Artificial Intelligence of Vanity

George Eliot represented the confusion bred of ignorance, error and vanity. In Adam Bede, we are led down a Byronic path of roses mid-poisonous weeds to the miserable end of little Hetty Sorrel. She’s beautiful and in love with a rich nobleman, and wants to climb the shining steps to social prosperity and wealth. As one of a large litter of farming children, considering the time and place in which the story is set (late eighteenth-century England), her marrying into wealth and title is pure fantasy.

Physically, Hetty is a diamond amid the rough of rural farming life. The little idiot gazes at herself and admires her earlobes in the mirror at night by the light of a burning candle. A vain fantasy lies at the core of her existence. For this Eliot comes down on her like an ocean wave. She makes Hetty suffer for her beauty, her love of trinkets and clothes, her lack of inner depth and foresight, her vanity.

If only Hetty had the resources necessary to improve her life for real, such that could nurture intelligence, a conscience and care for others rather than vain fantasies and empty seductions! The girl is an Emma Bovary type. On her deathbed she shouts out to god—her conscience—but it is deaf, buried deep beneath the debris of neglect. Here, Boccaccio’s anecdote is germane: you can pile make-up, jewellery, perfumes and fine clothes onto a donkey, but it is still always going to be an ass. The vain futility of materialism: no amount of stuff can combat the void within Emma Bovary; the fevered pace of her spending increases in proportion to depth of her fall.

Hetty, Emma, even Narcissus needed mirrors to satisfy their vanity. But no mirror compares to thousands of sets of reactive human eyes. The development of a digital product which offers an unprecedented quantitative surge in potentially envious eyes is obviously not the only critical feature distinguishing such figures from the contemporary world, though. A technological mutation of the predatory in the means of vanity is unfolding. There is a symbiotic relationship between vanity and artificial intelligence which continues to fuse the physical self to its digital double, this intangible prosthesis for the ego. This artificial intelligence in the service of vanity is also a tool of the market, which continues to breed subjects under the influence of the unassuageable fever for conspicuous consumption.

The ‘look at me’ of photo-sharing platforms isn’t just vanity’s single-minded end. Self-exhibition is also an exponentially expanding market called ‘influence’, which makes the greedy capitalist salivate. An influencer’s value is measured in attention and data: a popular profile has great authority over the demand for consumer products. In 2021, influencers posted 3.8 million hashtagged advertisements on Instagram. Followers submit to the dictates of Instagram fashion feeds, and their quantity dictates authority: from church to totalitarian to television, the social media influencer is a new bead in the chain of dispensers of authority, with the obvious distinction that they guide followers principally in matters of taste, lifestyle, fashion. Content creation on Instagram is predominantly beauty- and fashion-related, far more than entertainment or any other category.

There is a clear link between the imperative of beauty, the sterile conformity to its norms and ideals—which is indispensable to the industry—and artificial intelligence. AI and augmenting reality (AR) tools and software offer consumers unprecedented opportunities for beauty modification techniques. Editing software tools help users construct an ideal virtual self which can take centre stage in place of the physical, flawed self of everyday reality. A 3D mesh—facial recognition technology adapted to the ends of vanity—is applied to smooth and tone an uneven complexion, plump and colour the lips, straighten the nose and enlarge the eyes. Even a virtual double needs to wear a mask.

Over a century ago, prosthetic limbs were designed for amputees from the First World War according to utilitarian and functional purposes. The virtual self that inhabits the mirror-screen is an intangible prosthesis, not for the physical body but for the ego, and it is structured in accordance with the imperatives of wasteful expenditure and hyper-consumerism. One wonders if, when a user is pressed to maintain their existence without the ego-appendage, the lack aches like an amputation.

Admittedly, as is often repeated, social media apps incite or exacerbate a long list of social ills. But we should not forget how positive a force they can be in helping break down traditional obstacles—obstacles, for instance, to becoming famous and living your dreams. Now that the world has Meta, anyone can live their best life. The influencer climbs the glossy steps to the peaks of wealth and popularity while shouting to the world ‘Follow your dreams!’

The reality is that behind the influencer there is a power ready to erase and crush the dreams of ordinary people, suppress of the struggles of the working class, shove the climate crisis into the background, drive disinformation and circulate pro-war propaganda, all in accordance with the profiteering practices of Meta’s major shareholders, who also cynically manage the business concerns of the warlords at Lockheed Martin and the merchants of dreams at Disney. But now we are more absorbed than ever in a reality where what matters most is appearances and the truth can go and fuck itself.

