#rif / Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character.
When reading a book becomes an issue, that’s when I really start worrying about the future.➵
When reading a book becomes an issue, that’s when I really start worrying about the future.➵
From Time magazine:
The work was vital for OpenAI. ChatGPT’s predecessor, GPT-3, had already shown an impressive ability to string sentences together. But it was a difficult sell, as the app was also prone to blurting out violent, sexist and racist remarks. This is because the AI had been trained on hundreds of billions of words scraped from the internet—a vast repository of human language. That huge training dataset was the reason for GPT-3’s impressive linguistic capabilities, but was also perhaps its biggest curse. Since parts of the internet are replete with toxicity and bias, there was no easy way of purging those sections of the training data. Even a team of hundreds of humans would have taken decades to trawl through the enormous dataset manually.
By “toxic and bias” what they really mean is content that “described situations in graphic detail like child sexual abuse, bestiality, murder, suicide, torture, self harm, and incest.”
Perhaps $2 per hour is a lot in Kenya, but that’s no excuse for exploiting people. And given the absolute cesspool that OpenAI asked these workers to sift through, they should have included additional hazard pay.➵
ChatGPT will emerge as a viable first draft for people who need better answers than what the Term Paper Industry historically offers. I believe that when they seek an outside perspective for a complex problem they will build a baseline hypothesis of the current state using Chat GPT, and will then pressure test the results by seeking out the actual ‘experts’ whose insights stem from years of hard-earned trial and error. This will lead to defections from the term paper companies. These defections will first be small, but will then become large and irreversible, and eventually lead to large scale fragmentation in management consulting, and investment banking.
Using AI to generate a hypothesis of the current state is intriguing, especially if it’s paired with design labeled (I’m totally rolling my eyes as I type this) practices like “design research” and “design thinking.”➵
A moving perspective from a successful cover illustrator:
Machine-driven narrative will get better and better as the taste for popular narrative gets more and more watered down. And again, it won’t necessarily be because the AI does better work than working visual artists and writers, but because the audience settles for accepting the mass convenience of “good enough,” drowning out the need for quality of content. Audiences cherish convenience over quality. It’s what drives our ethos, at least here in the U.S. No reason to believe people are suddenly going to wake up and change.
The arrival of AI generated-images (and how industry chooses to use it) goes far beyond what happened upon the advent of photography or even Photoshop. This is NOT the same conversation. AI is a tidal shift from the center of human context that defines meaning. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Choose your yellow brick road very wisely, folks.
“Good enough” is the perfect description for AI content. Paired with the Internet, you have the right combination to placate a majority of the population—either by personal choice or class discrimination. Which means AI is the Walmartification of the Internet.➵
I’m not a fan of artificial intelligence. It’s not that I don’t see the positive impact of these technologies. I’ve worked on AI based projects at IBM that were designed to perform tedious bureaucratic work quickly. My concern is that we’re making very powerful yet easy-to-use tools to generate deceptive written and visual content (audio and video aren’t too far off) that is becoming more and more difficult to interpret as authentically created by a human. We’re on a path to destroy the Internet—and maybe worse—as we know it today. I’ve been feeling like an old man yelling at a cloud on this idea, and then I read The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI by Maggie Appleton.
The dark forest theory of the web points to the increasingly life-like but life-less state of being online.
Most open and publicly available spaces on the web are overrun with bots, advertisers, trolls, data scrapers, clickbait, keyword-stuffing “content creators,” and algorithmically manipulated junk.
To complicate matters, language models are not the only mimicry machines gathering speed right now. Image generators like Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion have been on a year-long sprint. In January they could barely render a low-resolution, disfigured human face. By the autumn they reliably produced images indistinguishable from the work of human photographers and illustrators.
There’s a swirl of optimism around how these models will save us from a suite of boring busywork: writing formal emails, internal memos, technical documentation, marketing copy, product announcement, advertisements, cover letters, and even negotiating with medical insurance companies.
But we’ll also need to reckon with the trade-offs of making insta-paragraphs and 1-click cover images. These new models are poised to flood the web with generic, generated content.
If this doesn’t unsettle you to the point of needing to shift in your chair—it should. And if that is the case then either you embrace and fan the flames of anarchy or you have not had to contend with friends and family members who are easily baited by convincing content created by trolls (human trolls ) on the internet. These AI tools are going to make it a thousand times worse.
