Much has changed since 1986, when the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay in an obscure journal, Raritan, titled “On Bullshit”. Yet the essay, later republished as a slim bestseller, remains unnervingly relevant.
Frankfurt’s brilliant insight was that bullshit lies outside the realm of truth and lies. A liar cares about the truth and wishes to obscure it. A bullshitter is indifferent to whether his statements are true: “He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” Typically for a 20th-century writer, Frankfurt described the bullshitter as “he” rather than “she” or “they”. But now it’s 2023, we may have to refer to the bullshitter as “it” — because a new generation of chatbots are poised to generate bullshit on an undreamt-of scale.