Prospero’s Facebook

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Words: Constance Roisin (she/her) 

Shakespeare’s final play is about magic, and, therefore, it is also a story about technology. Set on an island, The Tempest’s protagonist Prospero is a wizard who controls everyone around him. It is revealed slowly, however, that Prospero’s magic doesn’t belong to him: it comes from his books and his servant Ariel, whom he once rescued from inside a cloven pine tree and whose power vastly outflanks his own. Prospero is then less magical and more like a modern-day magician – it’s all about distraction and illusion. Margaret Atwood likened him to the Wizard of Oz: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The fraudster is a familiar character, but there is something quite prescient about Ariel. Really, he is the only free character in the play. He has no possessions, no ancestors or descendants, no sex drive, no wants, no desires. He is static, a bit… robotic: Ariel the AI. Prospero, the human, wields him like a tool. But, in the contemporary age, we have begun to fear our tools. What if they wake up, turn the tables and start to use us? This anxiety is part of the vision of the AGI apocalypse. A 1993 Royal Shakespeare Production even had Ariel spit at Prospero’s face upon his release.

Large language models, like ChatGPT, are humanity’s Second Contact with AI. We have already experienced First Contact: the dawn of social media. A parallel to the relationship between Prospero and Ariel, social media acts as a mirror that gives us a better-looking reflection (literally, in the case of AR filters). However, it is easy to forget that Facebook was first presented as a site about transparency, with Zuckerberg exalting that ‘Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.’ Initially, there was some disgust at the, let’s call it, “glam-washing” of ordinary life. One response to all the editing was the ‘Instagram versus reality’ trend, where two images were placed together: the real next to the ideal . As Jia Tolentino notes, however, this trend further increased pressure on women to look both ‘very perfect and [be] very honest.’ It seems today, however, we have surpassed any need to decry the falsity of images we see, and instead, we have collectively embraced them. The new Google Pixel 8 phone, for example, advertises its ability to easily alter photos with its “Magic Editor”. Its “Best Take” feature enables users to combine the best faces from multiple images into one perfect group photo. Eat your heart out Stalin.

Another sign that the clamour for authenticity is fading is the declining popularity of BeReal. As Dazed wrote on the subject, the boredom users report on seeing the “reality” of their friends’ lives exposes a truth about our collective desire (or lack thereof) for relatable content: ‘although relatability is celebrated ‘intellectually’ or as a concept, as consumers we prefer relatability’s prettier, more polished cousin.’ Then there is the growing trend of “Virtual Influencers”, who are reported to command three times higher engagement than human ones. Take Lil Miquela, an influencer with 2.6 million followers. She has brand deals and political views; she was even sexually assaulted. And yet, in a meta PR move, she came out, not as a CGI creation, but as a 19-year-old Robot living in LA. ‘My hands are literally shaking’ she writes, ‘I’m not a human being.’ Her followers still love her and ask her questions she never answers: ‘Do you feel pain?’ ‘Can you eat food?’ ‘Do you have a period?’ Forbes describes this phenomenon as an ‘ecosystem drenched in fiction’ and likens it to “kayfabe”: it’s fake, and we know it’s fake, and we love it. The Tempest isn’t a tragedy because, in the end, Prospero gives up his magic (or his power to persuade others that he is magical). He leaves his books behind, frees Ariel, and prepares to board a ship. Then he does something strange: he breaks the fourth wall. Prospero speaks directly to the audience and, in doing so, highlights that he has always known he had an audience and that this has all been a performance. It is the same for social media; all the users are actors because the platform is a stage. There is either hidden fakeness or open fakeness, but nothing will be real until you get off the island.

Pandora Sykes. 2020. How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? (London: Hutchinson), p.173,what%20authenticity%20even%20means%20anymore.


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