Creative Destruction of the Creatives

There is nothing that computers can do that humans can’t do themselves, with pencil and paper, if only we were given enough time. At a low enough level computation is mind-numbingly dumb. There’s no ghost-in-the-machine hiding down there.

But there is a ghost. It is hiding somewhere high above, up in the clouds where vast computing power roams amongst vast data sets. We are starting to see it now, starting to understand the ghost’s existence and artists are rightfully worried.

The ghost, we are realizing, is an effortless Michelangelo, a never sleeping Picasso. The ghost is a master of Photoshop and Illustrator and any paint program you can name. It must have limits but we have not found them yet and those limits are surely expanding faster than the area we have searched, the map changing as we draw the map.

I’m a photographer and I’m worried.

For the past thirty-three years we’ve been changing photography from something that is recorded in a camera, printed in a darkroom, and displayed as a paper print in a frame on a wall to something that is recorded in a camera, photoshopped on a computer screen and displayed on a computer screen. With two out of the three major steps in photography already fully digitized, we foolishly did not anticipate that the first would soon be as well.

Computational power increases exponentially and we are now on the part of the curve that looks like a straight vertical line. Our cameras still work as they did yesterday, our inkjet printers still print, but what can we do against such computational competition? If we are facing an existential crisis now what will we be doing in five years when today’s AI will look like 1990’s Photoshop 1.0?

Is photography over? Not dead and gone because it will never be gone. If you like you can buy a camera that takes 8×10-inch sheet film (or heck, a light-sensitized glass plate) and go merrily on your way making images as they did a century and more ago. Photography will live forever. But is it over as an art form central to our modern world? Was it over even before the ghost revealed itself?

The advent of cell phone cameras and online life raised image-viewing to one of life’s dominant experiences, everyone both audience and performer all of the time. There are so many photographs. AI adds quality to that quantity. In the first few months of MidJourney’s public existence, many individual users have created tens of thousands of professional-looking images. You type a few words, review the results, modify those words and review the new results. The ease of creation is unequaled by any other art form. AI artists themselves are their own flood of images.

Ten thousand monkeys typing for ten thousand years would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare but the power of computation will soon reduce those monkeys to a prompt and a pause of a few seconds while the AI puts the finishing touches on yet another masterwork.

You can see the near future. It’s ten thousand monkeys, typing in ten thousand prompts and producing ten thousand plays worthy of Shakespeare. It’s all good but there is just so much of it.

Do you really think Stieglitz’s The Steerage or Weston’s Pepper No. 30 will be able to hold their own—in visceral impact—displayed alongside whatever AI-assisted tools will produce in the next five years? Historical importance, connoisseurship, yes, but wow factor?

That there is “nothing new under the Sun” is true and has always been true ever since the first artist blew pigment onto a cave wall and so proclaiming “mimicry!” of the AI work while wrapping ourselves in the comforting cloak of “originality” will do us little practical good. The Steerage was made nineteen years after one of the highlights of early documentary photography,Bandits Roost, by Jacob Riis, and Weston’s Pepper was overtly influenced by Henry Moore’s soft, curvaceous forms. AI just automates this process at a scale and speed inconceivable even to its users.

But is AI-art photography? Is photography even photography? Change a few pixels of a photograph and its starts down the path of the blurring of definitions that ends up at the pot-o-gold of over-sharpened, over-saturated, every-blemish cloned-out, digital perfection and way way beyond. We never did find a way to define a straight photograph versus a unicorn fantasy so there’s no chance now of defining away AI-art into its quiet little corner. Everything is art (as the art world has tried so hard to demonstrate for going on forever now), everyone is an artist. You don’t need any technical skills or special sensitivity or anything else but a few magic words and you have art. The art world has been there and done that, too, like going on forever, so it’s a wonder that AI caught it so off-guard.

Creative destruction of the creatives. We thought that AI, if it ever came, would come for the poor schleps, the people whose job was answering phones, the bank tellers, the secretaries, the menial office workers all over. We creatives would be living large then, our worth finally revealed and appreciated, riding in our driverless Ubers from our favorite barista to our next gallery opening sipping wine and eating chocolate-covered strawberries the whole way, and now we find that the damned AI is coming for us instead. For a class of people who live by their imaginations who among us could have imagined such a thing?