Updated: Apr 12
This blog post was not written by ChatGPT. Or was it? How would you know, actually? And why would you care? More and more people around the world, from college students to politicians and CEOs of big corporations, ask themselves these questions. Some are excited, others feel concerned, even appalled by ChatGPT, which was introduced to the world by OpenAI in November 2022.
On a different note: An Ancient Egyptian temple in Abydos contains what certain UFO enthusiasts believe to be images of a helicopter, airplane, and submarine. If you look the pictures up online, you will see that they indeed demonstrate surprising resemblance with modern technology. How is this possible? Could it mean that Ancient Egyptians received knowledge from aliens, as some argue?
Now, you might find it surprising, but there is a connection between the questions about ChatGPT and those about the mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphs. Here it is: To answer any of them, we need to practice something known as media literacy.
Media—the plural of “medium”—are the multitude of ways that people communicate with each other using all sorts of technologies. ChatGPT is a form of media because this human-made tool is a reflection and extension of people’s interactions, even though it answers our questions with an unsettling dose of what seems like independence and creativity. Pyramid hieroglyphs are also a form of media because Ancient Egyptians created them thousands of years ago to express values and worldviews. And online debates about the images found in Abydos are media as well, just like anything else happening on the world wide web.
The word literacy means “competence or knowledge”; therefore, media literacy can be defined as a set of competencies essential for understanding advantages and dangers of communication through technology. Being media literate, we will not be blinded by seemingly amazing possibilities offered by artificial intelligence for navigating and creating content, or by thrilling theories about aliens visiting Egyptian pharaohs to share with them new technologies. We will be able to ask critical questions, look for relevant information, and have a respectful dialogue with others about our discoveries.
We should be aware that behind any form of media, there are people communicating with each other. These people have a variety of backgrounds and motives, while their interactions take many forms and have different outcomes ranging from beneficial or harmful. Applying critical thinking to the Abydos mystery, a media literate person might eventually conclude that it is an example of the pseudoscientific paleocontact hypothesis, which argues that intelligent extraterrestrial beings made contact with humans in antiquity and prehistoric times. A media literate person will also notice that the Abydos hypothesis includes elements of a conspiracy theory by suggesting that governments and scientists conceal information about extraterrestrial life from the public.
Being media literate allows us to distinguish conspiracy theories from proper science without discounting limitations of the scientific consensus (think of how the information provided by the medical establishment has been changing during the COVID-19 pandemic). By asking critical questions, we will know why conspiracy theories can be harmful for democracy. The Abydos mystery may be just a fun story to share with friends, but some other ideas spread through mediated communication can be truly divisive and harmful. In fact, having access to media literacy education is essential for helping us deal with a variety of social issues.
Interestingly, there is a connection between the Abydos temple and ChatGPT that goes beyond the need for media literacy education. Elon Musk, a co-founder of the company that created ChatGPT, is known for writing controversial tweets. In 2020, he used his Twitter account to share a statement directly related to the paleocontact hypothesis. “Aliens built the pyramids obv,” he wrote, adding fuel to the slow-burning fire of the pseudoscientific conspiracy theory. Curiosity about creators of media messages and tools is another essential media literacy competency. In this context, one may wonder how biases and values of people behind the latest developments in artificial intelligence can impact the way AI will function.
One important thing to keep in mind about media is that people communicating through technology can hurt each other, often without fully realizing the impact of their actions. Being media literate will help you better protect yourself from potential harm caused by mediated communication. For example, it is essential to recognize how conspiracy theories and other kinds of misinformation may propel certain individuals to engage in acts of violence.
On the other hand, to become truly media literate, we need to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about potential outcomes of our own actions as we share our ideas and engage in conversations online. Unknowingly spreading misinformation is easier than you think. It is likely that each one of us has done this at least once just by sharing unverified stories and facts that seem to be true.
If you want to be media literate, it is not enough to ask critical questions about what others do (or do not do) as they interact through technology. We all need to start with ourselves. Only then can there be hope that media tools will be used for connection and healing much more than for confusion and hurt.