reinjan prakke
📖 11 minutes

AI: conflict between impending content avalanches

This blog was written in Dutch for Nieuw Narratieven and has been automatically translated into English.

If this is the new world we are creating with AI, we are about to face an avalanche of soulless content of unprecedented scale in the short term. It will be a race to the bottom. This is the eerie feeling that has been creeping over me since Friday.

In recent months, I have been plagued by a strange mix of childlike enthusiasm about AI and a kind of fear of being left behind. So I read and listen more than is relevant for me, dutifully study how to write prompts, and constantly test new tools. Last Friday, I took it a step further; I attended 'the largest AI event in the Netherlands' in the dome prison in Haarlem. Hoping to discover new tools, yes, but above all, I am looking for a broader perspective that will allow me to let go of some of this restlessness.

I signed up for the workshop "How to Quickly Create Newsworthy Content with ChatGPT, Without Losing Your Unique Voice". It's particularly the second part of that sentence that intrigues me, as it makes me assume that they value the writer's authenticity and the art of writing. Once in the classroom, the workshop is conducted by two ladies, one a freelance community manager for various multinationals, the other owner of a large news website. ChatGPT is affectionately referred to as 'chattie' from the opening, which irks me, but this pales in comparison to the irritation I feel at the new way of working they present.

The new way of practicing 'journalism'

First, 'Chattie' is asked to come up with ten interesting topics for a 'newsworthy' piece in a theme of choice. Then they select one of the generated topics and ask 'chattie' to write a 600-word piece. The next important step; have ChatGPT read a piece you have previously written and ask it to analyze your writing style. (Sidenote: this does produce a stunningly accurate and interesting description). Now go back to the piece ChatGPT wrote and ask it to rewrite it based on the analyzed writing style. Quickly check the sources and done. It's child's play. 'You just need to edit the text and that's it!'

What a poverty. For the first time in years, I feel the discomfort that I have experienced multiple times during my school career. The whole class takes neat notes of what the teacher says and I, annoyed, raise my hand and say 'this way of working seems rather undesirable to me', upon which many look at me as a know-it-all and my neighbor kindly whispers 'you can probably also use ChatGPT in your own way'.

Dumbfounded, I remain, apparently as the only one, and that's why I am sure now; we are going to face an avalanche of content of unprecedented scale. Everyone will be pressured to deliver more output to feed their addiction to likes and clicks. Every day, the content highway gets busier and busier and the only way out people seem to find is to produce more and faster content. This way we end up in a race to the bottom that truly benefits no one.

Alright, that’s the short-term nightmare scenario. Now let’s look for hope and a broader perspective!

Mr. Metaverse

This week I also spoke with futurist Aragorn Meulendijks (yes, his real name!). Think of a sort of niche rock star in the field of AI, Web3, and The Metaverse. Tall man, charismatic appearance, warm, straightforward, and exceptionally intelligent. He travels the world as "Mr. Metaverse" as a keynote speaker and is also very active on LinkedIn (where he worked for years).

I met him a year ago through a narrative podcast that we developed together for a metaverse company, and I was immediately intrigued by his persona and stories. While the profession of 'futurist' usually raises a degree of skepticism in me, with Aragorn, I actually get the impression that he manages to see further than others, think further than others, and that alone is enormously inspiring.

Aragorn Meulendijks, photographer Tony Perez

I've learned in recent years by talking to economists that it's impossible to predict the future. Can you do that?
No, I definitely can't, but if you choose a specific point in the future, you can make a probability calculation on it. I think that, partly on an unconscious level, is what people like me continuously do, and the further into the future you go, the blurrier that image becomes and the greater the chance, of course, that you're completely wrong. But the role of the futurist is to dream, not to be limited by the certainties of the zeitgeist.

What do you mean by that?
Look, at any point in time, based on prevailing science, technology, and zeitgeist, there are certain limits to what is possible or not. Most people stay within those limits. An example is that about 150 years ago it was impossible to fly. So people thought: we can't fly, we'll never do it, because it goes against the laws of nature. Now, of course, we know better. I see it as my task to look beyond those boundaries.

