Computers and Tech

The King of an Empty Castle

Sometimes, I enjoy exploring Usenet. What is Usenet, you ask? It’s the precursor to Reddit and Facebook Groups; before all the different discussion forums and other sorts of many-to-many solutions on the internet, Usenet was how people found community online. It is very much a product of its era; the protocol was first implemented in 1981 and it shows. There is no text formatting. There’s no form of ‘liking’ or ‘upvoting’ or ‘thanking’, and there are no emojis. Usenet requires a dedicated program to access, and most of those applications have an appearance and interface that heavily prioritizes function over form.

I still find it interesting though. A few groups still have a handful of active users; unsurprisingly, most of them center around computing and computer programming. Other more general groups have been long abandoned. They are a ghost town, showing discussions from over a decade ago with spam posts being the only content added ever since. Occasionally, a group will contain a post from some unfortunate soul who asked a question years ago, never to see a reply.

Despite the current state of Usenet, starting a new newsgroup remains a laborious process.

I originally started pondering this blog post because I saw that there was no Windows 11 newsgroup. Ironically, the Windows 7 group remains somewhat active. While subreddits get created multiple times per minute (guess there will always be spammers), the arduous process of creating a new newsgroup seems to go to the other extreme. It appears that the last ‘Big 8’ newsgroup whose creation was approved, was added back in 2021. A handful of other proposals for new groups have been made since then, but all of them were denied before even been put up to a vote. The most recent successful proposal was to make someone a moderator of an existing newsgroup. It was the epitome of a hollow victory; the last post in that group was, in fact, the notice that the group had a new moderator. It’s possible that the moderator may be deleting spam as it arrives, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone worth cleaning up for.

This raised another question: Who’s voting on the creation of newsgroups? The answer: three people. Now, I’m not putting any shade toward Jason, Rayner, or Tristan. On the contrary, most of the proposals that have come in have seen participation by at least two of them, so it’s clear they are directly involved, which is good to see.

That being said, it wasn’t long before I started waxing philosophical. I don’t know how many people still actively use Usenet in a given month. Hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands if we stretch it to include Google Groups’ hybrid platform. Usenet has been almost entirely supplanted by Reddit, Twitter, HackerNews and 4Chan. Each of these services has their own advantages and shortcomings, but the real draw are the people. HackerNews has about 3.5 million monthly visitors. 4Chan has about 22 million. Twitter has tens of millions (depending on whose numbers you believe), and Meta’s Threads platform has reportedly seen 100 million sign-ups. Reddit has hundreds of millions. Even Mastodon has managed to keep about a million monthly users on the platform. Again, it’s hard to get numbers on Usenet usage, but I’d bet my money that even Truth Social’s 500,000 monthly user base far outnumbers those of Usenet.

The folks still using Usenet for discussion are, more likely than not, people who have been using it since the dial-up era. I’d be hard pressed to believe that there are even a dozen college seniors in my entire state who have posted on Usenet consistently. There simply aren’t a new group of people seeking to use the system to communicate, especially when far more popular, far more instantaneous platforms exist.

Herein lies my ultimate question: Of what virtue is it to meticulously label a room full of empty filing cabinets, “in case someone uses them one day”? Of what virtue is keeping a lengthy deliberation and voting procedure in place when the user count is so low, a freshly nominated moderator has an entire newsgroup with nothing to moderate? How will keeping a strict adherence to the charters and hierarchies improve the appeal of a system that has 626 total downloads of the most popular software available for ChromeOS?

Again, I applaud the three board members of the Big 8 who seek to hold out until the end. From the outside, though, it almost strikes me as a warning. It’s easy to find one’s self exerting lots of time and energy into some sort of accomplishment whose relevance dwindles with the progress of time, insisting on structure which becomes increasingly quixotic.

 

On the other hand, it seems equally myopic to base the value of one’s work upon the size of its audience. If that were the metric of success most worthy of pursuing, this blog probably wouldn’t exist.

