Humane Ingenuity 43: Your Own Personal Paul McCartney

Whenever I check out a library book that has been underlined or annotated, I think about the two anonymous students who aggressively marked up Widener Library’s copy of Rollo May’s Man’s Search for Himself:

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I hope these two students did in fact meet at some point, although they may have been separated by decades. It would make for a good short story or film (or U2 song).

I also happen to love this passage from Rollo May’s book, which is incredibly relevant to the Humane Ingenuity newsletter.

After some much-needed idleness, being rather than doing, I am back to affirm our relatedness and provide a new year of creative expression. Thanks as always for your readership.

Joel Willick, an engineering student at Northeastern University, has created a delightful robot named Bob ROS, an excellent play on the late, great Bob Ross of PBS’s cult hit “The Joy of Painting.” Bob ROS (Robotic Operating System) analyzes paintings and then tries its best to make a rough approximation.

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Bob ROS is not a great painter. It often makes unexpected, almost whimsical errors. But Willick highlights how that is a key part of its charm:

I think Bob ROS is a good influence on the robot’s design philosophy because the mistakes that the robot makes are part of the art that it creates. The art is not just the things it intentionally does, but the things it unintentionally does. And I think embracing the mistakes of robots is just as important as embracing the mistakes of humans.

Yes. Bob Ross’s (and Bob ROS’s) “happy accidents” provide insight into incorporating artificial intelligence into the creative arts. From the conventional prose of GPT-3 to the familiar images of Wombo, AI is getting very good at mimicking genres of human expression. But it still has its weird glitches, and the human brain, in its constant search for expected conformity in textual and visual fields, wants to put those errors in place, to make them make sense. Our need for coherence transforms the artificial into something recognizable and perhaps even wonderful.

It is in this interplay between human interpretation and computational output, both the “normal” and the “odd,” where something fascinating may happen — the possibility or spark of a new story idea or way of painting. In this scenario, AI might be your future creative partner, a digital Paul McCartney who has memorized and digested thousands of songs and genres and internalized their patterns, and can tirelessly riff on the clichéd and the catchy, until some unexpected new fragment emerges for you to develop.

After reading Humane Ingenuity #42, which featured his art and experimentation with NFTs, photograper Noah Kalina gave me a call, which was a kind gesture. (For the record, I don’t like tagging people on social media, which feels like a rude attention-getting ploy, but in this case I should have alerted Noah to my piece, which he found on his own; I extended a mea culpa on the phone.)

Noah is a disarmingly nice and thoughtful person, and we had a genuinely fun conversation. Some of you may consider this an oxymoron, but he is a thinking person’s NFT representative, and I wish — as, I believe, does he — that NFTs had more boosters who were less boisterous.


(Noah Kalina, “Diagonal 1, 20150828,” from the latest edition of his excellent newsletter, which you should subscribe to right now.)

Listening to Noah recount how he went from skeptic to convert — although still with some hesitancy and a frank recognition of the concerns of NFTs’ opponents — I could understand where he was coming from. I won’t relay the specifics of our conversation, but beyond Noah’s own experience, it is clear that some NFTs (like the ones on Lumberland and its neighbors, not those bored apes) exist not only because of tech bro utopianism, but because of numerous institutional and market failures.

We live in a time when it is hard for creative people to get paid a living wage for their work, and that is a tragedy. From music to photography, the pathways to sustainable careers are increasingly and depressingly murky, and the digital realm has largely provided pennies where there used to be dollars. Massive centralized platforms scoop up the majority of the loot. There is also a very unclear preservation path for much digital art, which I’ve explored in prior issues of this newsletter, and years ago in a chapter of Digital History.

I still remain concerned and skeptical about many elements of NFTs, probably because I’m approaching them as a historian and librarian, rather than a photographer or artist. I worry about the claims of decentralized permanence in the blockchain, across not just years but decades and centuries. I wonder about friction with existing conventions around copyright, possession, and accessibility. They may be laggards with technology, but libraries and museums have financial, labor, and social structures that are just as important to the business of maintaining texts and images for the long run.

Even if we solely focus on them as artistic investments, it seems like a major problem that NFTs are denominated in a currency which itself is also highly variable, rather than in a fiat currency. Ether, the cryptocurrency that you can use to buy Noah’s art, has dropped in value by over 50% in the last two months. Imagine that all paintings dropped in value by half, regardless of the artist or individual work of art! That’s off-putting to the broader participation of art lovers and investors, and probably unsettling for even the most committed NFTer.

Anyway, I enjoyed talking with Noah and appreciated his helpful and generous perspective. It would be good to have some further conversations between institutions and artists to see where the former could help the latter. For instance, instead of crypto-based art registration and preservation, could there be some version of for this purpose? That is, a library- and museum-run decentralized permanent record system that artists like Noah could use, without the troubling casino chips of cryptocurrency, and with a better and more robust preservation path for the images themselves?

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Kaigai, Tennen, Tennen hyakkaku Volume 1 / [Kaigai Tennen] Volume 1, (Kyōto: Yamada Unsōdō, [Meiji 33-34 [1900-1901]). (Preserved and digitized by the British Library, public domain.)

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