Why are you better at that than others?
That has to do with my upbringing, how I train my brain, and how my brain functions. Depending on how you are raised, you participate in society in a certain way, and my upbringing was freer than average, I think.

It has also been scientifically proven that as we age, our neuroplasticity decreases, so our ability to change our opinions flexibly decreases, and most people eventually just want a nice, quiet life. They want a family, security, etc., but neuroplasticity is something you can train, just like muscles in the body. So, you can keep yourself 'flexible' for longer by challenging yourself, and that’s something I consciously do a lot. By seeking boredom, for example, through meditation, psychedelics, sports, dietary supplements, reading, fasting, lots of sleep, that sort of thing.

Then there's how my brain works. Some people, often neurodivergent people like me, find satisfaction in a completely different way of dealing with life, and because we do that, we are also much more willing to think about a changing future and we come to different insights than the average person.

What does neurodiversity have to do with it according to you?
A part of my whole life I have struggled with why I have such a different approach to things than most people around me. For example, I was bullied at school because I often knew more than the teacher and did not hesitate to correct them. But why do I think differently? And why do I get so positively enthused by these kind of weird scenarios like with artificial intelligence?

Well, I think that as a society humanity is sort of a herd. That means that most of us are within a certain bounded area of behavior. And that's good, because it keeps us safe, it keeps us together, it ensures we all go in the same direction. But evolutionarily that's not good when you end up in difficult situations, because then you need someone who is looking for a new source of water or a new source of food, somewhere outside the area where you've always been.

And so, I think neurodivergent people, people with ADHD, and perhaps also people who are bipolar, are mechanisms of nature, of evolution, to ensure that ultimately the chances of survival of our species are increased. At least, this is my personal belief. And if you look at it that way, it means that I am not a failure or someone who has a disorder. No, the fact that I can say 'I have ADHD' is almost like a badge of honor for me, because I am one of those scouts of our species who ensure that we as a whole better understand where we are going. But within the masses, many people of course find me a bit strange and I have to live with that too.

What is the reason for you to be so vocal about neurodiversity?
I am extremely lucky to have been born with a particularly large dose of self-confidence, so I don’t suffer much from my own neurodiversity, but there are a lot of people who can’t handle it and I think those people need to hear these kind of stories, so they can feel better, suffer less, and see the same as I do. I hope that those people can find meaning in life this way. On the other hand, I think that by being vocal about this, the rest of society can also become aware of it and maybe realize the importance of having these “madmen” around.

For my podcast, it helped me a lot to look at the past to understand the present and look to the future. To what extent do you draw historical lines to form an image of the future?My first great love in life was history. And yes, I draw lines, but those lines for me are not linear like for most people, but exponential, so with a steep curve.

As I see it, we are now in the steep part of that line, and if you go back in time 1000 years, they are on that very flat part, and that almost seems to be linear growth, even though it was already exponential then.

However, because the lifespan of a human is so short on the curve of that graph, you don’t experience that. That's why I say things like "we are going to experience as many changes in the next 50 years as in the last 20,000 years" and then people say "you are out of your mind".

If we are now in the steep part, what changes are we going to experience?
I think we are currently on the eve of a complete shift in our consciousness as a civilization, in many different areas. An example of this is a very fundamental concept; the idea of ownership. I think we need to completely rethink this over the next 20, 30 years. It starts with intellectual property.

The idea of intellectual property and recording it is something that has mainly come about over the last century. That’s when we got various institutions that could record it, and superpowers started to get involved with it, but we didn’t have the hyperconnected society we have today. We didn’t have the internet, no digital connections that allow you to communicate with someone on the other side of the planet in a fraction of a second, and that allows someone to have an idea and share it with millions instantly. And that brings a problem with it.

If your company has the same idea as I do, who is the owner? At the moment we still have very traditional old-fashioned systems to deal with this. Then you get a global lawsuit between two multinationals where hundreds of billions had to be spent to see who was right. That is of course ridiculous and it is also not in our best interest as a whole, for the progress of our society.

