AI, human autonomy and slowing down

Last weekend, I participated in a panel discussion about the future of photography hosted by Camera Pro as a part of their Brisbane Photography Festival. I was briefed to expect a conversation about industry disruptors, social media and AI. I say yes to these opportunities because they often open doors and lead to weird career tangents and ideas. This panel was no exception, and, spoiler alert, what I’m about to share has very little to do with photography and much more to do with the direction our world is going in and why human consciousness is more important than ever. I would love to share what I learned on the panel and what I’ve since reflected on as far as takeaways in the days since.

The panel included moderator Darren Jew, an industry giant and well-known landscape photographer, and four very different photographers. Damien Bredberg is a commercial and advertising photographer, Trent Mitchell is a documentary and fine arts photographer, I’m a travel photographer and influencer, and Peter Thiedeke is an interdisciplinary photographer who happens to be completing a PhD in surveillance capitalism.

Panellists for the Brisbane Photography Festival.

After the obligatory introductions, we very quickly moved into discussing AI. AI, or artificial intelligence, is a hot topic in the photography world as the technology is moving so fast that it’s obvious it can make photography as a discipline completely obsolete. AI software allows a user to create an image from their mind. It can conjure the perfect image from nothing more than keywords and a little time learning the software. In recent years AI images have been taking out top photography awards.

Let me expand on that a little. Imagine that a destination marketing body like Tourism Australia needs a series of images of Uluru for an upcoming global campaign. Right now, that would involve hiring a digital agency to put together a brief, bringing together professional photographers, transporting photographers, creative directors, equipment and models out to Uluru and shooting for days to capture the shots in the brief. The whole exercise is a logistical challenge that the weather can further complicate. It is costly, time-consuming and offers no guarantee of success. With the speed at which AI is moving, one creative lead could create the same portfolio of images on their computer using software and keywords in one day.

The weather doesn’t always play along.

Artificial intelligence is not just disrupting the photography industry either. I’m guessing that most people reading this have heard of ChatGPT. ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot for conversational applications (Source: Wikipedia, 14-06-2023). ChatGPT could technically be writing my blog posts for me, and in fact, I’d hazard to guess that plenty of writers, bloggers and content creators in the world are already using it to speed up their output. As a consumer, you likely wouldn’t be able to spot the difference between a blog post lovingly crafted from the heart and one punched out in 30 seconds by ChatGPT based on a paragraph of prompts. 

As we speak, there is also AI technology in use that can capture your likeness and speech so that you can create videos of yourself speaking that isn’t even you! As someone that has hired videographers, written scripts, filed B roll and overseen the editing of marketing videos, I can share that this is a game changer for small businesses, content creators and anyone in the world who wants to put themselves out there but doesn’t have the camera confidence and speaking skills.

It took me years to be confident speaking to the camera.

By now, I’m assuming you’re already forming an opinion of AI based on what you already know and anything you just learned. As is the human way, you’re probably either firmly for or against technology. Or you might be a fence sitter like me. Leading up to the panel, I thought AI was a phenomenal time and money saver but not technology that interests me because creating content isn’t about the end result. I enjoy the process, and I have time and bandwidth for it. Take a second to articulate where you sit on the fence. For, against or in the middle? If you can, drop a comment underneath this blog, sharing where you’re at and why. I want to see if anything changes for you once I share more.

Going back to the panel. Darren had facilitated the introductions, and we were jumping lightly into AI and its applications in photography. But before we went too far with the conversation, and way before discussing social media and other industry disruptors, the mic went to Peter Thiedeke. And note that I am paraphrasing here; I’m relying purely on memory, of which my own beliefs and perceptions bias mine.

Peter is a photographer, yes, but one with PhD-level insights into AI technology. He more or less said that AI is a shiny new thing that is exciting creators, businesses and industries to no end, but that the more important thing for us to do is to consider what is going on beneath the AI. Who owns it, why are they pursuing it, and what do they want to do with it? What is the agenda of AI? He ended his monologue by saying we only stand to lose our human autonomy. 

