[EDIT – Boy, I really can go when I start! This is a looooooong post!]
This is probably the most personal thing I’ll have shared online and I’m not sure where to start so this will be quite the ramble of thoughts in my brain. It’s probably going to be quite a pretentious, arty-farty, self-indulgence over-using the word “beautiful”, but it’s not like I’m entirely uncomfortable sitting there.
I often get accused of oversharing online but I actually don’t overshare. Little of what I write is particularly personal, actually. I think I just have a knack for presenting myself quite uncynically and quite unabashedly so many people assume that what I’m writing is about as deep as I go and mistake unabashed for unguarded. This post, however, will touch on something that I think is actually one of my deepest fears and that makes it very personal.
I’ll start by saying I’m almost 40 and I feel like a creative soul. I love storytelling and all the different ways in which stories can be told; written in verse or prose, choose your own adventure books, told orally, performed as a play, dance, mime, grapic novels, single images, long elaborate tv series, movies, video games of all kinds – linear and branching, virtual reality immersive experiences and so much more. I love how technology is changing to give us even more ways of telling stories – how video games, movies, and now AI are becoming tools that can be used.
I have always been fascinated by how technology evolves, and especially when it meshes with humans in personal ways – when it meshes with their biology such as in prosthetics, or with their imagination.
So, with all this said, I found this article fascinating, if a little hyperbolic. I found the stuff about Loab “haunting” the internet interesting, but I find the direction the article takes fascinating.
It talks about the possibilities of having AI generated immersive realities. I love the idea of being able to generate landscapes and vistas in AI… but especially the idea of what it could do for storytelling.
Imagine – you tell the AI you want to watch a 2hr queer love story set in Japan but with the aesthetic of The Labyrinth, in the directorial style of Quentin Tarantino, with a couple of kung fu action scenes, and a score that sounds like Danny Elfman’s composed it, but with a happy ending, and then you strap on your VR helmet and are immersed in that story. And it’s entirely personal and unique to you. Maybe as well as merely watching this, you could interact with it so it becomes an active experience rather than a passive one. But then I’m talking about Star Trek’s holodeck without the physical form.
But imagine how awesome that would be to have!
I do appreciate what they’re saying about beginning to lose sense of a common reality if this kind of immersive experience is easily accessible. Some would inevitably prefer the virtual world to the real as it is intimately catered to them. Also, would there be any market for the sort of high-effort, time-consuming art and media that humans create. One movie takes hundreds of people months and millions of dollars to create… and not everyone will like it. Once the AI system is perfected and commodified properly, millions of movies/media pieces can be made instantly without the further input of any people… and every person watching each one will enjoy it because it was made specifically to their tastes at the time.
Would we lose cultural touchstones? The collective shared experience of having seen the same film, read the same book, enjoyed the same album etc.
Worries aside, I see the potential for new and exciting ways of telling stories just over the horizon, and I think it’s literally awesome! To the point that while I was listening to a podcast about this while on a long drive this morning, I found it all a bit overwhelming. I want to play with this technology! I want to learn it! I want to know how it works! I want to create with it! I was thinking of a very simple application for this where I could use it to generate reference images that don’t exist to help me draw my graphic novel. More than that though, I want to really play with it and see what it can do and see what I could create with it. However, I know that I will almost certainly never understand it the way I want to as I have no technical knowledge in that field. And I know that even when it is available, I will almost certainly not be able to afford it at first. I will miss the first wave of it, and probably several of the next. It will be oldish hat by the time I get to play with it properly and the next new thing will be behind it. Also, I know I am getting older and by the time it is commodified enough that I do have easy access to it, I may well be past it. I feel a sense of frustrating inevitability that I will largely miss out on the most exciting parts of this.
There is so much to see and so much to do! Too much! This is where my brain was as I drove towards what I now know was the Mendips, a designated Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty, on my way to work in Shepton Mallet this morning.
Just yesterday, my brain continued, I wrote a blog post about how I was frustrated that my skill didn’t match my ambition. In the Robert Smalls story I am telling, I already struggle to find enough time to work on it. I wish I could work faster but I feel limited. It leads to me curbing my experimentation. I want to try different things as I draw this story, try new things knowing I may fail and have to redo them, but I feel I don’t have time to do that or this project will never be finished. I want to do other projects too. I want to write a piece of fiction about humans’ ever-evolving relationship to technology. I’ve wanted to do that ever since I was about eighteen. I tried back then but couldn’t quite find the story I wanted to tell. I think I could now, but I already have one project on the go I struggle to find time for. I want to try to make a stop-motion short film but the same problem is there.
I have always skirted around creative outlets for myself and creative jobs, but it does frustrate me that I’ve dabbled in many, but have never truly committed to one and mastered it. I’ve done a bit of this and a bit of that. Done some writing, drawn a fair bit but never committed to making a career of it or a consistent hobby and am still frustrated when I try to draw a comic book page and my ambition outstrips my skill, I’ve acted a bit but never pursued it very far. I’ve dabbled in making stop-motion animations and think that with some application I could be quite good at it. I’ve been a performer for years, doing stilt and costume work, but never really skilled-up more than that by learning juggling, contact staff, poi, silks or anything. I say it frustrates me; rather, I frustrate me! I worry I’m just frittering away my time to do great things. Or even just good things. Or just things. That by the time I die, I won’t have pushed myself to properly live. I’m nearly forty and I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. Or am I just scared of choosing one path because I know it will negate the ones I don’t choose? Or am I just lazy and don’t want to put the effort in that it would take to be truly great at something? I honestly don’t know.
