Essay: We Live in a Renaissance and Creativity is Not Under Siege
Reflections on my life at the intersection of art and technology
A.I. could eventually mean the end of humanity once CEOs and politicians, and Generals start using it to make all their decisions, but in the meantime, art and the act of creating are not in peril. Far from it.
Paid subscribers can enjoy a video at the end of this post of me reading the essay from my secret writing spot in the woods.
When I began my creative journey in 1976, I started with a blank slate as most children do, but children born today won’t be able to imagine how blank that slate was. Okay, maybe that analogy calls to mind a slab of stone and some chalk, making it seem like I was born in a cave before the printing press. We actually did have paper and ballpoint pens and television with three channels and radio and mono tape recorders.
Within ten years, these things would give way to computers, cable networks, MTV, and 4-Track recorders. After that, you probably know the rest. Technology moves at a quiet, relentless pace, rebuilding the foundation beneath the floor we stand on year after year until one day we look out the window and where we once had a view of the grass, now we see the tops of trees. The rooms we inhabit are the same and the world outside is largely the same despite the slow-moving specter of climate change, but our vantage point and our relationship to it is wildly different. In time, we will live our lives well above the trees looking down at the curvature of the earth (spoiler alert, it’s not flat).
It can be vertigo-inducing if we look down. We can be filled with fear that the “old ways” are gone forever, that humanity is being lost, and that our abilities to imagine and create are eroding. As a person of 53, it is within my rights to feel all these things, but I refuse to subscribe to this point of view, and I will tell you why.
Same Swing, Different Hammer
A reductive way to describe my life would be that I’ve used creativity to live and technology to make a living. I adapted my innate creative nature to design and program computer applications because it meant that the financial future of my young family was not subject to the whimsy of public appeal. Since 1996 with the birth of my first child, I’ve been intertwining technology and creativity. Some things have changed, but fundamentally they have not. I think it might be useful and even illuminating to compare a typical workday for me in 1996 to what I did yesterday.
State-of-the-art Thirty Years Ago
I was making websites in 1996 on an Apple PowerPC as big as an IKEA nightstand with a whopping 1 gigabyte of storage and 64 megabytes of RAM for a new, little-understood thing called the World Wide Web. To learn to do this I had to drive to the bookstore and buy tomes of instructional manuals. I had to memorize and type strange and largely unintuitive strings of letters and numbers into a text editor, manually save the file and upload it over a screechingly loud, not fast dial-up modem via FTP to a server. Only then could I open Netscape Navigator, type in the URL to that file on the server, and after thirty seconds of watching pixels blur into view, discover that the padding property for the table I created was completely wrong which blew up the entire layout of my home page. I had to repeat this entire process infinitum until I got it right.
To conjure imagery for my designs, I had to take a photograph with a film camera, get the pictures developed down at a local store, scan those pictures using a flatbed scanner and then take the resulting digital version into Photoshop 3.o and manually nudge, shade, copy, and paste pixels to achieve the look I wanted. It was arduous, but my mind was on fire! I thought I was creating masterworks using tools that I’d only dreamed of before. I was making websites for paying customers during the day but at night, I was making benwakeman.com – the digital home for my music and the creative work I produced.
The Brave New World of Today
Yesterday, I followed my usual routine. At 7:00 AM I left my place and walked into Piedmont Park with a light backpack carrying my MacBook Pro that has 1000 times more storage and roughly 250 times more RAM. I set up my chair by the creek and I wrote for two hours. With my current battery life, I could have stayed and worked through the next day. When I came upon a research question like “how much RAM did a PowerPC have in 1996,” I just pulled out my phone and asked for the answer in the time it took to sip my Chai.
As I wrote, my horrendous spelling was auto-corrected, my sentence fragments were resolved, and hopelessly awkward sentences were given a more direct route to clarity thanks to a program called Grammarly. I packed up, walked home, set my laptop at my desk and all my work was saved into something called “The Cloud” without any action on my part. I decided this Flash Fiction dialog piece I wrote between two disembodied beings would be fun to produce audio for, but I was tired of the sound of my own narration. So, I searched for the best A.I. voice generators and came upon one that had stunningly real voices. In three minutes, I had an account and was copy-pasting my dialog into their app. Fifteen minutes later I had a four-minute audio clip of two brilliant British voices performing my piece.
