One by one, Saraswati noticed that the kids had started looking alike to her. The first time she noticed, she did a double take and took herself out on a walk to clear her eyes. The second and third times, she felt sure she wasn’t just seeing things out of screen exhaustion.

These children had no idea what it felt like.

They had no idea what it felt like to write something new, to create music on their own, to draw something without immediate access to things that were drawn before, in digestible, condensed format.

When we reference others, she thought, we often pull from our memory of what we had read before, the specific sentence that stuck with us, or the stroke of a brush, or a technique that was employed that we might then remember, twist into our own interpretation, and reuse in the form of an original, in as much as anything is original.

But these young folks, a generation born into a world that was awash with AI, never had to rely on their own data banks. As a result, the effort to create, and what it felt like to create, was absent from their collective generation.

One might argue the kids were simply accessing a collective memory, and what could be wrong with that, she asked herself. The trouble is, the only thing they were adding to it was ways of asking a question to get a spat-out creation. Where was their brushstroke? Where was their own flair to a phrase, or their own intonation, their unique diacritic, their own special something into the composition of it all? Where was their voice? Voices don’t come from learning to prompt, because they weren’t prompting themselves, they were only prompting the bank of it all.

When Saraswati painted, she found it to be something akin to a metamorphosis. Tying things together inside of herself— emotions, aesthetics, the dots that connect between memories and feelings—she would make things that critics might call derivative (after all, any color-field painting could be called Rothko-esque), but they were her own. Intangibles became tangible on canvas, sometimes not even just as she visualized them in her head. She undid them and did them up again, until you could perhaps see the work like marble chips in terrazzo but you couldn’t pick it apart. Nobody else could make exactly what she did, just as nobody else could ever make exactly what Rothko did. Creation wasn’t easy for her. It was more the result of a churn, but that was perhaps the point. It was like doing a full yoga practice before relaxing into a fulfilling shavasana, like trying to live a full life before sublimation.

They were set up to succeed in the one version of the world we had accepted or been bludgeoned into accepting, sure, per measures of success she couldn’t wrap her head around. To what end, she would think, as Kid 1 and Kid 5 blended into the same person, turning in pictures of octopuses that were derived from exactly the same sources even if aggregated differently.

When she taught older kids, she realized they had no need to read anything in full, ever, at all. They found the exact bit of what was necessary to prompt a text AI, and out came a wonderfully cogent-seeming essay on the symbolism of the flowers in Mrs Dalloway, or even a bizarrely articulate synopsis of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which to her, defeated the purpose of trying to understand that particular koan.

At the end, she started imagining the kids as artificial entities themselves, clad in human flesh, sounding meaningful without making meaning, describing feeling without ever feeling.

In dehumanizing them, she wondered what she herself had become. As she nearly blacked out after one of her now frequent panic attacks, she imagined a black hole: swallowing all the meaningless makers of supposed meaning into the ultimate void, swallowing her, swallowing the very goddess who creates, who represents knowledge, who represents art, turning into a painting that was simultaneously endless and without beginning, made of nothing, made by nobody, collapsing into itself. A truly original composition, she supposed.


Sai Pradhan is an Indian American writer and artist who lives in Hong Kong. She used to write opinions for the Hong Kong Free Press, has a recently published piece of fiction in Ligeia magazine, and a personal essay forthcoming in The Iowa Review

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