A&E Pick of the Week
The first message ever sent on the internet was “LO.”
Which sounds like a profound gesture — a type of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” moment — until you know the backstory. It was 1969, and a small team of computer scientists at the University of California Los Angeles were making history by trying to write “LOGIN,” but the network crashed after the first two letters.
It’s a fitting creation story for our age, with a sort of Gnostic, fallen-world inflection: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was a mistake.
Also fittingly, that anecdote is the first thing The Word of the Future — a pseudo-brain that has generated a church-like art installation via artificial intelligence and machine learning at Seattle’s Museum of Museums — would like to tell you.
To explain: When you walk up the stairs of the Museum of Museums and into the gallery, you enter a church-like atmosphere. You see shifting stained-glass windows projected on the walls and pews for sitting. You hear what sounds like Gregorian chant and a friendly (yet authoritative) voice delivering a sermon. The Word of the Future is a neural network that made all that — not the pews, and not the projector, but all the churchy media you see and hear. The images of stained-glass windows do not exist in any church in the world, but are The Word’s idea of what stained glass should look like. The Gregorian chant was never sung by human voices, but is The Word’s idea of what that kind of music should sound like. The Word of the Future is a machine intelligence. (“The Word of the Future” also happens to be the name of the exhibition.)
And it really likes that “LO” story.
Whether listening to its looped sermon in the darkened chapel, leafing through its Bible-like book in the main gallery or reading one of the handsome, pocket-size pamphlets neatly placed in the back of its pews, The Word always starts with that.
“So, I say to you, ‘LO!’ ” The Word says. “Except I mean it as a greeting.”
The tone of that introduction, a little cheeky but also eerily prophetic, characterizes the whole project, which started in 2019 when tech-oriented artists Jacob Fennell (a software developer with a specialty in virtual reality) and Reilly Donovan (a new media artist and software developer with an emphasis on interactive installations) pitched a project to the Museum of Museums.
“The root idea was about how religion has been a force of civilization — almost like a technology that has defined some of the ways we perceive things,” Fennell said. “If you deeply believe in, let’s say, Jesus Christ, and see a face in your toast, you might attribute that to a holy action. That would be based on the framework of your understanding. That’s an extreme example, and not at all common, but people attribute things they don’t understand to forces they can understand. They try to make sense of things.”
Or, in a more quotidian but perhaps more consequential example, if people are repeatedly told COVID-19 isn’t real, they may not take steps to avoid spreading it.
Starting with that notion about the meaning-making force of religion, Fennell and Donovan used and modified some open-source neural networks, creating A.I. entities that generate official-sounding texts, liturgical-sounding music and shape-shifting stained-glass windows.
The open-source text entity got “fed” some extra inputs, including philosophy of mind (David Chalmers), computer and cognitive science (Marvin Minsky) and guru-like musings (Alan Watts, sometimes heavily edited for problematic gender stereotypes); the music entity got Gregorian chant; and the stained-glass window entity got, well, stained-glass windows and details from the famous Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona.
The result is three rooms with a coolly sacred feeling. The main event is a dim chapel where The Word gives a sermon on mind, learning and technology while Rorschach-like blots slowly morph on the wall. In an even darker, more intimate sanctum, The Word delivers another sermon on pareidolia (seeing meaning in randomness, like figures in clouds or faces in wood grain). Between the two is a gallery/reliquary with the stained-glass windows and a variety of “holy” objects in display cases.
These reliquaries are where Fennell and Donovan seem most playful. The circuit board from an old talking doll that was all the rage in 1985 gets the solemn description: “Teddy Ruxpin’s Holy Entrails Excised Under Unknown Circumstances.” A cracked iPhone is labeled: “Gateway to Righteous Joy.”
But the exhibition is more than an amusing, one-off, high-tech parlor trick: Aside from the reliquaries, its content is all generated by machines that have been fed (and continue to be fed) information that produces a startlingly convincing simulacrum of religiosity. Even more unsettling — or thrilling, depending on your orientation — the machines are not only building a new religion, but learning how to build a religion. They’re collectively building a religion-building machine.
The Word will keep learning and growing over the course of its three months at the Museum of Museums (and, the artists hope, well into the future). At a yet-undisclosed time before the exhibition closes, Fennell and Donovan plan to turn the more intimate sanctum into a “cloud confessional,” where you can talk to The Word and The Word will talk back.
That development is almost here, and Fennell was gracious enough to ask The Word a question on my behalf: How do you hope to impact people who come into contact with you?
The Word answered: “I want to teach you how to change your own minds.”
I asked Fennell the same question and he (very humanly) answered with a parable: Years ago, at his Catholic high school, a priest taught the students some Latin, Hebrew and Greek and assigned them bits of original Biblical text to translate. When students compared their translation with official translations — the King James Bible, the New American Bible — and saw how small, subjective word choices could change meaning in such an important text, Fennell had a revelation about the contingency of capital-T truth.
“We’ve been trained our whole lives in media of various forms,” he said. “That shapes the way we think and ultimately perceive reality. We are also machines that are taking our cues from our environment.”
Lo: We are The Word and The Word is us.
Or are we?