Michel and his grandmother Julianne spoke about AI one day, when he was working on a history assignment about its origins.
She told him she could recall conversations about AI beginning when she was about his age, during the 10s and 20s. How worried everyone had been about AI’s potential to outstrip human capacity. How experts had warned of mass unemployment. How they had prophesied that human-made art would soon be gone. Quaint human notions of “creativity” and “originality” would be wiped out. Humans would become ever more passive, content to watch and listen to AI creations, rather than dreaming up ideas of their own.
Michel was learning all about the various controversies of that era in class, and he listened with interest as Julianne told him how, little by little, human creativity came to be valued all the more, especially during the 30s, just as AI-generated content had come to dominate the “internet” (a forerunner of the present-day VS*, she added, when Michel’s brow furrowed in confusion) and human-made content seemed to be on the brink of slipping away.
Julianne told him how artworks would often reach much higher prices in the 30s if it could be proven that a human had created them – a contentious question in itself, she had wryly observed, spawning a never-ending stream of legal cases over what constituted legitimate proof of human authorship. Lawmakers struggled to keep pace with the speed of AI development, and court battles over the ownership of creative content, essays, books and other such things became commonplace.
Julianne recalled a brief period in the mid-to-late 20s, when it was the norm for workers to be laid off by means of AI-generated voice messages, delivered using the then “internet”, each message’s wording carefully selected to give the listener an impression of empathy. Management by algorithm, a way of streamlining labour costs without having to deal with human stresses, human reactions, human emotional outbursts.
A fresh raft of court cases had ensued over that, of course.
Julianne told him, though, that even as people’s anger was boiling over, there was much discussion in academic circles, in art schools, among writers and thinkers: in a world where an entire book or painting or song or orchestral symphony could be produced with the stroke of a few keys, what would it mean to be slow and steady in the creation of art?
What would it mean to no longer create something within seconds, but to return to the increasingly antiquated tradition of sitting with one’s idea, mulling it over and allowing a project to emerge slowly, organically?
This was the concept the artists of Julianne’s time began to explore, and now, in museums and galleries (at least, the ones Michel has been to – the ones that existed on the island before the evacuation) examples of early AI art, as well as some of the machines used to create it – “smartphones”, one of them is called, and “laptops” another – usually sit in one room, while the human-made art, full of the 20s’ and 30s’ blistering anger and desire for revolution, is in another.
So passionate, yet created so slowly. Carefully considered, often imperfect, breathtakingly fragile – as human life itself is – yet all the more precious for that.
The paintings are my own.
Further building on the 2070 story I’ve been developing, this post is inspired by my own belief: that the internet as we currently know it may well be flooded with AI-generated content in the near future, and non-AI work might be regarded as inferior for a time … but the human desire for authentic expression – messy, imperfect, imprecise expression – can never truly die. We will return to our innate drive to dream, even if a rocky road lies ahead of us.