On the topic of Elon’s Acquisition of Twitter

I don’t pretend to know why Musk made the purchase. I’ve heard plenty of speculation, from him simply being a ‘bored billionaire’ to it being a way to divest Tesla stock, to a desire for some sort of anarchic social media outlet to compete with Bezos’ Citizen-Kane-like ownership of the Washington Post.

 

What I do know is that the usual mudslinging has lost its edge. I’m tired of everyone treating it like either some massive win or some massive loss for ‘their side’. There’s nothing stopping anyone from doing what I’ve done; I pay about $6/month to Namecheap for this little slice of the internet that a handful of people (and lots of spam comment bots) read. I have free speech here, and there’s nothing stopping anyone else from doing what I’ve done. With a bit more tech knowhow, you can start your own little social network. Mastodon is exactly that, and it’s the basis for Trump’s “Truth Social” project. Diaspora, Misskey, Pleroma, and a dozen more are easy to use, plus alternatives to Instagram, Youtube, and Reddit. The first-gen protocols of IRC and Usenet are still very much available and can be used for free.

The reason why these things aren’t used more has to do with two related reasons: first, it requires technical know-how, and second, it lacks a ready-made audience. I understand the appeal of something which avoids both problems. Truly, I do. However, ‘free speech’ has always been a “free-as-in-freedom” idea, not a “free-as-in-beer” one. The American Revolution was loosely organized in bars by sharing pamphlets…which cost money to print. Some people started their own printing press for just this reason. If what you have to say is so critical, and yet so controversial that Twitter’s changing of the guard concerns you, or Youtube’s content policies prevent your covering them, or Facebook puts you in “Facebook Jail” for writing about them…then I submit that it’s time for you to do what I’ve done.

Now, in terms of where the acquisition will go? I’m uncertain. I’m definitely looking forward to CNN trying to figure out what to do instead of reading Tweets all day if the acquisition gets rid of their usual sources of clickbait – I’ve actually wondered if they’ve joined Truth Social to get some of Mr. Trump’s posts in order to shore up their content stream. But ultimately, while I do agree that there’s something to be said about large tech companies being “First Amendment Compliant” in order to be considered for government contracts, tax breaks, or other means by which to incentivize compliance with a standardized Terms-of-Service which allow for extremely minimal content moderation (none of you would want to read the thousands of spam comments this blog gets every week), I also think that true commitment to freedom of speech involves the acceptance of some responsibility. Setting up a blog like this one can be done in an afternoon with very little technical skill, and costs less than a Big Mac per month. Self-hosting it without a company like Namecheap can be done in a weekend.

Whether you believe Musk’s motives are an altruistic commitment to free speech, or a really expensive way of trolling the people he disagrees with, the takeaway is simple: the fewer people relied upon to exercise your freedom of speech, the more likely you will be to keep it.

My laptop must be bored

At the end of August 2021, my OriginPC EON17 laptop “Elsa” gave me one hell of  a scare. For seemingly no reason, the laptop’s fans went into high gear, it beeped several times, and shut down.

I knew the laptop wasn’t in the happiest of states, but with less than a week to go before a wedding I was DJing, I didn’t want to take the chance. I had been debating what to do about a laptop for some time. I’d been buying those Origin laptops at about a 3-year cadence for most of the 2010s, but it was pretty apparent that I’d passed the point in my life where $3,500 for a laptop was a wise investment. A more modest MSI Katana was what I ended up with.

I use it daily, but the most common use case for me is for Remote Desktop. 90% of this laptop’s functionality could be performed on a Raspberry Pi. I have both Serato DJ and Pioneer Rekordbox installed, but I’ve opened them approximately thrice since the laptop was purchased.

