Generated by Leonardo AI; prompts by me.

So much of what I’m being fed at the moment concerns the recent wave of AI. While we are seeing something of a plateauing of the hype cycle, I think (/hope), it’s still very present as an issue, a question, an opportunity, a hope, a fear, a concept. I’ll resist my usual impulse to historicise this last year or two of innovation within the contexts of AI research, which for decades was popularly mocked and institutionally underfunded; I’ll also resist the even stronger impulse to look at AI within the even broader milieu of technology, history, media, and society, which is, apparently, my actual day job.

What I’ll do instead is drop the phrase algorithmic moment, which is what I’ve been trying to explore, define, and work through over the last 18 months. I’m heading back to work next week after an extended period of leave, so this seems as good a way of any as getting my head back into some of the research I left to one side for a while.

The algorithmic moment is what we’re in at the moment. It’s the current AI bubble, hype cycle, growth spurt, whatever you define this wave as (some have dubbed it the AI spring or boom, to distinguish it from various AI winters over the last century1). In trying to bracket it off with concrete times, I’ve settled more or less on the emergence of the GPT-3 Beta in 2020. Of course OpenAI and other AI innovations predated this, but it was GPT-3 and its children ChatGPT and DALL-E 2 that really propelled discussions of AI and its possibilities and challenges into the mainstream.

This also means that much of this moment is swept up with the COVID pandemic. While online life had bled into the real world in interesting ways pre-2020, it was really that year, during urban lockdowns, family zooms, working from home, and a deeply felt global trauma, that online and off felt one and the same. AI innovators capitalised on the moment, seizing capital (financial and cultural) in order to promise a remote revolution built on AI and its now-shunned sibling in discourse, web3 and NFTs.

How AI plugs into the web as a system is a further consideration — prior to this current boom, AI datasets in research were often closed. But OpenAI and its contemporaries used the internet itself as their dataset. All of humanity’s knowledge, writing, ideas, artistic output, fears, hopes, dreams, scraped and plugged into an algorithm, to then be analysed, searched, filtered, reworked at will by anyone.

The downfall of FTX and the trial of Sam Bankman-Fried more or less marked the death knell of NFTs as the Next Big Thing, if not web3 as a broader notion to be deployed across open-source, federated applications. And as NFTs slowly left the tech conversation, as that hype cycle started falling, the AI boom filled the void, such that one can hardly log on to a tech news site or half of the most popular Subs-stack without seeing a diatribe or puff piece (not unlike this very blog post) about the latest development.

ChatGPT has become a hit productivity tool, as well as a boon to students, authors, copy writers and content creators the world over. AI is a headache for many teachers and academics, many of whom fail not only to grasp its actual power and operations, but also how to usefully and constructively implement the technology in class activities and assessment. DALL-E, Midjourney and the like remain controversial phenomena in art and creative communities, where some hail them as invaluable aids, and others debate their ethics and value.

As with all previous revolutions, the dust will settle on that of AI. The research and innovation will continue as it always has, but out of the limelight and away from the headlines. It feels currently like we cannot keep up, that it’s all happening too fast, that if only we slowed down and thought about things, we could try and understand how we’ll be impacted, how everything might change. At the risk of historicising, exactly like I said I wouldn’t, people thought the same of the printing press, the aeroplane, and the computer. In 2002, Andrew Murphie and John Potts were trying to capture the flux and flow and tension and release of culture and technology. They were grappling in particular with the widespread adoption of the internet, and how to bring that into line with other systems and theories of community and communication. Jean-Francois Lyotard had said that new communications networks functioned largely on “language games” between machines and humans. Building on this idea, Murphie and Potts suggested that the information economy “needs us to make unexpected ‘moves’ in these games or it will wind down through a kind of natural attrition. [The information economy] feeds on new patterns and in the process sets up a kind of freedom of movement within it in order to gain access to the new.”2

The information economy has given way, now, to the platform economy. It might be easy, then, to think that the internet is dead and decaying or, at least, kind of withering or atrophying. Similarly, it can be even easier to think that in this locked-down, walled-off, platform- and app-based existence where online and offline are more or less congruent, we are without control. I’ve been dropping breadcrumbs over these last few posts as to how we might resist in some small way, if not to the detriment of the system, then at least to the benefit of our own mental states; and I hope to keep doing this in future posts (and over on Mastodon).

For me, the above thoughts have been gestating for a long time, but they remain immature, unpolished; unfiltered which, in its own way, is a form of resistance to the popular image of the opaque black box of algorithmic systems. I am still trying to figure out what to do with them; whether to develop them further into a series of academic articles or a monograph, to just keep posting random bits and bobs here on this site, or to seed them into a creative piece, be it a film, book, or something else entirely. Maybe a little of everything, but I’m in no rush.

As a postscript, I’m also publishing this here to resist another system, that of academic publishing, which is monolithic, glacial, frustrating, and usually hidden behind a paywall for a privileged few. Anyway, I’m not expecting anyone to read this, much less use or cite it in their work, but better it be here if someone needs it than reserved for a privileged few.

As a bookend for the AI-generated image that opened the post, I asked Bard for “a cool sign-off for my blog posts about technology, history, and culture” and it offered the following, so here you go…

Signing off before the robots take over. (Just kidding… maybe.)


Notes

  1. For an excellent history of AI up to around 1990, I can’t recommend enough AI: The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence by Daniel Crevier. Crevier has made the book available for download via ResearchGate. ↩︎
  2. Murphie, Andrew, and John Potts. 2003. Culture and Technology. London: Macmillan Education UK, p. 208. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-08938-0. ↩︎

One response to “This algorithmic moment”

  1. Swings X Roundabouts – The Clockwork Penguin

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