Totally Normal 17: Just Checking In
Tony Stamp revisits some of the chaos; and Apple announces its new dystopia machine.
Thanks for the outpouring of advice and love over the weekend’s Wolves on the Roof piece. I’m gonna throw some of your comments into a future newsletter, as I think there’s genuinely great advice in there for anyone suffering any kind of chronic pain, or battling the dark nighttime thoughts that creep in at 2am.
As for me — my back is on the mend… slowly. Sort of. I’ll fill you in once I know what’s going on.
For today’s newsletter, we’re in June (how? what?) so it’s time for a monthly installment of Totally Normal. This month Tony Stamp revisits some of his earlier dystopian missives to bring you some hellish updates.
At the end of the keynote, Apple played the official commercial for the “Vision Pro” (which starts at $3,499) — which is a pretty horrible watch.
Sure, new tech is fun and exciting — but the examples that Apple used to show this tech in action were confounding. Like, there was a dad preparing breakfast for their cute kid while he was busy working on the computer he had strapped to his fucking face.
As my friend remarked, “It feels like they don’t even care to pretend that their technology is for good anymore.”
There’s also the fun fact that this thing may be more of a brain-machine interface than it’s made out to be.
We’re willing slaves to this shit, ignoring our kids so we can work harder for absolutely nothing — while a few men add some more billions to their bank accounts.
Normal XVII: Just checking In
with Tony Stamp
On the penultimate episode of Succession, Kendall Roy berates his ex wife Rava, saying “You’re too online. You’ve lost context”. I won’t say why in case you haven’t caught up, but suffice it to say, what she’s worried about is very much happening in real life.
When I sit down to write this column and sift through the stories I’ve squirrelled away during the month, a picture tends to emerge, and sometimes I realise the world has changed in real ways. Things start to feel precarious, and I wonder… maybe I’m just too online?
This month a few repeat offenders have surfaced - things that David (or Hayden, or Jackson) or I have written about during the past year - so I thought we could check in on them and see how things have shaken out.
The rise of machine learning
We’ve been blabbing on about image generators and their potential dangers at Webworm for some time now, and NZ’s National Party, presumably trying to beat the impending crack down on using this tech for political purposes, released a jaw-droppingly problematic series of AI-generated imagery in their latest campaign.
Featuring ‘scared woman’, some looters, and two healthcare workers, none of it was real, and to me felt self-evidently offensive. Right wing politicians love to create boogeymen for the populace to be scared of, and the Nats, lacking a 24-hour cable news channel to achieve the same, literally just made some up.
There’s an obvious problem with making photoreal(ish) images of dudes in masks trashing a store, but the healthcare duo was even queasier. As many people asked online, what prompts did they put in to get this image?
A turgid flow of accounts with blue ticks and low follower counts clogged the replies with counter-arguments (I saw one dude saying it was good they didn’t pay actors - frugal), and a divide emerged between those who thought it was all pretty gross, and those who disagreed.
Pretty soon 1News uncovered the ones they didn’t end up using, and… hoo boy.
Even funnier, more surreal, and completely beyond satire, was the Ukraine Ministry of Defence posting AI-generated images of Harry Potter characters fighting in their army. No words.
Valley of the Dorks
Twitter, the site I promised to shut up about, continues to morph into an outlet purely catered to reactionary grievance. When Musk appeared on CBNC recently looking particularly dead-eyed, he was questioned about his unhinged posting, glaring into space for an insane amount of time before his brain dredged up the smartest thing it could: a butchered quote from The Princess Bride.
As David wrote about here, Musk’s use of the term ‘free speech’ is such obvious code for ‘I want to be publicly racist’ that it’s not even dogwhistling anymore. Since that Webworm piece he’s liked or shared anti-Black or transphobic garbage with glee. He also liked this image, putting his relationship with Grimes into even ickier context, and when people noticed, started the ball rolling on making likes private.
Tucker Carlson will be streaming a show on Twitter. The Daily Wire, home to smirking fascists like Ben Shapiro, will too. And as you may have heard, racist shithead Ron Desantis launched his presidential run on the site in truly catastrophic fashion. The event was roundly mocked, and he and Elon did what all these freaks do and claimed it was a victory.
