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Are We Using AI or is AI Using us?

In January I was thinking a lot about my phone and social media addiction. I wondered how I could curtail these things without giving them up entirely.

Then somehow these videos about the attention economy appeared in my timeline. I’ve watched all of them, and I’ve been thinking about the content of them continuously. To some extent I am skeptical. Who is this person called Cyprian that lives in a faraway land making these videos, and why should I believe him? The videos are simple, minimalistic. You hear occasional sounds of nature in the background. (Could the videos have been created by AI?) At this point in time, we have to ask when someone is creating content, what do they have to gain? What is the end game? Scanning Cyprian’s tweets and his twitter profile I decided that his end game was either selling his followers something related to Bitcoin, or converting them to Jesus Christ. I decided that if the next tweet I saw was about Christ, I would consider him a reliable source and I would take his videos seriously, but if it was about Bitcoin I would assume that his end game was something scammy.

Sadly, the next thing I saw on his timeline was an invitation to join his “Bitcoin Mystery School.” I was disappointed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the content of his videos. He has a very doomed take on things, questioning if “the singularity has already passed,” and possibly naming the singularity as something satanic. The skeptic in me wants to dismiss it as hysterical doomsday preaching, and yet something about his message rings true, and I think it has to do with this: The more I interact with AI technology to create art, the more I feel the addictive pull of it. When generating something visually pleasing or interesting, there is a feeling of delight, a dopamine hit. But it also feels wrong and creepy in a way I can’t really put my finger on.

And then on February 6th, he tweeted this:

Can this be true? How would we know? In these times, it is nearly impossible to accurately verify information. The technology that happens behind the scenes with AI is not something I fully understand. Sure, I can get a rudimentary understanding of how the AI uses a diffusion model to generate images based on a vast visual library scraped from the internet, blah blah, blah. But I have no idea what people are doing on the backend, ie – how they are manipulating and shaping it to support an end game. Existing under Capitalism, we usually just shrug it off and say, the end game is always monetization and profit. But how has shrugging it off worked out for us so far? How much damage has been done? How many people have been exploited?

What if the end game is something more nefarious than monetization and profit?

So I have to go with what feels true. I have to trust my instincts. The idea of AI using us (rather than us using the AI) feels very real to me, after spending so many hours last year interacting with it.

So what’s next?

When I look through all the AI images I generated last year (and there are thousands) I can feel the sickening compulsiveness of it. The addiction. The way it rewards you with dopamine each time you interact with it. I watched it improve from cute and strange painterly blobs in January, to stunning and beautiful realistic images in December. The speed of the improvement in what the AI could generate was frightening. You wonder what comes next. There are the skeptics – those that say AI generated art has no soul, and the images have too many fingers and teeth. But anyone who’s watched these improvements knows that the tiny flaws that make it “not real,” are quickly being filtered out. (Thanks to dupes like me, who spent so much time last year “training the model.”)

I can imagine a world coming where there is only AI to excite and delight us and the real, tangible things will be reserved for the wealthy 1%. Only they will have access to things like a perfect ripe strawberry, a gorgeous peony, or a cute fluffy dog. We will be stuck with the AI generated versions of these things.

Of course there is the possibility that the AI could be used to generate and grow an actual perfect and delicious strawberry, one that you would not be able to discern from a traditionally grown strawberry. But I don’t know. How much of the future will be us enjoying the fruits of AI vs us being convinced that we are enjoying the fruits of AI, and therefore should not hunger for the real thing?

All of this has convinced me that I no longer want to play this game. I spent some time doing a massive purge of thousands of AI images. I was brutal, saving only a couple. I don’t want these images to convince me to jump back in and start playing with the AI again.

But where does that leave me as an artist? These days I’m working full time as a nurse. The artist thing is kind of on hold until my fortunes change.

Fortunately there’s a long list of things I can do that feed the creative side: Painting with actual paint (not on a screen!) Writing and journaling. And maybe even digitizing some old journals (that date back as far as 1985!) Growing, cooking, and eating real food (Come on Spring!) And preserving what I like to call my “ancient artifacts.” Those little trinkets and things I pick up in thrift stores and estate sales. Things that I buy for no other reason than I find them enthralling. Things you can hold in your hand. Things that you rescue from the trash pile.

I won’t be interacting with the AI for now. And that somehow feels right for this moment in time.