The Automated Imagination

I worry sometimes about technology. Even as I curl comfortably in its warm embrace, I wonder if it has any sinister motives.

The development of electronic storage and transmission has ensured increased accessibility to artistic works, be they literary, musical, visual, the performing arts, or any combinations thereof. But the idea that the essence of a piece of art can be reduced to a string of bits and imprinted into magnetic and plastic discs fills me with a sort of sick foreboding.

Computers and other electronic devices pervade nearly every element of the human experience. They are quickly becoming the primary outlet through which we experience art. What frightens me is that they are also a dominant method of creating art. Where is the line between computers aiding the human imagination and humans flipping the “on” switch of an art machine? What happens when digitally enhanced becomes digitally authored?

Will we hear literature’s dying cries as algorithms are developed to parse spoken ideas into written works? Perhaps. But such an advancement could as easily
enhance the medium. Computer enhancements that still place the person at the the centre of the creative process are valuable tools; they provide an entrance for inexperienced imaginations into the world of creating. Witness how the internet has improved the visibility of “amateur” artists.

However, technology that removes the participation of human imagination from the creative process would be disastrous. It would remove the last vestiges of human connection with art. What kinds of images might the automated imagination fabricate for us? Would they be beautiful or frightening? Lush and colourful or stark and monochromatic? Would we find in them a kernel of humanity and marvel at science’s skill at imitating the soul, or would they be empty and mechanical and inaccessible to organic minds?

Computer scientists stride toward artificial intelligence. Philosophers and authors theorize about moving the mind into electronic storage, giving humanity computerized immortality. The march of progress is blurring the line between human and computer. Sometimes I worry that we’re making ourselves obsolete just to see if we can.