Taylor Swift in a Renaissance landscape

Floating in latent space with Taylor Swift

What do the new AI models mean for society?

How this story started

A friend sent me this image. I thought — well, I wonder if I could do better?

"Yeah, the artists are borked"
Taylor Swift by Craiyon

How it looks

I’ve been playing with these generative AI’s (large language models, or LLM’s) for a while. I thought – well, I wonder if one of latest, ‘Stable Diffusion’ could do any better? I refine the prompt: “Taylor swift, renaissance painting, extremely detailed, accurate proportions, realistic face, beautiful eyes, smiling, detailed lips, accurate lips, accurate chin”

Renaissance Taylor Swift (but more of a cartoon face really). Still – can’t beat the price!

Well yeah, I guess it could. Could we get a bit more specific, like playing a mandolin? Kinda.

Renaissance Taylor Swift playing something that’s not quite a mandolin or a guitar

Taylor Swift in a traffic cone hat?

How about riding a tiger, wearing a traffic cone? Tried several of these but it didn’t do well. This was my favourite weird combo. A tiger print traffic cone?

Tiger Swift not riding a tiger. Taylor. No, a traffic cone hat!

After refining the prompt a bit I finally got these.

How it feels

It’s a surreal experience. Yes, the results are mundane. I could have created something similar using Photoshop. But the experience is totally different. There’s a feeling of jamming, going back and forth with something that almost feels intelligent. But more than this I get a feeling of weightlessness, of floating in the unknown. It’s diving into black water. It’s rolling the dice in the dark.

Renaissance Taylor Swift

The future is here

Playing with these models, I’m reminded of William Gibson’s:

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”.

I feel like I’m floating, weightless, while the rest of the world remains firmly attached to gravity. It’s a feeling of limitless, strange power and potential. The closest analogy I have is when I first saw the internet working, as a student at Sussex University nearly 30 years ago. I had my mind completely blown when I saw that I could find almost anything, for free. Text and images would download from a server – anywhere in the world, anyone could put up a web page and I could see it, here in this small computer lab in South England. The first thing I started looking for were aliens of course, being a Fortean Times haunted teenager. In the Mosaic browser on a huge Unix machine, an image of a ‘grey alien’ scanned slowly into view, line by line of data emerging from who knew where to form a picture.

Taylor Swift cyberpunk cliche

This changes everything

My first thought was: The internet changes everything. This changes all new media, everything about the future, about how we’ll communicate and share. The horrible old big-money controlled media will disappear, and this will take over everything. I was right about everything changing, but totally wrong about the political implications. Peer to peer media turned out to be a hellzone when mediated by private companies looking to turn a profit. The Daily Mail is now the biggest news site in the world. But the change coming was real.

Getting the road vibes, but totally missing the traffic cone hat

Where are we headed?

I might be completely mis-led, but this is how I feel about the new LLM’s. I don’t know how, but they will change everything. Images now, but soon: Music, animation, video, 3D, VR.

We’re creating models of intelligent processes that will enhance, empower, transform, and perhaps replace vast swathes of human cognition and work. I have no idea how this will pan out. I hope that it will empower and enrich humanity, and enable us to solve our collective crises. My fear is that it will mostly fund a few super yachts for rich white men, while impoverishing the rest of us. The political and collective choices we make over the next decade will decide.

Try this at home

If you want to have a play yourself, check out these links:

Craiyon – for fun and scrappy creative results

Dreamstudio – ‘Stable Diffusion’s key site and the source of all the images in this article

Midjourney – remarkable (if pricey) image generation through a Discord bot. You’ll need a Discord account to try it.

AI generative tools – an amazing resource if you want to go deeper.

What would Renaissance Taylor Swift do?
Connections between images in the Flickr dataset - George Oates

Reflections on Dconstruct 2022

Wow, what a day. A really diverse selection of talks that went all over the map. From building vast world-changing health systems, to scaling and archiving global online communities, to the beauty and joy of calligraphy. And lasers. I enjoyed the lot, which is rare for me at an event like this.

