Butlerian jihad (slight return)

I have mostly tried to avoid both consuming and contributing to The “AI” Discourse, having in essence made my point almost a year ago and encountered little since then that has served to do anything but reinforce my feelings on the matter. But I’m breaking that fast for this observation, which is really (and perhaps ironically) just a reiteration: namely that for all the talk of “novelty” and the reification of newness, the appeal “AI” “content”—of generatively-produced images in particular, but the argument is generalisable—seems to lie not at all in their capability to surprise, but rather precisely in their ability to confirm our hunches around what “[X], but it’s [Y] in the style of [Z]” would look like.

Perhaps this is rooted in the perception of art by non-artists as essentially recombinatory—a perception which is not wrong so much as it’s hugely incomplete. At this point all the realists and sub-Dennettean philosophes are presumably rolling their eyes and crowing internally over my supposed recourse to the existence of a soul, or of some slightly less theologised notion of a transcendent essence of being that informs and animates creative work of all kinds.

This is not about the unanswerable question of what makes “good” art, or even about what “art” or “intelligence” is—as if the point of those questions were to answer them definitively with some pat paragraph. Rather, it’s about what we choose to value about ourselves and the world whichhas shaped us, and which we shape in turn.

Perhaps the tech determinists are right—if only because they outnumber and outgun the rest of us, and hence possess a greater capacity of ontological forcing—and this push-button banality really is, really will become, The Future. I am not optimistic that they will be proven wrong, but I am hopeful, precisely because the other properties of a world whose conception of art is basely recombinatorial will be utterly dismal in their predictability: an infinite mall.

Should we find ourselves having reified such a world, I can only imagine that our descendants will work all the more quickly to burn it to the ground—which would not be a change of paradigm, but an acceleration of the one we already inhabit. “AI” changes nothing. Quite to the contrary: it merely reasserts what already is, in increasingly manic and prestidigitatory desperation, lest we dare look even a millisecond or millimeter further afield.

Again, I could very well be wrong, but only if you take this to be an attempt at prediction—because a world in which I am wrong will be a world in which I have no desire, and perhaps even no capacity, to be right. I don’t have a clever theoretical argument to bolster my case; I have only instinct, revulsion, ennui. I simply don’t want to inhabit that world, that particular The Future. It looks, to be blunt, shit: an endlessly scrolling listicle stamping on a goggle-clad human face, forever.

By all means, accuse me of utopianism! I will accept that charge, and the sentence that follows from it, without flinching—for I know what that word actually means, and I am not afraid to side with it over and against the unwitting and unacknowledged (and hence amok) utopianisms that go by such nommes de guerre as “realism”, “pragmatism” or “Progress“.

I hope my opponents are prepared to do the same. Not because it will make me feel better, nor prove me right, but rather because it will be a precondition for their ability to live with what they have chosen—to live with what they have allowed to be chosen for them.



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