2022 in review

I missed the year in review for 2021 entirely. The end of 2021 was stressful: it wasn’t a terrible year, the way the Trumpenjahren were, but it was bad. I ran out of steam and never pulled the post together. Not so this year. I’ve posted once a month on average, which is the most posts since 2016. Most of these were quite long opinion pieces and some, like the Critical AI Art projects took weeks of work to produce. Moreover, posting really began in earnest later in the year after I switched to my new server at Kinsta and my new theme powered by GeneratePress (see here). Not only is the site faster for you, dear reader, but it is also much faster for me to work on. For the first time in years, the future of this blog looks bright.

This post is comprised of four parts: The End of the Covidian, Geopolitical Transitions, Network Culture RIP, the Age of Desiring Machines

I. The End of the Covidian

2022 has been a good year and, although I know some of my readers will disagree, at least half of it felt like we left the pandemic behind. Goodbye to the Covidian era. As I write this, we are off skiing in northern Vermont and while some things still aren’t open and there are longer lines due to staffing shortages, it feels like COVID is over. Everyone in the family except me has had COVID during the last year and nobody got as seriously ill as our youngest did from the flu last month. Now, I’m far from an extremist on this: I have all my vaccines, all the boosters, and have taken reasonable precautions throughout the pandemic. But looking at the statistics, it’s clear that vaccines and herd immunity are here. Pretty much every article I see reposted to raise alarm about the new wave of COVID coming “any day now” declares that we need to watch out for a “troubling new variant,” but there is no troubling new variant, it’s just clickbait. Once there is a troubling new variant, then I’ll worry. In the meantime, this is the new normal. You’ll either be wearing a mask forever—which may be good if you are seriously immunocompromised—or not. Epidemiologists are pretty much always in a constant state of panic about diseases, it’s their training to do so; I’d probably be in a constant state of panic if I knew what they know. Instead, I’ll choose to live my life, which is what most people have done now.

It was always naïve or disingenuous of Dr. Fauci and others to claim that vaccines would utterly eliminate COVID the way Ebola was eliminated, COVID was already too widespread and contagious. But if COVID is, as claimed, a novel coronavirus, the odds are that once the massive and tragic initial impact is over, while it would never disappear, once we achieved a degree of immunity to it, it would be something we could live with in an endemic state, like existing coronaviruses, the new COVID normality. What about long COVID? Sure, it’s real, although many of the studies on long COVID seem quite poor, and instead of fretting about it, maybe we should pay attention to the long-term consequences of all viral infections? I have been struggling with IBS which began after a bad cold forty years ago, and Epstein-Barr, which causes mononucleosis, appears to cause multiple sclerosis. That’s pretty bad right there and while I have immense sympathy for anyone affected by any long viral disease, isolation, and constant masking have very real consequences on human life, particularly on child and adolescent development. We’re done with it and, unless and until something horrible appears, we’ll be living life in most ways as we did before March 2020. The COVID-induced supply chain crisis is largely over. New challenges are emerging, but the Covidian era is (likely) history.

II. Geopolitical Transitions

The biggest news of 2023 was, of course, the invasion of Ukraine. There has been huge suffering for Ukraine in the single largest violation of territorial sovereignty by a foreign power in Europe since World War II. But the Russian Bear stumbled and got badly bloodied. For centuries, Russia has been an awful neighbor, a bully, not a country that plays by the rule of law. Built on kleptocracy and theft at home, the state model for foreign relations is to invade, rape, kill, and exploit ethnic minorities and their sovereign lands to make up for the shortcomings of the kleptocratic Russian economy. As a result, leaders in the Baltics, Poland, and even Ukraine realized that post-cold War Russia was a threat and looked westward, where they might seek protection. Putin might have had a chance to counter this had he struck a decade ago, but for some inexplicable reason, his first excursion into Ukraine was halfhearted and he didn’t complete the task when he had a frightened lapdog as US President.

Corruption, incompetence, and an utter lack of strategic thinking undid the initial Russian thrust and, with help from the US and NATO, Ukraine is not only holding its own, it’s beating back Russian aggression. Russia is resorting to its usual tactics of massive bombardment of civilian positions from a safe distance, but with Ukraine, they’ve encountered a country not only fighting back on its own territory but also lobbing missiles back at Russian bases deep in their territory even as unknown saboteurs are destroying Russian infrastructure. It’s still unclear what the outcome will be or when: the result may simply be a question of who runs out of ammunition first, but Putin’s colossal miscalculation means there is a remarkably high chance it will be in the collapse of the criminal regime of Vladimir Putin. I am zero optimism that the result will be a new, more democratic, peace-loving regime in Russia. On the contrary, the collapse of the remaining empire will lead to a series of internal disputes and civil wars and a decline into a general ungovernability of the sort that has taken over much of the Middle East. Doubtless, China and other smaller powers will also make incursions into Russian territory, whittling away administrative regions for their own purposes. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the next two decades may feel much more like cyberpunk dystopian versions of their 1990s selves: barely governable cities where the mafia and oligarchs take even more control while ordinary individuals resort to unprecedented measures to survive.