I did enjoy completing the Mass Effect Legendary Edition on this computer, but video games haven’t been much of a thing for me recently. I played Sol Survivor for an hour last month, and fired up the lootbox-laden Star Trek: Timelines two months before. One of these days I’ll finish my game of Civilization V and see if Catherine the Great can lead Russia to victory. I like the gameplay of Hades, though its “Rogue-lite” genre means that the goal is to beat the entire game without dying. While I appreciate the skill required to achieve this goal, it is infuriating to play the same levels repeatedly, given how little game time I clearly have. A friend tried getting me into Warframe, which lost its allure fairly quickly. I’d spent ten hours with minor variations of  “go to the place and shoot the lads“, ended up with a cargo bay of assorted stuff and still found myself unable to afford a single upgrade of anything. Really, I found myself wanting to better understand why I kept going to places to shoot the lads. This quickly led me to the troubling realization that I was going to the places and shooting the lads because the computer told me to…that nobody was questioning a voice inside my helmet instructing me to kill loads of people with no clear reasoning behind it makes me worried.  An hour or two of Bioshock and Crysis round out my gaming time since September. I’ve had this laptop for nearly a year, and I’ve realized that I’ve spent more time out of state since I’ve purchased this gaming laptop than I’ve spent playing video games on it.

 

When I was young, my father once told me that being an adult is doing the 15 things you have to do, ideally with enough time left to do the 3 things you want to do. I think he’s right, but then I also acknowledge that I’ve watched the entire series of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in the past two months. Is it because video games have lost most of their allure? I mean, that’s probably a part of it – most of the games on the list are older, in no small part because I’m actively seeking to avoid games with lootboxes and microtransactions, which are becoming an endangered species. Maybe it’s a direct aging thing (twitchy fingers don’t twitch as twitchfully at 35 as they did at 15), and maybe it’s an indirect aging thing (work and other things get in the way). Maybe video games were, themselves, just one more thing that was in my life for a season.

Ultimately, if I were to anthropomorphize this laptop, I wonder if it would be bored. 90% of its life spent in a remote desktop makes its specs mostly pointless; I probably will let the laptop start sitting in a bag most of the time once I can get my hands on a Raspberry Pi again, but is it bored, or am I projecting my own boredom onto my gaming laptop and gaming monitor, connected to a gaming keyboard and gaming mouse, only to sit here blogging in Firefox.

Maybe the real answer is that I shouldn’t blog at midnight.

Am I insulating myself?

I continue to use my phone without Google services, and I like it. I finally feel free. But now I’ve started to wonder.

I remember watching “The Matrix” for the first time back when I was 15 or so…and I remember thinking about the nature of what motivated the characters and why. “Freedom” is a word that gets thrown around alot, but there is a part of me that, even back then, seemed to resonate with Cypher, the one who negotiated with Agent Smith to get plugged back into The Matrix in exchange for giving up Morpheus. Now sure, the betrayal part wasn’t cool, but wanting to get plugged back into The Matrix? That made a whole lot of sense to me.

Cypher was having a steak dinner. Not really, but it was real to him. What was everyone else having? One nutritional supplement. That’s it. For the rest of your life. Neo found love in Trinity, but Morpheus never did. If Cypher was looking for female companionship, there were no options on the ship after Switch died. They spent their days constantly on the run from the Sentinels, they never saw daylight, there was nothing they got to truly own…the list of drawbacks continues, while the list of advantages of not-being in The Matrix doesn’t. We root for Morpheus and Neo and Trinity because they’re fighting the good fight…but in practice, was Cypher really so off base for wanting to live out his life back in The Matrix? I don’t think so.

It’s been about a month since I’ve been using this phone completely Google-free. I can take pictures, but not nearly as good as the photos I can get using the Camera app from OnePlus. SwiftKey is still inferior to Swype. Visual Voicemail barely works. Frost, my Facebook replacement, acts strange and has trouble loading pictures sometimes. I can’t be sure that it’s truly software related, but my 5G performance is generally worse than LTE…and that’s just the things I know.

I don’t use TikTok.
I don’t use Craigslist.
I don’t use Snapchat.
I don’t use  Youtube (except in a browser).
I don’t use SoundCloud.
I don’t use Twitch.
I don’t use Office.
I don’t use a Fitbit or other fitness band.
I don’t use Teams or Slack or Monday.
I don’t use CashApp or Zelle…though I do use Venmo and it works.
I dont use Discord.
I dont use Spotify.
I don’t use Pinterest.
I don’t use Walmart or Target or pretty much any shopping apps.
I don’t use Google Docs or do much in the way of document editing on my phone, unless you count this blog.
I don’t use Uber Eats or Doordash or pretty much any food ordering app.
I don’t use Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri.
I don’t use Ring or a security DVR.
I don’t use Neighborhood or Next door or Everyblock.


