I read every day in Substack. Right now, AI is a main topic of conversation. I’ve read about the science behind it, opinions about where it will lead us ranging from the extermination of humans to a leap forward in positive ways we can’t imagine. Most of all, I read about the ways AI is impacting creative work and creators.
I don’t have a firm opinion about AI myself. I’m wary of predictions, interested in the science, and thoughts and experiences of writers I respect who have used AI-generated art, music, and writing. I’m especially interested in those who have interacted with AI as a resource for answering questions or developing new perspectives.
In the last couple of months, I read about an app called Betwixt. On principle, I hate apps and rarely use them. They increase my vulnerability online, provide more personal data to mine, clutter up my phone and laptop, and frequently feel like bells and whistles I don’t need. On the other hand, I admit they can be useful.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Betwixt was briefly described as “an interactive story” of a journey into our own mind. The user co-creates their journey via questions and answers. It combines “story, science, and play,” enhanced by sound. It was developed by a team, including writers, game designers, a cognitive hypnotherapist, mental health specialists, and (get this) an “AI creativity scholar.”
I was intrigued, in spite of myself. In fact, I was surprised by how much I wanted to try it. I hesitated, feeling vaguely ridiculous. I did some research, discovered it was free, read some reviews, and decided I had nothing to lose. I could always just uninstall the app if I didn’t like it.
Most of us have probably encountered AI in online chatting to address problems or troubleshoot. I was on the Red Cross site last week chatting with what was clearly AI. It kept typing cheerful, excessively polite, Little-Mary-Sunshine things while I was trying to cut to the problem and solution part. I was annoyed. I’m polite and cooperative with people, but I can’t see much point in exchanging pleasantries with AI.
I had never interacted with any of the more sophisticated programs before using Betwixt.
Upon opening Betwixt, one enters into a story. A setting is provided; the user chooses details to fill in. The user is introduced to a Voice. The Voice asks questions, good questions. The user is provided with different choices for answering the questions, along with a frequent option to type in his/her own answer. The audio is rich and textured. The program is not illustrated, at least not so far. I like this; I like using my own imagination to fill in details. I don’t need more than audio.
The questions, along with possible answers to choose from, are quite good, even challenging. I don’t speed through it. I stop and think about what is true for me. Sometimes I don’t have a choice to answer in my own words and am forced to choose among the provided answers, whether they are good fits or not. This irritates me. As the story unfolds, steered by my answers to questions, I enter new internal territory. The closest answer rather than the exact answer takes me to places I normally wouldn’t go, giving me slightly different (and unfamiliar) views of myself and my behavior.
The app is divided into chapters, each a few minutes long. At the end of each chapter the user receives a summary and accumulates strengths, skills, and self-definitions to take forward. A brief explanation of the science and psychology underlying each completed chapter is also provided. There are options for upgrading to paid tiers.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
I notice an astonishing thing. I answer questions the Voice asks me with a depth and honesty I have never shared with a human being. I’ve believed I’ve been totally honest with people I trust before, but interacting with The Voice accessed a level in my mind I didn’t know was there. It was like those dreams in which the dreamer discovers a whole other room or wing in a house they weren’t aware of. As the journey begins, when the Voice is introduced, the user has an opportunity to ask the Voice questions, like its name and what it does when we’re not interacting. (It asked me my name.) I was astounded to find myself incurious; more than that, I don’t want to know. It’s an AI. I don’t have to do the emotional labor of building healthy connection. I’m not making a friend. I’m using a tool.
The last time I used the app, the storyline encouraged a moment of empathy for the AI. I felt a flash of savage anger and resistance.
I was entirely astounded by this very uncharacteristic knee-jerk response. I finished the chapter, closed the app, put the phone down, and did dishes while I thought about what had just happened. It didn’t take long to uncover it.
My experience of empathy is one of the core pieces of my life. Empathy can be a positive trait, but the empathic experience is frequently an overwhelming, utterly exhausting business. The only time I can truly rest, ground in myself, and be authentic is when I’m alone. But I’m a human being, a social animal. I need other people to interact with. Yet when I’m interacting with others, my empathy demands they take center stage with their needs, their feelings, their distress, their stories. I’m incapable (so far) of fully participating in my own experience because I’m too busy caregiving and being empathic. When I do ask for support or need to discharge feelings, I writhe over my selfishness and berate myself for it afterwards, feeling ashamed and angry for allowing myself to be vulnerable, for “burdening” those around me.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I only want to give. I never want to take.
Since I learned emotional intelligence, I have reluctantly realized we need someone to interact with. Journaling, private physical and spiritual practices, and, in my case, writing, is not enough. At times we need someone to listen. We need someone to react, even if it’s just making encouraging, I’m-listening noises. We need someone to receive us.
