I’ve been very interested in the current debate about AI art, which has kicked off in recent months. I’ve read lots of thought-provoking blogs, Facebook posts and more, which have pushed the debate this way and that, making me wonder about my own opinion on the matter. Generally, as in my novel The Autist, I’ve been pretty pessimistic about how the worlds of writing, music and art are being smashed to pieces by the internet, social media, and digital life generally – not least AIs. With the arrival of Midjourney however, that pessimism has been uplifted a little by the stunning weirdness and quality of, to take the most numerous examples, Jim Burns’ images.
I call them images, but most people call them art. I’m not so sure however that distinguishing between the two is sophistry. That’s because my understanding of creativity is a particular one. (See also my blog series on Imagination.) Let’s have some definitions then.
Creativity is the response of conscious human minds – and only conscious ones – to the real world. Chimps, crows and dolphins might show limited creative responses to certain real world stimuli, but no observer comparing them and us could fail to see the qualitative difference. Above all, we delight in creativity for its own sake. Some higher order animals can be creative, but only to solve real world problems. Picasso on the other hand painted because something in his mind made him. He loved it. He couldn’t be anything other than an artist. There will never be a chimp Picasso.
Picasso was responding to the real world when he painted. His art was not sourced in his mind, it was sourced in reality, which he then interpreted using his mind.
Art, then, is the visual form of human creativity. Artists respond to the real world. Da Vinci, Monet and Matisse all wrote about how Nature was their inspiration – reality, in other words. Moreover, they realised that they were compelled to interpret reality, not just to copy it. Artistic creativity is a natural, inevitable consequence of a conscious human mind using its mental model.
In addition, there is a causal link between sensitivity and creativity. The more sensitive an artist is, the more creative they are likely to be. Creativity is proportional to sensitivity. We have a cliche of the tortured artist not fitting in as they suffer in their garret, but in fact that suffering and isolation has nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with sensitive people being ostracised because they simply don’t fit in with social norms.
From this position, it’s only one step to observing that no AI is conscious (a state of affairs portrayed in my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox). AIs have no mental model in the sense that we do. They are art zombies, in fact. What they are creating is images.
Now, these images can and usually do have artistic merit. We as human beings are entitled to make that judgement because we live in a cultural milieu. I’ve been struck by the extraordinary verity, detail and even beauty of many Midjourney images. My Canadian friend Peter Hollinghurst is showing amazing three dimensional colour images of seated dragons reading books based on his own much earlier pencil drawings. Quite extraordinary to look at. He’s also just provided me with an image for my upcoming book I Am Taurus based on a photo of an object. Also extraordinary!
In my view then, the role of the artist in using AI software such as Midjourney is choice. Midjourney offers iterations – a number of image variations. A sufficiently experienced and talented artist can choose the “best” ones. That is an artistic act in my view. It could be argued that anyone can make such a choice, and that would be correct, but the artistic eye not only has to be rooted in true creativity, which not everyone has in useable amounts, but it also has to be trained. There is therefore a spectrum of curation available, depending on the artist’s gift.
The ethical dimensions are a different matter altogether – I won’t deal with them here. Suffice to say that creativity in all its forms is being stolen by impersonal corporations of one sort or another. I sit in the “AI is more bad than good, and has the potential to enslave us” camp. Not everyone is quite so melancholic however.
I expect interesting times. Personally, I think of Midjourney as in effect a particular type of brush, which doesn’t work like a real brush. When it begins working with moving images I may wish to get involved. I’ve long wanted to make films. I have the visual and editing skills, but not the money for a film crew. Perhaps Midjourney 2.0, the moving images version, will appeal to me.
First of all, yes I have watched it. After the first couple of episodes I realised it was most likely going to be rubbish, but, decent fellow that I am, I gave it a bit more time to improve. It got worse.
My reasons for calling it crap are fivefold: the overall concept, the accents, the look, the music, and the execution.
