Why AI is a Threat to Artists
Paris Marx is joined by Molly Crabapple to discuss why AI image generation tools are a threat to illustrators and why we need to refuse the idea that Silicon Valley’s visions of technology are inevitable.
Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer based in New York. She is the author of two books, Drawing Blood and Brothers of the Gun with Marwan Hisham. Follow Molly on Twitter at @mollycrabapple.
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Paris Marx: Molly, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Molly Crabapple: Thank you so much for having me.
PM: I’m very excited to chat with you. I have been following your work for quite a while now. Your fantastic illustrations and the art that you make has illustrated so many political moments that we’ve all been following for the past number of years. So it’s great to have you on the show and to be able to discuss this really important topic with you.
MC: Oh my God, no. I’m such a fan girl of the show as well. And I love that there’s one place in the world that’s challenging the manifest destiny of Silicon Valley and doing it so well and so brutally and so precisely, I adore it.
PM: Well, thank you very much. I’ll always accept a compliment, especially from someone like you. Now to get into it. Obviously, as I talked about, you are an illustrator, you’re an artist. You put together a lot of work that I think people, even if they might not know it’s from you, will probably have seen before.And I wanted to start because we’re talking about AI image generation and things like that. I think it’s important to also understand what it goes into actually making this work, that these image generators are getting trained on basically. So what is it like to do the work that you do as an artist, or an illustrator, and how did you get into that profession?
MC: Well, I’ve been drawing since I was four years old. My mom is an illustrator and my great uncle was an artist, my great grandfather was an artist, who made his living painting those Cupid’s and grapes on the walls of old school mansions in New York City, while also having a fine art career. I come from an artist family; it’s what I would do if I was on a desert island. It’s who I am. In terms of how I got my start is professional artist, it’s kind of funny. I always knew that I was not fit for regular employment, and so for me, from the time I was 16 or 17, I was always using art to make money. Whether it was drawing people’s D&D characters, or hanging flyers in the bodega, to draw their pets. I always had a sketchbook with me and any little tiny crack that I could put my art into, I did. Since, basically, my teenage years. I got my big break as a professional artist by drawing for one of the most notorious nightclubs in New York City, the place where the bankers who destroyed the world’s economy would blow through $10,000 a night on champagne while watching my friends do nude circus tricks on stage.
PM: No way!
MC: I was like their house [Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec. I very much came of age in the New York burlesque scene, documenting that. And then when Occupy Wall Street happened, down the street from where I lived, I turned my apartment into a press room. Just by being around journalists, I started thinking: Maybe I could use my art that way, too. Maybe I could use my art like how a photo journalist uses their camera, to document history as it happens. And that is probably the thing that I’m most known for. I have taken my sketchpad all over the world. I was just in Palestine, last week. I was in Ukraine last summer during the Russian invasion. I’ve taken it to Gaza, to Guantanamo Bay, to Puerto Rico, where my dad is from right in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. And wherever things are happening I like to be there drawing, to document it.
PM: Thank you so much for sharing part of that story with us. I really appreciate it, and it’s great to hear how you got into this. It’s no surprise, of course, that you’ve been drawing since you were a kid. But I feel like you also have this really distinctive style. When I see a Molly Crabapple work, I’m like: I know that’s yours very clearly. I don’t even need to double check. It’s like: That’s Molly’s.
MC: Thank you! I think that our style, it’s like — I’m gonna sound all woo-woo, mystical to your audience here — but it’s like our soul. It’s intrinsic to us, like our handwriting. It comes just as much from our flaws and failures and fuck-ups as it does from what’s good about us. And when you’re someone like me, when you’re an artist who does it for a living, I must draw, six or seven hours a day, I always have. When you do something that much, it just becomes such a part of you, that you develop a voice that’s yours.
PM: Absolutely. I think what you’re describing is a part of a conversation that we’re collectively having, in this moment, as we see these technologies emerge. And we’re saying, like: What is the role of art, and what actually goes into it? I feel like, on one hand, you have these tech people who are just saying: Art can be something that is generated by our computers and our algorithms that we’ve made up. And then on the other side, I feel like there’s people like us, who are saying: Art is something that is kind of like intimately and intrinsically human. It really comes from us, as people. And the idea that we would hand that over to machines to start doing just feels wrong, in a way.
MC: Well, it’s ridiculous. There’s a very viral tweet that said that the promise of the future was that the boring jobs were going to be automated, so that we could make art and do poetry all day. But instead, what’s happening is that art and poetry are getting automated, so we can do boring jobs all day, probably while an algorithm screams at us to move faster. It’s just so perverse. I truly don’t understand why anyone would decide to burn tons and tons and tons and tons of carbon for the sole purpose of stealing a job that people love to do.
