An interview with Sam McPheeters about his new project, Reality Breakdown
QUICK HOUSEKEEPING: I'm throwing another party with my good friend Leigh, who you might know as OHAILEIGH on the internet or from other parties she's thrown. She's an awesome DJ and I'm pretty alright. We're playing bloghouse hits for you to shake your ass to on 5/26 at Saint Vitus and we hope you'll join.
Sam McPheeters is the author of Reality Breakdown, a project on Substack about the new wave of AI content creation. You may know him as the writer of Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk, or from his music in Wrangler Brutes, Men's Recovery Project, or Born Against.
While it's on a newsletter platform, McPheeters calls this a book, "written in real time and in present tense." McPheeters' familiarity with science fiction is a breath of fresh air in this space, as he's not only consumed a lot of it, but he's written it himself. His novel Exploded View even discusses the ramifications of this type of work. When the AI Drake-Weeknd song dropped, I didn't go out and look for it even if it might appeal to me. I found the whole "storming of the uncanny valley," a little unnerving. When I finally heard it, it was blaring from a car at a stoplight. At that point, I knew I had to reach out to McPheeters and ask him a few questions.
Was there an impetus to starting this project now? I know that you’ve always been, I’m reticent to say “wary” of new tech, but aware and less-than-enthusiastic. Why now?
I can date this project to an afternoon in 1988. I walked into my college’s computer lab—an actual room full of computers, like a bad spy movie —and saw a photograph on a monitor. I’d never seen such a thing. Up until that moment, I’d only used computers with text prompts and DOS programming. It’d never occurred to me that desktop computers would someday process photographs. I realized then(ish) what this meant: that well within my lifetime, people would be able to manipulate photos, and thus video, and that the endpoint was a world in which no one would be able to trust any content or communication. There are many scary political implications for this. I tried and failed to write lyrics about this in Born Against. I’ve followed this story ever since, but found it almost impossible to convey. I’d hoped my 2016 novel Exploded View would provide an opening. But what little feedback I got from it often involved confusion over the subject matter.
The AI explosion of 2023 gives me that opening. Suddenly, AI stories are everywhere. It also forces me to write quickly, since “things” are moving very fast now.
You’ve mentioned a “consensus reality,” which is a little more evident now that America is seemingly more fractured between party lines. Do you see us continuing to fracture, or do you see consensus reality bending towards actual reality?
I don't know where this leads, I just know we’re not there yet. In 2012, millions of Americans believed the president was a secret Muslim. It was clear that something bad was coming, but there was no way to guess at the precise, awful contours of the next decade. In 2023, millions of Americans think the president is illegitimate. I don’t see any good way for this to go, but the utter unpredictability of this new technology (especially, but not limited to, AI) makes everything even less predictable.
And predicting the future isn’t the goal of my newsletter anyway. I’m trying to point out connections and implications for currently existing technology.
Your most recent entry talked about the AI Drake/Weeknd song. A lot of AI music is, as you put it, musical fanfiction. Why do you think people are eager to make a simulacra featuring stars instead of doing it themselves?
Ease of use? Historians will have their hands full with every week of 2023 (maybe every day by the end of the year). But it seems easy to see a future in which people are just as happy with artificial entertainment (songs without musicians, films without actors) as with art made by people.
If everything AI-art related is attempting to recreate reality, why do you think that people don’t seek reality as it is?
I’m not sure how to answer that one. I guess that’s an ongoing question for this project.
You mentioned a potential AI bot that could crawl Discogs and make a potentially perfect simulacra of a first-wave hardcore record. What does that record sound like to you?
A fake old hardcore record would probably sound like one of the discoveries I’ve recently made on YouTube. I immersed myself in New York hardcore for six years, and yet had never heard of two great early-eighties NYC bands (Frontline and Bad Posture) until a few months ago.
Many people seem convinced that AI will never pass some final, abstract hurdle of identifiable humanity (‘conviction?’ ‘soul?’) and thus will never be capable of overwhelming historical archives with falsity. I’m not one of those people. I think this is coming soon. I’m writing about it partly because it scares the shit out of me and I need to be able to do something with that fear. And, also, because it’s one of the most interesting things people have ever been able to write about in present tense.
I'm one of the people who thinks AI won't pass the final abstract hurdle but it also scares the hell out of me that it might. Fun stuff, in my opinion. I'll see you on Friday.