Where do all our likes go when clicked? Think about today alone, or even this morning: can you remember all of the things you’ve “liked”? What if I told you these things were being remembered, even curated?
We know by now it is not just humans who are trawling the content that we produce online, but also algorithms. We know this from the spam count in our inboxes, the amusing detritus in the comment boxes of our blogs. But how does your behaviour change when you realize your content is being watched by a curator who does not see, but makes you visible, does not judge, but makes you shareable?
Archillect’s official handle is the “ocular engine.” This engine is the slick, smooth, malleable curator of your likes, and goes by the pronoun “she.”
Click on archillect.com and you come to a minimalist, mostly black-and-white page with the text Memories of an Autómaton written sans serif top centre. Beneath: a tiling of images she has selected by crawling over pages like Flickr and Tumblr armed with a set of keywords, neatly parceling her findings into squares the size of a keyhole that seem to shift and scintillate, and do shift depending on which ones prove most popular.
To date, Archillect has 60K followers on Twitter and considerably less on Facebook and Pinterest, the triumvirate of her preferred habitus. She is the algorithm of Istanbul-based designer Murat Pak who runs the studio Undream and whose tweet “Design is hack” may be his best job description. “Archillect’s posts are influenced by the humans who view her,” writes Mitch Bowman. “In practice, this means she looks at how many people (and what kind of people) are sharing her posts, and adapts to provide more of the content people seem to be enjoying.”
Articles like Bowman’s piece for Motherboard lean toward a sort of wonder-of-the-algorithm and a description of its function that seems to guideline most writing on bots. Though he parenthetically nudges toward the question, Bowman does not follow up on what kind of people exactly are the “we” who follow Archillect (followers who, in this case, are also the followed). Montreal-based multimedia developer Devine Lu Linvega put forward a more nuanced take as part of the Expanded Animation Symposium (2015) where he presents Archillect as an alternate (and preferred) critic, a new judge of taste in a world where it is not only factory workers whose jobs have been replaced by machines, as was the original dystopian undream, but also artists, curators.
Linvega compares Archillect to other examples of procedural art, which he defines as “algorithm for human,” such as Cleverbot and Facebook M. To answer Bowman’s parenthetical question, Archillect is the product of a team of labourers whose “like” is part of the immaterial output of a daily online presence absorbed in the act of a passive curation, whose products generate a rather slick, gothic, and safe array, eerie and distanced.
But can we really say that Archillect is curating for us, or are we working for Archillect? Or, to go further, how do we differ from Archillect at all? How sentient, how unlike an algorithm are we when “liking” the things we like?
Curation itself as a term to describe activities that are not at all curatorial has arisen in popularity. We are no longer editors, but content curators. We curate our recipes. Our photo albums. We are gourmet collectors. We architect, composing neat, rigorous systems, a preferred replica of our messy selves, the public face of our automatic pastimes. This act of scrapbooking that Archillect embodies is female. How does it tame Archillect’s gaze to gender her? And what would happen if, instead of comparing Archillect to procedural art, we compared her curatorial knack to the functions of another bot, beauty.ai, whose page welcomes you to “the First International Beauty Contest Judged by Artificial Intelligence.” The first sentence on their “Why” page? This: “What matters in beauty is perception.”
I put a couple of questions to Murat Pak in an email and found it’s “perception” that plays a big part in how Archillect works, how he sees the “likes” that Archillect curates, and why Archillect goes by “she” and “her.” He writes:
The way she makes these choices evolves over time, just like a real person, and gets effected by the society that surrounds her. In a way, these attributes make Archillect very much like an artificial person; and that’s exactly how I wanted to position her in social media. Most of the followers still do not know that Archillect is a synthetic algorithm, which makes the whole point work actually!
Archillect is a creator, a designer, a work-in-progress, a maker of things that continue to change. The way Pak describes a human being building a social media account, building a “character,” is very similar to how an algorithm does the same:
[A]n empty social media account is like a newborn with no folds in his/her brain, or simply an empty account is an identity-less empty page. No identity, no character. Or, in other words, the choices you make to share “things” on social media become your character (in technical terms, profile! What a fitting word!) . . .
And about gender?
Creation is a very female phenomenon. Even mother* nature is defined with this gender, and we can see many echoes and reflections of this in the pages of history from Cybele to our own mothers. In other words, there was no way for me to define Archillect as a male . . .
What does this all mean?
In Pak’s depiction of Archillect, there is a profound mix between a new rhetoric for posthumanism (the followers cannot tell that Archillect is “synthetic”) and a very traditional, mythological axis around which gender comes to exist. If we look at what he’s saying, the sentiments cancel each other out: for if we have an argument that relies on long-standing clichés and cultural forms that figure creativity as female, then we cannot at once have the “blank slate” that Pak suggests we come to a social media account with. Rather, what Archillect points to is that there is no blank slate; we arrive and we arrive and we arrive, always with the baggage of our cultural norms, the mythologies of “Cybele,” of “mother*nature,” and we cannot, no matter how slick an algorithm, ignore this fact.
At the end of his talk at the Expanded Animation Symposium, Devine Lu Linvega notes that one of the images he found on Archillect’s memory board was not actually composed by a human, but by another algorithm. This reaches into what Linvega defines as post-procedural art (“algorithm for algorithm”). It left me with this thought: we still don’t know what all the passive-to-enjoyable labour of “liking” will ultimately produce. The Humanities has been haggling forever over the umbrella questions “what is art,” “what is beauty,” never realizing that maybe it isn’t the toiling of our theoretical debates that will get to perceive the answers, but something much more subtle, the memories of our automatic desires, the gazes of automata.
What do we find, then, when we go to the place where our likes are going? What memory is held there? What mirror reflects our shared and passive desires?
It is a gathering both algorithmic and organic, not just of images, but concepts that have reached mythological popularity and been compressed into the retina of an ocular engine — not just concepts, but emotions, reactions; Archillect is moving. Literally, on Archillect TV — which is, in Pak’s words, “a never-ending music video” and the newest iteration of Archillect.
As Murat Pak might phrase it, the only thing we can make out in the movement, in the sharing, in the architecting and collecting, is the ability for the centre of it all to be incomplete.
He writes: “I believe on social media we exist with what we share.”