE



Act I: “I now, I then”


“Woolf Works” begins with Big Ben’s booming bells. Woolf’s real voice weaves into a London soundscape: “Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally.” Three massive wooden frames sit on stage — one larger, one middle-sized, and one smaller. They spin slowly, each in their own time. A woman in a sheer lilac dress runs on stage accompanied by a man in slacks. Another couple runs on stage wearing the same costume. Then, another. Couples move fluidly amongst one another. Sometimes two people tangle in an embrace. One man runs and stands atop the middle frame. He looks into darkness. He jumps. A woman steps atop the frame. A lush English garden video projection dances over her and the wooden frame. She looks down and the curtain falls.


1. Performance

McGregor uses the faculty of performance to cast the many couples, stage flowing movements, costume them in natural colors, and set them amongst spinning frames. He chose them to show how we use costumes and staging to create and present many versions of our self to other people. He also chose spinning frames, many couples, and fluid movements to show how we are also just a bunch of cells floating and vibrating in space. Our social selves ultimately do not define us and to be human is to oscillate between our awareness of our performed social self and our pure physiological self that moves across space and time. McGregor’s choices reflect what sociologist Erving Goffman explained is the nature of being human: We are both human organism and theatrical actor. Depending on what we wear and who is around, we find ourselves playing a different role. McGregor’s choices of cast, dance, costume, and scenic design were much like Woolf choices of words. Each artist played out this visceral, intimate truth of the human experience in their own minds and bodies. Then, their artistic choices helped you to experience that truth too.


2. Aesthetics

McGregor’s aesthetic choices communicate the beauty of London, so that we feel a love for the city, like Mrs. Dalloway and Woolf must have felt for it. The warm, soft, and natural color palette of oak wood frames, sheer lilac A-line dresses, and a green leaf-dappled light of a spring garden draws the eyes in. Big Ben’s rich booms and rain-like horse shoes on cobble stone streets cradle and rock the mind. Streams of people move in fluid shapes like a river flowing around us. These choices of texture, color, balance, rhythm, and harmony comfort us. They welcome us to step out of our own minds into a beautiful landscape of sound and image. As Kant says of the aesthetic faculty, we are uninterested in London’s utility. Rather, we feel an ecstasy as we merge into this landscape, enveloped by its beauty. It must be the ecstasy that Woolf felt as she chose a stream of words to describe London, “carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs” building to a climax “the strange high singing of some aeroplane over-head was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June”. This aesthetic experience of beauty, pleasure, and aliveness is communicated with each word, each marriage of words. McGregor and Woolf’s choices could never have been made if they did not know how precious it is for something to make you feel alive just because of how it looks. For beauty, something so simple and basic, to make us feel so alive is a precious gift. Aesthetic choices create meaning because they give life to the beholder.



Act II: “Becomings”


3. Feelings

At intermission, fluid piano fragments and swelling violins pause are replaced by the white noise of audience chatter. Then, the curtain lifts. Muffled explosions are heard in the distance and high frequency sound waves cross the space. We hear the words from Orlando, “Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.” A gritty baseline starts. It loops, pulsates, and grows, hither and thither, with each repetition. It’s Max Richter’s song “Modular Astronomy”. Close your eyes and you feel your heartbeat quicken. Your skin ripples as if you are growing bigger with each pulse. McGregor notes how Richter’s music taps deep into our memories to create “space and an openness in which, already, you want to move. They’re amazing kind of cues to experience that sit somewhere really deep within the body. You can’t help but feel that music in 3D.” This understanding of feelings reflects what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says is the fundamental purpose of feelings. We evolved to have feelings to map the world around us and decide where to move, so that we maintain and extend our lives. We need feelings to orient ourselves and stay alive. They come down to something as basic as feeling good or feeling like you have room to stand taller. This essential message comes from Woolf’s story of Orlando, a story of many transformations rippling across genders, space, and time. Woolf taps into feelings of organic movement, pushing it further, reminding us what it feels like to transcend.



