A couple of weeks ago I grabbed a couple of containers of ice cream at Hank’s and was chatting with Jeff as he rang me up. My purchase came to $19.92. “It’s nineteen ninety two,” he said. We paused simultaneously, both of us somehow hearing a year instead of a dollar amount. Jeff, who appears to be about my same generation, said, “I wish!” I agreed, “That was a good year.”
We both laughed, reminisced for a moment about decisions made and paths traveled or untraveled, and then I took my ice cream out to the car, where the rest of the groceries I had purchased earlier were waiting.
(The rest of the groceries totaled something like $237. The year 237, I suspect, was not a good year for people in their 50s, since for those who doubled the 25-year average life expectancy, one’s 50s were not exactly golden years. It would be like living to 154, in today’s terms.)
As I drove home I thought about 1992 and wondered why it elicited such a nostalgic response. For me, 1992 represented youth, independence and possibility. The year itself is incidental — I think most of us can wax sentimental about the years of our early adulthood, regardless of what was happening on the political or social fronts around us.
Since I had been reading a little about ChatGPT and artificial intelligence (AI) and how machines can now generate content that appears to have been written by a sentient being, I thought I would turn to AI to help me understand why I was feeling so wistful about 1992.
I fed the AI some prompts, seeking an acknowledgment of the bittersweet consolation of making a connection with someone who shares a misty undefined yearning to recall the past, if not to return to it. The machine wrote about the simpler life of 1992: looking things up in encyclopedias at the library, making mixtapes, and wearing neon windbreakers. Now, I don’t know about Jeff, but it is not my pink-on-magenta windbreaker that makes me nostalgic for the 1990s. (Besides, I still have it.)
I gave the AI some suggested improvements and it took the bait, shifting to its memories of riding bikes, families gathered around board games, and, inexplicably, playing kick the can. Wait a minute — were we still in 1992 or had we rewound to 1952? Where’s that poodle skirt when I need it?
I tried a few more prompts, but despite repeated coaxing, I couldn’t get the AI to write the essay I was looking for — otherwise you might be reading it right now. The experience reminded me of being younger and having my mom ask us kids to do something. She’d ask a few times and we’d complain or stall, and eventually she’d just give up, saying it was easier to do it herself.
I felt the same way about the artificial essay writer. In the end, it was just easier to do it myself.