Experiments in Midjourney: the Architecture of Dreams and the Mythos of Our Desired Futures

I wanted to write this essay as a response to the many concerns people are having around AI, namely AI language modelling, AI tools, and AI-generated art. In order to peek behind the veil, so to speak, I had to try it for myself, so I went to the Future Fossils Discord Server and accepted the invite to join Midjourney. I came up with a prompt that would use some themes from the blog, that would juxtapose some incongruous elements and, judging from the outputs of my fellow community members, I did not expect to see much, if anything, relevant to what I input.

/imagine prompt: Hyperdrive, anthropology, posthuman future, space settlements, honoring nature, fulfillment

Some of these “posthuman future, space settlements, honoring nature”, are so devoid of life and diversity that we may want to reconsider how much we allow machines to dream for us. In itself, there is the argument that AI is another tool of the artist, much how architects are using it to imagine new spaces for their creations, or how programmers working in VR are using it to create new virtual worlds.

Another concern, and I may argue the primary concern, is the sources from which AI generators mine their data to spawn these images. When people agreed to host their images on DeviantArt, for example, they were not signing up to have their art copied by a machine to be stylistically replicated for another person’s use, commercially or otherwise. The backlash is understandable, even all too human. It is a biological imperative to self-preserve. Thus the advent of such currencies and securities as blockchain and NFTs are made in an attempt to secure the interests of the artists, that is to say, for posterity’s sake. For the sake of fulfillment.

Looking through my gallery, much of the output contains the shadows of broken human infrastructure, figures of what may be persons, tall monoliths haunting the landscape like smokestacks with ominous plumes that morph into starry skies full of aircraft, what you might call blimps and some that resemble classic UFOs.

image by Midjourney

Other variations appear more hopeful. They look to be about honoring nature and fulfillment, together, perhaps flowing toward the order of creating what Wolf Tivy from Palladium Magazine calls “garden empires”:

If past transitions in the form of intelligence are any guide as to what is going to happen next, then the implication is straightforward. Human and perhaps post-human cultural intelligence will become the new animating force of life. Inevitably, it will gain mastery over the ecosystems and processes of its former environment, and incorporate them into a new order of life. 

The end result of this transition will be a new kind of meta-organism above both biological life and machines, encompassing and unifying what we separately call ecosystems, civilizations, peoples, cultures, states, and industrial stacks. These garden empires will increasingly blur such distinctions as peoples become inseparable from the symbiotic industrial and biological ecosystems they maintain as their bases of power. As the power and impact of civilization increases, nearly all aspects of what is now the environment will be internalized as its internal organic processes.

For example, as with our photosynthetic predecessors, scaling up our energy economy with fossil fuels has destroyed our comfortable post-Ice Age climate equilibrium. Unlike previously, life may now have the power and intelligence to simply solve such problems by directly geo-engineering the stable climate that we prefer. Thus the climate itself would become internal to the teleological fabric of life. The atmosphere would no longer be part of the environment, but yet another organic fluid-like cellular cytoplasm or blood plasma. The climate will not be the only process subsumed in this manner. 

Unlike replicator evolution and animal intelligence, cultural intelligence has no immediate technical scaling limit. When it is freed from technical constraint, the fundamental tendency of complex order is to grow and integrate. Trade globalizes. Power centralizes. Intelligence organizes. So we might imagine that the outcome of this transition will be a unified whole Earth as a single planetary meta-organism: the Gaia hypothesis made real. This is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, the global consciousness that grows out of and unifies the biosphere. 

The dream of space is now ubiquitous, and what has always felt good, dreaming of a distant future we think we deserve, is crashing against the hard, fraught reality of the Weird New Now we must grapple with, knee-deep, elbows in, thrashing wildly to make sense of. The greenwashing we are witness to will fizzle out in ambition as globalist strategies begin to scale down, and nations will be forced to localize their resources in order to keep their people from suffering. However, people living in the most extreme environments on the planet have been forced into adaptation for many years. Desalination measures may be scaled up as people are pushed out of desert metropolitan areas and further into the wilds. Old farmland may be reforested, as is done on a mass scale in China, which has taken back millions of acres of tundra and desert by this method. No one may accomplish these feats alone. There must be great cooperation, within and without states. These juxtapositions – these odd bedfellows of competitive systems – are necessary in order for humanity to survive and ecosystems to thrive. The architecture of dreams, whereby structures appear rickshaw and nonsensical, may represent our projections into this as-of-yet place that may allow us to grow up, out, and through as such structures solidify.

image by Midjourney

Our big-picture environmental situation is not just a small issue of externalities or competing value systems. It is not just about rising temperatures or marginal health years. It’s not even about merely human ideals of beauty and justice. It’s much bigger than that. We are undergoing a major transition in the nature of life itself, rivaling the original event of the creation of life in its centrality to cosmic history.

Wolf Tivy, “Rise of the Garden Empires”, Palladium Magazine

Although I remain deeply skeptical that a post-human intelligence, perhaps sprung from a human-AI relationship, “can build on the strongest themes of wild nature and surpass it in beauty and wealth”, I do believe that the synergia of these mutually beneficial relationships continues to deepen the network of good outcomes that serve the common, public good, rather than the nihilistic or the self-serving, individualistic ways that much of modern civilization was reared upon. In retrospect, this other-than-humanness, what we call intelligence or otherwise, has been here all along, much longer before us and will perpetuate well beyond our own extinction. Whether such ends will be left to our own hands or to our machines remains to be seen, as many of these technologies are left to the highest bidder and the gatekeeping of knowledge continues to be a force of odious behaviors and persistent inequality. The ghosts of yesteryears’ robber-barons remain with us, clinging to the frayed ends of the biologically-ingrained instinct for self-preservation. Trends such as the privatization of space exploration and the increasing cost of buying a home are perhaps more related than we expect, perhaps more directly corollary to a cure to our ecosickness, and one more likely to arise in the form of a Garden Empire than we may ever conceive of as individuals (nor as a species), but rather as human hybrids of self-other, whether machine or green.

In my eyes, technology is a Janus, much like the Roman god of beginnings, endings, doorways, transitions and time, having two faces – one looking towards the future and one looking towards the past. His likeness was often perched over doorways – monitoring those coming in and those going out. In the same way that Linus Torvalds birthed a computing revolution with his open sourceware, we, too, can create knowledge-bases that are open to the public, rather than institutionalized. We can birth co-ops of knowledge rather than industry, much rather than the medieval university systems we’ve inherited and still promote to this day. We can cross the threshold into new visions of Earth, if we permit ourselves to imagine. The Babel of which Wolf speaks is a human-created myth, and it is one we don’t have to keep living. We have the power to rewrite our programs, the tiniest bit by bit of language, and one brick at a time, build the futures that we deserve.

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