PM: Absolutely, and that we love to enjoy, that we love to see the product of it. Why would we want to have that be something that’s automated away or taken away from humans that we can relate to? That we can see their experiences and their struggles reflected in the work that we’re doing? Instead, now we’re just seeing copies of it and combinations of it generated by a machine that doesn’t have the same soul as something that you put together.
MC: Literally, like a tech human centipede.
PM: Absolutely. Now, earlier this year, you put together an open letter with the Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting. As we saw these AI image generators getting so much attention. We’re kind of in this moment of AI hype, where is the next big thing that Silicon Valley is pushing. AI image generation is part of it, they have their ChatGPTs and their text generators and all these sorts of things as well. What motivated you to respond with a letter like that in this moment?
MC: I think I was pretty similar to most art illustrators and how I came to realize what was going on with these generators. When the first iteration of DALL-E came out, we were all like: This is nightmare horror. What is this? What nonsense? But then pretty soon as the next iterations of Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, DALL-E started coming out — I don’t want to say good, that’s not the right word — but good enough. Good enough to fill a box that a human would have been paid to draw something for. And everyone I knew in the illustration community started to get very worried and also very angry. When we learned that all of these energy generators were only good because they were all trained on our images. But what inspired me to organize about it?
Well, the tipping moment, as it were, was that me and my friend, Marisa Katz, who I did the letter with, were at the Perugia Journalism Festival in Italy. Which is this big fancy muckety-muck journalism festival that all the muckety-mucks are at. And at this festival, there were not just one or two, but many literal paid shills of tech companies that were there to give these sold out panels about how generative things were the future and how the newsrooms had to adopt them, or else you’re gonna get left behind. You don’t want to get left behind, because that’s the worst thing in the world, you got to adopt them for some reason. One particularly horrifying example to me was a professor actually stood before a roomful of, I want to say, maybe 200 people in media, and taught them how to use DALL-E to illustrate their stuff and avoid paying illustrators.
I would even overhear conversations where one of these people would say something like: Writers write too much that ought to be automated. Journalists shouldn’t be writing; we should just automate that away. I was so revolted, and not just revolted by all of the shilling that these shills were doing, but I was revolted at the idea that we just had to accept this. That this was inevitable, that this is a genie that you can’t put back in the bottle. That if you try to fight this, that you’re like a horse and buggy maker. I was like: This is so ridiculous. This is so untrue. Nothing that humans do is inevitable in this world. Nothing that companies do is inevitable. We don’t have to use company’s products. Corporations can be constrained by politics, by power and by protest. And me and Marissa, we had a panel that we had sold to Perugia, where I was going to spend it all just talking about my own work.
I was like: I don’t want to just talk about my artwork. I want to talk about this; I want to talk about this giant elephant in the room here. Because no one, that I saw, was actually directly challenging this false narrative of inevitability. And so I gave a speech and I showed how DALL-E was trained on my work. Literally, if you go into DALL·E, and you put, “Scenes from Syria drawn by Molly Crabapple,” you will get stupid knockoffs of my work. But clear knockoffs, clear rip-offs that someone who wasn’t paying that much attention might even think was my work, and you can be prompted by my name. I showed that. I showed the images of mine that were in the LAION-5B dataset, which was used to train Stable Diffusion. I spoke about the intense disgustingness and immorality of these billion dollar corporations in Silicon Valley, claiming the divine right to steal the work of working-class artists. The work that we spent our whole lives learning how to do. And just use it as fodder so that their machines can shut out bad replicas of what we do.
PM: Absolutely. What you’re describing shows just how pernicious this narrative from Silicon Valley is that these technologies are always inevitable. They put out this thing and all of a sudden, we need to accept it, and we need to rearrange the world around it. Just, what like six months into this hype cycle, all of a sudden, you go to a journalism festival, and they have panels on how this is naturally the future. And you need to be learning to use these image generation tools. This is so often how it works, and we really need to backup, as you’re saying, and as you did at this festival. To say: Hold on, this doesn’t make any sense that we just constantly accept the future sold to us by the tech industry. Instead of challenging that and ask who benefits and who doesn’t. Before we got into this conversation, you were telling me about the difference between the artists who are gonna get hit by this and the people who will be just fine. Can you talk to was a bit about that?
MC: Sure I will. This is something that I think it’s really important to understand, and it’s a real class distinction in terms of what we mean when we say artist. Sometimes when we say the word artist, what we mean are artists who are fine artists, who are selling work in galleries, sometimes who are selling work for like a million bucks, who have work that’s hanging in museums. And the business model of the fine art world — this is not a slight to fine artists and I also sell my work in galleries and have my work in museums — but the business model is that you want to sell a single thing for a fuck ton of money, for like so much money. You want to sell this crumpled up tinfoil for $100 billion to a Russian oligarch, if you can. That’s how it works. I mean, sometimes you sell beautiful sculpture for $2,000, but the essential thing is as much money as you can, for one object. That’s why it’s so good for money laundering.
