Culture in our “post-human era” — in conversation with Sasha Stiles

Ola Kalejaye
December 8, 2022
“I can't write these poems by myself, but the AI can't either.” 0RAL B1NARY #7, by Sasha Stiles, Nathaniel Stern, and Kris Bones.

Text artificially generated by large language models has captivated the global discourse. Just know that Sasha Stiles was there first. She speaks to Ola Kalejaye about creating art alongside a machine, the role of technology in augmenting, not replacing, human capabilities, and why the natural home for her poetry is in web3.

The brilliance of Sasha Stiles' phrase “Cursive Binary” is how succinctly it elicits the central mission of her work. The poet and AI researcher deals in cross-disciplinary art that explores what it means to be human as we approach, in Sasha’s words, our “post-human era”. The works in her Cursive Binary series visualise this groundbreaking synthesis of human language and computer code.

The philosophical complexities that Sasha Stiles explores through her art have her floating in between different mediums, styles, and philosophies. Even so, the bedrock of her artistic endeavor is easy enough to discern. “Writing is my first love, it’s the way I identify myself. And now, I think of myself as a poet more than anything else.”

That traces back to her school years, when Sasha’s artistic journey followed that of most aspiring writers: working through English-language classics which largely shaped her conception of what poetry was. It wasn’t until the Kalmyk-American explored more experimental poets in the years to come that her perception of the artform began to change. Jenny Holzer, Cy Twombly, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman all left long-lasting influences.

Cursive Binary: Cogito ergo sumthing, by Sasha Stiles.

If her passion for language is one major piece of Sasha’s artistic puzzle, her love of technology is the other. To understand the interaction between the two in Sasha’s work, one has to note her understanding of language: as one of the longest-enduring forms of human technology there is.

These two sides are more connected than one might think. “There's this idea that art is over here, and science and technology are over there,” she begins. “So much of what I do is bringing them back together and realising that they're all part of the same thing.”

The deeper she dove into these topics, however, the more Sasha realised that the work she was producing had no natural home. “I was writing about all these things: my relationship to technology, digital immortality, cryogenics, techno-spiritualism. It's weird that my head was in this world but then I turn around and I'm trying to publish in the Kenyon Review!”

“I got really obsessed with that whole field.”

— Sasha Stiles

The Ohio literary magazine is not exactly known for the technologically cutting-edge. Instead, she set about evolving her own work, experimenting with various tools to take her poems beyond the printed page. Eventually, progress in artificial intelligence began to pique her curiosity. “I was reading all these stories that had to do with the rise of AI, specifically to do with natural language processing and the ability of intelligent systems to create language that sounded human.” She recalls, “I got really obsessed with that whole field.”

Cursive Binary: portrait of the poet as a brief history of humanity, by Sasha Stiles.

In the poetry world to which Sasha traces her artistic roots, artificial intelligence, the kind that generates beautiful prose on command, is typically greeted with suspicion. Sasha suggests that this stems from underlying societal delineations between human beings and technology. “There's this implicit reaction that poetry is very human, and that technology and AI are cold and sterile machines. It's funny to me that there was this knee-jerk reaction that the two things should not go together.”

Sasha could not disagree more with that perception. Not only can they be combined, she says, but they mimic each other. As visceral as the emotions that poetry evokes can be, writers learn to elicit those emotions by essentially studying certain patterns, exactly as a neural network might. “These are algorithms that are basically software programs where you run them and they evoke feelings. When writers are learning craft and technique, we're programming our minds how to do this.”

But If there’s a single misconception that Sasha most wants to clarify in this emerging field, it is the default of minimising the human part of this collaboration. Much of the negative sentiment towards integrating artificial intelligence into a creative workflow comes from the fear that AI is a replacing force, rather than an augmenting one. Sasha disagrees. “I think there's really this fundamental misunderstanding about what creative AI is and can be. I'm not outsourcing myself as a writer, I'm shifting my attention to different parts of the writing process. I am utilising these tools to craft language in different ways.”

To get the best out of the combination of artificial intelligence and human creativity, Sasha has embraced new frameworks through which she can conceptualise her process. Broadly speaking, transhumanism refers to the notion that humanity can – and should – leverage technology to augment our biological limits. Through that lens, human-AI collaboration becomes the logical next step in human progress.

