After years of stubborn resistance, and frankly, satisfaction with the old wall phone, we just bought our first smart phone. We are feeling anything but smart. Of course we got the phone, in part at least, because you can’t get maps anymore, and because everybody expects to be able to get ahold of you whenever and wherever you are. So now after driving 2800 miles through country that we don’t know, instead of finding our way by following the car in front of us that looks most likely to know where they are going, and of course a bit of 'horse sense', we are now asking a piece of what looks to me like plastic, "Where are we?" Instead of telling our tools what to do, they are telling us what to do. I’m not at all sure I’m cut out for this stuff. And here lately, according to the news anyway, artificial Intelligence is plowing headlong into my business, the visual arts! I’m starting to feel like the last guy who studied to be a town crier or a gandy dancer! I don't know what a gandy dancer is, or was, but neither am I sure that I know what artificial intelligence is.
But I guess I might as well get used to it. We are a technology driven animal. From the first time a man scratched his back with a stick we’ve stood on the shoulders of technology. But what is getting my goat, along with the goats of others, is technological intrusion into the very space of creativity itself. Writers using AI to write stories, musicians using AI to create tunes, visual artists using AI to create 3D images! It all seems a bit intrusive to me.
I’m sure it takes a certain amount of intellectual heft to use these AI programs, but I sort of like the age-old creative process of smashing my thumb with a hammer and finding beauty in the subtle color fields and lines of the blood splatter. I have no plans to integrate AI into my work. I have no doubt that artificial intelligence is going to be capable of a successful infusion into the traditional arts, blending textures and compositions, materials and scale in ways that bring enormous potential for visual products, but the question is, do we really want to outsource our creativity to digital technology? While the potential array of imagery that could result from the borrowing and blending of every mind and every influence that crosses the internet is mind boggling, maybe it is too mind boggling. Or perhaps my mind is just easily boggled.
We are already at a point where no one person can make even the basic tools we use to make our products. On this continent we have gone, in the span of a few hundred years, a few human lifespans, from tools, materials and technology that could be handed down from one generation to another without even the need of written record, to a point now that no person could make, entirely of his or her own accord, a modern trash can, or most of the things we throw in it.
With a bit of retraining a decently skilled craftsperson could make a bow and some arrows as they might have appeared in the year 1400BC, or 1900AD, with a rock, a limb, and maybe a dead cat. Better to consult someone versed in the ancient craft, but many people could make a weapon of this sort, because the tools and materials necessary to make it are available in nature. But a modern twenty-penny nail to hang it on, like we buy by the pound at the
hardware store is another matter. Without a bunch of help from a bunch of people, we (I) can’t make a steel nail without relying on things others have made before me. The lowly twenty-penny is a product of generations upon generations of iron working technology. Mining, smelting, pigging, forging, along with all the support industries. And it is that way with almost everything we use.
But here we are now, about to trade in the human mind and the human hand for some incredibly complex digital devise to make our art.
I believe we should suffer a bit with our process in order to create something worth creating. Get our hands dirty. We need to get good enough to do things ourselves. If we are just saying yes or no, like a Russian oligarch "building" his yacht, like any digital device is designed to do with data, byte by byte, megabyte by megabyte, as we construct a piece of art, we are using the minds and work product of a great many others without giving credit where it is due. We will no longer be able to say, “I did that!” It won’t be even half honest. And to be totally honest, I believe we artists, already get a little too puffed up as "makers", taking credit for the things that we "make".
All my life people have told me that I'm "creative". (An "artsy-crafts mother-%&#@*&", as one colorfully articulate friend put it). But in my own “low tech” work, as I meander across my shop floor, I see almost nothing that I could make all by myself. Not the tools, not the materials. No one person can make all the things I need to make the things I make. I owe the miners and smelters and alloyists of my metal, the producers of refractory materials, silicon rubber, plaster of Paris, not to mention the freighters and logistics work of transport, the highways, the phone lines and internet connections by which I communicate my material needs. I owe the tool makers and abrasive makers, the microcrystaline wax producers, the patina chemical producers, the liquid gas producers, the electricity producers, the camera makers, the glove makers, and occasionally the makers of Peanut M&Ms. I owe the textile industry for the fabrics that protects my various organs from becoming one with the sweepings on my floor. I don’t do what I do without those who make the elements of my products, or those who make it possible for me to get them here to my little shop, the hell and gone from where these things really come from, and the hell and gone from where the techniques and processes to use them were developed and discovered. Yes, I pay them for their services, but that does not really cover the bill.
In this age it’s almost comical, if not frightening, to see how many people seem to believe that they are islands of self-sufficiency, unbeholden to the support network that is civilization. They owe nobody anything for the things they have in this unprecedented time of opportunity and privilege, all on the shoulders of people who will never get credit for their contributions that made it all possible. They don’t think they need government, and they don’t owe taxes for the infrastructure that supports them. The "Self Made Man". But the road was there, the bridge, or the boat was there. The job was there, the education, the tools, the food, and health care were there, the laws and their inforcement that protect one from being exterminated by their jealous neighbor were there, no thanks to any one person, but thanks to quite a lot of somebodies who've paved the way to where we are today. And I feel like this may be where we are going with AI, where people who couldn't chip out a decent piece of firewood if they started with 16 inch length of a log are taking credit for making the most outrageously marvelous things that they just plain did not and could not make! Drag cursor, click mouse. Voila!
Yes, I hate tech, and I love it, depending on how and whether I use it. Technology is what we humans have that other animals just don’t have. We live in a time where almost anything we (the royal 'we') can think of, we can make, because somebody else makes something else. And now it looks like we are on the threshold of being able to make things we cannot even think of. And that is kind of scary.
I don’t know where we are headed, but it's coming, like a freight-train. Humanity is on a crash course with the technologies that we have created. Yet I guess I have a certain amount of faith that the individual artist, be they a sculptor or painter, dancer or a fiction writer, pecking away, old school, in their garret, will still have a place, the way live music still has a place. We can blast the most technologically refined tunes across the airwaves, with every imperfect note rendered perfect by means of technology, but we can’t replace the real thing of a live performance. We don’t necessarily value perfection so much as we value that human element. That striving for, and nearing perfection that we know all too well most of us cannot do. That flawed but somehow perfect delivery of an inspired act that only a human who's dedicated the time, the effort, and has been blessed with the opportunity and the talent can do. Maybe, and hopefully, it's like ice skater Marai Nagasu hitting her remarkable triple axel, vs. a cartoon character gliding to a 100 axel and a perfect landing. Who really gives a damn about the latter?