Let's look at when to use AI and when not to. But first, a story about my favorite library.
* * *
I love this tiny library. Two rooms (one for adults, one for children). Two leather wingchairs flanking one fieldstone fireplace.
I've never seen it lit, the fireplace. But then again, the library is open only in the summer, when tourists and seasonal residents wander the short aisles, browsing for beach reads.
The library is staffed by an elementary school librarian named Cheryl. "Welcome in!" Cheryl calls from her perch at a big oak desk by the front door. ("Please close tightly! AC is on!" reads a sign on the door.)
Cheryl is off duty from her school for the summer. This is her side hustle.
For years now I have been Welcomed In and paid my $15 for a seasonal library pass—a slip of thin cardboard the size of a credit
card that lets you stuff your summer with all the books you can hold.
I don't really use the library much, to be honest. Or as much as I expect I will every June, when summer seems rich and generous and almost too much—stacked like a triple-scoop ice
cream cone. You think you have alllllll the time in the world to savor it.
But every year I get the card anyway. I love the ritual. How it's always the same: same chairs, same fireplace, same Cheryl. Same card, my name printed in pen by... well, you
I choose books to read on the beach or on the deck or in bed at night, to the music of Maine peepers in the dark salt marsh behind the house.
That image seems quaint, doesn't it—peepers! Music! But that's not exactly right: They are as loud as a thousand city car alarms all simultaneously triggered.
Peepers make a racket.
* * *
This year when I go to check my books out and plop down my $15... a surprise.
This year the library has stopped issuing paper library cards.
And instead of writing down your checked-out books in a spiral-bound notebook and stamping your return date inside the book's front cover, Cheryl now points a scanner at
a bar code and they're entered into a computer, whisper-quiet. I just now notice a sleek new Dell on the old desk: How did I miss that before?
No cards. No ink. No stamp.
You get a printout of your books. Like a receipt. It's as ordinary as buying sunscreen at CVS.
* * *
Cheryl explained all this to me last week as if I just landed on the planet and had never before seen a bar code.
She spoke as carefully and precisely as the school librarian she is—as if she were explaining the Oregon Trail to a half-circle of school kids seated on a rug at her feet.
I forced myself to listen. It was hard because my default mode is impatience and I just wanted to get on with my day.
I know that's
the point of vacation—to slow down. But still my mind jumped around... "Bar code" would be a good name for a secret speakeasy, maybe. Or a Slack group for lawyers.
I snapped to as Cheryl was asking me if I wanted a card anyway...?
She could fill one out for me, she said. People sometimes want one. Because they're children and have never had a paper library card. Or they're old and they always have. Or because they put them in a scrapbook.
"And that's okay if you do," Cheryl said with that soothing grade school voice—a cross between Bob Ross and Winnie the Pooh.
She looked at me expectantly, hand poised over the drawer in her big oak desk which I guessed held a handful of cards meant for the children, the elderly, the scrapbookers.
I did kind of want one. But I couldn't think of
why. I said no, that's okay.
I left, closing the door securely behind me. (The AC, you know.)
But because the unexpected computer on the desk suddenly cast a cloud over this otherwise bright summer day, I thought... welp, guess we're closing the door on paper cards, too.
then I rolled my eyes at myself. A bit dramatic, I know.
* * *
Sometimes analog (ink, stamps, paper) is useful.
Sometimes it gets in the way of efficiency.
Which is exactly how I feel about AI and writing.
Writing is thinking. I like the process.
I like the ink and stamps and the paper cards of it. (Actually: I hate it... then I freakin love it!)
But AI is an accelerator? That I like. AI as barcode and computer is simply practical.
It's good to
not be too precious about things sometimes. We used to lose a lot of books every year because they're hard to keep track of, Cheryl had said.
I guess I was listening more than I thought I was.
* * *
So when do we want the bar code?
And when do we want the ink, stamp, paper?
How do we balance the human and the robot to make the best use of each?
A few months ago, Avinash Kaushik shared a framework for how we might apply AI to the tasks we do every day.
I riffed on Avinash's framework, adapting it for writing and content. Adding more detail to answer the question: How can AI help us best? Which includes, by the way, no AI at all. (No bar codes. All stamps and ink.)
Here's where I came to: