The Automata Chronicles: The Age of Ghostwriters ‘by’ MacDonaldStrand
For a couple of decades now, we have all been pouring our thoughts, ideas, memories and records into a machine, both as text and images. Our home lives, work lives, secret lives and love lives are all stored there: our likes, dislikes; our financial histories, our debts and our purchases all build up a picture of who we are. We all routinely accept this when we check ‘accept’ on the terms and conditions statements that pop up on our screens. We agreed and continued to agree, in order to use online services and social media platforms. We were offered a simple choice – join in, feed in, or slip out of the conversation and ‘know’ less than others, have less control than others, be less in the world than others. In retrospect, with social media at least, it wasn’t much of a choice. More recently, this legacy of data, the texts and images we have amasses in the machine, have begun to be harvested by generative AI. Every great work of literature, every historic speech, every note to a loved one or gripe about politics; everything written and shared online. Images also become part of this information pool – from holiday snaps, baby photos, cat photos wedding photos, to pornographic imagery, or photographs of devastating war, destruction and suffering. With this as a backdrop, MacDonaldStrand have made the new experimental work The Automata Chronicles: The Age of Ghostwriters. The starting point for this project was the simple prompt to an online generative AI text programme, asking it to imagine ‘A dystopian world, where AI is trusted to write books.’ The resulting text, produced in seconds by the AI machine, is the story of a world in which humans are pushed aside, following a lazy capitulation to GPT. In this text we see the demise of the humans, followed by an enlightenment and subsequent revolution against the machines, and of course triumph. It follows the understandable and often-explored theme of peoples fight for freedom from technology – a fight for the ‘human spirit and soul’ over cold metal and algorithm. The story could have been written in Hollywood for a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tom Cruise. But the text also seems to reflect an uncertainty within the AI itself – as if it understands the problems of this move towards self-aware machines. It is like the AI is having an existential crisis. The chapter headings of the generated story were passed from the AI text generator to an AI image generator, so that the story, which has the rhythm and chapter lengths of a children’s story book, could be illustrated. Within the images produced it is easy to see the words and their impact as prompts. Again, like a children’s book, they are extremely literal. But hidden in these images are the fragments of our digital legacy. Initially, it is simple to spot the influence of 19th and 20th century photographic history, from Man Ray to Lewis Hine, as well as classic movie imaginations of self-aware automaton like Metropolis or Blade Runner. But there are also the deeper-mined fragments of people – their lips, eyes and hands. These are the fragments of us and of our loved ones, and the legacy of our unknowing work for the machines. These images of ‘people’ are us, but not; human and machine, no more ‘real’ than the machines imagined images of itself. Written by MacDonaldStrand, 30th October 2023. Forgive us if everything has changed since then.