The list goes on and on…and I’m starting to wonder if the experiences I eschew to spend my days on a command line on my desktop are worth it. People are finding things they like, buying and selling things amongst local people, ordering new foods, chatting with the people it’s been a social taboo to meet, and I’m sure there are hundreds of other things that mobile apps are doing, but I’m not.


There is most definitely a part of me that feels a bit like Ariel… Wanting to be where the people are and finding myself  wondering if my aversion to echo chambers and endless online accounts means that I have simply made an echo chamber of my own. I sit, wondering whether the nuance of the liberty I feel is a technicality in that I spent a massive amount of time and effort to simply custom build my own prison.

Google collects a metric truckton of data from everyone, and yet, the world turns. Nobody else gets concerned if Google has all their contacts; nobody in my contacts list isn’t in someone else’s phone that is uploaded. My texts are synced on someone else’s phone, and even if my location is only partially traceable based on the amount of disabling I have implemented, my work phone remains on my person with far fewer limitations.

Why am I fighting this battle? What am I fighting for? “because I can”? Because I’m somehow sticking it to “Big Tech”? Because I’m worried about my data being accumulated and monetized while also using Facebook and doing nearly all my shopping with a credit card?

Maybe all of this effort is just me spiting myself. If Google turns on the billion people that already have Android phones and somewhat-consensually sync all their data, then I’m very unlikely to be “spared” from whatever happens. I’ve got friends who expressly opt into giving Google data in pretty much every possible way… And they seem happy.

Betrayal aside, maybe Cypher was right: the steak he ate wasn’t real, but the experience of eating it was, and it was an experience he could have inside The Matrix that he would never experience as long as he was “free”. Maybe my quest for a Google-free phone is little more than a quixotic waste of time, and I’d achieve greater happiness by going back to the phone’s original software from the manufacturer, leaving my phone modding days in the golden age of the HTC HD2 or Galaxy S3.

Or maybe, freedom is ownership…and even if “freedom” boils down to constructing my own prison, at least it’s mine.

Wow…Going Mostly-Open-Source on Mobile Is Hard!

Hello everyone!

 

I hope everyone has had a fantastic New Year. It’s 2021. All it has to do is be not-as-bad as 2020. I’m tepidly optimistic.

 

About a month ago, my Nokia 7.2 decided to install an update. This bothered me because I did pretty much everything in my power to get it to not-download updates, and then telling it to not-install updates it downloads…and yet, it did it anyway. This ruined root, which in turn caused an issue with booting, which then caused issues with Wi-Fi, and to this day the phone disconnects from the cellular network far more than it should. 

When I got my OnePlus 8T+ 5G functionally-for-free as a result of shuffling around some things with my cellular plan, I decided that I would finally cut the umbilical cord and install a Google-free ROM. Turns out…that requires a lot more commitment than I thought…

Continue reading…

Why “Among Us” doesn’t appeal to me

Yes, I visited my family for Thanksgiving. 

 

My niece and nephew enjoy the game “Among Us“, as do millions of other people around the world. I bought a copy of the game trying to give it a shot, but the game doesn’t have a single player mode or a training mode where you play against bots…so, it sat for a bit until my niblings asked to play it with me, so I did.

Now, having watched a Youtube video or two on the topic, I knew the rules and such so it wasn’t an issue at all to play with them. I’ve played a few rounds, and while it’s enjoyable enough to do with them, it’s far from something I look forward to doing once I get home. This got me thinking: why do these young kids enjoy the game, along with no shortage of people my age and older, but I find it the sort of thing I’m not looking forward to playing at all?

