Great Artists Steal (With LLMs)
You can only steal what you can find—and AI lets you find exactly what you need
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Great artists steal. But how?
In order to steal, you have to find inspiration. Even in the age of the internet, inspiration isn’t cheap.
Social algorithms feed you mass-produced, lowest-common-denominator content. Google surfaces ads and gamified top 10 lists.
There is still the hard way. Read a lot. Take copious notes. Follow your intellectual curiosity for years until—no matter the situation—you have a reservoir of inspiration to turn to. This method is time-tested and sound, but it takes a lifetime.
Sometimes, you need help now.
What’s more, sometimes you have a situation so specific, a creative problem so well-defined, that you know someone out there has already encountered and solved it better than you ever could.
How do you find those sources? Use an LLM.
. . .
I had a problem like this last week. I wanted to write a practical explainer about ChatGPT but didn’t want it to be boring. I wanted it to feel voicey and personal. I wanted it to be funny and maybe even a little bit poetic.
It’s exciting, as a writer, to be able to frame a problem so specifically like this. Verbalizing your taste gives you a target at which to aim. But I didn’t know how to achieve the effect I wanted.
Surely, someone else had faced this problem before and solved it better than I could. I knew if I could see an example, it would nudge me in the right direction.
But there was nothing I could reference to help inspire me. Not many books on my shelf are practical explainers of new technology with an interesting voice. Not many articles in my Readwise app had those qualities, either.
Google results for “best practical and voicey explainers on technical topics” made me want to puke:a reasoning engine, not a knowledge database.)
Eventually, it made a recommendation that caught my eye:the article he wrote did exactly what I hoped to do, better than I ever could.
In 2003, he managed to take a dense technical topic—Unicode—and make you feel like he was sitting beside you, a twinkle in his eye, rendering the topic both compelling and understandable. Here’s the opening:
“Ever wonder about that mysterious Content-Type tag? You know, the one you’re supposed to put in HTML and you never quite know what it should be?
Did you ever get an email from your friends in Bulgaria with the subject line “???? ?????? ??? ????”?
I’ve been dismayed to discover just how many software developers aren’t really completely up to speed on the mysterious world of character sets, encodings, Unicode, all that stuff.”
It’s lovely. It has that exact ineffable sparkle, that voice and personality, that I was looking for but couldn’t find.
I was standing in line for lunch at a salad spot near my apartment when ChatGPT gave me the suggestion, and I almost screamed, “I KNOW HOW TO WRITE IT” in front of the unsuspecting lettuce lovers arrayed around me. I don’t think my shoes touched the sidewalk as I glided back to my apartment, ideas burning up in my head, Cobb salad in hand.
Once I had the voice, everything else was easy. I wrote the whole thing in an afternoon. It’s one of the most popular pieces I’ve written recently.
. . .
The power of proper inspiration is that it lets you stand on the shoulders of giants.
Before LLMs, the giants you could find had to fit into—and be at the top of—pre-established mainstream categories. You could Google for top non-fiction writing, but you probably wouldn’t get past Malcolm Gladwell—no search algorithm would ever unearth Sapolsky for you in that context.
Great artists steal, yes. But you can only steal what you can find.
LLMs are different. They let you find the invisible giants—the people who have faced the specific, idiosyncratic creative situation you’re facing.
Once you find these giants, you can stand on their shoulders. And, take it from me, the view from the top is pretty good.
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