Behold the digital Wunderkammer!

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“A mysterious, malevolent-looking mermaid mummy that was brought back to the U.S. from Japan more than 100 years ago,” a recent article noted, “appears to be a mix of fish, monkey and lizard parts that have been joined together like Frankenstein’s monster, initial scans suggest.”

It would appear that, alas, mermaids are not in fact real.”The mummy was purchased in Japan by an American naval officer who donated it to the Clark County Historical Society in Springfield, Ohio, in 1906. Documents supplied to the society with the mummy suggest it dates back to the mid-1800s.”

Lest you come to conclusions of any kind, there is nothing particularly American about that naval officer’s behaviour. In fact, Europeans had been scouring the world for treasures for centuries to fill their Wunderkammers, ideally with objects that satisfied their often morbid curiosity. Would it be able to get, say, a real unicorn? If you want to learn more about this, Lawrence Weschler wrote a fascinating book about it.

But it’s not even the so-called Enlightenment that is to blame for any of this. After all, in the Middle Ages, so-called relics were highly sought after. For example, in Cologne’s cathedral, there is a shrine that, and I’m not making this up, is supposed to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi. In Turin, there’s the famous shroud.

Common sense would tell you that someone with a good sense for business fabricated these things, to sell them to some gullible believer (obviously, religion and common sense do not necessarily intermingle well). If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus’ foreskins (again, not making this up).

It’s easy to attribute these droll stories to the follies of those that came before us. However, the contemporary museum arose out of Wunderkammers — little wonder then that today, fierce debates have erupted over all the stolen goods they contain. There’s a book about that as well: Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museum.

Step back a little bit to see the larger picture of a culture that in part was created by stealing or looting items elsewhere, to assemble them to create some sort of meaning.

None of this would have been possible without the riches assembled by the select few who bankrolled all of this. None of this would have been able without the combination of claiming to advance the world, being oblivious to various ethical aspects, and good old-fashioned gullibility.

After all, you believe what you want to believe. And if someone delivers you something that you really want to see — well, that’s a real miracle, whether religious as in the case of the bones and foreskins, or otherwise, such as in the case of the supposed mermaid. By the way, PT Barnum is said to have acquired a mermaid as well — in this nexus of Western folly, hucksters and bullshit artists are never far away.

The above might ring a bell. Even as we’re now living in 2024, isn’t there something that contains all those aforementioned ingredients, albeit in slightly different — digital — form?

Yes, there is! It’s the generative AI that currently is causing such a big splash (usually in the worst possible fashion). I can’t help but think that generative AI is little more than a variant of the Wunderkammers of old, except that now, you don’t have to enter some rich person’s dedicated cabinet of curiosities. Now, you write (“prompt”) what you want to get, and a computer far away, run and operated by some rich people, will deliver the goods for you.

Much like the aforementioned mermaid, your text and/or pictures will be stitched together from parts that never belonged together in the first place. The results typically read and/or look convincing — especially if you want them to be. “Donald Trump supporters,” the BBC wrote, “have been creating and sharing AI-generated fake images of black voters to encourage African Americans to vote Republican.”

All of this is based on taking other people’s work — their words, their images — without their permission. The looting now is fully digital, but it is looting regardless. Just look at Matt Growcoot’s re-creating famous photographs using a variety of AI image generators. “The AI,” he writes, “does not know that it is recreating a famous photo so closely yet that’s what it’s doing.”

Well, the AI is just some computer algorithm that’s not sentient. But the sentient beings behind it know exactly what they’re doing — much like the crafty person who sewed together the mermaid that that sailor brought back to the US.

If there is consolation in any of this it maybe is this one: at least the West is now essentially plundering itself. Instead of going to far-away places to look for loot or to buy something special from a trader who might or might not have got his wares in an ethical fashion, AI generators generate their wares by plundering parts of the very culture they supposedly contribute to.

It’s a contemporary variant of Saturn devouring his son, except now it’s the other way around.

Where or how this all will end is not clear. What is clear, though, is the fact that deep down in the Western psyche there’s some trigger that ends up producing multiple copies of Jesus’ foreskin, mummies of mermaids, or pictures of Donald Trump happily hanging out with Black people.

We believe in what we want to believe in, and the tools to get the goods are merely an expression of that fact. Much like the Wunderkammers, generative AI merely is a symptom of a much larger underlying problem.

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