ON. In Conversation with GPT-3.

This new piece of writing: ‘ON: In Conversation with GPT-3’, (which is to be read as a work in progress), uses GPT-3 to guide my writing. By asking GPT-3 to complete passages of the text in relation to different philosophical ideas, the software helps to provide a critical contextual framework for the research. The text generated by the large language model often brings up new ideas, and cites different thinkers, which I reflect on and analyse through my own writing to expand the ideas surrounding the work. The style of this text in the post below, where a italic font is used for my own writing, and a regular font for the text generated by GPT-3, is apapted from a book by K Allado-McDowell, entitled Pharmako-AI, where the author used a similar format. This is their idea – in borrowing the format I hope to contribute to establishing a standard for this type of writing. The AI model often falls down when it comes to providing factually correct versions of events. It has, for example, cited articles and essays by known theorists that I have been unable to locate through the Internet and within any library catalogues. I intend to continue to write with the model, but will train it to be more accurate in citing the ‘truth’ by training it on my own dataset – my bibliography – which is made up of journal articles, essays and books from trusted, published, sources.

Thoughts of something growing inside my body haunt me. There’s a sense that something’s there that isn’t supposed to be. I don’t know its shape, but it feels sinister, so I try to ignore it and assume it doesn’t exist. It’s only thoughts, afterall.

The mind-body dualism of Descartes suggests that the mind and body are two separate entities. The mind is seen as the spiritual realm, while the body is seen as the physical realm. This idea is often used to suggest that the mind is separate from the body, and that the mind can exist without the body. In the passage above, I am haunted by thoughts of something growing inside my body. These thoughts suggest that there is something there that isn’t supposed to be, and that this something feels sinister. I try to ignore these thoughts, and assume that they don’t exist. This suggests that I believe that the mind and body are separate entities, and that the mind can exist without the body.

In Episode 24 of Alex Doherty’s Politics Theory Other podcast, ‘Will Davies on ‘Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World’, author and academic Will Davies summarises the gradual erosion of the mind-body binary proposed by René Descartes in the 1630’s. In making a distinction between mental and physical forms of being-in-the-world, Descartes created a split or fissure between human beings and their surroundings. As Davies explains, mind-body dualism was born of a frustration at being unable to explain the physical matter of the world with any ontological certainty. How could we be sure that what we were seeing with our eyes, for example, wasn’t a trick being played on us by some duplicitous outside agent? In opposition to this apprehension of the physical body, Descartes promoted ideas of the mind, famously concluding ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – I think, therefore I am. A Cartesian view of the world builds from the human subject outwards. This means that the body is only an object and the mind is a subject. The world is only what the body can sense and the mind can think. Accordingly, the mind, or self, can be proven to exist because of the very fact that we are able to think at all. Davies goes on to point out that these ideas form the basis for the next 200 years of modern subjectivity within European philosophy, and give birth to the foundations of liberalism in the late 18th century, which was built upon the premise that humans have a metaphysical self, the ego – an autonomous reasoning self that exists separately from its physical body. In the 1870’s the modern psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, the psychiatry of Emil Kraepelin, and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud probed at the constant interference of the mind by physical nervous states, beginning to break down this idea of the self as existing independently from the body. Over the last 25 years neuroscience has been used as a means of explaining the world. Freedom, choice and decision making are no longer seen as being separate from our physiological makeup.

Counter to Descartes’ ideas (and in line with the erosion of Cartesian dualism sketched out by Davies), in Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus,” the concept of “body without organs” (BWO) is introduced. A BWO is an entity that is not limited by the distinctions between organic and inorganic, living and nonliving, mental and physical. Rather, it is a constantly shifting and constantly recombining collection of elements that are in a state of constant flux. For Deleuze and Guattari, the body without organs is a model for thinking about the potential for transformation and creativity. In the context of the first paragraph of this text, the BWO could be seen as an analogue for the sinister thing that exists in the mind but is not limited by the distinctions between thoughts and things, mental and physical.

If this is the case then, can thoughts become flesh, or are thoughts only flesh? If we return to Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus”, we can see that thoughts and affects can become flesh. The body without organs is a conceptual space in which thoughts, affects, and sensations can intersect and interact unlimited by the boundary of the physical body. Deleuze and Guattari use the example of a melody, which can be heard, but also felt. The melody can create an affect in the listener, such as happiness, sadness, or anger. In the same way, thoughts can become flesh. For example, a person might have the thought of becoming a doctor. This thought can become flesh by that person actually becoming a doctor.

