The Aesthetics of AI

What do you call it is just the beginning of how shapeless this is

The first problem is that I don’t know what to call this “AI” stuff really. Semantics are generally only part of the problem, but they are typically the first. Most computer scientists (and by stating “most,” it’s clearly nowhere near a scientific or statistical and verifiable fact), agree the name isn’t necessarily accurate. “It” isn’t “intelligent” and can’t “think” on its own. It often seems like it does, but in fact “it” is not thinking. It does not understand things per se, but looks like it does because it is a statistical relevance machine that is so damn good it just seems like it’s intelligence all on its own. I prefer Machine Learning personally. Machine Learning (ML) indicates that there is a learning machine (duh) which is true. The machine learns things and then guesses what is next, whether audio note, pixel or word. And then we have all the Midjourneying schlock surrealism we want populating every blog on the planet at this point.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few times Steve McQueen can’t save us

It is one thing to get a sense of what AI looks like by its output. Some lady you worked with three jobs ago who is now some struggling life coach floods every feed you have with posts led with images that are clearly generated by a Large Language Model (LLM). There is already a smoothed over, muted, rubbery sheen to AI-generated images. You can spot them even without the six fingers or overlapping limbs or walls. But bad trip visuals aside, there is another dimension to the aesthetic of AI and that’s how it seems and how it feels.

Our visions have been largely dictated by science fiction and Hollywood. This isn’t just because our tech overlords dictate what this stuff does from their secret lairs inside of volcanoes trying to act out their lonely childhood book-bound childhoods. But, it’s also how we, the people on the receiving end of this shitstorm, perceive this, and not just visually. Shitstorm might not be the best analogy, although from a societal point of view, it basically is. But it feels like this thing seeping over the horizon of the future, bubbling and recursing up from the toilet, is just sort of gross and scary. Many people are justifiably frightened of this potential, unknowable disaster that doesn’t really have a definitive shape or form beyond shit-posted photos of pregnant Sonic and a whole hell of other just plain wrong.

It feels shapeless, invisible not only because you can’t see it with your eyes, but likewise you can’t understand how it works to even be able to imagine it to visualise it. It’s like 1960’s horror movies, in which Science has unwittingly or not discovered this thing that slowly then quickly goes out of control. Like “The Blob” or “The Fog,” its job is swallow up anything it can and then regurgitate it. Which is a bit like how LLMs actually work. It ingests the sum total of human cultural output in the time it takes you open a beer and then pukes out incalculable job loss, societal disruption and loads of people who shouldn’t be making art doing so and emails written for you and then read for the person who just received it.

Girl You Know It’s True

What happens when the feeding stops and it begins to starve? What happens when it starts feeding on what it produces? What we get is shapeless, unfeeling mud, which is apparently what is predicted for us in a couple of years when the LLMs start doing exactly that. When the training data they’re ingesting overwhelmingly becomes stuff it already produced it’s because, like the sad gorilla in the concrete box at your shitty local zoo, it’s eating its own mess.

The ultimate fear is devaluation and irrelevance. Like Milli Vanilli much of what will now be output into the world will quite possibly be known for being fake, artificial and without soul. It is there on the stage accepting an award and it just doesn’t feel right, but there it is on stage and it sort of looks right. It feels and seems like this thing, this force seeping though the cracks and polishing every turd we see.

Largely being a product math, and this for most of us who can’t help their kids with their math homework could be the scariest part, that there is some universal mechanic that the large majority of us do not understand and feel that is used to just catalogue, categorise, commodify and control us.

But the real shape and form of AI is that of a mirror. It reflects us in all our vain digital makeovers and deepfake porn by hatefully pure and accurate computation. And that is the worst part of it. There is no blob roaming the suburbs swallowing every living thing, consuming for consumption’s sake. We are looking at the worst bits of ourselves with the nuance, humanity and kindness squeezed out of it. And puked back at us.