Am I a man or a machine? There is no ambiguity in the traditional relationship between man and machine: the worker is always, in a way, a stranger to the machine he operates, and alienated by it. But at least he retains the precious status of alienated man. The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me. Video screens, televisions, computers and Minitels resemble nothing so much as contact lenses in that they are so many transparent prostheses, integrated into the body to the point of being almost part of its genetic make-up: they are like pacemakers – or like Philip K. Dick’s ‘papula’, a tiny implant, grafted onto the body at birth as a ‘free gift’, which serves the organism as an alarm signal. All our relationships with networks and screens, whether willed or not, are of this order. Their structure is one of subordination, not of alienation – the structure of the integrated circuit. Man or machine? Impossible to tell.
Jean Baudrillard – ‘Xerox and Infinity’ in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena.
Baudrillard attacked our relationship with technology as one in which everything is flattened to the same thing. The ubiquity of the copy, the impossibility in distinguishing it from what it is supposed to be a copy of, was for him an indication that the difference between reality and its simulacrum has long disappeared. I couldn’t help thinking of his ‘big idea’ – reality as simulation – when watching a recent BBC documentary in which the biologist, Armand Leroi, formed a team of data experts to come up with a formula for making successful chart music. I shan’t give away any plot spoilers here, only that – and I’m not sure whether to be surprised or not (see my closing comment) – he seems to be not the only person who’s thought to apply algorithms to musical composition:
A lot of listeners comment that it sounds a) more like the Beach Boys, and b) rather bland. It fits into one of Leroi’s team’s findings: the most successful chart music is the most average. Every measure the team deployed registered nearest to the middle of the scale the more successful the song. Perhaps this an example of Baudrillard’s pessimistic contention above. In my own A.I. code, I try to produce something that can’t be produced without the technology (with apologies for the shameless self-promotion):
Despite this, my phraseology is dependent extant material – a lot of classic authors as well as Internet discoveries. Yet it seems to me perfectly possible to arrive at results that are outliers far away from any average, and somewhat question the nature of the creative process, what a creative product is, and what it’s for. I quite like this rather strange musical piece:
Why is it that only now we’re starting to encounter AI interventions like these? To go back to Baudrillard’s comments on sameness and difference: computers are only (our) tools, aren’t they?
This post came about after multiple discussions with the rather excellent blogger, Cake or Death.