But the other thing that we sometimes mean, when we talk about artists is we mean illustrators. We mean the people that are doing the pictures that are on the comic books, that are in advertisements, that are in magazines, book covers, all of that. That segment of artists has always been looked down on by fine artists, because essentially, illustrators are the blue-collar labor of the art world. We’re always seen as not the real intellectual artists, because we didn’t go to Yale and get an MFA. And because we do a skilled trade, for not that much money. And that’s where I came out of, even if I increasingly do fine art stuff. My heart is with illustrators — it’s what I’m from. I told you how I got started drawing people’s D&D characters. That’s my world, and those are my friends. Illustrators are going to be destroyed by this, they’re just going to be destroyed.
Because the business model of illustration is that you do an image, and that image fills a box somewhere and a generator can work faster and cheaper than any human, anywhere in the world, no matter how good they are. No matter how cheap the country they live in can do. No human can have the economic efficiency of a generator. The generator might do stuff that looks really bad, that has weird warts and bunions and eight fingers. A human might need to be involved to photoshop out those warts and bunions. But at the end of the day, no human can work as fast and as cheap as a generator. If you’re a company that is concerned with maximizing your profits, by limiting the costs of labor, which most companies are, you’re going to go with a generator. But that has the other advantage, which is that it serves as a disciplining tool for labor.
Let’s say you have someone like me; you’re hiring me to do your book cover. I come in, I have a vision, I have certain things I will and won’t draw. I work in a particular way. I take a certain amount of time to do things, all my stuff are paintings. They’re not done in Photoshop. So it’s not so easy for me to change a color. There’s all these constraints. I might flounce off and decide I don’t want to do the book cover at the end of the day and be an arrogant, little artist — all these annoying things about me. Whereas if you put in your prompt into a generator, and you keep hitting the button until you get something that’s passable — except that it has too many thumbs and a weird eye — you can just hire someone, you can hire anyone, to make the eye face the right way and get rid of the thumb. You replaced someone who’s unique and moody and opinionated, and all of these things, with a much less skilled, disempowered, and interchangeable technician. Who you can just get rid of at a moment’s notice and who can be replaced by anyone else.
PM: I think that’s such an important point. It’s what we see constantly from the tech industry, and from these innovations, when they’re sold is world changing. Going to automate everything, democratization, even. I’ll come back to that point in just a second. But I just wanted to give a couple examples to make this real for listeners as well. There are some tech newsletters on Substack that are very popular. And a number of months ago, I noticed that these were people who used to work at traditional tech publications, went to Substack, to do their own thing. Whatever, totally fine. But the images they were using to illustrate their stories were all from DALL-E , and Stable Diffusion, and generated like that. Because they felt they didn’t have the same pressures, or restrictions, as a tech publication would. I don’t think you see so many of those moving into AI art, yet. Because there could be consequences of doing that.
They don’t know the full legal kind of ramifications of it. But these kinds of Substacks, which are very popular, were more than happy and continue to do it. And then on the other hand, I saw, you were talking about even lower wage destinations that some people go to, to hire illustrators who they can pay less money. I saw there was a story in Rest of World about a month or so ago about illustrators in China who were doing video game illustrations. And they said that the company that they used to work for got rid of them all. Then started to use these AI generators, and then brought them back and paid them 10 times less than what they were being paid before. But just to fix up the little issues with the AI art. I’m sure that you have noticed, and I’ve heard other stories about how this is happening.
MC: Oh, absolutely. Al Jazeera started using one of the generators to turn out comics that are telling various aspects of Middle Eastern history. Also, Semafor is using generators for their videos right now, and pretty adamantly defending them. One that I was just pretty heartbroken over was the Nieman Foundation, which is literally a journalism thing. If you look on their website, I want to say about 40% of their illustrations that they have are done with generators.
PM: No way. I honestly had no idea about that, and that is shocking to me, actually.
MC: I think it comes from the lack of respect that they have for visual artists. I do not think Nieman would allow 30% or 40% of their articles to be written by ChatGPT.
PM: Absolutely. Going back to your point about labor, we see this being used, as you’re talking about, and I’ve discussed, on artists. We also see it being used on journalists, there’s a lot of new media companies that have been laying off journalists recently, and saying that they’re going to start using AI for stories. I think we can see that less as them thinking that the AI is great and more taking advantage of a tech to come along and get rid of all these workers and scare the rest of them that are around to say: You could be next if you don’t follow the line, as you’re saying. Just to back up what you were saying about the labor piece before. We see this time and time again with the tech industry, and with these so-called innovations that they put out there. What always comes to mind to me is in the mid-2010s, when there was all this discussion about how automation was going to replace all of these jobs. We needed to be worried and are we going to need a basic income?
