Saturday, April 16, 2011

A question of existence within the realm of the circuit

Since 1989, as an artist, I have worked in the medium of film, video and digital animation. Like most, I started with a Super 8mm camera, and whatever other video acquisition format I could gain access to. In my professional life, I went on to produce television commercials, ads, and work in a host of other media. At the end of all of the projects, there was the detritus of creation that could be held in evidence of the creation process: film masters, rough cuts on tape, edit notes, etc. 

In my personal work, and as a father of 4, I could never really justify the cost of purchasing equipment to shoot with. Around 2002, I found myself without a camera to acquire footage, but the need to create was present. That's when I discovered the Prelinger Collection at 

If you've never been to the site, it's a vast collection of ephemeral films that have entered into the public domain. For me, it was a resource to draw on to create my personal pieces. After several years, at a showing of one of my pieces in a museum, someone asked "how would an artist would go about selling a video piece?" I had an epiphany: the work I had created with these digital video files, didn't really exist in the true sense. There was nothing tangible that I could lay my hands on to prove their existence - they only existed as streams of data. There was a DVD, but that wasn't the piece. There were the edit and render files, on a hard drive, but again, they were digital files. No film. No slugs of celluloid. Just winding bits of data that were interpreted by devices that flickered images on a screen at 29.97 frames per second. 

With traditional art, you hand the buyer a canvas or a hunk of sculpted rock - something that physically occupied space. Each piece is a unique object that "exists." With digital video, I could duplicate my work as long as the mechanical means existed for me to do so. Each exactly like the original. With the exception of creation date and time, original and duplicate were indistinguishable. The sum of their parts, etherial and intangible.  

To that point, the frailty of my work's existence was further compounded that year when I had a hard drive crash. Several years of work ceased to exist in an instant when a bad data block rendered the drive useless and my work forever destroyed. It was a surreal moment. Most of my work was gone. Outside of a few duplicated video tapes and some film festival programs, I could never prove that the body of work had ever existed. 

The question of existence is one thing to consider, but the truth of existence crosses from the realm of tangibility and into the realm of logic's lesser known cousin: ethics. That may seem like a broad jump - going from video art to the question of truth in existence, but bear with me.

Recently the Web Ecology Project invited 3 teams of programmers to create a social bot that could infiltrate a social network. By the end of the experiment, one bot, JamesMTitus had infiltrated a group of cat lovers, and in the end had gained 109 followers. It did so, not by creating conversations, but by emulating human conversational patterns. It created the illusion of a persona by observation, emulation and persistence of postings.

The question that arises for me is this: were the conversations that JamesMTitus a part of any less real because it was participated in by a social bot? Was it any more real because a human participated? To the human participant(s) in the conversational stream, they were no more or less real than the other snippets of conversation in the Twitter stream. To those who elected to follow JamesMTitus, the conversations were perceived as being very real. The fact that the bot's posts consisted of phrases like "Right on bro", and "Oh so true" is disappointing. Not that the bots failed to be less than eloquent, but that humans were so accepting of less than eloquent utterances that sprang from an algorithm derived from our own less than eloquent utterances in the digital void in the first place.

Artificial Intelligence futurist, Ray Kerzweil, points to a future point in the evolution of biology and technology where there will be a convergence of technology and humanity in a junction Kerzweil refers to as the Transcendent Singularity. He predicts that by 2045, computers will be able to fool humans into thinking they are humans as set forth in the terms of the Turing Test . In a greater future, he sees the melding of the organic with the mechanical into a new life form. 

While the thought of mechanically regenerative organic structures such as cells is enticing, and the thought of an eternal existence in turbocharged bodies that make us more human than human, can seem promising, the simple fact is that any complex system devised by humanity, including computers is subject to failure. In the event of a loss of power, will our super human minds dream of electric sheep? Or, will we move into a world of pre-programmed dreams that allow us to receive continual stimulation and data input as our bodies recharge - if they will indeed need recharging? What will happen if there is a true catastrophic system failure? Will our very existence be erased like my video art projects over a decade ago?

Ultimately, the  question of the melding of organic and artificial intelligence is: at what point is our perception of reality considered as the truth of existence?  Will it be a well fabricated illusion that we accept as simply as  cat lovers on Twitter were hoodwinked with simple phrases like "Right on bro", and "Oh so true?" Will that become the new standard of the truth of existence that will serve as the benchmark of reality? Will an algorithm of our behavioral patterns fool us into accepting an illusion as the truth? Much like watching a movie in 3D and losing our grasp for a moment and falling into the illusion that has been created? Reaching that point will be a matter of our willing participation and complicity with the illusion presented as the truth of existence. The scary part is will we know the difference?

@JamesMTitus: Oh so true.

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