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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Creativity Squared Episode Cover Art Featuring Gerfried Stocker
Gerfried Stocker is a media artist and an engineer for communication technology and has been artistic director and co-CEO of Ars Electronica since 1995. He is also a consultant in the field of creativity and innovation management and is active as a guest lecturer at international conferences and universities.

Ep11. Gerfried Stocker: Truth, A.I. & Reality

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Creativity Squared Episode Cover Art Featuring Gerfried Stocker

Ep11. Truth, A.I. & Reality: Investigate Truth & Ambiguity through Art with Gerfried Stocker, Artistic Director of Ars Electronica

In an era where technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives, the role of art becomes increasingly crucial in understanding and shaping the complex relationship between technology and society. At the forefront of this exploration stands Ars Electronica, an organization that transcends traditional boundaries to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and examine the profound impact of technology on our lives.

In our most recent episode of Creativity Squared, Gerfried Stocker discusses the impact of A.I. on our understanding of truth and objective reality. As the Artistic Director of world-renowned Ars Electronica in Austria for almost 30 years, Stocker also puts our A.I.-anxieties in some historical context and explains how he sees art as a medium for navigating shifts in power and authority. 

Founded in 1979, Ars Electronica has been Europe’s largest festival for art, technology, and society. It’s more than a festival — the platform also includes the Ars Electronica Center, the Museum of the Future, the Prix Ars Electronica awards in digital art, the Futurelab incubator, and much more to explore the questions about our future. Ars Electronica never asks what technology can or will be able to do, but always what it should do for us, which I greatly appreciate their human-centered approach.

After stepping into his leadership role and as the guiding force behind Ars Electronica, Gerfried has led a talented team to revolutionize the Center and Futurelab. His influence spans from directing international exhibition programming, leading significant expansion and content revitalization of the Center, amplifying the Festival’s reach, to a thorough redesign of the Center’s interior and content. Gerfried is a consultant for numerous companies and institutions in the field of creativity and innovation management and is active as a guest lecturer at international conferences and universities.

The 2023 Ars Electronica Festival will take place September 6-10 in Linz, Austria. The week-long annual festival showcases hundreds of exhibits from artists pushing the boundaries of what technology can do for us. 

The theme of this year’s festival is “Who Owns the Truth?” Artists were challenged to grapple with questions such as “Can truth be owned? Is there a right to truth and if it does belong to someone, what control and responsibility are associated with it?”

Gerfried’s experience and role at Ars Electronica gives him an unparalleled perspective at the intersection of cutting-edge art and science. Discover the unique perspectives and challenges that arise when art, technology, and society converge. To kick-off our discussion, Gerfried expands on the thinking that went into choosing this year’s theme. 

“The End of Truth?”

Gerfried says that the inspiration for the festival theme was in large part a reaction to ChatGPT bursting onto the scene. He described Large Language Models (the subset of A.I. tech that runs ChatGPT) as the newest and most powerful iteration in a long line of digital innovations (the internet, Google, etc.) that better aggregates information. But those innovations have brought challenges as well. Much like how the music industry has had to cope with digital transformation, Gerfried believes that A.I. will force us to once again reckon with our relationship to information and entertainment. 

“The moment things get digital, they lose their status of being unique and original, because digital automatically means endless numbers of copies of the same thing. And now it’s happening on a next level with A.I. And it’s not only now the question of what is real in terms of physical existence, but the big question: what is true?”

Gerfried Stocker

We’ve already seen how humans can use deepfakes, voice cloning, and A.I.-generated images to deceive others. Fake pictures of the Pope in a Balenciaga-style puffer coat, impersonators on your feed talking to you with the voice and face of Tom Cruise, and so much more. Gerfried takes it a step further, considering a potential future where generative A.I. can fabricate anything out of whole cloth without human direction. 

“Fake always needs some real element that you can fake. So it always has to be related to some reality. But A.I. is now enabling an endless number of manufactured realities. So in the blink of an eye, you can create hundreds of thousands of different realities that you don’t even have to make it up. So without even that fantasy of people to make up new fictions and realities, it’s just the machines. And this is probably something that really will have a huge impact on so many areas.”