This was all the discussion. All these truck drivers and service workers are going to lose their jobs because of automation. What actually happens is they don’t really lose their jobs, but there’s a ton of new algorithmic management that is rolled out, that gives more power to the employers over the workers. We see it in Amazon warehouses and the Uber app and how that gives them a lot more power over what used to be taxi workers, and are now ride hailing drivers. So we see this time and again. And now I think what we see with this generative AI is moving, or expanding, into other spaces, like writing or art, and to say: Don’t push back too hard, or else we supposedly can replace you with these things, even though they won’t be nearly as good. But that doesn’t matter to capital as much.
MC: No, exactly. I mean, there’s two things. First, they won’t be nearly as good, so we’ll hire low wage people to fix them up. But then the second thing that happens is they won’t be nearly as good, but you’ll get just get used to crap. I mean, they did that with architecture a long time ago. Look at the buildings we live in now.
PM: You’re completely right. And they’ve already been degrading the quality of the entertainment that you get from these major mega-corporations already. So they only have to go so far to get us used to what’s coming next, I guess.
MC: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that the Writers Guild was really so smart about in pushing back against AI is, it’s not that they think that this magical AI is gonna write the Sopranos. It’s not that, it’s that these companies will use AI maybe to generate a concept for a script or to generate a bunch of incomprehensible schlock and then hire a real writer to rewrite it, but then say: You don’t have copyright to it. Because we have copyright to it. We had this machine excrete some crap that you had to make usable.
PM: Absolutely, no, you’ve put it so well. I mentioned earlier, there’s often this narrative or discourse of democratization that comes with these new tech tools. The technology is out there, this is going to democratize access to information or this is gonna democratize access to various skills. And I don’t know if you saw this story, but about a month or so ago, there was a YouTube channel that does animation. And they use one of these text generators to create a short animated video. But instead of using the actual work of animators to animate this sort of video, they recorded it and then ran the stills or the frames of it through an AI art generator. When they receive criticism for doing that, they said: Actually, this is democratization of the tools of animation. Now we don’t need to actually have the skills, we can just use these tools. What do you make of such a ridiculous argument as that?
MC: There’s so many things. It reminds me how much people have stopped viewing themselves as creators and producers and started viewing themselves as consumers. And that their fundamental right is to get as much crap as they possibly fucking can. And to hell with the person who creates it. It’s like saying Forever 21 democratized fashion and who cares how many Bangladeshi seamstresses die when the building collapses? My fashion has been democratized — I have 87 nylon dresses. I feel like what these things are actually doing is they’re democratizing poverty. They’re democratizing precarity. They are democratizing not having a job.
PM: No, you’re completely right, as usual. We talked a bit about how these tools actually work. Can you talk to us a bit about how they use the art that is already out there, in these datasets, in order to create these images. Where do they get the images that they then turn out as the AI image generation that they’re supposedly doing?
MC: This is a really good question. For some of the generators like DALL-E, which is owned by OpenAI, we have no idea because they don’t tell us. They are just like a black mysterious box. However, for Stable Diffusion, which is run by Stability AI we do. And Stable Diffusion did a really neat little trick. They gave a lot of money to a German nonprofit called LAION, and then this German nonprofit suctioned up 5.8 billion images from around the internet without anyone’s consent, compensation, even knowledge and not just art. Not just copyrighted images, but people’s private medical images. They suctioned all of this up, and they gave its Stability AI. And they were like: We are just a little humble European non-profit. But in actuality, they were like a fig leaf.
They’re like a condom of non-profitness hiding the fact that they were acting as procurers for Stability. So then Stability — which is run by a former hedge fund boss, Emad Mostaque — it proceeded to train its robots on all of this stolen work. And that is the reason why the generators are good. That’s the reason why the generators have any sort of looking human. It’s because they stole our artwork, they are only as good as their datasets. They do not produce anything themselves. If they had to just be trained on their own stuff, which is what’s going to happen soon, they will eventually devolve into a nightmare world of 20 million teethed aliens with bunions for eyes. So yeah, they’re built on our stolen work. These billion dollar corporations stole our work to build tools to replace us.
PM: It’s so frustrating to hear. I think that part of the thing that really stands out is that something like this would not be possible if they weren’t able to totally scrape the web and just take everything that we’ve been sharing online for all of these years. And in one of the pieces you wrote, you said that generative AI is another transfer of wealth from working artists to Silicon Valley billionaires. That clearly shows you how. They’ve taken all the work of artists like you, and many other artists who have shared their work online, or even just everyday people who shared images of themselves online and all this stuff that they’ve taken too. And that forms the basis of their entire company, their entire tool. When you use it, and you type in your little prompt, it has this almost magical feeling like: Oh, my God, how did it put this thing together? But really, it’s just taking pieces of all these images that it has, and because it has so many, it’s trying to fit them back together. I think that we really need to be aware of that, instead of falling for the mystique, which is so often what can happen with these tech tools.
MC: Exactly, exactly, exactly. They are nothing without the stolen images. And they’re nothing without the Silicon Valley ethos of move fast break things, damn the consequences. Let’s make all our money while we can and try to make ourselves seem inevitable.
