John McCaffrey
4 min readApr 21, 2024

If Imitation Is the Highest Form of Flattery, Why Hate AI?

When I read well, I write well. By reading well, I don’t always mean devouring a classic, but any work by an author who puts time and energy into the writing, who is careful in craft and expansive in imagination, who cares about the person turning the page.

When reading good writing as described above, I often mimic (consciously or unconsciously) the writing — in style, and, at times, in subject matter. Thus, by way of literary transference, I also write well. Is this stealing? Am I being unoriginal? I don’t think so. My feeling is that I’m building off an author’s achievement to achieve something of my own, that their “inspiration” inspired me, and by imitating them, as the saying goes, I’m flattering them.

So why don’t I feel the same about Artificial Intelligence? Why do I believe AI-generated writing is neither complimentary or creative. Before I venture an answer, and just to be clear where my critical arrow is pointed, here’s a definition on the subject by Anca Bujor in Unbounce:

“Artificial intelligence is essentially using machine learning to understand, learn, and perform tasks without the need for human assistance. Content writing AI is the same process but focuses on machine-generated content such as blog posts, articles, and other forms of content.

An AI content generator can produce various forms of text, based on criteria that users fill out. This allows the generated content to be relevant and focused. The general idea is to allow users to create batches of content that can then be personalized and used for the purposes of the business.”

In sum, you input a request, seeking, for example, an opening line for a short story about revenge, and AI whirls through streams of data and spits out a suggested opening line for a short story about revenge. You can’t possibly know the source, because it’s sources, plural to the nth degree, the result of natural language processing algorithms and machine learning models analyzing all and anything in the digital divide it can get it’s pseudo-sentient hands on. And like a vampire biting into an exposed aorta, AI, feeding on this composite, this meta-verse word-salad, divines the patterns, syntax, and context of human language. And out pops your sentence.

It’s hard to argue that using AI is not an impersonal process, that it is not robotic in nature, akin to pulling a slot machine lever and waiting for results. And artificial like it’s name, the difference between drinking powdered juice or squeezing a fresh-picked orange yourself for breakfast. Analogies aside, I don’t believe AI is anywhere close to being as good as the real thing — i.e. the human brain. To me, AI is not inspiring or redeeming to the user: nothing is learned other than how to manipulate the software, hard work is not required and thus not rewarded, and intellectual, emotional and spiritual connection to those whose work is being co-opted are lost in the system’s shuffle.

Jason Kurtz, a leading psychoanalyst, author of the memoir ‘Follow the Joy’, and an award-winning playwright, expands on my feelings about AI:

The current version of AI is merely a very clever tool, not an intelligence, and certainly not a unique personality. When a human being imitates a writer, they are (if they are not plagiarizing) passing the writer through their own personality, and taking elements of that writer to enhance their own way of communicating. This is why it is called flattery. A human being who imitates is in effect saying that they are improved by borrowing elements from another writer. AI, on the other hand, has no self to improve, no voice to enhance, and no opinion to express. It is merely a sophisticated tool that allows another human being to express their thoughts and ideas. And the work that AI uses, is in effect stolen from those humans, who are neither credited nor compensated for the work that they have done.

The problem is AI is here to stay, and, perhaps, if not checked, one day to rule. There’s too much money invested in it to stop now, and too much money to be made to stop moving forward. And so we will be complicit in it’s takeover. AI is our creation: it was not here before us, and it did not originate organically. And while many in the technology field and beyond might flatter themselves for being smart and sophisticated enough to conceive and construct an imitation of the human brain, I say we are sewing the seeds of mediocrity and creative mendacity, convincing ourselves we are making progress when in reality we are stepping backward…one cut-and-paste at a time.

John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a professor at The Rochester Institute of Technology.