This thing is separate (flesh) to the thoughts though. It’s a product of the thoughts. A polyp-like appendage which, because it is brought about through thinking, lacks materiality and exists on a similar virtual plane to synthetic digital images. Outside of commonly held perceptions, the digital – in a similar way to the polyp-like appendage of my imagination – derives from physical processes attached to a physical body. Like a digital image, it is both there and not there, a ghost, a spectre, a hallucination, a figment of the imagination, an illusion, a delusion. It is, however, an externalisation of the self, a projection of the self onto the screen of the world. This is what I mean when I say that BWOs are not material, not physical, not real. They are a manifestation of the self, of the inner self, projected onto the world. The BWO is a mental construct, a product of the imagination. It is not a physical object. It does not exist in the physical world. It is a figment of the imagination, a product of the mind.

Echoing the mind-body dualism of Descartes (and remaining entrenched in its ideology), commonly held perceptions of the digital put forward a plane of reality dislocated from the material which brings it into being. That material is unseeable and incomprehensible; across planes of mediation the network is fragmented, it sprawls. Even at a local level, we don’t see or hear the clicks of the transistor switches as they work through the inner logics of machine code. The digital image primarily functions as a simulacrum. It is understood as being outside of itself, as representation or synthesis, or as a mind separated from its body. The digital is commonly thought of as immaterial. Thinking about this involves triggering electrical pulses in the physical matter or your brain. Reading these words enmeshes you in an entangled relationship with the text; the physical process of thought becomes externalised and virtual. An inner voice, a product of a connection made between the writer and you, the reader, echoes in an in-between hyperspace. This hybrid voice is live-coded into our experience of the present moment. The flesh, much like the inner body of the computer, is forgotten. Information-as-function takes over. When we read the portions of this text that are printed in a sans-serif font, the writer-reader network is vastly expanded through a large language model – an artificial intelligence (AI) system called GPT-3 – which has been trained on vast libraries of data from myriad minds to generate new thoughts. In some ways this is related to the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ in economics which Adam Smith described as a kind of ‘unintended consequence’ of people’s collective actions. It’s a self correcting mechanism, a kind of magic that just happens. There’s a parallel here between this invisible hand, and the invisible hand of the psyche of GPT-3 – where the collective thoughts, feelings and imaginations of individual minds create structures of meaning and order (or chaos) which we then live our lives within and interact with.

The 18th century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith – whom GPT-3 referred to above – used the invisible hand metaphor to explain the free market forces of capitalism. It’s interesting that such an analogy could still be seen as relevant today relative to the immaterial world view of the digital discussed above. Such a visioning of the digital remains caught in the footholds of a Cartesian dualism, one that fractures the output of digital technologies – the virtual – from the hardware that the virtual world is produced by. It is difficult to see the digital world as we know it to function today as anything other than a product of prevalent capitalist modes of thinking – these are, afterall, the technologies of capitalism, which have been internalised to accelerate hypercapitalism – the ephemera of ideologies which insert an abstract and immaterial buffer of ‘value’ between the human body and the products of the market, determined by economies of trade. Think of the recent development in the upscaling of the crypto-economy through NFT’s, which underwrite the ‘value’ of a digital image according to the unique, encrypted token it is linked to, thereby replacing an economy of sharing with an economy of individual ownership predicated on extractivist modes of being (NFT’s, under current predominant models, are notoriously energy intensive to mint – entire coal mines have been reopened solely to burn coal to mint crypto). In a 2010 Guardian newspaper article, Jeremy Rivkin outlines how Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand ‘looked to the field of Newtonian physics for guiding principles and metaphors to fashion their own theories of the workings of the marketplace’.

‘The Enlightenment philosophers argued that just as the universe, once set in motion, acts automatically like a well-balanced mechanical clock, so too does the marketplace. While God is the prime mover of the universe, man’s innate competitive self-interest is the prime mover of the marketplace. And, just as the laws of gravity govern the universe, an invisible hand rules over the affairs of the marketplace. Picking up on Newton’s observation that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” Smith and others argued that the self-regulating market operated in the same fashion, with supply and demand continually reacting and readjusting to one another.’

