Co-Agency with AI and the Paradox of Autonomy

In the era of generative AI, characterized by seamless co-creation and the economics of intimacy, worries about AI encroaching on agency have more existential elements. They go to the essence of humanity, as machines now actively participate in significant aspects of original thought.

An abstract image of collaboration

Recently, I was working on a writing project, trying to articulate a complex idea that I'd been wrestling with for weeks. I collaborated with Claude, feeding the latest model—Opus 3—some of my initial thoughts and seeing what it would generate. What I got back was not just a rehashing of my own ideas or even an extension of them, but a novel perspective that challenged my assumptions and pushed my thinking in new directions.

It's often tricky to pinpoint where ideas originate—this goes for human as well as AI interactions. Cause and effect become blurry as concepts combine. This blending can make it hard to trace the path of a specific idea or approach. In human culture, we view this positively. Nothing is truly invented in isolation; all our knowledge comes from our community. When working with advanced AI, experienced users might recognize similar "community" moments, where ideas intertwine and the source becomes elusive.

So I reflected on this question: was this machine more than a tool? Was it doing my thinking for me? As I continued to work with Claude, I realized that something more complex was happening. The AI wasn't taking away my agency—it was enhancing it, as long as I remained engaged in actively selecting, or editing, its suggestions in the widest sense. In other words, I had to pay attention to how I responded to its outputs and then purposefully expand its ideas.

Working with advanced AI can feel strange. There's a hint of cognitive dissonance when you're co-creating with an intelligence that makes the process almost too effortless. I contrast this to my typical writing and editing routine with Dave. Our process seems similar to my collaboration with Claude on the surface. Dave might kick things off with a question like, "What's the goal of this piece?" From there, it's a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, each iteration posing challenges and eliciting responses until the "right" narrative takes shape.

Working with Dave is a far cry from collaborating with Claude. It's tough. There's friction—not because Dave's ideas are inherently better or different, but because there's a mutual understanding between us: if you seek assistance, you're committed to collaborating on the project. There's a human element involved, a sense of mutual investment. It's challenging to accept, contest, or even dismiss another person's critique. There's a kind of "phenomenological friction" where it feels like something to engage in sensemaking with another person, to experience meaning emerge from the simple rules of a back-and-forth dialogue.

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