The Humanities and Information, Art and Artificial Intelligence

In thinking about the intersection between digital information and the humanities, I am drawn to a discussion we had as a class on artificial intelligence and its impact on online publication. At the edge of technology driving the world forward in terms of productivity, job creation, and countless untold applications is artificial intelligence. AI is a new frontier of collaboration and creation which will inevitably change the world in radical ways. With radical change comes anxiety and fears about what will be lost in the present. Disregarding anxieties over a changing job economy and robot overlords, a far more reasonable concern to have over what artificial intelligence will mean for us in terms of the spread, collection, and visibility of information in the digital world. In reading James Gleick’s The Information, we are introduced to his ideas on the information age and its titular “lifeblood”, information. Reading The Information has had me thinking about how we as humans are constantly moving towards more effective and instant forms of communication with each other. In finding more effective means of exchanging and distributing information, the circulatory system in play has changed over the years. In the information age, the internet is the most advanced and intricate means of communication we have ever seen. It is also the most easily accessible and widespread. As Gleick outlines, “Like the printing press, the telegraph, and the telephone before it, the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting information differently. What makes cyberspace different from all previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to groups, instant messaging one to one.”

There is a clear and important way that this is changing how the humanities are being consumed with specific regard to the forums and platforms they are represented on. Journalism, art, music, history, all of these humanities have their most widespread readerbase, viewerbase, and listenerbase on social media. What I’ve been thinking about because of Gleick’s writing and our in class discussions is just how different the time we’re living in is now from all of our past. For the first time, the entities overlooking and moderating the platforms used for discussion of the humanities are no longer human themselves. A week or so I would’ve argued that this is an objectively good thing. Having a standardized and all encompassing set of rules enforced by an unquestioning and unbiased mind seemed like the perfect solution to protection of free speech. If everyone’s speech is judged the same no matter who they are or where they stand politically there can be no selective censorship. An AI moderator would eliminate the need for humans to subject themselves to the negative and harmful content present on any social media platform. That same moderator would be active day and night and to prevent others from seeing such things. I realize how foolish that perspective was having thought it out. It is a danger for the public to view AI in the way that I had previously thought of them.

An AI does not come from nothing, it must be instructed. It is not without bias. An AI will no doubt be a reflection of its creators, their political ideologies, ideas, and values will be represented in it. This is the other danger of allowing an AI to police thought and dialogue. An AI cannot question the ethics of what it does by censoring content based on its parameters which are always subject to change. There is no chance for an AI to make decisions based on anything but what it has been programmed to do. With current machine learning this is a fact. There’s no telling what the future will hold, but at that point of development there may be little difference between a human moderator and an AI. It’s at that point the humanities will be tasked with cataloguing and creating art about a whole new aspect of the human experience. How will the artists, writers, and historians of the future approach artificial intelligence once it becomes difficult to distinguish it from organic? I wonder about this and I hope to see it within my lifetime.

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