The Week: AI dreaming, avatar weddings and new hustles
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Like everyone else, I’ve been dicking around with WOMBO Dream, the “AI-powered” artwork tool which generates a piece of art based on a text prompt. Apps like this are generally saddled with ontologically squishy categories like ‘artificial intelligence’, suggesting that there is some kind of mind-like system underpinning it.
Of course, the truth is less thrilling. Like most consumer AI stuff, what Dream’s algorithm does is take the text input and survey a vast corpus of metadata-rich images for commonalities. It’s only ‘intelligent’ to the extent that the human mind is just an input-output pattern recognition machine, which I think most would agree isn’t quite right.
But, regardless, it’s very fun and uncanny to play with. You quickly realise that most of the pictures it produces have a similar-ish vibe and texture — but the rote pattern-matching system often manages to produce interesting results. Given the output tends towards weirdly occult imagery anyway, I’ve been feeding it prompts along those lines.
Here’s ‘hidden island temple’:
Here's ‘sinister pagan ritual’:
Here’s ‘enormous beetle flies through fiery sky’:
And, on an entirely different note, here’s ‘cyberpunk Ned Kelly’:
The inclination of software like this to produce unsettling results is also seen with the popular bot This Person Does Not Exist, which does the same thing except for generating plausible human faces based on a vast trove of scraped headshots. Most of the time it works extremely well, but occasionally while generating a human face pattern it will also spit out a secondary face made up of a frightening assembly of features and body parts.
Here’s one from a Twitter account that auto-posts some of the bot’s products dozens of times a day, along with a randomly generated' ‘bio’:
A weird subculture has emerged in the replies of that account, replying “Look out!” or similar whenever it inadvertently generates one of these fleshy monsters.
Reinventing the hustle
Wars of restoration
I was reading a post from Casey Newton’s newsletter Platformer the other day, and it opened like this:
More than other recent years, in 2021 the tech industry focused a great deal of its energy on a single question: who will build and own the next generation of the internet?
In one corner you have the scrappy upstarts eager to topple the existing world order and rebuild it from scratch on the blockchain. These companies give their effort the aspirational name “Web3.”
In the other corner you have the existing tech platforms, who envision the next generation of the internet as a slightly more interoperable version of the existing web. What will set it apart is new hardware: augmented reality glasses and virtual reality helmets that will bring us together in a series of linked experiences that occupy an ever-increasing share of our waking hours. Platforms have taken to calling this “the metaverse.”
My initial thought was that this wasn’t quite right — after all, blockchains and cryptocurrencies are playing a not insubstantial role in some emerging corporatised metaverses, while Web3 and crypto guys also like using the word ‘metaverse’ to describe everything from their future decentralised online utopia to their open-air pump and dump market on Twitter. There’s significant bleed between the two terms, to the point that you could say that it’s just different marketing applied to a common bundle of technological and ideological trends.
Besides, the notion that Web3 is somehow the process and product of ‘scrappy upstarts’ wanting to overturn an existing order seems to run counter to the fact that their entire language and vibe has already been eagerly co-opted by some of the biggest corporations on the planet trying to get in on the mania.
But at the same time, even if it is often just competing branding, I think there are clear fissures emerging which are worth teasing out. Last week I wrote for subscribers about Praxis, a prospective community of crypto radicals who imagine blockchain life as an exit from a spiritually sick society. From their statement of intent, which makes clear that the metaverse is just a further entrenchment of that illness:
Our civilization is unwell. We eat food that kills us, we’ve lost sight of beauty, and we neglect our spiritual lives. The world is deranged and decayed, and this frightens people. We don’t look up from our screens; we seek to live within them. Crypto is a fundamentally political technology – escape to the metaverse is a betrayal of the principles on which it was founded.
Whether or not the two terms are ideal for capturing this kind of emergent split is up for debate — like I said, there’s significant overlap in this Venn diagram — but it’s worth teasing it out.
Here comes the bride
One more on the metaverse:
I tweeted about this, along with many others, but this genre of story was already done to death in the late 2000s, just about Second Life. Here’s a CNN story from 2008 about a Second Life wedding. There have been in-universe companies for over a decade which facilitate them.
It’s not even that the current metaverse weddings are more sophisticated than earlier ones. As you can see from the above pic alone, they’re still as janky and weird as they were over a decade ago, and I doubt the people behind the avatars are much more appealing.
Obviously, it’s not just weddings – take this story from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007 about Telstra opening ‘BigPond Island’ in Second Life:
It becomes the first major Australian corporation to create a presence there, following a stampede of international companies who have started to use Second Life as a promotional and commercial tool.
Offering a distinctly Australian flavour, "The Pond" - which consumes 11 Second Life sims or "virtual suburbs" - includes virtual recreations of landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Uluru.
There are also various activities for visitors - represented in-world by characters called "avatars" - to partake in, such as dancing in the Illusion nightclub, knocking back stubbies at the Outback Billabong Bar, hooning around the race track on a BigPond scooter and snorkelling in a coral reef.
There were followup articles when the company was slammed for putting ads in front of virtual Uluru, when it then backed down on said ads, and then when it pulled the plug on the whole sordid enterprise – which one complaint to the telecommunications ombudsman described as “discrimination against the housebound, the disabled, the depressed [and] the gamers.”
But there is something different now, which is why the New York Times can now cover metaverse weddings as if they are a radical new frontier in human experience rather than just a naff iteration on 1990s chatroom culture. These kinds of efforts are now backed by acres of investment capital and venture dollars, and a huge amount of human effort is being pushed into this realm. The tokenisation of metaverses like Decentraland has also meant institutional capital can flood in that way too.
Basically: money walks. So we’ll have to relitigate this entire news cycle again, just with the status game upgraded because of the volume (and the type) of money coming into it.
I have seen you in my dreams
This is not the first time that the mysterious man in the DeRucci billboard ads has been identified, but it’s funny that the Chinese securities regulator attempted to rule on whether the use of his visage, in concert with the local mattress industry’s general love of making up pretend European lineages, constitutes a sort of deceptive conduct.
An excellent read on the luxury watch market, how steel Rolexes became divorced from inherent notions of value, and how a new generation of investors treat them as speculative instruments.
This will probably just reinforce your priors, but anyway: this story from Bloomberg about how a small group of insiders are reaping most of the gains from the frothy NFT market.
A story on popular family safety app Life360 selling the precise location information of kids and parents to data brokers.
Fun, weird true crime story: “Death of a Lobsterman”.
This on the eNaira, Africa’s first digital currency.