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John Higgs's Octannual Manual #40
Lucid Dreams Vs AI
Five years ago - back when I was writing The Future Starts Here - new advances in information technology were still potentially wonderful things. The arrival of things like Google Maps on your phone, Wikipedia, or accessible audiobooks on your commute were all useful inventions that, in their small way, made our lives better. None of these are things that you would wish to be uninvented, if that were possible.
Since then, however, these positive advances seem to have dried up. For all the undoubted potential of the blockchain, it’s a challenge to name any concrete uses of it which have improved your life. I think many people would be quite happy if the likes of crypto currencies and NFTs were uninvented - not least because of their carbon footprint. It’s as if the urge behind new technology used to be to add value to the world, but now the driving urge is to extract value from the wider economy. It can seem as if every change to social media networks makes them worse for the user. Facebook have even managed to ruin virtual reality, and that takes some doing.
In a similar way, the ability of AI to produce art and write text has also improved massively in that time, but few people think this is improving anyone’s life. Working artists and illustrators are seeing their craft becoming massively devalued by tech that was, in many cases, trained on their own work.
I don’t want to dump on all AI art here. There are artists who are engaging with this new world in interesting ways, such as Eric Drass (aka Shardcore). Eric has - to give one example - been producing oil paintings based on AI generated images, becoming a weird human-computer partnership of an artist as he does so. He talks about this here. But while there is interesting work being produced, it’s probably fair to say that this is often drowned out by the tsunami of crap AI images out there. What’s striking about 99.9% of AI art is that it is only looked at once. You never feel the need to go back and look at it again.
All of this was in my head when I received an email from the artist and lucid dreamer Dave Green. Lucid dreaming is knowing you are dreaming whilst you are dreaming, and to some extent being able to control the events of your dream. Dave had been painting portraits in his dreams, and then recreating them when he woke. He explains his practice in this video here.
Part of Dave’s work involved him meeting people in his dreams and asking them to draw something. He then recreates that drawing after he wakes. This has echoes with Eric’s work, in which he made oil paintings of images originally generated by AI. But where Eric’s AI is trained on millions of existing images and is attempting to produce a variation on those images that it thinks people will like - where are Dave’s images coming from? His own subconscious? The results are entirely bewildering, and make no effort to appeal to an audience, yet I think there is something fascinating about them.
There’s echoes here of something I talked about in William Blake Vs The World. According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, true imagination is the arrival in this world of something new, which everything else must adjust to. This, he claimed, was different to just rearranging existing things and producing novelty, which can be pleasant but ultimately changes nothing. AI, in this context, is just rearranging already existing stuff, and can never transcend its data set. Could lucid dream painting, however, be different? With AI, we (sort of) know what is going on and how it works. With the dreaming mind, there is still mystery.
The problem with all this, of course, is that the dream world is totally nuts. But let’s not let that stop us.
Out of curiosity, I had asked an AI what the cover of my next book would be like. The results were all crap. It gave me stuff like this:
But what would happen if David met with someone in his dream, and asked them to draw my next book cover? And what if, I wondered, that person was Doctor Who? A time traveller, I reasoned, could conceivably know what the future cover would look like. That was my rationalisation anyway, but really I chose Doctor Who because the previous day I’d recorded an episode of Joel Morris’s Comfort Blanket podcast about the programme, and this had left us both buzzing with enthusiasm (that will be out in January, I think).
You’ll be pleased to hear that Dave kindly took on the challenge. Here is his account of the resulting dream:
It started in my family home where I grew up. I was standing in my old bedroom, I knew I was dreaming and I remembered my task of attempting to meet Dr. Who. I walked into the hallway and I started looking at the various doorways with the expectation that William Hartnell would walk through one of them. Not much was happening so I switched my expectation to Dr. Who in general rather than William Hartnell. As I did this the Dr. Who theme song started playing, not from any visible source just from the air. The switch of intention seemed to work, after a couple of moments a figure emerged from the bathroom. I could see straight away it was Dr. Who. He was wearing a long black cape and he had long dark hair swept backwards across his head. After taking in his attire I realised it was...wait for it...Martin Kemp! He had a great sense of urgency about him like he knew why he was there.
Martin Kemp! What a ridiculous but also fantastic detail. That’s dream logic for you.
I pulled a large piece of paper and pen from somewhere and handed it to him. He leant up against the wall and started to draw. Immediately the page filled up with loads of imagery (there is always way more than I can remember) I saw the bug first and then the hexagons. As he drew the 3D shape at the bottom I knew it to be a diagram of green beans growing. The droplet shapes are also seeds. At some point he asked me somewhat irritably "How many Ameno pairs are there? As he did so I noticed the word Ameno on the page. I didn't get a chance to respond as I woke up at this point. I then re-created the drawing in the attached image.
Here is that drawing:
A few things to note: The numbers '6' and '4' are somewhat arbitrary choices. I knew there were numbers in the hexagons but I can't remember which ones so I just chose those randomly. Also the book cover element of the intention was rather faint. It was more like "let's get the doctor to do a drawing for John"
Now - where to start with this?
It’s probably worth saying that Dave knows little about Doctor Who. He didn’t know that the first William Hartnell Blu-Ray box set had just been released, or that Who-fans across the land were currently watching stories like Planet of the Giants or The Web Planet, which feature Hartnell, seeds and bugs. So that was the first thing that jumped out at me, although of course I’m a one for apophenia.
But overall, it’s fair to say that I have no idea what is going on here, and that as an attempt to glimpse a future book cover this experiment was hardly a success. Yet despite how nuts this all is, I do find myself thinking about this drawing quite a lot, which is not the case with the AI experiments.
The late Beat poet Brian Barritt used to say, “It’s easy to know if something is art. If you can’t tire of looking at it, then it’s art.” This is a definition which does admittedly negate a large part of the art world, but I do think he was on to something. AI art can be seen as symbolic of our current wider culture - there’s too much stuff, it’s technically very impressive, but ultimately too much of it is forgettable. What we crave is the stuff that we go back to, and don’t tire of.
So here’s my Midwinter wish for you all - may 2023 be full of stuff that you keep going back to. Those are the things to celebrate. And if mainstream culture isn’t giving you what you need, there’s always your dreams.
A few bits and pieces before I sign off -
If you read Watling Street, you will probably remember me talking to CJ Stone in Canterbury about the difference between political and spiritual authority. He has just written about this subject himself and, as ever with Chris, it is well worth a read. You’ll find it here.
And I very much enjoyed being interviewed on the James Bond A-Z podcast, you can hear that here.
Have a great Christmas!