And yet, despite all of the problems trolls have created for societies around the world in the past seven years, we are willingly and eagerly creating tools to generate even content that will look and feel even more convincing—Vast amounts of garbage content—by providing just a few instructions and a click of a button. No good can come from this.
Science fiction has traditionally portrayed artificial intelligence as an entity that becomes self-aware, determines mankind is a threat, and takes over military resources or builds a robot army to destroy humans. I think they got it wrong because all you need is for a robot to generate content that “sounds” human and broadcast it on the internet. We’ll end up killing each other without the AI having to launch or build a single thing. And there are many people in the technology industry pulling late shifts to make these tools even more powerful, easy to use, and easy to access. Today people are kicking the tires of AI to generate fictional works of art all in the name of fun or curiosity, but it won’t be long before someone uses these tools for evil. And the machines will be watching and learning.
The internet is already littered with so much crap—these tools will flood our digital spaces with useless, generated content. And as Maggie suggests, we are not prepared for this outcome.
Many people will say we already live in this reality. We’ve already become skilled at sifting through unhelpful piles of “optimised content” designed to gather clicks and advertising impressions.
4chan proposed dead internet theory years ago: that most of the internet is “empty and devoid of people” and has been taken over by artificial intelligence. A milder version of this theory is simply that we’re overrun with bots. Most of us take that for granted at this point.
But I think the sheer volume and scale of what’s coming will be meaningfully different. And I think we’re unprepared. Or at least, I am.
No, Maggie, you’re right. The world is so, so unprepared. Idiocracy, here we come!➵
Of all the times to finally get out of the long dark days and constant cold drizzle that is the Pacific Northwest winter, 2023 was probably not the best time to look for an alternative climate in Northern California. But that is what we have done, and I am happy with our decision. I wasn’t sure what to make about coming back to this area. Though we are living in a new town, the places we are visiting are known to us. The only unknowns are if current reality matches the unsaid expectations from our memories. Thankfully every place we have revisited feels like we never left twelve years ago. I’m sure if we ventured down into the heart of San Francisco or crossed the bridge to Emeryville (where we lived for two years), then I might feel differently. And that is why we have purposely left those activities for another time, if at all, because I know things have changed, and it will never be the quaint little town that very few people know existed because they never made it past “the Ikea.
”We’re asked if we are moving back, to which we reply, “we’re not sure,” but I have to say this feel more like home than where we are now—even with the seemingly constant arrival of La Niña’s atmospheric rivers.
Our house sits on top of a hill in Boyes Hot Springs that overlooks a small ravine. The neighborhood with property lines that resemble a jigsaw puzzle. No property is the same size or shape, yet somehow they made it work. The people living here are a mix of retirees and blue and white-collar workers. Some dwellings are home to multi-generations of family members. Everyone is friendly and happy. During the day, birds of all kinds swoop and circle while chirping a chorus of songs. At night the owls wake up and hoot at each other across the ravine. I have yet to see one of these magnificent animals, but I am delighted they are nearby. Frogs banter back and forth down by the newly formed creek.
We can hear all this from inside this house because this area is insanely quiet. I had forgotten what it’s like to live somewhere that does not provide a constant hum of building noise, emergency vehicles, construction banging, and the occasional helicopter circling above. At first, it was unsettling to all of us, especially the cats, who had never known this kind of peace and quiet. I’m still not sure if I like this level of quiet, but I’m not looking forward to returning to living in the hum of downtown.➵
My friend Rob put himself out there and shared his anxiety regarding in-person human interaction in our constantly chaotic world:
With relaxed caution comes increased socialization, and my post-pandemic [sic] interactions are routinely followed by a new neurosis, a persistent second-guessing of my conversation skills. Whether I’ve been with strangers or close friends, and whether or not my participation seems to have been appreciated, later reflection inevitably convinces me that my conversational contributions were long-winded, self-absorbed, boorish, and vacuous. It’s like a social imposter syndrome, and it makes me wish I had either stayed home or just kept my mouth shut, as if subjecting other people to myself were damaging to us both, tantamount to an addict relapsing. I’ve never been without insecurities, so this isn’t an entirely new thing, but it’s definitely more pronounced than it’s been before. Is it all in my head, or is my self-awareness acquiescing to a dismaying reality, or is it somewhere in between? Do the lingering effects of the world turning upside down play a part?
