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April 4, 2023Richmal Midllesworth (She/Her) is the head of HR at an established London-based architecture studio. Her modern approach to HR had her labelled as an HR Rebel. The following lines are a transcript of one of her recent vlogs. The names have been changed for privacy purposes. ‘Good morning everyone. So I’m just capping off a 10 mile run around the villages in Hertfordshire where I live. As you know, I’m raising funds and awareness for mental health, in particular men for the Winston Smith foundation. And what I thought I’d do today is I’d take a minute to talk to you about getting access to mental health support because – uhm – in my role and with some of my friends and family, I hear a lot of people say to me – well, I did try and go and get some help, but I felt that they didn’t really understand me or they made some comment that, really, I didn’t connect with; I didn’t feel validated. And what I want to say to you is that these things do happen. No one’s perfect and even professional people sometimes come across as off or might make a comment that really does cause some emotional harm. So all I can say to you is ‘just keep trying’. Not with that person, not with that entity. Go and find something else. Because getting mental health support is not one-size-fits-all, it’s one size fits one. So approach it with some curiosity and keep trying different things. Something else that springs to mind a lot as well that I hear about is that there’s such a massive delay for getting help by the NHS and via these services that are free to people, especially for young people that are struggling with their mental health, and the waiting list to get counselling and therapies is really long and that’s quite a worry for me, considering how many people really are now becoming more engaged with looking after their mental health. So the other day, my other half shared an email with me about a little app; it’s called Woebot and it is a cognitive behavioural therapy-based program in the form of artificial intelligence called Woebot. And I’ve been playing around with Woebot this week, I’ve been checking in, I’v’e been testing Woebot out and I can highly, highly recommend it. What I will do is I will put a link to Woebot on this video after I’ve posted it, but it’s got quite a cute nature, so it will put a smile on your face. I think that it’s accessible for young people, as well as adults, and I think that it’s something that you should be aware of and you should try it out. Partly what it does is it gives you tools, it will give you videos, it gives you ideas about mindfulness, how to practice gratitude, journaling, which is also very good for mental health, and it does give you some techniques if you’re in the middle of a crisis or a negative thought cycle, you open up the app, you check in and it’s available for you immediately. It finished its conversation with me last night to tell me it was off going fishing, so it does have a cute little personality as well, so I can highly recommend it. So that’s what I just wanted to say today, it’s just ‘stay curious, look after your mental health and if you do find you’ve hit an avenue where you don’t think you’re being validated or the person you’re talking to isn’t connecting with you, then it’s okay to end that and start looking for something different. So thank you for your time, I’ve got about a mile to go and then I’ll finish off my 10 miles. So I’ll post all this a bit later on, but just wanted to say ‘take care, everyone’. Thanks!’ . [...]
January 7, 2023I began this series with a quote from George Orwell, showing that ImageAI is only the latest iteration in a process spanning many decades. In the second article I argued that the only way to mount a principled opposition to the blind processes of automation is by adopting a classical understanding of art. In the third one I attempted to show that the destructive consequences of tools like the internet, social media, AI etc. reflect the modern redefinition of freedom as radical autonomy; thus the negative consequences of using these tools – increased social isolation, anxiety, depression, loss of focus, loss of memory and language use – are not accidents or externalities; they derive from a deep commitment to a set of subversive norms that lead us, in a profound irony, to the belief that technology develops independent of any norms and intentions, but rather shapes our norms, our polity, and even humanity (Deneen). I will now conclude the series with an acknowledgement: the anti-AI protest will fail. Decision makers are broadcasting the new reality in unison. If you want a glimpse of the automation projects that will likely happen beginning with 2023, have a look at this article by ‘Artificial Intelligence Weekly’. Here are 4 media outlets (the article includes many more) blurring the line between news reporting and overt promotion: Washington Post: We asked an AI bot hundreds of questions. Here’s what we learned.NYT: The Tech That Will Invade Our Lives in 2023: Say hello to new-and-improved A.I. assistants, and move over to brands like Twitter and Tesla.Reuters: In Hong Kong, designers try out new AI assistant: The system can produce a dozen fashion templates within 10 seconds, saving designers precious time.Time: From AI to Energy, 4 New Year’s Resolutions for the World The author of the article describes himself as a ‘Casual Academic’, as well as Head of Data Science and AI, Thought Leader, Global AI Ambassador, Advisor and Chief Evangelist. You instantly notice the strange blend of non profit and for profit, of neutral academic research and tech evangelism, broadcasted by media institutions in unison as a complete inevitability… You will use Image AI and you will be happy!  