From Mav: So, like a lot of other people I used the Lensa app to make myself a collection of random avatars last weekend. Why? Because all of my friends were doing it and if they were all going to jump off a cliff I would too. And yeah, that sounds silly, but honestly, that’s kinda what popular culture is. Going with the zeitgeist. Something became cool and memeable and I had to get in on it, because I am a cool kid, dude! And I’m kind of glad I did because I learned some really interesting things about myself based on decisions the AI made about me: 1) I can probably rock some dreds, or at least some twists in my hair, or I could even just “go full dragonball” and look pretty cool 2) I should also get more tattoos because the AI thinks I would look cool with a full arm sleeve. 3) I need to work out and get some superhero abs going, because I haven’t seen the stomach the AI thinks I have in like 20 years.
That said, even when I was first making them, I knew that there was going to be a little bit of controversy around this and I knew what it would be. And of course, I didn’t even get through the weekend before I started seeing people posting … let’s call it “activism by meme”. Basically people are posting arguments that you shouldn’t be making these avatars because they amount to theft from the artists who were used to train the AI. In my favorite, there’s some nebulous complaints about this not really being fair use and a comparison to stealing a car… which is a favorite complaint about people talking about digital rights and complete nonsense and then a call for people to educate themselves before using these tools. The problem is, education doesn’t come from just reading other people’s random social medial complaints and then sort of picking the ones you sort of kinda agree with.
I ran into this argument a couple months ago when everyone was using Midjourney after John Oliver posted about it, and my cohost from my other show, Andrew Deman, and I made some fan art of the Marvel comics character Magik using these. Someone tried to yell at us on Twitter because “if we really understood what was going on we’d never support this.” I actually tried to engage with one of them explaining that I did know how it worked and starting talking about the complexities remix culture and derivative works and then the guy blocked me… which I found fascinating because the whole conversation started because he wanted to talk to me about something I did. I figured I might do a show about it then, but I didn’t get around to it.
Then, a fascinating thing happened BESIDES just the Lensa thing. Something that probably didn’t get as much press unless you are in the tiny subset of the internet that is comic book artists. Celsys, the makers of a graphics program called Clip Studio Paint (which I love and which I used to use to draw Cosmic Hellcats back when we were working on that) announced that the next version of the software would have some AI image generation tools based on the Stable Diffusion platform (the same thing that Lensa uses). But since the tool primarily serves tech-weenie comic artists, there was a large vocal backlash and Celsys reversed course and announced that they were removing that feature. In other words, a software company opted to stop development on a tool that their competitors are absolutely going to adopt — sacrificing their competitive advantage — because their user base has an uninformed idea of what that tool actually is. That’s when I realized there was definitely something here and we had to do a show about it. The fervor around Lensa this week just cemented it.
The thing is, I get why people are worried about this, and honestly, some of the worries are valid, but the situation is a lot more complex than just saying “oh this is theft from real artists.” This is a complex web of ethics and culture and laws and algorithms and feelings and despite what people are acting like, it’s not really unique to AI artwork… or even AI in general. Part of this has to do with concepts we’ve talked about before, like on our Deep Fakes episode. But it goes beyond that too. This extends into conversations that have been going on for decades in the music industry because of cheaper digital recording and the availability of sampling (I highly recommend the free documentary RIP!: A Remix Manifesto if you’ve never seen it)… which ultimately resulted in the birth of hip hop and continuous controversy related to it. It extends beyond that to the discover of technologies like the photograph and… the printing press… and… well… the book. Actually that last comment was one of the things that made the rando on Twitter block me. I guess he assumed I was trolling him. I wasn’t! I think about this a lot. Like really a lot! It’s foundational to one of the classes I’m teaching this semester in fact!
The whole thing is wrapped up in a very complex question of “what is an original work of art anyway?” This is not as simple a question as it seems like. I can draw! I went to art school! Ok… but can I draw? I can sort of draw, but in all honesty, I’m not really doing anything TRULY innovative. My art is really a weird amalgamation of my attempts to replicate a meshing of Jack Kirby, John Buscema, John Romita Sr., John Romita Jr., Frank Miller, Art Adams, Jim Lee, Frank Cho, Matt Baker, Amanda Conner, Kenichi Sonoda, Izumi Matsumoto, Patrick Nagel, Jennifer Janesko, Dennis Mukai, Burne Hogarth, Richard Tibbits, Leonardo DaVinci, and probably bits and pieces of two dozen other people. Stable Diffusion, Midjourney and all the other AIs are literally doing the exact same thing (as is DeepFake). I’m just not as good at it as the computer is. And my inability to be perfect actually results in stylistic quirks that feel uniquely me. BUT, I’d argue the digital artwork has this same feature.
And even beyond just the technical and artistic stuff, there are much deeper issues of culture and hegemony and believe it or not, Marxism! Well, Marxism and Neoliberalism. Basically, this whole issue is sort of born a weird mixing of fairly progressive ideas about the importance of culture and art with a merger of trying to trap it within a very specific view of capitalist property rights that don’t really scale the way people sort of want them to.
And of course, obviously the whole thing is just more seeding of the database with your digital images so that it can grow. Basically we’re helping them “steal” from us.
So yeah… we want to talk about all of that. BUT FIRST, we want to know your thoughts before we record. Where do you stand on the general concept of AI art? Where do you stand on the argument that it’s theft? Do you think this is the end of artwork? Is it the beginning of the robot uprising? What questions do you have about how it works or the cultural issues associated with it? What things do you think we should be embracing or fearing. Let us know in the comments so we can talk about it on the show.