The 2021est News.

Casimir Stone
January 4, 2022

We feel contractually obliged to put a bow on the year we’ve spent the past half of heralding as the end times. So we’ve dedicated this first Spotlight column of 2022 to the story we think best sums up the shitshow we just miraculously lived through. We could talk about the Metaverse IRL, the Biblical fuckstorms, the unconstitutional laws, the international turmoil, the millions we lost on Shiba Inu, et al. Instead, the single 2021est story is one that almost no one is talking about. 

Last month, a Tumblr post went viral. (A sentence I never thought I’d write again.) The post simply read: ‘kind of obsessed with these ai generated wojaks they express a level of anguish that i don’t think the normal ones are capable of conveying’. It was accompanied by the images pictured above and below.

On the off chance the entire premise of our recent sn0bs launch r/whooshed over you Internet kids’ heads, Wojak is the memetic embodiment of our generational and existential dread. The origins of the original meme (a surprisingly expressive MS Paint illustration dating back to at least 2009) are unknown. The origins of these (as expressive as a Lovecraft protagonist staring down an eldritch horror) are not. Here is our future through the eyes of AI. 

AI art bots are hardly news. Our spiritual predecessor, the newsletter Garbage Day, recently ran an exhaustive thinkpiece on how algorithms influenced the trends of content creation today and will dominate them once the algorithms are the ones creating the content. Which may seem like the plot of some spec fic. But then again.

This year, AI reached the point where it can reasonably replicate styles of illustration, music, and human interaction, even if the results are missing a recognizable sense of humanity. (Look closer at the far left ‘mon in the middle column if you don’t believe me.) The Elon-Musk-popularized discourse around AI is that it will provide a breather for the working class. All the boring jobs will be automated, so we can spend all our time on creativity! But the truth is, the AI creations with the most visibility thus far have predominantly been ‘creative’. Look no further than the other 2021 story of the year, the unescapable vulgarity of NFT profile picture projects. They’ve been hailed by many — us included — as the future of the art market. They’re also made by robots. There’s already a market for these abominations. It’s not hard to believe they’ll soon be the market.

(To be fair, I’d frame the little faceless fetish statue ‘mon, bottom center. It looks like my late cat on a bad trip. Really encapsulates our radiant, empty existence, I’d say.)

But back to the 2021est story of the year: AI Wojak. Will those anguished souls go down as The Scream of our time, as they so desperately deserve? No. They’ll be lost to the void as soon as the social media cycle wheels out another sad, shocking, funny little thing for us to project our angst and insecurities over. But there’s something so revealing to me about AI’s take on a meme, specifically. I believe memes, in a strange way, represent the mystery and intangibility of humanity in the Information Age. Even in an obsessively recorded world — where the ‘technology of the future’, blockchain, is basically one long transaction log — no one knows where the OG Wojak came from. Hell, no one even knows why he’s funny. Wojak just is. Like anonymous philosophers and epic poets etching ancient wisdom into stone tablets, he’ll likely live on long after we’re gone, no individual identity, rather, one projected onto our collective lives, the 4chan generation’s personified empathy, or lack thereof. Despite just being a jumble of pixels, Wojak is human. He knows that feel bro.

In a strange way, then, the AI Wojaks are human, too. With memes we made to represent our feelings, we trained a technology we created, for no other reason than because we could. In response, it held up a mirror and showed us how we looked. The result is soulful terror. With all the words in the English language, I couldn’t sum up 2021 better.

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