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AI and counterculture: can technology and society create culture together?



ARGUMENT: In this article, we discuss how culture is a constant mix of accumulation (legacy) and change (reconstruction), and how the lack of one or the other can lead to cultural bankruptcy. We analyze Theodor Adorno's concept of the culture industry and how cultural production has become increasingly massified in recent decades. We also discuss how social networks have changed the way culture is produced, but paradoxically led to standardization of cultural production. Finally, we highlight the importance of counterculture in keeping culture alive and in constant evolution.

INTRODUCTION: I'll start with a very authorial premise: culture is a legacy in reconstruction. What does that mean? It means two things that, for me, are the foundational stones of any culture: accumulation (legacy) and change (reconstruction). Whenever there is only a constant and rigid accumulation, inflexible to new interferences or alterations, no matter how small, that is not culture, it is a precious and museological conservatism that takes the life out of the natural, socially organic cultural flow. Moral, social, and creative changes inevitably occur, and if a society fails to produce them, it ceases to produce culture, becoming either a cultural dictatorship with a set time to emerge, or a museum piece, surviving only through the zeal of other cultures over it. On the other hand, whenever there is a constant ebullition of alterations, disruptions, and changes without the creation of a solid accumulation, we also cannot speak of cultural construction because, due to its own ephemerality, if something does not bequeath, something does not build. In this sense, culture (in a broad sense) exists because counterculture exists. They are the "systole and diastole" movements, in aligned rhythm, of the sociocultural movements that pump cultural production to society. The lack of one or the other or the lack of rhythm between them is one of the most serious risks to our multiple cultural bankruptcy.

THEORETICAL BASIS: Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher who, among many other issues, was a thinker of aesthetics and art, brought us the concept of "culture industry," which was misunderstood. There is a reduction of the term, as if Adorno had coined it to pejoratively adjective "popular culture." That was not the case. In a very superficial synthesis, part of what Adorno said refers to how, in capitalism as he knew it, this industry would increasingly inhibit subjectivities in cultural production, as in authoritarianism, not because of commercialization itself, but in the sense that, by its responsive nature, culture comes to be produced by and for increasingly predefined consumption patterns, that is, produced in industrial standards and market-oriented, a construction based on equations and algorithms (although "algorithm" is an anachronism when citing Adorno), and that would mean the extinction of the autonomy of cultural production: its own base of sustenance would be extinct. Let's keep this in mind. If we take a look at Western cultural production in recent decades, we can see that Adorno's prediction makes complete sense: the commercial culture machine has turned this production into something increasingly mass-produced from the 80s until the early 2000s, like an industrial production line. With the rise of social media from the 2010s to 2020, the possibility of voice and space for countless people who previously would not have access to the limelight and therefore had little influence on popular culture became a reality that ALMOST could have refuted Adorno: well, if the possibility of plurality of production is so great, then the industrialization of culture ceases to be a straight line. Well, it wasn't quite like that. The result couldn't have been more different: with the emergence of viral ideas and "challenges," and the intensification of the need for digital survival against algorithms, the result was simply that everyone started doing the same thing. If culture used to be defined by what met market demands, today, all content, all cultural production is defined by the ability to meet algorithms: what doesn't please, doesn't appear. What doesn't appear, doesn't exist. Of course, it's also pretty easy to stand out when everyone's doing the same thing, just do the opposite. But is it really that simple? The base, format, and tone of current cultural production movements, no matter how diverse they may seem, are quite similar. Between dances, speech dynamics, tone of voice, artificial appeals, exposure time, and content direction, everything is always the same or extremely similar. Despite historically unparalleled access, we've never been more canned. Changes have become so much more difficult, the opposite of what was envisioned. THESIS AND ANTITHESIS: Well, this discussion is long, very long, and there are many arguments that can be used to spice up this dinner, both to salt it and sweeten it, but the truth is that the situation now may seem even harder to swallow: we've reached massified Artificial Intelligence. The end of 2022 marks the emergence and popularized access to various AI tools that were previously limited to enthusiasts in the field, large companies, and some gadgets with features as simplistic as they are dubious. The vast majority of people are pessimistic about how robots like ChatGPT, Mdjourney, and Dall-E will replace humans, eliminate jobs, and so on. Of course, this is nothing new; with every technological leap, we enter the same discussion. The question is, we don't have to doubt it: people will be replaced, as they always have been. This is an entirely different discussion, though; my point here is WHAT KIND of replacement this is, because this time, it is something absolutely new. All automation and replacement in human history so far has been mechanical, meaning that technology saved us from manual, mechanical, and physical labor. Technology has been developed to replace our bodies, not our minds - until now. But beyond that, this technology has the potential to replace what truly distinguishes what is human and what is not: the ability to create culture, to produce culture, in other words, the ability to rebuild legacies. You see, when the Sistine Chapel was painted, Michelangelo did not start from scratch. He started from an immense legacy of values, narratives, traditions, and mythologies that, reconfigured in his mind and materialized in his hands, resulted in the work we have today, a reconstruction of the Christian legacy. Similarly, and subsequently, how many works, even of humor, have been developed after the Sistine Chapel and inspired by it or based on it? The artificial intelligence database works the same way: there is all the internet produced before it, with all the human thought that has ever been digitized as potential reference, and so AI is trained to compose images, texts, etc. The difference begins when there is no counterculture. When the Simpsons make a joke using the Sistine Chapel reference, the show is not reconfiguring the same chapel and the same narratives; it is ADDING the subjectivities of the writers, their unique life experiences, and the way they see the world and understand humor. When voice actors lend their voices to characters, they do it in the same way. And we're talking about a product that comes from a long cultural industry, not just an organic revival. When AI works on the Sistine Chapel, it has no subjective experiences to add, it only reconfigures the immense digital human legacy, not rebuilds it. Of course, it won't be long before different AI systems can compete with each other in the eternal intersubjective battle of culture versus counterculture, and then we'll have an artificial cultural production closer to human cultural production. The big question that still has no answers is: is this a desirable future? Will we have time to organically counterattack with a counterculture that could one day join the ranks of AI's reference data? Now, contemporary popular cultural production is significantly influenced by social media algorithms, and this homogenization of cultural content will also have to respond to AI, including being produced by it. The pessimist? Although there appears to be diversity, cultural production is defined by the ability to meet algorithms rather than society's desires, as society itself has lost its cultural compass. This could lead to the extinction of the autonomy of cultural production and, consequently, the loss of the very foundation of culture that makes us human. Are we at the end of culture? No. I prefer to answer no; I am an optimist. The ability of AI is still far from being able to add subjective questions to its dynamics, but it is not impossible for that to happen. In addition, new AI systems that are being developed based on the enormous popular references we have today may guarantee space for a counterculture, if not innovative, at least abrasive. On the other hand, in the meantime, AI is unable to produce without human data, and human data can still be reconstructions based on their legacies, in other words, they can still be truly cultural and countercultural. Of course, this optimism needs to be proactive, productive, and propositional. We need to talk about counterculture, even if artificial; we need to have contradictions, we need to have the other side, we need to pass on and rebuild, not just one thing or the other. Counterculture is the fundamental piece for healthy cultural production, and we're allowing it to become increasingly rare. In a historical pattern, we can statistically predict that its potential for survival, which is now crawling, will cease to exist soon. Can we count on AI to solve this issue?

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