“To perceive means to immobilise… we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself.”
– Henri Bergson – Matter&Memory
A.I. as a Nervous System
I regularly read about the nervous system as a metaphor for the system of connected devices. IBM have opted for cognitive but there is no difference. For the metaphor, the sensory inputs we receive from our nerves are analogous to the enabled and connected devices rapidly promulgating through our physical world. The high level processing of these inputs done by our brain is analogous to the cloud-based background processing that pulls the IoT inputs together and colours the big picture*.
One of the most powerful applications of A.I. will be reading and extracting data from images. A.I. will be able to extract and manipulate fragmentary and tangential data from images, similar to humans, and make it possible to cross-reference these. This gives any image depth where it can be cross referenced with all of the other stored images to embed it in multiple broader meaning networks.
On The Information, Sam Lessin suggests
The rise of AI-driven photo storage and organizing services like Google Photos heralds the return of photos as personal history, rather than as fleeting media.
I am not sure this is correct. Rather than a “return of photos as a personal history”, the dawn of AI photo storage and processing takes us into a new phase of history. The photgraph as a physical media was scarce, it was costly and the moments it captured were sporadic and special.
From Aides Memoir to Source of Value
The modern photograph is the constant, time-lapse, motion-capture model. It is permanent photography and that feels different.
Photos taken and processed in the way Lessin outlines are a paradigm shift in the way we have used images to catalogue our lives. In the new mode, we are consistently moving between images. They knit together a sequence of abstractions. These solidify a person from the point of view of the algorithm. They do so with whatever rapididty we allow down to the millisecond.
Frequently taken and uploaded images are a 180 degree flip from the scarce, golden era of image taking. When I think of photos as life catalogues, I think mostly of the 80s and early 90s family photo-books that I don’t see much of anymore.
The heavy, outsize books laden with photographs held only a fraction of the images on my Galaxy phone. And unless they were the Wedding edition, they spanned years. So images that made it in there were already exalted moments. They stood out. They were acknowledged as primus inter pares of the moments that knit together into our days and weeks.
It is logical that more frequent images lowers their overall value to us. We are drowning in images and they are difficult to distinguish in such volume.
If everything is image-worthy then nothing is, on the face of it, special or different. Perhaps we might get special moments developed in order to mark their distinction but even that requires the kind of commitment and discipline (not to mention $$$) that I don’t see in most of my friends and age group.
So if the image’s value to us is lower, for whom is the value increasing? Sam Lessin is on the money here
The real power is going to be in mining and creating value out of all the data embedded in photos broadly.
The companies like Facebook, Google and, probably, Snap are investing in stitching together your past to recast and present to you.
You are Still the Product
Pushing that back-end together with a consumer product like Spectacles provides incredible power.
These images are a gold mine. It might be nice for us to see the permanent recasting in front of us, each one increasingly relevant as A.I. algorithms improve. For companies it empowers them to sharpen market segmenting to an incredible degree.
Targetting and profiling for ads, like that offered by Facebook or Google, is going to look like amateur hour once the feed of image data from the various nerves get sent to the A.I. brain for processing. Our images are so rich in content, so present with our likes, our contexts, our preffered partners and our personality types, that the digitally reading them will probably turn out to equate to an exponential of our tracked browsing & internet data.
While I was reading Sam’s piece, that scene from Minority Report flashed into my head. The one where they swipe through the screen to look for evidence of future crimes in people’s thoughts and actions. I wasn’t struck by the potential for pre-screening as the nature of the ‘flow’ of images.
The image flows like the catalogue formats we see now in our social media and image products. An infinite reel of past and present present to hand, ready to be recalled.
As a Product, You Must be ‘Improved’
This returns to the comparison between A.I. processing and the brain. Henri Bergson, when writing about time and perception at the turn of the 20th century is a helpful way of scaffolding the idea of images as permanently ready to hand and comprehensively covering our past. It also helps us to compare the experience of A.I. mediated images and our lived experience.
