Preface: this is written with only the best and most honest intentions in creating a dialogue about the potential dangers of technology in modern life, as well as in music. I’m not a writer, and this is very much an editorial. I'm doing this in a good faith effort to clarify my tweets about AI.
I’m currently writing this on MacBook Pro using Google Doc. Do I feel good about contributing to the houses of data these companies have on me? No. Does it stop me from using them and giving them my information? No.
The ease and efficiency of modern technology is hard to turn down. It felt like I was using dial-up Internet for decades, and then one day it just switched. Instantly, computer and phone technology felt so easy it became effortless. I use my fingerprint to unlock my phone. I ask it to text for me while I’m driving. I use funny face filters that show me what I would look like if I got a nose job. All of these things I use knowingly at the expense of my privacy. But it’s hard to stop when it makes life so much easier.
It’s simpler to just pretend it’s all benign, free for me to use due to the good grace of developers. No strings attached.
I resent this about myself, but I have a feeling I have this in common with many others. We would much rather ignore the voice in our head saying “there must be a catch.” Because of course there is.
Now, I don’t know much about the science behind AI, but I do like to think about the sociological conditions it creates.
First, I need to get this out of the way:
I used the term “Silicon Fascist Privilege” on Twitter. It’s loaded. I’m sorry it’s loaded. But I do think it defines a perspective in our current society and I stand by it. Tech jobs are growing exponentially every year. They’re often high-paying, fast-paced, ambitious environments that foreground innovation, evolution, growth, and tireless work. Many of the jobs are contributing to technology that isn’t even implementable yet. Truly ground floor stuff. This breeds a certain climate in the industry. People who work in Silicon Valley, or who are immersed in the tech world, are often well paid, and silo'd together in a way that shelters them from different classes. They're idealistic by nature about the promises and future of tech. There is an emphasis on visionary idealism by glorifying current and future tech as a groundbreaking and life-changing. Everyone wants to be the next Apple or Facebook. They all want a place in history by contributing to a Better Tomorrow.
This utopian excitement for the future makes me think of Italian Futurism. Futurism was a movement in 20th century Italy that very quickly became the face of Fascism. And today, it feels like a bit of a reprise as we emphasize innovation as an inevitability. We muse on how AI will take over our lives, whether we like it or not. We talk about how it will show us beauty and excellence heretofore unknown to man. It promises to blossom humanity into an enlightened, fusioned species; where our consciousness will merge into our machines, and together all knowledge will float and congeal into one blooming spiral of perfection. It is Awesome. When tomorrow comes, our lives will never be the same.
So, let the technologists have their space and resources and let’s get to work! Move aside! No questions! Time is of the essence. They are here for US.
Blind idealism is borne out of a group of people who believe they're responsible for evolving humanity, and anyone who is in their way needs to simply trust in their genius and let them do their work. That to me reads as... fascism. It is even more dangerous when it’s in the hands of a privileged oligarchy of extremely powerful and wealthy people. God complexes are real, especially with already powerful individuals who quickly lose the ability to relate to people who don't have such power. The sky is the limit to what they can achieve and earn in this lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to be the one to change the world, and feel like the uber-mensch who instigated human evolution? To harness a level of influence and wealth that would only reinforce your specialness to the world. It's seductive.
I find this all very dangerous, because the public is often forced to believe any narrative controlled by these people. We are told what they are doing is important, and that we shouldn’t question it. They know what’s best for humanity. But hey now. Hey, now. When have humans ever been so altruistic? There is always so much more going on beneath the surface. Nothing good is ever done without the cost of something bad. And tech is absolutely no exception. Technology, in all of its wonders and contributions, is also a method of control and manipulation of a public. It has integrated into our lives almost seamlessly, so much so that we don’t even know when it’s working for us or against us anymore. We're just told to use the fun app that tells you what Renaissance portraits you resemble or what celebrity you look like.
AI currently gives us funny face filters, speech recognition, machine-learning, among many other things. We interact with AI on a daily basis, and even consent to it. But it’s also being used to detect and detain oppressed groups, collect data and profile unconsenting consumers, listen to your conversations for ad targeting, even influence political elections. There is no saying what else we are being subjected to through the implementation of AI, but I’m certain it doesn’t stop there. (Not to mention, data server farms are energy hogs and the daily practices of these visionary "environmentalist" CEO's are not helping either)
The tech industry participates in free-market capitalism, without much (if any) regulation. Because this industry is rapidly growing and changing and is completely new, it’s hard to know what is for the best of mankind, and what is for the best of the venture capitalists behind the technology. Unless a company is strategically running as a non-profit with extremely regulated and measured attempts to do something truly altruistic… there will always be a risk that maybe we’re being sold snake oil. All of this is so new, that we don’t have the language to ask what the consequences are, or if we really need it.
And then, there’s art: the engimatic stuff that is made for people to enjoy and understand themselves more deeply. AI has already been used in musical contexts, such as Holly Herndon’s last record Proto, and Yacht’s new album Chain Tripping. It has been used in ways that are mystifying and beautiful. Musician Grimes said AI has the potential to destroy all human art, and create works more perfect than a human could ever make. She's even currently in the process of making an AI avatar to replace herself online.
This, I feel, demands exploration. I am grateful she established some good talking points around the future of AI in music, but as a musician myself, it forced me to reflect a lot. Because I’m not sure I agree with what she has to say. And I think she ignored a huge glaring question: what does art really do for us?