I’ve been to Europe a few times since the invasion and to Lithuania twice. Germany made a tremendous miscalculation under Merkel, allying itself with Russia and drinking deeply of its energy, but that route is going away forever and so is its role as leader of NATO and the EU. France and the UK have also been weakened by their complacency. These are economic empires in decline and—especially if Ukraine wins—a new center for Europe is going to emerge in the East, stretching from the Baltics down through Poland—which will be the most dominant force in this Europe—and into Ukraine. Turkey is already proving a powerhouse, but it is less likely to be a threat than an ally with this new democratic East bloc. This is where the energy in Europe is now: nations rejuvenated by existential threats frequently roar back as mighty powers, just the way Germany and Japan did after WWII. One last word about Russia: it re-introduced nuclear threats into East-West relations, but it did so poorly by repeatedly drawing lines that have been crossed. There has been no real escalation in readiness on the Russian side. While it certainly remains possible, it’s the silent bear you need to worry about, not the grunting one.

Although China hasn’t suffered the same humiliation that Russia has, it seems to be past its peak as well. The Zero COVID policy was an economic and social disaster that led to mass unrest and its end was utterly mismanaged. With Russia’s failure in Ukraine, Qi is forced to question his prospects for invading Taiwan while the West’s turn away from China has become even more urgent as its troubles with COVID cement the idea of China as an unreliable trading partner. Worse still, China has finally turned the corner to the other side of its demographic bubble and its population began contracting in 2022. It will be many generations before it is on the upswing again.

I don’t feel like I know enough about the global south, so I’ll skip that. But all this indicates that the 2020s are going to be very different than the 2010s. The Eastern European nations and Turkey will become increasingly important as Russia, Western Europe, and China are spent. It’s still unclear to me what countries outside of Europe will replace the BRICs, but no doubt there will be some surprising times afoot in this coming decade. Even if everyone may throw up their arms at this, the US—disregarding all its troubles—is likely to come out of the decade in a position of strength simply because of resources, population, a lack of real threats on its borders, and the existing geopolitical order. Much of this was foretold in geopolitical forecaster George Friedman’s 2011 book The Next 100 Years. Crucially, he repeatedly points out that no matter how violent disagreements between parties within the US really seem, the underlying policy doesn’t shift as much as it might appear it would, so notwithstanding Putin’s useful idiot in the White House, the US not only didn’t leave NATO, they left it stronger by forcing smaller countries to increase their defense spending; likewise, when Democrats took power in 2022, the US’s newly aggressive policy toward China didn’t really change. If you are interested in geopolitics, it’s worth a look.

III. Network Culture, RIP

Even as life is recovering and momentum is returning, there has been a renewed economic crisis throughout much of the world. Some of it is thanks to larger macroeconomic factors, e.g olb War, but much of it has to do with mistakes in economic policy—goosing of the market for far too long with loose monetary policy, quantitative easing, the misguided 2017 tax cuts, and too much pandemic relief. But the real cause is the end of a technological and economic cycle that began 20 or 30 years ago (depending on how we measure it) and had its heyday in the 2010s with the vaunted FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) growing about ten times faster than the rest of the market and driving equity markets to new highs. Over 2022, Facebook/Meta is down roughly 65%, Amazon and Netflix are down over 51%, Google/Alphabet is down 40%, Apple is down 29%, and FAANG adjacent stock Tesla is down 68%. Bitcoin, itself, which isn’t a stock but rather a Ponzi scheme, is down 64%, the S&P Cryptocurrency Large Cap index is down a massive 69%, and we all know how things ended for Sam Bankman-Fried and SBF. Compare this to the Vanguard Consumer Staples Index Fund, which never ran up as high, but is down a mere 3.69%.

This terrible tech performance, particularly in cryptocurrency, is indicative of a speculative bubble deflating, but it also points to a generational shift in technology. I am not an absolute believer in Kondratieff waves—long economic waves based on technological development that writers from Carlota Perez to Fredric Jameson have embraced—they seem too deterministic to me, but there is also some macroeconomic sense to them. New technologies drive speculative investment, which results in returns that seek more investments of a similar kind. After a while, overinvestment leads to bloat, the bubble bursts, and the economic system declines precipitously. The sharing economy, Web 2.0, and that branding abomination, “Web3” are finished. And with the end of this system, so is its cultural logic, network culture.

I first wrote about network culture in the mid-2000s and my first piece on the topic came out in our book Networked Publics. You can read the original version here and a revised version here. This piece has been translated into numerous languages: Lithuanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Chinese, and others (I’ve lost track at this point). I started a book on the topic immediately thereafter but I wasn’t able to finish it due to external factors beyond my control and a debacle at the publisher. You can read various spin-offs in “Forced Exposure. Networks and the Poetics of Reality,” in Jo-Anne Greene, Networked. A Networked Book about Networked Art on turbulence.org, “History After the End. Network Culture and Atemporality,” Cornell Journal of Architecture 8, spring 2011, “Simultaneous Environments,” in Mark Shepard’s, Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, and in “Architecture of Financialization,” Perspecta 47, 2014 (in the coming days, I will post all these pieces to my site).

