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Use These 3 Mindsets to Discuss AI & Plagiarism in More Meaningful Ways
Most of the time, we are not arguing about plagiarism. We are arguing about the relationship between humans and technology.
Most professional writing classes require students to think about the relationship between writing and technology. Every new technology changes not only how we write, but our attitudes towards writing. That is what we’ve been thinking about in my class recently before we take on AI text generators.
The standardization of text emerged from the printing press, which allowed for better replication and mass production. The idea that there is a perfect grammar or perfect punctuation comes from this crucial technology. The printing press permanently altered how we thought about writing.
Writers today need to understand these relationships so that they can adapt to new writing situations and environments. Writing is no longer just text, but includes formatting, images, video … and now AI text.
The university is not so quick to adapt to these new situations. As an institution, I’m not sure we’ve fully adapted to Web 2.0 technologies, let alone GPT-3. Perhaps because we get so wrapped up in rigor and policing without actually focusing on writing as an activity (instead of as an assessment).
For this reason, I’ve mostly given up on discussions of plagiarism and AI, because most of the time we are arguing from two ontologically different points of views. We are not really talking about plagiarism.
3 Mindsets that Predict Attitudes Toward AI
Underneath it all, we are having a conversation about the relationship between writing and technology. No one is changing their attitude about AI without changing their mindset towards writing technologies.
If you know what these mindsets are, you can predict how people will react to AI.
Instrumentalism has a binary view that sees technology as distinct from humans. AI is just a tool.
There are two ways people leverage this binary … either to emphasize the role of the human or the role of technology.
If you are a humanist, then you emphasize our organic bodies and likely see AI as a detriment to society and the writing process.
If you are a technologist, then you see tools as an enhancement to our humanity.
Either way, technology is a passive partner that is separate from how we exist as humans. The essence of who we are as humans is unchanged by technology. Meaning exists in the human.
Formalism is focused more on getting words, texts, and ideas right, regardless of what technology is being used.
Meaning doesn’t exist inside the human, but in the words we use. Still a binary view of humans and technology, this perspective focuses on the forms of words and text to connect humanity. Meaning is how well humans put together words in the “right way.”
If you are a humanist, then your goal is to ensure ideas are communicated accurately and appropriately, regardless of the technology being used. AI hinders our ability to communicate and come up with ideas, because only humans can make meaning.
If you are a technologist, then you see AI as a part of the communication and idea-making process. AI can create meaning, especially for mundane writing, but not necessarily more complex writing. The meaning is in the text, not the human.
Either way, the source of communication and ideas is the human, not the machine, which remains a conduit that can enhance or inhibit the flow of meaning.
But there is a third way.
Posthumanism understands writing as a human-machine interaction … regardless of the technology.
From stone chisel to ChatGPT. We are all cyborgs … and always have been cyborgs.
Writing, ideas, communication, society — they all emerge through the interaction between people and machines. Now that AI is a part of this interactive network, it will always be a part of our writing and thinking … even if you lock students in a room with no computers or electricity.
For a cyborg writer, all the usual questions are irrelevant … there is only one real question.
How do we shape the way AI technologies shape us?
Clashing Mindsets in the Classroom
After presenting these mindsets to my students, I was curious how they might describe their own mindsets using these terms. So I took an informal survey, allowing them to choose their mindset and give an explanation.
📷 Screenshot of taxonomy created in Gamma presentation app.
Most students see themselves as instrumentalists … by far. That means they see technology as a means to an end … just a tool to get writing done. Those students with a technologist mind-set mostly want to use AI as a tool to enhance creativity, searching for words and ideas, or to share and collaborate.
Less than 10% saw themselves as humanist … that AI will most likely hinder their ability to be human and write in meaningful ways. So most students see technology as either an augmentation or a crucial partner.
This survey is by no means scientific, but provides a basis for discussing ethical issues and AI in the classroom. It brings up questions to explore and research further.
Dare I say, though … our education system tends to approach writing from both a humanist and a formalist mindset? We focus mostly on the words, and technology is invisible, at best.
If so, then we are at complete odds with our students.
Perhaps the root issue behind AI and the writing classroom isn’t plagiarism. Even if that is our concern, we won’t convince students of anything about plagiarism or AI writing without first identifying what mindsets they bring to the classroom … and then meeting them where they are.
So what mindset do you have towards writing technology?
I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in a comment!
I created this heuristic using “Why Technology Matters to Writing: A Cyberwriter’s Tale” by Jim Porter. You can find the excerpt I used with my students and the full article attached in here.