This series is basically a group of fans doing everything they can to attach Tolkien’s name to their new television work. It exists for no other reason. It’s not required, it doesn’t begin to touch the mood, subtlety and flowing script of the original film trilogy, and it hasn’t even found a coherent story amidst the scraps of Second Age material Tolkien’s estate allowed the writers to use. Some parts, eg. the Numenorean harbour, do look spectacular, but frankly the overall look is stodge veneered in CGI gloss; and if they can’t even spend their money on making it look special, why bother? As for the overall look and concept… you could use exactly the same film footage, change the story so it’s set in some half-arsed version of Constantinople, and nobody would notice.
The accents – which have rightly caused a storm of annoyance – are spectacularly crass. As usual, the whimsical, straw-haired Harfoots are characterised by being Irish. There’s no other way to say it: this is cultural appropriation. It’s so carelessly blatant you wonder about the focus groups the script writers used, if any. And Lenny Henry – what was he thinking? Lenny Henry is a fantastic, subtle and highly intelligent actor, but this… this is embarrassing. Inevitably, the dwarves are Scottish. Some of them are just a couple of checks away from wearing kilts. I kept expecting the bagpipes to be hauled out. Just ridiculous. Meanwhile, the elves all appear to have gone to school at Eton. I think if there’s one aspect of this tv car crash which disgusts me the most, it’s those accents. And while I’m on the topic… I’m presuming there won’t be a Welsh cultural appropriation. There never is, is there?
The look? Shite. Who on earth designed Elrond’s hairstyle? It looks like he’s wearing a hedgehog that’s spent an hour in a wind tunnel. As for Durin’s beard… is that proper Highland sheep’s wool they used? I bet it was. And the trio of wolves in episode 5, well, they did look as though some small CGI progress had been made since Jurassic Park. Then there’s the overall look, which aims to replicate that of the original film trilogy. Yes, if you want to eat nothing but chocolate I’m sure that’s very nice for a while. But soon chocolate begins to pall. Also, on its own, its not terribly nutritious.
As for the music… this is quite the most anonymous score I’ve ever heard. It literally has no content. It sounds as though the composer threw a couple of staves of descending scales into a vat of lemon Flash. As for the cod-Irish tune accompanying the Harfoots migration… could that have been any more offensive? I’m not sure it could have. I think we hit peak offence there.
So to execution. If you’re going to throw in sixth form prose like “in order to see the light you have to touch the dark,” do it once per episode, not every bloody minute. Some of the dialogue in the later Numenorean council scenes made Lucas’ second Star Wars trilogy sound like Shakespeare. Pretentious, ponderous and portentous doesn’t begin to cover it. And while we’re on the subject of words beginning with p, we’ve begun calling it Rings Of Poo in my home. Meanwhile, the other aspect to this is all the re-writing. For instance, the elves will die overnight because of mithril? Really? Overnight, eh? I hear the sound of Tolkien rotating in his grave. And did they really need to waste an entire episode with Galadriel on the sea, not to mention five episodes refusing to tell us anything about the strange old man in the meteorite?
To balance this diatribe, there is some good stuff. The guy playing Sauron is excellent, and his orcs all look suitably horrific. But that’s about it.
I began watching Rings Of Power suspecting it was going to be a mess, and poor quality too, but if it had been good I would have been perfectly happy to change my mind. Its worse than a mess and worse than poor. It has been ripped bleeding from the less important part of Tolkien’s world, then inflated with hot air to unrecognisable proportions. What is so galling is how comprehensively un-Tolkien the whole thing is. With skill and diligence the makers have wrung out every last drop of Tolkien’s vision, until absolutely nothing is left. I suppose, in the end, some will laud that as quite a feat.
Recently I was approached by Ben Shepherd at shepherd.com and asked to choose five books for a list of my designing. I decided at once to choose the five best books explaining the mystery of consciousness, and my choices have just been published. Regular fans of my blog will recognise most or all of the titles, but on the page I’ve also added more personal description of how I came across each book and what they mean to me. Here’s the page!