The basic idea of network culture came out of my frustration that academics were still using Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism” over twenty years after it had been published, long after that epoch was finished. Jameson was never able to see past this, but a number of us did. Some other words were thrown around like metamodernism and post-postmodernism, but “network culture” made sense to me, indicating that there was a new cultural logic that was now based on relationships and connections primarily mediated by the Internet. As I wrote then, “Increasingly, the immaterial production of information and its distribution through the network is the dominant organizational principle for the global economy.” As Manuel Castells concluded in The Rise of the Network Society networks now supplant hierarchies and the production of information and the transmission of that information on networks is the key organizing factor in the world economy today. On a territorial and even geopolitical scale, Saskia Sassen pointed out in The Global City, megolpolises dominated, linked together by high-speed telecommunications networks, producing the financial and media operations that made the network economy thrive.

Network society was a globalizing society, what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called “Empire” and network culture was a global culture: subcultures and local undergrounds began to decline. In an economy dominated by sharing, cultural mixing, and rapid wealth generation, the idea of the artist as a cultural elite was largely replaced by an interest in participation and remix. And yet, art could also be tremendously valuable as venture capital relentlessly sought new outlets. NFTs were the logical outcome of all this, removing artistic merit in favor of pure speculation—especially from people who didn’t know what they were doing with art or investment—led to the creation of an utterly bogus $11 billion market of which over $800 million is stupid looking apes that look like they are waiting to audition for a Gorillaz video game.

NFTs and the Boring Ape Club were, however, the last gasp of network culture, a decadent last spurt that only proved the system was spent. The signs of cultural change are around us. Network culture is dying. Social media is not coming back, not in its traditional form. Just 7% of teenagers say they use Facebook constantly. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/ Nobody on Earth, besides Mark Zuckerberg, wants to wear a VR headset to have a meeting in a virtual office full of amputated refugees from a rip-off of a Pixar movie. TikTok is popular, but I would be surprised if there aren’t massive restrictions or even an outright ban put in place by governments by the end of 2023. Twitter is in freefall. The world’s richest man has proven to be the world’s biggest idiot by spending a staggering $44 billion dollars on a site that was already in trouble and cementing it’s demise by acting like an idiot. These sites are not coming back. The one site that seems to absorb the attention of youth today—TikTok is much more like Youtube—a platform for consumption—rather than a traditional social media site and is under constant threat by Western regulators. The beginning of the end really happened in 2016. If on the one hand, Trump rose to power due to network culture—heavily employing social media and viral memes to mobilize followers—he also embodied the discontent with globalization that had always been there, but that had achieved a new fever pitch as the system spent itself.

Back in 2010 Bruce Sterling (in “Atemporality for the Creative Artist”) and I (“The Decade Ahead“) predicted that this epoch he and I called network culture would last at least ten years. I wrote: “Toward the end of the decade, there will be signs of the end of network culture. It’ll have had a good run of 30 years: the length of one generation. It’s at that stage that everything solid will melt into air again, but just how, I have no idea.” COVID was the break, and, after those ten years became “the decade of shit,” nobody is going to miss network culture. In retrospect, the 2000s were the decade of excitement, of forging new connections across age-old boundaries while finding old friends, of a world that had promise and was still imbued with the utopic promises of the early Internet and open source culture. The 2010s showed us just how toxic network culture could get, as both right (and left!) sought to squash dissent and get their minions in line. Hitler and Stalin would be proud of their descendants. A medium designed for utopic levels of human connectivity hurtled us toward civilizational collapse. That a disease spread by globalization and exacerbated by lies on social media (e.g. the anti-vax movement) ended all this is not surprising. We are lucky it wasn’t something worse.

IV. The Age of Desiring Machines

What comes after? My writing on network culture came a good way into that cultural epoch. Writing about this early is guaranteed to fail, but there were interesting if still premature, signs in 2022. First, there is the rise of Mastodon and decentralized communication. I have outlined my thoughts on this topic earlier, but suffice it to say, something new is in the works, a form of social media that hues closer to the original intent of the Internet. It may be that Mastodon always remains a small player in the net, but smallness is its strength. We need to bring back undergrounds and subcultures, not giant corporate meeting places that spread toxicity.

2022 has also been marked by the rise of “Artificial Intelligences” capable of producing text and images. I have explored these extensively and continue to do so. Ignore the horrific kitsch you see produced by these things, or better yet, don’t: the world of Deviantart and Artstation is bad, a byproduct of network culture permeated by simplistic online fan culture, NFTs were always stupid, now anybody can make things like that and this stuff is valueless. Good!

But calling ChatGPT, Midjourney, or Dall-E “intelligent” is wrong. These platforms have no ability to comprehend what they are doing. But might they be desiring machines? In the Deleuzean sense, a “desiring machine” is formed out of connections: every machine (or entity) is connected to another machine and in turn to another. This desire is not just about wanting something, but also about the process of becoming and creating through connections and that Is exactly what these platforms do. Responses to our prompts are based on the machine’s prediction of what a correct response would be. In other words, these systems are characterized by their desire to fulfill our desires. This is all very far from artificial general intelligence—although a baby crying for food is also far from a scientist or even a toddler in its ability to reason—but it is something new. There are a lot of unknowns here: we may already be at the end of the rapidly rising part of the S curve for these systems, or we may only be at the beginning. Either way, there is a reckoning in store for cultural producers and mid-level professionals producing banal work that will cause massive disruption.

There has been a lot of useless noise about the ability of these platforms to create fakes and I’ve played with that in my art, but where did we go wrong as educators? What happened to the idea that we should think critically? Wasn’t art history, as codified by Wölfflin, literally a matter of finding out how to authenticate something? Isn’t that what we learned in high school? Who are these people who have forgotten that “critical thinking” doesn’t mean blindly accepting whatever you see but rather that it means taking a critical distance from a text or an image?

