Column | Real or realistic, what’s your pick?

As AI ‘breaks’ things, a counter-cultural moment is seeing people migrate from the digital to analogue

February 29, 2024 03:42 pm | Updated 03:42 pm IST

People in a mall in London

People in a mall in London | Photo Credit: Getty Images

For more than 20 years now, I have been an extremely online person. My first real engagement with the Internet was through the popular blogging site, livejournal, around 2002. It was an exhilarating experience, being able to explore who you are, find readers and connect with people. I am still friends with the people I encountered there, two decades later, despite the fact that I have never met most of them in real life.

The entire ethos of the Internet then was its authenticity. The people I came to follow on livejournal were from all over the world and had a wide variety of interests and expertise: a roller skater in Dallas, a dentist’s associate in Kent, a young student struggling with loneliness and his acne in Toronto, a secretary who sometimes turned tricks to make some extra money. They were all being their real selves online, occasionally making use of the option of anonymity and talking about the things they found difficult to in their real lives. At the time, the Internet was where you could be yourself and where you encountered other truths.

In the years that followed, the use of the Internet expanded to include conveniences. We trusted it to deliver us all kinds of supplies, manage our money, apply for jobs, find partners. If you met a person in real life and began an argument about something, you settled it on the basis of what Google told us. We couldn’t trust one another, but we believed the Internet.

Cut to 2024. On my screen is the video of a young man reading a book. Totally realistic. Except, he’s sitting on a cloud. On clicking next, I encounter giant woolly mammoths walking towards me, the snow they churn misting around them. It is so real that it feels like I am watching it on an iMax screen. These videos are the first public iteration of Sora, OpenAI’s latest, an AI model that “can create realistic and imaginative scenes from text instructions”. Meaning, you can just write basic instructions in a tool bar and the software can give you a video that is entirely made up but looks real.

AI-generated woolly mammoths from OpenAI’s text-to-video tool Sora

AI-generated woolly mammoths from OpenAI’s text-to-video tool Sora | Photo Credit: OpenAI

Real value of the Internet

In the last few months, such demonstrations of the capabilities of AI have been received with both alarm and admiration. The adventurous and the evangelists have embraced these developments and immediately adapted to them and put them to use in making their lives more efficient. But vital concerns have been raised about its impact on jobs, privacy violations and automation of weapons. Some of us have been left quaking in fear. To me, the primary question is, when everything is “realistic”, what happens to reality itself? If I can’t tell whether what I am seeing or hearing is real or fake, am I not going to just assume that nothing is authentic? And therefore, what then is the value of the Internet?

The first note that users of the Internet, as opposed to technophiles, express is fear of this technology. It is not just how incomprehensible such a future life is likely to be, but also the loss of safeguards that we had previously assumed. If our money in the banks is not safe, for instance, what is the point of the convenience of Internet banking. All of these concerns are seeding the birth of a counter-cultural moment of people migrating from the digital to the analogue; abandoning the simpler and easier way of doing things online and going back to the more traditional means. The signs are already visible. After a dip in the years between 2009 and 2013, sales of printed books have shown a resurgence, while e-readers sales have stagnated. In India, some 94% of retail bank customers visit the branch at least once a year. Business papers report that not only are existing malls seeing larger footfalls, millions of square feet are getting added to mall space in India.

These trends are more likely than not to appear in other industries as well. Industries that have had its business model broken by the Internet are slowly making a comeback. I can’t wait for the introduction of a well-produced magazine that is available only in print, an idea I have been touting to everyone and one that is being received with fewer eye rolls now.

It is inevitable that AI will break things first and fast. There will certainly be a new kind of life on the other side when things settle down. But I for one am glad that it is not my generation that will be at the epicentre of this tornado. Imagine being an 18-year-old now stepping into a future where everything is uncertain, not finding a job because a computer does it better and losing whatever little money you’ve saved because of a deep fake scam. For once, being older seems like a blessing. Maybe that will be something to discuss with my new friends in the line at the bank or while waiting for the robot at the grocery store to reboot.

(Do the AI stories scare you or fascinate you? I’d love to know.)

The columnist is the author of Independence Day: A People’s History.

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