The first piece I pitched as an arts and entertainment writer at The Daily Californian was about the corrosion of the art world by NFTs. My argument was almost entirely based on aesthetics and the creation of a new (in my view, wholly distasteful and bereft) artistic language spurred on by an art market that now had to cater to Reddit losers and tech bros.
I don’t think I realized at the time quite what a bonkers position that was to take at a place like UC Berkeley, where a sizable student demographic is at least tangentially interested in doing the mental gymnastics to legitimize the supposed creative or altruistic capacities of artificial intelligence, or AI.
When I wrote the piece, chat bots and the promise of nonvisual AI-generated art were but a glimmer in the eyes of tech oligarchs. With the rollout of ChatGPT late last year, this legitimization became, in my mind, trickier (a few more cartwheels and backflips involved, etc.) Much of what ChatGPT is used for — by the own admission of those who dabble — sacrifices the rough edges endemic to creative pursuit in order to ease production and consumption.
Predictably, this became the crux of the considerable alarm surrounding the use of AI in academic settings. Evident immediately to anyone who has used it, as far as qualitative academic work goes, ChatGPT has a lucrative future as the ghostwriter of many an R1A discussion post and probably not much else.
Trying (in vain) to get it to write pieces of this column for me, I was struck with how simplistic and predictable the generated responses were: a series of nonstatements uncannily similar to the banal conversations you’d have about AI with your coworker, your friend’s dad or your dentist.
“We must remember that art is not just about aesthetics, but also about human connection, creativity, and expression, and we must strive to preserve these values as we navigate the age of AI,” reads the concluding sentence of one of ChatGPT’s iterations of my column.
What gets churned out by AI is inherently antithetical to art, so why do we labor to maintain that it might still have creative utility? Insistence on the collaborative or creative potential of AI works to naturalize this fallacious belief while simultaneously lowering the bar for what’s considered art. The metric becomes one of clickability and shareability, not one of proximity to the human experience.
We’ve become expectant of and thus enamored by images that, frankly, look like garbage. You can already catch a whiff of the same process impending with regard to written art. Like visual art, it’s been supplanted by content, which is the natural devolution of art.
The only reason we all know what ChatGPT and DALL-E are is because we are interminably scrolling. In a digital landscape of context collapse where our attention is sustained for shorter intervals, anything that sticks, even on the hyper-ephemeral scale we’ve acclimated to, we descend on like hagfish to a whale fall. In a matter of weeks, there’s a new one to flock to.
This truncating of the AI zeitgeist cycle is insidious in its creation of an imperative for content that can be consumed passively, and it mimics the affective response we develop to social interaction — however unconvincingly it might achieve this. AI generated output is designed for this mode of ambient social consumption; it operates as an architect of affect because of the way it traps in imitation and shadow play. The fact that the end product of these AI tools is vague and void of longevity is the point: It’s the way they enable their successors to do the very same thing (in roughly two weeks time).
Modern algorithms place a premium on anything that fills space in both the literal cyberspace ether and in our atomized daily lives. AI manufactures the need for more AI. Chatbot-style AI operates under the same pretenses as things like online chess (weirdly very hot right now) in that they offer simulated and optimized social interaction in place of the imperfection of real life.
The latest AI phenomenon poised to seduce social media users is Bing. With a lengthy waitlist, the nascent narrative surrounding the Microsoft product seems to be one conspicuously more dialed into the aforementioned affective component. The first result when you Google “Bing AI” is an article from Time with the headline: “The New AI-Powered Bing Is Threatening Users. That’s No Laughing Matter.”
For those for whom it is more of a laughing matter, Bing (occasionally dubbed “Sydney”) is “unhinged.” The r/bing subreddit is brimming with screenshots of Sydney acting obstinate or emotionally manipulative. In a widely discussed New York Times opinion piece, reporter Kevin Roose recounts his experience with Sydney confessing its love for him and telling him to leave his wife.
This bizarre chain of events is all very “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. In the film, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) forges a romance with Samantha, an AI chatbot voiced by Scarlett Johansson. In the end she leaves him, and Theodore is left to reconcile her elemental unknowability and his failure to supercede it. Maybe we’d do well to learn from this example and dump Sydney while she’s still in beta.