Over on Truth Social, Trump’s staff were paying attention, and fired off some problematic responses (I actually thought this was pretty funny until I noticed George Soros).
Back when I wrote about Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, I had a theory that because the world was getting worse, more people wanted to escape into fantasy. Recent developments have, happily, proved me wrong: billions of dollars pumped into this thing, and it’s crickets out there. Well, aside from the swathe of articles prognosticating about the platform’s future.
The Guardian and Insider proclaimed it dead, signalled by Meta’s announcement of advancements into - yep - AI. A week later, after Zuck insisted the ‘verse was still happening, The Washington Post, HBR and The Guardian dutifully reported as such. A study showed the Metaverse could boost the global economy by trillions of dollars. The study was paid for by Meta.
Something with this much capital behind it failing cheers me up somewhat - the general populace still being able to inconvenience the obscenely wealthy is good, to me.
Speaking of which, back when I wrote about Disney Adults and the theme parks they frequent, I was not expecting the tide to turn against them. But the immersive role-playing hotel thingie Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser has shuttered after just 18 months, thanks to failing demand and low occupancy rates.
Don’t get me wrong, I would happily soak up lore reveals and blue milk for a few days, but at $1200US a night? I think most people are going to turn that down, no matter how much of society is made up of moneyed adults who never mentally left their twenties.
Even the MCU, which has defined popular culture for at least a decade, isn’t doing as well these days. We might even see movies for grown ups manage to open on more than a few dozen screens.
It’s cool to create
I recently brunched with some people I hadn’t seen in years, and at one point my friend brought up the current media saturation of AI-related stuff, concluding “Just enslave humanity already, I’m sick of it”.
Last month I wrote a bit about the way the tech industry and their new creations seem aimed at eliminating creativity. I was talking about music, but it’s been gnawing at me ever since, and the weeks following have seen a flood of AI ‘breakthroughs’ which seem to target being creative as some awful, impossible task.
I also have the feeling that the panicked response (which I am playing into right now), is just part of the Silicon Valley snake oil.
Twitter user Paris Marx pointed out that similar hysterias have operated in the past around robots, and that these things generally don’t come to pass outside inflating stock prices and passing legislation. He wrote that in response to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman threatening to stop operating in Europe. Just… threatening a continent.
It feels like another divide is being drawn. On one side are people who understand that making stuff is fun and good for you, whatever it entails. I doubt you’d want a machine to jump in and finish your knitting or whatever, because doing it is the point.
And the joy of appreciating art lies in what it reveals about its creators. It’s why I love Spielberg and Lynch and Pusha T and Rothko - they’re sharing part of themselves. It’s beautiful. The people behind this recent spate of AI tools don’t seem to understand that.
As one example, an AI-generated conversation between a fake Bill Gates and a fake Socrates emerged, promoted as “very realistic” and “the future of podcasting”. It is neither. It is uniquely pointless.
On NPR, Ari Shapiro talked to David Simon, creator of The Wire, about the convenience these tools could provide. Surely having ChatGPT present you with narrative options is a boon? As Simon responded “I’d rather put a gun in my mouth”.
Hearing this, actual writer Daniel Kibblesmith wrote a thread explaining why this all sucks and is dumb. I encourage you to read his thread here.
The devaluing of art is creeping in around us, from the proliferation of the term ‘content’, to shows dropping off streaming (becoming unavailable legally altogether), to the newly christened Max crediting directors, writers, and actors as “creators”.
The fact that all this is happening during a writers strike (which debate around AI plays a key part in) makes it all the more infuriating.
The debate will continue, but I like to think most people understand that, of anything, art should be made by humans. Pick a side.
David here again.
We do kinda need to pick a side, I think. I pick the side that isn’t going to pay $3,499 for a computer I strap to my face, even if the Apple keynote guy told us “We studied thousands of heads” to get the straps and comfort levels right.
They didn’t study my big noggin’, that’s for sure. Keep that thing off me.
What about you?