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On A.I., An Unreliable Narrator

ChatGPT, the Halo Effect and The End of the Beginning of Humanity

How the world lurches from religion to technology, as the ultimate overseer. And, why A.I. is a blessing wrapped in a curse. 1

Periods of upheaval are usually followed by a void that is then taken over by a power-center. With the advent of A.I., both our individual and collective consciousness moves further toward an abstraction of the mind.

‘Among Gods, all are shaken by the jeers of Momus.
Among heroes, Hercules gives chase to all the monsters.
Among demons, Pluto, the King of Hell, oppresses all the shades.
While Heraclitus weeps at everything,
Pyrrho knows naught of anything,
And Aristotle glories in knowing all.
Diogenes spurns the things of the world,’…

For the first time; technology feels like post-modernism in art, unlike anything we’ve seen until now. Let’s take a closer look at how we arrived here, across the decades of Baroque, Expressionism, all the way to the Abstract Art that is Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) in the world of Technology.

…‘And I, Agrippa, am foreign to none of this.
I disdain, I know, I do not know, I pursue, I laugh, I tyrannize, I protest.
I am philosopher, god, hero, demon and the whole universe.

~ Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa 2 von Netteshei, De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientarium, 1527

Francis Bacon’s ‘Study After Velázquez’s (1950) Portrait of Pope Innocent X 3 (1650) reimagines power dynamics in a post-genocidal world of war, half a millennia away. © Estate of Francis Bacon / ARS, NY / Courtesy Des Moines Art Center

Technology, in A.I.’s guise, feels like the Sirens, a Muse, and the Furies 4 all in one, and presents a modern trilemma unlike any the world has seen. How we decipher this ambiguity in a world seething with climate change; will either make, break or hamper us on our journey to the next millennia.

Let’s hit the Delorean, Back to the Future of Art & Technology!

The Clarity of Rembrandt

While Diego Velásquez was erecting an homage to one of the preservers of the Counter-reformation, another painter Rembrandt was reinventing self-portraiture in his own way, heralding the Baroque movement; dramatic, intense brush strokes of shadows & light.

The plumbing, the laying of the pipes and the certainty of the desktop revolution; the seeds were set in a Fairchild Semiconductor way; led by the inimitable Robert Noyce and his merry band of Silicon Valley’s Mad Men.

“I grew up in Silicon Valley. My parents moved from San Francisco to Mountain View when I was five. My dad got transferred, and that was right in the heart of Silicon Valley, so there were engineers all around.

Silicon Valley, for the most part, at that time, was still orchards—apricot orchards and prune orchards — and it was really paradise. I remember almost every day the air being crystal clear, where you could see from one end of the valley to the other.

It was really the most wonderful place in the world to grow up.”

~ Steve Jobs

The apricot, pear, and plum orchards that saw the birth of the transistor by Shockley, then sees the defection by the ‘Traitorous Eight’, which led this group to create Fairchild Semiconductor and the integrated circuit, chosen by NASA for the first computers on board the Gemini program that led to the next century of technological innovation in Northern California.

Fairchild Semiconductor, with Robert Noyce’s guidance as a newcomer, flattened the hierarchical aristocracy in the work place, redefined the way businesses work, and made innovation & equity, the alpha & the omega of Silicon Valley. In addition, spin-off companies 5 become the norm for this part of the world, making innovation mandatory, not pablum, in Gold country.

Meanwhile in another world, Rembrandt’s portraiture sets the stage for a psychologically adept intuition, exploring a plethora of emotions & introspection into the art of self-portraiture. His paintings often captured his own aging process, showing a deep sense of self-awareness, reflection, laughter and more. In the case of Rembrandt too, the Counter-Reformation, spearheaded religious fervor embodying a certain theatricality, well suited for the Catholic Church’s desire to stir religious emotions in a viewer.

The Vanity of Schiele

What started as the fresh-faced expressionism of MySpace, morphed into the fiasco of Friendster, and the establishments of Facebook, Twitter, and its progeny (TikTok, et.c) now scattered in ignominy.

