The third and final part of the story about the Emerge conference, which was held in Minsk in early June, consists entirely of the interview with Lev Manovich, who discusses current skills, the future of humanity, superhuman intelligence and its irrational behavior, as well as procrastination and addictions, which he doesn’t regard foreign to his vices.
Also, read the first two parts!
Lev Manovich, Professor of Computer Science, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Lev Manovich is a Professor of Computer Science at the City University of New York, author of books on the theory of digital culture and new media.
I have no profession, no single academic field. I’m just a curious person, and when I get into something, I turn it into a new direction for research, which never existed before.
In the 90s I took up the new media and digital culture, in the 2000s I worked on the theory of software. Later, I had the idea to analyze modern culture around the world, using data that was freely available and data science methods.
Now I am studying how culture is changing in cities around the world using big data. For me, there is no difference between ordinary life, interests and professional activities, everything is intertwined.
The USA, France and Japan move linearly — everything is fine with them, it’s just the preservation of the status quo in their appearance. But the world as a whole is changing in a completely unpredictable way — no one can predict it.
After 1999, places that were considered “lagging behind” show unexpected mutations and development. For example, Riga can be transformed from an ordinary Soviet city into sheer coolness in two years.
The world has become an avant-garde object in which startups, coworking spaces, and cultural clusters sprout. And when you come to an unobvious place, somewhere in Eastern Europe, Siberia or Asia, you can’t believe your eyes. We are in Minsk, and I see that now it is an art object itself.
It is people who inspire me most to study urban culture — not in “well-fed” countries like America or France — but, for example, in Belarus and Korea. Here people are so much better — it’s beyond description.
About Current Skills
Whether you want to work in startups or government, no one needs any specific skills anymore. We live in a society in which there is only one law — the law of constant change. Creative industries need people who can self-learn throughout their lives.
The past was characterized by the fact that you could spend five years at the university, and that was enough for your career. It’s not the case anymore.
Startups grow from zero to thousands of employees in a year. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page from Google were asked what they were doing most of the workday, they answered that they mostly interview people for jobs. The most important thing today is to find people able to quickly adapt and learn, those who are not subject to stagnation.
About the Future and Digital “Superhuman Intelligence”
The term “artificial intelligence” is perceived as incredibly outdated. It’s a concept from the 1950s when there were only ten computers in the world, and they barely worked. People sat and dreamed about how to teach a computer to translate texts or recognize images. That’s when this already outdated concept was born.
Search engines like Google and Yandex should rather be called digital “superhuman intelligence.” Artificial intelligence today doesn’t replace people, but does things that we could never do. For example, find millions of relevant pages in hundreds of milliseconds by scanning everything there is on the Internet.
The twentieth century captured us with mass media, television and radio appeared, but they could still be turned off.
Today we are surrounded by a much more serious information flow, with a jet-drive spread on Twitter and Facebook, and, in fact, all people have turned into retransmitters of other people’s opinions. People are afraid to express their own thoughts, and they retransmit what they liked in the new media. Therefore, the same message can be heard a hundred times a day from different people.
Today it is more difficult to be an independent person. New media messages penetrate us more and they are much more adept at their methods of persuasion.
There is an unobvious line between the instilled part of ourselves and the “real” part.
Don’t be afraid that artificial intelligence will rebel and crack into our brains — there’s nothing interesting there anyway. We’d better consider that many people on the planet still don’t have clean water and normal food, that the elderly have no money for medicines, and no one needs them, that the president of America is trying to destroy the world.
We try to avoid thinking about the fact that we have parents whom we haven’t called for a year, and that a homeless person on the street is asking for our help. We need to bring the future closer instead of being afraid of it. One hundred years ago, the entire population was mostly illiterate. Throughout the history of mankind, people were killing each other, controlling, raping, oppressing because of the color of their skin.
It’s a miracle that we have less of those things today. The world has never been as good as it is now. It will never be perfect. There will always be inequality. Will people always kill each other? Probably they will.
In 1990, most of the population lived below the poverty line. Due to the achievements of global capitalism, which intellectuals don’t like, the same people’s lives are now satisfactory. Over the past quarter-century, the world has become better than it ever was, but no one talks about it.
Some are afraid of artificial intelligence, but there are many people who behave and think like robots. Real robots are much more useful and more pleasant for me than such people.
Before a system for paying utility bills on the Internet was introduced in America, every phone call was torture for me. The city administration couldn’t understand my accent, they made mistakes in numbers, we couldn’t register those readings… Do you still think that people are better than robots?
About the Irrational Behavior of Artificial Intelligence
We can’t create artificial intelligence, because we’re making it in a refined form. A man is distinguished from a machine by irrationality, stupidity, inability to learn from his own mistakes. He has drives — irrational motives when he wants to procrastinate, hum a silly melody for two hours in a row, or strangle someone.
In opposition to irrationality, there is rational thinking and all kinds of prohibitions — it has all been explained to us by Freud. Therefore, a person as such doesn’t exist — rather, there are different systems in him that fight with each other. A person wants to eat a chocolate bar, but he knows that it’s bad for health, so he pulls himself off.
Simulating the human, we turn to the ideal model of a rational being with consciousness. We create pure rationality. Simulating a real person, we create a robot that will rob, kill, and puke. Then the laboratory for its development will be shut down.
Inside us, there is an animal, a human, a microbe — these are different parts of the brain that dominated a million, one hundred thousand, ten thousand years ago. A person is some kind of painful, barely working and contradictory structure of completely different systems that fight with each other.
The art and philosophy of the 20th century show us a person much more real than anything else. There are opposing systems, a lot of automatism, mechanisms. And this is very far from all rational agents that we imagine by the word “human.”
About Procrastination and Addictions
Like all normal people, I almost always procrastnate. I never set the alarm, I don’t have a scheduled calendar. But at the same time, I manage to do more than others, so I decided, let it be that way.
Our brain needs procrastination so it can function rationally the rest of the time. If I completely get rid of it, I won’t be able to do anything at all.
Before writing an article, I’m thinking it over an average of five years, and then I write it in two days. Therefore, it is difficult to say where is procrastination, and where is work. Maybe if you really remove a person’s irrational motives, then everything inside him will break right away.
When I understand how some area works, then I leave it. I have a great need to do something new, to get addicted to the unknown. When people ask me questions about AI art, I just want to strangle them. When they say, “Leo, you are the author of a book about new media!”, I want to just shoot them with a Kalashnikov. When they say, "Leo, you write about digital art, ” I want to hang them. This is what I was doing 20 years ago. This is not me anymore. My addiction is that I have to run away from what I already know and can do.
My different addiction is social networks, Facebook and Instagram. I want approval, likes, this is really something unhealthy.
I wanted to go through a digital detox this year, but so far I have managed to hold out only 24 hours.
I will keep trying. Yesterday I went for a walk for half a day without a phone. On the other hand, if you have aa addiction and it works for you, then, well, let it work.
Two persons are fighting inside me. Leo, you are known for certain things, so keep writing books about them, go to conferences, come on. On the other hand, I’m so sick of it all. I want to go and do something else. But doing new things terrifies me — what if everyone suddenly forgets about me? Every day I suffer, I guess I will never get it over with.