Shortly after the recent protest started, AI developer and Sillicon Valley insider Evan Conrad agreed to have an open discussion with artist and teacher Stan Prokopenko in order to assure the artist community that ImageAI is harmless and should be welcomed by everyone. Needless to say, the interview had the opposite effect. Evan compared ImageAI to a boulder that will smash anyone trying to stop it, and thus the only possible alternative is to roll alongside it and push it in the right direction. When asked why he considers it inevitable, he retorted to zero sum logic: ‘China will roll ahead with the new tech, so we cannot afford to do otherwise’. Who would have thought that making concept art for games and films was such serious business?! . LACK OF TRANSPARENCY Technology is not morally or aesthetically neutral. It shapes our behavioural patterns, our being-in-the-world and the ways in which we understand each other. Regardless of what you think of a platform like Twitter, you no doubt see it with different eyes in 2022 than in 2006, having experienced its structure and inner logic. When asked about the logic of ImageAI, its developers and evangelists will not only give contradictory answers, they will tell you only what you want to hear. If you are a director in a creative business, they will mention the huge potential for cutting expenses, speeding up production times and reducing team size. If you are an artist, they will tell you about the opportunity to stay afloat in the industry by learning the invaluable skill of AI prompting. If you are the social activist type, they will exalt ImageAI’s potential for making art more inclusive and accessible, both by lowering production fees and by eliminating the glass ceiling of elitist skilled artists. If you are the right-wing bodybuilding type, they will exalt ImageAI’s beauty and visual excellence as opposed to the sickening flat style and abstract art made by contemporary artists.  Just like social media platforms 20 years ago, ImageAI is sold as a chameleon that takes the colour of your innermost desires, a technological panacea which cannot do any harm as long as it is used for good. In doing so, its promoters are masking the technology’s structure and inner logic, which is completely opaque to its users. When the sales pitch is over, those still unconvinced of the necessity of ImageAI are bombarded with insults and intimidation. I have seen many tech evangelists repeatedly calling sceptical artists luddites, cavemen or morons. Those who refuse to participate in the sacrament of automation are immediately associated with the reactionary forces of the past, opposing every new manifestation of goodness and clinging to the dirty old ways; fearful of the invention of the camera, dismissive of the absolute beauty of expressionism, cubism and dada, ungrateful to the genius of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Tracey Emin.  ‘The luddites’ are also reminded of the absolute futility of their resistance. ‘How ignorant, arrogant and egotistic can you be, thinking that you can influence the chaotic development of technology!? Don’t you know Gilles Deleuze proved tech has a life of its own, akin to a decentralised rhizome governed by laws as chaotic and unpredictable as weather itself!?’ If, on the other hand, you agree to join the right side of history™, you will soon discover that there are countless tools that can help you nudge technology in the safe direction of a fully automated, rules-based, information-driven, purposeful, potential-liberating Gaian future.  . HOW NOT TO OPPOSE IMAGE AI In the 2nd article of this series I suggested that the only way to oppose the destructive effects of automation can be achieved by adopting a classical understanding of art. When one immerses himself in classical art made in any period from late antiquity to late 19th century, from vernacular to high art – he discovers an infinity of reasons to oppose mindless automation, especially in its current iteration of data-scraping image AIs.  By doing so, however, you have given up any chance of successfully opposing the new disruptive tech. Thought leaders, tech ambassadors, academics and journalists might disagree on a number of topics (fewer and fewer, it appears), but the cult of unleashed technology and the repudiation of classicism are non-negotiable. Does this mean that the Concept Art Association’s fundraiser will fail to achieve its goals? Of course not. As I am writing this, it has already reached 3 quarters of its funding target. The artists’ voices will be heard in D.C., where government officials and policy makers will be educated on issues facing the creative industries if this tech is left unchecked. Reparations will be paid, injustices will be punished. We might even see a film like ‘The Social Dilemma’ on the big platforms. This does not change the inevitable outcome. In the protesters’ words, ‘we know this technology is here to stay one way or another’. It can either stay in its current form, ruled by techno-optimists, business magnates and investors, or it can develop generous HR teams that will force the developers to pay compensation, share ownership, offer sinecures and agree to be kept under constant scrutiny. Did you enjoy the old Twitter, or would you rather have Elon’s version? Those are also the only possible options with ImageAI. If you’re like me, you think Twitter is a net loss for civilisation; it inflated egos, destroyed