October 21, 2023 - 8:00am

Are you an NPC? The initials stand for non-player character, which is meme-talk for a person with completely predictable opinions. In place of original thought, they unthinkingly regurgitate whatever form of groupthink with which they’ve been programmed. The term is derived from computer games in which characters are either controlled by human players or by a computer. The latter have no independent personalities or free will of their own.

One can see why the analogy is so attractive to those who hate unquestioning conformism. Dominic Cummings, who is very much his own character, has just published a list of “SW1-NPCs” — meaning the non-player characters of the Westminster bubble.

Some of the entries are less fair than others, but the most unfair thing about the list is its brevity. Really, the establishment is mostly peopled by NPCs. Whether they’re journalists, lobbyists, politicians or civil servants, at least 90% of them speak and perform exactly as they’ve been instructed to. 

For an example of how this works just look at this week’s mainstream media reporting on Gaza — in particular, the blast at al-Ahli Hospital. Why did well-resourced, highly-experienced news outlets like the BBC rush to such premature judgements as to who was responsible? How could so many people sign off on a narrative for which there was so little verified evidence? Groupthink, not journalistic incompetence, was surely to blame.

Fortunately, flesh-and-blood NPCs — being human beings, not lines of code — can be redeemed. Freed from the expectation to follow the herd, they can start exercising their own judgement. And yet the general trend is in favour of conformity, enabled by technology. While the multiplication of media outlets creates diversity, the remorseless pressure for clickbait rewards uniformity within each echo chamber. The result is a wider spread of opinion, but also an increase in its predictability.

As for parliamentary politics, technology allows real-time message control across entire political parties, while simultaneously keeping MPs occupied with make-work like answering constituents’ emails. As a result, we’re being prepared for the next stage of tech-enabled conformity, which is the replacement of human NPCs with their computerised counterparts.

Large language models like GPT4 can already churn out convincing essays, poetry and pastiche — I’d be surprised if GPT5 or its equivalent won’t be able to compete with most of our political columnists. The more predictable and formulaic the hot takes, the easier they’ll be to automate.

The same goes for our elected representatives. In theory, MPs ought to be fearless defenders of the local interest, meticulous scrutineers of legislation, and inspiring orators in the chamber. Instead we’ve turned them into dutiful providers of citizen’s advice, obedient lobby fodder, and mindless parroters of the party line. The latter skillset is more easily automated than the former — so, perhaps without knowing it, we’ve brought forward the first AI Parliament by decades.

The forces of conformism are thus doomed. Either, they’ll be defeated by their non-conformist opponents, or they’ll be replaced by smarter, more reliable NPCs. For people, at least, the market value of unoriginality is about to crash. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.