Perspective on the perspective
This week was the Season 2 finale of Disney’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.
In Season 1, which closely follows Trenton Lee Stewart’s 2007 novel, the villainous Mr. Curtain finds a way to hack human brains by spreading mass anxiety via TV broadcasts. As I watched the episodes, it was almost too easy to draw parallels to social media companies that profit from psychological manipulation at a global scale.
Season 2 takes more thought. Mr. Curtain takes a new approach to world domination: he “flips the sign” on his machine, now making it synthetically produce happiness instead of anxiety. He uses this power to start a cult that spreads around the world.
I am struck by how hard it is for our hero, Mr. Benedict, to articulate why this is so dangerous. “You’re creating an artificial state of happiness,” he says, floundering, “It’s a complete disconnect from true emotion.” But Mr. Curtain disagrees, in slick and practiced rhetoric. His patients are happy, after all, and more agreeable too. What does it matter that their happiness is an illusion, and who are we to say it is an illusion at all? Do you want them to be sad?
I’m reminded of recent advances in AI— generative models that can “produce” an infinitude of texts and images on demand. Companies that build and market these products speak with great optimism: of immense creative potential and benefit to humanity. Critics must mount the more challenging argument, which is that there is inherent value in the human-ness of poetry and art, that the mechanized illusion of infinite creativity is lacking and even dangerous no matter how convincing the outputs may be. It is easy for AI companies to try silencing these voices (are you against technological progress that helps artists?) and nuanced, thoughtful perspectives are easily drowned by the strident soundbite or the shiny demo—just like how Mr. Benedict’s professorial plea is defeated by Mr. Curtain’s Ted-Talk pitch.
In the series, Mr. Curtain’s agenda is undoubtedly for his own gain (power, money, ego), and after some time his cult members’ minds shut down, putting them in permanent smiling comas. You might say that these are backup details planted to help Disney keep the moral scales tipped firmly against Mr. Curtain. But we can just as well read those details as straightforwardly symbolic. Do we really believe that even the most optimistically-named AI companies are acting for the good of humanity, and not primarily to benefit their investors through power, money, and reputation? Do we really expect that the colonization of text and image will lead to anything less than a sleepwalking citizenry, left content to chew on an algorithmically curated (or even synthesized) feed?
Mr. Benedict’s children discover that a flash of light snaps victims out of the hypnosis. “So much perspective,” says one as she returns to the world of authentic emotion. “False perspective, and now…”
“Perspective on the perspective,” says another. That’s what I’m yearning for as I read the news about AI: perspective on the perspective.