Category Archives: featured

AI, Art, Ethics, and Me

Here’s why I’m just saying no.

I’ve been playing with AI lately – specifically MidJourney, a “generative artificial intelligence program” that creates art* using prompts supplied by the user.

I started for innocent enough reasons. If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you know that most days I post a Zen-oriented meme which features some brief text – a haiku, perhaps, or a selection from my book – along with an image that complements the thought. Like this one:

The words are easy enough, but the images were often a problem. I wanted something that suited the text, and occasionally I found what I wanted online. Often, though, the images that worked were copyrighted or owned by a stock warehouse. And I didn’t want to steal.

So I thought that being able to create unique images would solve my problem. And it has.

Thing is, these generative AIs are a lot of fun.

It’s absolutely insane what you can do, and so I started experimenting. I learned some basic prompts and rules, and over the span of a month I cranked out some pretty cool images. I didn’t tell myself they were art, because I didn’t really do anything except figure out how to say some words to the machine. And as someone who’s fancied himself an artist since the late 1970s, I have some principles that matter to me a great deal.

Then I discovered the part I didn’t know at first: not only will MidJourney work with text prompts, it will also take reference images. That is, you can give it a picture as well as words, and it will build that into the output.

So I started giving it some of my photos to consider. Most of it was forgettable, but a few were absolute grabbers. (I thought, anyway, and a lot of friends agreed.) Like these:

I began to think about justifications for this new art style.

Aside from the usual (AI is just a new tool and there have been zillions of other disruptive new tools in the past, anything you do will be clearly labeled, so the audience can decide, etc.) I decided that these were different because they began with my art (I used my poetry in places, too). The result, therefore, was a true collaboration between the machine and me. It could not produce any of this on its own.

Interesting idea. Seductive idea. And I went so far as to begin planning a new web site that would be devoted to this work.

And now I’m stepping away.

Two reasons. First, I never stopped thinking about the artistic, critical, and ethical concerns surrounding artificial intelligence taking on work previously done by humans. It was always on my mind. Then I encountered a column in the LAT:

Your boss wants AI to replace you. The writers’ strike shows how to fight back

I was especially struck by this quote from artist and activist Molly Crabapple:

“I saw my work in the LAION-5B dataset used to train Stable Diffusion,” Crabapple says. “I saw DALL-E’s ability to churn out bastard versions of my work with the prompt ‘drawn by Molly Crabapple.’ I saw how tech corporations, backed by billions of dollars, had gobbled up my work and the work of countless other artists to train products whose goal is to replace us.”

“There is no ethical way to use the major AI image generators,” Crabapple says. “All of them are trained on stolen images, and all of them are built for the purpose of deskilling, disempowering and replacing real, human artists.”

For the sheer hell of it, here’s MidJourney’s take on [Molly Crabapple drawn by Molly Crabapple].

The article (which is well worth a read) and Crabapple’s comments brought me back around to the debate I was already having in my head and to my thinking about diving into this new AI art thing “seriously.” Also, it led me to my second reason for stepping away from the machine.

Let me illustrate this one. First, here’s an AI piece I call Phalanx:

Not gonna lie: I like it a lot. Now, here’s the original photo the AI was working with – my contribution and my justification for why Phalanx might, just maybe, be defensible as art. It’s called Lift Up Your Voice:

This is one of my favorite photographs, and others have said they’ll like it, as well. I’ll leave you to your own judgment, but when push comes to shove Phalanx just doesn’t look much like the photo, does it? If I tell you that it is a source for the AI image, you can probably look closely and see…some connection?

But whatever I tell myself, the AI version is one part me and 50 parts someone else. Someone like Molly Crabapple, perhaps. And if you look at the reference images I contributed for the pics above, you’ll find the same thing.

Now what?

[CAVEAT: A friend who read this draft said my tone seemed a little self-righteous, and he may be right. That isn’t the intent – in truth, I’m a little disappointed in myself for falling prey to the charms of the digital temptress. But, as always, YMMV.]

Yeah, I’ll keep using MJ for my daily Zen reflections, and since it’s fascinating, I’ll probably keep playing with the AI as new versions are released.

But no web site, no winterSmith+AI “art” for sale. Essentially, I’ll never use AI in a way that has the potential to take money out of the pocket of a fellow human being. If I hit the lottery, maybe I’ll hire real illustrators to help me with my Zen meditations, even, but for now there’s no money in it for anyone.

But others are out to fuck you for fun and profit. Mainly profit.