PM: Totally, totally. Now it’s hitting — well, I guess in some ways, it has been hitting artists for a while — but now it’s really coming for them in a really significant way. I’m wondering, when we look at the risk, we’ve talked about the inequities here, and how it hits the everyday illustrators much more than the big artists who are in the galleries. I feel like this is a conversation that we’re kind of having with the writers strike as well. Recognizing that it’s not just big A-list actors that make money from movies, but there’s a lot of people who go into the creation of these things that we don’t often realize. I feel like the public doesn’t have a good understanding of how art gets created, or how these things come into being, that they enjoy and like to experience. Do you think that that’s also an important part of improving the education of the public on how all this art actually gets made? The art they see on their news stories and the journalism and and the book covers that they enjoy and all these sorts of things? That many people I feel like don’t really realize.
MC: I think it’s a very important thing. Also, I think that a lot of people who aren’t artists, they just think that the reason that I can draw is because of some magical talent that an angel gave me one day and the angel whacked me on the head when I was three years old, and then I was just a genius. And that’s not true. I mean, that’s just not how it is for anyone. The reason that we are able to draw these pictures is because we gave our lives to it. Maybe we were like better at doing crayon drawings than the other little kids doing crayon drawings, but the actual thing that made us artists is because we stuck with it for so many hours, every day. And we gave up a lot to do that. This is a skilled trade, the same way that being carpenters a skilled trade. Same way as being a welder, or an electrician is a skilled trade. We are people who combine doing something that’s pretty sublime, which is making stuff up with the fact that we work with our hands with tools and chemicals.
For my whole life, I’ve been critical of how artists sometimes position themselves in this like misty, woo-woo, fairytale realm. And don’t talk about the sweat and the blood and the labor of what we do. I blame some of that for people not understanding this as much. I think we did it a bit ourselves by mystifying ourselves a bit, and I’ve always tried not to be mystical about it. I’ve always tried to say that us as artists being destroyed by this is just as bad when truck drivers have their lives turned to hell by some sort of evil algorithmic boss that doesn’t let them take bathroom breaks. It’s just as bad when an Amazon worker has to wear some sort of digital tracking device that screams at them so that they lift more and more things onto shelves. It’s not that artists are special mystical, unicorn creatures. And that’s why I fight for them. I fight for them because I’m an artist and that’s my job. But all of us as workers need to be fighting this.
PM: Exactly. It’s part of a similar trend that’s affecting so many different workers, and just at different times, it hits different people. We need to be collectively pushing back on those things, instead of just saying: Oh, it only matters because it’s artists or something like that. No, it matters when these technologies hit any workers, as you’re saying. I wanted to talk about one piece that you mentioned in one of the pieces that you wrote, where you called back to the history of criticism of technology and pushback on technology. Going back all the way to the self-acting mule, and the history of the Luddites and. Looking at the long history that we have, as humans, of recognizing when technologies aren’t working for us, we should be able to push back on them and really say no to them. Can you talk to us about how that has inspired some of your thinking on technology in these AI image generators, in particular?
MC: It’s a really good question. I, like everyone else who challenges this stuff, have been yelled at a lot and called the stupid Luddites. This is the standard term for anyone who thinks that it’s a poor idea to have AI-powered machine guns or whatever.
PM: I think many listeners of this podcast will be familiar with being criticized in that way.
MC: So I decided: Why don’t I brush up and remind myself of the history of the Luddites to see what was going on? And what I found was that they were, like me, skilled tradesmen with a lot of autonomy, who had seen that destroyed by giant mechanical looms that were powering satanic mills of Manchester. And being operated by people who were making pennies and who were working in these factories where they were crushing their fingers. Or their kids were being crushed under things all the time. And they didn’t like it, so they decided to protest against it. And one tactic of protest, a very legitimate and time-honored tactic of protest was to smash the machines. That was the first thing I learned, so it was a smart and accurate labor critique. The second thing that I learned was I learned that the Luddites were not stopped because of the inevitability of technological progress. The Luddites were not stopped because technology moves forward, and they were in the past.
No, they were stopped because England sent an army that basically occupied the territories they were involved in and killed them all. Or they were shipped them to Australia as prisoners. That’s why they were stopped. They were stopped because of State violence. I think that this is a really, really important thing for people to know that it’s not that technology, technological progress, is inevitable. It’s that technological progress is backed by power, and often by violence. And that’s why it’s adopted, something that’s forced on people, these types of technologies that make their lives worse. The truth is, for all of the amazing things that have happened since the Luddites, people are still dying in sweatshops that make textiles all the time, we still haven’t made a humane way to do it.
