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.
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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.
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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.
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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:
Asking the right question is powerful. Answering it honestly is a superpower. Good questions unlock doors and windows in our minds and hearts, and honest answers allow light into dark, dank, haunted places within us.
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For me, part of the magic of good questions is the challenge to think bigger and more creatively. Questions help me focus on problem-solving.
Life is all about problem-solving.
So, here are three questions. The first is from Joshua Becker on Becoming Minimalist. The others were inspired by his post:
If I didn’t have this thing, what would I use instead?
If I wasn’t doing this activity, what would I do instead?
If I wasn’t investing my time, energy, and power here, where would I invest them instead?
In the first questions, the thing, whatever it is, may be something you’re not using in the first place. But if you are, or you think you are, or you have, or you think you might need to sometime in the future, ask yourself if you didn’t have it, what would you use in place of it?
If I didn’t have this apple corer, what would I use instead?
A good kitchen knife is multipurpose. An apple corer is not.
If I didn’t have a TV habit, what could I do instead?
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Spend actual face-to-face time with someone. Read a book. Take a walk. Play with pets. Exercise. Play a game. Go outside.
If I wasn’t consumed and exhausted by stress, anxiety, toxic mimics, or unhealthy relationships, what could I have energy for?
I don’t suggest a ban on apple corers or TV. These questions are not weapons with which to make ourselves bad and wrong. The point is that asking the questions reminds us we are making choices and gives us a chance to consider whether or not our choices are adding value to our lives and taking us in the direction we want to go.
Do we really need a bigger kitchen to house our collection of apple corers and other gidgets and gadgets that do the work of a good knife?
Do we really need three, or six, or nine different streaming services and a steady diet of however many hours of TV a day?
If we ask and answer these questions intermittently during our day, what might we learn about which activities and objects are useful and valuable and which are not? How would our relationships look through the lens of these questions, beginning with our relationship with ourselves?
This is the old French story about Bluebeard. Once his young wife looked in the forbidden room and saw all his former headless brides, she couldn’t unsee it. There was no going back.
This kind of self-inquiry is a choice. We may not want to. We may not be willing to. That’s OK. Life has a way of increasing the pressure until we are forced to go in the direction of our fear and resistance. On the other hand, maybe you’re a person with no emotional, physical, or thought clutter. Maybe you have no time-wasting coping mechanisms and habits. Maybe your kitchen drawers are clean, functional, mouse free, and contain nothing but a few useful multipurpose tools you use regularly. Maybe all your relationships are perfectly healthy. Good for you! I’m jealous.
My life (and my kitchen) is messier than that. I spend too much time and energy in non-useful activities, and even more time and energy being hard on myself for it. I worry, and make up stories, and work hard to stay defended and hidden.
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If I didn’t spend time playing online solitaire in an effort to manage uncomfortable feelings or fatigue, what could I do? Write? Take a walk? Relax with a book? Dance? Journal? Talk to a friend? Scrub a floor?
It’s not that solitaire is necessarily bad. The question is, would another activity be better? A walk takes care of exercise; spending time outside; and spending undistracted time with myself or a friend, pet, or loved one. A walk is a multipurpose activity. Solitaire is not.
I need a good kitchen knife. I need to be outside and exercise.
Do I need an apple corer and online solitaire?
(Well, no. But maybe I want them. That apple corer is mine (this is called the endowment effect). I paid good money for it! Maybe I used it once. Maybe I’ll use it again one day. I deserve to relax and take a break now and then. Solitaire is better than TV or a social media habit. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I need some downtime in my day.)
I’m not here to argue with you. I want you to have what you need. I want what I need, too.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, contemptuous memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.
Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.
Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold my own hand as I go forward into the future.
I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).
At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.
Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.
Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.
Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?
The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.
Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.
I have no intention of going backwards.
Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.
We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.
Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.
Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?
(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)
In this age of disinformation, misinformation, and connectivity, it’s ironic that some of the most emotionally intelligent among us are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such people have a twisted mastery of emotional intelligence; enough to successfully manipulate and recruit others behind lies, postmodernism and ideology, but not enough to use constructively.
We are evolved to be emotional creatures, and the combination of our feelings and intellect is powerful, but we must maintain a balance of both. Feelings without the tempering effect of information will often lead us astray. Intellect without feelings abandons traits that make us human, such as intuition and compassion.
Belief is built on trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something, and once we establish a belief, we think of it as part of our identity. However, true identity is not defined by our beliefs, choices, style, or preferences. Those are merely toxic mimics for a healthy identity, which evolves, changes, and expands as we learn and grow.
When influencers encourage us to mistake our beliefs for our identities, they’re wielding a powerful social tool in order to glue together communities they can manipulate. Within such communities, to question or lose confidence in a belief results in severe social sanctions intended to stifle any such challenge. Influencers work hard to control and manage both our emotions and access to information that might threaten the belief they’re selling.
Fear of being outcast effectively disables our willingness to objectively examine the beliefs our community espouses.
If we are low in emotional intelligence, our lives don’t work well. Happiness eludes us. Relationships are problematic and frequently unhealthy. We’re ignorant of our needs and thus neglect them. We become estranged from ourselves (our true identities) and lose our flexibility and resilience. We take everything personally, and fiercely protect our beliefs, no matter how damaging and illogical they are.
We stop growing and learning. We murder our curiosity and become afraid to ask questions or seek new information.
Worst of all, we are blind to the emotional manipulations of others. An appeal to our desire to heal the planet, be kind and compassionate, be tolerant and generous, pushes us into enabling the agendas of others before we’ve thoroughly researched and explored those agendas. We react to the views and criticisms of others reflexively, fearful of appearing in a bad light.
We cannot identify our power and thus fail to protect it, making it easy for others to take it away.
Many well-meaning people are duped by predators who play on their fears and/or desire to make a positive contribution to the culture and conversation. If we identify as a good person, a peaceful person, we’re deeply distressed by the accusation that we’re hateful, and will accept any kind of ideological nonsense in order to maintain our social identity. We, in turn, pass on the pressure to others. If we must believe the moon is made of green cheese in order to be accepted, others must also believe it for us to accept them.
Our lack of emotional intelligence makes our current chaos of dis- and misinformation predictable. People interested in power and control have no problem lying, and our low emotional skills make us quite vulnerable to those lies, especially when they’re presented with high emotion.
We don’t have mastery of our emotions and thus become victims.
I’m reading a book titled Controlling People, by Patricia Evans. It’s an interesting look at why some people are so controlling of others. Here’s a quote I resonated with:
“What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.”
We are so often manipulated by others because we believe they have something we need. Love. Wealth. A raise or promotion. Validation. Belonging. Something.
As long as we believe anyone has something we need, we’re open to manipulation. We’ve entered the ancient archetype of prostitution. We’ll make choices based on pleasing that person in order to earn what we need.
The minute we enter into that dynamic, we’ve become disempowered, and I assure you pleasing people never works. It always ends badly. Show me someone, no matter how beloved, who demands you please them in order to be rewarded, and I’ll show you a power predator incapable of love or being pleased.
Such people do not share power. Ever.
When you are no longer useful, you will be discarded.
Emotional intelligence empowers us to find an effective balance between feelings and information. It allows us to discard our pseudo selves and support a dynamic identity. It helps us discern the difference between someone seeking to control and disempower us with emotional appeals and someone committed to power-with and win-win, where disagreement and curiosity are not punished and we’re encouraged to think for ourselves.