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GRIEF, AS A SUBJECT, always struck me as self-indulgent, of more use to writer than reader. The loss and horror of death are inevitable, and intimate. Why would I want to read or write about grief, any more than I’d want to read or write about going to the bathroom? This was my line of thinking when, on September 21, my mother-in-law Diane died suddenly, in her home, just seven miles down the freeway from me. I’d prepared myself to write sparingly about the grief of my first direct hit. What I hadn’t prepared for, or even considered, was the possibility that I might lose the capacity to write about grief. Or anything else. That part of my brain has proven stubborn to reboot. It’s taken me a month to compose this paragraph. I wish that was a joke.
This is an AI-adjacent newsletter, so I hope it won’t seem cheap to note some spooky parallels with my normal subject matter. Grief-induced meaninglessness—I keep searching for a more concise word—feels similar to the meaninglessness caused by existential threats. Artificial Intelligence is the latest addition to the pantheon of megabortions, along with climate change, and nukes.1 But there have been others within my lifetime. In my childhood, CFCs threatened to cook the surface of the planet. The Cassini launch in 1997, and its Earth flyby two years later, imperiled potentially billions of people with plutonium poisoning. NASA’s rationales echoed those given by scientists working on the Manhattan Project, which risked, ever so slightly, igniting Earth’s atmosphere, or the rationales behind the Large Hadron collider, which risked, ever so slightly, destroying our solar system.
What’s the point of planning for a future in such a world? If really smart people are comfortable risking annihilation, then why should I give the day-to-day mechanics of my life much thought? These thoughts—fleeting but strong—feel related to grief, similar to that thing that happens when you go out in public after a searing death only to discover that the world has just kept on going. Nothing, it turns out, really matters.
ANOTHER TYPE OF MEANINGLESS is afoot, one even closer to grief, and a direct byproduct of artificial intelligence. Around this time last year, writers and artists woke to the new reality that Chat GPT, Midjourney, and other AI applications could replicate human text and artwork. Abruptly, absurdly, creativity was no longer the sole realm of humans. For me, the meaningless crept in not over the implications for art and writing, but from what the developments in AI meant for photography. Although I’ve written about these coming developments for years, it took actually seeing the wonder of false photography—the first full steps into soft content—for me to understand precisely what it meant for my own life.
Ever since childhood, I’d assumed I’d someday learn how to take compelling photos. Now I see it’s too late. Once everyone can forge their own shots by Annie Leibovitz or Diane Arbus, the value of human photography will plummet. Soon, with augmented reality, shooting a masterful photo will require no more effort than it takes to point and grunt. There’s no longer any reason for me to learn anything about this skill, because it won’t be a skill for very much longer. I waited too long.
In the photo we chose for Diane’s service, she stands inside Urban Light, Chris Burden’s huge public art assemblage outside LACMA. In the picture, Diane beams on the edge of a forest of lampposts. Someone, a stranger, lurks just behind one of the closest lights. I briefly considered painstakingly editing this figure out of the picture. But my skills, honed in version 5.5 of Photoshop, only somewhat translate into my current version, Photoshop 21. And yet even this software iteration, so shiny and new and borderline incomprehensible to me, is antique. The latest Photoshop comes with generative fill, meaning the ability to change anything inside any photo with any verbal command, as if texting a genie.
Diane’s death is the last (I hope, dearly) before generative AI is part of my Photoshop arsenal. It’s the last death in my life before the bane of grief-targeted AI is fully upon us, before the digital ghosts of loved ones can haunt us in a million different ways, from spam marketing to stochastic mayhem. This will be the last time I won’t have the option of animating old photos, or the option of forcing the recently departed to ‘talk’ with me, in their own voice, as already happens now in countless janky smartphone apps. This is the last time I’ll experience grief the way all people have experienced grief; missing someone I’ll never see again, not yet tempted by the many coming apps and devices that can will someone back into existence, but only on the wrong side of the screen.
Before February 2022, meaning before Russia invaded Ukraine, nuclear war was considered something from the last century. Otherwise serious public intellectuals seemed suspiciously eager to cast this particular threat down the memory hole. Bill McKibben begins his wonderful Substack by calling climate change “the deepest problem that humans have ever encountered.” Greta Thunberg has told crowds that climate change is “the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” I remember acutely the terror of Reagan times, that trance states I’d go into, as a kid, pondering the near-term mortality of everyone and everything. Minimizing or denying this reality is, among other things, a weirdly unforced error. Even when, especially when, otherwise admirable people use this line.