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Who’s Afraid of Robot Culture?

Fear not the machines of the future. We can—and should—use the tools we’ve been developing to be both more critical and more creative.
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(Photo: Aratehortua/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Aratehortua/Shutterstock)

In a cri de coeur published by the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, Leon Wieseltier, the former culture editor of the New Republic, declaims the damaging effects of technology on culture. Or rather, the ways he sees technology intruding on his chosen sphere of criticism. “The discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business,” Wieseltier writes. “There are ‘metrics’ for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers.”

It’s true that Wieseltier is a victim of the “disruption” he decries. The power of TNR’s owner, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, to kick him out of a magazine he helped define reflects the ascendant authority of Silicon Valley and the decay of a certain liberal intellectual elite. But the editor’s greater argument is a shallow one, driven by an old fear of change. As technology takes over the world, Wieseltier argues, humanity is “too singular for the Singularity. But are we becoming posthumanists?”

To which I might respond, what’s so bad about being post-humanist? What Wieseltier misses is that a new culture—new bodies of thought, writing, and art—are emerging out of the technology we’ve built rather than being destroyed by it, Terminator-style.

WIESELTIER MAKES THE CASE for his own version of humanism as a realm of unquantifiable abstraction. Humanity, he might say, is the opposite of a number. “The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university,” he writes.

“Humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new,” he continues, echoing a refrain common among academics. Why are we studying coding and app development when we could be finding ourselves in classic novels, the true home of our unique souls? The answer is twofold, I think. Old formats have less relevance in a world now fluent in different media—online, interactive images and video. The second is that we’re still engaging all of the humanities Wieseltier loves, but employing new tools to do it.

NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH (often abbreviated NaNoWriMo) is an activity Wieseltier would likely celebrate—so much human creativity! But what about NaNoGenMo? The programmer and digital humanist Darius Kazemi proposed that instead of writing novels themselves, participants should write algorithmic code that could generate a novel from a given set of parameters. The beautiful results include Liza Daly’s generated version of the Voynich Manuscript, an icon of literally untranslatable human achievement.

Daly’s creation is a unique book that never existed, was assembled instantly, and will never exist again. How much more human could it be? I would argue that in our supposedly post-human time, poetry is often found in the depths of technology.

The proliferation of “bots” is just such an example. Like homunculi, these bits of literary code generate text until their human creators tell them to stop. Twitter bots re-mix their namesakes’ writerly output into an uncanny valley of social media satire. These projects show that technology is enabling a new reading of culture, rather than decreasing our ability to understand it.

Artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez recently launched a bot called “Novice Art Blogger.” The bot selects a random image of art from the archive of the Tate Modern in London and then runs it through an algorithm developed by researchers at Toronto University that is theoretically able to verbally describe what is in the picture. “They train it by feeding it loads of captioned images, and then it looks for similarities in the new images it receives,” Plummer-Fernandez says.

The results are delightfully fractured. “There are a few books placed on top of a couch,” the bot describes erroneously of a minimalist sculpture. “It stirs up a memory of the spines of three books on a white linen surface.” “A painting of a poster with a wall or perhaps man in a suit and hat with a blue ribbon on it,” is how it describes an abstraction by painter Manolo Millares.


Lovers by Bernard Meadows, 1980. As described by Novice Art Blogger: "A bunch of wooden sticks are on a wall next to a table but also there are three very wooden pieces of pottery. Reminds me of some wooden objects and beads in a display case." (Photo: Novice Art Blogger)

That the bot might be wrong isn’t the point. Rather, it’s a fresh re-interpretation of our culture, a revitalization that carries less of the inherent biases of someone like Wieseltier. “I was imagining that such a system would provide a more innocent and honest reading of art, without being burdened by art history, peer reviews, and collective consensus,” the artist says.

It’s not that technology shouldn’t be engaged critically; rather, we should use technology to be both more critical and creative. When Wieseltier references his paranoia of numerics and metrics, he ignores the fact that numbers and humanity are not incompatible—in fact, they’re inseparable. “I don't believe in, nor support, the man-machine dichotomy that is often fantasized about in popular culture and the press,” Plummer-Fernandez says. “I think even algorithms are technologies that are deeply hybridized with human activity.”

IN THE TIMES ESSAY, Wieseltier responds to his own questions, it seems, without accepting the answers he proposes. “We can leave aside the ideology of digitality and its aggressions, and regard the devices as simply new means for old ends.” These should be the true marching orders of a new generation of cultural creators: separate the ideology of technology and the businesses that have come to define it from the machines themselves, which remain fertile tools for whatever we might choose to do with them, algorithmic or not.

Technology’s relationship to culture is that of the synthesizer’s relationship to music. It needed a human to invent it, and it needs a human to turn its mechanical capabilities into compelling art. Otherwise, all we’re left with is spare parts.