“We are basically the last generation”: An interview with Thomas Ramge on writing

Author with Phone
Author with Phone | © Colourbox

Online technology powered by machine learning can spot our spelling mistakes, complete our sentences and even help us write in foreign languages. But are our writing skills getting worse at the same time? Best-selling author Thomas Ramge told Goethe-Institut there are pluses and minuses to this field of technological advancement.

German journalist and author Thomas Ramge believes we have to use digital tools for what they're good for: reinforcing human intelligence. It’s not artificial intelligence that makes the difference, but the digital skills we take advantage of when using the tools.
 
In his latest book Postdigital, Ramge raises the question of how we can design and use AI in a way that really benefits our lives. He spoke to Goethe-Institut about how AI is changing cultural practices like writing and what it takes to live in a postdigital world.
 
How do you use AI yourself in your everyday life and work?
 
I use AI in my everyday life like most people: through my smartphone and many apps, whether it’s Google Maps, the search function, or via the recommendation algorithms when I shop online, which are all fed and operated by machine learning. Today almost every possible use of digital technology, is powered by machine learning or so-called AI, and has crept into all aspects of our lives. Where I think I benefit greatly, is when I write English texts, as I not only use regular spelling and grammar checks, but also services like Grammarly, which intelligently checks for grammar and also provides pretty smart suggestions for non-native speakers. And that’s a programme powered by machine learning.
 
I also tried in my latest book, with very prominent and competent support, to see if an AI could help to write a book that reflects on artificial intelligence, but the AI failed miserably. As human beings we can take that as a reassuring sign, at least I do. Library Would all these books still be grammatically correct if there was no spellcheck? | © Pexels Writing is a cultural practice that is essential for you as a journalist and author. How would you say is AI changing your own craft of writing?
 
Perhaps less strongly than the question implies. When I write in German, my mother tongue, not that much changes. But of course AI impacts writing by making information more accessible. In the sense that there’s always a research process before every writing process. Especially if this research is fed online, there are AI mechanisms that draw my attention to information or texts or interesting links that I might have missed. It’s a help function to get information faster or more comprehensively. And I don’t feel that when I use this AI intelligently and systematically, it acts like a filter that withholds a lot from me or sends me into a filter bubble. Of course this can happen on social media, but for me as an author, I consider it a helpful tool. I’m able to navigate this world of incredibly diverse information much better with the help of the machine. But in the writing process itself, I don't see any direct influence from artificial intelligence or machine learning in my mother tongue.
 
Is it different when you write in foreign languages?
 
When I write in French or English, AI is definitely a support, it augments intelligence and strengthens writing, because there I look closely at what the suggestions are and I have the competence to say "Okay, that’s better now, or that's not better”. But I might not have thought of it myself. I even notice that this system helps me to get better in the long term as I get fewer suggestions indicating that I am getting better and no longer need them. AI can in that sense be a type of coach. In my book Postdigital, I give the example of a chess AI coach, who works on overcoming weaknesses when playing chess. I think this coaching function works very well, for example when learning maths, but also when writing, especially in foreign languages. At the same time, the question arises that if we never learn this cultural practice thoroughly, we may get to a stage where in primary schools the craft of writing is not learned properly anymore, and children rely on spell checks, grammar checks and the next step is, you vaguely know what you want to say, jot down a couple of words, AI suggests something and you only have to click on the suggestion. This leads to a world where the cultural practice of writing is no longer taught and learned properly. And where the AI in turn cannot act as a training device, and everyone stays stuck on a fairly low level.
 
Child Writing at Desk A dying art: Learning to write by hand is still taught at most schools | © Pexels / Julia M Cameron So while AI is a useful tool for your own personal writing, you see real dangers for the future of the cultural practice of writing?
 

Yes of course. We are basically the last generation, or maybe there will be one more after us, who grew up without strong AI writing assistants. But these AI assistants are here now, especially in English. In German the systems are following suit, even though they’re still much stronger in English. You get to a stage where someone who cannot write very well, can be pulled to a decent level of writing through machine assistance. And this raises important questions: Are we no longer learning the basics? In order to step up and really improve your writing, you will probably always need to be deeply proficient in the cultural practice of writing. But we need to ask, what proportion of low and medium level writers will be raised with the help from machines to a very decent level? And what repercussions does this have on teaching and learning, and the proficient use of language and writing? We shouldn’t neglect our writing skills, because we believe machines will get us there. Anyone who has children can clearly see the dangers autocorrect and autocomplete will have for the future of writing.

Your latest book “Postdigital” defines a new era which is a synthesis of analogue culture and digital innovation. What are the main features of this postdigital age?
 
The main feature is that the use of digital systems is sovereign, meaning competent and self-determined, and at the same time we have a much better sense of when digital technologies aren’t useful. That means it is the ability to use intelligent technology intelligently and switch it off when it hurts or annoys or distracts us. It's the ability to leave this hype about digitisation behind us.
 
The discourse of the past 10 to 20 years has been dominated by: “the future is digital.” When we talk about postdigital, we can use the analogy of plastic — digital is similar to plastic. I mean it's everywhere and it usually does more good than bad. But it can also be a problem. Digitisation in many contexts has been upheld almost like a religion or a salvation doctrine. In the postdigital age we manage to leave this behind and deal with digital technology in a more relaxed, competent, confident manner, and at the same time better understand where its negative effects arise and where it is of no use.
 
For a postdigital future, how do we achieve this digital sovereignty and digital competence you talk about, as individuals and as society?
Thomas Ramge Thomas Ramge | Photo credit: Peter van Heesen
I’m already seeing more and more people understand that these devices shouldn't be on the bedside table, nor the first thing we turn on in the morning when we wake up and the last thing we turn off before going to sleep. Even digitally savvy people understand that social media or mobile phones have taken over so much space in our lives. They know that it’s not healthy, even harmful, and are actively taking measures against it. The mindfulness movement for example is a countermovement to digitisation.
 
I’d say it’s a classic technology impact assessment. I think we still have the chance to get involved now and not in hindsight, like with the internal combustion engine. It won’t be another instance of: “Damn, the carbon emissions associated with the internal combustion engine are making this planet no longer very viable or at least no longer worth living anymore". We have to do everything in our power to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. With digital systems, at least, we still have the chance to avoid making such a big mess.
 
This article is part of Kulturtechniken 4.0, a web project from Goethe-Institut in Australia which looks at the interplay between artificial intelligence and traditional cultural skills.