🛠️  Hacking with Hamlet  đź‘‘

Attention is all they need, too…

During my winter break travels I read William Deresewicz’ 2020 book The Death of the Artist, subtitled “How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech.”

This book is perfectly timed, down to the year. It was published just in time for generative AI, but just early enough that it can be about AI without being about AI—indeed, without mentioning AI at all. In a way that no other book can, The Death of the Artist reveals how today’s generative AI products are just another blow in the technology industry’s decades-long history of exploiting creative professionals: upending their livelihoods, displacing them (including physically, from their neighborhoods), and profiting unjustly from their labor.

I won’t try to summarize Deresewicz’ argument here—I think you should just read his book yourself. The connection to AI will be clear as day.

Instead, in this blog post, I wanted to offer one personal reflection I had after I finished reading the book.

As I read Deresewicz’ interviews with working artists—including writers and musicians—I felt a distinct kinship with them as a graduate student. The artists profiled by Deresewicz often expressed the sentiment that “success” for them is defined as getting to continue being an artist. I feel the same about research. Of course, I would love if my research had large-scale positive material impact on the world, but more than anything I just want to continue having the freedom to think and have ideas and write them down to share with colleagues engaged in the same enterprise. Graduate school for me has been a difficult balance between enjoying this freedom and working to preserve it, by setting myself up for success in the academic job market so that I get to continue doing what I love. Deresewicz writes: “Think about that: art is so difficult a field that just being in the field is considered an achievement.”

What this means is that artists (and, often, graduate students) are taken for granted—not valued, not respected, paid poorly, etc. But it also means that artists (and graduate students) find themselves caught between doing their best work, and working to promote that work. Artists (and graduate students) end up living or dying by whether or not they can get their work to “go viral” on Twitter, and as a result, artists (and graduate students) feel immense pressure to do work that they think will attract others’ attention—not work that they think is most valuable for them to do. With finite time and infinite competition, there is a lot at stake in deciding how to strike this balance. Deresewicz discusses how we live in a world where every artists becomes an “entrepreneur,” taking on personally not only the intellectual burden of producing great work, but also the economic risks of investing in the production and selling the result. Faculty often talk about running a lab in exactly the same way.

So: how can we do our best work in a world so strapped for attention—a world where attention will only become scarcer as the amount of information, marketing, social media, and AI-generated content grows to overwhelm our senses and minds? How can we carve out the space to have the thoughts we entered these professions to have—by which I mean, how can we create free (“free!”) time in our schedules, but also create flexibility and margin-for-error in our career plans? How can we make it possible to trust our instincts about what is valuable, even if we cannot yet articulate its economic utility?

I am not an artist—and I do not claim to face nearly the same challenges that artists do—but these questions resonate deeply with me whenever I sit down to work.