The Endless Plain Of Fortune

If AI presents itself as a Bar­bara Eden type, bat­ty and omnipo­tent, servile and volatile, it at least has the ben­e­fit of not oper­at­ing through mag­ic. With­out know­ing any­thing of how the AI’s log­ic oper­ates in detail, we can at least under­stand in broad strokes how it nav­i­gates pos­si­bil­i­ty space. We have always intu­it­ed the evolv­ing forms of what is pos­si­ble and what is like­ly, whether in a game or in the space of a pic­ture; we final­ly have a means to direct­ly under­stand such vir­tu­al space in of itself.

While I should be spend­ing more time on the text and image appli­ca­tions of AI, I’ve instead been most­ly pok­ing around with music, in part because I’ve nev­er stopped think­ing about an old bit from one of the Foun­da­tion nov­els [I think? I can’t find it any­where…] where elec­tron­ic music is effec­tive­ly on tap, gen­er­at­ed and mod­u­lat­ed with the flick of a knob. We already have the ear­ly ver­sions of this – music that duti­ful­ly stays in the lane you assign it, end­less­ly unrolling itself. I already know pret­ty well already the vir­tu­al 4D man­i­fold space that such music is enjoined to stay with­in, the sam­ple set of the gen­res as they are known. I know how they fall with­in a web of prob­a­bil­i­ty that deeply informs how they are con­ceived and per­formed, what is like­ly to hap­pen giv­en the ini­tial premis­es – how the choic­es of the next chord can be ranked by pref­er­ence. I know that vast space well enough to want to know what is pos­si­ble out­side its present edges. 

This vir­tu­al space of com­mon knowl­edge – the same sort of thing that Charles Jencks sec­tions through in his time­line of 20th cen­tu­ry archi­tec­ture – is one of the key resources AI uses, already labo­ri­ous­ly encod­ed inside the data it learns from. Long implic­it, this resource final­ly gets rec­og­nized, named, rotat­ed through the hole of the cur­rent sci­en­tif­ic par­a­digm into vis­i­bil­i­ty. To hang togeth­er at all, this mul­ti-dimen­sion­al man­i­fold depends on the habit of cre­ations to spe­ci­ate, to be rec­og­niz­able with­in fam­i­ly resem­blances; to repeat, but accord­ing to an array of cross-ref­er­ences too vast to be sayable. This is not unique to the arts; the list of words you could impute to a bay, or a ket­tle pond, or an esker, from shape to mate­r­i­al, form an index of the man­i­fold of iden­ti­ty that each indi­vid­ual unit, each land­form tak­en in of itself, forms one cross­roads of.

AI can be point­ed into the unknown latent spaces around such a man­i­fold – the emp­ty coor­di­nates around the crack­ling sponge of musi­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty – to incar­nate d‑beat fox­trots or Aca­di­an 2‑step garage. At best, it can incar­nate some­thing that is pos­si­ble, rec­og­niz­able, but high­ly unlike­ly giv­en the cur­rent state of play. The dif­fi­cul­ty, then, is actu­al­ly in the human world of con­strained pos­si­bil­i­ty that its prod­ucts still have to answer to. One of the many depres­sions around AI is that peo­ple must now set to work tam­ing what it cre­ates, shep­herd­ing it back into plau­si­bil­i­ty for the sake of a cheap­er stock image, with only a trace of the oth­er­world it came from stuck to its sleeves. 

Any fear of AI’s fecun­di­ty should be bal­anced against the impov­er­ished vir­tu­al spaces that the world already presents us with – things that seem to point in a thou­sand direc­tions while real­ly fun­nel­ing us to the same point. Games of chance, from lot­to draw­ings to slot machines, are impos­si­ble not to mis­read as games of skill, both out of cru­el opti­mism of the deman­ders and the cru­el design of the sup­pli­ers. In show­cas­ing the spread of pos­si­bil­i­ties, the cher­ries and lemons, such games seem to promise the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nav­i­gat­ing in vir­tu­al space, by psy­chic pow­ers, by a trick of the wrist, by sheer faith­ful rep­e­ti­tion. For every are­na like the horse track, where a skilled bet­tor like Robert Irwin can apply intu­ition to a moun­tain of data to run an advan­tage, there are a thou­sand more where the pos­si­bil­i­ty space is defined by one pen­cil-thin stream to win­nings arbi­trar­i­ly set beside a wide riv­er of loss. The many per­mu­ta­tions of a los­ing hand are dis­tinc­tions with­out a difference. 

What is true of the vir­tu­al space of cre­ation can also be applied to IRL space. The dis­mal fact of Way­mo cars is that the world is pre­dictable enough to be more or less safe­ly dri­ven in. A phys­i­cal world tamed into urban­i­ty means that in prac­tice only severe dis­rup­tions, threats to life and limb, are able to break into the serene zone of prob­a­bil­i­ty. No one wants to live in Frog­ger, but the alter­na­tive seems to be trudg­ing a side­walk along an end­less green plain, haunt­ed by a 1 in 255 chance of being struck unaware by a car. Here in Colum­bus the space of prob­a­bil­i­ty seems fixed far into the past and the future; this sort of per­son is like­ly to be here and to do x while they are there. One choice seems to lead to anoth­er as an inevitable con­se­quence – to see a win­dow is to know the house and the street in front of it. As I’ve said here, the alleys, where peo­ple leave behind what doesn’t fit, are a relief after so long of liv­ing strand­ed in the prob­a­ble. The places of youth – Dairy Queen park­ing lots at night, flood­ed quar­ries, pump tracks off in the woods – are the rare venues where some­one can read/​write social space with the same facil­i­ty of a strik­er on the field, mak­ing up the space of play instead of car­ry­ing out a habit.

I had an indeli­ble expe­ri­ence grow­ing up with the old Luck­ey Climber in the Boston Children’s Muse­um. I feel what Tom Luck­ey felt, and passed on to me through this medi­um: that it is very impor­tant to rene­go­ti­ate how we under­stand pos­si­bil­i­ty in space. The old bird­cage pre­sent­ed young me with a com­pli­cat­ed space to plumb, instead of a field of fail-safe lanes to plow. AI could and no doubt will be put to work in cre­at­ing lit­er­al play space, spongy 4D spaces of pos­si­bil­i­ty for peo­ple to inhab­it. But its pres­ence also only val­orizes the real­i­ty of vir­tu­al space in real space, and the human abil­i­ty to sail through it as in a crowd­ed field of boats.

(April 2023)