Like I say, read that article.***


* I footnote “art” not to start an argument, but because whether or not its output will attain that critical status is far from determined. It will take years, maybe decades, maybe longer, to sort that one out.

** I know, it isn’t real artificial intelligence. Let’s save that for another day.

*** I’m a business writer for a living. Yes, I have heard of ChatGPT. And yes, I’m paying attention.

The Balcony Scene + AI

I recently started playing with MidJourney, a popular new “AI” “art” creation tool. Primary motivation: expedience. If you’ve seen the Zen stuff I post to Instagram, the artwork is the tricky thing. Sometimes I can make use of one of my photos, but more often than not I have to try and find something online I can use legally or that I can manipulate so I’m not stealing.

Pain in the ass. Read more

My Fuzzy Life

Something odd is happening. I wonder if it’s just me.

As time has passed my body has eroded a bit. I have some hearing loss. I have Nystagmus, which does a number on my visual acuity. Hell, there’s probably some basic cognitive deterioration, too.

The upshot is that, when watching a show on television (for instance), I frequently miss a chunk of what’s happening. I often don’t catch dialogue (turning the closed captioning on helps a lot, although then I miss may visuals because I’m focused on reading what’s being said). I may miss fine image details, especially if the picture is dark, and I’ve discovered that even a slight loss in visual fine-tuning damages my ability to grasp important subtleties (as in, if two actors look sort of alike, I easily confuse them).

In other words, I sometimes have almost no idea what the heck is going on.


Here’s the weird part: it doesn’t matter. I’ve discovered that I can watch a show where I’m totally lost and still enjoy it. I suppose I’m attuning to texture, mood, atmosphere, and so on. It can be a very impressionistic experience, if not downright abstract. (To a degree maybe I’ve always had this tendency – there are songs I love, songs I’ve heard a zillion times, where I still don’t know the lyrics. And my favorite movies can be heavier on style than technical precision. My all-time favorite flick is Blade Runner, which in places connotes a lot more than it denotes.)

Obviously I’m missing the story – the linear narrative largely eludes me in these cases – but the experience is fine. Maybe wonderful.

I’m not sure what’s happening inside, but now I’m thinking about how hard it is – how much I resist, even resent – things that demand my “attention”…

If We Shouldn’t Judge the Founders by Our Values, Should We Live by Theirs?

Philadelphia Union honors those killed by police.

Philadelphia Union honors those killed by police.Our recent protests, sparked mainly by the Minneapolis PD’s nonchalant murder of George Floyd – with the cameras rolling, even – are roiling American society. Institutions are challenged. Assumptions are ravaged. The whole of the American metanarrative is seemingly up for review. Read more

Quantum Enlightenment and the Watched Pot

Sogi-vs-IkkyuSōgi bows before Ikkyū.

“Master Dōken rebuked me this morning,” he says.

“What did you do this time?” replies Ikkyū.

“Nothing. I merely asked why the bird sings in its gilded cage.”

Ikkyū sighs. “What was the Master doing?”

Sōgi reflects for a moment. “At the time he seemed rather agitated at a pot of water.”

“What did he say to you?”

“He cursed the stove. Then he cursed my gilded bird. I explained that the cage was gilded, not the bird, but that upset him further. Then he asked did I not know a watched pot never boils?

“Master Ikkyū, I am unfamiliar with this wisdom. What is its meaning?”

Ikkyū laughs. “Young Sōgi, that is not wisdom. It is mere frustration with the perceived perversity of the material universe.”

“But … Master Dōken is the embodiment of enlightenment.”

“Master Dōken isn’t enlightened until after he’s had his coffee. Before then he’s just a grumpy old man.”


Later, Sōgi again approaches Ikkyū. “Master, I have been thinking on your lesson this morning.”

“It wasn’t a lesson. I just explained why Master Dōken was upset.”

“Indeed. So, the other day Master Haisen was reflecting on the quantum nature of enlightenment.”

“Here we go…” Ikkyū mutters under his breath.

“He holds that all we perceive is merely the expression of one potentiality. There are infinite possibilities, he says. Infinite universes. ‘Infinity awaits our notice,’ he says. Nothing becomes real until it is observed.”

“Yes,” says Ikkyū. “That sounds like something Master Haisen would say. In this continuum, anyway. Who knows what he might say if a raindrop fell on the fly instead of the honeybee.”

“I believe his insight must mean Master Dōken is wrong,” says Sōgi.

“Wrong? How so?”

“If Master Haisen is correct, it means a pot never boils until it is watched.”