Ad Hominem Attack: A Revived Rhetorical Form

June 24, 2024

dinosaur30a_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dinobaby. Unlike some folks, no smart software improved my native ineptness.

I remember my high school debate coach telling my partner Nick G. (I have forgotten the budding prosecutor’s name, sorry) you should not attack the character of our opponents. Nick G. had interacted with Bill W. on the basketball court in an end-of-year regional game. Nick G., as I recall got a bloody nose, and Bill W. was thrown out of the basketball game. When fisticuffs ensued, I thanked my lucky stars I was a hopeless athlete. Give me the library, a debate topic, a pile of notecards, and I was good to go. Nick G. included in his rebuttal statement comments about the character of Bill W. When the judge rendered a result and his comments, Nick G. was singled out as being wildly inappropriate. After the humiliating defeat, the coach explained that an ad hominem argument is not appropriate for 15-year-olds. Nick G.’s attitude was, “I told the truth.” As Nick G. learned, the truth is not what wins debate tournaments or life in some cases.

I thought about ad hominem arguments as I read “Silicon Valley’s False Prophet.” This essay reminded me of the essay by the same author titled “The Man Who Killed Google Search.” I must admit the rhetorical trope is repeatable. Furthermore it can be applied to an individual who may be clueless about how selling advertising nuked relevance (or what was left of it) at the Google and to the dealing making of a person whom I call Sam AI-Man. Who knows? Maybe other authors will emulate these two essays, and a new Silicon Valley genre may emerge ready for the real wordsmiths and pooh-bahs of Silicon Valley to crank out a hit piece every couple of days.

To the essay at hand: The false profit is the former partner of Elon Musk and the on-again-off-again-on-again Big Dog at OpenAI. That’s an outfit where “open” means closed, and closed means open to the likes of Apple. The main idea, I think, is that AI sucks and Sam AI-Man continues to beat the drum for a technology that is likely to be headed for a correction. In Silicon Valley speak, the bubble will burst. It is, I surmise, Mr. AI-man’s fault.

The essay explains:

Sam Altman, however, exists in a category of his own. There are many, many, many examples of him saying that OpenAI — or AI more broadly — will do something it can’t and likely won’t, and it being meekly accepted by the Fourth Estate without any real pushback. There are more still of him framing the limits of the present reality as a positive — like when, in a fireside sitdown with 1980s used car salesman Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Altman proclaimed that AI hallucinations (when an LLM asserts something untrue as fact, because AI doesn’t know anything) are a feature, not a bug, and rather than being treated as some kind of fundamental limitation, should be regarded as a form of creative expression.

I understand. Salesperson. Quite a unicorn in Silicon Valley. I mean when I worked there I would encounter hyperbole artists every few minutes. Yeah, Silicon Valley. Anchored in reality, minimum viable products, and lots of hanky pinky.

The essay provides a bit of information about the background of Mr. AI-Man:

When you strip away his ability to convince people that he’s smart, Altman had actually done very little — he was a college dropout with a failing-then-failed startup, one where employees tried to get him fired twice.

If true, that takes some doing. Employees tried to get the false prophet fired twice. In olden times, burning at the stake might have been an option. Now it is just move on to another venture. Progress.

The essay does provide some insight into Sam AI-Man’s core competency:

Altman is adept at using connections to make new connections, in finding ways to make others owe him favors, in saying the right thing at the right time when he knew that nobody would think about it too hard. Altman was early on Stripe, and Reddit, and Airbnb — all seemingly-brilliant moments in the life of a man who had many things handed to him, who knew how to look and sound to get put in the room and to get the capital to make his next move. It’s easy to conflate investment returns with intellectual capital, even though the truth is that people liked Altman enough to give him the opportunity to be rich, and he took it.

I cannot figure out if the author envies Sam AI-Man, reviles him for being clever (a key attribute in some high-technology outfits), or genuinely perceives Mr. AI-Man as the first cousin to Beelzebub. Whatever the motivation, I find the phoenix-like rising of the ad hominem attack a refreshing change from the entitled pooh-bahism of some folks writing about technology.

The only problem: I think it is unlikely that the author will be hired by OpenAI. Chance blown.

Stephen E Arnold, June 24, 2024


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