Humanity has undergone several revolutions from the wheel to the smartphone. I have experienced the profound impacts of the latter ones. These past two decades, we have tracked the convergence of machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, computer vision, and explainable AI, into an artificial intelligence that is poised to change the next chapter of our existence. Should I be thrilled by such progress or worried about the predictable damages? While machines can easily be taught to improve and multiply, we humans are challenged to continually adapt to and learn from them. Even harder is the call to increase our wisdom capacity in the face of the new rules of existence that are imposed upon us by these new machinic systems.
As designers and artists we can adjust to such daunting tasks thanks to augmented creative powers. A chance to create more, faster and better!?
A century ago, Bauhaus creatively mastered the powers of industry, inventing an idealized synergy between industrial arts, mass production and mass consumption. What would Bauhaus do with the god-like powers of a technology that can turn creation into a free on-demand utility for all? A utility not just to live with but to mutate with? And who will control such forces, for what ideals?
More than our relationship with God(s), the story of humanity is all about our evolving co-dependency with machines. The future that Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick envisioned can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Artificiality is now a part of our lives and continues to unfold into the deepest aspects of our selfhood often superseding our ability to feel, to relate, to think, to understand and to imagine? The more we use technology as an extension of ourselves the more our intuitions operate in machinic ways and join the greater neural networks of machinic being and the more we must dig deeper to find ourselves. To qualify the nature of this emerging posthumanity may be the question of our times.
This sort of artificiality detached from human imagination is not unknown to us as it recalls the appearance of canned food in the mid-19th century, which brutally replaced the hands of agrarian society with machines throughout the supply chain from earth to plate. No one ever saw machines as farmers nor cooks, and many huge progress for humanity. Now we see machines promoted as human-like, intelligent, and even organically alive. They may never become human, but they have always had the power to shift reality and the value systems we see as universal. They are the deus ex machina of our reality, which may be the Faustian bargain we signed when we left the garden of Eden.
Machines can easily generate the representations of anything that has a name. From cave to screen to cloud, reality has been revealed through 50,000 years of image-making, always a triangulation of subject, creator, and viewer, combining topics, subjects, techniques, tools, sponsors, and markets. Even if imagined realities can never be more than that it was always human-centered. The creation process is now increasingly technological, as exemplified by the rise of mechanical artists empowered by machine learning, algorithmic production, and targeted distribution.
While image-makers have historically brought humans into an open debate on the perception and interpretation of reality, today that is done through secured , if not hacked algorithms. We have migrated from a human-centered representational realm to a system-centered one where politics and commerce share the control of the aims while humans are left with perceptions they can barely control.
If the riddle of yesterday’s image existed in a battlefield of interpretations, today’s riddle is in the whims of generative imagery that evolves through its own dark dynamics. By managing forms, topics, mediums, and networks, it progressively controls the realm of representations, hence the framing and reframing of reality.
Who owns representations owns truths.
“The medium is the message” as coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1964 has turned into “Image is reality.” Since we know it is inherently technological, we must consider the machine as a living component of reality – the reality of all things. Hence, the notions of Anthropocene and Technosphere.
The machinic is integral to our atmosphere as techne is integral to image which is always framed by techne. The former is a reflection of the latter.
What I learned through the prism of technology is that image is the handle and “interface” for reality. Beyond its subject, the image is the representation of the medium itself, a reality of its own and a way to manipulate what it stands for. It freely blurs temporality, history, spatiality, and objectivity, all together aiming for a truth of its own.That is the world we really live in. It is only symbolic, but it is our world. We know it as it knows us and can grab our hands, our eyes, and our imagination.
Machines are presented as chess players, computer programmers, paralegals, financial analysts, teachers, graphic designers and perhaps artists. Are they really? Even if machines can “make art” and even if they can become sentient, it is our privilege to allow them as social members for their contributions.
Which brings us back to Bauhaus and how much we should compromise with technology-aided creations as commodities or symbols. Lessons are being learned from the significance of branding, manufacturing, outsourcing, externalities, and/or ESG – environment, social, and governance. In artistic terms, it translates into the ethics of hands and minds whether human or not. Economically, it translates into terms of availability, affordability, and choice. In material terms, it challenges the physical and sensorial dimensions of the real, the material and the immaterial. How much do we lose in order to expand our realms?
As workers of the industrial revolution we are used to everchanging repetitive tasks and iterative processes therefore we easily find affinities with machines and systems—sometimes more than with other humans. The role of machines in creation is increasing and becoming more significant, leading to the rise of machine-made art and design. However, this raises questions about the nature of creativity and the value of human input.
In the last two decades I have moved trillions of pixels, but today, not unlike the days of massive pre-selected stock imagery, I could if I wanted, power through infinite flows of images generated in real-time to meet my demands.
What is being taken away from the creator as a price for speed and convenience is the mindful process of craft, whether physical or digital.
Regardless, the text-to-image neural network techniques is an interesting opportunity to meditate on how the morphing of images into hybrids of themselves can challenge our ability to see. It may be worthy of pursuit challenge our habits and to ponder what is gained and what is lost.
The alchemy of AI imagery is a bloody arena where the seductive, the assaultive, the derivative, the historic and the fake battle for our choices.
AI knows us. It makes us look and it remembers how we look. It is a reminder that it is not what is shown to us that matters but what we are still able to see.
Inventions always appear with brute force to address human limitations. Today it may be our inability to resolve climate change and economic injustice. Ironically such addiction to innovations is leading to a machinic autonomy wired to remake a world surely more to its own image than that of the human and non-human. Uncontrolled automations is leaving us with the uncertainties of the next world, whether more harmonious or dystopian.
As always we turn to the arts for answer and escape. We even look into the poetics of artificial intelligence. Who knows what it may reveal. We can see how it projects a seemingly organic world, more lush and flamboyant than our endangered one. Current AI imagery reflects natural beauties that outshines the dullness of our interfaces, cooking the artistic canons of modernity into a recipe sure to appeal to the masses.
We see a return to expressions reminiscent of the arts and crafts movement with its floral patterns, fantasies, allegories, wild creatures and glorious gods. Whether as words or images it feels like one last bedtime story while the world outside is burning away. But again this impression is the same we have had with every past massively disruptive innovation.
Kind words from ChatGPT
While machines can assist and augment the creative process, they cannot replace the creativity of human beings. Creativity is a product of human imagination, intuition, and emotions, and it is shaped by culture, context, and experience. It is not simply the application of a set of rules or the optimization of a function. It is an expression of our humanity and our capacity to transcend our limitations.
The rise of artificial intelligence and the increasing role of machines in our lives raise important questions about our relationship with technology and its impact on our sense of self, creativity, and reality. While machines can bring significant benefits and enhance our capabilities, they also pose risks and challenges that we must address. It is up to us to define the ethical, social, and cultural frameworks that will guide the development and use of technology, and to ensure that it serves our collective interests and values. As we embark on this journey, we must remain mindful of our humanity and the unique qualities that make us who we are.