Back in the early 1900s, before the 20s roared, heralded the Expressionism wrought most vividly in the post World War I, post-pandemic (yes, the real deal — The Spanish Flu)

The world of self-portraiture, most vividly, was changed by the vulnerability of Egon Schiele’s unheralded work. An Austrian peer of Gustav Klimt; Egon & Klimt were both a part of the Vienna Secessionist Movement, a furtive fleeing from mediocrity, at a time where Vienna was Florence 6. The world initiated by Facebook, post-MySpace, had a similar ability to bring out the best in us, and soon, the worst.

One of the greatest draughtsmen ever, Schiele’s ability to see particular details & material minutiae allowed him displays of unparalleled graphic virtuosity. In the last couple of decades, I can’t think of a better digital draughtsmen than Zuckerberg with his ability to conjure world’s of communities through which he nearly connected half the world’s entire populace; a feat that he’ll be remembered for a very long time.

Pair that vulnerability with a sense of political & social upheaval in the early 2010s, and Facebook, along with the Twitters of the world reflected & amplified the insecurities of the era, ironically built by the capital dislocation by the technological revolution of the early 2000s, and now capturing the premonition of impending doom within a fragmentary society, tribalism redux across the globe, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and a once-in-a-millennia climate realignment that has just begun.

The Fog of Bacon

We’re now headed into the fog of Francis Bacon’s paintings, created in the aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War…

a figurative expression of a fragmentary self in a modernist world, teetering on a post-modern future.

“I have no one else to paint but myself.”

~ Francis Bacon, 1949

Self-portraiture finally achieves its apogee, from Rembrandt’s perigee, in Francis Bacon’s work; especially in his searing self-images emergent after his lover’s death in the 1970s. Introspective as Schiele, but more figurative, more abstract, and more material than any of the artists that came before him, Bacon arrives at the nadir of melancholia, a stand-in for his troubled past and uncertain future.

… And the Materiality of Man.

So, how did we get here…

Like Bacon, Beckett had no illusions about the future either of the world or of art. And that moment in the last days of illusions, both men show the same immensely interesting and significant reaction: wars, revolutions and their setbacks, massacres, the democratic imposture, all these subjects are absent from their works.

~ Deepan Joshi, Francis Bacon: The Painter’s Brutal Gesture

Modernism, whether in painting or poetry, was a response to unimaginable violence caused by wars and the ensuing chaos, global scale of destruction & loss. The artists who emerged stared into the barrel of existentialism, leading us to Freud, Bacon, T.S. Eliot and the likes.

Their work, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, also broke away from traditional forms and explored vastly new artistic possibilities. Modernist self-portraits often challenged conventional representation and delved into the subjective experience of the self.

They turned the canvas into themselves, vs. the clarity of centuries of art that came before them; to explore themes of alienation, disillusionment, the breakdown of traditional values, and the search for spiritual and moral meaning in a fragmented and disordered world.

Living through the end of a civilization (as Beckett and Bacon were or thought they were), the ultimate brutal confrontation is not with a society, with a state, with a politics, but with the physiological materiality of man.

~ Deepan Joshi, Francis Bacon: The Painter’s Brutal Gesture

Enter Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), circa 2022.

Why A.I. matters now

A.I. in the 2020s, is the apogee of everything that has evolved since the post World War II era (a time that Francis Bacon was coming into his own across the pond), across Stanford, Shockley, Fairchild, Intel, Apple, Google, Facebook, and now, ChatGPT. Unlike any of the previous iterations, this will be the biggest transformation that will be felt across millennia.

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.’

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12

A.I. is technology painting humanity; our inner selves and our collective consciousness with all the power it can muster; with all the power we give it.

The Penumbra of A.I.

These are early days. These are heady days.

So much to fathom, so much to ponder, while the future beckons… like a mysterious Siren.

The senses do not deceive, it is the mind that deceives.

~ Goethe

The most interesting question around A.I, is the question Kant, Lock & Hume have been debating between the 17th & 18th centuries; between Rationalism (that emphasizes the role of deductive reasoning) & Empiricism (that emphasizes sensory experience as the source of all knowledge) and here we are in 2023;

… continuing that debate into the future whether sentience without sensations is a possibility? While there is no consensus on the answer to this question, it is clear that the debate among Kant, Locke, and Hume has important implications for how we understand the relationship between the mind and the world, and the possibility of creating artificial intelligence that is truly conscious.