Disruption is the key for the next few years, during which the outlines of a new cultural logic will begin to become apparent. The future is likely to be in terms of exacerbating the dictum attributed to cyberpunk writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” Don’t expect a utopic condition from new technologies and don’t expect the rise of socialism. Everyone is out to grab what they can. I am older and less optimistic than I was ten years ago, less prone to see the spectre of capital behind everything but also less prone to think anything can change that much. As the second season of White Lotus just emphasized, the upcoming generation is as confused, toxic, and prone to gaslighting and self-deceit as the previous ones. Colossal numbers of kids are being medicated, and while some small percentage need it, the amount of medication psychiatrists dispense needlessly is staggering. Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, the American Right’s refusal to condemn an insurrection that imperiled democracy, and the thoroughgoing denial of climate change (this essay was written during downtime from a ski vacation that is ending in a massive rainstorm) prove that too many humans are still bastards.

In the meantime, I’ll keep working on the design of my 1/2 acre (1/5 hectare) native plant garden, my art, and my writing—most especially on this blog, where the only thing that can impede my publishing is me. I’d love to get new commissions, but if not, there’ll be more to come on this site. Let’s hope 2023 is a better one. I think it will be, but I don’t expect miracles. Let’s hope the new cultural logic is at least as interesting, but less toxic than network culture. That would be quite an accomplishment right there.

On Mastodon

The demise of Twitter and Facebook together with the rise of Mastodon is one of the biggest changes in online culture in the last decade and, naturally, I am covering it in my upcoming 2022 year in review. But in drafting it, the section on Mastodon kept growing until I thought it best to break it out into a separate post. The first part, an overview of Mastodon and its rise, is likely to be most interesting to general readers. The second part is a set of observations about how Mastodon could be improved, intended as an offering to improve the platform on its own terms, not to replicate existing social media. While I am relatively new to Mastodon, I have also been on the Internet for over thirty years and I started on more decentralized platforms like USENET, email lists, and forums, not to mention a scholar of network culture for well over twenty years so I have seen a lot of things work and a lot of things break.

I. The Rise of Mastodon

After a decade and a half of corporate social media, the current system, dominated by Facebook and Twitter, is spent. Who would have thought that algorithms designed to reduce engagement with actual friends and to instead promote celebrity and brand worship as well as political polarization would drive away people of all political persuasions? Who could imagine a VR world of cartoon avatars that look like legless small children would not be an attractive alternative to the workplace, be it real or Zoom? Who would think promoting genocide and allowing shootings to be live-streamed would be a bad idea? Increasingly, Facebook is a brand for old people like America Online, Talbots, or Prevention. The broader public is finally sick of this mental diarrhea and the result has been a rout for social media stocks. Like Facebook, Twitter had been in decline for years and Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has been a massive unforced error, destroying both the network and any lingering shred of credibility he still possessed. As I wrote this last night, the site went down for hours. Both Twitter and Elon are shot, their glory days are over and the end is near. Facebook can hardly be far behind, as doomed as Mark Zuckerberg’s presidential ambitions.

Mastodon was founded in 2016 and while I signed up for it a while back, I didn’t find it a compelling place for things that interested me—partly because I hadn’t encountered any good guides on how to do so and partly because it had few active users. Even though Mastodon still has less active users than any major social media network, as anyone who has been involved in technology in the last forty years will tell you, it’s not the number of users that matters, it’s how steep the growth curve is and starting with the Twitter exodus in November the numbers of monthly active users has grown at least tenfold from 300,000 to 2.5 million. Moreover, the engagement I am getting on Mastodon is far greater than on Twitter: a ratio of about 2 posts for every new follower on Mastodon, as opposed to 48 to one on Twitter. Within a month, I have found myself with almost half as many followers on Mastodon as on my two-year-old Twitter account (I purposely burned my previous account out of frustration during the end of the trumpenjahren). Moreover, whereas many of my Twitter followers are random bots, confused political extremists who have made a colossal mistake in following me, or accounts that haven’t been used in a year, my Mastodon friends are chiefly interested in experimental technology, art, and music, are native plant enthusiasts, are people who dream of a less corporate network culture, e.g. exactly the kind of intelligent friends I’d like to engage with. What interests me is the community of individuals working with art and technology I have met. I have seen more interesting work in a couple of months on Mastodon than I have in years on Twitter. I think part of the reason for this is that while Mastodon is about as technically challenging as a toaster, that is still enough to scare off many people (like this reporter), so it has the advantage of being a relatively good place, at least for now.

Crucially, Activitypub, the system underlying Mastodon, is a protocol, not a platform owned by a corporation (see this article on protocols vs. platforms by Mike Masnick). Mastodon is a non-profit that rejects VC funding and does not insert advertising in its feeds. But Mastodon isn’t just an open-source alternative to Twitter, it is a decentralized system that uses individual servers, (“instances” in Mastodon parlance) that are linked (“federated”) together. It is possible, although challenging and relatively expensive (unclear how much, but I would budget about as much as to operate a website or $100-$300 a year), to create one’s own instance and while there are instances that have hundreds of thousands of users (such as the one I am on, mastodon.social), there are also quite a few instances with only a few dozen users.