Was that in our interest a hundred years ago then?
No, but previously the inequality in the world and the fact that we were so unconnected meant that it was not directly problematic. I mean, Carl Benz came up with the first car, but at that time work on a first automobile was also being done on the other side of the world. And that was not a problem because the world was smaller, they were not infringing on each other's intellectual property.

In fact, Benz might even have benefited from cars being made on the other side of the planet, as they created a market.Certainly, so in that world, it was beneficial. And in that world, which we often forget, things were really different. Scientists in the last century and in the 19th century, found it very normal to exchange letters and share ideas. Now that mindset isn't there due to protectionist considerations, and that’s because of the system we have set up. Now it's starting to have a negative impact on our ability to innovate as a society and I am convinced that this new wave of technologies will break that system. You can already see it happening.

What are other lines that you are drawing?
The most obvious transition is of course climate change, but what it really comes down to is our consumer society. The idea that we always have to buy something new, that everything must be replaced, that our clothes are only wearable for one season because then they are out of fashion. This is also an idea that has arisen in the past hundred years, and yes, we come back to that point, a hundred years is a lot for an individual person, but on the scale of humanity and our history, it's nothing. But the writing is on the wall, we cannot continue like this. The limits of our planet are being reached.

If you extrapolate current technological development to the future, it really makes it possible to step away from this system of perpetual growth and consumption.

Explain that. How do we step away from that?So now we suddenly have access to the virtualization of reality. Creating a world like in 'The Matrix' (1999) is a realistic possibility within one or two decades and that means that if we have created a 'Matrix', in principle, we could move 99% of our activities to a world that does not exist and therefore does not need resources.

Are we going, as you imagine, to a world in which we have to give up or a world in which we get the same but just use fewer resources?
There are so many answers to that question, but I think in the short term we are moving towards a world where we get the same, but need less. And the short term is 15, 20, maybe 30 years. Think about what you had on your desk in 1982. What you needed to do your job. And then think about what you need now. I mean, you're sitting in front of me and you have an Apple in front of you. What's in there? Your accounting program, your administration, the photos of the last 10 years of your life, and all that stuff is here on the table in the form of one computer.

Can you take me through things that are going to be virtualized that are still physical now?
Of course, I'll give you an example of what’s happening in the world right now. I visited the XR Center of Excellence last week, where KLM is researching the applications of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. They have a video on their YouTube channel of a 100-year-old lady. She can no longer get on a plane but has family in Norway. KLM made it possible for her to 'visit’ the family in Norway by placing a 3D camera on the table for Mother's Day and putting a VR headset on her. So, she didn’t have to sit on the plane, fuel was saved, and in principle, we wouldn't even have had to build a plane if it was only for her.

Well, that is mainly visual, but at the Consumer Electronics Conference in America last year a device was presented that hangs on your chest and can produce 64 scents. There is also a huge industry at the moment working on tactile feedback so that you can also feel in virtual reality. It is still all young and experimental, but it is coming.

So, as Morpheus said in the movie 'The Matrix': "If reality is what we see, feel, touch and taste, then it is just electrical impulses interpreted by the brain.". That world is within reach.

Is your version of ‘The Matrix’ as dark as the movie?
Absolutely not. I think that has to do with a kind of basic instinct of fear. Most people don't know why they find it scary. They just find it scary. And the first thing they do is cling to that emotion. But what is scary about it? I mean, let's be honest, those people in 'The Matrix’, before they wake up, find it all fine. In fact, they often have fantastic lives, full of fulfillment. In principle, you just see a world that functions.

So far! I hope you can do something with it.

What I find special about Aragorn is that through his way of thinking I start to question my own 'limits’, which makes me more creative and actively ponder about shaping a new future. And that is, as far as I am concerned, the societal function of a futurist, to present us with far-reaching dreams, so that we ourselves dare to push our limits a little and thus become more innovative and creative.

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