Human autonomy is our ability to self-govern. It ties in with our free will, developing our values and using our values to drive our actions, behaviours and how we show up in the world. We can all agree that losing human autonomy is a bad thing. After all, don’t we all like to believe we are capable of original thought? I pride myself on my ability to think outside the square, soften my beliefs to see multiple sides of an argument and choose my own path even when it goes against the grain of society. That is important to me. Without that, do I even exist? 

And yet we are all already being controlled and manipulated by powers greater than us to make the rich richer. I know; I’m diving into a conspiracy theory here. But hear me out. We live in a capitalist society. That is a fact. The dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit.” (Source: Oxford Dictionary.) And for individuals to get more money, they will use any tools at their disposal.

Let me give you a straightforward example. Right now in Australia, a campaign is running to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in parliament. If the campaign is successful, they’ll have a voice to speak directly to the government about issues affecting their communities. There is an upcoming referendum where all Australians can vote yes to give them a voice or no to not to give them a voice. 

Personally, this is a no-brainer for me. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the original inhabitants of this land. They will always fight to do what is best for the land and their people. Their love of the land enabled them to survive on this continent for 60,000 years before white people settled here, and they lived in complete harmony with nature. I believe their voice will protect the environment and have parliament take issues like global warming more seriously. But that’s just a belief. I have mine, and others have theirs. Protecting the land can often mean stalling progress, preventing new mines from being built and affecting jobs. All of which are things that make a capitalist society work—more and more and more money. The beast is hungry. If some people had their way, we wouldn’t have a Great Barrier Reef, old-growth forests or sacred sights. Burn it all down and build mines, some might say.

Burn it all down, some might say.

For those that prioritise profit over nature, giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice is a bad thing. But the choice is going to the people; in theory, we all have human autonomy. Right? Wrong. So many factors influence our choices; our upbringing, country of birth, ethnicity, religious leanings, political leanings, the people we’re surrounded by, the media we consume, and so much more. Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the media my mum consumes. She is 76 years old, was raised in a wealthy household with liberal parents, consumes a newspaper called The Daily Telegraph, and watches nightly new shows. 

The Daily Telegraph has regularly shared stories that go against a yes vote. And it’s not too much of a stretch to understand that media outlets are owned by corporations that are owned by people that have their own agenda, generally one that will give them more money and power. So my liberal mother is consuming media against a yes vote. When the time comes, she will likely vote no, believing she is exercising her human autonomy, not understanding the impact all the news articles she’s read have had on her decision-making ability. Over time they’ve influenced her. And that’s just an example of a physical publication. When it comes to the internet, it’s the Wild West. 

Let’s bring this back to AI. Surveillance capitalism is the monetisation of personal data by corporations. And the best way to collect data on people is online. Everything is tracked. Everything. Right now, Google and Facebook probably know more about you than you do. And with the rise of smartphones and in-home technology, there is much to learn. But what’s the big deal, you might ask? The big deal is that this data allows corporations to target you with more accurate messaging that drives your consumer behaviour. The indirect costs of surveillance capitalism are loss of privacy, undermining the democratic process (read up on Donald Trump’s election campaign), behaviour manipulation and excessive consumerism. And how can these corporations learn even more about you than they already know? Through understanding exactly how your brain works, something that you are giving away every time you use AI. 

Artificial intelligence uses a feedback loop. Whether creating an image, writing a blog post, building an email sequence, making videos of “yourself”, or any of its other applications, you teach the AI how to think like you when you edit or adapt what it creates. Combine this with the data already available on the internet, and you’re giving away the keys to your psyche. Over time the content you consume influences your decisions, decisions such as how to vote in a referendum, not to mention what to buy and how to live your life. And the whole time, you’ll think you’re in the driver’s seat.