Whereas in traditional social networks content moderation is the purview of a large corporation, at Mastodon it devolves to the administration of each instance. Terms of service are up to each instance and if the administrators of one instance feel that another instance is not moderating content appropriately, they can stop federating with it. Extremist social network Gab, for example, is an instance, but most other instances refuse to connect to it. If it turns out that mastodon.social—which is clearly progressive politically—is not federating with instances that have reasonable albeit right-wing views, I might leave it for an instance that is more broad in its thinking, the same goes if extremists from either side begin to take over. This is only a hypothetical situation, but it gives me an out that other social networks don’t. There are few easy solutions to content moderation and as law scholar Alex Rozenshtein argues in this piece, the debates are likely to be “messy and public.” I noted that one Mastodon server devoted to archivists, librarians, and museum workers also bans images of insects that aren’t marked as sensitive, requiring a direct click to see. This would be quite disheartening for a curator of entomology! I suspect instances with overly restrictive regulations will be less popular in the end and that will largely be a good thing. That said, for now, I personally avoid posting political positions and avoid following anyone who posts too many. I don’t need another shitshow like Twitter and I certainly don’t need to get my news from people posting on social media.

Again, joining Mastodon isn’t difficult for anyone with a minor degree of tech savviness: you start by choosing an instance at joinmastodon.org based on what you want to see, where you live, or maybe based on your profession (for example, journalist, mathematician, or infosec), then you start following people. You can follow me at @[email protected] but, if you have a Twitter account, a good way to follow individuals is to use movetodon, which scrapes the profiles of people you follow on Twitter to identify their mastodon account. Your main feed on Mastodon is composed of the people and hashtags you follow, but there are also both local and federated feeds, which show the most recent posts for either condition. In this case, being on a server that matters to you might make more sense.

II. Observations and Comments about Mastodon

First, discovery is something that Mastodon needs to work on. Understandably, search works for one’s server as well as for hashtags, but broader search across instances isn’t possible. This is apparently by design, to avoid trolls who search for topics to drop into. But the problem remains. How does one find something obscure, say posts about Nakagin Capsule Tower that aren’t tagged #nakagin? This seems to be a stumbling block that requires some really innovative thought.

Second, while it is possible to repost (or “boost”) a post (or “toot”), it isn’t possible to quote a post as this is seen as similarly seen as creating an atmosphere that encourages trolling. A number of Black social media users have complained that this undoes the call-and-response culture in their community. I would add that the real harm on Twitter isn’t from retweets, it’s from subtweets, in which someone takes a screenshot of a tweet and then adds a derogatory comment that the original poster, or lolcow, isn’t even aware of.

Third, the instance model is designed to encourage people to interact with their local community, as most smaller servers are based on self-identification. This is a great idea. One of the most destructive aspects of network culture has been a loss of subcultures and underground movements. Instead, we have a boring global soup. But having to choose an instance forces some individuals into making tough choices: is one’s sexual identity more important than one’s profession, is one’s country more important than one’s sexual identity, is one’s profession more important than one’s race? As of now, while one can see a local feed or a feed of everyone on Mastodon (useless at best), it seems impossible to see another server’s feed without joining it or making the effort to visit the server’s web page. The current solution preferred—multiple accounts—would make some sense for someone whose sexual identity and ethnic identity are important but who also wants to join a professional server, but what about someone whose identity brings together history, music synthesis, technology and art (e.g. me)? These are hard choices to make and it seems that being able to read and interact with feeds from multiple instances seems important.

Fourth and most crucially, Mastodon should create a distinct way to follow big accounts such as news sources and (gulp), celebrities of all stripes. The Long Tail is a ruse. The Internet has been prone to the Pareto principle or 80/20 rule (80 percent of the traffic goes to 20 percent of the sites… usually those numbers are even worse). Now Pareto wasn’t out there to promote democracy, he thought those 20 percent should rule society, an idea that immediately appealed to Mussolini. Social media companies have sought to encourage this, implementing algorithms to promote posts that get more likes instead of ranking posts chronologically. Facebook did this in 2009, constantly tweaking the algorithm in ways that made it worse and worse each time. Twitter ceased using chronological sorting and implemented its algorithm in 2016. By some uncanny coincidence, an idiot was elected US President in 2016, largely on the back of his Alzheimer’s induced tweets and, coincidentally Twitter also ceased being an interesting place to use that year. Social media algorithms set out to reinforce a model based on influence (as well as power and wealth) accumulating to a small number of individuals. They are terrible. But stars and influencers are also responsible for encouraging people to come to them (for example, one individual on Mastodon, who is also a well-known actor and social media personality follows under a hundred individuals but has hundreds of thousands of followers and added “boost this toot” and to one of his posts earlier last month). I didn’t disagree with his political message, but this seems deeply unhealthy to me as it reduces discourse to one-way communication dominated by the few. Now there might be situations in which this might make sense. For example, I might want to follow updates from my town, NASA, the location of Elon Musk’s jet, or a news source, and it seems ludicrous to expect them to follow me, plus as it is possible to follow RSS feeds (such as this blog) on Mastodon. But following a good number of these clogs up one’s timeline, which ideally should be a social feed from a community of friends. The solution here seems simple enough: create a section that we might call “channels” or “news” for these one-way accounts. That way, one could follow whatever one-way accounts one wanted while preserving the timeline for genuine interaction. This can be done with two lists now (say “friends” and “channels”), but that requires the active addition of accounts to each, which is needlessly time-consuming and means the timeline itself becomes useless. There is already a “News” tab on the official Mastodon iOS app, although not on the web interface, although this is already pre-populated with news sources and there appears to be no way to change this and is still meant to drive users to follow those profiles.