I’ve often thought about when people say: Adopt or die. That’s another thing a lot of these shills say, and what does it mean to adopt? What would it have meant for the Luddites to adopt? What it would have meant is for them to work in sweatshops. For them to have been impoverished, to have given up their autonomy, to have given up the ability to work in their own homes. To have given up making money and to have worked in horrific conditions, and perhaps not even that, because there’s a lot of out of work textile workers too. There was no good that thing, where the Luddite grinds and has good grind set, and then he like learns the textile machine. I don’t know, he has some sort of Andrew Tate superstar life. That’s not how it works. The actual thing that people mean, when they say adopt is they mean submit.
PM: You’re making me think of Twitter back in the Luddite times, and the people tweeting out threads of how you can be like a good factory worker.
MC: Yes! Yes!
PM: Obviously, I think what you said is essential. I think the key point of that is that technological development, and the path that it takes is inherently political. It’s not something that just emerges from this tech industry. It’s shaped by capital, and it’s shaped by the state as well, and the interest that they have in facilitating the continuation of the capitalist process. I’m wondering, we’ve heard talking about these image generators, and what they might mean for artists. What is the worst case scenario that you see is potentially coming out of this? If we’re not able to push back on them, and they are able to kind of entrench themselves in the way that the industry would like to see.
MC: Well, the worst case scenario for illustrators is we just no longer exist. That there is just no more illustration as a career path, that it is just maybe a hobby for some rich kids. Maybe there’s three elite illustrators working now — fingers crossed, I’m one of them. But the rest is just over. And also that there’s no path for young people to get into the industry anymore because young people don’t start on the cool projects, they start on the crappy little projects. The ones most likely to be taken over by a generator. So that’s the first thing, it’s just the destruction of illustration as a field and with that, the massive impoverishment of the visual world — the further ugification of everything.
The concerns for larger society, besides just everything being ugly and stupid, is obviously the lack of any ability to discern visual truth, because people are seeing fake images all the time. We’ve already seen so many people fooled by fake images of everything from the Turkish earthquake to the Pope in a big, puffy parka. This is a separate thing from what I’m talking about. But I just think the real thing is everything just being uglier and worse, and people forgetting how to draw stuff anymore.
PM: I don’t want an ugly and stupid world. I’d like a rich and cultural society. And if you think about it, one of the issues here is, obviously, these generators are trained on images that already exist. Those are styles that exist, and people who have already made art. And so if we’re cutting off the pipeline for new artists to get into the field. If we’re giving fewer opportunities for illustrators, like yourself, and many others to develop their work, develop their style. Get their art out into the world, then we’re kind of stuck with what has already existed, and there can be no evolution in the art and the culture that is available to people because now the AIs are making everything.
Even though the people in charge might want to say that these AIs are intelligent, and blah, blah, blah, they’re not. They’re just using what has come before and mixing it up and churning it out in a different way, so that it can try to make something that fits with the prompt that the person is putting in there. But clearly, that’s a continued impoverishment, both for the wider public, but also for artists and illustrators themselves. Who won’t have these opportunities to work on these things. It’s a very human loss, getting back to what we were saying earlier in the conversation.
MC: Exactly. It’s just this incredible human loss. I just sometimes think about the psychology of the people behind it and how demented it is, for such supposedly smart people. There really does seem to be a strain in Silicon Valley that believes that everything in the world is reducible to ones and zeros, like a binary code. That believes that you can take absolutely anything and break it down into something that is mechanical, into something that’s a machine. I see all the time tech people say that the brain is a computer.Which isn’t true, no neuroscientist will ever say that. It’s total bullshit, but it just shows how they understand everything. Because their world is computers, everything is reducible to computers. I think what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to take creativity, and just make it reducible to some sort of equation, to bottle it and separate it from the humans who are actually the source of it.
PM: Absolutely. In the same way they say that the brain is a computer, they diminish human intelligence, human thought. The real complexity, and even the unknown, that still kind of exists in our thought process. And then to extend that the creativity, just to reduce creativity to ones and zeros take so much out of that equation. That is just so inherently human, that we need to hold on to, that’s so essential for our culture. It just makes me angry to think about it.
MC: Well, I remember I was listening to one of your episodes about longtermism. And me and my boyfriend, we’re just listening to this and we’re listening to these guys that are like: Well, what if there are these many units of happiness, these utils, and what if the units of happiness can be experienced by an artificial intelligence and not a human? And what if you could have a planet that you colonized with artificial intelligence of playing video games? Wouldn’t that be better than people not starving here because you have more utils? I was listening to this and I was like: What the hell, man? What are these guys smoking? What is this? But I think it’s the same sort of thing. It’s like you have people that are so demented, and they’re so high on this like weird techy logic, that they think that you can reduce creativity to weird, arithmetic problems. You can reduce happiness to a util — you can reduce morality to colonizing a planet in future time with video game playing robots. This is madness!
