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Die A Little

Published on in Design

To this day, machine-generated text annoys me profoundly. Computer poetry creates a vortex deep inside. Every time I read a computer-generated text, I feel like part of my life has been sucked out of me into a little black electric hole.

When we talk with each other, we do not exchange data, we exchange how we feel. In a great conversation, it’s a give and take: you strike a match in your mind that starts a fire between us. Language transports emotion.

A computer has no body, no mind. The emotion transported by computer-generated text is one-sided. There is no match, and mostly, there is no fire either. Reading a computer poem, the emotion carried by the words only exists in one mind, my mind. Knowing that before I read these no one felt these words is profoundly sad. It makes me feel as lonely as reading a poem by Hölderlin makes me feel connected through time.

When Computers Pretend to be Human

This changes if a computer pretends to be human. Then even an average poem can become meaningful, beautiful even. As long as no one tells us it was a computer who wrote it. We do not need to wait another 30 years, for that to happen. Chinese AI specialists already found a way to write average poems that are kind of okay and pass a passive poetry Turing test. We are already talking to computers that pretend to be human without noticing.

As a realistic, scientific, pragmatic person you may say that it doesn’t matter whether a poem was written by a human or a computer if it can fool us into believing so. It may matter though. The meaning of words does not just change within their tighter verbal context. They change depending on who speaks them, where, and when. Imagine your mother, Barack Obama your school friend or your daughter saying “I’m exhausted.” It feels like dragging the sentence through a rainbow of meaning. Now imagine a computer saying it. There is something frighteningly fake in the funny absurdity of a tired computer. The possibility of a complete collapse of any meaning.

The Digital Vortex

As a young philosophy student in Paris, my student friend David was fascinated that computers can completely erase written language without leaving any trace. Computers have the power to completely annihilate hours, weeks, and years of our lives. I write a text with light, it gets magnetized on a hard drive and when I delete a document it is gone forever completely, eradicated. To me, this is what is really new about computers. The ability to fully delete.

You can write on a piece of paper and burn it. It’s messy. You have to find a good place to burn, strike matches, blow, get rid of the ashes and they may have their butterfly moments. But with a computer, you reformat the hard drive and all your words and the time and energy you put into them are clean zeros. Even words we speak are more material than that. The words we speak make waves in the air and those will eventually change people and, microscopically, things and they continue through the universe. Computers can act like little black electric holes that suck in the time and work we put into that Word document and leave us with nothing.

You get the idea: Computers have the power to completely annihilate human time.

Wasting Time With Computers

Funny enough, these days, whatever we put in digital form risks to never be forgotten. Even the silliest dumbest things may live forever. Which is another form of fresh hell computers inflict on us. To be remembered for dumb things, forever.

Spending time with computers we still risk that all the energy we invested in communicating with them disappears into that little black electric holes that used to eat our Word documents. When we talk to computers, we risk dying a little, as we lose time to the possibility that all our energy turns to zeroes.

If I talk to a computer calculated to make me chat with it, I feel like it feeds on my mind. To understand the words processed by a computer I need to pretend that those words mean something. In order to talk to a machine, I have to give it a personality. I have to pretend that plastic, wire and silicon lives.

Pretending things are beings is easy. We can project the character of an intelligent grown-up human into cars, toasters, animals, and babies without much thought or effort. Just as we project a meta-wise human spirit into nature. And we are used to pretending the most outrageous fiction is real. But talking to computers without knowing that they are computers is not the same thing. It’s a vicious charade.

As long as I am aware that I am talking to a computer, it’s a game that I may even enjoy. Talking to a computer as if it were a puppy or Einstein may be cute, fun, and interesting. Cute, like the little thoughts we project into the imagined human mind inside the mind of a cat pic. Fun like the kid having fun talking to a superhero teddy bear. Interesting like observing rats in a labyrinth. Maybe there is a playful dimension to computer poetry that yet has to reveal itself to my body and mind.

Communicating Through a Screen we can be Easily Fooled

Communicating through a screen we don’t always know if we are talking to another human or to a machine. The moment where I realize that I have just been chatting for two hours with a computer and that everything I thought I had understood was just a ruse to extract my understanding… The moment where I realize that instead of becoming someone else for a moment, I was indeed sitting all alone in front of my computer, losing time… The moment when I realize that I was talking to something constructed to harvest my understanding for commercial use… At that moment I die a little. Not too much. A little.

Maybe, I just wasted a couple of seconds decoding a house number. Maybe I just wasted a couple of Minutes sending Android information about that restaurant. Maybe I just wasted a couple of hours browsing Facebook. But these hours are potentially lost in a sea of entropy, the cellar of a database or evaporated into zeroes.

Mostly, our soliloquy with computers will not go to waste. Google, Facebook, or whatever AI managed to plug into our minds, we helped them do what computers cannot do: We helped them understand. A couple of years ago we helped them understand house numbers, street signs, and whether a restaurant was a restaurant for students or families. Our human understanding gets calculated into ever more complex formulas until our computer masters only need us as abstract carriers of a Universal Basic Income to keep the cash inflow.

The likely coda of the digital economy is not pretty: addicted to junk content and losing our way in the infinite memes of dubious provenance, we, the online surplus population, will be eventually asked to fend for ourselves. The tech firms will surely have superb AI protection to sell us. The cognitive elites will prosper, fasting on the digital equivalent of kale and quinoa and browsing the artisanal, handcrafted content hidden from the uninitiated. The rest will be gorging on cheap, trivial, AI-generated memes – until, at least, we buy the premium package of our favorite platform and regain some sanity. Money spent on Facebook will be money well spent. – Evgeny Morozov

Is there a better use of our time than helping machines understand and make ourselves superfluous? You don’t need to start writing poems. Just pay attention to not pour half your life into the digital void.