Cave Painting and GenAI

Originally posted on Linkedin July 2023

I was reading about early cave painting yesterday with thoughts trundling along the path of “history and philosophy of tech”. Specifically, I was thinking about ancient cave painting and ho it relates to GenAI when I stumbled on a lovely paper:
“The technology of the earliest European cave paintings: El Castillo Cave, Spain” d’Errico et al., 2016. 

Here is a screen shot of the 4th paragraph below which says “Symbolic meaning is expressed by adherence to norms regarding the context and the subject matter of the representations. The cognitive, cultural and social implications of the latter can only be evaluated by understanding the way in which the material expression of symbols was created, assembled, displayed and rejuvenated, who made them, and for how long and by whom they were used.”

Now read that whilst holding the idea of values in GenAI in your mind. Consider that GenAI models show biases to different cultures and how to understand that best, we need to understand better what are the expressions of value and normativity those cultures embed in repositories used for the training data.

The article also says, “Our study thus sheds light on the beginnings of painting technology and the role of ergonomic constraints in the production of the disks”, which includes how tall the painters are and how high they can reach.

In a GenAI context, this would be accessibility to contribute to training data. Not everyone has internet access & some contribute more than others.

“All technology is human. Technology is an extension of ourselves. Tech extends our abilities, expands our communication, and embodies our social selves.” Bec Johnson

We have to stop treating GenAI as if it’s the first ever amazing tech to be invented by us. We have a long history of amazing tech. Just because we don’t depict the wheel, the Gutenberg press, the light blub, contraception, and the internal combustion engine with lines of blue electric light and profile shots of pensive fem-bots doesn’t make them less incredible or impactful.

Tech is HUMAN imagined, created, powered, driven & owned. ALL tech problems are human problems. AI isn’t going to take over the world. But as history shows repeatedly, tech can obfuscate & oppress some and lend power to others. Ownership and deployment of tech is always the real issue. There is nothing new under the sun.

Which brings me to the point: sociotechnical is a trending buzzword these days, but I think a lot of people misunderstand the meaning. Sociotechnical is NOT just “people & machines”; it’s a systems-based framework arising from complexity theory and cybernetics that analyses RELATIONSHIPS & INTERDEPENDENCIES between tech, humans, social structures, and physical materials.

Just like people sharing knowledge, cultures, and values through cave art.