A.I. just makes the old problems worse

Read to the end for a cartoon cake

I’m working with the consultancy firm Part and Sum to do a survey looking at what’s over- or under-hyped in the world of the tech as we head in 2023. The metaverse, subscription apps, BeReal — I want to hear what you think is cool and what you think is totally over. We’ll be sharing back our findings with everyone in a few weeks.

A.I. Is Evolving Too Fast To Process

A.I. content has fully invaded our feeds and, as more of these services launch and turn out to be actually sort of good, I’ve found that our ability to talk about these tools is breaking down and getting fuzzier. In fact, even keeping up with what these services are and how people are using them has become pretty difficult.

If we’re talking about A.I. art, the big three are DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion. As for video, the most exciting is Luma AI’s neural radiance field (NeRF) app. If we’re talking about text A.I., the newest and most impressive is ChatGPT, which was created by OpenAI, the same company that made DALL-E 2. And, as for the services that turn your own photos into A.I. art, Midjourney can do it, but Lensa, created by Prisma Labs, and a Chinese app called Different Dimension Me, which was created by Tencent, have also become super popular recently. Lensa costs money and generates a pack of avatars after scanning photos on your camera roll. Different Dimension Me specializes in turning a singular photo into an anime character.

I’ve heard a bunch of different frameworks for thinking about the current A.I. explosion. The most common is the “Photoshop argument,” which dismisses very real concerns about A.I. art by claiming that we’re just treating generative A.I. the way we treated digital art programs 20 years ago. (For the few zoomers that might be reading this, in high school, I had to ask for permission to use Adobe apps to complete my final project in art class because, at the time, Photoshop and similar programs were not allowed.) I don’t think this is quite right.

I also recently heard what I’ll call the “Napster argument”. While reporting a Fast Company piece this month, technologist Andy Baio told me he thinks it’s possible that the larger A.I. firms end up being dragged into court and are forced to show exactly what content was in the data set that trained their A.I. As Baio explained, this wouldn’t kill the smaller world of A.I. copyright infringement, but it would make the bigger A.I. companies have to keep their data above board. I imagine A.I. lawsuits would also lead to more tools like Luma or Lensa, that ask users to provide their own data to scan. This argument’s logical endpoint would also be “Spotify, but for A.I. data,” which is as troubling as it is interesting to consider.

The A.I. framework I subscribe to the most at the moment, though, is what I’m going to nickname the “smartphone argument,” which I think ultimately boils everything down to a question of access. Basically, technology kind of sucks when it’s still only being used by early adopters. But as it becomes less prohibitively expensive, we start to actually learn how to use it. That increased access, however, tends to dovetail with — both real and imagined — moral panics about the technology. When smartphones were only for rich people, they were a revolution in computing and a status symbol. Ten years later, after low-cost mobile devices had spread around the world, suddenly you get the cable news segments with folks panicking about privacy, mob violence, and misinformation, while CEOs and influencers are bragging about raising their children phone-free. Even though the people who have gone most insane thanks to their smartphones are, as we’re currently learning, rich white guys who would pay $44 billion dollars to own Twitter! The last nine months of A.I. have felt like a speedrun of the last 15. And, similarly, I think I trust the guys running A.I. companies way less than I trust an average user putting a fun idea for a meme into Midjourney.

I’m not saying that these tools don’t have issues. The current A.I. explosion, like the smartphone industry, is largely propped up by the exploitation of workers in the Global South. Which is never mentioned by news anchors as being equally as important as what these technologies could to do, say, to teenagers in America, or whatever. And, more specifically, art A.I.s can generate images in the styles of specific artists and have been scanning art without permission or consent, chat A.I. can spit out misinformation (or turn into a violent nazi), and some of the services that alter your own photos keep the rights to your images, may be scanning more in your phone than what you’re giving them access to, and could have all kinds of bizarre psychological effects on their users’ body image. But none of these problems are new.

I’m confident A.I. will create new issues for us very soon. I mean, an A.I. dev revealed the other day that 80% of his A.I. tool was built by an A.I. But I don’t think we’re there quite yet. And I think one way we can keep keep up with the problems that arise from fully automating the internet is by pushing for more access, more scrutiny, and educating the general public about how these tools work and what they are and aren’t capable of.

