Immaterial Sensations

March 3, 2023

Over on Mastodon, @therisingtithes makes in important point about the idea that AI “democratizes” artistic expression

“I think the really troublesome part in conversations about AI is when people say it ‘democratizes’ creative expression—as if to imply that practicing a talent and developing one’s own voice is an institutional boundary that only a ‘creative elite’ can overcome. There are a lot of obviously legitimate barriers to entry in the creative industries—ask any person of colour, or anyone who lives in a non-Anglophone developing country. But BEING ABLE TO DRAW PLEASING ART OR WRITE INTERESTING PROSE isn’t, like, an elitist activity.”

I think it’s actually tragic: the idea that you can “democratize” artistic expression at all only makes sense if you first believe that the capacity for art is innate and unchangeable, something you’re either born with or will never have. Part of that tragedy is that it’s a belief that strongly resonates with general disdain for the humanities shared by a lot of STEM practitioners, who don’t see the arts as real skills learned and honed, but as some arbitrary blessing they were denied at birth.

And that frame is such a profound failure of imagination and empathy, some sort of abusive marriage of disdain and despair, to live believing that you can’t experience some profound work of art without also believing, in some fundamental, irrevocable sense, that you don’t and can’t ever have the capacity to evoke anything like that sense in another person. You’re just Not An Artist, you can’t do anything like that ever.

It must be soul-crushing, to live in the loneliness of that kind of envy. Certainly you can see why somebody trapped in that frame – in the foundational belief that they immutably have No Capacity For Art, that they have been arbitrarily denied any capacity to connect with another human on that level – would need to believe, desperately, that the stochastic parrots that take and mindlessly repeat stolen approximations back to us are somehow equivalent to the fullness of human experience.

A lot of us have joked about the whole “I used to be a libertarian capitalist CEO but then I took a bunch of drugs in the jungle and realized other people feel things” tropes, but I frequently wonder what a century of lead poisoning, prohibitionism and suburbs have taken from us. Music, art, poetry, and food, like wine or weed, these are assistive technologies for human connection and empathy, the ramps many of us can’t even know we need until we have them, but maybe never will.

But … “democratizing”, geez.

If you want to be the Robin Hood in a story worth telling, the thing you’re stealing from the rich and giving to the poor has to be the riches. It’s weird that anyone would need to say that out loud. If you’re stealing from artists and selling it to corporations as a subscription? That story isn’t worth the trouble of telling. Who’d listen?