 

I think the biggest reason is because the skill in the game stems from being able to either lie effectively, or figure out who’s lying to you. If I’m the impostor, I win by lying to people. If not, I accuse people who may well not be the impostor.

 

This sort of difficulty happens a lot in life. A game with such scenarios as a central mechanic don’t strike me as the sort of thing that draws me in.

Who knows; maybe next year they’ll be ready for Civilization.

Hello AWS!

…pursuant to me wanting to dip my toe in the water for work, I’ve moved my blog to Amazon AWS. You should find it a bit faster now. Let’s see how well I learn about doing things on AWS.

Voice IVRs Need To Die: A Rant

I had something else planned to write about. But last night, I had a simple question about paying my American Express bill. Like any normal person who had such a question, I made a phone call.

That call took six minutes. One minute was spent getting my answer from Charlotte, two minutes were spent on hold, and four minutes were spent convincing the automated phone system that I did, in fact, need to speak to a representative.

Here is the problem:

No, not the actual command line in itself. I use that all the time. Not for everything, certainly, but I do use one. In 1988, everybody who used a computer used one of these (except of course those Mac and Amiga folks). By 1995…basically nobody did. The reason command line interfaces are relegated to developers and sysadmins is because they have a major flaw: what do you type? It’s not readily apparent what commands get things working, and the list of those commands isn’t intuitively discoverable, either. 

Voice-based phone systems have the exact same problem as command lines. I called American Express to discuss a question about paying my bill…but when I said “question about paying a bill”, it then told me the status of my last payment, and asked me if I wanted to make another one. I then said, “Ask a question”, to then be condescendingly read four paragraphs that amount to ‘look at the website’. Eventually, I just held down the ‘0’ key until it said, “I’ll get you over to a representative”. Then, it asked another question ‘so that it could get me over to the right representative’, and when I answered, it said, “I’m connecting you to a representative”. I’ll also mention that virtually every prompt up until this point ended up with me getting a “sorry, I didn’t get that” prompt. The representative I ultimately got connected to understood my question and answered it in less than a minute.

It evoked memories of the episode of Frasier titled “Roe to Perdition”, in which Martin tries to return an extra $20 bill to a bank, and ends up shouting “PER-SO-NAL!” to one such system. When he gets nowhere, he heads to the bank to talk to a human, who herself gets on the phone and yells ‘personal’ in the exact same way. That episode was aired in 2003, and automated phone attendants utilizing voice prompts remain just as useless as they were nearly 20 years ago. The fact that this technology remains just as problematic today as it was in the year Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean were released leads me to believe that the issue is more fundamental than it is technical.

I had some hope about two years ago when I saw the demo for Google Duplex. While the demo was met with skepticism by some at the time, it does appear that the tech is being used ‘in the wild’ at this point. I had always hoped that Google would let Duplex integrate with phone systems, where people could ask natural language questions and talk to an AI that’s able to route users to the right place by intelligently making the distinction between “make a payment” and “question about making a payment”. It looks like the technology exists, but unsurprisingly, it hasn’t made inroads into this field.

This leaves the human element far worse off than it could be. Now, I understand the major issue with having human receptionists: people are likely to tell their whole story to the first human they talk to, even when it should really be handled by someone in a specific department – typically billing or support. While my particular question likely could have been answered by just about anyone, it’s obvious that not every question would fit into that. Automated attendants do help to do some base level routing.

What we have now, though, is a command line. It doesn’t look like one, and it might use words instead of commands like “ls -alFh”, but a command line it is. One might argue that it’s more of a menu driven interface with a hidden menu, but either way, when ‘navigating the menu tree’ takes more time than a plurality of the calls it routes, the result is that callers begin from a starting point of frustration, which increases the level of work call center employees must do to help customers who weren’t frustrated when they dialed. Voice prompts make life worse for both sides of a customer service call, even more so when every attempt to guess a command is “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that”. It’s less human and yields no benefit for the owner phone system.

