Porcelain kittens on grandparents' couch-side tables. Tie-dye on hippies. Eight-bit pixel patterns for '90s nerds. Lumberjack plaid on Brooklyn hipsters. Each cultural era tends to develop its own characteristic patterns. These are imagery and symbols that may have once had some kind of literal significance for human beings or specific reason for being—the necessity of minimal graphics in early video games leading to eight-bit style, for example—but gradually lose their specific meanings as they transform into kitsch.
We are lucky, if that is indeed the right word, to have received a glimpse into the kitsch of the future this week. Popping up around the Internet has been warped, surreal imagery that looks like a computer took acid and stared at itself in the mirror too long. Curved lines distort into biomorphic shapes, and then evolve into specific animals. Eyes appear where eyes should not be. This nightmare plague was caused by Google's "Deep Dream" project, an image-processing algorithm that turns otherwise normal photos into sickly visions worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.
Deep Dream is described as a "neural network." What this vague term means more prosaically is that Google's filter is a set of equations that has been trained on a pre-existing body of knowledge to recognize certain patterns in data—in this case, colored pixels. Deep Dream was fed a bank of images, from which it was taught to see various real-world objects (the same technology behind Google's image recognition research) by their specific shapes. Then, it is given a fresh image, works to recognize objects within it, and re-filters the results so the objects it finds look more like objects. Repeat ad nauseam, literally, until the results sicken you.
Google's "Deep Dream" project: an image-processing algorithm that turns otherwise normal photos into sickly visions worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.
It might be easier to put Deep Dream under the category of machine learning, since there's little analytical intelligence used on the images. They lack all logic, at least of a human variety. Deep Dream transforms the Horsehead Nebula into a series of dog faces (perhaps the neural network has looked at the meme-ified Three Wolf Moon T-shirt one too many times). Pornography evolves toward extremely gross slugs that have grown arms and legs.
If Deep Dream looks psychedelic, it's because the computer is undergoing something that humans experience during hallucinations, in which our brains are free to follow the impulse of any recognizable imagery and exaggerate it in a self-reinforcing loop. Think of a psychedelic experience, where "you are free to explore all the sorts of internal high-level hypotheses or predictions about what might have caused sensory input," Karl Friston, professor neuroscience at University College London, told Motherboard.
Deep Dream sometimes appears to follow particular rules; these aren't quite random, but rather a result of the source material. Dogs appear so often likely because there were a preponderance of dogs in the initial batch of imagery, and thus the program is quick to recognize a "dog." This reinforces Deep Dream as not just a piece of technology but as a discrete visual style, the same as Impressionism, Surrealism, or the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian. Just as Mondrian's work was printed on pants or the iconic Solo Jazz Cup pattern reproduced on T-shirts, Deep Dream imagery will eventually enter into the vernacular. It will no longer be strange, but instantly recognizable.
Kitsch "offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation," according to the philosopher Walter Benjamin, a pioneer of the idea. The description fits perfectly for this new genre of algorithmically generated imagery. It requires no criticality or particular intellectual effort to digest, nor does it provide much reward in return. Deep Dream is our own visual culture, chopped up in a blender and spoon-fed back to us.
Deep Dream makes this complex algorithm somewhat tangible; that is what makes for Benjamin's qualification of "gratification without intellectual effort." It gives us a coherent, funny example of an abstract technology that few mainstream consumers can understand, yet is quickly coming to dominate the industry. Facebook learns what you like and don't like. Google automatically tags your images. Soon enough, your phone will recognize your face. The goofy protuberances of Deep Dream squash anxieties about these changes into an aesthetic that can be minimized and laughed off (until you go to sleep, at least).
Deep Dream is not just a piece of technology, but a discrete visual style, the same as Impressionism, Surrealism, or the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian.
The kitsch of the future is emerging in other areas as well. The artist and developer James George uses infrared cameras like the Xbox Kinect to translate footage into hazes of single dots connected by networks of lines, like an x-ray of the world. He has described the videos he makes as "vacation home-movies shot by aliens." George's aesthetic, which is spread through custom-made tools that he shares online, estranges us from our surroundings. And it's already being incorporated into music videos.
Take for another example the triangular pointed framework of face recognition software. By tagging the anchor-points of our faces—pupils, nose, cheekbones, chin—algorithms reduce the main visual symbol of our unique identities into a numerical equation. Given the terrifying prospect of losing our humanity to machines, it's no wonder that we've incorporated the face-recognition framework into make-up and masks. We make its consequences less dangerous by digesting it into another spoonful of kitsch culture.
One enterprising user fed Google's machine an image of the Twin Towers smoking on 9/11. Out came a pastel-colored picture of five-eyed, eight-legged dogs floating out from a few pillars. Deep Dream estranges us from our fears, perhaps, but it doesn't make them go away. It's easy to discuss Deep Dream as an independent creature, a foreign intelligence that we interact with for fun. Yet like all kitsch, it comes straight back to its creators.
Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.