If I were still using Twitter, I’d probably ask if anyone else were experiencing this, but I’m not. While I’m not keen to replace Twitter, and I love my website, this is one of those moments when writing into the void feels pretty lonely. So hey, if you’re feeling a similar uptick in social anxiety and would like to share, please do.
Rob, I’m right next to you on all of this. Like, a little too close for comfort close. Enough that you might feel inclined to ask me what I want for Christmas.
Especially when you wonder if your participation is appreciated—that is a feeling I know and feel all too well. And it’s not a feeling dedicated to in-person interactions. Sometimes I get off a video call and wonder if anything I said resonated or were the other participants just being polite. Did I just come across as Captain Obvious, but nobody felt comfortable to make the joke (which would be unfortunate because I like a good joke even at my own expense).
Our time away from human interaction, combined with the instinct to protect ourselves from harm, makes everything harder than any of us could have imagined prior to 2020. Add to that the constant presence of threats entirely outside of our control, especially in the last seven years—yeah, it’s all had an impact on our social interactions. Like a night out with friends. But please don’t let that stop you or deter you (and I speak to everyone here) because you’re not alone. I have had the fortune of hanging out with friends a bit more than I think you have (based on what I infer from your post), and I can tell you that it gets better and starts to feel more comforting than it does now.➵
This morning Polygon published The Rise of the Game Union, a story on “literally everything you need to know about video game unions.” More importantly, they produced a zine version, complete with instructions for printing and binding it. As a fan of print publications—zines in particular—I find it wonderfully intriguing that a digital-only news organization created and promotes the distribution of a non-digital version of it’s work that doesn’t add to the bottom line through advertising revenue.
I have always had a soft spot for zines and I keep several in my library that I reference for work. I’d love to see more zines out in the world and I have friends who make and sell them. In particular Four Shapes by Scott Boms and Plus Equals by Rob Weychert.
Zines as a way to rally a union organizing effort is new to me. After a bit of searching, I found that these two things have a long history together. It makes sense that this used to be the case pre-Internet, as community organizing is a grassroots endeavor, and the zine embodies the spirit and logistics of that kind of work. I’m surprised that zines are still actively deployed for social causes in today’s screen-obsessed world.
As to why zines are still used in this way—aside from the format being so damn cool—I dig this statement by the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity at the University of Kansas.
Zines allow makers to critique, question, resist, and reappropriate the patriarchal mass media by taking the means of production into their own hands. Zines are a powerful medium for advocacy and social change. They are at once personal and political. Moreover, zines promote community-building by fostering a gift economy of sharing and exchange; often, they are made collectively or in community with others.
After reading this, my mind goes straight to the community that developed around the early days of blogging. While we didn’t have physical publications to exchange, we collectively shared—gifted—our curiosity and created a community around collective knowledge with supportive critique instead of criticism.
I love that Polygon published a zine, and I hope they do more of this kind of experimentation. Paired with the redesign of The Verge earlier this year, I’m encouraged to see a prominent publisher poking holes in the stale format of online publications, especially when that turns into taking their work offline.➵
“A collection of blogs on every topic”—so great! It reminds me of the original Yahoo directory for “blogs” back in the late ’90s. Fun fact: I chose Airbag for this blog because I wanted a name that started with an ‘A’ so I could get listed as close to the top as possible. If not for the alphabetical listing, there’s a good chance this publication would have bore a different title.➵
Hey everyone. Tomorrow, after almost 7 months of a sabbatical break, I’m resuming regular publication of kottke.org. (Actually, I’ve been posting a bit here and there this week already — underpromise & over-deliver, etc.) I’m going to share more about what I’ve been up to (and what I’ve not been up to) in a massive forthcoming post, but for now, know that I’m happy to be back here in the saddle once again. (And that my fiddle leaf fig is doing well!)
If Kottke.org is new to you then grab a RSS reader and subscribe because it has been and shall remain one of the best sources of interesting stories on the planet.
I’m glad you’re back Jason.➵