Fifth, from up in Section I, thinking of instances as communities or subcultures is an incredible step forward in building real places online, but it’s important to accommodate the natural human tendency to identify with multiple communities. Being able to register with, say, up to five instances to read and write to their local timelines would be better than just allowing local and federated timelines or at least make it possible to follow more than one local timeline.

art and text in AI (on Chat.openai.com)

I’ve been working with art and Artificial Intelligence image generators recently. Untalented artists are scared of AI image generators since they are tools for making bad art, which is all that is being promoted in the press. All of the image generators—save perhaps for Dall-E 2—are tuned to produce such work in order to generate revenue. Ed Keller calls this “the black light black velvet painting of our time.” AI Art is likely to destroy ArtStation and Deviant Art. But we have a jobs crisis and need people to work in more important positions like food service. Who can argue that this re-allocation of human labor is bad?

Virtually all the work being done with this—even work that is lauded as exemplary—is bad. A few friends do interesting work. I will let them publicize it, although it’s safe to say Ed is interrogating these generators as a medium, pushing their boundaries in ways that are interesting to me. A recent article on the topic in the Architects’ Newspaper highlighted only bad work. Patrick Schumacher has convened a symposium on “futuristic” work indistinguishable from his own, which means that it is midbrow and pedestrian. Archdaily published a piece that gives the impression that AI interior designs are the stuff of nightmares. I could waste my time and yours coming up with more links to bad work.

This should not surprise anyone. Almost everything is bad because intelligent thought in architecture is now nearly extinct.

Making interesting work with AI image generators requires work. It doesn’t take as much time as it might to create a painting by hand, but an AI painting might take hours, a day, or more. One needs a plan and a mind for experimentation. AI art generators are incapable of originality. Neither are almost all artists working today. That should not stop anyone as until the modern era, originality was not valued. In the Renaissance, “genius” did not mean making an unprecedented work, rather it meant the ability to shape something pleasing out of existing sources.

AI image generators create forgeries. One appropriate response, then, is to use them to create explicit forgeries. I undertook this as a project starting this summer with the Lost Canals of Vilnius, the Drowning of Doggerland, and the Witching Cats of New Jersey.

Any good forgery begins a kernel of truth. Basing texts and images on existing sources, I created alternate histories. I used a feedback effect: provocative works created by the image generators inspired my alternate histories and ideas from the alternate histories guided the prompts for image generators. Most of the work was done with Dall-E 2 since it alone is tuned to produces semi-convincing paintings and photographs.

I unintentionally duped some readers. But AI art and text generators are already being used to deceive people for political purposes, to satisfy high school and college requirements, and for work purposes. Convincing people has never been easier. This project was intended to foreground this. I intend to write an essay for this site on the topic, but this one came out first. I am in Vilnius, Lithuania which is not boring like New York City. Visiting here often jars me out of complacency, spurs new ideas, and forces action.

A related route is to use AI art in a surrealist sense. This does not mean prompts for paintings in the style of Salvador Dali. That is kitsch and awful. Rather, this is a way of accessing what Jung called the collective unconscious to produce visual automatic writing: Pinot-Gallizio’s “Industrial Painting” updated for our day. In a sense, the “Witching Cats” project came out of a prompt for a black and white cat that came out gruesomely misshaped, became an amusing diversion for Instagram, led me to read about photography and the occult in the nineteenth century, and that, in turn led to the essay and project. Otherwise, I have not released this work. I may or may not.

Two days ago (30 November 2022), OpenAI released a freely-accessible interface to ChatGPT, a language model capable of conversation in the format of a dialogue. Although it is possible to trip it up, it is also remarkable how effective it is at generating content, even content that can be quite lengthy and complex in nature. I began by trying to produce critical essays.

In all of these, my prompt will come first.

>In 1,500 words, compare “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg and “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried.

Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays address this question, they take very different approaches and come to somewhat different conclusions.

In Modernist Painting, Greenberg argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its emphasis on the flatness of the canvas. He argues that the history of painting is one of the progressive flattening of the picture plane, and that modernist painting represents the culmination of this process. According to Greenberg, the flatness of the canvas allows the painter to focus on the formal elements of the painting, such as line, color, and composition, and to create a more intense and immediate visual experience for the viewer.

In contrast, Art and Objecthood takes a more philosophical approach to the question of modernist painting. Fried argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its refusal to be reduced to a mere object in the world. He argues that modernist painting is defined by its ability to transcend the merely physical and to create a “presence” that is distinct from the physical object of the painting itself. According to Fried, this “presence” is what allows modernist painting to truly engage the viewer and to create a meaningful artistic experience.

One key difference between the two essays is their focus. While Greenberg is primarily concerned with the formal qualities of modernist painting, Fried is more interested in its philosophical and artistic implications. This difference is reflected in their respective conclusions. While Greenberg ultimately argues that the flatness of the canvas is the defining characteristic of modernist painting, Fried argues that it is the ability of the painting to create a “presence” that sets it apart from other forms of art.

