Humiliation and the Machine

Humiliation and the Machine

The UKAI team is back from a hectic period of travel. Two weeks in Bristol was followed by our studio lead, Luisa Ji, heading to Helsinki. The full team reconnected in Milan, Italy to wrap up our Poetics of Synthetic Language residency. More to share on that residency in the coming months!
“The very forces of matter, in their blind advance, impose their own limits. That is why it is useless to want to reverse the advance of technology. The age of the spinning-wheel is over and the dream of a civilization of artisans is vain. The machine is bad only in the way that it is now employed. Its benefits must be accepted even if its ravages are rejected. The truck, driven day and night, does not humiliate its driver, who knows it inside and out and treats it with affection and efficiency. The real and inhuman excess lies in the division of labor. But by dint of this excess, a day comes when a machine capable of a hundred operations, operated by one man, creates one some object. This man, on a different scale, will have partially rediscovered the power of creation which he possessed in the days of the artisan. … Either this value of limitation will be realized, or contemporary excesses will only find their principle and peace in universal destruction.“
- Camus, The Rebel (1951)
This strangely prescient (and ominous) quote came to us while in Milan as we dug into questions of the poetics of AI-generated language and engaged with art-book makers, publishers, printers, and others. We visited Kate Crawford's overwhelming work at the Prada Foundation and found ourselves in an industrial squat with an impressive sound system. We marveled at stunning villas designed by fascists for Mussolini's friends and allies. We learned that Milan was once full of canals, filled in under Mussolini's instruction in order to modernize the important financial center.

It is not difficult to see why Camus believed that life was absurd. However, it should be noted that he held that this recognition of absurdity was not an end, but rather a beginning. The danger, he felt, was responding to absurdity by attempting to impose our own values or some ideal future state onto others. He felt that rather than embracing transcendent values to be achieved in the future, we should be cultivating a love of the world and each other in the present. He applied his critique as vigilantly to authoritarian instincts on the right as on the left.

The argument around AI, like so much in the world today, is polarizing and polarized. There are clear injustices burned into these systems, yet seeking ever-greater limits on freedom (of expression, of action) seems a poor long-term strategy to increase justice.

This is where Camus saw the role of the artist, to rebel against the limiting binaries and to make visible other configurations that might suggest a path forward. Art should resist becoming an instrument of propaganda or oppression or revolutionary nihilism, something Camus was particularly concerned about in the context of the political turmoil of his time.

The machine, then, is neither good nor bad. Like anything real, it is stained by injustice and illuminated by the potential for beauty. The accelerating urge to limit freedoms in order to limit harms is not new. Too many limits leads to totalitarianism. Too few lead to terror.

AI tools, like anything else, involve claims of limits based on the potential for injustice and counter-claims for greater freedom. Perhaps, one role for the artist is to make visible other ways of constituting the situation so that both freedom and justice might be served and we can find our way out of fractious and narrow debates.
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.