“Do you sincerely want to be rich?”
That was the question posed by Bernie Cornfeld, an infamous American huckster, who, in the 1960s, set up a scheme to help American ex-pats and military servicemen invest in a way that avoided income tax. The extremely popular scheme — Investors Overseas Services — went caput, naturally. Cornfeld was arrested, sentenced and then mysteriously acquitted. He lived as a rich man until the 1990s, while his customers, many of whom lost their savings, did not.
Cornfeld’s customers sincerely wanted to be rich, as did Cornfeld himself. In fact, most of us do. It is quite a natural way of existing in our ultra-competitive, capitalistic society. The nature of the finance system, as it exists, means there will inevitibly be a cottage industry of people whose business concept is merely selling the idea of wealth. From Charles Ponzi to the multi-level marketers of the modern world, hope is a hell of a drug.
I’ve noticed, in the past few years, that occasionally products spring up that seem to capture this impulse. The most obvious one is cryptocurrency, which was swept along on a tide of people — who were not rich, at that point — wanting to become rich. The reality was that few of them were engaged in the technology of crypto and few of them understood the economics. But what they saw was a commodity being traded from a nil value to a huge one. It opened up the world of commodities trading to people who didn’t have the capacity to buy and sell barrels of oil or LNG, who didn’t have the capital to purchase gold or copper, or the wherewithal for corn or coffee or soy. And even if it was seen as a currency exchange, rather than a commodities trade, the barriers to entry were still frighteningly low: new coins could come around every day and for tiny punts you could buy a chance at becoming a fiat millionaire. People who’d spent a lifetime playing the lottery now had an option that came both with better odds and the cachet of professionalism.
Then there were NFTs, which performed the same role for folk who couldn’t dream of owning materially valuable art in a market that was inflated beyond Dali’s dizziest daydreams. I do a little art collecting as a hobby (real art; mainly oil paintings) and have an Instagram where I discuss my latest purchases. Every day, I receive spam messages asking to purchase “[my] art” as NFTs. “Hello,” an account with 3.1k followers messaged me the other day, “I’m interested in buying your artwork as NFTs”. “Hello,” another with 1.5k messaged a few hours later, “I like to buy some of your artworks as NFT — I like your style and artworks are so beautiful and amazing!”.
Naturally, I didn’t “sell” the NFTs of the paintings I own (which I’m sure I could not legally do). But these messages are symptomatic of a desire at the heart of the NFT fad, to own something that you cannot own. Yes, it has Big Cornfeld Energy (BCE) too, and these floating spammers are doubtless trying to inveigle their way into my wallet, but the art market has priced ordinary folk out and NFTs offer a way in. Come to think of it, NFTs were the perfect craze for 2022: they combined the get-rich-quick shortcut of crypto with the appearance of cultural appreciation. If life has failed to give you money and/or beauty, NFTs could sell you that dream.
The problem is that these things are basically rubbish; junk bonds without an obvious exit strategy. Crypto, particularly, is a hot air balloon, rising only on its own hype. NFTs suffer from a problem with intrinsic value (i.e. they have none). And so, if you don’t have money (the sort of money we draw from ATMs and spend on groceries), you can always have crypto. They’re not interchangeable, but they are analogous — just look at the way that Romanian authorities seized a bunch of crypto from disgraced internet person Andrew Tate. No media outlet has been able to accurately verify the value of that cache. Certainly, he was rich in crypto, and yet still living in a breeze-block bunker in Romania, which doesn’t feel very rich in the terms I’m used to.
The nascent AI technologies are the perfect endpoint to this trend, because they offer something that previous digital innovations couldn’t: the pretence of creation. Sure, you can trade crypto and make money from that, but, to do so, you have to accept your position as one person in a massive hype army. The value of NFTs, similarly, was in trading them to other NFT enthusiasts. The market didn’t encourage creating art for the expressed purpose of selling it as an NFT (artist/rich person Damian Hirst embarked on a project called “The Currency” which raised $25m selling 10,000 polka dot tiles, which could then be destroyed to protect the integrity of the NFT — only 1,000 were reportedly destroyed which suggests 90% of purchasers opted against the NFT route, and, either way, at $2,500 a pop they were hardly in the top tier of Hirst works by value).
AI is great because it allows people who cannot write, cannot draw, cannot do VFX, cannot make music, cannot make movies, cannot shag celebrities etc to do these things. It is to artistic output what Dreamwaver was to web development in the mid-00s: a point-and-click, talentless reduction of skills. The fact that art created in Midjourney necessarily has no value (it is, after all, just the output function of the simplest of inputs) doesn’t really matter to these people. There is a brief, shining window where the use of AI for creativity feels like real creativity, just like being rich in crypto briefly fell like being rich.
“Do you sincerely want to be creative?”
I am always extremely sceptical of any creative who describes themselves as “working with AI”. If you’re a graphic designer who is “working with AI” then it suggests to me that you’re a graphic design who can’t design; if you’re a writer “working with AI” I’ll assume you’re a writer who cannot write. It is the high-point of internet fraudulism; an audacious assault on the creative spark that separates man from ape. I admire its chutzpah, even as I despair at its emptiness. But the hollowness of AI is just the extension of the hollowness of so much of the modern internet. It is just the latest vapid chapter in a book written by a computer.
(Not to mention that working “with” AI is a misapprehension — these people are working “for” AI, teaching the machines, giving them a bigger data set and, ultimately, the tools to further reduce the human necessity.)
Those who can’t do, do AI. It is the great red flag of 2023. If you call yourself an “AI expert” I want — expect you, even — to be working on programming AIs. I want you to be deep in the swamps of machine learning algorithms. Otherwise you are just a kid with a colouring-in book, marvelling at the dense, complex underwater scene they’ve created. Perhaps it’s all the fault of Bob Ross, and a generation of Americans who were taught that paint-by-numbers is legitimate art, that we find ourselves trapped in a web of our own making.
We used to have to be good at something in order to be good at something. Now we find ourselves freed from the tyranny of talent.