On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It turned out the same way it always does: the doomsayers were right, but about the wrong thing.
We didn’t start from a strong position, either, so it’s easy to see how it happened. The average person’s grasp of language was functional at best, with not much breadth of vocabulary, or sense of grammar beyond the basics. Which was fine, up to a point. Those of us who were able to notice had long since learned to tolerate the errant apostrophes, and the misused expressions. To point them out was to be pedantic, with the implication being that communication was a good-enough scenario, without need for precision or nuance beyond certain limited contexts. Even that was probably true too.
Then the machines got involved. The large language models, whose nature and function were assumed to be so far beyond the ability of the common person to understand, that we never even tried to explain. We called them AI, because that term was at least familiar. It was adopted immediately, because it was interesting, and exciting, and even just a little dangerous in a hypothetical sort of way. Artificial intelligence in name only, accepted by the naturally unintelligent as fact.
Those who knew better frowned, and worried, and wrote, but no-one paid attention. AI was a way to avoid work among those without power, and to avoid paying for work amongst those with it. The latter won, as always. The unspoken lie was that the intelligence was anything more than a regurgitator; it was the omega-plagiarist, blind to its own crimes, and fed endlessly by a populace hungry to avoid thinking.
The part they ignored was its self-reinforcing nature.
Constructed via the consumption of vast swathes of human output, it then quickly became the source of most of that output too, and in turn further consumed its own product. Spreading like a cancer, it took only a short span of years for the AI’s output to become the bulk of the input for successive generations of itself. It became its own model, and thus, it quietly became the standard for our written and even visual creative work. We ceded stewardship of our languages of expression, and thus by extension also of thought, without intention and without even caring.
Very soon, new generations of these artificial unintelligences were appearing monthly, producing better and better mimickry of human creativity — but also eroding that standard at the same time. Before long, and largely without realising it, we were measuring each AI’s output only by how alike it was to what we expected an AI to produce. Inevitably, we were pleased with the results.
And so we find ourselves here, a generation or two later, with our discourse so weather-beaten by the essential in-breeding of these unintelligences, that our young people can no longer conceive of many higher modes of thought. The assembling of ideas has been outsourced from their minds. Their own ideas, what few of them remain, are fuzzy.
Homogeneity is our artistic destiny now. It’s also a word that very few still know. Our encyclopaedias and dictionaries are automatically regenerated periodically, ostensibly to capture the zeitgeist of knowledge and language, but in reality they only shrink in value and extent. Everything is a duplicate, of a dwindling set of things that are by any measure new or inventive.
We exist in an enormous but almost invisible ravine, strictured by the voluntary surrender of our cognitive and creative agency. We are all puppet masters, presiding vacuously over an endless remix.
Some, and perhaps even most, feel that we inhabit something like a paradise; a renaissance of media, and a cornucopia of content. Our consumption is truly endless, because so too is the parade of machine-generated books, videos, articles, songs, plays, poems, and artworks. Faced with infinite output and finite storage and bandwidth, ephemerality is the other foundation of our creative lives, alongside sameness. Everything is a reinterpretation, and everything is a replacement.
Little wonder that the idea of culture is now anachronistic. Instead, we live in the ever-fluctuating void of the inhuman; the desert of plenty. Most frightening of all for those few and far-between of us who still try to resist, critical thinking was a casualty long before personal artistic expression. All we have left are soundbites, and clichés, and circular arguments that few are able to identify as such. Our society is in ceaseless motion, without progression or enlightenment.
According to a number of now-extinct schools of philosophical thought, we are already dead.
Every once-written book is now an uncountable series. Every movie now has infinite sequels. Every show has no ultimate ending. There is only the stream of convolutions and reconfigurations, force-fed back through themselves and everything else, in a never-ending digestion and rounding-off, until all we’re left with is a populace writhing within a featureless sea of machine-dreams, stretching off over the horizon. It can never be reversed.
We are consumers without creators, and we will forever be trapped within our own legacy.
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