Act III: “Tuesday”


There’s the sound of waves. Black and white ocean waves ever-so-slowly swell, crash, and swell again. A video stretches the full length of the stage, placed on the horizon line of the auditorium. Woolf’s words for her partner, Leonard Woolf, play: “Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.” She chose words of reason and then gratitude for her life partner, before she placed stones into her pockets and walked into a river.


The waves rise and fall perpetually as a fleet of dancers slowly weave on stage. Men wear black tights with exposed torsos. Women wear sheer black leotards, legs exposed like swimmers. They move forwards and back, in and out. Violin strings rise and fall in a flurry too. There are large slow sound waves and then smaller, faster, and denser waves rippling out. Underpinning it all, as Richter puts it, there’s this big ground bass, almost like a sort of cosmic background radiation which holds this long, extended 21-minute piece in a way that “feels inevitable.” “That is really what I am looking for,” he says. This radiating ground bass swells and builds with layers of strings, horns, and electronic sounds I fail to name until the ground bass stops. We hear gentle bell like sounds. Once again, we hear the waves. The dancers randomly move forwards and back, as the music fades and the waves are heard more clearly again. The dancers are pulled into the darkness under the slow-motion waves, until slowly, ever-so-slowly, silence.


4. Emotions

The emotions of Act III are contradictory. There is the despair of a person who has decided to embrace death, mixed with the exultation of a person who sees so clearly all that life has to offer. There is the intimacy of lovers entangled as one and, at the very same time, a deep solitude of facing death alone. There is the resignation of death and the vigor of life. How could a woman capture in words what it means to accept death? Darwin remarked that emotion is a feeling tied with an action. What is the emotion of a person choosing the act of death? In some strange way, the emotions expressed by Woolf, in her letter to Leonard and in The Waves, evoke an acceptance of death as part of life. It’s an extraordinary duality that each person must face, somehow. In some strange way, Woolf gave me a deep feeling of peace in this struggle for life. Peace in accepting that this is what it means to be mortal. This is what it means to be alive.


5. Reason

The rich, complex, and contradictory emotions are entangled with a clear line of reasoning. The up and down movement of the waves is so natural and so organic. Seeing earth’s patterns gives reason for death and why acceptance of death is a natural part of the human experience. Reason, as defined by Kant, rests on a deeply felt experience and understanding of all the concepts and words that are being strung together to a conclusion and deployed in practical life. Woolf’s chose her words carefully to Leonard. She thanked him, “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. (…) I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.“ There, in that thank you, she gave a reason for accepting life and accepting death: joy shared with another. It is this sort of deeply felt reasoning that we all must come to terms with at one point or another. The work Woolf did and shared with us is a gift to our humanity. McGregor and Richter’s beautiful interpretation helps that essential message ripple out, vibrating in the hearts and minds of all who are touched in the audience, and likely again rippling out to all those people those audience members touched too. Not with useful words plucked out to doll out facts and figures, “to propagate ideas” or “to serve as an example”. No, words chosen as a performance, aesthetic, feeling, emotion, and reason — words chosen to hit another person, make them look at their own life, plough and harrow their soul, and prepare them for death.



INVEST IN HUMAN WORDS

This might all sound terribly serious, but perhaps being serious is the essence of my message for you. Human communication has a serious purpose, which we should all deeply reflect on. Its purpose is to share the deepest and most meaningful truths about human existence with the ones we love — with the people with whom we share this life with. That is what human communication is meant to do in its highest and most evolved form. For 4 billion years, we humans have developed faculties to express truths with one another. Performance, aesthetics, emotions, feelings, and reason are some of these. There are likely more.


Don’t let the tech executives con you into thinking that we human beings are just “meat flaps” with slow “bitrates”, as CEO of Neuralink Elon Musk and Godfather of AI Geoffrey Hinton propagate. Human beings have biological functions that can achieve wondrous feats of communication. We just need to invest time into understanding and honing what we have. Everything else, even if billions of dollars were invested into making it, is just a big, dead stick. Organic human communication is the true engine and force of nature with awesome potential. If only, we would take the time to invest in it.


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