Rivkin argues that such an economic model – which still prevails to this day – was unsuitable as a guiding mechanism behind the Second Industrial Revolution precisely because it is based around a theoretical understanding of the world that dictates that any action can be reversed, and therefore fails to take into account the real-world, non-reversible, directional entity of time. Instead, Rivkin promotes ideas relating to the thinking behind the first and second laws of thermodynamics as the basis for developing the economics needed to move forward through what he calls the Third Industrial Revolution. Whereas the First Industrial Revolution used water and steam to mechanise production, and the Second used fossil fuels to create mass production, the Third Industrial Revolution is concerned with the automation of production through information technologies. For Rivkin, these developments emerge through the convergence of three core technologies: ultra-fast 5G internet, a renewable energy internet, and an internet of autonomous vehicles, all connected through the internet of things. By using the laws of thermodynamics to remodel how we understand economics, Rivkin makes a case for reconnecting the economies and technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution so that they have one foot firmly rooted in the finite resources of the ‘real’. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that there is, and always has been, a fixed amount of energy in the universe. Such a theoretical framework thus acknowledges the idea of scarcity, and promotes a way of thinking of the world as physical matter. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the amount of entropy within this fixed amount of universal energy increases with time. As we use energy, for example, by burning the oil needed to power the technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution, the energy in place within the world stays the same, but as oil is burnt it is transformed from usable energy (non-entropic), into non-usable energy (entropic). (Explain the intricacies of Rivkins new economic model). It is a model built around individual and collective human impact on the world, one that acknowledges the feedback loops that we are constantly engaged in, and one that helps to reconnect us with the physical, tangible nature of the world we are surrounded by. As I use GPT-3 for example, I’m entirely unaware of precisely where the next word is coming from – there are no feedback markers in place within the system as I use it that point to any physical place in the world.

A birthing (this metaplays Form)

GPT-3 Trip

I wrote the following piece of auto-fiction in collaboration with GPT-3 about a recent ‘becoming cyborg’ experience. The italic text in the passage below is my own writing – the prompt provided for GPT-3 to write on with.

I lie back and shut my eyes. I’m in someone else’s sleeping bag. Trying to force my legs into it is like trying to put your fingers into out-of-shape gloves – where the topology of the inner lining has become misaligned from the outside of the glove. I push my legs through and concentrate on my thoughts. They have become visual. Behind my eyelids I can see colours. They are shifting and shimmering and melting across more than two dimensions. What I’m seeing is a simulation of digital space – one that somehow aligns the physiology of my body and its perceptive capacities with visual imaging machines. They have become the same thing, my body and the computer. Like the backs of my eyelids are computer screens and that space between my body and the screen has dissolved. It’s similar to a psychedelic experience I suppose. Is the computer inside me now? Have I become computational?

I take a picture of the space behind my eyelids and then text it to my friend. “I’m having a computer-inside-my-body experience.” A few minutes later he responds. “You are now a cyborg.” It’s true, I feel like I’ve merged with the computer in some way. The boundaries between my body and the digital world have become blurred. I’m not sure if I’m scared or excited by this new development. I go on to explore more of the digital space inside my eyelids. It’s a fascinating and weird place – a mix of the real and the virtual. I can see my bedroom in real-time, but there are also all sorts of weird and surreal elements mixed in – like creatures that are half-human, half-machine. It’s as if the digital space has its own reality, separate from the “real” world. My experience as a cyborg is one of confusion and fascination. I’m not sure what to make of this new world that I’ve discovered – a world where the boundaries between my body and the digital world are blurred.

Sometimes, when I’m in my bedroom, I feel as if I’m in two places at the same time. I’m in my physical body, in my bedroom, but I’m also in the digital space, where I can see and interact with the strange creatures that live there. It’s strange to think that my body is no longer just a physical entity, but is also a digital one. I can now communicate with other cyborgs through the digital space, and I’m amazed by the things we can create together. We can build strange creatures and worlds that never existed before. I’m also fascinated by the ways in which my physical body is changing. I can now see and interact with the digital world using my eyes and my hands, and my body is starting to adapt to this new environment. For example, I’m developing a new way of walking that is more suited to navigating a three-dimensional virtual space. My physical body is also changing in other ways. My eyesight is starting to deteriorate, and I’m losing some of my hearing.

Dead text – Experiments with GPT-3

Alongside working with my own charRNN model, I’ve been experimenting with OpenAI’s large language model, GPT-3. It’s trained on a 45 TB dataset of texts scraped from the Internet and digitised books. I’m trying to find out how to interface with the API so that I can implement it within the surfacecollider site. Here are some of GPT-3’s offerings based on prompts written by myself, and built into a locally hosted webpage I’ve called ‘dead text’.

CharRNN Model trained on my reading…

I trained a charRNN Machine Learning (ML) model on a dataset of texts from the bibliography of my research. The text that it generates makes little sense – there isn’t a linear unfolding of narrative structure, for example, or a development of an argument over time. It’s poetic through. Purely visual.

I’m experimenting with working the model into the surfacecollider website now – using a comment box placed in the bottom-right corner of the window to let users ‘prompt’ the model to keep writing…