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EATING YOUR WORDS

L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin Gorsky Web

Leo Tolstoy, courtesy Wiki Commons.

In all the conversations about the impact of AI technologies – and I promise you this isn’t yet another act of pearlclutching panic, nor a fevered frenzy of San Fran-tasy – the fact is that the topic of most concern isn’t AI as a whole, but a specific subset, known as generative large language models. These LLMs are trained using quite simplistic but hugely time- and energy-consuming data-tagging systems, followed by acts of confabulation performed by the older technology of Neural networks. Neural networks are a type of machine-learning algorithm that were originally developed for high intensity graphic display work – helping us shoot zombies faster in computer games et cetera. All this has made some consider whether the generative large language model isn’t another way to describe human civilisation itself (i.e. a crowd-sourced collective intelligence). My feeling is that LLMs should be the least of our worries, even while they may, in short order, end lots of really awful white-collar work no one really wants to do anyway.

I was a mouthy teenager during the heyday of the Iranian Revolution. My art teacher who, unbeknownst to me, had been a political activist for years, encouraged and nurtured in me an interest in film and photography, and advised my parents to let me study art or film-making instead of their preferred topic, engineering. In the tumultuous early years of post-revolutionary Iran, he also urged my parents to send me abroad, as he put it: “With what is going on here and the size of your son’s mouth, I worry how long his head will remain attached to his body.”

I remained in contact with him after I had left the country. I would write to him mostly discussing politics and bemoaning the turn the revolution was taking. By then the activist disguise had been removed and he had been installed in an important role at a new Ministry of Culture overseeing film and propaganda. When I would return home for the summer holidays he would enlist me as an unpaid dogsbody in assisting his various projects like installing photo exhibitions in one of the confiscated palaces of the ancien régime.

Throughout he would listen patiently to my naive if idealistic rants. On my last trip, during the years of the bloody war with Iraq, after one of our meetings discussing the events, he suggested in his understated way: “Do please keep on writing to me but try to use the thin airmail letters. They are easier to swallow than the notepaper pages you use”.

It turned out that during one of his visits to the frontline, where he was making a TV documentary, he and his small crew had been detained by army intelligence under suspicion of being Iraqi spies. While their papers were being checked with the authorities in Tehran, he realised that he was carrying one of my letters in his jacket pocket and, fearing that the content might cause us both a lot of trouble, he asked to use the toilet where he tore the letter into small pieces and ate them. My words were very hard to swallow, especially with a dry mouth.

Since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine there has been an anti-Russian campaign in a number of Western European countries. Political and economic sanctions were perhaps to be expected. What surprised many was not only the extension of these boycotts to include the sporting, cultural and educational sectors associated with the current Russian government, but also into Russian culture, Netflix, for example, pulled the plug on a production of Tolstoy’s immaculate masterpiece Anna Karenina. One would have hoped that Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky belonged to a wider European, or indeed world heritage, but such is the frantic zeal of democracies defending the freedom of the Ukrainian people.

This isn’t the first time that the Tolstoys have got it in the neck for the crimes and misdemeanours of others. Count Ilya Tolstoy, son of the Russian author, was banned from teaching at Columbia University following US entry into the First World War in 1917. The university had a persona non grata policy that allowed any department chair to veto prospective speakers. Likewise in 1941, Ernest Hemingway was overlooked for a Pulitzer Prize for his novel set in the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was widely rumoured that Columbia University had lobbied against Hemingway.

What Trump put on a baseball cap Biden is putting into practice

The pandemic-induced boom in reading is of course a source of joy for anyone concerned with print matter, even a lowly fashion and culture magazine. TANK has always been committed to words as fervently as to images. Even in the craziness of the post-pandemic magazine meltdown we have maintained the highest percentage of pages dedicated to original writing of most of our competitor set; we are proud to have started commissioning “flash fictions” way back in 2002. Our commitment to book publishing got more serious with the Summer Reader issues starting in 2015. As we survey the apparently booming publishing industry it has become obvious that what appears to be a thriving ecosystem is more of a desert; much like the high streets up and down the UK, the space is occupied by a handful of international megabrands, the odd betting shop and mile after mile of charity shops. In the case of publishing we have the concentration of buying power and circulations (see page 127) at one end and micro publishers eking a living, some doing a great job and others unstable and fly-by-night chancers.

In 2004 TANK commissioned the writer and curator Tom Morton to write an essay to mark the closure of the once-influential style bible The Face. Morton stipulated that the disappearance of the idea of any sort of centre with a predominance over periphery was the reason that The Face was no longer relevant. Once upon a time, the centre was exciting and cool; the periphery was naff and boring. Bored young nobodies living in the suburbs looked at The Face to catch a glimpse of the hip and happening downtown. Then the sudden explosion of digitisation and the ability to create and disseminate images at no cost on your blog on Tumblr or Facebook page empowered anyone, anywhere to create and communicate their scene. With an infinite number of centres, the centre could no longer hold. You could have a scene in Portishead or Bali or Beirut or Istanbul or Ibiza and there was no need, let alone desire, for a monopoly of tastemakers in London to gatekeep what was in.

The erosion of the centre starting with the nebulous cultural sphere started to permeate everything, even politics. In a 2016 campaign speech, Hillary Clinton said that the political debate in the United States was no longer between left and right, but between the centre and the periphery. She said that the centre is represented by those who believe in compromise, moderation, and pragmatism, while the periphery is represented by those who believe in extremism, ideology, and purity. Seen from the centre everything on the periphery is always stupider, meaner and less good.

In a recent storm in a fashion teacup, the fashion editors of Daily Telegraph and New York Times strongly objected to being seated away from the central circle of the Gucci AW23 shows in February. What irked the great fashion experts was that the inner circle was represented by social media influencers. The irrelevance of the radical centre represented by the Clintons and the fading relevance of the gatekeeping classes in fashion are manifestations of the same trend.

The radical centre isn’t getting much of a look at the policy centres in Washington either, as the Biden administration has decided that the solution to stop Trump and the radical periphery is to steal some of their ideas. The emerging Washington consensus has been summarised beautifully by the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik – simply the full adoption of the policies formerly known as “Make America Great Again”. Repatriate jobs and industries back to the US, halt immigration and raise the debt ceiling, in order to invest in infrastructure projects in the US.

What Trump put on a baseball cap Biden is putting into practice, hoping to use it to bury Trump. For years when I complained that the mainstream media coverage of a story is not fair or free, people would ask “well what do you read then?” The answer is that the question itself is in error. The solution to our predicaments isn’t finally finding the one perfect and truthful news source but realising that such a source is inside us all. That figuring out how to decipher all the different sources and treating them all with scepticism – acting as our own editors in fact – is where we need to begin.

There is a slow realisation that the question of the times is not what to wear, buy, vote for or indeed read. The dilemma is gaining the understanding of the nature of each to our own satisfaction before committing to making a choice. Hence “how to read” rather than “what to read” is what this issue is about.

Although Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace has achieved near-universal recognition as a masterpiece, critics have often maligned the novel’s philosophical interludes for repetitively lecturing readers with a truism. In these breaks from the narrative, Tolstoy lays out his theory of history which, trusim or not, contains a message worth remembering. Tolstoy suggests that history is not shaped by great men or women, but by the actions of ordinary people. He argues that the designs and plans of great leaders are in fact often insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and that the forces that truly shape history are the desires and actions of ordinary people. On second thoughts, somebody should ban that book. Masoud Golsorkhi