Algorithms and the New Aesthetic

This is a very interesting take on the recent Amazon/’rape t-shirts’ story that exploded online recently. Via Amazon, a company called Solid Gold were selling t-shirts that included the phrase ‘Keep Calm And Rape Alot’. This, understandably, upset a lot of people and generated a lot of backlash against the sellers and Amazon. But Pete Ashton makes a very interesting and pertinent point – that most people did not grasp – that a human being wasn’t really involved in the process, hence the faux pas. The t-shirts were generated via an automatic algorithm, given certain inputs and parameters. This does not, as Ashton says, excuse them, but it does explain it. The ‘headfuck’ moment, as Ashton puts it, is that a human was not involved in the design or approval. A machine did it all.

Interestingly I came across the link on the New Aesthetic tumblr, which is collecting various disparate sources related to the emerging ‘New Aesthetic’ scene in London. For a good introduction, James Brindle’s (who coined the term) talk at Web Direction is a good starting point or the initial blog post which started it. Another thorough third-party investigation is Will Wiles piece for Aeon. Then follow it with Bruce Sterling’s measured response to the movement, which includes some criticisms to ponder. One of them is the actual lack of artificial intelligence in machines, and issues of ethics. As Sterling says:

“Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics.

In a way the t-shirt debacle underlines this – we are surrendering more and more of our lives to ‘algorithms’, thinking that machines can think for us. But they can’t – and eventually they will cross a line (ethical, legal, taste) that they cannot understand. This might only be the beginning.

All of this reminded me of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Today we are trusting the machines to print our t-shirts. If we cede more control, will the consequences more serious? 

Ominously, the New Aesthetic likes to talk about drones a lot….