Politics downstream of (virtual) culture

Austin, Texas. Even more than the site that bears his name, Perhaps Andrew Breitbart’s most enduring contribution to American politics is his remark that it is inexorably “downstream of culture.”

There is some truth in this statement, so it is even more important to remember how culture changes. fast. Technology is arguably the main driver of these changes. Breitbart died in 2012, and even he may have struggled to understand how quickly social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook would change our policies in the next few years.

And that was long before TikTok. And the time when no one, except for die-hard science fiction writers, talked about the “metaverse”.

SXSW is at the epicenter of the collision of technology and the culture that technology is changing. Unlike other tech conferences, this mix is ​​part of its DNA. In its nearly four decades of existence, it has evolved from an indie music and film festival to a bustling hive where major tech and media companies showcase their most brilliant releases.

This means that the sometimes rudimentary cultural experiments on display this week, including during the four-day cycle of XR and the Metaverse events, could be a preview of the next act in American public life and how we think about his role in it. .

So what will all this technology do to our politics in five years? Ten? The truth is, of course, we have no idea. But we Maybe start thinking about how it will change the culture.

This is central to many of the CEOs and tech leaders who show up here. Pablo Colapinto is Head of Immersive Content at Nexus Studios, an animation company whose clients include Disney and the NBA, among others. This morning at a coffee shop in downtown Austin, he told me how the real social element of virtual reality plays a role in how his firm thinks about its products, prompting a series of questions not unlike those people are asking about our current digital world. .

“How does this device allow us to communicate more with each other? How does this show us that the space between us is not empty? How do we fill the space with meaningful things where we can both point to the same thing,” he asked. “Platforms that thrive are driven by communities like Roblox and Minecraft…these platforms open the gate.”

Colapinto described to me the effect of a recent Concert in Times Square what his studio has created for the “virtual” group Gorillaz, and how he has seen how working with augmented reality is changing the way people relate to their community.

“People were furious… it proved an emotional case that these experiences can mean something to people,” he said. He described a theoretical augmented reality world in which the physical world that people go through takes on Foursquare-like digital overlay: “Suddenly where you are in space becomes part of your digital identity … leaving traces in this way, I don’t yet know in terms of real psychology how this affects, for example, teenage anxiety.”

This sounds abstract. But technology can also change even the intimate relationships that underlie our social structure. This morning at the Hilton Hotel downtown, there was a panel discussion titled “The Future of Sex” exploring how new technologies can have some modest impacts, such as assisting in sex education (think virtual reality in the classroom), or very large and unpredictable. such as creating conditions for relationships. with a sophisticated system based on artificial intelligence virtual companions.

Of course, in the time-honored tradition of the Internet, the first killer app for many technologies may simply be pornography. “I think the use cases for therapy, injury and health are really powerful,” said Briony Cole, host of “The future of sexpodcast. “…[But] I think porn is going to make the most money, so we have to keep an eye on the adult industry.”

Virtual reality is already shaping social behavior in unusual ways. When I spoke with designer and futurist (respectively) Jesse Damiani and Leah Zaidi yesterday, Damiani mentioned the prevalence “mute” in the virtual world of VRChat Users who refuse to speak out in favor of reinventing their own identity, often as members of the opposite sex.

And Damiani suggested that virtual reality could fundamentally change the way people communicate, which could have a huge impact on civic life.

“Reality is made up of negotiated agreements about what is real,” he said, “so the metaverse and XR technologies create a context in which we can appreciate what this human construction of reality is, which has very practical implications for information ecosystems.”

Consequences are not lost on the creators of these new tools, even if they can’t predict the long-term impact: “People in this space are struggling with the dissemination of information politically and the impact of the rise of generative tools,” he elaborated.

It’s all basically still conditional. Virtual reality technology is not yet firmly entrenched in the American household, with the exception of ardent fans of Gorillaz. But since SXSW functions as a laboratory or incubator or mouthpiece for future technologies, the level of sustained enthusiasm for virtual life here suggests that it will only further encroach on our incarnated ones.

For Colapinto, all the signs point in that direction, as he put it at the end of our conversation: “It’s going to get weirder and weirder from here.”

No, but seriously: How can we say that AI is intelligent?

During a presentation this morning at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Austin, advertising firm Wunderman Thompson showed off their shiny new heuristic for this. Following an introduction by Jason Carmel of the firm, who explained to the audience the criteria the Sentient-O-Meter uses to measure sensory input, emotion, and memory, his colleague Ilinka Barsan tested it on ChatGPT — testing the bot in a series of measures that included its ability to prioritize information. stay updated between user sessions and generate “unpredictable” output.

The results were a splash of cold water for those seeking to anthropomorphize the bot: the firm’s test reported a “1% chance” that ChatGPT was “irrefutably intelligent,” similar to the assessment of a “superintelligent (not bizarre) toaster.”

The tool, which anyone can test from the link above, has several problems. Its criteria is subjective, which means that another ChatGPT user could come to completely different conclusions than Barsan and get a different result (remember the Google engineer who made sure his AI was alive). Still, it’s a fun tool that encourages users to think about the similarities – but mostly differences – between machines and the human mind.

No word on whether they tested it at GPT-4 more.

How the United States can adhere to the stated principles against the backdrop of a tough new global status quo in technology and trade?

The German Marshall Fund published report yesterday offered his advice on exactly this subject, listing several recommendations for a “new external technology policy” to “support socially responsible innovation and digital commerce”, that is, to ensure traditional human rights and the values ​​of an open Internet. persists against the background of the desire to oust China.

Their three main recommendations concern the creation of a special “digital policy laboratory” that will coordinate the actions of US politicians and private business; a “technology task force” tasked with strengthening the global technology supply chain; and continued promotionDeclaration of the Future of the Internet”, which the US launched along with 61 other countries in April last year. Read full report here.