Portretfoto Jan Bransen
Portretfoto Jan Bransen

Column Jan Bransen: From an anonymous text to a personal conversation

The invention of generative language models such as ChatGPT might have as big an impact on the human existence as writing.

Before writing existed, humans had no other option than to live together in small tribes. Anonymous communication did not exist. Agreements could only be made verbally between humans that knew each other, who lived together. Laws did not exist. Order only existed through ingrained fixed habits.

That changed dramatically when writing was invented. Agreements recorded in texts can provide stability across time and space. Laws can be established through which large complex societies have emerged, in which traditions have formed, in which politics must be practised, about which history can be written. Writing has also changed a lot in the personal sphere of small family relationships. Thanks to letters, for example, totally new forms of distance and closeness have emerged, as beautifully portrayed by Johannes Vermeer in his Woman Reading a Letter.

Our memory has changed thanks to writing. Science became possible. Scholars have written libraries full of books. As a result, education took the form in which we know it all too well today. Students read books and take exams.

I'll immediately admit that it is somewhat disappointing to nominate exams as the highlight of what writing has led to. But I do so deliberately, because it is probably these very exams that are the source of the global change necessitated by the rise of generative language models. For what the fuss and turmoil over exams show is that writing has now definitively detached itself from human interaction. Texts have become anonymous exchanges between IP addresses, which may no longer involve an acting and judging human being at all. If we as humans value an intelligent exchange of ideas, we will have to avoid writing from now on and reinstate the concrete, physical space of conversation.

In fact, our campus is a wonderfully appropriate place for that. And if we continue to find it necessary to use exams to judge students' ability to contribute to our intelligent exchange of ideas, then we will have to reinstate oral exams. That seems to me the only sensible way to go, now that texts effectively no longer have an author.

Generative language models are going to have a huge effect on human interaction and, therefore, on the organisation of our education. Let what should always have been dominant remain dominant: the concrete, personal pragmatics of people interacting!

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