Dirk Knemeyer

A Gentler Future for Knowledge Work, January 5, 2017

The French law really struck a personal note for me. The reason for that is when I was younger, it’s less over the last few years, but when I was younger I was basically working 17 hours a day.

I would be spending a little bit of the time with family, but even when I’m there the email’s going and if something important comes in I’m going to respond to it. There’s someone who I worked with for a long time, worked very closely, and certainly email was a big part of our communication. Probably more so for me, I’ve always been a heavy email-er, I’m introverted, it just email as a medium suits me pretty well. There came a point his wife wrote me and said, “Dirk, you can’t send emails on the weekend anymore.” She said, “All weekend emails flow in from you with all these big initiatives, requests, things to do, and my husband gets more and more stressed. More and more anxious. More and more unhappy, because your emails keep coming in.” She said, “You just, you just can’t do it anymore.”

I was in my 30s at that point and so you know I had been emailing my way, which is 24/7 essentially for many years. Just oblivious to the possibility that for another person, that flow of communication in certain times, in certain volumes, would be a negative. Would be something that had a deleterious effect on them, because at that phase of my life I was just sort of wired to be always working, always going, it wasn’t, it may have been subconsciously and internally stressful for me in ways I wasn’t in touch with. Consciously when emails would come in I didn’t feel stress, I just attacked them, I just took them, I just went right to them. The metaphor I’ve used for email is tennis. It’s like playing tennis. I would run around the court making sure the balls were always in the other people’s court, basically.

Fast forward now to today, and France is identifying the fact that email, receiving email, feeling the compulsion to respond to email, the requests that email may contain that spur someone to other action at certain times, in certain proportions, isn’t good for you. It’s unhealthy in ways large or small. I think that’s an important recognition. I don’t think that the French law, you know, you said the sort of- we don’t know yet, is it just one little thing, is it visionary. It’s probably one little thing. France has been a trailblazer in affecting labor law that basically no-one else adopts, right? France famously did the 30 hour work week I don’t know how many years ago, but sometime this decade. You know, nobody else is doing that, or maybe there’s a few small countries. But, the main pillars of the economy certainly are not. They’re going by the old rules, and the old modes.

I’m happy that this law is sort of making us think more about the impacts of modern technology on human life. First world life to make it more specific. But, I don’t think that this law in and of itself is going to amount to a sea-change of any sort.

I think things are going to get on differently now then in the earlier industrial revolution and there’s a few reasons why. Number one is at that time, the worst part of your life was work. You would go in, you’d lose fingers, you wouldn’t be able to sleep, it was human slavery, human torture, human- I mean it was really, the worst part of your life was the work experience. Now, the worst part of your life is not the work experience. So yeah I know, using email as the example, it can be stressful to get email at night. It can be stressful to get email on vacation, on the weekend, yadda, yadda, yadda. But, that’s not the worst part of our lives. The worst part of our lives is not the work part, it’s the life part. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to sugar. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to salt. It’s the fact that we are addicted to the call of the new. It’s the fact that we are in this broken capitalist paradigm that makes us fat, that makes us inattentive, that makes us feel unfulfilled.

There were enormous reasons why the industrial revolution needed to be reformed, and the inhumanity of work needed to be brought more in line with what’s appropriate. But, it’s so much farther down the list now. The issues we have, or rather some of the personal things that I said, or some of the more systemic things around global warming. Like, the fact that email stresses us out is just not a big deal on the list, whereas child labor laws and some of the things that didn’t exist over a 100 years ago, like the absence of those, were more sort of at the fulcrum of what was wrong with civilization.

The things that are wrong with civilization now are really far removed from the plight of the digital worker. Which, is not to say that those aren’t negative things, but it’s going to be a lot harder to coalesce around that as the rallying cry in this environment of plenty, and where the real issues and the real things that are killing us are happening at a very different level.

When I walk into a store, they have a sensor that records the person walked into the store; is that inclusive in my data? When I’m out on the street there are cameras filming, and some of them can make out my face and could come in tight on my face, and that’s data out there. Is that my data? To me that’s the trickiest, because it requires a crisp definition of what, quote unquote, your data is. I haven’t seen a good thesis for what that should be, and I think getting to the bottom of it is going to be tricky.