IRL relationships, wrecked people’s attention span and put them in a hellish loop of dopamine-cortisol, an addictive alternation between the desire to find agreement and rage at those who disagree. It promised a world in which every voice will matter and be heard, yet polarisation, loneliness and the loss of moral capital were the only things it delivered. Yet banning it still seems unthinkable to virtually everyone. There is no life outside these platforms. We are treating them as if they are persons with the right to exist and fulfil their potential. We must continue to helplessly roll along the boulder, like Sisyphus, “absorbed and rapt in eager self, driving, pushing, carried on in a stress of feverish force, dynamic force apart from reason or will, like the force that lifts the tides and sends the clouds onwards. They cannot stay, they must go, their necks are in the slave’s ring” – Richard Jefferies, The Story of my Heart. . A WAY OUT? ‘OMAE WA, MOU SHINDEIRU!’ Change starts with storytelling; when enough artists will be able to paint a compelling picture of an alternate reality preserving art in its classical understanding, there might be a chance to find a way out. When enough scholars, ‘casual academics’ and thought leaders will snap out of their hypnotic trance, we might witness something less boring and conformist. The technical solution involves the creation of alternative platforms for artists; platforms that reward hard earned skills, geographical proximity, real life interactions and skin in the game. Platforms that discourage automation, deterritorialization and mediated interactions.  . [...]
January 7, 2023In order to offer my support for the current protest against ImageAIs, I previously provided a classical definition of art as an elevating arrow harnessing technique in the service of virtue, virtue in the service of wisdom and wisdom in the service of the Sacred. I also argued that art is participative, performed for the enjoyment of human communities and thus not to be outsourced to automation.  If anyone reading my previous article perceived it as anachronistic, they were correct. That understanding of art is a relic of the past; technology is rarely driven by these pompous-sounding moral values and we all realise that a bunch of online atomised ‘artists’ with free accounts on ArtStation are nothing like an 18th century ‘Society of Artists’ or a ‘Worshipful Company of Painters-Stainers’ (what cringe-sounding names are these anyway?) In this article I am attempting to describe the shift from the classical understanding of art to the one we currently have; this will help us make sense of phenomena like Image AI and the different responses they are triggering. . THE MODERN REDEFINITION OF FREEDOM In his book, ‘Why Liberalism Failed‘, professor Patrick Deneen argues that modernity departed from the classical understanding of ‘freedom’ defined as the ability to control one’s tyrannical impulses (individually and collectively) – to a negative definition in which freedom simply means ‘autonomy’, or being left alone to pursue your private interests. This shift happened with John Locke and Stuart Mill, but also with Machiavelli, who attacked the old political orders, previously devoted to the inculcation of virtue and the common good, exposing them as ‘imaginary republics’ that refused to take humans as they are. Deneen writes: ‘This new political technology was designed to liberate us from partial loyalties to particular people and places, and make us into individuals who, above all, strive to achieve our individual ambitions and desires. The ancient commendation of virtue is replaced with the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis on private pursuits over a concern for public weal, and an acquired ability to reconsider any relationships that limit our personal liberty’ – Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed. I should note that the historical process described here is quite distinct from what contemporaries mean by the term ‘liberalism’. In our age it is more common to hear conservatives invoking this negative definition of ‘freedom from’, while liberals talk about the common good – in terms that are also very different from its classical understanding. Words change meaning over time.  A few hundreds of years ago, various ideological and political developments led to a series of irreparable seismic shifts – the proliferation of idiosyncratic faiths, the decoupling of science from metaphysics, of reason from faith, of will from reason. The rejection of any existing forms of unity in favour of factional interests and private beliefs. Under this new logic, technology was also decoupled from all moral or aesthetic considerations, eventually leading to the industrial revolution. If we travelled back in time to any civilisation in history, we would expect all their artefacts – pyramids, palaces, temples, granaries, stoas, basilicas, statues, castles – to be intelligible materialisations of the vision and ideals of that particular civilisation. However, when we think of our own age, we apply an entirely different view of technology as developing chaotically and subject to the whims of individual inventors, business magnates or chief executives. Deneen observes:  ‘Technology does not exist autonomous of political and social norms and beliefs; its development is shaped by such norms. Liberalism introduces a set of norms that lead us, ironically, to the belief that technology develops independent of any norms and intentions, but rather shapes our norms, our polity, and even humanity, and inevitably escapes our control. In