Poetry is a literary art form that stirs the soul. There are no rules, and meaning is layered. Words fly off the page and burn like hot coal. Intending to add color to a world that can’t get much grayer.
Prose is a form of writing that’s straight forward. e.g. after reading Jeff’s attempt at poetry, I think he should keep his day job.
Proxy is delegation. In legalese, proxy is the authority to represent someone else. In computing, a proxy server is used as an intermediary between the client requesting any given resource and the server where that resource lives. In other words, it’s a mask.
Proxy is a new form of writing that’s masked. The text seems to be written by a human, somewhere between poetry and pure prose, but it’s not — it’s written by a computer.
The genesis of proxy writing will be remembered as the flood of seemingly every tool bolting on an “AI Writing Assistant”. Document and wiki SaaS like Notion or Coda, project managers like Height, even vertical tools like Copy.ai for marketing; the list goes on. The average website touts the use case: “Ask AI to write…social media post, blog post, executive summary, etc”. Notion’s website gives a concrete example — “brainstorm some creative marketing campaigns to promote Acme Inc’s new cloud-based project management tool, Acme Projects.”. Can creative writing be done by proxy?
Proxy writing is any writing that’s majority written by AI.
Let’s make clear what proxy writing is not. Proxy writing is not research. In a pre-proxy world, research consisted of cobbling together different sources. Blogs, books, interviews, etc. Asking ChatGPT how the Battle of Waterloo played into Napoleon’s exile is no different than asking Google and integrating the answer into your work. Asking your AI writing assistant to write you an essay about the subject is pure proxy writing. It may work on the surface, but ultimately the person who can write the essay with a touch of poetry, in prose, will not only learn the subject better, they will offer a better final product.
Screenwriting is a perfect comp here. The number of screenwriters who will become wealthy by writing scripts purely by proxy is non-zero. But those screenwriters will never give a speech holding a small golden statue. There will be no AI Aaron Sorkins.
Where the future Sorkin will incorporate a proxy is no different than our hard working essayist. “Paint me a specific picture of the average day in Roman life. I want to know what their routine was and what their mannerisms were” as the first prompt in understanding how to write Ancient Roman characters. It may be trite to say but the process is the point — otherwise, why write screenplays at all?
The trope in retort here is that we won’t need screenwriters at all! To that I say — care to wager?
Can you write an entire S-1 with an AI proxy? Brian Chesky has told the story of how Airbnb had to rewrite most of their S-1 from scratch given the impact of the pandemic on their business. Within 8 weeks they lost 80% of their businesses, a new story was to be told.
In the first draft, Chesky was admittedly uninvolved. This is the normal case, most S-1’s are written by people deep into the weeds of the company. In the rewritten version, Chesky wrote 14,000 words himself.
It is often said that clarity of writing is clarity of thinking. In the midst of a crisis, only the person with the clearest vision of the future, alongside the operational experience in the real world, was able to accurately articulate how Airbnb would thrive in the world of bits.
Perhaps pieces could be written by proxy, but is that really the sign of a good business? You can make the case they are more efficient and smart to do this. But with any craft, those who are willing to put in the time, those who truly take care, are the ones who get ahead. In the future, as the % of total number of words written by proxy grows, poetry and prose will become increasingly rare, and scarcity means value.
Proxy writing is a self-reinforcing double entendre. The two primary definitions of a proxy — delegation and a mask, are definitions that both work independently yet are made stronger together. Proxy writing is the act of delegating to the computer and in turn masking its true origins to other humans. This piece has explored the consequences of foregoing poetry or prose for this new form of writing.
Applications like Warp Terminal adding AI that’s able to run the correct git command that would usually take 30 minutes to figure out. An application that can convert the semantic meaning of a string of text to a SQL query. Asking ChatGPT questions that will serve as research for real writing. These are all tremendous applications of AI.
Proxy writing? Do you think Jeff Bezos would allow his team to write their 6 page memo’s by asking Notion to “write me a 6 page memo about our toy distribution plan”?
No proxy will ever know the subject as well as the principal. No proxy will know what it’s like to rebuild a travel business through a global pandemic. No proxy will know what true emotional resonance is in the eyes of a target customer when writing an ad. No proxy will have the offline context of office politics when sending an email to the boss. Proxies, for all their value, are just that.
There is a timeless saying in electoral politics that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose. AI may inform a campaign about a niche demo in a certain geo. AI may search the corpus that is the tax code. But humanity will never be dictated by proxy.
First published on October 11, 2023