Another important difference between the two essays is their treatment of the viewer. For Greenberg, the viewer is an essential part of the modernist painting experience. He argues that the flatness of the canvas allows the viewer to engage more directly with the formal elements of the painting, and that this creates a more intense and immediate visual experience. In contrast, Fried is less concerned with the viewer’s experience of the painting and more interested in the painting’s ability to create a “presence” that transcends its physical form.

Overall, Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays take different approaches and come to different conclusions, they both provide valuable insights into the nature of modernist painting and its place in the history of art.

>Write a 2,000 word analysis of the song “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey’s 1992 hit “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of aggressive and confrontational lyrics, coupled with her powerful and haunting vocals, Harvey exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship.

The song opens with a haunting and intense instrumental introduction, featuring distorted guitar riffs and driving drums that set the tone for the rest of the track. This instrumental introduction immediately establishes the song’s aggressive and confrontational atmosphere, setting the stage for the confrontational and emotional lyrics that follow.

The first verse begins with Harvey’s powerful and haunting vocals, as she sings: “I want you gone / But I want you still.” This opening line perfectly encapsulates the confusion and conflicting emotions that can arise when trying to leave a toxic relationship. On the one hand, the narrator wants to rid herself of her partner, but on the other hand, she still desires their presence and connection.

The chorus, which follows the first verse, features the repeated line: “Rid of me / Rid of me.” This chorus serves as a cry for help and a desire to be free from the suffocating and harmful relationship. The repetition of the line, coupled with Harvey’s powerful and emotive vocals, emphasizes the narrator’s desperation and longing for freedom.

The second verse continues with the narrator’s emotional turmoil, as she sings: “I’m an animal / I’m a dog / I’m a death / I’m a thief.” These lyrics paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the narrator’s state of mind, as she feels trapped and degraded in her relationship. The use of animalistic imagery also highlights the loss of humanity and dignity that can occur in a toxic relationship.

The bridge of the song features the line: “I’m a mess / I’m a wreck / I’m a fault / I’m a scar.” These lyrics further emphasize the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness in the relationship. She sees herself as a burden and a source of pain for her partner, and longs for the release of being free from the relationship.

The final verse of the song features the line: “I’m not a child / I’m not a pet / I’m not a toy / I’m not a doll.” This line serves as a powerful declaration of the narrator’s autonomy and independence. She rejects the idea of being treated as a possession or object, and asserts her own worth and dignity.

The song’s instrumental outro features a repetitive guitar riff that gradually builds in intensity, culminating in a ferocious and powerful finale. This instrumental finale perfectly captures the narrator’s emotional release and liberation as she breaks free from the toxic relationship.

In conclusion, “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of confrontational and powerful lyrics, coupled with Harvey’s haunting and emotive vocals, the song exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship. The song’s intense and driving instrumentals perfectly capture the narrator’s emotional turmoil and eventual release, making it a powerful and impactful anthem for anyone who has experienced the pain of a toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, ChatGPT can make mistakes and there are mistakes in that essay. Later, I asked it to write about the relationship between Vytautas Landsbergis and George Maciunas and it stated that while they are both Lithuanians interested in Fluxus and music, they had no direct relationship, which is untrue. ChatGPT receives a failing grade for not meeting the required word count, although adding those phrases produces longer analyses.

Still, the above essays are better than what 95% of graduate students are capable of doing in an afternoon or, usually, a weekend. This should not be surprising as, while ChatGPT is incapable of original thought, so are 95% of graduate students and, indeed, 95% of faculty.

When I did my dissertation at Cornell, a dissertation was defined as a “contribution to knowledge” but the vast majority of such work in the humanities is formulaic: find an obscure topic related to an important topic (an unknown modern architect in Brazil in the 1960s who made middling buildings but met Lina Bo Bardi at a restaurant for dinner once or a failed, uninteresting project by someone who saw Le Corbusier speak) represented in an archive, go to said archive, find some obscure fact of no importance and blather on about how important said find is, add a conclusion in which Foucault is invoked to make the work “political,” and submit as a dissertation. Or at least that was a “good,” Ivy-level dissertation in the 2000s. Today one would have to add some random verbiage about marginalized communities, identity, and oppression to indicate that one is more “political.” Such work is not intended to be original, but rather to indicate that one has been properly disciplined in graduate school and is now capable of independently programming other students to also produce work of no importance whatsoever. If it is true we live in a simulation, most of these people are NPCs. Original thought is almost non-existent.

If an AI can equal or better such work today, albeit only in short pieces, imagine it in a few years.

ChatGPT can also be used to create instruction-based art. A series of these follow.

