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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2023-07-10 11:36

Cathryn Barnard



Musings on the impact and ethics of generative AI...



In January 2023, I stopped writing. 

Since late 2016, each month I’d written an article on the future of work for our website. For almost seven years, the process of putting my thoughts down on paper helped me make sense of what I was seeing, hearing and learning about the many interconnected shifts in the way we work. 

But late last year, when undertaking a website SEO review, it was explained to us that to maximise search engine results, articles needed to be constructed in a particular way. It was suggested I change my style of writing to better feed the machine, if I wanted my articles to be found. 

To be honest, it made me feel a bit sick. I’d always enjoyed taking time out to write, but suddenly I felt weighed down by the monthly commitment I’d made. 

Through the lens of SEO, writing suddenly felt inauthentic. As if I were doing it for page hits, rather than for the genuine purpose of moving ideas forward. Simply put, feeling I was obliged to write ‘content-to-order‘ took the joy out of it.

So, I stopped. 


Ethical considerations of ChatGPT

Meanwhile, I’ve watched with interest the ChatGPT and generative AI hype bubble build. Having worked in technology for many years, I’ve seen more than a few hype bubbles come and go. I’m old enough to remember the crash of the early 2000s. I’ve seen millions (if not billions) of dollars poured into new technology only for that technology to fail commercially. 

For this reason, when I first heard about ChatGPT in summer 2022, I didn’t get massively excited. 

What has intrigued me, though, is the Silicon Valley bro’hood call for a six-month moratorium, to reflect on ethical and societal implications.


Surely before releasing something so potentially harmful to society, proper ethical due diligence ought to have taken place? But then, given the rising number of whistleblowers emanating from the FANG gang (namely Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) on topics ranging from digital addiction to workplace bullying, maybe not. 

In the past ten years, STEM subjects have been prioritised across the education sector to the detriment of the humanities. It’s little surprise then if we have a dearth of practised critical thinkers willing and able to publicly contemplate the moral and ethical implications of next-generation technology, which is already presented as a runaway train. And in the face of pro-technology lobbying, it’s a bold ask.

But given the complex scale and nature of our global environmental, economic, political and social challenges, philosophical debate on the ethics of AI has never been more crucial. 

But where is this discourse happening? And why are they important? Here are three initial (and fledgeling) thoughts.


1] ChatGPT and its cadre are hailed as being able to generate content and fresh thinking. As they mature out of beta state, they risk deposing thousands whose primary job right now involves writing. We urgently need to understand the real implications of this and plan for mass reskilling / upskilling.

Dilemma: Where are the use cases for sensible AI adoption? And in the absence of these, who is providing guardrails for appropriate use of AI at work? If no guardrails are provided, how will society continue to function under the cloud of mass unemployment / under-employment?          


2] Given these technologies are scraping the Internet to generate their responses, how good is the quality of their input data to begin with? As someone wrote on LinkedIn a few months back, the quality of typical web content is already mediocre – does the world really need more average content? Or as someone else in my network said more bluntly – “crap in, crap out”. 

Dilemma: What was the purpose of the original content being drawn on? Are we creating content for the betterment of all, or solely to try and maximise clicks and likes?


3] If we can’t be sure who, or what, has generated the content, how can we trust it? We already have a societal trust crisis, arguably augmented by the misuse of social media. Malevolent bots are at large on social platforms, disseminating fake news, conspiracy theories and worse. We have a real issue with people being hoodwinked, coerced and otherwise manipulated into believing things that just aren’t true.

Dilemma: If we don’t know what’s real and what’s fake, who do we trust? How does a society function without trust as a key foundation block?


This runaway train won’t stop. The rapid evolution of AI is not only an exhibit of peak capitalism, it’s also quite literally an arms race. The front-of-mind question for any AI development business, and indeed any country, is – if we don’t do this, who will? If you think I’m exaggerating, this podcast is worth a listen.


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So, where does this leave my relationship with writing articles? 

While the issues I raise above are worthy of much more dissection (and I will attend to this another time), I’ve pondered more deeply what the art of writing means for me personally. 

And I’ve realised it’s never been more important for me to continue to write. 


Reasons why I will continue to write:

I’m a lover of the humanities. I studied French and Italian at university and am a fascinated by the technicolour of ideas and perspectives that show up in literature. There’s so much beauty and truth in the written word.


Writing helps me make sense of the thoughts in my head

It helps me integrate all the ideas I come across on a weekly basis. Those who know me know I love reading. I typically read between one and three books a week. And each book moves my thinking on. Writing brings coherence to all the ideas I absorb when I read. 



Writing is an iterative practice

It’s a way of documenting my ever-evolving view of the world. It allows me to keep a record of what I once thought and track my development and growth.



Human writing is the antidote to AI-generated content

If you’re choosing to use ChatGPT to generate content, you're not starting from a position of authenticity nor with the intention of creating meaningful connection. When I write, I hope to be able to convey that. The world needs love right now, like never before.



I write because I believe my perspectives on the world of work are useful

I spent years working with high-octane startups that helped deliver the digital infrastructure we rely on today. I’ve seen people work to achieve remarkable technological breakthroughs with passion and purpose. And I’m also hyper-aware of the state of atrophy so many of our organisations find themselves in today. I hope my ideas might effect change, however small, and make the world a better place. 


As celebrated author James Baldwin said, “You write in order to change the world… If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”


We have never more urgently needed new (and better) ideas and stories for society, civilisation and humanity. We desperately need critical thinkers, and deeper contemplation of our most complex challenges. If by documenting my ideas, I’m able to help seed ideas and action elsewhere, then I’ve played my part.


I don’t know the answers to the global issues that concern me most. But I do know that when I write, I automatically gain quality time to ponder those issues more wholesomely. And when I’m able to share my thoughts with others, in some small part, I believe I’m able to move the wider conversation on. 


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