our remaking of the world – through obvious technologies like the internet – we embrace and deploy technologies that make us how we imagine ourselves being. And in a profound irony, it is precisely in this quest to attain ever-more-perfect individual liberty and autonomy that we increasingly suspect that we might fundamentally lack choice about adoption of those technologies’ – Idem. This negative definition of freedom (or autonomy) is the main criterion by which a technology is adopted or rejected in contemporary societies. Anything that threatens the bodily integrity of individuals or impedes their free movement and association is rejected and regulated against. There are, of course, slight differences in which the principle is applied. In societies driven by freedom of trade, the logic of autonomy is applied to commerce, innovation and freedom of speech; in societies driven by social welfare, the logic is applied as an equalising force, so that a uniform level of economic, sexual and religious autonomy can be enjoyed by all. Our societies have their moral coercion and technological selective filters firmly planted (the last 2 winters proved that), they are just more opaque and, whenever questioned about them, immediately hide under the guise of private matters. Deneen then offers a few case studies, showing how this new morality shapes our technological artefacts. . SOCIAL MEDIA – SOCIAL ISOLATION Deneen argues that the main change induced by social media over the past two decades was a destruction of real-world communities. ‘In her book ‘Alone Together’ MIT’s Sherry Turkle reminds us that the root of the word ‘community’ means literally ‘to give among each other’ and argues that such a practice requires ‘physical proximity’ and ‘shared responsibilities’. The growing presence of social media fosters relationships that avoid either of these constitutive elements of community, replacing that thicker set of shared practices with the thinner and more evanescent bonds of ‘networks’. The same thickness that gave rise to such contentious relations, she writes, also inspired people to take care of each other in times of need. Turkle fears that we are losing not only that experience but also the capacity to form the thick bonds that constitute community, and that our attraction to social media at once undermines these bonds and provides a pale simulacrum to fill the void’ – Idem. In an article for the Atlantic titled ‘Is Facebook Making Us Lonely’, Stephen Marche shows how Facebook is contributing to an epidemic of loneliness and the corresponding symptoms of sadness and depression. About 20 percent of Americans (60 million) declared they experience unhappiness due to being lonely. Unlike the mainstream critiques, Marche avoids blaming Facebook or social media for this epidemic. ‘Rather, he notes that Facebook, and technologies like it, have facilitated or even enabled a preexisting predilection – the long-standing American desire to be independent and free. Facebook is thus a tool that elicits loneliness from a deeper set of philosophical, political, and even theological commitments. As Marche points out, “Loneliness is one of the first things that Americans spend their money achieving…. We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely.” – Idem. . THE INTERNET – LOSS OF FOCUS, MEMORY, LANGUAGE USE Other authors such as N. Carr have argued that persistent occupation with the internet changes the configuration of our brains, making us addicted to frequent changes in images and content, and less capable to focus, remember and use language properly. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have proven there is a strong correlation between Instagram use and mental illness in teen girls (incidents of self harm doubling between 2009 and 2019), or between the phenomenon of helicopter parenting and a variety of mental health issues in children.. PERPETUAL REVOLT, ‘CREATIVE DESTRUCTION’ ‘There is also an established tradition of critics of technology (L. Mumford, J. Ellul, Postman) who emphasized the ways in which it destroys long-standing ways of life, attacking the very core of our culture and belief systems in the name of utility and efficiency, and more recently to Wendell Berry, who has argued that machine technology has its own logic, which tends to destroy the practices and traditions of a community. Perhaps the most representative voice in this tradition is that of Neil Postman, whose book Technopoly—published in 1992—was suggestively subtitled The Surrender of Culture to Technology. In that book, Postman describes the rise in the modern era of what he calls Technocracy. Preindustrial forms of culture and social organization used tools no less than technocratic societies, Postman writes, but the tools they employed “did not attack (or more precisely, were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced. With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization.” The tools adopted by a Technocracy, by contrast, constantly transform the way of life. Postman writes, “Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. . . . Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.” From technocracy we have entered the age of “technopoly,” in which a culturally flattened world operates under an ideology of progress that leads to “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.” The residual cultural practices that survived the era of technocracy now give way to a transformed world in which technology is itself our culture—or anticulture, a tradition-destroying and custom-undermining dynamic that replaces cultural practices, memory, and beliefs’ – Idem. Deneen’s critique is by no means luddite in nature. It simply shows how the cultural norms we have enshrined as sacred are mere inversions of classical values, leading to a state of perpetual revolt and techno-dystopia. When you exalt negative freedom, every moral norm can be framed as oppressive and limiting, while untrammelled appetites and momentary impulses will always be framed as triumphs of liberation. The word ‘limit’ itself receives a negative connotation, and societies start to look like cars with no brakes going down a slope at a speed that’s increasing exponentially.. HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO IMAGE AI? a. Classical Education If we now turn to visual arts, we notice that – contrary to popular notions – inborn talent and authentic self expression are never enough to guarantee the fulfilment of one’s potential. In classical fine arts, the student must undergo years of training which start with basic skills: using pencils correctly, drawing perfect lines – straight and curved; applying texture; measuring relative proportions, drawing geometric objects; assimilating rules and principles of linear and aerial perspective; principles of constructive drawing. The student then proceeds to study classical orders, still life, organic objects, animals, draperies, materials, architectural interiors, exteriors, skulls, human anatomy and proportions, classical busts and headcasts, hairstyles, multi-figure compositions, portraits of live models etc. 3d modelling, rendering and post-production tools can then be easily assimilated by those who have the skills mentioned above. This is done in many architecture universities as well as in atelier schools. An atelier is a small art school offering training in sculpture, drawing, and painting based on studio practices that were primarily taught from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Although universities are experiencing a nationwide decline, ateliers have flourished and appeared in every major American city, with local architecture, 3d design, video game and visual effects companies recruiting directly from them. b. Perpetual Revolt Rejecting the classical definition of art led to the excessive politicisation of art schools; this was observed by the cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1935 book, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Other consequences of the revolutionary redefinition of art are the loss of skills and creativity. While Atelier Schools thrive, art colleges are closing at an alarming rate:  ‘Art colleges struggle with the toxic perception that their graduates are qualified for nothing and have been bankrupted by their education. They take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, only to be employed as burger-flippers clutching a worthless degree in their paint and grease-splattered hands. Their prospects are dismal: A 2018 Bankrate report noted that over 9 percent of them are unemployed, and fine art degrees ranked last of 162 different majors for their employment prospects—more than triple the average. Appallingly, with a 7.7 percent unemployment rate, high school dropouts are more likely to get a job than art majors. Of an estimated 2 million arts graduates, only 10 percent make a living as working artists. It is difficult to know exactly how many art schools have closed nationally, but they are arm-in-arm with the closure of campuses across the nation. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 1,200 college campuses have closed in the last five years, displacing 500,000 students’ – source. 3d tools can also harness and expand one’s skills, or atrophy and replace them. With 3d rendering and post-production software, both routes are available to digital artists. If one is serious about mastering perspective, hand drawing, colour theory etc – he will apply those skills while expanding his knowledge of new software and produce fine bespoke digital artworks. If one is complacent, he can always skip the technical knowledge and compensate by importing entire scenes, pre-set lighting settings, pre-made 3d assets or LUTs. He can then hit ‘render’, ‘save’ and charge money for his low effort. The difference between these opposite predispositions is noticeable and the art portfolios always speak for themselves. With ImageAI, things change drastically. The process of generating imagery is completely opaque to the human artist, whose only input is relegated to a string of words. As Iain McGilchrist showed in his book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’, the brain area involved in language is rigid and a lot less connected or creative than the area related to eyesight and imagination. We can thus say that ImageAI makes the acquisition of skills virtually impossible (remember Orwell’s quote), while also hindering the imagination effort. It’s also not hard to predict their role in accentuating loneliness (on their own or in conjunction with social media) and who knows what potential correlation with mental issues will be uncovered by the likes of Haidt and Lukianoff? ImageAI is, however, the most perfect example of unleashed technology and perpetual revolt against norms, participative art and mastery of any kind. And this is exactly how its manufacturers are selling it – as a maximiser of individual autonomy and self-expression; a freeing, equalising force, giving creative voice to the disenfranchised and lowering the barriers between elitist communities and wannabe storytellers. Deneen’s analysis is solid and the book is worth a listen on Audible. Read part4. . [...]