On being human and "creative"

On being human and "creative"

Generative AI and the conversation on what it means to create and to value creative work

I've been thinking on this a lot lately. This note is by no means an exhaustive nor final exploration of my thoughts, but more where I’m at with it right now. I want to say upfront, I’m not arguing there is zero use for generative AI. There are a lot of fascinating and valuable applications. There’s also a more nuanced exploration about its role as a tool for artists and creators for a future note. What I’m exploring here is what it means for people to instruct a machine to completely generate “art” and attempt to place it on the same level of meaning and value—both cultural and monetary—as art that is created by a human being.

I work in news and information, I am also deeply engaged and following conversations around generative AI in the arts. I'm an artist, photographer, maker and writer and I avidly follow the technology-meets-the-arts conversations. It helps me that I also have developed software and have a technologist's understanding of these tools, how they work and how often that is misunderstood.

We're unfortunately experiencing that particular intellectual and conversational quicksand where a large, complex and fractal concept is reduced for the sake of discussing it. But in doing so we start to conflate things that are actually quite different. AI is a colossal umbrella that encompasses a wide spectrum of technological capability, implementation, outputs and impacts. For the purposes of this note, I'm focusing on what is broadly known as generative AI which is the specific segment of technology where in programs can take in broad swaths of training data including text, images, audio and video and then manufacture altered versions of an input or create wholly new outputs that imitate or combine things encompassed within the training data. 

There are so many helpful things that generative AI can do that will free up time and capacity for creative work but it is not a replacement for human creativity.

The imperfect expression of an imperfect human's experience in an imperfect world will always be superior to and more valuable than a machine's imitation of that expression. Human creativity, regardless of the skill of execution, has value because our creative expressions are the product of our genuinely unique combinations of experiences, perspectives, ideas, skills and values.

Creativity is neither an inherent ability we are either born with or not nor is it static over the course of our lives. Our creativity and how we express it evolves alongside our lifelong development as individuals. A machine's imitation of that expression is inherently lifeless and lacking the gravity of human experience. It is not comparable in value or meaning.

I can understand the delightful surprise and yes, even the feeling of validation, at seeing a tool produce so instantly an output that resembles what someone might only have the ability to generally describe or relate to existing existing works but not actually render because they haven't—for any number of reasons across a large spectrum—invested time and resources into developing the skill to render it themself. But the rendering of an idea by a machine is an illusion.

Almost every single person is creative to some degree. Whether a person has the skill to render something that matches their creative instincts and ideation is an entirely separate matter, one that is commonly confused for being the gauge by which we evaluate whether we are creative or not. This is particularly true for visual creative efforts where almost any person can look at something and comment on their perception of the work's quality. Writing comes with its own broad and layered universe of critique.

I understand the instinct to shy away from creating something that falls short of what has been imagined. It is uncomfortable to be “bad” at something. It is an audacious entitlement to skip any investment of time and effort to develop skills and instead use tools that extract and exploit the abilities from others in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable about one’s own ability. It is nothing less than exploitation to do so for the sake of profit.

I gave a talk a couple of months ago about making space for creativity as a means by which we can claim real ownership over a piece of our existence. In that talk, I simplified the definition of creativity as being the exercise in asking and answering the question "what if?". It's by no means a perfect or finished realization of my thinking but it is my working one.

What if I made a mark in this color and shape and then another here and another over here? What if these subjects and these colors and these emotions were depicted in this way? What if I put this word and then this word and then chose several hundred or thousand other specific words in a particular order? What if I made this sound and then this sound and then that sound? What if I moved this way and then this way? What if I stood in this spot and this time and faced this direction and waited for the scene I think will unfold? What if? What if? What if?

We all wonder these things and we wonder them in unfathomably numerous ways. Whether we can or will develop the technical skill to render the answer to those questions in high fidelity to our vision is entirely a separate matter with no bearing on whether or not we are creative.

Some people will develop those skills. Some people will consider doing so but ultimately not. Some people will desperately want to develop those skills but won't because of any one of many possible reasons, some within their control and many out of their control. Some people will develop those skills but never gain any audience or recognition for their creations.

Our current conflict comes from the reality that even illusions can have monetary value within a marketplace.