Gerfried Stocker

Ars Electronica Center in the evening

Already, he says, A.I.-generated art is making it more difficult to tell reality from fiction. At this point, a keen observer can still distinguish A.I.-generated art for what it is. Education is certainly helpful to understand context and how systems are structured to be able to read between the lines, but there are disparities in education. And even for the well-educated, what do you do if one day the whole network, your entire online experience, is entirely A.I.-generated? Where do you go for truth? 

“We need new authorities, new institutions, or maybe people, where we can resort to and when we say okay, now I really need to know whether this is true or not. Who can I ask? And this is, of course, super dangerous. It’s a vacuum there because there is nobody. We have demolished many of our instruments of democracy, we have demolished a lot of the understanding of public values, public goods.”

Gerfried Stocker

Gerfried says he sees some hope in the European Union’s attempts to get ahead of A.I. regulation with attempts to regulate face-scanning and some of the A.I.-technologies with a high potential for abuse. But he says there’s still a long way to go, even in understanding what needs to be regulated before tackling how to regulate it. 

Understanding A.I. by Are Electronica

Art Making Space for Ambiguity

Art has long served as a catalyst for exploration, challenging our perceptions and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Gerfried highlights the distinction between art and manipulative fiction, emphasizing that while fiction aims to provide answers, art seeks to inspire thought-provoking questions. By creating fictional worlds, artists encourage individuals to express their own inquiries and critically engage with the complex realities of our digital age.

Of course, the rapid adoption of A.I. is not happening in a vacuum. Conspiracy theories abound online to the point that one can easily find a version of the truth (or a lie that sounds enough like the truth) to confirm almost any bias that anyone might hold. 

Gerfried compares our current struggle to grasp the truth to the time of the Enlightenment, when evidence-based scientific discoveries challenged the Catholic Church’s ownership of the truth for much of the world at the time. Now, he says, science seems to be losing its ownership of the truth as well, in exchange for a more individualist understanding of truth in the minds of many. For Gerfried, this shift in understanding could have big consequences for the ways that humans have organized ourselves. 

Machine Learning at Ars Electronica

“There’s this understanding that there is a certain truth. And there is also somebody, some places, some institutions, that represent authority of interpretation of truth. This is a very important scaffolding of the social order of, what we need as humans, as humanity, as societies, to live together, to organize our daily lives, to organize our businesses, and all these kinds of things.”

Gerfried Stocker

Ars Electronica’s Cellini’s Salt Cellar at Deep Space 8K

It’s a difficult thing, Gerfried says, to fully reckon with the break-down of our deference to science, because perhaps that deference has been misplaced to begin with. 

“It is a misunderstanding, to see science as some authority that has the total absolute interpretation of truth. I think what we have to learn is there is no totality, there is no absolute truth; there is diversity, there is ambiguity. How to deal with this huge amount of ambiguity in our world is where, for me, the role of artists and art really come into the picture.”

Gerfried Stocker

Gerfried describes art as a forum for us to explore, struggle with, and maybe even resolve our anxieties around truth. Much like how music builds tension and resolves it through the use of dissonance and harmony, creating and interacting with art can help us resolve our more entrenched tensions. 

Voyage of Discovery at Ars Electronica

“The quality of art is not just in the beautiful result. It’s in the way we get to this moment of beauty. And the moment of beauty always goes through an experience of ambiguity. And I think this is a kind of practice that … allows us to gain experience with how to deal with ambiguity besides hitting each other.”

Gerfried Stocker

Ars Electronica and Art Festivals’ Role in Shaping the Future

Gerfried sees Ars Electronica as a venue for exploring that ambiguity, a place where we can maybe soothe our existential fears about new technology and instead ponder the possibilities of what it can do for us. 

“There are these examples in history, where people say, ‘if you can produce so many books every week, people will be completely confused. It will be the end of our culture.’ So I think we should be aware that we tend to always see the doom days, we should probably focus more on our possibilities and our responsibilities to prevent the doom days. And this is what I think is probably the most important thing for us as individuals as well as society.”

Gerfried Stocker

As we move forward, it is crucial to recognize the transformative potential of art, nurture diverse perspectives, and continuously question and shape the relationship between art, technology, and society.

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Thank you, Gerfried, for being our guest on Creativity Squared.

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

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