The decision to scrap personal statements from university applications is overdue. Not only for the stated reason – that the practice of writing a 4,000-character essay about yourself is seen to favour middle-class kids (and the genetically smug) – but also because the temptations of help from artificial intelligence are increasingly hard to resist. Who is going to labour for days over a side of cringeworthy A4 about the formative influence of a Saturday job when ChatGPT and its rivals can do the job in five seconds?
“Overcoming difficulties has been a defining aspect of my life,” the app, when prompted, suggests of its struggles. “I grew up in a low-income household and my family struggled to make ends meet. This made it difficult for me to afford the necessary resources to excel academically. However, I refused to let my circumstances define me. I volunteered at local schools and tutored my peers.” Or, prompted differently: “Growing up in a middle-class background, I have had opportunities to help me excel academically and personally. As I have grown older, I have come to realise the importance of giving back to those who are less fortunate. I have been actively involved in community service both locally and internationally. I am now ready to take the next step in my education and personal development at university.”
Give that bot a scholarship.
In the clouds
If software might sometimes promise us more time, it will no doubt also be employed to check up on what we are doing with it. There was a chilling aspect to the case of Canadian woman Karlee Besse who, in suing her employer for wrongful dismissal, was ordered instead last week to compensate her bosses with a payment equivalent to £1,600. Her company had been using tracking software called TimeCamp, which spied on the hours Besse claimed to have been working from home on her laptop. According to the data, Besse had charged for 50 hours that “did not appear to have been spent on work-related tasks”. Reading Besse’s story prompted me to look up something the polymathic physicist Carlo Rovelli once said to me, when I interviewed him about that famous loafer Albert Einstein: “You don’t get anywhere by not wasting time.” Or how, as Billy Liar might have idly wondered to himself, do you put a price on daydreaming?
The advance publicity for Russell T Davies’s miniseries Nolly, in which Helena Bonham Carter plays Crossroads star and 1970s “Queen of the Midlands” Noele Gordon, prompted a strange recovered memory. As a kid, I once went up to our local VG convenience store and encountered Gordon, then pulling in 12 million viewers a night, in full Meg Richardson makeup and fur coat buying something for her tea. At the time, this was about as close as suburban Birmingham came to Sunset Boulevard. Gordon, the first woman ever to appear on colour television, had been such a fixture on the ATV schedules of my childhood that it was disturbing to discover her in daylight. She seemed slightly unsure of the possibility herself. Crossroads ran for 18 years before it engineered its star’s drugged-up demise in a motel fire. If you were ever in doubt that the past was another country, look back at the Guardian’s front page of 5 November 1981, the night after Gordon’s departure. There, the story of television switchboards being jammed with calls from weeping viewers distraught about the end of an era competes for space with Mrs Thatcher promising far better times ahead in her Queen’s speech.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist