The Fast & The FurAIous
One thing led to another and here we are.
Two years ago, when I was using VQGAN+CLIP in a janky Google colab sheet I would not have predicted that I was typing “Kim Kardashian Breaks the Internet Linocut Print” into one of the earliest harbingers of an impending crisis of capitalism. But one thing led to another and here we are.
The prevailing overwrought belief in AI’s magical power has already proven destabilizing. Tesla’s lawyers tried to imply in court that because AI can now create semi-lifelike videos, any video of their semi-lifelike CEO Elon Musk could be fake. “Achewood” creator Chris Onstad has been forced to clarify that AI is not writing his beloved comic strip now. Even the lazy libertarian econo-blogging industry was disrupted by fake Francis Bacon quotes, according to Maria Bustillos. And in the Wall St. Journal, Miles Kruppa reported that Google is so freaked out that it’s getting ready to fuck up its whole bag by replacing the degraded but still basically functional “10 blue links” search results with some kind of AI nonsense.
Google plans to make its search engine more “visual, snackable, personal, and human,” with a focus on serving young people globally, according to the documents.
Sounds terrible! Google IO is happening right now, and I just checked in and sure enough someone is describing how Google Docs is going to AI-Clippy you to death soon. The only even vaguely positive take I’ve seen on AI recently was Dave Karpf arguing that it will be good at doing tasks that don’t need to be done: “writing memos that no one will ever read, for example.” He’s really trying to find a positive use case here, but in his defense it’s clearly motivated by intellectual rigor, and not sympathy for the bots or their makers.
But this week, just when the worst are full of passionate intensity and the villains seem unstoppably ascendent, it feels like we finally started Act 2. Engines rev in a neon-lit garage. Headlights lance the darkness. Fast cuts from narrowed eyes in the rearview to a gloved hand on a grinning death’s-head gearshift to a tailpipe glowing with a blue flame and back to the garage entrance where a Fast & Furious dream team of cultural commentators screams into the night in brand-new 10 second cars.
In the lead: the undisputed Dominic Toretto of AI critics, Ted Chiang in The New Yorker. I know I mentioned this one on Monday but it’s so good. Please read it if you haven’t already—here’s a non-paywalled link, even. Chiang is not just talking about AI, he’s tackling a much bigger question that’s threaded through the history of mechanization and automation since the Luddites:
The tendency to think of A.I. as a magical problem solver is indicative of a desire to avoid the hard work that building a better world requires. That hard work will involve things like addressing wealth inequality and taming capitalism. For technologists, the hardest work of all—the task that they most want to avoid—will be questioning the assumption that more technology is always better, and the belief that they can continue with business as usual and everything will simply work itself out.
Just behind him is Naomi Kleinin the Guardian with a close read of the AI industry’s favorite word for their creations’ mistakes: “hallucination.”
By appropriating a word commonly used in psychology, psychedelics and various forms of mysticism, AI’s boosters, while acknowledging the fallibility of their machines, are simultaneously feeding the sector’s most cherished mythology: that by building these large language models, and training them on everything that we humans have written, said and represented visually, they are in the process of birthing an animate intelligence on the cusp of sparking an evolutionary leap for our species. How else could bots like Bing and Bard be tripping out there in the ether?
She also punctures some of the biggest hallucinations of AI proponents: that the machines will save us from climate change, “cruel and ineffective” governance, and all kinds of general drudgery. Like Chiang, Klein refers back to other moments in capitalist history when we could have chosen differently but failed to:
These models are enclosure and appropriation machines, devouring and privatizing our individual lives as well as our collective intellectual and artistic inheritances. And their goal never was to solve climate change or make our governments more responsible or our daily lives more leisurely. It was always to profit off mass immiseration, which, under capitalism, is the glaring and logical consequence of replacing human functions with bots.
And bringing up the rear, who’s that? It’s the sandy-haired kid, America’s fresh-faced boy, you might not give him a second glance in a crowd but don’t be fooled, he’s got mad skills, and he’s been around this track more times than you think: it’s John Herrman driving New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, examining the new “learn to code” cudgel being wielded against striking TV writers and anyone else the Twitter Paychecks don’t like:
It’s AI as a reckoning, a punisher, a revealer of frauds. It’s AI as a future vindicator of their hunches about how the world works, and as an extension of their politics. It’s AI as a cleansing force that humbles your enemies and proves you right — AI as economic rapture. It’s AI as your army-in-waiting just over the horizon, your punishing angel, or maybe just as the thing that’s going to embarrass the people who annoy you online. A lot of sunnier AI speculation is clearly wish fulfillment, and so is this. AI is my big, strong friend, and he’s going to beat you up.
John has hit his stride at NYMag to such an extent that he’s casually dropping multiple bangers a week now, posting a new one today about AI’s stillborn tech industry twin the metaverse, building on Ed Zitron’s Monday obit for Mark Zuckerberg’s assless Playskool Zoom clone.
But just when you think all of tech is villainous—there’s also Tumblr. Today Intern Camille investigated a bug in the comic relief of social media platforms, and I think you’ll be surprised at what she found, unless you’re already familiar with Tumblr’s institutional dedication to chaos.
Recently, a Tumblr user discovered what they thought was a bug. Normally, if a user presses the R button while hovering over a post, the post is reblogged. However, if the R button is held down while hovering over the post, the post is reblogged ad nauseum, with the original discoverer of this reblogging a post upwards of 200 times. When they reached out to Tumblr about this, Tumblr support said that this was a feature, not a bug.
Tumblr reblogs have been pushed to their limit by both users and the site design itself: pre-September 2015, reblog comment chains were made of blockquotes, which could push past the edges of the page and leave mobile users looking at a digital corduroy of gray lines. While some used the blockquotes for comedic effect, they became almost incomprehensible with the change in format.
And while the rapid-fire reblog feature was already used to spam-reblog and annoy the original poster to the extent that they changed the original post due to notification overload, it also coincides with two things: first, Tumblr updating their mute notifications feature, and second, the recent trend of people seeing posts with a low notes count and saying "to me, this is a 10k post" in an attempt to will virality into being. I guess now you can make anything into a 10k post from the comfort of your R key and also be easily ignored?
The ecosystem of Tumblr has always been founded on its users irreverence for the site’s design and features (see: Xkit or Missing e). While the platform may have changed (and Yahoo’s former CEO regrets wrecking Tumblr instead of Netflix), the irreverence manages to remain.
The archaic word of the day is toshend: to absolutely destroy.
—Camille Butera | Total notes: 89,998
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Today in Crabs: Many of you ensured that I did not miss this crab alignment chart. I am a crab.
ClipBase: search YouTube videos for a phrase. I’ve made a huge mistake. “Utah author of children’s book on grief charged with murdering her husband.” National treasure and McMansion Hell architecture critic Kate Wagner in The Baffler: “Bad Manors: The McMansion as harbinger of the American apocalypse.”
Two followup notes on Elizabeth Holmes and her extremely suspicious dog: in Slate, Rebecca Onion explained that history’s better-known Balto the dog was also, incredibly, a famous grifter. And Tom Scocca gave the Chozick profile its most generous possible reading, but still concluded that “Maybe the proportion… of anti-Holmes to pro-Holmes material was 60-40, or even 70-30. Without the story, the share of pro-Holmes material in the Sunday paper would have simply been zero.” This is a paid Indignity post and if you’re all the way down here reading me telling you to read it, I am confident that you won’t regret paying for Indignity.
Finally: Do you sometimes wistfully recall when Casey Johnston was primarily a tech blogger? Well no one should wish that life on her again, but she did dip a toe back in with a gripping detective story for Defector: Into Thin AirPods.
Today’s Song: is a Tabs first! A reader wrote in on Monday with a question for Music Intern Sam:
Yo I am dating a girl who likes nu metal; can music intern Sam recommend a band that will make me seem cool?
Music Intern Sam: Good news! You're not cool, but neither is she, and neither am I, because liking nu-metal is not, was not, and never will be cool. And that's a pretty solid foundation for a relationship! Being corny together is an essential part of emotional intimacy. Treasure every moment.
That said, it's always safe to start with Deftones, especially if you work backwards from White Pony. Listen to this playlist inspired by an old friend’s expert recommendations, which included stalwarts Linkin Park, P.O.D. and Korn. (Follow @kornsexual for vibes.) If you need something newer, Bring Me The Horizon has sick, authentically cringe-adjacent bangers like “teardrops” and “die4u”. And the most relevant nü-nu-metal isn’t being made by men: MUNA tourmates Nova Twins rock so fucking hard and Main Pop Girl Rina Sawayama's "STFU" is probably the best example of the genre since its OG run.
But if you really want to know what it felt like back then, take it from me: this is nü-metal's most essential document, its true apotheosis, an eternal banger, my most problematic fav:
(h/t Garbage Day)
Thanks Intern Sam, and thanks again Intern Camille. What a wall of text today, sorry. I guess I shouldn’t take time off. I’ll be back tomorrow, and Senior Correspondent Allegra Rosenberg will take over the Friday subscriber post this week, so until then get plenty of rest.
Oh look, there’s the Tabs mission statement.