Only half a year has passed since I started writing about generative AI, but the technology keeps progressing at such astonishing speed that some of my earlier experiments look positively primitive. Ever since, ChatGPT and high-res image generators like Midjourney have become so good and produce such credible results that more and more AI creations are breaking into the mainstream.
Making pictures of Trump getting arrested while waiting for Trump's arrest. pic.twitter.com/4D2QQfUpLZ— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) March 20, 2023
To me, that process has certain inflection points; viral bits of pop culture that upend the dialogue about AI. Each inflection point marks not just an advance in how the technology is progressing, but also in how we, collectively, make sense of it.
Exhibit A: That picture of the pope in a puffer coat, which exploded right around the same time as the now infamous images of Donald Trump getting arrested. Like everyone else, I was worried about the effect these fakes would have on our collective perception of reality, but it turns out there’s also a pop cultural upside to it all—which brings me to…
Exhibit B: Harry Potter by Balenciaga. A totally different beast of AI-generated culture, not only because it brings together images, voice, and video, but also because it leans into the absurdity of AI.
In the New Yorker, Kyle Chayka writes about Harry Potter by Balenciaga in the context of “illusionary realism”, where the fake becomes AI-generated pop culture:
The combination of child-friendly film and adult luxury fashion held no particular symbolism nor expressed an artistic intent. It’s “entertainment,” […]. Yet the video’s most compelling aspect might be its vacuity, a meaningless collision of cultural symbols. The nonsense is the point.
Terry Nguyen, picks up on that idea:
Recently in The New Yorker, Kyle wrote about the “illusory realism” of AI-generated pop culture. People aren’t really alarmed by the experimentation in a video like “Harry Potter by Balenciaga.” They’re simply enjoying, or mindlessly consuming, the content without much deep thought. We’re only alarmed when we feel like we’ve been duped, as was the case with the Pope puffer. However, increased exposure to, and the proliferation of, AI-generated images will have an effect similar to photographic paresthesia. We may not be as shaken by their existence. In fact, we could even grow numb to them. Still, upon recognition, our skin will crawl. Our eyes will alert us to the off-ness of synthetic body parts, like warped fingers or glassy eyes. We’re going to have to learn to look closer. Seeing doesn’t necessarily mean believing.
There has been a widely-shared concern about a possible future inflection point, where the TikTok algorithm becomes so spot on, and the AI-generated content so credible, that it’ll combine to create custom content for each of us, yielding a world where we’re all just consuming bespoke content in our respective niches. But maybe that concern had it all wrong: Maybe artifacts like Harry Potter by Balanciaga prove that there’s a real demand for those those collective experiences, no matter if they’re fake or real, that drive the cultural conversation.