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The AI and the Artisan
There are always going to be days when all we want to do is pull the covers over our heads and emerge when the nonsense has subsided. It’s amplified, of course, by the accessibility of our instant news feeds, variously curated and “enhanced” in order to attract our attention, and realistically, the supply of nonsense is infinite. The temptation to try and analyse it to understand it is compelling as it is futile as we suddenly see ourselves like those kittens in the cute video chasing the laser pointer light.
Making sense of it requires not effort and diligence but discipline, equanimity and the application of the filter of brutal simplicity. The vast majority of the media we consume has no application to us other than in the stories it manufactures that shape our day and mood. What matters is keeping ourselves focused on what matters to us, the work that matters within a community of others doing the same.
AI is with us, and no amount of debating and analysing will make it go away or tame it. My attention was drawn by an article on CHAT GPT 4 Turbo, the latest iteration of the phenomenon unleashed on us just a few short months ago. Most if us will have played with it in some form and been impressed by its capabilities even as we dismiss its power to affect us in our jobs in our sector. A wonderful thing, denial.
Two points in particular struck me. Firstly, we have reached a point where making AI bigger requires so much more money and data that it’s unlikely to provide a financial return, and secondly, it is now good enough to go and play with our jobs in our sectors. It is doing so by effectively eating its children, those hordes of developers who have been working on “wrapper” products - the access tools that give us ways of using Chat GPT (and other platforms) in our areas of interest. The bad news is that ChatGPT can now do it better, faster and cheaper than those expensively funded start-ups. AI doesn’t need to get bigger; it just needs to get personal. Bigger can come later.
So what, I wonder, does that mean for us as Artisans?
What we are seeing, I think, is the continuation of what has been happening since technology woke up fifty years ago. The disappearing middle. Back in the day, we had hierarchies and bureaucracies to manage and control the large organisations that were the secret to scaling - eliminating “transaction costs”. When digital technology arrived, it very quickly started eating into those central costs, getting ever hungrier as its capabilities increased and far faster than our management practices and dogma were able to cope with. That process shows no sign of slowing.
This means that if we are in the middle, doing average work for average employers serving average clients, it is not a good place to be. If, as the Economist explains (paywall) this week, AI can ace the American Bar Exams in the 90th percentile, our laurels may be a little dusty.
Where do we go as the middle crumbles under our feet? To the edges. Either we find that small part of ourselves we can sell at scale to people we don’t know, as influencers, or we provide all of ourselves to a few people to whom it matters. Not organisations - they are ever more transient with no real capacity for relationships, subject as they are to shareholders. It’s about people - individuals - a network of people amongst whom our skills and passions sit comfortably and co-operatively and into which we are willing to invest effort and commitment.
The middle will become a place for latter-day serfdom to landlords we do not know.
This article, using Dunbar as a reference, suggests fifty to eighty as a number that works. That feels intuitively right from the work I have done.
And speaking of intuitively, the relationship with those fifty to eighty will depend more on senses than logic. We are into the dynamics of community, and that’s a whole new game, which I’ll return to.
The game, as Sherlock would say, is afoot.