Last week I drove two hours to Barstow to meet a friend for french toast. We agreed to meet in Barstow because it’s halfway between Vegas and Los Angeles, where he lives. After speeding west across the beautiful blankness of the Mojave, I found M. nursing a coffee in a booth at Roy’s Diner. We both felt the cinematic weight of the scenario, like we should be plotting a murder.

The desert is littered with bizarre facts, and I often think I invented them, like a fragment from a dream or a misremembered film. Example: twenty miles east of Barstow, there’s an abandoned waterpark, and M. and I toured its ruins. I later learned this is where Boards of Canada debuted their Tomorrow’s Harvest album in 2013, and the Korean supergroup BTS live-streamed a concert there last year. These facts are clearly stated on the Wikipedia entry for the waterpark, yet I’ve returned to this page several times this week, wondering if I made them up.

The sensation of slippage continues. This morning I checked out ChatGPT so I could understand the fuss. I gave it this prompt:

Write a blog post about visiting my friend M. in the Mojave desert, eating french toast, and exploring an abandoned waterpark.

Here’s what it generated two seconds later:

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting my friend M. in the Mojave desert. After catching up over a delicious breakfast of french toast at a local diner, we decided to take a trip and explore an abandoned waterpark in the area.

When we arrived at the waterpark, we were in awe at the state of disrepair the once-thriving park was in. We started our exploration by wandering through the abandoned buildings, peeking into the empty rooms, and trying to imagine what it must have been like when the park was operational. The graffiti on the walls and the debris on the ground gave us a glimpse into the lives of the people who had visited the park. 

The slides were rusted and overgrown with weeds, and the pool was empty and cracked. The park was eerie but also beautiful in its own way. The natural elements had taken over, and the park had become a part of the desert once again. It was a fascinating experience to see the contrast between the man-made structures and the natural landscape.

As the sun set, we made our way back to the car, feeling both a sense of wonder and a touch of sadness at the sight of the forgotten waterpark. It was a reminder of how nature reclaims what man has created. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share this experience with my friend M.

The ability of a machine to generate a coherent narrative in two seconds is stunning, even if it reads like a grade-school essay written under duress. But its observation about the beauty of “nature reclaiming what man has created” is what really frightens me. There’s the sense that the algorithm isn’t just composing but thinking. And this particular observation has the tone of a threat.