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14 July 2023

‘All that Glisters is not Gold’ - St. Francis' Blog by Mr Alex Garner, Head of English 

‘All that Glisters is not Gold’ - St. Francis Blog by Mr Alex Garner, Head of English 

‘All that Glisters is not Gold’. 

Many of you will be familiar with the aphorism above, coined by none other than our national poet, William Shakespeare. Some of you would have heard it as ‘all that glitters’ rather than ‘glisters’ with the change being a natural evolution of the English language. A few of you will know that the idea contained within this aphorism dates back to a 12th century French monk who wrote ‘Do not hold everything gold that shines like gold’ and will take the message to heart, ensuring that they look for intrinsic values in people such as morals, honesty and principles rather than the superficial.  

However, what all of you need to consider is the increasing importance of this idea in an ever-changing, technologically advanced world. 

When asked to write a blog for the St Francis’ College community, I jumped at the chance. ‘I can flex my creative muscles’, I thought. ‘I could re-kindle my inner-writer?’ I mused. The same inner-writer that has seemingly withered away, starved for attention as my time has instead been consumed by raising two wonderful daughters and establishing a career.  

‘It’s time to bring him back!’ I thought, triumphantly. However, this revelation was short-lived. 

Life got in the way. Chores got in the way. The everyday got in the way. 

There was always something more pertinent. 

Something more important. 

Something more pressing. 

Naturally, my writer’s renaissance was shelved in the bookcase at the back of my mind. 

Quickly, the weeks went by. Being a new member of staff and managing such an important department meant there was always lots to do. The blog entry was all-but-forgotten.  

That was until there was two weeks left of the term. 

Looking at my calendar one day, there it was: ‘Blog entry/7th July/A Garner’.  

Suddenly, I felt the same pain that my students felt when approaching their coursework deadlines. 

I completely lacked inspiration as to the subject on which to write. As the Head of English, I felt it necessary to contribute something worthwhile. Yet, nothing would come. 

When I signed up to do it, there were more than two months to go until I had to come up with something. ‘It’ll be fine’, I thought, ‘ages to go’ I thought, as I busily carried on with urgent matters, relying on some random future-moment of inspiration. However, as we entered FIVE STAR DAYS week, no inspiration had come. 

Just then, however, a much-needed moment of serendipity arrived. 

I was asked, as part of FIVE STAR DAYS week, to assist teachers with the myriad interesting workshops and classes that they had set up for the pupils. One of the sessions I was fortunate enough to attend was Mrs Staves’ A.I. Machine Learning session. 

It was fascinating watching students becoming so adept at turning their machines into thinking beings capable of compiling lists, creating music and identifying different types of flora and fauna. However, what struck me the most was a music video played by the teacher at the outset of the session. Ostensibly, four young women had put together a vocal group and produced a very fine (though not to my taste) song. I thought little of this until the teacher told me the singers, the video and the music were completely A.I. generated. I found this truly remarkable. 

Chatting with Mrs Staves, I found myself asking ‘but how will we know what is real?’ Then it struck me. Just as the witches in Macbeth mutter ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ and King Lear exhorts ‘nothing can come from nothing’, are we headed for a future where nothing means anything or, even worse, that there is no rock underneath the shifting sands of aesthetics. Famously, in his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey argued that we should be judged on rigid, unchanging principles such as honesty and kindness and not on personality. 

This would be my blog contribution. A look at A.I. Specifically, a consideration of how it may make an indelible stain on true creativity forever if we do not use it in the right way.  

Now, do not get me wrong, I am not a club-wielding Luddite bemoaning progress and eager to smash every phone, laptop and server in sight. I love technology and all it has brought us. However, I decided to scribble down some of my musings on the subject in this blog that you are now reading. 

My immediate worry with A.I. technology is the question of the ‘soul’. I have heard songs and seen films created by A.I. that are aesthetically perfect. Every beat is perfect, every sequence flawless but is it not the rawness of ‘the soul’ that we are most interested in from our artists? 

When I talk of ‘the soul’, I mean that off-beat in the music, that improvised scene in a film, that aberration in painting that soon becomes the most loved part of the piece.  

I recently heard an A.I. enhanced version of a song by The Beatles. This song had been recorded after the break-up of the band and did not originally have the vocals of John Lennon on it. However, A.I. (using a program that could recognise all of Lennon’s mannerisms and vocal tendencies and put them all in to a melting pot) was able to create a vocal line that was scarily similar to the ex-Beatle, right down to his scouse lilt which could sometimes  be found at the end of a lyric. A cultural icon as apocryphal as The Beatles had, seemingly, been recreated by a machine. 

Similarly, last year, I watched an episode of the Star Wars spin-off, ‘The Mandalorian’ and at the end-of-the-episode, there was Luke Skywalker. Not Luke Skywalker as you would imagine him now (greying, perhaps balding) but the same sprightly Luke Skywalker that appeared in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Running, jumping, using his lightsaber, saving the galaxy and I could see no discernible differences between this illusion and Mark Hamill (the actor who played him) at all.  

Last year, ABBA reformed and sold out night after night at the Olympic Park…without even turning up! Standing there on the stage belting out ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’ were not Bennie, Agnetha, Bjorn and Annifrid but A.I. created versions of these megastars looking like they were in their pomp as twenty-somethings. A.I. was able to learn their mannerisms, and as far as the crowds were concerned, they were back in 1978. Yes, the songs were the originals, but the artistry of performing live was gone.  

There is a litany of other examples I could mention (70 year old Harrison Ford brought back as 28 year old Indiana Jones, A.I. galleries that ‘re-imagine’ paintings by Dali and Van Gogh, a machine called ‘AIsis’ which managed to recreate a whole Oasis album from scratch) but none intrigue me as much as the infamous ‘Chat GPT’. 

As an English teacher, an avid reader and a sometimes-writer (see earlier), the thought that a machine could create a piece of poetry or write the next great British novel is, frankly, horrifying. Surely, this is an impossible feat. 

I decided to try it out. I asked ‘Chat GPT’ to write, in the style of Shakespeare, a piece with the stimulus ‘All that glisters is not gold’. Within thirty seconds, it had written me a two-page essay. Below is a small snippet: 

In truth, the phrase doth remind us that beauty and splendour alone should not be taken as signs of genuine value. A jewel, resplendent in its brilliance, may be naught but a polished pebble, lacking in substance. A person of charming countenance, with words as honeyed as the sweetest nectar, may hide a treacherous heart beneath their façade. 

Okay, so there is no blank verse and it is somewhat exaggerated but to the non-Shakespeare fan (is there such a thing? Surely not!), this piece of writing might well have been written by the Bard himself. 

With A.I. in its infancy, how long will it be until these machines out-smart, out-think and out-create us? Perhaps a supercomputer somewhere will work out all the ingredients to make a ‘soul’. A scary thought. 

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the advancement of A.I. poses many ethical dilemmas but for me, the most pressing one is this: how do we balance our need for progress with our need for real connection and genuineness?   

I believe this need is still present in the world. People still go and see live bands in small clubs, the public have seemingly ditched digital to go back to vinyl and paperback book sales are currently outstripping their digital counterparts. This all points to a discerning public that can distinguish between the real and the fake. 

Let us all hope that as technology and A.I. advance we can strike a balance between that which is real and that which is not and, ultimately, see that ‘all that glisters’ is not necessarily gold. 


Mr Alex Garner 

Head of English 

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