Baudrillard recognised that the prosthesis of the virtual self is, like dreams and Disney, not real. But the profits made last year from this intangible—almost $114 billion—are real. The capital from this mass indoctrination into the cult of the self continues to climb ever higher peaks; as living standards get lower and lower, the poor can admire wealthy influencers from a worm’s-eye view.

The human supermodel Bella Hadid, for Calvin Klein’s campaign called ‘Speak my Truth’, put it thus: ‘Life is about opening doors, creating new dreams you never knew could exist’. The virtual influencer Lil Miquela embodies the expanding possibilities of AI and virtual reality in the service of beauty ideals, vanity and material consumption. Several top-tier fashion companies have started partnerships with her. She guides millions in the art of sterile luxury. She’s a shining emblem of capitalist cunning, the thing they have wet dreams about: the girl is forever young, never tires of work and produces capital without needing a wage. Neither is she subject to the human limitation of refusing to promote a brand because it’s inimical to her ethics. In 2019, she released a new single. Guess what it was called? ‘Money’!

Lil Miquela is a software robot, but that doesn’t stop her followers from asking ‘What’s your skin care regime?’. Thanks to AI, even models will be out of a job. Miquela poses with her ‘friends’, ‘sharing the love’; she’s a sexy, talented, fit, energetic, self-satisfied and desired robot in expensive luxury-brand clothing. The smiles are done mechanically.

Initially, Miquela was programmed as a sex robot for the Illuminati before being rescued by a tech company which became her adoptive robot family. Her ‘coming out’ as a robot was a huge public revelation. Recently, she made out with Hadid in the Calvin Klein commercial about ‘new dreams you never knew could exist’. There are three components to this ridiculous story which make Miquela a figure of serious influential capital—a background of trauma, social marginality and an identity crisis, all of which drive her to both chase her preprogrammed dreams and encourage her followers do the same. Here’s one of her sponsored post for Samsung:

As a robot, I’ve found that humans really like to tell me what I can’t do. #TeamGalaxy and my @samsungmobile bb Samuel Phonington III remind me that anything is possible. #DoWhatYouCant today 🤖💕📞 #ad

Lil Miquela the lip-inflated, midriff-exposed, gap-toothed, identity-politics-spewing artificial vanity robot is emblematic of the contradictions that lie like a festering sore on the conscience of our ‘developed’ world. The technicians behind her speak the jargon of conformist left-wing politics congratulating itself on its embrace of the voice of Otherness while the voices of Vietnamese women at Samsung’s sweatshop are silenced with threats of losing their jobs. ‘Anything is possible’ for a CGI-generated profile earning $8,000 for each sponsored post, but the living women in Samsung’s factory are denied the basic human right to breathe clean air. Followers are as accustomed to virtual reality in the mirror-screen as the amputee is to their prosthetic, as the threatened workers are to silence.

The upheavals of the Industrial Revolution formed the socio-historic setting of Adam Bede; the lives of Eliot’s characters unfolded in the context of changing values under the erosion of simpler, more grounded ways of life. The ongoing digital revolution forms the contemporary landscape, and as value is increasingly measured through assetiseable intangibles—the eyes of anonymous followers—one might wonder, what punishment would Eliot imagine for a Hetty Sorrel of today? Perhaps Eliot would not need to rely on imagination very much. We continue to fall deeper into our own algorithmically personalised hells; as the insatiable pull of the mirror-screen distracts followers from the reality of our world’s predicament, the unconcerned stuff themselves with useless objects and influencers create for themselves a cult of imbecility and bad taste, the horror of the increasingly real outcome of a climate or nuclear holocaust—whichever comes first—recedes to the background. Meta is working to establish a synthetic landscape where digital relations between subjects will form the primary setting of existence. Metaverse seeks to impose—with the voluntary submission of the masses—an ersatz life, labelled the ‘future’, packaged as ‘dreams you never knew could exist’, and retailed as common good. I think this sounds like an appropriate punishment.

Loving Machines: Mental Health by Algorithm Is Reshaping Care and Sociality

Mark Furlong, Mar 2022

Woebot may sit at the outer rim of digital mental health technologies, but we can see the shape and trajectory it implies for understanding mental health, the care relation and, beyond that, the person generally. Where the CBT-AI combination sets up a relentlessly positive artificial other—an interlocutor that is never awkward or demanding, and becomes naturalised as ‘what I like’—real-world relationships are bound to be found unsatisfactory.

About the author

Catherine Lo Bianco

Catherine Lo Bianco is an independent writer.

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