This past week a musician friend of mine posted a link to a Guardian article in which Nick Cave takes on song lyrics written “in the style of Nick Cave” by ChatGPT. She quoted at length from it, as will I:
Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.
What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.
Much as I admire Nick Cave and my musician friend for being the valiant and vibrant creators that they are, I think the argument that ChatGPT doesn’t feel and hasn’t experienced is beside the point. It doesn’t need to feel, it only needs to make human beings feel in this particular game. It only needs to predict what will bring tears to our eyes and laughter to our faces, what will draw us deeply in and help us transcend ourselves. I suspect that ChatGPT and other AI like it can and will get very good at that.
If you reject the idea that algorithms can learn to make us feel, then consider what has been said about Facebook (and other social media) algorithms that can suss out what is most likely to draw our attention and hold it. Consider how that played out in recent elections and how it plays out fueling white supremacy and hatred of the other. It turns out anger is a powerful motivation for people to coalesce around and AI has gotten pretty good at feeding us on a banquet of hatred of the other.
AI generated everything is inevitable and it will get better and better. The thing is, AI is a product of mass organization economic systems, capitalism in particular. It is doubtful it could have happened without capitalism or other equally disconnecting ways of operating an economy and, by extension, society. The key point to remember is that we don’t have to participate in that economy, at least, not all the time. I don’t know if we can completely eliminate capitalism or other mass organizational systems. I don’t know if we would even want to. There are some breathtaking benefits. But it does seem possible to organize parallel economies that are more local in scale, which is the scale at which the alternatives can thrive and be satisfying; the scale at which it matters that the song channeling our personal human experience and making us feel was created by another human being; the scale at which it matters that we go to hear that song performed by the creator and participate in the communal activity that live performance creates.
I have been reading about alternative economics. Two books are very influential to my thinking. Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I have finished the first and am halfway through the second.
Sacred Economics helped me understand why growth is essential to capitalism—there is always more debt than value being created through production—and how capitalism fills the void between debt and product by converting the commons—that which should belong to everyone—to privately held resources to be exploited for profit. ChatGPT is another attempt to lay claim to the commons, in this case, the creative commons that all art product aspires to be part of. In Sacred Economics, Eisenstein argues that eliminating usury (the ability to make money on money), creating currency that devalues with time (not through inflation, but through planned devaluation over a specific time frame), and practicing a gift economy as tribal and other types of small communities have often done.
In Part I of The Gift, Lewis Hyde explains the history and functioning of the gift economy in great detail, as well as the history of usury and modern economies which have supplanted the gift economy. In Part II, which I have just now started to make my way through, he explains the relevance of a gift economy to the arts.
AI is a product of mass economic systems, capitalism in particular. AI couldn’t happen without these systems and will function best within these contexts. Human rendered art can and sometimes does function well within that mass economic context, but, when you get beyond the few giants and near giants in any creative industry human creative output struggles to function in that context and starts to require an economy built on community. This is the gift economy that Hyde and Eisenstein, drawing heavily from Hyde, describe.
My guess is that we need to relearn the gift economy if we are to have a satisfying way of being human creatives and connecting our creations with other human beings. I don’t presently believe that one excludes the other but we must actively and intentionally reclaim the gift economy if we are to benefit from it. There is much work to do in this direction.
This is all I can say about economic alternatives at present because I am still reading and thinking. The important point I am making is that it’s not AI vs human artists but an economic system that by its design breaks down community as against one that builds it. The choice is ours as to which one we want to labor and participate in.