Around about here, I started driving up some more rural roads, fairly misty, through some beautiful peaks. Sheer-faced hills with goats and sheep clinging to the side of them. This is beautiful, I thought. I’m only going to get a fleeting glance as I drive through. I must make a point to note where this is and come back here sometime to see it properly. But when?! If I even remember where on Earth I am right now, when will I find the time to make a trip down here on the off-chance of finding this spot again? There’s so much beauty in the world – so many vistas, so many different cultures, so many little patches of beauty tucked away, and so many huge ones that stretch for miles! I want to see them all and I’m seeing so few!
Around about here, I got crushingly sad that there’s so much natural beauty to see, and humans can be so clever with their art, and there is no way I will ever get to see it all and I so very much want to. I feel like I’m barely seeing any at the moment. I’m not travelling much beyond the scope of travelling for work, and that travelling is very functional involving a lot of motorways. Those of you that know me personally may have noticed that I very purposefully try to find beautiful things to see or do whenever I can when I’m travelling for work. It’s born of this persistent feeling that I’m just not seeing enough beautiful things and sights and experiences and that I’m nearly 40 and my time to do any of this is starting to feel finite. I’m not stupid; I’ve always known my time on this Earth is finite, but I think I may have recently lost that youthful feeling of having all my time ahead of me to do anything I want to do. At 39, it’s not at all unreasonable to think I could be about halfway through my life right now. I’ve never been particularly afraid of dying, but that is probably because I had the youthful feeling that I had it all ahead of me. I haven’t become afraid of dying, though. I have become afraid of not having lived enough by the time I die. It genuinely terrifies me. If I’ve ever seemed Peter Pan-ish to you, that’s at the core of it. I want my time to remain ahead of me because I feel thwarted in trying to gain a lot of the experiences I want, and I don’t like admitting that every day that passes is one day fewer I have to gain those experiences. It doesn’t help that I generally look younger than I am. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a face that rudely reminds me that time’s a-ticking.
As I thought about all the things I would miss out on seeing, it started feeling vile that I couldn’t just spend my life seeing beautiful things. That I couldn’t just stop and get out of my car to look at this beautiful scenery and take some pictures because I had to be at a school in Shepton Mallet in 45 minutes. I know that is entitled, self-indulgent, whiney crap. But that is very much how I felt at that moment.
And then, I hit a few minutes of my drive that unexpectedly took my breath away repeatedly.
I had Spotify playing a shuffled playlist of all my ‘likes’ and was halfway through listening to the Metallica tune, Eye of the Beholder at the time. I was driving straight towards the sunrise. The road was largely straight, presumably a very functional ancient road that had been codified into tarmac. Lining it were wintery trees, skeletal with a few golden leaves still clinging to them here and there. Beyond them, fields stretched out over hills that rose and fell. Here, there had been a frost overnight and the grass in the fields, and the branches of the trees glistened as I drove by and as the wind caught them. A thick mist hung over everything making all seem and still and ethereal. The bright sunrise kept spearing shafts of light through the branches of the trees to glitter on the dew and frost on the grass and leaves. I passed cows with their nearly full-grown calves. A couple of times, I actually gasped and welled up with how beautiful what I was driving through was.
The shuffled playlist had moved on to playing this Wagner piece from Das Rheingold by now and, no word of a lie, the music hit its crescendo right as I crested a small hill that had been blocking the sunrise. The sun was beaming down on fields on either side of the road, where the mist had collected in great spectral lakes that spilled over into the road in the middle. The sunlight was hitting the mist at just such an angle that the mist was lit up in all sorts of different shades of oranges and yellows and, surprisingly, beautiful purples that I just hadn’t expected to see at all.
The combination of where my head had been at previously, the sheer splendour of what I was seeing, and the music hit me and I ended up crying but not out of despair or even mainly out of sadness. There was a sadness there. I knew I’d almost certainly never see this like this again. The chances of me coming up that exact road, at the right time of day, at the right time of year, with the weather conditions just right to allow the sun to shine, without being obscured by clouds, onto pools of mist on either side of the road, picking out shards of frost under the mist were very very slight. Even if I did, the chances of getting the right combination of thoughts in my head to let it affect me like that again were negligible. So I was sad. But also happy about this. It was a fleeting beauty that would only exist just like that at that moment. Soon afterwards, the sun would rise into the sky and that particular effect of the way its light hit the mist would be lost. It was a fleeting beauty that I could so easily have never seen… but I did.
I’m not sure why I cried but it just happened completely involuntarily and not for long, and it felt right.
At this point, I really did want to stop and take a photo but I didn’t for two reasons:
Firstly, we all know that the best photo I could have taken with my cameraphone within the few seconds I allowed myself to stop wouldn’t do this vista any justice whatsoever.
Secondly, I feel that part of its beauty was in its transience. Stopping and fussing over phone settings and trying to get a good angle and so on would have meant I missed it by trying to not miss it.
So I decided to simply enjoy it in the moment for as long as that moment lasted. It wasn’t long, but I was glad to have experienced it.
For some reason, it felt profound. I’m not quite sure why. To be lamenting all the beautiful things I won’t experience and to then be gifted one unexpectedly definitely had something to do with it.
I’m not quite sure why I wrote this post, but I definitely felt like I wanted to get my thoughts on all of this down, and for them to be seen by other people. I can tick that off now.
Later on today, I visited the Mendips and saw Priddy Nine Barrows Cemetery with bronze-age burial mounds, and Swildon’s Hole – a cave system that can be accessed through the roots of a tree, because I read about them in this fantastic book, but more about those later. I should sleep now.