It seems likely the internet will soon be inundated with unauthored media. Those seeking influence will program systems to generate vast amounts of content as an instrument to sway debates and manufacture consensus. Unlike the state-run troll farms where real humans juggle hundreds of fake social media accounts, this AI content will be completely untethered from any human mind. I’m going to describe this type of media as unauthored. The person viewing it may well be the only human who ever does, though they may be unaware of this.
Generative AI is triggering important discussions around artists being economically displaced, around people being deep-faked, around personalised propaganda. But this is not that. I want to consider something more subtle, from the perspective of the perceiver. What do I lose when I can’t feel the human intention in the world I experience?
Imagine waking up to find a car parked on your lawn. Before AI, there’s was one explanation: somebody did this. It required human agency, therefore it is, on some level, an authored act. I can trace this state of affairs back to someone’s intentions. What does it mean? Why did they do this? Now imagine waking up to find a self-driving robo-taxi parked on your lawn. Did someone program it to park there? Or is this some kind of glitch? In other words, is this act authored or unauthored? With AI in the picture, the answer is no longer self-evident. I can use AI to author work with full presence and intention. I can also unwittingly set off a complex chain of events that leads to the exact same work.
Authored and unauthored media have always been here. Here, I’ll use the term media in a broad sense to mean any matter that could hold a message. Let’s consider the texture of a rock on a forest floor or the creaking sounds of trees in the wind as examples of unauthored media. Now, if I come across rocks arranged in a systematic way, or those creaking trees fall into a complex musical rhythm, it immediately grabs my attention: authorship. I sense the actions of humans (or animals, but let’s stick with humans for now).
When I perceive a work of authored media, I feel a kind of communion with the author. It can be as subtle as someone’s handwriting, or a badly parked car. A human unavoidably leaves an echo of themselves in their handiwork. To be confronted with it is to feel their presence, however subtle. My ability to sense this seems to happen at a deep level, suggesting a capability evolved for my survival. I sense the agency of humans in what I see, and this transports my imagination into the minds of those humans. This is important to me, and it matters to me whether I’m sensing the intentions of a true human or of a machine simulating a human. Even if the human-made and machine-made are equivalent perceptually, the distinction matters to me. It frames how I experience it.
It’s tempting to think AI generated media is unauthored. But I think the example above of finding a self-driving car on your lawn reveals it’s not so simple.
As an author, I can release my agency while maintaining communion with the perceiver. In John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33, the musicians stay silent throughout while the audience listens to the ambient soundscape. Cage relinquishes the traditional agency of a composer but he retains authorship of the context the piece creates. As I listen to sounds he could not possibly have predicted, I still feel that sense of communion with him.
A few weeks ago, the US Copyright Office retracted their previously granted copyright to a graphic novel created by Kris Kashtanova because her use of the text-to-image AI Midjourney did not satisfy their definition of authorship. I don’t necessarily object to this decision, but framing it as a denial of authorship feels instinctively wrong. Even if we decided the images are plagiarous, that does not mean Kashtanova didn’t author them. She was, presumably, inventing text prompts, iteratively trying things out until she got what she wanted. Like Cage, she authored the context that created each image. Does the Cage estate collect a royalty for a recording of 4’33? I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.
Should Kashanova retain copyright? Probably not, until the legal meaning of authorship becomes more sophisticated. Consider what happens when some troll programs an AI to generate a billion short stories and sits around waiting for a true author to inadvertently infringe their copyright? The troll has not authored these stories, even if they have authored the overall enterprise.
AI introduces the possibility of delegating work to machines with human-like agency. The scale and leverage this brings can allow that agency to become severed from all human consciousness. This is the point where I think it is useful to make this distinction of the media becoming unauthored.
Once I sense a medium may contain unauthored content, I expect I will lose trust in that medium. Then I’ll no longer be able to feel the human-to-human communion that I value so much until there is some other way to confirm true human authorship. Perhaps this has already happened in places.
Montreal, 10 March 2023
If you’re interested in state-run social media troll farms, I highly recommend Peter Pomerantsev’s book This is Not Propaganda. If you think campaigns of social media manipulation are simply a problem of false or deceptive information, I recommend reading Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion to broaden your sense of what is possible. Particularly the chapter on how Chinese captors in the Korean War managed to indoctrinate American prisoners-of-war by running weekly essay competitions (cf. the social media algorithm).
There are historical precedents for technology to necessitate new language to retain a distinction that had previously been self-evident. Philip Auslander describes how the emergence of ‘live’ as the opposite of ‘recorded’ happened not, as one might expect, with the gramophone but with the radio. Before radio, we didn’t need a concept of ‘live’ because there was no way the live and the recorded could be confused. Likewise, distinguishing between the authored and the unauthored becomes necessary once the difference is no longer self-evident.
Auslander's book Liveness is a great and relevant read right now. He tackles the question of why we enjoy live performance even when we have idealised recordings, persuasively settling on the topic of authenticity.
As well as the question of feeling communion with animals, I think it’s interesting to consider whether there’s an equivalent experience of communion with the natural world. It’s definitely beyond the scope for this essay.
In his excellent book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher describes as eerie the moments where we sense too much or too little agency than we’re expecting. Consider people behaving like zombies (an absence of agency) or Hitchcock’s The Birds (inappropriate presence of agency). This is a topic I hope to return to in the future.