My last live event of the year is next week! It’s at Caveat in New York on December 10th. It’s going to be a blast. Our speakers include Jordan Uhl, Abby Govindan, and Manny Fidel. You can pick up tickets here.

A Good Tweet

Facebook Is Threatening To Get Rid Of News Again

Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently introduced a very bad bill called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act which would give large news publishers four years to negotiate collectively with platforms like Google and Facebook for bigger cuts of ad revenue. The JCPA sounds good in theory, but it’s, in effect, a link tax for one kind of monopoly to inflict upon two other monopolies. And, of course, it’s poised to actually hurt smaller publishers now that Meta has threatened to remove news entirely from their platform if the JCPA goes through.

The company reacted similarly to a comparable bill in Australia last year. But there are also over two dozen over consumer advocacy groups who also oppose the JCPA. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick also points out that it could have big consequences for Elon Musk’s Twitter aspirations.

All that said, the anarchist in me kind of wants Meta to do it. Meta spokesperson Andy Stone in his statement about the JCPA derisively referred to news as content that “users don’t want to see.” Which is a funny burn, but I don’t think it’s true. I’ve always had the suspicion that America’s desire for news is actually greater than its desire for bad recipe magicians, dropshipping scams, and Minion memes. And I think a lot of people get news on Facebook and would be pretty bored without it!

In a perfect world, Facebook would remove news from its platform, its feeds would fill up with boring garbage, and users would migrate elsewhere. But I don’t think that would happen either. I assume if Facebook actually did jettison large news publishers, it would all end up being replaced with “news”-like content from right-wing content farms.

If only there was some kind of regulation that could both put pressure on tech monopolies, as well as large publishing monopolies. If only there was some kind of way for the government to enforce — I’m just spitballing here — competition in the marketplace. So that maybe instead of having a world where three national newspaper companies were fighting with two websites, we had more newspapers owned by more companies being distributed on more websites. Oh well.

A Good TikTok About A Very Unique Thanksgiving Experience

(Twitter mirror here for folks in non-TikTok regions.)

The Rock Paper Scissors Simulator Is Riveting

There’s a TikTok account called @livingrps that is making videos using a “particle automata” web game simulating large-scale games of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Unfortunately, the web game is currently disabled. But there’s something weirdly soothing and satisfying about the videos. The first match of the third tournament was a real nail-biter.

A Year In Twitter Trends

My buddy Brian Feldman put together an incredible archive of 2022 Twitter Trends, which you can read as a timeline or a calendar. I think what’s most interesting about all of these is how meaningless they feel in aggregate. Feldman refers to it as “the raw, uncut, brain-frying muck.” But I’d say that at certain point, it all just looks like one of those old tag clouds, but for an increasingly unwell America. And it makes me wonder if this is even a thing we want to return now that Musk has axed this kind of curation from Twitter.

A British Police Twitter Account Shared Furry Fan Art

First, I want to thank all the readers who sent me this tweet this week. It really means a lot.

OK, so, yes, this is a verified account belonging to a police department in northern England. And, as the tweet says, it’s meant to be a picture of a local officer named PC Crutchley.

“Cleveland Police is aware of the interest on social media in the recently published artwork,” the account wrote in a follow-up tweet. “This is the artwork of a 14-year-old girl who created the art following some positive engagement work with the Redcar and Cleveland Response Team.”

So, interestingly enough, of all the furries I’ve interviewed and interacted with over the years, the ones that aren’t working in IT are typically involved in some kind of front-line emergency response profession. There are a lot of furries that are EMTs, nurses, firefighters, cops, and soldiers. As for why, my personal theory is that people working high-stress jobs that are typically exposed to traumatic events are drawn to subcultures that involve roleplaying like furries, because it allows them to get out of their own head for a bit. So I sort of assume there is at least one furry at every local police station.

Anyways, the replies to the tweet, up until recently, were fairly supportive, but have since filled up with a bunch of maniacs accusing the cops of supporting child grooming by sharing a teenage furry’s fan art — sorry, I have to pause for a second to really absorb how nuts all of this to write out. Either way, I’m glad the Cleveland Police haven’t caved to the backlash because there’s nothing inherently inappropriate about being a furry. I mean, if anything, drawing a picture of a cop in your town is way weirder, but whatever floats your boat, I guess!

Some Stray Links

P.S. here’s a cartoon cake.

***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***

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