“Is AI a good thing or a bad thing?” I ask ChatGPT. Being an insider at AILandia, I thought it would give me a straight answer.
“The impact of AI can be both positive and negative,” ChatGPT tells me, and proceeds to enumerate many things we know well: efficiency and problem-solving on the positive side, lack of transparency, privacy, and job loss on the negative, etc.
But earlier today I read a wonderful Facebook post by my friend, poet, translator, and teacher Peter Levitt, in which he wrote of the dangers of the known, of having all the information in the world at your fingertips all the time. He remembered the excitement of going to a small local library when he was small, when he would start reading one thing that interested him, such as car mechanics, and suddenly come across a reference to Audubon and birds, which he would follow for a long time, and that unforeseen journey brought him into contact with things he didn’t dream about or expected.
His words say it much better than I can: “I have been given more by what I wasn’t looking for than pretty much by most of those things I tooled in on to know.” He ends with this: “So, I sing this morning, along with the birds outside my wake up window, in praise of flirting, of being taken off course by any of the many possibles of the unknown, the not known, the not prepared for, and yet always longed for, intimacy of the glance, the overheard, the suddenly appearing, the almost seen.”
I rarely respond to Facebook posts, but I was deeply moved by this one.
First, the only negative. I am leery of what my friend, Jon Katz, likes to call old talk. I am leery of folks my generation looking at developments like social media and challenges like AI, robots, and all the new forms of communication, and warning how things won’t be like they once were, how young people aren’t like the young people we were and won’t have our experiences, etc.
True, they won’t have those experiences, they’ll have theirs. In their world, readily-available information is almost a given, which would have helped many of us who didn’t make good choices because we simply didn’t know enough.
Looking at my life, I am sometimes taken aback by how much I didn’t know while growing up and becoming an adult—not not-knowing in the Zen sense, an invitation to moment-by-moment intimacy, but basic ignorance. I had no idea how to write, I had no idea that there were classes and workshops that taught you the basics of good writing, I had no idea that one could develop a relationship with a teacher that could turn into mentorship and open up the world for you. In fact, I knew very, very little, from how to open up a bank account to how to prepare for your first job interview. I had no idea of careers.
A lot of this reflected the times, especially how little was expected and available to women. I also grew up in a household that was apprehensive of the outside world, microscoping life’s vast potential into small, digestible bites and judging and rejecting everything else. But a lot of it was basic ignorance, knowledge that other young people had because they grew up in a home with more money, different life skills and experiences.
Young people now, even the children of immigrant families who live nearby, are encouraged to look up opportunities for college, advance classes, and career development. One of Jimena’s jobs is to make sure they’re provided with the information they need to get into good schools, get the money they need, and make good choices.
Yes, I know about Tik Tok, the constant use of cell phones, game playing, porn hubs, etc., but I don’t wish to be one the oldsters who looks back with nostalgia on the past and shakes her head at prospects of the future. If anything, I am very excited by this new age and would like to live long enough to see how its potential is realized.
At the same time, I was deeply moved by Peter’s words: “Not knowing is … a tickle just below the chin of the imagination, as intuition gets excited and floods through body and mind.” I often worry about my own life becoming too small because I don’t bring enough magic into it. Don’t let myself dawdle over a new flower or welcome the hummingbirds, who are here earlier than in other seasons.
There’s a lot to say about being able to take a photo of a new plant or a tree I can’t name, identify and learn a lot about it. But that’s just the realm of information, which is the tiniest sliver of things, as the known always is compared to the unknown. I feel I have experienced just what Peter points to. I start reading a book, get restless, and a footnote points out another book, I read that, and it’s the beginning of a journey. I know the feeling of that tingle, as if a new world has opened up, one I didn’t know existed.
Sitting in front of one Rembrandt picture at the Met long ago on my way to a new exhibit, I began a lifelong study of not just Rembrandt but also other Dutch painters, not to mention Baruch Spinoza and the fascinating try-out of democracy that Holland engaged in during that era, and conceived and began to write a play about that time that I thought resonated with our modern lives today.
Why are you showing this to me? I often ask as I walk in the woods or look at the eyes of a baby for a long time. Often there is no answer—I don’t even know whom I’m asking, but sometimes it’s the start of a path—of writing, of study, of insight. And Peter is absolutely right, it’s never, ever connected to what I know.
I knew nothing about Zen, knew nothing about spirituality notwithstanding (or even because of) my religious upbringing, and one day I blindly got hold of a book about a journey to find a snow leopard. There was no Internet then and I was curious, so I asked the woman whose house I was staying in if she had books on meditation, she shared what she had with me, and the rest is history.
Had I known ahead of time what I was looking for, I never would have opened that book. The world that opened to me was not just Zen practice but also the twin dimensions, inner and outer, of any journey. It changed my writing.
English writer Katherine May wrote: “I want what [the] ancients had: to be able to talk to god. Not in a personal sense, to a distant figure who is unfathomably wise, but to have a direct encounter with the flow of things, a communication without words … I want to feel that raw, elemental awe that my ancestors felt, rather than my tame, explained modern version. I want to prise open the confines of my skull and let in a flood of light and air and mystery.”