Death and Forgetting: Resisting the Singularity with Lorem and Hexorcismos
March 19, 2021
Artificial Intelligence, if some are to be believed, will bring about the end of the biological human race. The promise of immortality in code is presented as a kind of digital rapture known as the singularity. Depending on your preferences in science fiction and futurology, the singularity exists in our near or distant future, a kind of event horizon for thought that we cannot look beyond; it represents a disjuncture in the evolutionary timeline—a leap into post-biological transcendence.
Singularitarians can be quite fanatical. The most well-known of them, Ray Kurzweil, is convinced not only that technology will allow us to cheat death by the end of the century, but that this would be a good thing. Algebraically speaking, a singularity is the point at which a function breaks down, where it cannot be solved without recourse to infinity.
With AI, we will no doubt develop tools to save and extend lives. It is likely that the augmentation of brains and bodies alike will soon become commonplace too. As human-computer interaction becomes human-computer integration, it is hard not to feel like we’re witnessing a pivotal moment in the history of humankind. This feeling of acceleration, the sense that technological growth is right now at the crux of an exponential curve, is unsurprising. Capitalism, modernity, and progress are all just words to describe this feeling. But what are we rushing towards?
Accelerationist tendencies in so much AI discourse would have us believe that the march of techno-capitalism is a machine that cannot be stopped. Accelerationism in philosophy is tied to the belief that we are not the masters of capital, but its host, sustaining it only until it outgrows us. It shares much with Kurzweil’s techno-utopianism and is similarly rooted in a colonial mythology of scientific progress. AI can also deny this one-dimensional vision of history and technology, in which the future grows out of the European Enlightenment and the Christian obsession with living forever. But to tell different stories about the future, we must tell different stories about the past.
For his piece for Electric Artefacts’ Uno, Nessuno, Centomila, Mexican visual and sonic artist Moisés Horta Valenzuela (AKA Hexorcismos) trained an AI model on a library of photographs gathered from social media. The photographs were of pre-Colombian artifacts and conform to the overarching objective of his work—decolonizing the praxis of contemporary AI. Valenzuela describes how his art “tries to reconcile ideas that might not seem reconcilable, such as magical thinking and high technology”. 'Imicca Tanima' is named after a poem by the fifteenth-century Aztec ruler, Nezahualcóyotl. The series “takes inspiration from pre-Hispanic epistemologies which try to reconcile death as something natural and inevitable, and not something that we need to fear or try to postpone”.
By using AI to retell Aztec poetry for modern audiences, Imicca Tanima opens a book that might otherwise have remained closed. It releases AI from the grips of transhumanism, a discourse that reviles death in favor of a Kurzweilian fetish for immortality. But as Nezahualcóyotl knew well, even the monumental pyramids of the Aztecs will eventually crumble. Already their corners have softened. Erosion has taken its course.
It can take thousands of years to wear away sculptures of granite and marble. On February the ninth Lorem (Francesco D’Abraccio) initiated the decay of a statue that would take not millennia but mere months. “Echoes (of When Bodies were Temporary)” (2021), started life as a 3D digital scan of a mother and child, but each day since has been algorithmically eroded, and by the 9th of April will be gone.
The original work on which Echoes is based captures a fleeting moment shared between a parent and child, holding up the transience of life against the seeming permanence of data. For this new work, each day the data-sculpture is incrementally forgotten by Lorem’s degenerative algorithm Sandra, we observe the fickle and flexible nature of memory.
Echoes is an extremely personal piece for D’Abbraccio. The child it depicts is his son, and Sandra is named after his Grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The piece brings into question the durability of memory, it shows us that even computational memory is not necessarily monolithic. “She doesn’t just forget things”, says D’Abbraccio, “her memory becomes an entanglement of remembrance. Souvenirs become completely abstract, outside of her actual experience”. His statement refers to Sandra, both the Grandmother and the algorithm. With each layer of decay, new patterns and forms emerge, ones that can seem to have little to do with the object’s original shape.
Enormous intellectual resources have been plowed into the problem of machine learning and memory, but what about machine unlearning? What about machine forgetting? These are the questions that Echoes brings to the fore. “Bodies are Temporary/Data is Forever” (2016) was the title of the original sculpture from which Echoes grew. In 2021 ROM is cheap. Today, each of us has access to the kinds of digital storage that yesterday’s scientists could only dream of. The power of AI is that it allows us to make sense of this overabundance of data, but complex decision-making algorithms are black boxes; often, we don’t even know what we pour into them, let alone their inner operations.
As the new era of algorithmic governance unfolds, it will be increasingly important to monitor what is remembered and why so that we can also know what we want to forget. As Valenzuela points out, “true immortality lies in remembrance, and in counterpoint, the ultimate death is being forgotten in the cracks of history”.
James is a writer, lover of art , and digital culture enthusiast. He has a special interest in the way new media co-evolves with artistic practice and has written about blockchain technology, the darknet, and the history and sociology of the internet.
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