AI & Creativity, July 7, 2016

I think the creativity is the special human things, just it’s a myth. I mean creativity is just sort of the manifestation of something unexpected, something less straightforward. That’s accomplished by some combination, of need that just forces spontaneous innovation, or just by people’s processor’s people’s mind and problem solving machines. Our internal machines operating differently or unless unnecessarily better where the creativity comes from people who are operating differently either due to the wiring and the piping that we have, and/or due to the way that they’re solving problems or the contact store, or a lot of different factors.

None of that to me is special or unique and it’s just a matter of time before the most creative pursuits that humans are able to express will be matched and exceeded by machines. There’s a lot I don’t know on the engineering side, so I hesitate to put specific dates on it. I know for a fact, like there are some things creatively, I’m really good at. I know exactly how I could communicate to an engineer, what the process is, what’s going on that gets me from zero to really cool funky, unexpected solution.

If I can do that, other people can do that. Once we’re able to translate that into commands for the machine it’s game-set-match, and I don’t mean that from like a scary, “Oh my god we are irrelevant” perspective, even though that’s one possible long term outcome. Just from the perspective that this creativity isn’t special, it’s not protected, it’s not safe. It might be further out before the machines are able to get there. It is going to inevitably come and so rather than fear it or rail against it we just have to think about what’s next for us.

AI & Original Works of Art, April 14, 2016

If you think about how art schools work, they focus first on foundations and skills and fundamentals and you begin to learn a lot of different ways to create. The AI is learning different skills and different fundamentals and different tools and ways to create. The interesting question is how far are we away from the AI creating things that are uniquely its own based on the synthesis of many different styles and skills that it has developed beforehand? It probably is decades, meaning low ten to twenty years, as opposed to three to four, but it’s coming. Not too far away. It’s definitely coming, and how will you feel then?

Art is … I don’t think it’s so much an expression of the world around us as it’s an expression of the context that we have been exposed to and how we process and react to it. It happens that as humans and the way we live our life as humans, the context that we’re exposed to encompasses a great deal of data that seeps into many aspects of the world, at least in some limited geographical, cultural context.

The amount of context that machines will have in the future is going to grow exponentially. Right now the context of expression of the world that a computer would turn into art is a mash up of Picasso and Michelangelo and Rembrandt, or whomever, without the greater understanding of the world and place and the many things that inform human art. It’s inevitable that that context will be a part of artificial intelligence in the future.

At the point it has all of that context to go with the skills, it’s going to be doing what we do. I believe in hard determinism, so I believe that the things that we do are an inevitable, and if we had machines powerful enough to do so, even predictable synthesis of basically all of our nature and nurture up until that point, and as we interact with the world itself. The idea of free will and the human spirit, I think that those are clumsy ways of explaining things that we don’t have computational power enough to understand.

I think that AI and machines are being built in the model and mode of humans but with computational power that will continue to be orders of magnitude higher than we ourselves have. They’re taking our place as operational actors in many different ways, from a technological perspective, is an inevitability. The question is will things be done artificially from a social, legal perspective to prevent that operational eclipse of humans guiding the world. To me that’s the big question and unknown.

As far as computers being able to create original art in this dramatic, idealistic, lovely way that we think of human artists creating, I think it’s asked and answered and it’s coming. It’s just how long will it take the nerds to take to program the machines properly to be able to do that? It will probably be faster than we think.

On the Past and Future of Agencies, August 27, 2015

Yeah, just another market cycle. Go back 50 years, go back to the time of “Mad Men” and the agency business waxes and wanes in different ways and the thing that’s most noticeable about it, is that while agencies work, outside services work continues to be required and there continue to be a lot of firms, they are changing over time. What services they’re offering, how they position themselves. Certainly agencies that are staying in place and not changing, adapting to the market and the needs of customers, they might be in trouble.

That’s healthy. That’s the good part of free markets that work. Those who don’t adapt, are going to be left behind. Even some who do adapt will be left behind but in the long now, a decode from now, there’ll be approximately the same amount of outside providers as there are now, as there are always. It’s just a moment.

In the U.S. we look at things so short term. Financials are always quarterly. Other cultures primarily, and particularly eastern cultures, have a much longer time horizon. It’s much healthier, it’s much more correct and as usual we’re just panicking here as relates to short term stuff.

In the long now, things from the standpoint of outside, service providers being an augmentation to businesses and corporations, we’re going to be here. External creatives doing our thing as well as ever, just in different ways perhaps.