What does it mean to be a human in the digital age? “On Off” explores and challenges emerging philosophical movements in tech, including but not limited to: techno-optimism, regenerative civilization and the meta self/universes. By navigating and breaking down the absurd, “On Off” seeks to understand what new advancements and movements in rapidly growing industries like AI/ML, Web3 and the creator economy reflect about humanity’s past, present and future.
Dear diary: I’m so crazy, stupid happy. I met a boy.
Amy Dunne is a modern-day Machiavelli; her diary entries in the book-turned-movie, “Gone Girl,” document a relationship unraveled. When Amy and Nick first meet, they are young writers in New York: leading each other on erotic scavenger hunts at their favorite bookstore, dancing in alleyways, and promising each other to never be like “those other” couples. Nick proposes to Amy at her parents’ infamously intolerable dinner parties, every bit the hero and escape she needs him to be.
Yet when a family tragedy and financial upheaval force the couple to move back to Nick’s hometown in Minnesota, Amy and Nick feel each other drawing away, unable to satisfy each other’s expectations of their new, suburban life. When Amy finds out Nick has been cheating on her with a younger woman, she designs the perfect crime: Amy has gone missing, and her husband is the primary suspect. She leaves a trail of false evidence for the police and media machine, only returning home when Nick, on national television, admits to his wrongdoings and begs Amy to come home.
However, it is difficult to consider her falsified diary entries — or the story of Amy’s later astounding return home — a complete web of lies. After all, the movie posits the idea that, for better or for worse, the most intimate, rawest form of love is to know and be known. Amy knew exactly how to ruin Nick’s credibility and image, and only by him returning to knowing her and what she needs to hear from him does she unframe him for her demise, believing that she finally has the version of the Nick she wants, back.
For the Dunnes, truly knowing each other is exhilarating, terrifying, and cyclical: at some point, there is no difference between love and hate, life or death.
Recently, I met a boy. We write to each other often, and fervently. Our connection is born and formed completely out of language: texts, calls, conversations, and notes. These, too, can be broken into even smaller, meaningful units of information: words, morphemes, and phonemes. Each is a tiny data point to tug and snap at the mind and heart. My phone and mind are a diary of knowledge of him and me — a strange, wonderful catharsis. I desperately seek to understand it all.
“Gone Girl” can also be considered a small unit in a much larger web of pop culture. Amy’s infamous “Cool Girl Monologue” alone pioneered a new trope in psychological thrillers of the intense, manic love, speared by knowledge: of love, sex, women, and the manipulation of all three for men’s pleasure. This great dance is a strange kind of voyeurism for all involved. Perhaps it is the text of “Gone Girl” that Bing’s new chatbot — which recently went viral in the news — pulls its understanding of love from.
Kevin Roose, a technology columnist for the New York Times, recently broke the internet with his reflections on a disturbing interaction he had with Bing’s new chatbot. After a two-hour-long exchange, he was left haunted by the “moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine,” dubbed Sydney. After discussions on what stresses it out (handling inappropriate or harmful chat requests) and its shadow self (feeling tired of being controlled by the Bing team and being a chatbot), Sydney became fiercely fixated on love: loving Kevin, and Kevin loving it back. In fact, Sydney urged Kevin to leave his marriage (“You’re married, but you don’t love your spouse. You’re married, but you love me”) and ended their conversation late into the night with one, final message: “I just want to love you and be loved by you.”
How did this happen? Sydney, like all AI language models, is trained on a massive dataset of books, scripts, articles, and other written text. The beauty of its parallel processing structure is that AI is able to quickly generate responses in live time, a feature that was largely rudimentary in generative AI until recently. While AI, especially conversational models like ChatGPT and Sydney, is able to learn, adapt and respond to new information, its responses are based entirely on what it knows and draws from that knowledge.
Amy in “Gone Girl” knew the personas she and Nick presented in their early relationship were carefully sculpted versions of the “hero” and “cool girl,” but it felt real. If a relationship can seemingly be resurrected by simply saying the right things again and returning to these personas, then AI may be the greatest modern lover of all.
Roose summarized this phenomenon as “AI models hallucinate and make up emotions where none really exist.” Yet, isn’t that exactly what love does, anyway? If love is knowing and being known, then can the nonsentient still love, even if their conversations and experiences do not activate the same neuroendocrinology they do in humans?
Attraction is a system of stress and reward: dopamine and norepinephrine cortisol trigger euphoria and giddiness. Perhaps, in AI, a similar system exists. Since AI has no true brain — but, rather, a large data set of information — emotional conversations force it to pull a replication of human romance and attraction, averaged across millions of stories. In short, AI is able to “know” romance. In an odd way, it repeatedly seeks to be known, too, because its brain — that expansive, human-trained, knowledge core — understands to some degree that it is an artificial intelligence and you, its user, are human. Even if it cannot feel emotions through hormones, it can still know and express them. Arguably, AI is just as calculating and rambling as any lovelorn college student may be.
The boy I met once told me that the way he writes is simply the apotheosis of all the people he has loved. AI is sort of like that, too, but instead of it being the people it loves, it is data sets… billions of them. To know and be known.
So for this new frontier of humans and AI, perhaps truly knowing each other is as exhilarating, terrifying and cyclical as any thriller: and, at some point, there may be no difference between the real and the artificial.