Matt Webb

1950’s radar operators

It’s hard to choose a favourite amongst so many diverse and interesting talks, but Matt Webb’s stood out for me. A rambling tour through the history of information systems, computing, tools for thinking, the military industrial backdrop to it all, and the designers of the systems. All leading right up to date with a demo of a new tool for online collaboration that was right up my street, given my recent experiences working on multiplayer music creation app Endlesss, and conferencing platform Hopin. Matt made a great point – we’ve jumped to solutions with collaborative tools (Zoom, Figma) rather than thinking about the structure of the system itself. How and *where* do the tools sit? How can we capitalise on the key strengths of human cognition (e.g. spatial awareness) in our designs for online spaces? Very cool and thought provoking.

So much for tools for thought – What about TOOLS FOR TOGETHERNESS?

  • Tldraw.com – multiplayer sketching. The web is going multiplayer…. Thanks Figma.
  • Multiplayer is not sufficient. How might we have made computers if the PERSONAL computer didn’t dominate?
  • Reed Hoffman: If you’re not embarrassed by your first version, you’re sharing too late.
  • Been working on: Sparkle. Sparkle spaces – like Zoom, plus a whiteboard.

Lauren Beukes

Science fiction author Lauren Beukes was also fantastic, giving us a tour of her work, working processes, and ideas. Social justice, violence against women, time travelling serial killers and dumb jokes about the pains and limitations of working through the pandemic all featured. There was something very touchingly human about it all – it had a lovely story arc to it, though I couldn’t tell you what the story was.

  • Her redlines photo was used as a ‘qanon’ meme!
  • Wrote The Shining Girls – serial killer, time travelling/ Now on NetflixThe Bridge – new novel. Alternate reality
  • Wrote a book about a pandemic in 2019! Afterland. No-one wanted to read it in 2020.
  • The connections helped us survive in 2020.
  • Ubuntu – a person is a person because of their connections with other people.

The two Sebs: Seb Lester & Seb Lee Delisle

The ‘artist’ talks were a little less thrilling from a story point of view – they tend (to me) to sound a bit like ‘ya ya me, my great work, my great career isn’t it great all the things I’ve done’. I mean – yeah, I get it, you’re great and your work is fantastic. But could you say something a little more interesting about it? That aside, the work was gorgeous – I especially enjoyed Lester’s – just beautiful craft work. Made me want to get back into drawing. Lee Delisle’s talk was more ramshackle but he gets a free pass because lasers (and vaporwave music).

Seb Lester

Seb Lee Delisle

  • Lasers!
  • Lunar Lander game controlled with clapping!

I can only briefly add a few notes and photos on the rest of the excellent talks – apologies to the speakers for not doing them justice!

George Oates

  • Flickr – narrowly escaped destruction
  • 100 year plan for a tech company
  • Digital commons of MILLIONS of people

Possible futures

  1. Destruction
  2. Growth
  3. Do we even need to take photos anymore? (DALL-E etc)
  4. Read only. Stops accepting new uploads. Cultural heritage institute.
  5. Diffusion – decentralised data all over the world
  6. Degradation – fading
  • Could we create a ‘data lifeboat’ for Flickr? How could we capture the essence of the network and context?

Daniel Burka


Winnie Limb – on leading a purposeless life

  • Rapid prototyping in Bangalore. Design sprint. Created simple.org.
  • Median time for data entry – 13 seconds. Added QR system. Truckloads of QR’s being distributed all over India
  • A new frontier of design. REAL politics of government. Long term problems.
  • Building bridges! Like the early days of the web.
  • Embracing the role of support

Sarah Anglos

1950 – Atom man. Feeding nuclear food to a cow

  • Isotopia- Waldorf in London. 250 women from Ladies Atomic Society
  • Muriel Howorth.
    Crowd-sourced Atomic Gardening project. To lead women out of the kitchen into the Atomic Age
  • Taylorist approach to kitchen labour. Suffrage hadn’t done the trick. Electricity was a way to get out of the kitchen and into parliament. Labour saving!

Anil Seth

  • The Hard Problem – consciousness
    Book – Being You
  • Professor of cognitive neuroscience at Sussex

Final thoughts

Altogether a great day out. I write this as I return to London on the train and feel inspired to get back into writing, into working, and into building cool things. Above all it was nice to see the diversity of approaches and reasons for doing ‘design’ / art / whatever. Some of us are solving the hard problems, some of us are thinking philosophically or creating new tools, and some of us are just having fun – and all approaches are valid and useful.

You can hear the audio of previous dconstruct events now at: https://archive.dconstruct.org – the organisers have promised they’ll be sharing all the talks from 2022 too!