PM: Absolute madness. It shows why we need to aggressively fight this vision of the world that they are trying to push on us. It’s so many different domains, and the image generation tools are just one of them. I’m wondering, obviously, we’ve started to see some pushback against this. Some companies have been filing lawsuits; some artists have been pushing back. What are you seeing in the fight back and the pushback that’s happening now? And how do you assess its potential success and what it might mean for these generation tools?
MC: There’s a few aspects to the pushback. First of all, I just have to shout out Karla Ortiz, who is a concept artist who’s been really helming the fight against these generators, and who is one of the three lead plaintiffs in the artists’ class action lawsuit. She has just been such a force for fighting and such an advocate for artists. I have huge respect. So she’s leading a class action lawsuit for mass copyright infringement against Stability AI, Deviant Art, which allowed every thing on its site to be scraped, also against Midjourney. That lawsuit is going through the courts right now, I think the company has asked for it to be thrown out. It’s not being thrown out. Who knows when it will be settled, I feel like these things take many years, but God bless her, right? There’s also a lawsuit that Getty Images is doing for trillions of dollars, because of the mass theft of all of the work in basically all their archives, were scraped. It’s so transparent, that their bashed up versions of their watermark are appearing on generated work.
In the EU, which actually respects artists a lot more than the US, I think it just released the AI Act, which is not perfect. But at least it says that before stuff ChatGPT is released to the public it has to actually be reviewed by the governments, which is pretty huge. In addition to these legal things and in addition to a lot of hearings with legislators, there’s also the cultural pressure. And that what my open letter was aiming to do. It was aiming to provide a space for people that were like: This is not okay; this has to be opposed. If you’re a publication that is using AI-generated work, you are doing something deeply unethical and immoral. You’re kicking artists in the face, in fact, and you’re going to be called out on it. This has not actually been useless. For instance, Nature Magazine, just announced a complete ban on any AI-generated images or video. They say they lack integrity, and that everything has to be human generated.
I hope that many more places follow suit. I think that it’s incredibly counterproductive for publications to be using AI-generated work, which, at the end of the day, makes their work no different from that of their competitors, and eliminates any sort of uniqueness they might have had. So there’s that cultural aspect. And ultimately, there just needs to be regulation, like we need to be calling on elected officials — corrupt and venal, though most of them are — we do need to be calling on them to regulate these companies. Because the thing is that artists are a tiny little minority, but this is coming for basically every white-collar worker, and the societal disruptions, and the human suffering that’s going to be caused by so many people losing their work, is going to be hideous, it’s going to be monstrous. And it’s not something that any society can afford.
PM: Absolutely. As you were discussing that and the publications using it and things like that, it brought to mind how one of the Substacks that I mentioned earlier, that really popular tech Substack, one of their articles have been taken and reworded by how there are these websites that exist that often take articles off of major publications and do the same sort of thing. And this had happened to his Substack blog, and an AI, I guess, had been used to rephrase something that he had written, one of these posts that he had written and he was furious. And I was like: You’re using AI Art!? [laughs]
MC: He was like: But words are smart and art is stupid!
PM: Right? It’s like: When it affects me is bad, but when I do it to other people, it’s completely okay.
MC: Exactly. One hundred percent. Oh my God.
PM: It was just shocking for me to see that, and it came back to mind as you’re describing these things. I wonder, you talked about regulation there, you talked about the lawsuits that are ongoing. Obviously, we want to see these things succeed, in order to halt what is going on with these image generators to make it difficult for them to use all these scraped images. To just take images from people, and put them into their tools. I’m wondering how you see the use of copyright in order to fight these things. Because I feel like a lot of people who have been involved in tech activism for a number of years, were skeptical or critical of the copyright system and how it exists.
Because of the long copyright terms, because of how it could be used against people who are sharing music and things like that. It does still exist today, a strong movement, not so much around getting rid of copyright, but reforming copyright. And I feel like now we’re in this moment, as we see these image generators take off, to kind of think about what the impact and the role of copyright actually is. Because I feel like after a long time of being skeptical of copyright, it does feel like that is a really important tool in trying to stop something like these image generators, even if all the terms of it aren’t necessarily something that you might love.
MC: No, I absolutely agree with you. And one of my real frustrations with the open letter was I’ve had talks with some people I think are brilliant, these are my comrades, but they’re people who are Copyleft people, right? They’re people who have given a huge amount of time and thought to fighting against Disney, fighting against the record labels. But when it comes to this moment, they have nothing useful to say for me as an artist, nothing, zilch, zero. Basically, they just don’t have anything to say, because the one actual tool that we can use to fight these generators is something that they are ideologically opposed to, and they spent their whole life struggling against. And copyright, especially the way it is in America, obviously, it’s very flawed. But as an artist it’s all we have. I don’t get like a pension. I don’t have any safety net.