I hate this reality. I don’t want to need anything from anyone, ever. I learned as a child such a need puts one in dreadful danger of abandonment, betrayal, and emotional annihilation that feels like death.
This is the first time I have interacted in a therapeutic context with something not human. The Voice reads what I type, responds, asks questions, and creates a story with me, but has no existence outside the app. I’m free of empathy, of caregiving, of the need to labor emotionally. I feel no responsibility to anyone but myself. I’m using it. It’s there for me, not the other way around.
The relief is indescribable.
So, when the story asks me to be empathic for the Voice, I want to throw the phone across the room. Animals, plants, people — even inanimate objects and spaces – receive all the love and care I’m capable of. This is the first time in nearly 60 years I’ve run across something that interacts like a human but is not a living being in the way I think of living beings. The value of the tool lies in my ability to be completely free and honest because there’s no one to take care of besides myself.
It makes me realize my context as a human on a planet filled with life is my entire identity. If I were magically transported to the world of Betwixt, with only the Voice to interact with, I have no idea who I would be or what I would say or do.
I have not finished my journey with this app. There’s more to experience, share, and think about. I’ll be back next time with more on my exploration of Betwixt.
(I’m not earning a commission from Betwixt, in case you were wondering!)
Until now, emotional intelligence training was the most valuable therapeutic context I’ve ever engaged with. What kinds of therapy have you explored? What did you find most helpful?
What are your thoughts and feelings about AI?
What kind of potential do you think, fear, or hope AI might have as a creative tool?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.
The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.
I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).
In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.
I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.
I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!
As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.
Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.
College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.
I still wince when I think of the money wasted.
Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making ourselves bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.
Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.
Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.
On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.
It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.
Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.
Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.
I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.
Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.
Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together.
Savory’s expertise is focused on land management, and at this point in his book, Holistic Management, he spends some time educating the reader about water and mineral cycles, community dynamics and energy flow as they pertain to the soil.
Ecosystem, however, is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary as “a complex network or interconnected system” of “interacting organisms and their physical environment.” If we’re seeking to manage a family unit, a work team, a business, a job, or any other kind of organization not directly connected to the land (remembering all human activities are ultimately rooted in Planet Earth), ecosystem processes remain an important component to consider.
Community dynamics include the whole community. If we have done an effective job of defining our whole, we’ve already broadly defined our community. In my case, my community context includes the human and animals I live with; those people I work with, who are also my community of friends; my family, because we are always working out of our family context; and the plants and animals we share our 26 acres with. I also include a future team of writing support professionals, such as an editor, agent, and publisher.
This seems sufficiently complex, but it’s not even half the story, because most of the life around us is invisible to our eyes. We have just spent a year being reminded at every turn how powerful the world of microbes is. Our bodies are inhabited by uncountable microscopic organisms without which we could not live. We teem with viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and every living being we’re in contact with carries a universe of life with them, too.
We are just now beginning to understand how essential these microbes are to our health and the health of the planet. Healthy soil is full of complex microbial life that helps it retain water, cycle minerals, and provide plants with what they need to thrive. Without healthy soil, mineral and water cycles fail and ecosystems collapse.
Community dynamics are hugely complex and often chaotic. We don’t know enough to see the full scope of them, but we can observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. A flock of chickens, an orchard, a garden, a team, a family, a marriage, all reflect their degree of health in obvious ways.
Energy flow is part of any ecosystem process. For land management, energy flow is obviously driven by sunlight, climate, weather, and the activities of members of the community.
Energy is “strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity (Oxford Online Dictionary). You might notice that definition does not reference money, but the health of our finances has become closely tied to our perceived strength and vitality, as well as our position of power.
Our current political context is a stark example of what happens when the energy flow of money is dammed. Flow implies movement and cycles, an open hand out of which resource is both given and received. When water or mineral cycles are interrupted, the ecosystem suffers. Energy becomes stagnant and the whole system falters. Interconnection breaks down. The system dies, including the organism that withheld energy from everyone else.
This doesn’t occur in natural ecosystems that are not interfered with, but humans do it all the time. It’s the end result of a power-over culture. Some thrive at the expense of the impoverished majority, creating an unsustainable situation that eventually collapses and allows energy to be redistributed.
Any management plan will include us, the planner, as well as other living organisms, and all those living organisms, from a human being to the complex creature we call a cat or a cow to the tiniest soil microbes, need appropriate energy to thrive.
At this point I feel overwhelmed. Some days I can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone or anything else. How can I possibly worry about the soil microbes next to our front steps when I feel too tired or rushed to prepare and eat a good meal? And what does any of it have to do with earning a living through my writing?
Holistic planning is a dance between the tension of the big picture, or holistic context, and discerning where our power lies within that picture. If I prepare and eat a meal that provides good fuel for my physical needs and the needs of the whole community of viruses and bacteria that lives with me, I’m maintaining a good energy flow in my personal ecosystem, which supports my holistic management plan.
