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🌍 New spheres of reality
Somewhere to escape to while the world comes crashing down around us
Hiyer — thank you for opening this email and at the very least trying to read it. Have I told you recently that I find you quite delicious?
I wrote most of this while suffering a head cold so… good luck with it.
Recently the journalists who run 404 Media made a podcast episode where they discussed how Amazon’s marketplace has become awash with AI generated books about mushroom foraging. You’d think — you’d HOPE — that these books were so poorly written that no one would take them seriously. But apparently they are very convincing and therefore d e a d l y. Without sounding too crass it’s quite refreshing to see the inaction of a Big Tech company result in potential harm to novice mushroom foragers — a minority group who are, for once, white and middle class.
Anyway… Amazon do not have a policy against AI generated books; these particular books were only taken down because they were flagged by a high-profile journalist. This obviously doesn’t count as a content moderation strategy, and books that advise you to poison yourself (whether or not they were written by AI) should probably not be available on the largest online book store in the world. What really got me about this podcast was how the 404 Media journalists were earnestly discussing why anyone would ever want to make, sell, or buy a book entirely generated by AI. They were all astonished to learn that on Amazon’s top 100 young adult romance novels list, only 19 of the books were written by humans. Their astonishment is, to me, a perspective that completely lacks nuance. They were assuming that this new paradigm of book consumption is completely horrific, which according to the theme of this newsletter, is the WRONG thing to assume.
I of course absolutely love assuming that everything if horrific, because then you can spend your time laughing at dystopia and never solving any problems. But in all seriousness, what did the journalists of 404 Media expect? That people would not generate books using AI and then put them on a platform that is designed to sell cheaply-made rubbish at scale? In some twisted corners of the literature market, this is simply what books are now; unapologetic and very on-purpose nonsense. One of the books on the top 100 list was entitled ‘Department of Vindu Stands In Front of his Parents Tomb Stone’ and contained outright gibberish. The journalists referred to these books as a scam. I’m not sure if you can call a book full of obvious harmless nonsense a scam. It’s entirely possible that people would buy a book like that as a joke, and not because they thought they were purchasing a very good YA romance novel.
I think that this all feeds into the wider issue of having to watch all of our ‘trusted’ legacy systems become completely trivialised by Silicon Valley disruption: you don’t buy a book from an author and a publisher anymore; you buy it from a tech giant and a prompt engineer. And you don’t buy it to read… you buy it to be ironic. Leaps in innovation have, in a way, trivialised the way we make and consume all media: movies and TV shows exist in bottomless online buckets and are binge-watched, then mined for vibes and aesthetics that fuel online discourse, boost merchandise sales, and train generative AI systems. News has become clickbait; everything else has become hashtags and keywords.
Even relatively new systems have become trivialised. The mystical charter of Google’s SEO rules has inadvertently created unappealing and not useful ‘optimised’ websites which populate search results. You can’t search something like ‘how to train cat to toilet outside’ without sifting through pages and pages of tat first. This is just how we exist now. The systems that were designed to make things easier have accidentally made things harder.
AI generated books are just new spheres of reality for us
You may remember that a while ago, I compared the top-down deployment of AI systems to the concept of the magic circle in gaming. The creators of AI systems are players, and we are just unwitting non-player characters (NPCs), running into obstacles and trying not to get hurt. Well I’d like to expand on that comparison and say that as NPCs, we are all trying to construct our own spheres of reality within the magic circle; new spaces to exist in where we can feel safe, like a game within a game.
A sphere of reality is what we slip into when we cannot face what’s outside, which I guess we can call… actuality. Actuality is made up of these kinds of jabby things:
Knowing that one day, you will die
The awareness that your job makes the world a slightly worse place than it already is
Our spheres of reality are soft and protect us from these things; we construct them ourselves, but they are also constructed for us via systems of commodification. E.g. the nostalgia economy: it’s nice to keep watching and making movies/TV shows that hark back to a ‘better’ time before mobile phones, when everything was cheaper, and computer games were all janky and pixelated. When we live in the past, we can ignore how bleak the future is. That is why popular culture is now full of reboots and throwbacks; these are spheres of reality in which we can feel exactly how we felt when we watched The Matrix for the first time.
The Matrix is a useful example to tether to because of the relatively recent release of The Matrix 4. Lot’s of people hated it for very good reasons. For me it was that we should not — as a society who has already created something as monumental as the first Matrix movie — try and ‘remake’ The Matrix in any way. The Matrix was good because of when it came out, and because no one had ever seen anything like that before. Trying to recapture that feeling is frustrating, because it’s pretty much impossible.
This is where AI generated content comes in handy: you don’t have to remake an entire Matrix movie; you can just continually repackage its aesthetics. You can imagine new things for Morpheus to say, new clothes, new people to unplug — and none of it needs to live inside a blockbuster movie. You can do this with anything and everything. Books can become laughable party tricks instead of serious assets that inform us about what’s going on outside of our reality-sphere. You can go to character.ai and have a fake conversation with a celebrity or inanimate object. I just had a nice long chat with a bowl of spaghetti about how we might destroy our mutual enemies — this may be the deepest and most subtractive sphere of reality I’ve ever been in, but if it means I don’t have to think about my own mortality, then fine. I would be paralysed if I had to think about that all the time, ffs.