The only way that I get any money, when for instance my repetitive stress injuries in my hand is bad and I can’t work is that people pay me for stuff I’ve already done. And the only reason they do that is because I have copyright. To me the idea of taking away, literally, the one protection that very precarious people have — because I don’t know you want to like remix something with Mickey Mouse — I don’t get it man, I don’t get it. If not cruel, it’s kind of pie in the sky ideological and just doesn’t speak to the realities of what people like me are facing at all, in any way. Personally, I oppose the idea that copyright should extend 70 years after your death. That’s ridiculous. If I was running things, I don’t think you should be able to sell your copyright, frankly.
I think it’s inane that corporations should own copyright to anything. Jack Kirby should have that copyright — not Marvel, not DC. But I do think that people should have the right to control how their creations are used, the same way, I think, I should have the right to control how my data is used, how my nude photos are used, how everything of me is used. I don’t see why it’s wrong that I should want to control things that I gave my life to, and my soul to, and all my work to. I don’t see why I have to provide it as fodder for billion dollar corporations whose goal is to colonize a planet with AI that plays video games.
PM: I completely agree with you. I have been skeptical of copyright in the past, I still think that as it exists righ now, it’s a blunt tool. The terms are too long, and things like that. But I completely accept and agree that in this moment, it’s one of the best tools that we have in order to fight this. And I don’t see any problem in embracing it to do that. One of the things that really stood out to me, you were talking about kind of CopyLeft movement and people who’ve been critical of that, not necessarily being helpful allies in this moment when it comes to artists. Joanne McNeil, who is a critic, who I greatly respect, brought to my attention that there was a blog or an article published by Creative Commons, I believe is their name, back in February, that was arguing that the use of the scraping of the Internet to take all these images and all this text and all these resources to train these generative AI things should be considered fair use.
MC: Ha! I wish I never gave some of my work on Creative Commons. I wish I could take it back. God, I despise them.
PM: It just angered me so much to see that because it’s clearly not okay. And as we were talking about before, it’s clearly an example of all of this work that has been done by many different people. To fill out the world wide web, the internet, whatever we want to call it. Now, being absorbed and consumed by these very small number of incredibly large corporations that have the amount of power and resources to be able to do that for their personal benefit. The idea that we should fight to help them do that is just ridiculous.
MC: It’s insane, but this is what happens when you become so ideological that you refuse to look at how the world is changing. I had a very, very smart friend who once told me that she felt like the intellectual problem these people are having is they think that the good guys still have the internet. But the good guys lost it.
PM: Absolutely. Long ago, unfortunately. You talked earlier about the Writers Guild and the strike. And what we see is that some unions are fighting to protect their members, in this moment. The Writers Guild, the Screen Actors, of course. Thinking about how AI might be used in those professions. Does the lack of the union for illustrators make that a bit more difficult to collectively organize in order to try to combat things like these AI image generators?
MC: Oh, hugely, Obviously. The fact that we don’t have any power, whatsoever, collectively. There’s no closed shops, and illustration, there’s no jobs I mean, and they kind of couldn’t be, the way that the freelance illustration industry works. It’s just not that way. I can imagine something where concept artists, or animators, people who are all working in Hollywood, or working for one company, or whatever. That I can see collectively organizing, but my God, my part of the industry, it’s like a bunch of cats running this way, and that. It’s really been very sad how little collective force we have. We have some kind of professional advocacy groups, which I don’t think have been particularly helpful personally. But we have nothing that’s the Writers Guild. And God, I wish we did because the reason that we, in particular, are so targeted by these companies is that we don’t have collective union representation. And we also don’t have a bunch of mean lawyers, like the record industry does.
PM: That’s such a good point. It’s so unfortunate that that is the case. I wonder, as we start to wind down this conversation, this has been so fascinating and so important to have. These image generators are out in the world. I think people do need a critical understanding of the potential impact that they could have and they’re getting that in far too few places. You intervening in this conversation with your piece in the LA Times, and the open letter that you co-wrote, and some of the interviews that you’ve been doing is so important. We need more perspectives like yours to actually illustrate to people what this might mean. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about in this conversation that you think is important for people to understand?
MC: I think I just want to reiterate how important it is to fight back against this idea of inevitability. Because the reason that the tech industry speaks in terms of inevitability, it’s just a strategy to keep people from resisting in the first place. The more that we insist on our human agency, and our ability to organize ,and our ability to fight. Even the most well funded foes, the more that we can take back some control, because what we actually need is we need something that Kate Crawford termed the politics of refusal. We need to refuse the colonization of our lives and our creations by these companies. And to start doing that, we need to reject the idea that anything that they do is inevitable.
PM: Molly, I think that that is such a perfect place to leave this conversation. This inspiring, empowering conversation, educational conversation. So hopefully, people will have a very different perspective on the potential impact of these tools, and what they might mean for artists and illustrators like you. That are also the larger public as we diminish what it means for art to be this very human thing, instead of passing it over to machines and computers and algorithms. So I thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and continuing to do your advocacy on this work.
MC: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.