This leads us to the “For X, Press 1”, truly menu-driven phone interface. It’s the least-bad option, but when the late, great Robin Williams can make them part of a stand-up routine, it’s clear that it’s like being able to say, “at least our customer satisfaction levels aren’t as bad as Comcast”…yes, it’s a good thing that it isn’t worse, but that’s not a statement of success. The problem with menus is that, more often than not, they are implemented poorly. The fact that the website GetHuman.com exists is a testament to this. Many phone systems have too many options, commonly landing users on recordings that take too much time to listen to for the next prompt, and have routing loops and unnecessary levels of complexity.

As I’ve considered how phone systems should be laid out, here’s what I’ve come up with: Until Google Duplex and its enterprise components are integrated into a phone system, Phone menus should have no more than five options, and each of those five options should themselves only have one additional menu with five options on it. This can be stretched to three menus of depth if and only if the first menu purely consists of language selection. This leads to a total of 25 possible destinations for a call, and I’m hard pressed to think of businesses where call centers would need more than 25 possible call destinations, not including direct extension dialing. If there are, then there’s probably justification for a second phone number, and the process repeats again.

So, that’s my rant.

Matthew 18 in a Post-Facebook Society

I run a small RocketChat server. Nothing major, just a handful of friends in a private chat, my own personal contribution to the XKCD Chat Platform problem.

I’d love to have more of my friends in it, but RocketChat has a strength that is also its fundamental weakness – the “general” room. Everyone is in it. I can change that behavior if I want, but that’s not the point. 

I’ve got 850 Facebook friends…and only five of them are in RocketChat. Now sure, the nature of the term “Facebook Friend” comes into play here; I’m sure my one FB Friend I met on AIM nearly 20 years ago may not be much of a candidate, nor would the sister of a relatively new friend I met in an online community but sent me a request anyway, but even if I put 90% of my Facebook friends into that category, I still would have trouble getting 85 of my Facebook friends in the same chatroom together.

It would eventually devolve into an argument. That argument would then have chilling effects on discussion thereafter – some people would leave. Others would ignore the general chat and stick to the PMs. Discussion after that would become surface level, as nobody wants to ignite another powder keg. Then, one inadvertently starts, and the cycle begins anew until there’s nobody left except whoever agrees with the last person to win the argument.

I feel like the advice in Matthew 18 is timeless and incredibly relevant, even if you’re more of an Atheist than Richard Dawkins…but I feel like there are concepts between the lines that are worth exploring. For those who aren’t familiar with the passage, it goes like this:

15 If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

The underlying assumption here is that there is, at some level, a mutual desire to rectify a relationship. Also assumed here is that there is a shared agreement on an authority. Both of those are less of a given in modern society. John Oliver said it well when he described a segment of discourse between an Infowars reporter and a very left-wing protester: “What we do have there is a nice distillation of the current level of political discourse in America: two people, who don’t really know what they’re talking about, being condescending to each other nonsensically until one of them lands a sick burn.” While in Oliver’s clip it’s unlikely that either party had a desire to achieve consensus, I submit that the notion of salvaging a relationship at the expense of winning a particular argument seems sufficiently lost on modern society. Getting one’s perspective shifted is a fundamental requirement in order to make any headway, but the willingness to do so seems to be in short supply.

Once there is agreement that the intent is to salvage a relationship, the private discussion between two people disagreeing is useful because it prevents the spread of rumors and helps to address small grievances on a small scale. To bring two or three witnesses into the disagreement is to provide an outside perspective; ideally one that would impact how both people would approach the disagreement, and hopefully the input would be received well enough to achieve a resolution without things escalating further.

Getting to the ‘take it to the church’ situation here, that part gets a bit interesting because of the concept of ‘church’ at that time – Jesus wasn’t describing a group of several hundred people with an elder board…though thinking about it a bit more, Jesus was talking to a crowd more familiar with the temple system, which very much did have a hierarchal structure and political power so I need to do a bit more research on that topic…but, I think it’s safe to say that there is a case to be made about taking the dispute to a mutually recognized source of authority, to whom both parties consider themselves subject to their ruling.