Recent gasp-inducing acts perpetrated by Tory politicians have brought that “profession” to a new low, not least Johnson & Sunak, and the perpetually smirking Patel. But what is happening in British politics? How is it that deeds which only a few years ago would have meant instant resignation now have no consequences at all? When did politicians realise that they didn’t have even to pretend to be sorry, they just had to ignore some brief, inconvenient hassle on social media and the telly? Because that is the scariest thing about the way politics is going – you don’t even have to pretend any more. You just carry on as if nothing had happened.
In her ground-breaking, insightful, but frightening book The Cyber Effect, Dr Mary Aiken described a phenomenon she called cyber-migration, in which behaviour in the digital world – the internet essentially, in all its forms – migrates into the real world. One of the most concerning aspects of recently changing human behaviour is how, through the internet’s anonymity and a general lack of consequences, it acts to reduce the effect of shame. We are seeing this exact effect now in the British political system. MPs have the impression that not much matters any more when it comes to standards of behaviour. They can do what they like, invent any old excuse, mouth it on the telly, then carry on as if nothing had happened. We see this par excellence with Johnson, who anyway never bothered about bringing coherence to his excuses.
The overpowering Western emphasis on the individual is also being amplified by the internet. Shame is the emotion conveying knowledge of ethical wrong and ostracising, which is to say it works in human communities, small ones especially, but also on a larger scale. Shame however is notably absent on the internet. So when people gasp and say of Johnson & Sunak, “Do they have no shame?” the answer is no, their shame has been diminished by the social and cultural environment they live in. Alas, I suspect those two clowns are the thin end of the wedge.
These are profoundly dangerous times. If the social norms of the internet migrate into politics they will migrate into war. What then?
For some time I’ve been convinced that, for all social media’s benefits, which I have enjoyed and made use of, they are on balance outweighed by the disadvantages and even harmful effects on human beings. In this essay I’m going to compare two brain/mind conditions with what is known about the psychological effects of social media.
Blindsight is an obscure but fascinating mental phenomenon which offers us a unique and deeply significant view into consciousness itself. It was first dealt with in depth by the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose most notable work was in the field of neuroplasticity – he was an early researcher into it – introducing in perhaps his most famous work the idea of sensory substitution as a tool for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders.
Blindsight is a very strange thing. Some patients suffering from brain damage or brain disorders believe they are blind when in fact there is no damage to their optical systems at all. When the gifted psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey approached this phenomenon, he realised there was a deeper level to understanding it. A human being with blindsight, he noticed, believed they were blind despite being able to navigate a room filled with objects, a task for which they felt profound ambivalence. A monkey with blindsight on the other hand simply navigated the room filled with objects. So human beings with blindsight have to invent explanations to give meaning to this unsettling experience, such as possessing ESP powers. Animals do not need to do such a thing – no ambivalence shown.
This experimental observation caused Humphrey to hypothesize that the sensory pathway and the perceptual pathway in conscious human beings are separate entities. In his ground-breaking book A History Of The Mind he explained that because we experience sensation and perception simultaneously (or, at least, almost simultaneously – there is an element of temporal juggling to consciousness) we don’t realise the two are separate. We believe we are navigating the real world when in fact we are relying on our mental model of it. It is only through blindsight that the two systems are revealed to be separate. In his subsequent book Seeing Red Humphrey developed his idea, showing how it might have evolved, and giving a full philosophical and psychological basis for the theory, including sensory modality, which complemented Bach-y-Rita’s work nicely.
When recently I was reading Robin Waterfield’s excellent book Hidden Depths about hypnotism I was struck by an extraordinary similarity. Some hypnotised subjects, when hypnotised into believing they cannot see, still navigate rooms with chairs placed randomly as though they can see. These were called chair/no chair (real/simulant) experiments, the results of which are identical to blindsight experiments.
