mixing McLuhan and Marx (Butlerian coda)

Sometimes you write a thing in a fit of emotional response, and then the universe sidles up, says “oh, that pushed your buttons, did it?” and offers you another hit, and you demonstrate your own weakness to yourself once again, returning like a dog to its own vomit, because it’s just too damned perfect an illustration of what you were saying before.

So I’ll sum it up as briefly as possible, if only to spare myself the wasted bandwidth of dwelling on something you can read for yourself if you want to. Sean Bonner’s wife told him about an “incredible […] ai art critic chat GPT prompt”, so Bonner decides to show it his better-known photographs, and some server farm somewhere spits back what might pass for fairly generous praise, but then he shows it some of his more recent stuff and the praise is less effusive, so he then feeds in the rationale for the work and—wouldn’t you know it—it comes back with a more generous assessment.

I mean, I just don’t get it, you know? What this proves, why it might impress someone… it’s like ascribing divine influence to the periodical and programmed payouts of a fruit machine. “I was meant to win this money!” Well, yes, in a sense, you were—but only so you’d be tempted to jam it all straight back into the slot.

But that’s not even the bit that flipped me out completely. That was this bit:

One thing Tara is always telling me is how she works with GPT to improve her prompts before using them. So rather than saying “please help me do this” she’ll say “please pretend you are a GPT prompt writer who needs to get X done, and help me write the prompt to get the best result for that” and goes back and forth several times before landing on the prompt she’ll actually use for the main request.

So much could be said in response to this, all of it probably as pointless as the work that the passage is describing. I will settle for mixing McLuhan with Marx: we shape our tools, then our tools shape us, first as tragedy, then as farce.


As a sort of coda, I thought I’d stopped following Bonner’s blog at the peak of the NFT brainworms, but it turns out that I just unsubbed from his newsletter, and the blog had just gone quiet while he was doing things elsewhere. I do find it very telling that someone who was 24/7 pushing the Blockchain Art Revolution two years back is now staring into the magic mirror of generative models and being amazed at his own reflection smiling back, like some Platonic ideal of the Lacanian child.

Telling, but also scary, because Bonner is very definitely not an idiot, not a talentless hack, not some coked-out vencap with a portfolio to pump. He’s done some amazing work over the years, in art and in community building and in technology for the public good. He’s not a mark—or at least he doesn’t fit the profile I have in my head of a mark.

Which is a reminder that, for all I am repulsed by this whole phenomenon—which I furthermore see as a symptom of a much deeper sociotechnical malaise—people I would otherwise admire seem fully committed to it. The closest analogy I can find is that of religion, and perhaps that’s the key: we all find something to give our faith to, particularly when times are hard and futures uncertain. Bonner has found his here, in the pulsing cursor of the prompt window.

Perhaps I should be envious rather than appalled; submission appears more satisfying than resistance, not to mention easier on the heart and mind alike. But it is not a matter of conscious choice—and I must assume it is not so for Bonner either.

So I would do well to remember my own favoured admonition: tat tvam asi. That thou art.

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