Wherever a financial incentive exists, so too will the participation of profiteers and grifters.  

Creatives have, for as long as humanity has existed, grappled with the question of how we value creative expression. We struggle to assign financial value to the arts. We struggle with the very idea of making a living by creating art.

No matter how we approach the question of assigning value to creative works, there is no debate that creative works are not just an expression, they are frequently, commonly commercial products.

Now we have this collision of those who, with the specific intent of creative expression, make things that are wholly the product of their unique experience and skills and offer them in the marketplace. Then there are those who use machines to produce derivatives of other’s creative work to offer as products in the marketplace. Both are seeking an audience and financial benefit for their offering.

I don't like the word "deserve". It's a troubled, fraught word that often reflects and encompasses all manner of humanity's worst tendencies, fears and exclusionary behaviors. To me, the word is deeply subjective, more so than other options in the range of vocabulary on offer in this particular contextual space. Perhaps, "earn" is as close as I can get for the sake of this exploration of thought. Earning something can be based on criteria that can be measurably met.

Those who wholly manufacture creative works are asking the same value be put on their imitation of creative expression as the value inherent with sentient creation. They are saying they deserve the same recognition—be that in respect, attention, acknowledgement or compensation—that works created by a person might receive. But they haven't earned it.

Setting aside the complexity the creative world is concurrently grappling with regarding individual and collective expectations around having an audience for creative work—a separate, nuanced, charged and necessary conversation we are long overdue for—value is not based solely in an idea.

Ideas are actually quite cheap. And common. Not always unique and often completely unremarkable. Ideas are not even eligible for copyright.

We dream in such beautifully complicated ways. It's not a difficult feat to conjure complex worlds. To envision scenes in full grandeur. We can fill in the gaps of our own imaginations. We can accept the terms of the worlds we build in our minds. We can explore a million different possibilities for how a thing might appear. For how a story might unfold. The story of a scene, of a song, of a moment can be rendered complete in our minds. Moving those dreams into a tangible medium where we try to share that full depth and breadth of our dreams with another, that is the challenge of art.

Art is the triumph of realizing dreams through the dedication of time. Time is the currency mortality pays for things that matter. Time for dreaming. Time in living our own unique circumstances. Time for understanding ourselves. Time for building skills. Time for honing instincts. Time for the acts of creation.

My art is the story of how I have spent the time in my life.

The value of an idea comes from the execution of the idea. The What If of how an idea moves from concept to existence. The investment of time, effort and one’s own style in that existence. The mastery of what has been accomplished with the medium. The connection between the creator and the viewer.

Using generative AI is to ask What If but then hand off not only the responsibility and effort of answering the question but also accountability for the answer. When the machine creates something pleasing or marketable, it’s “look at what I did”. When the machine creates something terrible or wrong, it’s “not my fault, the machine did it”. The claim of ownership is conditional and only maintained if the output can generate value.

U.S. Copyright Office
The Human Authorship Requirement
The U.S. Copyright Office will register an original work of authorship, provided that the work was created by a human being. The copyright law only protects “the fruits of intellectual labor” that “are founded in the creative powers of the mind.” Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82, 94 (1879). Because copyright law is limited to “original intellectual conceptions of the author,” the Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work. Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53, 58 (1884).

This article is a helpful post that further expands on the complexity and current state of the policy questions as they relate to generative AI and intellectual property.

Legal precedent is already being established that feeding an idea into a machine is not sufficient for copyright protections.

Generative AI is a manufacturing process, a clinical fabrication, of creative work. One that has been built on the backs of human creativity that has been claimed—mostly without consent, compensation or acknowledgement—of the artists whose work has made generative AI even possible in the first place.

There is a fascinating cognitive disconnect about the ownership of the output of generative AI and about the effort that has been expended to achieve that output. A machine has made what the machinist couldn’t or wouldn’t create with their own time and skills. 

So what value has it earned? It is fundamentally dependent on the labor of others, it will never cost the machinist the true time requisite for actual creation, and it will always be only a superficial approximation of the machinist’s ideas rather than the true realization of their creativity. 

