The loss of interiority
All children eventually come to recognize that the people around them have inner lives very much like their own. And most of us have seen movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the Matrix that make us wonder at the reality of the people we interact with. The proliferation of ‘bots’ that respond in ways similar to human beings and the automation of interactions in everyday life is creating conditions where it is tempting to justify an unpleasant experience by denying the humanity of those on the other side. I’ve been accused of being a bot in interactions on Twitter and elsewhere. Having worked in the service industry, I’ve also been treated as if I weren’t fully conscious, by both supervisors and the customers I serve.
Bots are automated programs designed to perform a specific task. And there are lots of them. In 2020, 37.2% of all internet users were robots according to this study by Imperva. There were about twice as many “bad bots” as there were “good”. We might therefore be forgiven for wondering if the person helping us access our bank account or responding on Twitter is a real person and whether they have our best interests at heart.
Interiority refers to our inner character or nature. It is the dark soil of our actions. We express our inner meaning through the values articulated in our deeds. Or we can accept the values of our time and place and forego advancing our own beliefs. Regardless, it is impossible to live a value-neutral life.
Expressing our values is a responsibility rather than a necessity. We are answerable to heed or ignore the world’s call. Only those things without an inner consciousness are absolved from direct responsibility for the values their actions generate. The values in a painting, for example, are worked out through both the creator and the viewer and this work is never completed as new audiences bring their own inner life to bear on the work.
What happens when we begin to question whether those we interact with are real or automated and therefore if they possess a conscious internal life like our own?
We are experiencing the harm that happens when we deny our entanglement with the natural world in the form of climate change and environmental devastation. Moreover, communities least contributing to the creation of these harms are disproportionately suffering the impacts.
One potential consequence of our entanglement with automated systems and our denial of agency in others may be an inability or unwillingness to imagine the interior life of those with whom we interact. Governments and societies have long facilitated violence against communities through dehumanizing the “other”. What are the cultural consequences of developing habits of denying the interiority of those around us?
In 2020, developer Charlie Stigler noted that, "the iOS adult content filter blocks all searches with the keyword 'Asian', assuming it is a search for pornography." The algorithm both reflects and amplifies. If every search that contains the word ‘Asian’ a priori assumes a search for pornography then we are repeatedly reinforcing an idea that is fundamentally dehumanizing. The implications of this in the world outside our devices should be readily evident.
Perception is always refracted through the optics of uniqueness. Our location in time and place is necessarily unique as is that for others. How I perceive the world is influenced greatly by my body, culture, and landscape. Automated systems and the ethics assembled to govern them too often assume a standard framework of perception centered in a mythical universal culture.
In fact, a Fast Company article discovered that, “a search of the OECD AI ethics guidelines document reveals no mention of the word “culture,” but many references to “human.” Therein lies one of the problems with standards, and with the bias of the committees who are creating them: an assumption of what being “human” means, and the assumption that the meaning is the same for every human”.
The act of consummating another is a moral act. By turning toward them and attempting to inhabit their point of view of the world, we are acknowledging their uniqueness and irreplaceability (their dignity) and seeing ourselves and our world from a perspective that does not uniquely privilege our own. The proliferation of automated interactions and the design of systems that limit individual and collective autonomy accelerate a trend toward dehumanization and the ‘emptying out’ of strangers in both digital and real-world environments.
Our responsibility remains, particularly as artists and creators. We can choose to let our deeds articulate our values or we can accept official ideologies as our own. Peter Kirn in Minds, Machines, and Centralisation warns that, “users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own.“ Creators have long-served as means to “novelize” the world. A book or a play or a film provides people with opportunities to occupy the consciousness of others and to see a situation from a range of perspectives.
Art is a site for the working out of values. Art, by its nature, has permission to explore the expression of values in response to the world. However, the art world, particularly in the West, faces significant pressures to align itself with official ideologies. Whether embracing algorithmic tools as miraculous or creating art that speaks to an existential dread, the values being centered are abstract and at a distance from the underlying experiences they are meant to illuminate. How might these technologies provide us access to the interiority of our fellow human beings rather than a shiny but ultimately hollow exterior focused on agreeableness?
Documentary film offers a compelling history in the compulsion to objectify subjects in service to art. Nonfiction film-making has a track record of extraction and non-reciprocal exchange. Although thinking has evolved, this pattern has not been extinguished as, “the intricate and mobile circuits of power, exploitation, and self-fashioning that exist between maker and subject remain an enduring concern, even as many filmmakers foreground the ongoing search for ethical ways forward.”
We are in the early days of working with and talking about AI in the cultural sector. The debate is increasingly polarized between those optimistic of the benefits to be gained in size and efficiency and those concerned at the amplification of existing biases into ever-stronger systems. Different conceptions of a beautiful life must be centered in the development of AI. Who is working with algorithmic tools to help us inhabit the world and be in relation to those around us? Who benefits from imagining others as empty or automated?
Please share your thoughts in the comments. We’d also love to know who is doing interesting work that we should all know about.