“I can't write these poems by myself, but the AI can't either.”

— Sasha Stiles

Transhumanism also provides the rationale from which we dispel fears of being automated by the machine, particularly prevalent in the arts, which are seen as intimately tied to our humanity. And while art made by a computer can often be seen as better than that made by human hands, Sasha argues that the best work comes when mind and machine collaborate. “The stuff that was interesting to me happened when I was merging with the machine, in a way, and not worrying about me versus the AI.”

“I can't write these poems by myself, but the AI can't either,” she continues. “It requires both of us working together. It’s weaving all these things together in a way that's not human and not machine, but is this third voice.” To emphasise the synthesis inherent in this process, Sasha labels the collaborative work she does alongside her AI poet under the banner, Technelegy. “It is this way of being that I think represents what so many of us feel right now, but also the way that we're going to be living more and more in the very near future.”

0RAL B1NARY #7, by Sasha Stiles, Nathaniel Stern, and Kris Bones.

When she first began working with AI to write poetry, it was uncharted territory. It was not long ago that her peers in the writing world would greet her new interest with significant scepticism; Sasha still finds herself taken aback by the rapid ascent of AI in art and culture, which in the past 18 months has become accessible beyond a subset of technologists in a highly usable way. 

This growth, defined by tools created by OpenAI like DALL·E 2 and GPT-3, began alongside growth in the NFT market. Indeed, Sasha's initial exposure to web3 came from her participation in various shows and virtual exhibitions dedicated to new media artists leveraging new mediums. “They were using blockchain in very conceptual and fascinating ways and that opened my eyes to what was possible for writers,” she explains.

“There's been so much more interest.”

— Sasha Stiles

It quickly became the perfect outlet for an artist who had floated between writing and technology, never fully at home in either environment. Now a prolific NFT creator herself, Sasha has formed deeper roots in the cryptoart ecosystem, co-founding the crypto literary collective theVERSEverse alongside Ana María Caballero and Kalen Iwamoto. As bumpy a ride as it has been for crypto art world in 2022, Sasha appreciates how much more interest there is in the realm of creating art alongside technology with writers from “the offline world.” That Sasha's poem, Completion: When It's Just You, sold at Christie's for 5.35 eth last week ($6,878) is a sign of how far she, and the sector, has come. Naturally, it sold as an NFT.

“In the very beginning, there was so much hesitation, resistance, and just outright hostility to NFTs across the board, or to this idea of using AI tools to write in some way. And now, just in the span of a year since theVERSEverse launched, there's been so much more interest and so much more openness to exploring these different paths that you can take as a writer.”

Regardless of how interested or appalled mainstream writers are, the rapid development of sophisticated AI writing tools means that the impact of technology, which is only going to grow, should be taken seriously.

Sasha’s new book, Technelegy, uses her unique style to examine the question of what it means to be human in a nearly post-human era.

Indeed, if today’s AI text generators were all we had to go by, then writers would have nothing to fear. Human writers using AI still have to put in the bulk of the writing effort. But the trend is only heading in one direction. “I expect generative literature to play a larger role in the years to come: the idea that we can use intelligent systems and AI-powered language models to write in a way that is essentially human, and to automate the creation of narratives and stories and ideas.”

Sasha acknowledges that the implications of that level of language generation are wide-reaching and demand a lot of care. But she is far more excited about the future than she is worried. As we grapple with the implications of AI art and programmable culture, Sasha believes that it is transhumanist ideals that human society must embrace. Only then, she suggests, can we explore the creative synthesis of humans and AI.

“It’s important to me to figure out how not to further underscore this idea that it's humans versus technology. Rather, technology is what has made us human over time, again and again. And that's going to keep happening. We have to figure out how to make our technologies work with us, and not feel like it's this antagonistic binary.”

“I'm not outsourcing myself as a writer, I'm shifting my attention to different parts of the writing process.”

— Sasha Stiles

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Ola Kalejaye
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Ola is a US–based writer and digital nomad. He loves thinking, learning, and writing about all things web3, particularly its impact on major creative industries like film and art.

What does it mean to be human in a nearly post-human era? Sasha’s book, Technelegy, was published by Eyewear Publishing this year.