I do think AI has the potential to contribute to beautiful human works. Herndon’s album Proto blends an AI choir with human voices. It is the epitome of uncanny valley. It’s both human and completely non-human at the same time. There is something magical about that, especially within the context of her compositions. It works really well. But there’s also an aspect of the use of AI which highlights the very alien-like quality of what it spits out. The tonalities, melodies, and harmonies are not something a human would innately create. It’s fascinating but also a bit grotesque. Personally, I am not able to connect with the AI-generated music as if it embodied true humanness. Rather, it feels devoid of humanity altogether. It’s cool on its own, but it’s not inherently what I’m looking for when I want to listen to music.
So, how would AI destroy human art? It’s a good question! First, I think we would have to completely disassociate from our humanness as a lived expression. Usually when I listen to music, I do so because it interprets the potential within the wide scope of human experience. All pain, angst, despair, joy, love, ecstasy, messiness… it’s all wrapped up into a creation that I can experience in order to feel less alone on my own human journey. How could AI do that better? And if AI were able to do that better, would it even matter? Isn’t the whole point of so much art to serve as an expression for the universalness of what we all feel and don’t totally understand? If we cannot feel like AI, how can we relate to it? If it gives us something that isn’t bound to humanness, can we appreciate it in the same way we appreciate the vulnerability and intimacy of being alive? Even if an AI was to perfect the algorithmic CONCEPT of art, wouldn’t it still be sort of empty in the end? It’s nothing but a simulation of experience. There is no one behind it to connect to and feel human alongside. Kind of like using cheat codes. A cheap win.
This is why I feel like the radical idea of AI destroying human art forces us to have to suspend our belief in how art actually serves us, and what we get from it. It already feels like AI is working on a mainstream level. We are inundated with songs that have been wrought over and workshopped to death, all in order to compete in an algorithmic sea of other identical songs. I don’t connect with Five Seconds of Summer anymore than I’d connect with an AI making a Five Seconds of Summer song. God forbid a single ray of light is to enter a song that desperately wishes it were AI. At least with AI there is no chance of failure. Everything is perfect. Everything succeeds. Low risk.
But is that art? Or is that muzak? And shouldn’t there be a difference? Won’t we still hunger for the raw, messy, wandering explorations of human success and failure? Won’t we still turn to art when we need to feel understood by our brethren? Could an AI simulate that so well that we don’t even care that it’s not authentic? Let’s think about this all together, before we no longer have a choice to come to our own conclusions.
Additionally, while tech has in many ways democratized music making, it’s also completely drained the profitability and sustainability for the artists at large. We can easily make music, but we’re then forced to give it to streaming services at hugely compromised prices. If we don’t stoop to forming sycophantic relationships with these streaming services, or if we’re not on labels that engage in payola to give us visibility… we’re forced to just give our music away. Make it for free, give it away for free. It has little value for the actual maker.
Is that really better? Let’s think about that, too. Because now we are entering an age where it is increasingly impossible to become a professional musician without making music that panders to the tech startups and algorithms they create. It doesn’t seem like a good deal for us. It seems like a great deal for these streaming services. Now they hold all the power and profit, just as the labels once did. Artists again, fucked.
What will happen with touring? It is the last bastion of self-supportive income for an artist. One can easily have a couple pedals and microphone and go on a small tour that can be profitable. It helps compensate for the loss of income from streaming, and gives us a chance to evangelize our work in an honest connective way, deepening our relationship with our music and fans. On a hierarchical level, could we somehow once again be subjugated or indebted to tech companies? Will they own the AI technology that we must rent or buy from them at a prohibitive cost? I can't imagine this technology will be the one exception to consumer-coercion.
If everything is AI and automated, what’s the point of seeing a show without the risk of failure and messiness? Would we still identify with the rawness within ourselves if not for the art that reflects it back at us? Would we feel disillusioned with our own primal imperfection? Would we even go to a show, knowing everything is controlled to the point that no air or life can enter into it? What’s the point? What do we commune for if not to celebrate the wildness of humanness?
I have always craved art that mirrors the uglier parts of being a human. There is something so empowering about finding beauty in the failures of the human experience. Through pain you gain wisdom. Through ecstatic joy you feel love. Do we even crave perfection in art? I don’t think we should even be asking that of it. Art is not about optimization. It is not about technical proficiency. It is not about reaching perfection. It is about the striving for perfection. It is a beauty found through the scars and blissfulness that comes with being very confused about being alive. I don’t think AI could simulate that, without simultaneously cancelling it out.
AI can certainly be used as a tool to contribute to the sonic potential of music, but I don’t think it could fully replace human-made art the way Grimes so claimed. Maybe I have too much love for intimate connection, and maybe that’s not what others are looking for. But also, humanity shares a universal experience. We all strive for success, but inevitably we all fail. And embracing those failures is what makes life so fucking beautiful.
I think it is now or never that we consider the technologies we use, and whether we are using them because they truly are in our best interest as a humanity, or if we are just being told they are. Progress is vital to a thriving species, but progress can happen in many ways and many directions. We cannot be so sure that the path we are on is indisputably the right one for all and not just a chosen few. Just because we are told this will be our future, doesn't mean it has to be. We have the choice to decide where we take technology and how we let it serve us as a humanity. Inevitabilizing AI's total control of humanity is dangerous and deeply requires us to consider what that means on an ethical level, and what autonomy we as a people have to prevent it from happening.
I'll leave us with these questions:
Does it increase our quality of life?
Does it increase our capacity for empathy and love?
Does it empower the individual as much as the group?
Does it enable us our freedoms?
Who is behind it, and what could they benefit from the use of it?