“When you paint anything, You are also painting, not only the subject,

…but you are painting yourself, as well, as the object you’re trying to record.”

~ Francis Bacon

That is what A.I. does well; call it impersonation, a form of spoofing, the way to evade capture is flattery; using flattery to evade the Turing Test. As Huxley would surmise, we’ve let in the barbarians at the gates, when they came with the amusement we love the most – our selves.

‘He loves and burns, but does not know who the lover is. He sees and the sight destroys him; he is both the fire and that which is burned.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book III, 339 – 340)

On Narcissus’ doomed self-love, as cursed by Nemesis after rejecting Echo,

a nymph who could only repeat the words of others.

These are some of the most interesting developments we can watch out for, not the minutiae that everyone is chasing these days, the most interesting question isn’t whether A.I. is hallucinating or spoofing or who’s influencing whom, but how can humans stop falling in love with themselves, cursed by our own Nemesis & an echo of our selves.

We are moving into the most significant period of creativity & innovation in the history of humanity with the most advanced, yet flawed, technological innovation we’ve stumbled into, and that’s what makes A.I. the most exciting moment to be in technology, ever.

“How are you going to trap reality? How are you going to trap appearance… …without making an illustration of it?

And, that is one of the great fights and one of the great excitements of being, a figurative artist today.

~ Francis Bacon

Through a Glass, Darkly

And that truly is one of the great excitements of being in the world of technology today, and will be one of the great fights we have fought to make sense of this Pandora’s box we find ourselves and what it entails to escape unscathed.

We must make manifest the whim transformed into reality that is the mind.

We must reveal an individual reflected in the glass who persists in his illusory country

… and who feels the shame of being only a simulacrum obliterated by the night, existing only in glimpses.”

~ Jorge Luis Borges, ‘After Images,’ 1924

ChatGPT, the tip of the iceberg, shows us what marvels to expect but it comes with a responsibility, to shape it in a way that helps us see ourselves better, rather than stare at our own imagery repeating our failures in social, on the biggest stage possible.

We must do this, with A.I.

We must ‘reveal the individual reflected in the glass.

We cannot let A.I. “create” ‘an illusory country, ruled by an immutable silence.

  1. This piece was written while listening to Mahler’s Symphonie No. 9, conducted by Herbert von Karajan for the Berliner Philarmoniker, 1984. Composed between 1908 & 1909, during the loss of his daughter ad his own declining health, this is Mahler’s final composition, known for its introspection of life’s longing & transcendence; especially the Adagio. ↩︎
  2. A German polymath, Agrippa’s work in his magnum opus – De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientarium – questions the fallibility of human knowledge, raises the import of skepticism, and presents the three modes of doubt know as the Agrippan trilemma, influencing thinkers from Francis Bacon to René Descartes for centuries. ↩︎
  3. A not so innocent pope, between 1644 & 1655, Giovanni Battista Pamphilj was known for ‘his ruthless & cunning,’ as he steered the Catholics during the Counter-reformation; this series of ‘Pope paintings’ by Diego Velázquez reinvented portraiture, giving life to an ‘Emperor’ 400 years after his demise; only to be given new clothes by Francis Bacon. ↩︎
  4. In Greek Mythology; the Sirens symbolize temptation, allure and not exercising caution or reason (see Homer’s Odyssey), a Muse is a goddess who inspires poets, artists and musicians, and The Furies are female deities associated with retribution (see The Oresteia by Aeschylus.) ↩︎
  5. Today’s world of slapping the term mafia to a startup that makes it, has nothing on the Fairchild exodus that birthed over 50 companies supplying microchips. Source: The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, by Tom Wolfe ↩︎
  6. For a brief second in the early 20th century, Vienna boasted of a conglomeration of artists the likes of which we’ve never seen since Renaissance Florence, or since: Mahler & Schöneberg (music), Rilke & Kafka (writing), Klimt & Schiele (painting), Otto Wagner & Adolf Loos (designers), Wittgenstein & Freud (philosophy) and you’ve what can be considered a “gesamtkunstwerk,” a “total work of art”. ↩︎

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