AI, the Algorithm, and the Attention Economy.

Ignore the way generative AI is created, the ecological and social impact, the abuse of copyright. Pretend it’s a fantastic machine, a cornucopia of content that responds to simple inputs with many outcomes, some of which a user will find artistically pleasing or match what they hoped for.

A little like pulling the lever on a slot machine, and sometimes you win some art you like. And if you don’t, you just pull the lever again and again until you do.

Some generative AI has more switches and knobs to distract – parameters to fiddle with, prompts to tweak. Things that are difficult, things that make the user feel involved, that make them feel like an artist.

The trouble is, they aren’t. They can’t be. But the slot machine’s flashing lights conceal that.

People using AI, even this theoretical ‘good’ kind, are shooting themselves in the foot and don’t know it.

Why? Most generative AI users are trying to participate in the attention economy – attempting to get eyes on their work, to get appreciative comments, sales, to build an audience for content that they produce.

When a generative AI user posts their image on social media, when they use it for their profile, for their website, for all the things art gets used for, they are competing for attention. And they are competing with everything else generated by AI. The same AI everyone else gets to use.

Generative AI for creating images has been big news since DALL-E’s first iteration was released in early 2021. By October 2022 it was generating two million images a day. DALL-E is only one player in the generative AI space for art.  It is estimated that in August 2023, 34 million images were being generated every day across the major generative AI art tools. 15 billion pieces of art, and that was about six months ago.

Assuming you only looked at the most excellent top 0.001% of those 15 billion images, that is still a hundred and fifty thousand images to look at. Served up on your phone, each examined for two seconds, that is eighty three hours of your life. The top 0.001% of that 34 million images a day means 340 images to look at – eleven minutes, every day, and tomorrow there will be 341, and then 342, and someone will bring a new server farm online and it’ll be six hundred, then six thousand…

Always getting faster. Higher resolution. More colours. More to look at. More clogging our social media. There will always be more of more.

The best the AI artist can hope for in this ideal situation is to be a brief flicker in a constant feed of content we can barely remember.

If the ideas you were trying to express mattered, you wouldn’t have needed AI to win at the attention economy – you could have expressed them with stick figures and still won.

If your ideas actually are that good, then why obscure them by using generative AI? Even our ‘good’ version, so easy and appealing to use, will become so overused that it becomes the default. The bland, unexceptional way of doing things that takes the least effort. It is the easiest way to do things, and as such, the most common and boring.

It can never be special, not because generative AI can’t turn out good quality media, but because it is inherently and always a firehose blasting so much content at audiences that the only way they can cope is by learning how to filter it out and ignore it.

The future is here, and has been for three years, and so far I haven’t seen AI generated art that meant anything to me. There’s no AI generated novel, comic, film, anything worth caring about. Three years of innovation and passionate effort, and all I’ve seen AI do is make the problems the internet already had worse.

The internet is clogged with garbage built to serve The Algorithm. Google, once the best search engine on the planet, is now designed to turn you into an attention-economy commodity and push your eyes wherever the hell they want so they can sell ads that line the pockets of venture capital vultures. It has changed the shape of webpages, forcing them to follow common structures and design principles to make them resemble each other and become more machine readable. A menu, material rendered down into a single search-engine optimized item of ‘content’, widgets and sidebars hooking into social media systems to try and attract visitors, a constant push to turn everything we do into a hustle to convert into money and attention, constantly presenting our best days as if they’re our normal days while burying anything that makes us feel inadequate because it could undermine our personal brand.

And in this environment built by The Algorithm, where you should be ashamed of failing to optimize your page of personal cookie recipes and family photos to maximize ad revenue, generative AI tech will spew out a thousand variations of every cookie recipe possible and combine it with deepfaked families of every ethnicity to try and suck up the thirty-three cents of ad revenue your website generated when it was linked to on social media and someone accidentally clicked the sidebar ad instead of your site.

We have seen this happen before, when spammers take over websites because there is an audience to exploit. And as the amount of spam rises, the users are driven away, but because there is still a sliver of value to extract, and spam is cheap and easy to post, spam keeps getting posted. The website goes into a terminal decline, abandoned of anything but spam.

Generative AI encourages all of us to become spammers, posting more and more in a desperate gambit for attention, for recognition, for someone to tell us we matter.

This technology is not there to make art. This technology is there to convince you that it is, and make you perform unpaid labour, yanking that lever until content that can make the attention economy keep turning falls out, but you don’t matter, the content matters. Your art doesn’t matter, the ads served next to it matter. Your creative project doesn’t matter, the website selling it alongside bulk discount garbage being dropshipped from China matters. You don’t matter, the thing you do doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is that you keep attention and money moving around the internet in a way that allows someone to pocket a tiny percentage in transaction fees, server costs, per-click advertising payouts, hidden costs.

