The current crop of generative AI (ChatGPT, Dall-e 2, etc) may be a blessing for individuals, but they could prove a pestilence for our civilization in the short term. For every door they open, it seems to me they also threaten to wipe away whole towns of visual artists and copywriters. And as consumers of information, we are doomed to be overwhelmed, our attention span drowned in torrents of content. Our eyes and minds will be overfull. Our time will be drained away by too much being said too well, and sharing platforms that monopolize our attention too well.
I am full of sadness for my ten year old daughter, who just discovered cartooning. It’s all she wants to do. Her room is littered with sheaves of paper covered with pirouetting sausage-limbed mannequin sketches, as she explores the dance in drawing; paper mountains of eye sketches (squinting eyes, glaring eyes, cute eyes, dragon eyes); piles of tortuously drawn hands, wrought by tiny hands and an ever growing collection of pencils.
Is there a place in this world for her art now, or for the skills required to render it? Is she barking up a tree with nothing in its branches? I, hopeless and heartbroken, often want to tell her to turn away, there is no living to be made there. You may as well learn how to do something else.
I stay silent though, and look for comfort in thoughts of her relationship to the devotional aspects of creating art. I meditate upon the value of her connection to the divine, the sacred land that lies at the back of the closet, through the doors of perception. I reflect upon the worthiness of tapping into the realm of Muses, and the way it lifts up your spirit, and I hope for her sake that she can find it. Art can be penance, expiating sins. It can be storytelling, bloodied wisdoms given to a beloved. It is a connection to something that feels larger than the self. It is the feeling of inspiration, and the satisfaction of evoking something concrete with the media available to you, and the conversation you have with an audience through it.
I grew up on the Internet; I am one of its earliest citizens, and I am an adamant text typer. I do not draw, but I feel like I can understand art and the present threat to it. I dedicated myself to a diction of typing that I developed on my own, an expression of myself online that often felt more real than the verbal me that existed in the “real world”. I’ve explored the use of tools like Jasper and ChatGPT and Grammarly, but I feel attacked and suppressed when they sum up things so neatly with a bow and no soul. There are all these rules in words, and I consciously break them just to hear my own voice. I fear it will all get eroded and overridden by a roaring river of perfect content. I don’t like when Grammarly suggests that I be more anodyne in order to sound more professional. I shiver when ChatGPT writes in a silken voice to me, answering my prompts with a whole civilization’s most iodined words. I understand their elegance and power, but I cannot make myself want to sound the same as they do.
I know that we cannot stop the march of progress. In particular: business owners, of which I am one, will summon content for their marketing, and I fear it will become even harder to separate true insight from generated chaff online. What difference there may still be between these things now, may not even exist in time; the systems that produce that content will only get better. Dall-e 2 will learn what a head is, and how to create a perfect face and be able to remember it and put it in new images. ChatGPT will learn how to generate school essays that are impossible to distinguish from ones that students type out. It will require additional layering on of complexity and algorithms, but it is just a matter of time before these things become an inseparable part of our attentional environment.
These tools will cheapen art and make it trivial to instantly summon it. The capacity to satisfy any clumsily worded prompt, put form to any half-baked idea, and make any message look sophisticated will transform how we communicate with each other. It will shape how we are heard by the other side, and also how we hear our own ideas as we paw through instantaneous renderings rich with intersubjective meaning. The mind’s eye, no matter how strong, seems to me to be like a cup, and things can tip out and be lost if you do not drink it quickly and put brush to canvas before the vision is gone. AI does not stumble, never drops its cup, and the visions it realizes are immediately real. There is a power in that immediacy which it is too easy to acquiesce to and let override what you were holding before.
We cannot return this djinn to its prison, so we must instead figure out how to move forward and embrace this sweeping commodification of written and visual artistic expression. There is an upside, and it is that our species has always been improved by more people having access to more powerful tools for communication. Ultimately, this has to work out well, because humans are fundamentally marvellous, and the artists and soulbound will always try to generate something worth saying. Artists gotta art.
I hope that the coming glut of countershaded AI-generated content will result in a refocusing on meaning in art, and on the relationship between viewer and artist as a richly parasocial one. The genius auteurs of tomorrow will be notable and successful when they produce something that feels “human” in a sea that serves to obscure such things.
Will this moment look like the invention of the printing press when people look back? Will we be catapulted forwards into a new phase of the Information Age? Will we lose our scribes and illuminators, but get town libraries, and another Renaissance in return?
Or will we see it as a flood that wiped out the artistic caste, those with the weightiest and most brilliant souls, and left us a world of prompt engineers, empty brand-building influencers, and clamoring ecommerce merchants?
I don’t know what the world will ultimately look like for art and artists, but I hope there is a place for cartooning in it, and that my daughter can find her voice in the coming white noise. I hope that tomorrow my daughter will still draw cartoons, and I deeply wish for artistic spirits to continue to thrive everywhere they can find media and speak their muse into existence, even if there are AI working all around them too.