Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand. – Soren Kierkegaard (1843) –
I had not thought about Kierkegaard writing on the subject of boredom in years. The essay from which the above quote is extracted was a favorite in college for its biting humor, but something about Rogers Brubaker’s excellent article about democratizing culture sent me in search of my 38-year-old (ouch) copy of The Kierkegaard Anthology, and I think it was this paragraph of Brubaker’s which triggered the thought:
But the question is not just how many people engage in cultural production — it’s how people engage. The AI music company Amper promises to help customers “create your own original music in seconds.” The creativity involved is rather attenuated, amounting to editing and tweaking the music generated by the AI, but that didn’t stop Amper co-founder Drew Silverstein from evangelizing in a TED talk about how AI can “democratize music” by enabling “anyone to express their creativity through music.”
That promise to “create your own original music in seconds” was the portkey back to Kierkegaard. “In the case of children, the ruinous character of boredom is universally acknowledged,” he writes, and, indeed, I maintain that boredom is the inevitable outcome of AI toys promising to make music, visual art, poetry, etc. We have all experienced as children and witnessed as adults that transition between playing with a new toy and rapid disenchantment because the toy fails to engage the imagination. I am not the only Gen-X parent, for instance, to notice that when LEGO began selling kits to build branded objects like Star Wars spaceships, my own children would usually complete the assembly once and then be done with the toy forever. By contrast, my contemporaries and I spent hours with sets composed of bricks and no predetermined design.
Kierkegaard proposes that the plebian bores others and amuses himself while the aristocrat amuses others and bores himself—a dialectic perhaps well suited to describe the inevitable use of AI machines to “make one’s own music or art.” At the current state of the technology, the input of the human user is barely creative—little more than dropping a coin in a jukebox—and thus, all users similarly situated are plebian bores for the time being. The works resulting from their prompts may amuse them (for a while), but they will mostly bore others who will only be interested in “making their own music” with the same toys. Before long, a million individual users of the music generating AI will achieve a collective homeostatic boredom—a two-dimensional Babel leading nowhere.
Perhaps one of these accidental works will reach escape velocity, break through the gravitational force of mass boredom and “go viral” for a fleeting period. Some AI-generated ditty might be next year’s “Baby Shark” or even share the apotheotic luminance of a “Gagnam Style.” Someone will choreograph a short dance to accompany the tune, and TikTokers will fall in line to perform their versions, and Big Tech will look down and see that it is good, and their disciples will proclaim, “Behold the new culture! The human songwriter is an anachronism.” And it will all be as boring as it is ephemeral.
It is possible, of course, that generative AIs will become sophisticated enough to be collaborative tools wielded by the human artists—that the human still selects and arranges the creative elements to achieve her vision while the AI “helps” in some way. If and when we get there, we shall see. But in the meantime, it is clear that AIs do not need to be more sophisticated to replace some creative human work right now. My good friend Marco North writes on Facebook to me, “A full roster of AI voice talent costs less than $100 a month, works 24/7 and [will] do endless revisions….Voice work is perfect gig work for actors, say goodbye to lots of that.”
A gifted polymath in film, photography, music, poetry, and prose—Marco writes a weekly blog called Impressions of an Expat. Initially written from Moscow, he now writes from Tblisi, and in his latest post, he describes a happenstance encounter with the statue of Georgian poet Vazha-Pshavela (Luka Razikashvili) and his feelings about AI “art.” He asks:
Who will be the subject of the next statue? An algorithm? Will there be streets named after TikTok? Will we name a playground after a Spotify playlist curator? These are the people that tell our stories now. Midjourney highway will take you there. Take a left at ChatGPT square, you can’t miss it.
Yes. That is a vision of a possible future. Of course, if the tech giants can make the world just boring enough, then certain humans will do what certain humans do. They will disassemble the unengaging toy and turn it into something else—something called art. And then, the world will start to be interesting again.