It is there to help ensure every source of media content is constantly flooded, to extract behaviour that can be turned into a metric and tracked with cookies and statistically transformed into a package of data that can turn the company that owns it into a billion dollar buyout deal.

This technology is there to take anything you can do, and let a company’s product do it for you instead. This technology is there to make getting what you wanted the only thing that matters to you.

This technology is there to make you forget that by using it you are hiding yourself in a flood of ignorable content so that no one will have the ability to care about what you do.

And all of the above is assuming generative AI is ethical, doesn’t cost you any money, doesn’t abuse copyright, and doesn’t waste energy and water and electronic equipment.

At best, generative AI is for disposable content that we don’t care about. Phone wallpaper, elevator music, video backgrounds, sales filler text that no one will read. Placeholder art for something in a tabletop RPG that’s only relevant for minutes, a meme for your group chat that everyone else forgets about almost immediately, a pattern for gift-wrap paper you printed yourself when you ran out at the last second and you know is destined for the recycling bin anyway.

It is for the firehose of content you train yourself to ignore the same way you trained yourself to ignore banner ads and popups and every annoying thing struggling to take your attention and turn it into someone else’s money.

Generative AI is accelerating the arrival of a world that is built ever higher on stylistic choices meant to increase consumption and decrease your ability not to consume, it is building a world where being happy has become a skill that is harder and harder to learn, and one that will encourage you to commodify what little joy you find because your joy matters less than how pixel-dense the result was.

And at the end of the day, there is nothing you can make with generative AI that you can share with anyone, because the AI picture or book or movie whatever it is you made won’t be as interesting as the thing someone else made for themselves with generative AI but about the thing they like instead of the thing you like.

That doesn’t appeal to me. It constantly surprises me that it appeals to anyone.

I don’t know what to do about that. The state of the world isn’t something individuals can meaningfully impact, but what we can do is make choices about what we bring into our lives and what we bring into the lives of others.

If you want to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, my advice is, first and foremost, to pay attention to what you actually value. Because it isn’t the number of ‘likes’ you get on a social media post – you value the people doing the clicking to communicate that they liked what you did. And because you value the people, you don’t have to drown in the attention economy.

You can be free. You can prioritize enjoying yourself.

If you don’t like the constant grind of optimizing for search engines that force us into an attention economy built on an internet dominated by people pushing us into a constant cycle of mutual exploitation, ignore every article on improving SEO you’ve ever seen, ignore every accommodation you’ve made for social media, and just share what you love while ignoring the view counter.

You can go oldschool – make your personal website whatever the hell you want. Kludge together HTML and CSS and skip all the fancy bullshit so you can do it yourself, because you enjoy doing it yourself. Maybe you enjoy doing it fast and easy, so use a content management system or WYSIWYG web editor some company made, not because you feel pressure to make it look like this or that, but because that company has made it easy and you enjoy how easy it is. But don’t optimize for search engines that are more concerned with selling ads than finding information, don’t design it to exploit people’s attention.

Go back to making pages of links to stuff you like online so people can find it too, instead of being shackled to search engines, not because doing it that way ‘sticks it to the man’, but because sharing is fun.

Stop using social media to make yourself seem successful and happy so other people will click the thing that tickles the algorithm and boosts your work in front of a thousand people so you can be another flicker in the feed – use it to actually talk to your friends and share stuff you made and stuff you found and stuff that you care about.

Stop living in ways that make you feel like crap because the attention economy stole so much of your attention that you aren’t paying attention to your own life. Don’t let other people make your choices for you. Don’t let math someone left running on a computer determine whether or not you are happy. Ignore the flashing lights on the slot machine designed to distract you from how much of your money, your time, your life, your joy, your self-worth is disappearing down that drain while giving you nothing but crumbs and fleeting tickles of dopamine.

Fuck the algorithm. Having control over your own life, digital or physical, is fun, so take it. Use your agency, make a decision, empower yourself whether it’s in tiny ways or enormous world-shaking ones.

The only thing you get in this life is your life. Your experience of every day you lived is unique to you, and it is the only thing you have. Do whatever you have to in order to find moments of joy that make your life worth living.

So, fuck the algorithm. Take control, share what you love, and have fun.

By foozzzball

Malcolm Cross, otherwise known as 'foozzzball', lives in London and enjoys the personal space and privacy that the city is known for. When not misdirecting tourists to nonexistant landmarks and lurking at bus stops, Malcolm enjoys writing science fiction and fantasy with a furry twist.