If, one party decides that the ruling isn’t valid for whatever reason, then “treat them like a tax collector” is notable in that, while they were considered so undesirable in their society that the gospels commonly reference “sinners and tax collectors”, indicating an “even worse than sinner” connotation…but, at the same time, the audience of this teaching still dealt with tax collectors. Perhaps it was begrudgingly, perhaps it was a “get in, collect your taxes, get a receipt, and get out” sort of a deal, but Jews still had to work with them, and every so often, there was a Zaccheus – a tax collector who turned from his ways. 

I think this sort of clear and direct escalation is incredibly relevant today. The fact that society has generally turned to “sick burns” as a way to decide how an argument is won, and winning more desirable than reconciliation, is the sort of fundamental shift Jesus spent time encouraging His followers to avoid. The results of this shift have clearly caused a level of enmity that divides people who could probably “agree to disagree” successfully under Jesus’ system, but are sworn enemies on Facebook.

This leaves me with a sparsely populated RocketChat server, and social gatherings which are fewer and further between than even five years ago. Whether you identify as a follower of Christ or not, I can guarantee there’s someone you disagree with on something. You probably agree with them on ten others. Try focusing on that, and try salvaging a relationship. It won’t be fun, but it will probably be worth it.

AI, Art, and Dictionaries

So, a philosopher from Harvard wrote an article about whether or not artificial intelligence is capable of producing art.

This left me with two major questions: First, how do we define artificial intelligence? Second, how do we define art? I believe the answer to the question hinges on these two things.

Strictly speaking, a computer is capable of creating aesthetically pleasing pieces of media, and have been doing so for decades. Whether an audio visualization counts as art due to them being a result of a computer following a strict set of programming guidelines is the nature of the question – how few inputs does it take before the definition crosses over from ‘program’ to ‘AI’?

The term ‘AI’ seems to be a common enough buzzword, but I don’t think that Data or HAL9000 were deemed AI’s because they could tell bees from 3s with good accuracy (spare a thought for ‘Robot’ from Lost in Space who never even got a name). The Google Duplex system is a bit closer, but even it is incredibly easy to trip up even while staying on topic. Watson is good at jeopardy, but its success in its core purpose – cancer treatment – is a bit less rosy. I submit that current generation of what is called ‘AI’ consists of many very good incremental improvements, and is to be lauded. However, I don’t think it is correct to assign the description of “artificial intelligence” to a computer that can win Jeopardy but not understand the humor behind saying “let’s finish, chicks dig me”.

On the flip side, let’s discuss ‘art’. Though this video has its flaws (most notably comparing the best of the past with the worst of the present), the takeaway here is that what does and doesn’t constitute ‘art’ is so subjective that even defining it is subjective. If I, as a DJ, play a good set for a live event, is it art? If I do the same thing and post the recording on Mixcloud, does it then become art? If I produce a song using the sounds and plugins of Ableton or FL Studio and nobody else hears it, is it art? Does it become art if I do this a dozen times and release an album? Is is more or less ‘art’ than Handel’s The Messiah? Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder, or is there really a need for some sort of a governing body who defines what ‘art’ is, especially for exhibitions? If the latter, then how do those people ultimately decide? As one example, to what end does context play a role – does a piece of graffiti become art because it was painted on the Berlin Wall rather than an abandoned subway tunnel or a chalkboard frozen in time?

The fact that it is so difficult to define what ‘art’ really is makes the question of AI producing art fundamentally unsolvable. If art is is defined by self-expression, then the definition of AI would need to include a ‘self’, and that AI would need to have something to express. If art can only come from emotion, then the entire wing dedicated to furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on shaky ground since a nontrivial number of those pieces were simply ‘ornate contract work’ whose artistic merit is commonly tied to their owners or context. If art is defined solely as something aesthetically pleasing, then “$5 Million, 1 Terabyte” doesn’t fit that bill (unless the case counts as art), but assisted CGI does.

Once we can settle on how to consistently define ‘art’, then we can talk about whether AI can do it. If art can’t be defined, then the source and inspiration become irrelevant, ironically meaning that one can equally argue that AI is capable of creating art and that humans cannot.

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