Could this be coincidence? Possibly. But let’s think about what hypnotism is. Hypnotism has three distinctive properties: focused attention, impaired or reduced peripheral awareness, and vastly increased suggestibility. The first two conditions in particular relate to circumstances in which the subject is making significantly less use of sensory pathways, allowing the perceptual pathway to dominate. In such circumstances, when the real world is not being checked hundreds of times a second as with normal consciousness, the subject is susceptible to being made to believe suggestions imparted to them by the hypnotist. In other words, although the dynamic of the situation is different to blindsight – diminished use of sensory pathways instead of none – there is an emphasis in their subjective experience of perception; and perception, based in a mental model, is essentially a meaning framework, for most if not all people a belief or set of beliefs. But beliefs can be suggested, even “crazy” beliefs, which is why stage hypnotism is often so strange a thing. The subject’s sense of disbelief is suspended.
This phenomenon however is familiar to us from advertising and politics. When you see an advert for, let’s say, a beer, and you feel thirsty, what’s happening is that the advert’s sensory design, lifestyle assumptions and narrative are subtly tapping into what are termed emotional buying triggers, hypnotising you and all other viewers with the explicit desire of making you accept and act upon suggestions. In any other field – education, for instance – such techniques would be banned as deeply inhumane, yet because we live in a corporate, capitalist, individualistic and misogynist (80% of adverts are targeted at women) society it is permitted. Repetition and context complete the technique. And the same happens in politics. Those politicians with charisma are the ones who draw you into their world, taking you to a political worldview of their own or their party’s, but which actually exists inside your mental model. Their desire is to suggest to you that if you vote for them you will gain a suite of life advantages, and even though you return to normality afterwards, even knowing that the speech or party advert was disingenuous, that sensation of belief remains. Repetition completes the deal. Repetition and suggestion make you one of them.
What advertisers and politicians are doing is tapping into that part of the human subconscious which deals with emotional response. This is done deliberately, regardless of the fact that it is psychological manipulation.
So far, then, we’ve decided that consciousness is a user-generated experience based on the simultaneous operation of the sensory and perceptual pathways, which makes us believe we’re interacting with the real world when in fact we’re utilising our mental model. In various kinds of hypnotism the sensory pathway is diminished, so that consciousness’ normal mode of operation, in which it compares reality with its mental model hundreds of times a second, focusing on what has changed, is altered. This alteration allows the perceptual pathway – the subject’s belief system – to dominate, with the proviso that it is subject to suggestion because of the lack of feedback or change emanating from the real world. It’s a bit like taking a person from solid ground to the middle of the ocean – foundations lost, no way of orienting yourself.
The title of my essay adds social media to this scenario. There are two aspects of online life that I want to focus on: the sense that the digital world is an environment, and the structural organisation of social media in particular.
We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a wide variety of environments, and it was change in those environments, as with all living things, which made evolution by natural selection change us from primates into homo sapiens. Intelligence is the evolutionary response to environmental change which is too swift for evolution in body design to cope with.
We start off in life assuming that everything we deal with in the world is an environment, since it is all physical, as solid as rock, as buoyant as water and as ethereal as air, with laws governed by physics; and so it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. The real world is consistent, since it operates by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc; and it is independent of our minds. However, research has shown that we approach the online world in exactly the same way. Despite the fact that the digital world is abstract and entirely manufactured, we work with it as though it is a real place. As a consequence, we bring to the digital world all our usual assumptions.
This is incredibly dangerous. It is one of the main reasons people have been so easy to exploit by the small number of American companies, dominated by male, white, middle class individuals, who currently control the vast majority of the internet. We are being exploited. Well, most people know that, and mostly they don’t care. Or they don’t know and they don’t care.
The dangers are obvious. The online world is the advertising world on steroids, made hyper-real by glittering visual illusions and a huge array of psychological tricks. But that’s only one part of the peril. Digital life is addictive like no other form of living because it taps so comprehensively into our subconsciouses.
But it was designed to be so. It is in fact a particularly vivid form of hypnotism, with the sensory pathways we rely on perverted from real world and realistic to digital and illusory. Online we stop checking the real world, relying on the illusory world presented to us. Should this experience of the digital world – as yet only conveyed by screens and earbuds – be conveyed by augmented reality through glasses and implants then the task of reaching out to human minds via hypnotism will be complete. At that point, any reality can be substituted into the perceptual pathway, and the subject will believe it. People won’t have to carry the inconvenient knowledge that separate screen and earbuds are part of their environment. They’ll feel inside the environment, no separation, and they’ll be powerless to disbelieve whatever is placed in front of them.
