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A look from the Italian luxury brand Loro Piana. Outfits from Shein are made faster and many, many times cheaper. But the fit and feel is just not quite as good. Is that an analogy for using AI to tell stories?
STORIES = $
Two recent pieces shed light on this, albeit from very different angles.
The first is a skeptical look at the famous venture capital firm a16z, also known as Andreessen Horowitz. The gist of the piece is that the firm’s returns, 2x, are not as impressive as the returns that the world’s elite VCs provide their investors —and that a16z’s signature move is beginning to show its age.
1. Invest a lot of money into relatively early stage startups fronted by charismatic founders. 2. Scale these firms quickly, building market share while generating losses. 3. PR the @#!% out of the founders.
For most of the 2010s, fast growth + buzzy press turned out to be an irresistible cocktail for many other venture investors. This lead to ever higher valuations in later rounds.
These “up rounds” gave a16z the chance to cash out of their early stage bets. In other cases, a16z waited for the firms to offer shares to the public.
(An IPO is —of course— the ultimate cash out. That’s when so-called “retail investors” aka the general public are finally able to buy into these firms whose products they’ve heard so much about and/or been using these past few years —firms like Uber, Airbnb, Bumble, Snap, DoorDash and more— only at a way, way higher valuation than what the early, risk-assuming venture capitalists bought in at.)
OK, WHAT’S THE point here?
A savage take on a16z is that they are primarily a media and publicity company for the startups they invest in. A former a16z partner actually tweeted exactly that, calling his old firm a media company that happens to monetize through VC.
It was a joke, complete with a winking emoticon, but it was also not a joke, because that overall notion (story > everything else) was, until recently, more common in Silicon Valley than you might think.
NOTHING MATTERS. (EXCEPT story)
Last year, a startup founder candidly went public with their experience ghostwriting Tweets for famous VCs —in order to make them seem cool and “in on the joke” to founders and their peers. It’s a cynical and eye opening piece.
The ghostwriter claims to have cleared US$200,000 doing this in their spare time. But that’s not the part that got me. This choice quote did:
“We live in a technology-mediated reality. There are no facts. Narrative is the only thing that matters. Everything is propaganda. That's the world we're living in, and we're not going back.”
PROF G HAS entered the chat
That brings us to the second piece. It’s by the writer, business school professor, investor, media personality, and entrepreneur Scott Galloway. He likes to make sense of modern capitalism by way of simple, well thought out general theories.
Galloway recently extolled the virtues of storytelling in a simple, vivid way: he says it’s the single most important skill he wants to instill in his kids.
Sidebar: You wouldn’t be wrong to think that that “storytelling” these days refers to cool movies or TV shows —but that’s actually not the storytelling that Scott’s talking about.
There’s levels to storytelling, and some go deep.
ONCE UPON A time
Scientists and anthropologists have hypothesized that storytelling is an important component of human evolution.
The idea: the ability to tell stories is what helped perpetuate us humans, either by allowing us to share important info necessary for survival (saving others from having to learn that info “the hard way”) and/or by helping us maintain social bonds, so that we could better cooperate with one another in groups —which of course makes survival likelier.
Super interesting stuff, and the point is that storytelling has been key to human survival and evolution from the start.
Another way to put that: at its core, storytelling is intrinsically human.
BUT CAN’T CHATGPT tell a good story?
A lot of people have (rightly) marveled at generative AI’s ability to write not only prose, but poetry too.
In those heady, early days back in December 2022, I fired up ChatGPT during a drink with a successful screenwriter friend. He has written for and produced one of the biggest budget (and best reviewed) shows out at the moment, and I wanted to show him what this new thing could do.
I prompted ChatGPT to give me a plot line for a neo-Western thriller, set in modern day Texas. We both stared at the screen as ChatGPT spit out an intriguing log line and a pretty decent synopsis too, when, all of a sudden, my friend reached out and slowly pulled the laptop shut, as ChatGPT continued to churn out the story.
We both laughed at the move. His comic timing was good. But there was also recognition that the world had just changed.
“AN EMERGING HORROR”
My screenwriter friend’s reaction was actually much more chill than that of the singer/songwriter Nick Cave. When presented with an attempt to replicate his songwriting style via some AI generated lyrics, he responded by calling AI an “emerging horror,” and the song in question “a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.”
But, like, was it? Or were the Nick Cave-style AI lyrics merely not quite as good as real Nick Cave lyrics. Kind of in the same way that lyrics written by a human singer, who’s not as experienced nor intrinsically musical as Nick Cave, would just not be quite as good.
LORO PIANA OR Shein?
That’s where I believe we’re at when it comes to generative AI versus human output. It’s not a mockery. It’s just not quite as good.
A lot of modern life presents choices like this. In fashion, for instance, there is Shein, and then (at 50x the price), there’s Loro Piana. Shein is impressively nimble, ridiculously fast, and cheap. But the clothes are just not quite as good as Loro Piana’s.
Hungry? You can buy a premade protein shake for £3.85. Or sit down at a three Michelin star restaurant for £385 (or more) per person.
In law, there are boilerplate contracts that you can buy online for US$12. Or you can hire the most experienced contract lawyers in the world for US$1200 an hour.
In all of these cases, both options do the job. One is just not quite as good.
ChatGPT will certainly write stories much faster, and in greater volumes than us humans.
But human storytellers have a few many advantages. We can feel pain. And fear. Greed. Ignorance. Stupidity. Luck. All of these wonderfully frail, and highly illogical things are actually what make our stories smart. They give others a sense of what they should want to experience themselves —or avoid at all costs.
This is our secret. All of these human indulgences and weaknesses are baked in to the stories we humans tell each other.
Here is our moat: until some future version of generative AI can really, properly, truly feel the hot cheeked burn of shame that comes from a public mistake, or the irrational thrill comes from unexpected good fortune, or any of the infinite, delicate human reactions in between, they won’t be able to out tell storytellers who have.
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Written by Jon Kallus. Any feedback? Simply reply. Like this? Share it!👇