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If Your Writing Can "Change The World," Here are 2 Ways to Help
Featuring AI Professor Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT & Stanford
A single piece of solid writing can change the world.
That's not hyperbole. That’s history.
In the early 1800s, a British guy named Richard wrote an essay that effectively ended child labor. Before this, 10-year-olds worked in dirty factories.
Then, in the late 1900s, an economist named Milton wrote a piece that sparked a 50-year reign of bad corporate behavior. Before this, companies had other goals besides maximized profits.
Yes, skeptics, Those were obviously pre-internet events.
But the raw power of writing still holds.
There’s a caveat about distribution, of course, but we’ll save that for another day. Instead, let’s look at a modern example of writing changing how the world thinks. Erik Brynjolfsson's essay on artificial intelligence: The Turing Trap.
In a world of academic gobbledegook, Erik's work stands out. His work is clear enough to be understood, thorough enough to be credible, and persuasive enough to drive action. Formerly of MIT and currently of Stanford, he's also got potential to reach the right hands.
Let's look and learn from one of the paragraphs that makes it happen.
Turn your focus eyeballs on.
To understand the limits of substitution-oriented automation, consider a thought experiment. What if our old friend Dædalus had at his disposal an extremely talented team of engineers 3,500 years ago and had, somehow, built human-like machines that fully automated every work-related task that his fellow Greeks were doing.
Herding sheep? Automated.
Making clay pottery? Automated
Weaving tunics? Automated.
Repairing horse-drawn carts? Automated.
Bloodletting victims of disease? Automated.
The good news is that labor productivity would soar, freeing the ancient Greeks for a life of leisure. The bad news is that their living standards and health outcomes would come nowhere near matching ours.
The tragedy of academic writing is that jargon often buries real insight. Since intellectuals get wrapped up in their ideas, they don't always package revolutionary discoveries in nice wrapping. Like stuffing a diamond-studded Rolex in a crumpled up Amazon box.
Erik's work is much more palatable. We’ll pull out 2 specific techniques.
First, this imperative sentence (a direct command to the audience):
"Consider a thought experiment."
It's the academic's version of "imagine this." Readers obey the instruction because of its straightforwardness, and they get permission to transcend the present and see Erik's ideas in an imaginary future world.
Second, pay attention to the bulleted, parataxic, epistrophe in the middle of the passage. (Basically, very short phrases, ending with the same word).
Herding sheep? Automated.
Making clay pottery? Automated…
(And so on.)
Erik knows that his subject matter is not familiar enough to us. It’s not enough to say “every work-related task that the Greeks were doing,” because most of us have no IDEA what the Greeks were doing, day to day.
Most writers need to do this more, by the way. If you were writing about the life of a hospital nurse, you’d benefit from saying something like:
“Checking IV levels. Drawing blood. Cleaning up vomit…”
Or if you were a teacher:
“Grading essays. Logging attendance. Telling Bobby in the back to stop talking.”
The brevity helps us scan. The repetition helps us continue. The concrete nouns help us understand.
Anyway, that's enough on Erik's piece for now. Probably too much, if you actually intend to practice these techniques (which will be more useful than just scrolling through this and going "wow, Todd's so smart.").
Before you go, a reminder:
Writing can change your world without changing the world.
A personal example: I wrote a random blog post in 2015 that got maybe 100 views. Not viral. Not close. 9 months later, this entrepreneur randomly found it and hired me to write his book. This book sells 10K+ copies. It wins a "Best Business Book Award." People are using the book to start businesses.
I didn't get on the Today Show. I didn't hit the NYT list. I don’t think it will “change the world” or even last beyond the life of its author.
But it helped a few people.
And it definitely helped me: mentally, emotionally, financially, in small ways.
That matters too.
Much love as always <3