Buried in a news cycle dominated by Donald Trump's newest indictment is a tidbit first uncovered by Iowa newspaper The Gazette and now fleshed out by other outlets. Faced with new Republican-pushed laws banning school libraries from containing books with "a description or depiction of a sex act," a phrase left intentionally ambiguous by Iowa legislators as part of the same you gotta guess what we mean and you'll go to jail if you get it wrong ploys favored in other states, the Mason County Community School District scrambled to meet the new requirement by turning to ... ChatGPT.
From The Gazette:
According to the district, "lists of commonly challenged books were compiled from several sources to create a master list of books that should be reviewed. The books on this master list were filtered for challenges related to sexual content. Each of these texts was reviewed using AI software to determine if it contains a depiction of a sex act. Based on this review, there are 19 texts that will be removed from our 7-12 school library collections and stored in the Administrative Center while we await further guidance or clarity. We also will have teachers review classroom library collections."
Let's hold up right there, because if you have any hint of science-based book learning (and if you do and you live in Iowa, you're probably going to find yourself on a new state-generated list of malcontents before too much longer), you probably already see the first flaw in this plan. Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Bridgette Exman told The Gazette that it was "simply not feasible to read every book" in order to filter out ones that our Republican overlords decided should be banned, but noted in a later interview with Popular Science that, "After compiling the list, we ran it by our teacher librarian, and there were no books on the final list of 19 that were surprising to her."
Well, yes. The school district began with a list of "commonly challenged books" to put through the review process, and when the filtered result was presented to a librarian, that librarian was not "surprised" to see it spit out a list of commonly challenged books. The district didn't run every book through the process, only the "commonly challenged" ones; if the end result was a list of commonly challenged books and no books that aren't commonly challenged, well, there you go.
And that's how the list of banned books in Marion County turns out to be ... pretty much the same list of banned books that conservatives have targeted everywhere else. It's heavily focused on the works of nonwhite authors, with "Beloved," "The Kite Runner," "The Color Purple," and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" now removed from shelves.
There's an even worse problem with this plan, though, and it is that nobody should be using ChatGPT to do anything at all that has real-world consequences, because It. Still. Sucks.
From Popular Science:
Regardless of whether or not any of the titles do or do not contain said content, ChatGPT’s varying responses highlight troubling deficiencies of accuracy, analysis, and consistency. A repeat inquiry regarding The Kite Runner, for example, gives contradictory answers. In one response, ChatGPT deems Khaled Hosseini’s novel to contain “little to no explicit sexual content.” Upon a separate follow-up, the [Large Language Model] affirms the book “does contain a description of a sexual assault.”
There are social media threads floating around here and there that demonstrate the sheer incompetence of ChatGPT at solving simple math problems, such as finding prime numbers, with the software's reliability collapsing into near-uselessness after its original release. But no matter how much experts beg, people are still using the software as a decision-making tool.
You can see the district's dilemma here, and there's room for some sympathy. The new book banning rules were only signed into law in May, and now the state's schools are supposed to go through their entire book catalog looking for anything that any performative prude anywhere in the nation might claim is Too Explicit For The Children, which is a fool's errand. These people think Shakespeare is too raunchy to be in school libraries. There's not a Dr. Seuss or Richard Scarry book out there that some archconservative, repressed mega-pervert won't declare to have secret references to group animal sex or Matt Gaetz-style coke parties. These are people who thought “Maus” was too sexy in its depiction of the Holocaust; there's no winning this fight.
Oh, and you get fired if you lose it, so everybody, have fun with that. Any state still electing seditionists to office knows the kind of incompetent government-by-fascist-twitch it's signing up for.
But if you start with a list of commonly banned books, you're starting with a racist list right off the bat, and if you use a damn chatbot to narrow down the list then you might as well just throw the books off a roof and ban whichever ones land with their covers face-up.
This is a weird, weird timeline we're living in and it's not getting any better.
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