What generative AI creates is not any one person's creative expression. Generative AI is only possible because of the work that has been taken from others. It simply would not exist without the millions of data points that the models are based upon. Those data points were taken without permission, consent, compensation or even notification because the logistics of doing so would have made it logistically improbable and financially impossible.

How could I hold any respect for the machine operator who exploits the labor of others to avoid putting in the work themselves? Why would I ever want to acknowledge such a thing with my attention, time or money?

The book publishing space has been particularly active lately with conversations about using generative AI to create book covers, historically the work of artists or the authors themselves.

Some have been defending the use of generative AI in creating covers because a good cover is necessary to capture attention when competing in the marketplace. Those defending its use often cite the time saved in doing so and the money saved compared to hiring an artist.

Fascinating then, is the long-running concurrent publishing conversation on how difficult it is for authors to make a living. Book sales are low. Pirating is common. The marketplaces are varying sizes of dumpster fires fraught with the challenges of capitalism. (Actually, this is true for pretty much all marketplaces, not just those of books.)

If an author is going to defend the choice to use generative AI for their covers because they can't afford art, what is the argument to be used against those who use generative AI to wholly manufacture books for the marketplace? Is that author going to feel exploited or stolen from when they see their writing style, plots and stories smashed into a generated book? Are they going to feel like they even have a chance in the marketplace when it’s filled with things that can be produced in a fraction of the time it takes to write and publish a real book?

Not to mention one of the most common arguments made by people who pirate books is that they can't afford to pay for them. Authors are pretty united on the notion that pirating books rather than obtaining them through channels by which the author receives pay is theft. So it's not okay for a person to steal a book because they can't afford one but it is okay to steal the work of others—that training data came from somewhere—to create a cover because it's unaffordable at the moment it's desired? Make it make sense please.

The hill upon which one defends the value of their creative expression while denying the value of other creative work—especially ones they need to complete their own work—is fragile ground indeed. It weakens everything.

I read many, many books every year. I make a lot of things—photos, drawings, jewelry, objects. I need creative expression in my life as a way to remind myself that even when some parts of my life are determined by things simply out of my control, there are spaces in which I can bring into being something as I imagine it. When so many things in my professional life are without end because the work will never be done, I need things I can complete when I deem them complete. When there are so many spaces where I can’t be heard because no person can be heard in all things, I need a space where I can explore thoughts and ideas. I need ways to wonder what if and explore the possible answers.

There are so very many things in life that don’t feel real. We all have different experiences and perspectives that render different things uniquely concrete or abstract to each of us. Creative expression is an innate part of our human endeavor to, in turns, bridge gaps between ourselves and what feels distant and to process our lived experiences.

I want art that is the result of an actual person’s experience in this world. I want to see art that evolves in quality, in style, in its depth over time because that art is the very reflection of the person who created it. I want art that is real.

To engage in any sort of debate about this topic, we are going to have to do a better job of confronting the nuance.

Stop saying “AI” when we mean generative AI. 

Learn to identify the nature of the participant. There are those who do consider themselves artists who are trying to understand what the ethical limits are. There are those who want to consider themselves artists but are willing to take the shortcuts and try to pass off mechanical mirages as real art. There are those who are simply profiteers and grifters who don’t give an actual damn about art and creativity and are simply exploiting a marketplace.

The approaches to meet each of these players are simply different. The first group can evolve and can be participants in the larger complex evolution of how generative AI fits into the toolkit. The second group has to either decide they want to be a part of the arts community or do their own thing, but they are not entitled to acceptance when they haven’t earned it. The third group will only respond to the loss of the financial incentive, which means it’s not a waste of our time to be vocal about the marketplace, both with the sellers and with the customers. There will always be customers who don’t care, but when we’re talking about creative expression, we’re not talking about widgets and jobs to be done. We’re talking about products with strong ties to personal identity, meaning, expression and values. The customers we actually need and want, will care.

Generative AI produces the illusion of art and the reality of theft, exploitation and the waste of resources.  Social media often generates the illusion of discourse and the noise of controversy.

If we want to have real art, we’re going to have to create spaces where we can have real and complicated conversations.

Special thanks to the two human beings, Shady Grove Oliver and Hannah Foss, for reading this note and providing me with edits and feedback that no text editor is capable of. ;)