[39.0] living a lie through AI
dreaming of other worlds in a multiple-choice setting
I’ve been working a lot the past few weeks with the windows of my apartment wide open, which, most of the time, is a splendid and nearly pastoral experience smack dab in the middle of Seattle. Blue heron squawking, crows babbling (I like them, especially since I learned they hold grudges), wind whooshing, and so forth. But then a car drives by and ruins the whole experience! Rubber hits road and makes loud noises; truck hits bump and its tow makes jingly jingly sounds.
In the midst of one of those acoustic unpleasantries I was scrolling Twitter, as is my wont, and came across the account @betterstreetsai. Using DALL-E, the image-generating AI platform, the @betterstreetsai account’s creator, NYC-based artist Zach Katz, generates photorealistic alternatives to existing, car-centric spaces across the world. I let out a deep sigh upon seeing cityscapes stripped of vehicles.
Ever been to Boston? Imagine Storrow Drive looking like this (and not getting hit by a car while biking to your summer internship in 2016, xoxo!)
Or like, holy shit, Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn not just being a high-octane clusterfuck?
And if you’ve ever been to Pike Place Market in Seattle: What if dangerously tall pickups couldn’t roam around a de facto pedestrianized space and we just called a spade a spade?
In an interview with Bloomberg—whose namesake was mayor of a city with a lot of traffic!—Katz said he’d learned of visual AI’s political power through his admin work for @betterstreetsai. Local lawmakers had reached out to him to inspire future street designs in their cities.
“Council members and urban planners from all over the country seem to be very inspired by the images,” Katz said. “I think this is how it will lead to change: people with real decision making power being influenced and inspired by these images.”
I sense an impending dyad! That a technology (in this case, image-generation AI) developed under hypercapitalist conditions can push for public management of common spaces, rather than their automotive privatization, which could let us say toodaloo! to neoliberal urban design!! But before we celebrate that as some sort of liberatory outcome, we should consider how many capitalist rituals necessitating “imagination”—the idea of the “creative,” the imperative to “love your job,” and more—are really just invitations to lie. Like, even at best, an invitation for a “free response” that’s really multiple choice.
The invitation to lie goes far! For one this tweet, which made me giggle:
But also college applications (to colleges that sit on so much money but make you take out loans), lying about liking your job to your boss, inventing reasons to use sick days, saying “ok great!” when you really mean “I want to bash your skull in!” etc.
Which are cultures no doubt underpinning the tech world too! Hello “listening and learning and growing.” gm :)
So two questions: How much of imagining alternatives like @betterstreetsai is predicated on capitalist traditions of lying, hemmed in by the kinds of visions that are made available to us now? (Is everything a lie? Like, not just an original sin, but a bajillion tiny sins?) And secondly, are we lying to ourselves—a pedestrianized Bostonian riverfront that looks a little like Lyon!—to avoid the really hard thing, which is to overthrow the governments that make such a vision impossible?
And naming DALL-E after Dalí feels a little fascist and uncreative and on the nose. Whoever named that clearly didn’t have the best imagination and just mixed Pixar with pro-Francisco Franco surrealism!! (Which wouldn’t be too far off for Disney anyway…)
But get over lying being a sin, baby! Sometimes lying can be so much fun, or even liberatory in its own right.
Another Twitter account: Competent Mayor Bill de Blasio, which, over the course of the erstwhile NYC mayor’s time in office, would post the opposite of whatever shitty thing de Blasio had actually announced.
So, for instance, real bike lanes!
Or beautiful parks along the Manhattan side of the East River:
Hell, even draconian traffic mitigation measures to reduce heat:
Across the board, all lies, but also proving how much power individual politicians do hold. What if de Blasio had just gone ahead and announced these things? Sure, checks and balances blah blah blah, but the account raises the question of much progressive momentum de Blasio could have thrown around through simple mot et parole, but didn’t.
Both these accounts and their respective/simultaneous lies—in the forms of distraction and a measure of freedom/accountability—find a home on the same platform, namely Twitter. It’s hard to guarantee we’re doing the latter form of lying and not the former, especially when the channels for disseminating these messages reward virality, which is itself largely prone to sensationalism over substance. And expecting the accounts’ creators and viewers to be ~*honest*~ about their intentions (a passion project rather than a civilizational treatise, for instance, or pure entertainment) seems unlikely too.
If we’re all lying, we might as well have a great time doing it :)
Thank you DALL-E! Enjoy your Sunday!
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.