Saturday 16 August 2014

Faking It

This essay was published in Luxury Briefing in July 2014


Faking It
by Alexander Gallé
6 July 2014

The film "Tim's Vermeer" (2014) documents the story of a hacker/inventor, Tim Jenison, as he successfully recreates a Vermeer painting using various optical tools that were available to Vermeer in the XVIIth century.  The film makes a convincing case that technological inventiveness, rather than artistic mastery, was the reason why Vermeer's paintings were so much more vivid and realistic than any of his contemporaries' work.  Tim's use of a cleverly positioned small mirror - to evaluate the difference at any point between an object's colour and its painted representation - turns the painter's role into nothing more than an information processor, albeit a very precise and meticulous one.  

The academic reaction to this analysis of one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age has been somewhat negative, as you might expect.  This is mostly because any assertion on the use of technology in fine art is wrongly interpreted as an accusation of being a "faker", of not really being as great an artist as one pretended to be.

In his book "The Age of Intelligent Machines", Ray Kurzweil explains the exponential acceleration of technology by arguing that any field of science or engineering that comes into contact with information technology, will itself become an information technology, which then allows it to evolve at the same rate of acceleration as information technology. Since the 70s, the effect of this acceleration has been visible in just about every sector of industry: planes become flying computers, cars become computers on wheels, and the collective intellectual output of humanity becomes accessible on pocket-sized computers called smartphones.

And yet, Kurzweil's central claim - that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence within the next 25 years - seems to trigger a rather negative reaction among academics.  Every time AI reaches a new groundbreaking result in a field thought to be critical to developing intelligence, "true" intelligence is apparently about something even more elusive, and the method used to achieve the result is derided as "faking it", much in the way that technology in fine art is thought of as "faking it".

Technology's impact has been huge in the luxury sector, too, not only because it has helped some adventurous brands go much further than previously thought possible, but mostly because it has significantly reduced the cost of producing high quality goods, thereby making them available to people who until not so long ago would not have been the luxury sector's target audience.

As a result, a similar kind of denial has been creeping into the luxury sector, belittling the achievements made by newcomers and tech-oriented brands.  Tesla's cars, apparently, have no "love".  The best new world wines, apparently, have a "goût technologique".  Brands like Apple are, apparently, "masstige".  Never mind the fact that everyone remembers their jaw dropping when they first got into a Tesla, drank a glass of Bonny Doon's "Cigare Volant", or had an iPhone in their hands, "true" luxury suddenly seems to require many more elusive attributes, and technology is somehow perceived to be just a way of "faking it".

Is it true you need soul to create great art?  Yes.  Is it true there is more to intelligence than beating Kasparov at chess?  Yes.  Is it true you need culture to create luxury products?  Yes.  But technology does not fake those human attributes.  Rather, it augments humans' ability to leverage those attributes, and to allow more of us to enjoy their fruits.  Technoluxe doesn't fake luxe, it augments it.