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John Henry and the Modern Creative



Man versus the machine is the new debate and, in my circles, the debate is significant. I'm talking #AI and its new role in creating art. I've seen great arguments made on all sides and I'm not entirely sure where I stand at this time if I'm honest.


You've seen it. All of your friends posting those illustrated selfies and the like. Here are a few I did on one of the free apps that I thought actually looked like me, complete with forehead and mouth wrinkles, the lighter patches on the wings of my hair (it made them gold rather than gray, mind you!), and the one eye I always close slightly more than the other. But none of them really "captured" me. I'm generally known as a smiley approachable person. People call me "Sunshine," but the AI tool I used seemed to think moody was a better look for me so, while these do look like my physical appearance, they somehow still don't look like ME.

I wish I'd been nearly as tough as these images depict. Truth is, I was laid up for a few days this last week. I had some diagnostic testing and, don't worry, everything is okay. Probably not so very long ago though, some of the things I was dealing with would have required invasive procedures just to tell me that everything was okay. But, thousands of doctors, scientists, and medical technicians over hundreds of years have added their knowledge to the great databases of the world. Learning what ales a person is much easier these days. We also have tools that plug into our cars to read codes and tell us what ales those. The calculator on my phone does math based on thousands of years of smart people who have figured out the formulas.

The sampling of intellectual property and practice is not new.

Artificial intelligence has become commonplace in much of our lives. We are all for the great databases when they keep our bodies, our cars, and our lives running efficiently. Nobody is filling our social media feeds with protests of the doctors, mechanics, or mathematicians using the diagnostic tools that sample the intellectual knowledge and practical applications of generations of educated and experienced professionals from those fields.


Until recently, creatives have been relatively sheltered from the meddlesome computers that run our lives. I think it began in music long before some of the other mediums of art felt the digital arm reach into their lives. Maybe some of you remember this classic "sampling:"

I play a digital drum. Badly, mind you. I haven't practiced in ages. But I play it. It has 999 sounds. I know five of them. It can create sounds of instruments that I don't even know exist. Somewhere in the world, a musician played a sound that this machine now knows how to create and it chooses to create those sounds in a very specific way that it came to by sampling recordings of many people playing that sound.


My husband has pedal boards for his guitars, too. A lot of the sounds that the pedal boards create were originally made by hand by the great Les Paul. How he managed to make his guitar do some of these insane things without a machine is beyond me, but he did.

That's the kind of musical genius he was. And most of the crazy trick playing and effects that are common with guitarists today can be traced back to that Wizard of Waukesha as he was known.


But now, AI has come for our words and our visual art. My friend and fellow author (and artist!) Dennis Vogen (Cold, Flip, & more on Amazon) recently added to the AI conversation on Facebook:

What I can tell you is that I agree with Dennis's words that a computer cannot make on the page what I can. A computer does not sit down in front of itself with an idea that it composes on itself. Ideas themselves are human.

After the idea, there are the actual words. I have seen the magic word makers of different types. And they are not my voice. But, I do think that they have a place as a tool for business writing and newsletter writing if they are used to inspire and create a prompt or a starting point. I picture them having a great impact in corporate and technical writing as well as marketing and publicity writing as a result.

To be very VERY clear here, I have not used any AI writing tools in any of my books. And I don't plan to do so.

. . . buuuut not necessarily because I am against the AI word-generators as a starting point for somebody who might be struggling to get going on the page.

I have always told my students when I've worked at the university level that there is nothing they can write that God and Shakespeare have not already covered. It is their unique voice and style that will make the story they create their own. I stand by that. And those voices are what make our work relatable to others. And, even if AI has a voice, it does not have mine. It does not have theirs. And it does not have a human one.

As for the visual art, I think most of what you see people posting, the selfies and whatnot, are meant for fun. That said, I've been lucky to see some of the spectacular work created with the tools from artists in my life. I have one friend who is quite good at it. But, what he creates is NOT what I could create. He has the ideas as well as some knowledge in art to know what ideas to even ask for. He does many many iterations of pieces and combines them and applies filters and edits and all sorts of other manners of making them his own. He prefers the term generative art. (See Arpit Mehta's work like this piece on Instagram.) In a way, he is using a digital starting point as a medium toward creating other art. It's a prompt, if you will. Oh I know not everybody is doing that. But, I'm just providing another perspective to the debate.

By the way, for a long time the debate kept me from playing with some of those selfie AI tools. It was a friend of mine who convinced me to do so after I gave him hell for commenting "Hot Damn" to one of his own pictures online. (You know who you are! That was hilarious! And, the rest of y'all, don't worry; we're real friends. I'm allowed to give him shit!) The pictures I ended up with on the free tool were fun. But they are not really images of me and so I didn't share them on my socials.

Oh, I know she's hot. But she is not me.


That said, a couple of them that came out were visually what I had pictured in my mind for a character in my current sci-fi series. The particular character I was thinking of, Kate, is one who looks like me...minus 20 years and tougher than my own appearance. That was always my intention for her physical look.

The book is already written (AT FAULT came out in April of last year), so it's not like this AI art changed my original concept. However a new edition of the book will be coming out with added art when the second book of the series releases and that art is being created now. I was able to forward those images...to my ACTUAL (human!) on-retainer artist as an idea. My artist, Cas Mayhall, with these as inspiration, is creating their art with other mediums. The images were merely a concept to share, much as I often share cover images I like with the paid professional artists I use to create my book covers.

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In talking about this whole AI conversation yesterday, I thought of the folktale of John Henry. He was the steel driver who worked to lay the railroad tracks (drive the ties) and, when the machinated steel drivers came along, he wanted to prove that the machines could not do the job as well as he. There was a contest on who could drive the most railroad ties in a certain amount of time... And he won! And then promptly died.

He killed himself making a point that humans were better. He didn't change the fact that there was a machinated steel driver. The machine did not go away. And men continued to work on the railroad alongside those machines.


I find that the tools, whether they are in music, in writing, or in visual art, are just tools. Like any tool that has ever been created in the history of mankind, those tools...those machines...can be used for good or for bad.

And, like it or not, the machines are here to stay.

I'm not up for pulling a John Henry and killing myself to prove my worth. There is room for both of us in this world. Regardless of my opinion on the matter, this new reality is a fact with which I must live. So I choose to work alongside it.

Hey, look at that. I guess I did come to a position after all!

Create on, my friends! After all, the machines are farming for more material....


Be gloriously human,

JS



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