That was cool, but wouldn’t it be even cooler to create a frenzied techno soundtrack to play beneath them? Yes. I fired up ProTools, my recording software of choice, plugged in my little two-octave keyboard controller, and searched through an almost infinite variety of synth patches until I found the sounds I wanted to use to perform the rhythm track. After a couple of takes and some quantizing (the equivalent of auto-correct for making beats), I assembled the rest of the track by looping it with a simple copy-paste command. I imported the audio dialog from the A.I. voices, mixed the thing, mastered it using another piece of software that’s equally effortless, and uploaded the final production to attach to my Substack article.
This is all impressive, but my 26-year-old self might have been able to imagine such advancements were possible. What I never could have believed possible is that a computer could generate the perfect image prompted by a few words of inspiration. Using MidJourney, I did just that. It took maybe ten minutes of trial and error.
Co-Creating with Computers
What’s rapidly emerging is this idea of truly co-creating with computers. The computer is no longer an inert tool that offers nothing more or less than a simple augmentation of our ability. It’s also not a human-equivalent collaborator which means the work it generates is not “conceptualized” or grounded in anything like our process. It generates images or text or video by stitching together an incomprehensibly vast number of tiny snippets of information spanning across the entire Internet until something new emerges.
These new A.I. tools offer something new to us that is unprecedented. They’re an incomparably fast, proficient, and cheap research assistant, production artist, copy editor, and software programmer. For a creative, this is not competition, this is an incredible accelerator if you embrace it.
Because these tools don’t “think” they are uninhibited by the conventions and constraints of the human brain which means they can do things and go places that we cannot, and they can do it at the speed of thought. As a human, I can only draw on my direct experience and observations of the world. These A.I. tools are like fishing nets that stretch the expanse of the Internet. When we cast them in a direction, they bring back a haul of strange, exotic, hideous, compelling, and mundane artifacts for us to pick through.
People who imagine this fishing net will deliver the next fully realized Mona Lisa or War and Peace don’t understand the technology or its value. What it delivers for a creative person with a set of highly developed skills, is a jumping-off point.
A painter might type in a prompt to visualize what a decorative pond in an English garden might look like if it were filled with tar, not water. The resulting images may inspire them to paint an entire series about a post-climate-crisis world in which the landscape is prehistoric.
A writer may type in a prompt to have ChatGPT write from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old girl explaining string theory to her parents over dinner. The resulting dialog could be completely ridiculous, but the writer learns something they never understood about string theory and it inspires them to do further research that helps clench a powerful plot they are developing.
Fake It Until You Can Make It
Humans have always learned through imitation. Look at the early work of any renowned artist, musician, writer, or philosopher and you will see a thinly veiled copy of the master whose work they admired at the time. A.I. generators take this approach to “creating” through imitation in the most extreme, literal way. For a young creative person, I can imagine how these tools might be a playground to accelerate quickly through the “faking it” phase of their development and allow them to find their unique voice more quickly. The ability to conjure, tweak, learn, and abandon in such rapid cycles will change the speed at which artists develop.
Just as synthesizers and sampling did not destroy music but augmented it in new and fantastical ways, A.I. generative tools will do the same for writing and visual art. People will not stop smearing paint onto canvases or strumming guitars. Writers will not stop scribbling in notebooks or clacking away on laptops. But the worlds they paint, sing, and write about will be infused and influenced by an infinite variety of found digital artifacts mashed together in mind-bending combinations by the invisible, tireless assistant.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to know what you think about all this. Hop into the comments below and share your thoughts about…
Do generative A.I. tools pose an existential threat to art, are they an accelerator, or will they ultimately not end up changing art at all?
What aspect of these tools most excites or frightens you about the possibilities?
Video Essay Version
Below I’m including a video of me reading this essay from my favorite writing spot in the woods. Paid subscribers can enjoy me in full HD sitting in my natural habit among the sounds of birdsong and the babbling creek. Your paid subscription is a vote of confidence in my creative work and makes it possible for me to get ever closer to making a living wage with my art. Thanks for your support!
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