In Matter and Memory, he gives an account of two different perceptions. There is the perception that relates to ‘mathematical time’ – a series of snapshots, freezing instances for reference later and there is perception that relates to ‘duration’, the way we experience time.
The latter category is alive, rich in detail and ribboned throughout our life experience. The former is frozen, it is solid and unmoving. It may bear some feeling and emotion but it is mostly continuous division and recording.
Bergson made this distinction because he thought it was clear that consciousness is where freedom lay and that corresponded to our experience of duration. Philosophy had erred by ‘mixing’ space and time together. His recasting helps us to identify freedom in our ongoing conscious states. Removing things from the experience, then measuring and categorising them for storage, is spatial. It transposes our lived experience (time) into an artefact (space).
An image is a artefact of time, a slice of time, transposed into space. Even though we experience time as duration, the unspecified period in which our consciousness is present and cycling through different, overlapping experiences – the infinite time in the barber’s chair or the instant spark when our hearts jump at seeing a loved one, the only way to present time is to fix it in place and slice it up.
Our camera roll represents an infinity of memory slices. They are snatches of an intance in time. They can be combined together chronologically but are qualitatively different to our experience of those moments. We live them as ‘duration’ an elongated moment which is indivisible in experience. We measure them as space, divisible into the tiniest infinitesimal sliver of seconds.
Images existed once as aides-memoir. The duration to which they referred was planted in our mind, the image an entry or access point to it. They were irregular, they were chosen for their value.
The Image Becomes Memory
Compiling images together into a kind of virtual flip-book supplants memory and cements the place of nostalgia in our culture and shapes the kind of products that are going to be successful.
In his reflection on nostalgia in The Guardian recently, Mosha Hamid pointed to technology as reproducing our culture of nostalgia
Nor is the realm of technology resistant to nostalgia. Quite the opposite. On our dominant social networks we are pulled out of the present moment to constantly shape and examine and interact with carefully curated pasts.
This is interesting becuase the alternative, a firing of imagined futures, is potentially so radical.
Image products and A.I. are likely to get us hooked on a diet of nostalgia and representation of the past and to further slice up time into discrete points in which we live.
Through technology the past is made real to us in a way that it never has been before. I can see myself five seconds ago, and my first girlfriend five hours ago, and my first child five months ago, and my first dog five years ago, and my first smile in my mother’s arms five decades ago, and I can sift endlessly through these archives of past moments, commingle them with present choices and likes and filters, and craft new past-present hybrids, dancing across time, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, commenting, watching, playing, mesmerising myself as the world outside my screen goes unnoticed for increasingly long interludes.
This is also the road map to success for the companies like Google that are looking for successful consumer products to deploy. It means shifting the time in which we live from the present toward the past.
To borrow from Bergson’s terminology, it means to spatlialise our time. That withdraws us from the duration.
It is the feeling that you are not really paying attention to the thing-in-itself but the thing-mediated-by-screen.
You have felt that. At a concert recently perhaps, or a party or when you should be awestruck by the Geysir and instead stand around with your phone hoisted in front of you.
The demolition of duration is an essential part of the business model, especially as A.I. becomes a solution in search of more and more problems. That means turning users away from attending to the thing in itself (living in duration) and instead thinking about how to store and recast it (living spatially).
It is ensuring that everything is captured as an image – frozen in time – in order to analyse and process it with A.I. To ensure we continue to behave, the A.I. will supplant memory be representing the image to you as memory. A neat trick to accomplish.
Securing a business model on top of this will require our going along with the inverting of our experience to let our images become our memory. I would expect that product managers are moving in this direction and if they are not, they will surely begin soon.
This is important becuase it unpicks habit and unpicks the philosophical foundations of freedom – a theme I will be coming back to repeatedly here.
*The metaphor seems like an issue, something to return to in a later post.