Nothing quite captures the contradictions of life in 2023 for me like ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence wizard that has dropped jaws since it debuted last fall.

Playing with the interface is like talking with someone who has the internet memorized and is more than happy to impress you with their vast knowledge and cleverness.

For fun, I asked it to write a resume for Bandit Heeler, the father from the Australian children’s TV show “Bluey,” a favorite of my son’s. It came up with bullet points like: “Instilled a strong work ethic and problem-solving skills through creative challenges, such as building forts, organizing treasure hunts, and solving puzzles.”

That I’ve found no better use for such powerful technology than pursuing amusing novelties (leadership Christmas carols, anyone?) is telling: I am out of my depth. Whenever I talk with people about ChatGPT, they almost always seem in awe of its power and have almost no sense of how to use it well.

ChatGPT is merely the latest example of the information age scrambling my brain. Overload has been on my mind as I’ve read Ezra Klein’s book “Why We’re Polarized,” which contends our nation’s political divides go beyond ideological differences or personal animosity. In one section, Klein explores how, far from changing our minds, information reinforces existing beliefs. Complexity is threatening.

Over the past six months, though, I’ve experienced another side, working with the Complicating the Narratives Thought Partners, a diverse group of 10 Kansans that has been helping The Journal with its coverage of immigration and demographic change. An essay that I’ve authored capturing their insights is the cover story for our Summer 2023 edition.

We chose these 10 from about 150 applicants, with a specific emphasis on finding people predisposed to thoughtfully disagree. About half of the group voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, while the other half voted for former President Donald Trump. (One person didn’t want to say who they voted for.)

The partners also represent a mix of urban centers and rural areas, different racial and ethnic identities, and different connections to immigration. They weren’t necessarily the biggest Journal fans. Most cared because of the issue, and a few were chosen, in part, because they were willing to critique The Journal’s past coverage decisions or journalists in general.

If this sounds like a setup that had all the makings of a disaster, it was an experience that was anything but. The group found a surprising rapport during our six hours of conversations.

One of the most meaningful moments came when we had the partners interview each other using questions and techniques I learned from a Complicating the Narratives Fellowship with the Solutions Journalism Network. Our approach sprang from the work of Amanda Ripley, who has called on journalists to cover controversial problems differently, and her colleague, Hélène Biandudi Hofer. 

I taught the thought partners to use a skill called looping, which involves reflecting back on what’s heard in conversation to test our comprehension and go deeper. We also chose questions from a list of queries that were designed to complicate the conversation.

Listening back to the recordings, I am struck by their beauty. In each dialogue, you get a window into the humanity of the partners that transcends any label.

Delving into complexity takes time, which is why we can’t do it too often. But when the going gets tough or confusing, we’d be wise to embrace it. It allows us to experience moments of transcendent connection that remind us of our shared humanity.

In a time when excess information offers a false promise of wisdom, it might be the only dependable path to learning and growth that is available to us.

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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