>produce a textual score by John Cage

0’00”: Silence
0’01”: A single piano note is struck
0’02”: Silence
0’03”: A second piano note is struck
0’04”: Silence
0’05”: A third piano note is struck
0’06”: Silence
0’07”: A fourth piano note is struck
0’08”: Silence
0’09”: A fifth piano note is struck
0’10”: Silence
0’11”: A sixth piano note is struck
0’12”: Silence
0’13”: A seventh piano note is struck
0’14”: Silence
0’15”: An eighth piano note is struck
0’16”: Silence
0’17”: A ninth piano note is struck
0’18”: Silence
0’19”: A tenth piano note is struck
0’20”: Silence
0’21”: An eleventh piano note is struck
0’22”: Silence
0’23”: A twelfth piano note is struck
0’24”: Silence
0’25”: A thirteenth piano note is struck
0’26”: Silence
0’27”: A fourteenth piano note is struck
0’28”: Silence
0’29”: A fifteenth piano note is struck
0’30”: Silence
0’31”: A sixteenth piano note is struck
0’32”: Silence
0’33”: A seventeenth piano note is struck
0’34”: Silence
0’35”: An eighteenth piano note is struck
0’36”: Silence
0’37”: A nineteenth piano note is struck
0’38”: Silence
0’39”: A twentieth piano note is struck
0’40”: Silence
0’41”: A twenty-first piano note is struck
0’42”: Silence
0’43”: A twenty-second piano note is struck
0’44”: Silence
0’45”: A twenty-third piano note is struck
0’46”: Silence
0’47”: A twenty-fourth piano note is struck
0’48”: Silence
0’49”: A twenty-fifth piano note is struck
0’50”: Silence
0’51”: A twenty-sixth piano note is struck
0’52”: Silence
0’53”: A twenty-seventh piano note is struck
0’54”: Silence
0’55”: A twenty-eighth piano note is struck
0’56”: Silence
0’57”: A twenty-ninth piano note is struck
0’58”: Silence

>produce a textual score by John Cage

  1. Open the piano lid.
  2. Place a single sheet of paper on the piano keys.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly draw lines and shapes on the paper, creating a visual score.
  4. Sit at the piano and interpret the visual score, allowing the lines and shapes to guide the movements of your hands on the keys.
  5. Explore different sounds and timbres by experimenting with various techniques, such as striking the keys with different parts of your hand or using the pedals.
  6. Allow the music to emerge naturally and organically, without predetermined melodies or harmonies.
  7. Continue to improvise and explore the piano’s soundscape for a set duration of time, determined by the performer.
  8. When the performance is complete, gently remove the sheet of paper from the piano keys and close the lid.
  9. Reflect on the experience and the unique sounds and melodies that emerged during the performance.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a wall in your space that has a minimum height of 8 feet and a minimum width of 10 feet.
  2. Measure the dimensions of the wall and divide it into equal horizontal and vertical sections, creating a grid pattern with a minimum of 10 horizontal and 10 vertical lines.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly select one of the grid squares and draw a line that extends from one edge of the square to the opposite edge, without crossing any other lines or touching the sides of the square.
  4. Repeat this process for each of the grid squares, creating a series of lines that fill the entire wall.
  5. Experiment with different line lengths, angles, and directions in order to create a varied and dynamic composition.
  6. Avoid erasing any lines or making any corrections, and allow the drawing to evolve organically.
  7. When the drawing is complete, step back and admire the final composition.
  8. Optional: photograph the drawing and share it with others.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a blank wall in a well-lit area to create your wall drawing.
  2. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a horizontal line across the center of the wall.
  3. Draw a second horizontal line above and below the center line, each spaced at equal intervals.
  4. Draw a third set of horizontal lines, above and below the second set, at the same intervals.
  5. Continue adding sets of horizontal lines until the entire wall is covered with a grid of evenly spaced lines.
  6. Using a different color pencil, randomly draw diagonal lines connecting the horizontal lines.
  7. Experiment with different patterns and densities of diagonal lines, creating a unique and visually interesting composition.
  8. Step back and observe the overall composition, adjusting and refining the diagonal lines as needed.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Choose an everyday object, such as a paperclip, a pencil, or a piece of string.
Place the object in a simple, unadorned setting, such as on a blank sheet of paper or a plain background.
Using a camera or smartphone, take a photograph of the object in its chosen setting.
Share the photograph on social media, along with a simple and enigmatic caption that invites viewers to interpret the object in their own way.
Consider how the chosen object and its placement in the photograph might evoke emotions, thoughts, or memories in the viewer.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Find a quiet, peaceful space where you can be alone and undisturbed.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your body and mind to relax.
Slowly open your eyes and look around your surroundings, taking in the details and textures of the space.
Imagine yourself floating in a vast, empty void, free from the constraints of time and space.
Allow your mind to drift and explore, without judgment or expectations.
Listen to the sounds around you, and allow yourself to be present in the moment.
As thoughts and ideas arise, allow them to flow freely, without attachment or resistance.
When you feel ready, write down any thoughts or ideas that emerge during your meditation.
Take your time, and trust in the process.
When you are finished, close your eyes again and take a few deep breaths, grounding yourself back in the present moment.
Reflect on your experience, and let go of any judgments or expectations.
Enjoy the feeling of freedom and openness that comes from exploring your inner landscape.

All of the artists I have chosen employ deliberate repetition, variations within a framework, and an element of chance. I produced these pieces in an hour and yet they are plausible variations on their work. Not all attempts were as successful. It is, however, evident that one could, for example, generate a large number of these to hand out to an audience at a performance so for participants to perform and evaluate the results.

AI has been rapidly developing this year and ChatGPT is only an early step in this decade, likely to be dominated by AI. Serious artists need to ignore the bad art and forge ahead. AI image and text generators are the tools of our time.