Go Easy on the Easy Button

David Deal
6 min readFeb 2, 2024


The abandoned Santa Fe Grain Elevator on Chicago’s lower west side is a crumbling monolith that evokes a bygone time when Carl Sandburg described the city as a “Stacker of Wheat.” The structure is a favorite destination for photographers as well as urban explorers who are drawn to the challenge of sneaking past the security guard and climbing to the top of the 15-story structure. I occasionally visit to snap photographs of the ruins, which exude their own brutal beauty. The natural elements, such as the quality of light and the density of the cloud cover, add an unpredictable dimension to the tableaux. I like to experiment with different color filters to capture and express different perspectives. I savor these experiences.

That’s what I was doing recently on a cold day when I received some unexpected company. A small, battered car pulled up alongside me and idled for a moment. I could make out several young men in the front and back seats.

A voice from inside the car called out to me: “Hey boss! Come over here!”

The youth who called toward me was smiling.

I walked up to the car.

“We got something to show you!” the young man said, laughing and holding up his mobile phone. “Come and see!”

I leaned my head into the back seat.

“Look what we did,” the man said, playing a recording of him and his friends scaling the grain elevator and exploring the rubble-strewn floors. “This was so fun!” As I stood outside the car and the explorers remained packed inside, we lingered there for a few minutes watching the video. I complimented them on the raw and unfiltered footage that at times even seemed eerie. I showed them my photos, and they chose one of the black-and-white images as their favorite.

“Have a great day, boss!” the young man said, and the car pulled away.

They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. I had taken a risk walking up to a car of strangers on Chicago’s lower west side, They had taken a risk in inviting me to view their footage of them trespassing. Somehow they had sized me up as a kindred spirit, and they wanted to bond over our shared fascination with the place and the photos and videos we had created. We were an audience for each other.

What happened that day is about people finding a connection through creation. My photos and their video mattered not because of their quality (taste is subjective) but because they were a human expression that bonded us. They were young daredevils. I was an amateur photographer. We found a commonality.

This story explains why I categorically reject the use of AI as a substitute for creation. AI, in particular generative AI, has already proven it can positively assist the process of creation. But it has also become a substitute for creation, which is an abomination.

Creation is about connecting people. About shared experiences. I would have never met those urban explorers had I stayed inside my home and used AI to generate the “perfect” image of a building in decay. That moment of strangers trusting each other would never have happened. I needed to get outside, brave the cold, and get my hands dirty.

I’ve became a better creator by braving the elements and learning how to turn limitations into strengths. I remember distinctly the day I was in the Badlands of South Dakota, trying to photograph the hoodoos, canyons, and spires. Unfortunately, the overcast sky kept throwing shadows that obscured the natural colors of the park. I was dismayed. I had only a day to spend there. So, I started trying to take the same photos in black and white. Suddenly, the shadows seemed stunningly beautiful. That’s when I learned about the power of black-and-white natural photography.

I would have learned nothing about black-and-white photography had I not gotten off my butt, traveled to the Badlands, and found out what happened when my vision collided with the reality of nature.

This a lesson that has served me well when I squeeze myself into crowded concert halls and take photos of musicians as they lose themselves in their performance. I try to express what I feel in addition to what I see. Sometimes intimacy. Sometimes melancholy. Sometimes raw energy. I have to be there in person to capture the heat of the performer and audience as I work with the available light and space. From there, I create photos like what I’ve used as the lead banner for this post.

I’ve also become a better writer by experiencing the world, both offline and online, and allowing those experiences to shape my words, whether I’m writing an essay here or blogging commercially for a client about a topic such as cybersecurity. I enjoy the challenge of weaving those experiences into my professional life, even in subtle ways. I welcome the chance to collaborate with editors who bring their own perspectives and experiences to the process of creation.

But I see time and again people in the corporate sector celebrating the use of AI to write and to generate visual stories. Without much, if any, real human input. I am sure you are familiar with their rationale:

  • “Writing is so difficult! AI makes it easy!”
  • “With AI, I don’t need to endure the back-and-forth process of reviewing someone’s work!”
  • “Look what I can create with no writers or videographers! It’s just as good as what people can do!”
  • “AI is less expensive than hiring someone!”

Life is not always about pursuing the easy or cheapest route. Some things worth doing well are difficult for a reason. And the difficult route can be enormously rewarding. Have you ever written a first draft of a blog post, poem, short story, or any other form of writing — and seen your work evolve into something else as you shaped it, got feedback from other people, and kept flailing away? It’s an exciting process — and humbling, as you learn how to throw out ideas that are not working and explore possibilities you had not thought of when you created the first draft.

Conversely, as an editor, have you ever collaborated on work with a writer and, together, discovered something far better and interesting than what you both envisioned originally?

I pity people who deny themselves the self-growth that happens when they choose the easy route that AI promises. The human attempt matters. When you actually try to write that first draft or go on a photo shoot, you discover things about yourself that you would not have known if you’d simply let AI do all the heavy lifting for you. I pity people in an editing role who seek a workaround to collaborating with other people. That mentality makes their world smaller and less human.

I believe in using AI as an aid to becoming a better creator, whether one is a visual storyteller or writer. For example, I rely on the Snapseed app (which uses AI) to help me edit and experiment with images after I’ve first done the work of climbing around outside and taking the photos. And I use Bard and ChatGPT to help me with editing.

But I do the work first. I experience the work.

How about you? Do you want to learn, or do you want to hit the easy button? And what does one miss out on by choosing the latter?