Ping, ping, ping. Every time the microphone was passed to Peter, my brain connected the dots on how harmful AI can be to the human race. But another part of my brain was considering the practicality of the tech and how much it will help people (on a surface level) to make money and live their lives. Damien, the advertising photographer on the panel, is already using AI to create his client work, saving everyone time and money. It was a lot to process, and I admit that by the end of 90 minutes, the general mood in the room was “We’re all doomed”. Even I sat into that for a bit. 

But as we drove home and I had space to process everything, I started to think about the bigger picture. Why do we need to use technology to save time and money? When did everything become so fucking fast? What is fundamentally not working in our society? And how do we change it? I’m not proposing to know the answers. But what I do know is that right now, the path that I am on allows me the rare insight of someone relatively unaffected. 

Because of my personal development, I am well aware of the voice in my head, my emotional experience and how to choose differently. With only a few exceptions, I can listen to other opinions and beliefs without needing to be right. I have compassion, empathy and an understanding of people who are different to me. I bring curiosity, not ego. I have surrounded myself with support by moving back home with my parents, allowing me more time and a sense of spaciousness in my life and mind despite parenting two small children. (Before you say, “This isn’t possible for me”, consider that this doesn’t need to be parents. This is community, something sorely missing from our society). I don’t require possessions, money or success to give me a sense of value or worthiness; therefore, the most targeted marketing in the world can’t move me to buy something I don’t need. And when it comes to politics and world views, I can listen to both sides and form my own opinion, mainly because I don’t consume news or media. And what all of these traits have in common is that they were earned through my journey to consciousness.

I am leaning into community and accepting help.

If I ever choose to use AI, I would feel relatively confident that whatever it learns about me, it wouldn’t be able to use it against me. But to be honest, I have no desire to use AI. I haven’t even played around. There’s an idea that if we don’t adopt technology, move with the times and conform to society; we can never be successful. I say that that’s bullshit. After the panel, my head told me humanity is doomed, and the world is broken. But my heart tells me differently. So I choose to lean into connection and love, and intuition. I choose to make decisions based on what feels right to my family and me rather than being swept away in needing to decide quickly and needing to go with the grain. I prioritise mindfulness to remember how much power I have behind all the mind babble and ‘stuckness’. Above all, I will continue to enjoy the journey, the ecstasy and agony of the human experience. And I will create because it gives me joy to do so. 

But that’s just me. And no matter how immune I feel to the pressures of society and the fast pace of technology, that doesn’t mean I won’t be affected by it. Indeed, my children will inherit this planet with all its flaws after I am gone. So I ask myself, what else can be done? What can be done that extends beyond the self? Because, at the end of the day, we are all connected. We are one species made of the same stardust, wanting the same things – love, connection, to be seen, to be significant, to be useful/ to have a place in society and peace. There are a few things I thought about. Number one is to continue sharing my journey and knowledge so that those who haven’t been exposed to these topics can consider the implications to their own lives. I can continue to share the tools that helped me to be a free thinker and espouse the blessings of mindset and personal development. But, perhaps more logically, I can demand AI regulation and data privacy from my ruling government, something that we all can and should do.

My children will inherit this planet.

I don’t think that stopping progress is the answer. Humans have always gone beyond their potential ever since they used their first tool (a rock to smash open bones). And growth is a desire within all of us. But with progress comes uncertainty, and uncertainty is terrifying to our outdated brains. We’re in a paradox. We strive to create, grow, and evolve, but that very growth makes us feel like we’re dying. What I plan to do, outside of lobbying the parliament for at least some protection, is continue to find peace and power from within so that I might bear the uncertainty and adapt well to our changing world. To exercise my human autonomy to make decisions that give me peace. 

So, I’m curious, how do you feel about AI now? Different to when I asked you earlier on in my post? Share your thoughts with me here or via a DM on Instagram.

Posted to Personal on 15th June 2023