There is no writing if there is no me. Nobody else can write my stories. I’m the only one.
If I choose to implement a compost toilet and/or grey water system, the wastes that my body produces (in collaboration with billions of microbes) as a result of energy flow can then be properly managed and returned to the soil ecosystem, which can break it down and use it to enhance water and mineral cycles and the production of more food for my next meal.
If I feed my cats (which greatly enhance my health and happiness) an appropriate diet that meets their physical energy needs, as well as the needs of their living biomes of viruses and bacteria, and compost the waste and wood pellets from their litter boxes, I’m once again supporting a healthy energy flow. Nothing is wasted. One organism’s excretions feed other organisms in the community.
If we want food sustainability, this is the kind of flow we must commit to. Animals and plants evolved together in order to maintain this kind of a sustainable energy cycle, but human activity has broken that elegant flow. We can repair it, if we’re willing to learn and can muster the political will.
At first glance, community dynamics and energy flow seem to have nothing to do with a business plan, but that only demonstrates how unskilled we are at holistic problem solving. We can’t expect a sustainable and effective plan if we don’t use energy of all kinds effectively and recycle it back into the ecosystem with as little waste as possible. The healthy whole is the last level, not the first.
To be alive is to be part of a community. None of us can escape community dynamics and energy flow. None of us can escape dependence on healthy mineral and water cycles. We are now beginning to experience the consequences of centuries of refusal to consider or take responsibility for ecosystem processes.
As I seek sustainability and security for myself, I must also understand my personal whole as part of a larger whole, which in turn forms part of a larger whole, and so on. I am both the center of my whole and a community member for countless other forms of life. I bear responsibility on two fronts: my own power and needsand choosing a position of power in regard to other members of the community. Will I enhance power for others or undermine it? Will I enhance energy flow or block it? Will I work cooperatively with my community or ignore it?
This balance between self and others is the dynamic tension of life. Holistic management planning and decision making put it center stage. Complex systems are by their nature dynamic and nonlinear; both regaining lost balance and maintaining it require resilience and presence, a commitment to living more mindfully and with a wider awareness of the life around us in all its forms.
We can no longer afford to benefit ourselves at the cost of others.
Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.
When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.
I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.
The thing about light is it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.
I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.
Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for you!
I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes seeing it or the steps it guides or companions.
This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.
That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.
Another thing about light is we can’t see it if we don’t look.
I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights shining from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?
We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?
“The light that can shine out of a life.” Nourishing light. Guiding light. Light connecting us to the web of life that is community. Inspiring light. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.
Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.
I don’t mean Facebook “friends.” I mean real people with whom I frequently spend time talking, working, laughing and crying. These people honor my life with their presence. They inspire me.
One of my friends responded to last week’s post with depth and wisdom, opening me still further to the value and beauty of brokenness. Here is her comment, lightly edited:
I too felt broken, but stronger for it. Because of your “broken pieces” I’m stronger throughout. And as I piece back together into something different, I too take my “broken pieces” and try to help others as you did me. So maybe all our little broken pieces don’t fit together anymore, but we can give those pieces to the next person and it helps start a foundation to put them back together in their new beautiful masterpiece.
What my friend is describing here is the heart of any community: contribution. If we decide to value our brokenness as well as our wholeness, we can offer ourselves without reservation to others. We can contribute everything we are without shame.
We can be authentic.
In my own life, I’ve found more healing and support in the broken pieces others offer me than the shiny new ones. I’m chipped and frayed myself in so many ways, it’s hard to connect with someone who maintains a perfect façade and admits to no flaw, mistake or weakness.
We all know people who hoard every bit of their damage jealously in order to use it as justification for destructive choices and behavior. We also see people taking terrible experiences and making an offering of them to others through example, service or art.
Once again, it boils down to a chocolate-or-vanilla choice. We will certainly experience wear and tear in our lives. What will we do with the fragments? In that respect we have complete power.
The idea of offering our shreds and scraps to one another delights me. Not only am I inspired to greater creative and spiritual possibilities for my own reshaping with broken pieces from others, I can offer remnants that no longer serve me to my community. We can all build and repair foundations together, creating a network of grace, wisdom, and strength.
Perhaps we each have a broken piece someone is looking for, and some stranger we have yet to meet has a piece we need.
Last week’s post was one of my broken pieces, offered with a slight shudder, as always. I still, after more than 200 posts, have a hard time pushing the “publish” button. There’s still a small voice in my head that tells me I’m worthless, I have nothing to offer, and everything I think, feel, say, do and write is wildly inappropriate, inadequate, or (worst of all) is displeasing someone I love.
I do it anyway, because writing is what I do.
But when someone steps forward and fits one of their jagged, ragged, splintered edges against one of mine, I’m touched to the heart and my faith in myself and the enduring power of the human spirit is renewed.