As a writer, I’m afraid of capitalism — not ChatGPT.

Alasdair Cannon
The Startup
Published in
3 min readSep 9, 2023

We expected the ‘routine’ jobs to go first. After ChatGPT, though, creatives face the threat of automation. Freelance authors and artists now fear the prospect of mass immiseration.[1]

Yet as a writer AI doesn’t worry me. Computers are ‘just sitting there,’ Radiohead’s Thom Yorke once observed. ‘I can hit them with a two by four.’

Instead — as always — I feel threatened by capitalism.

ChatGPT’s creative writing skills are still, basically, terrible.[2] But as Amazon’s e-book market shows,[3] AI can already flood the market with writing produced and distributed at zero marginal cost. In theory — and if Literary AIs improve their writing game — the sheer volume of work they could produce will push the price of all writing to zero.

In a capitalist market, Literary AIs could force human writers into a difficult situation. Competition for the reading public’s time and attention is already brutal. Literary AIs will drive it higher. More writers will then make less money. Economic precarity will increase. The financial difficulties Literary AIs could create will lessen our time to write. They will drive some out of the profession.

Literary AIs may herald a literary exodus, then. If so, fewer people might dream to write after AI. Books may wither and before their first word is transcribed. The capitalist world’s literary imagination could shrink and fade.

Literary AIs could destroy the exchange value of writing — that’s the economic situation. The cultural situation differs, though. AI literature will not — cannot, perhaps — change the use value of our work. Great books by authors like Joyce or Sebald will forever remain transcendent. Nabokov’s prose and Beckett’s genius aren’t diminished when new works appear. The library of culture only expands — yet we still read old work. ChatGPT won’t change this.

Nabokov wouldn’t have feared ChatGPT.

New human writing will keep its use value, too. New books can still enrich us — even if, in postmodern fashion, we only care for the work’s effects and deem its authorship irrelevant. Living authors will also remain able to write these great works. And writers who labour over their books will still receive the intangible and incommunicable benefits writing has always provided. That spiritual shift authorship brings — this will remain ours. Machines can never claim that.

Literary AIs will alter the author’s relation to their audience. The challenge of connecting reader and writer will rise a hundredfold. But this is a marketer’s problem — it is not fatal for literature. For that small flame of desire, of need, to read works our brothers and sisters author will almost certainly persist after AI. People today read for the sake of literature, for the possibility of communion between writer and reader. We open books to find something that transcends the market. Something sacred, even.

LLMs may eventually equal or exceed the best human writers. The market for writing may perish. Exchange value may die. A culture of human literature nonetheless remains possible because its use value will endure.

Looking beyond our narrow, capitalistic perspectives the death of exchange value may even be a good thing. Without the spectre of price occluding the text, we may see the words we love more clearly. Yet without economic change writing will become the province of only a privileged few. Our world will be all the poorer for it. As a writer, that’s why I’m afraid — always capitalism, never technology.

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Alasdair Cannon
The Startup

Writer / Author. Debut book, Holding Patterns, out now via Bonfire Books.