Better Living Through Generativity

Hi! This post is probably better-suited to my research blog, but it’s having a technical blip right now, so it’s going here instead. Also, it’s #procjam right now!

Tonight there are two things circulating my Twitter feed: the creative joy of the Procedural Generation Jam, and a Medium post about the horrors of semi-automated YouTube kids videos. I recommend reading the Medium post, but to reduce the relevant bits down (massively) it describes a kind of nightmare scenario brewing on YouTube, where algorithms churn out bizarre and disturbing videos based on trends and popular characters, which in turn lead human creators to warp their content to suit, and all of it is poured into an algorithm-sorted mess that kids wade through every day.

This led Kate Compton to reflect on both our tendency to immediately reduce things down to trivial generative systems, and the throwaway nature of human labour. Right now, hundreds of people are making generative systems for PROCJAM – are we part of a problem which is slowly consuming the Internet? Are we feeding an engine that both eats up humans and spits out unedited chaos?

I had a number of inspirations for starting The Procedural Generation Jam, and a number of them come from an analogy I often draw between generative systems and photography. You see, in the early days of photography not many people were allowed to take part. You had to be a part-time scientist to understand all the processes involved, you needed a lot of money and spare time, and that meant that a very small group of people had access to this idea.

As it grew, more people were able to access the technique, and we found new uses for it: journalism, science, education, art. By making this complex process accessible, people from different backgrounds could take it and find new and more impressive uses for it. This is one of PROCJAM’s goals: to get people using generative techniques in new ways, and find new, more beautiful uses for it.

Photography’s slow walk to ubiquity also had a darker side. As it became better-known, photography was understood to be a way to record real events, but this imperfect understanding enabled a lot of people to do fairly awful things with it. One of its first proponents faked his own death. People used it to prove the existence of fairies, to show that they could summon spirits, to verify the existence of monsters and mythical animals. People knew enough about photography to benefit from it, but not enough to protect themselves from it.

What solved this problem? Well, a bunch of things, but undoubtedly one of those things was helping people understand the processes by which these images were made, and giving them the power to make them. Cameras and development became more commonplace, people understood how to overlay images or touch them up after the fact. We see the same cycle today with Photoshop: first, it caused chaos; then people understood it; finally, people harnessed the power for themselves. Now we edit photos on our phones as we take them, before sharing them with others.

I see PROCJAM as part of an effort to enact this change for generative software. By bringing people the resources, the tools and the space to make generative systems, they can take ownership of the concept and understand their strengths and their weaknesses. Right now only a few hundred people enter PROCJAM, but ultimately we should all be working to make these ideas accessible and fun for people to try. In doing so, we popularise these ideas and rob them of some of their incapacitating power.

None of these things will solve YouTube’s terrifying content problem overnight – but few things will solve the myriad problems faced by a monopolistic corporation whose employees worship algorithms. If we want to look for positive, optimistic outcomes, we should ask ourselves how we can help society defend itself against generative chaos, and simultaneously harness that same power to build better spaces and find more positive uses for this new, ultimately promising, ability.

Alright, that’s all for me. I’m actually working on Rogue Process this week for my PROCJAM entry – I’m trying out a new generative technique inspired by Spelunky! Hopefully I get something to show before the end of the week. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out the awesome jam when it’s done!

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