I used some of these ideas in my novel Muezzinland, where a culturally active cyberspace – unlike the passive (albeit structured) digital substrate we have at the moment – works to deceive individuals’ perceptions, so that they believe they are following folk tales, legends and so on, behaviour which then affects the real world, and so on back into the virtual, in a multitude of snowball effects. Yet if the digital world is controlled by a tiny number of corporations, what then? Everyone will be a slave, and they won’t even know that. They’ll believe they are free.
There have been many prophets of doom over historical times. Many, like Cassandra, were mocked, fobbed off or ignored. Myself, I think the arrival of the digital world, online life, and social media in particular are more dangerous than any tool human beings have so far invented, for the reasons given above. Most likely I’ll be mocked, fobbed off or ignored for saying such a thing though. After all, the human race hasn’t yet bombed itself out of existence, has it? It hasn’t even managed to damage the planet’s biosphere enough to wipe itself out of existence.
There is one abyss between science and religion. Often, people try to link the two, placing science within religion or the other way around, or taking modern science and finding a place in it for religion, e.g. the so-called god-of-the-gaps. This is just window dressing however.
The abyss is this. Religion’s stance to the real world is to impose the human imagination upon it. When the world acts in ways different to an imaginary doctrine, that novelty is presumed to be a test of faith. In other words, faith takes precedence over reality, regardless of what imaginary doctrine that faith represents. The real world is not allowed its independence. The real world is not allowed to show its truth. The scientific method (as opposed to science, which is a human endeavour) is different in this regard, which is why religion and science can never be reconciled. The scientific method grasps that the real world is independent of human imagination. This is why it uses the test and experiment procedure. Testing and experimentation alongside the use of hypothesis allows the real world to be investigated according to the laws of that real world. This is the precise opposite of faith, which imposes imaginary doctrine upon the world regardless of what the world displays.
It is futile and meaningless to mix religion with the scientific method. Religion is an imaginary construct forced by faith upon the real world. When the real world pushes back, that is assumed to be a test of faith, making the religious person even more faithful. When however the scientific method shows reality, science, unlike faith, has to adjust. Science reflects reality. Religion reflects imagination – specifically juvenile boys’ imaginations.
In other words, religion is a specifically and explicitly narcissistic construction. It bears little or no relation to reality. Science, via the scientific method, is a specifically and explicitly non-narcissistic construction. Though science itself is a human endeavour, and thus is susceptible to mistakes, especially at the cutting edge, its basis in the scientific method always brings it back to the bedrock of reality.
This, then, is why science and religion can never be merged.
In my opinion, there is a clear progression over tens of thousands of years from imaginary beliefs – that the ground is flat and the sun moves around it, that animals have spirits, that trees have spirits, that there is a deity up there in heaven, that Jesus lived after dying – to real beliefs. The religious cannot prove their deities exists, and science cannot prove they don’t. Human beings therefore have to take one step back and ask which narrative on the balance of probability is more likely: that a being of some sort was responsible for creating the universe, or that it created itself; or, in any event, followed some quantum mechanical/gravitational process explicable by testing reality. This latter is a belief of course, since, ultimately, it can never be proven. But if you look at the history of human thought and creativity over 40,000 years then compare it with the history of spirituality, religion and then science, it’s obvious what is going on. Human beings have over those vast time scales acquired an ever more realistic understanding of the world. In the beginning, they imagined a whole story, cosmic spirits, sun, moon and all. Then men took over and became vile misogynists, offering a new story – but the Earth was still the centre of the universe. Then people actually started taking account of reality, eschewing imagination, and began the process of scientific enquiry. This allowed them to grasp the real world – at last.
In my view, over similarly large time scales in the future, and on the assumption that we don’t destroy the human race, religion will fade away, followed, some time later, by spirituality. If human beings can stop ruining the planet they live on they will all evolve into scientists.