Move slow and create things

Dom Aversano

Over Christmas I took a week off, and no sooner had I begun to relax than an inspiring idea came to mind for a generative art piece for an album cover. The algorithm needed to make it was clear in my mind, but I did not want to take precious time away from family and friends to work on it. Then a thought occurred — could I build it quickly using ChatGPT?

I had previously resisted using Large Language Models (LLMs) in my projects for a variety of reasons. Would outsourcing coding gradually deskill me? Whose data was the system trained on and was I participating in their exploitation? Is the environmental effect of using such computationally intense technology justifiable?

Despite my reservations I decided to try it, treating it as an experiment that I could stop at any point. Shortly prior to this, I had read a thought-provoking online comment questioning whether manual coding might seem as peculiar and antiquated to the future as programming in binary does now. Could LLMs help make computers less rigid and fixed, opening up the world of programming to anyone?

While I had previously used ChatGPT to create some simple code for Supercollider, I had been unimpressed by the results. For this project, however, the quality of the code was different. Every prompt returned P5JS code that did exactly what I intended, without the need for clarification. I made precisely what I envisioned in less than 30 minutes. I was astonished. It was not the most advanced program, but neither was it basic.

Despite the success, I felt slightly uneasy. The computer scientist Grady Booch wrote that ‘every line of code represents an ethical and moral decision.’ It is tempting to lose sight of this amid a technological culture steeped in a philosophy of ‘move fast and break things’ and ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission’. So what specifically felt odd?

I arrived at what I wanted without much of a journey, learning little more than how to clarify my ideas to a machine. This is a stark contrast to the slow and meticulous manner of creation that gradually develops our skills and thinking, which is generally considered quintessential to artistic activity. Furthermore, although the arrival is quicker the destination is not exactly the same, since handcrafted code can offer a representation of a person’s worldview, whereas LLM code is standardised.

However, I am aware that historically many people — not least of all in the Arts and Crafts movement — expressed similar concerns, and one can argue that if machines dramatically reduce labourious work it could free up time for creativity. Removing the technical barrier to entry could allow many more people’s creative ideas to be realised. Yet efficiency is not synonymous with improvement, as anyone who has scanned a QR-code menu at a restaurant can attest.

The idea that LLMs could degrade code is plausible given that they frequently produce poor or unusable code. While they will surely improve, to what degree is unknown. A complicated project built from layers of machine-generated code may create layers of problems: short-term and long-term. Like pollution, its effects might not be obvious until they accumulate and compound over time. If LLMs are trained on LLM-generated code it could have a degradative effect, leading to a Model Collapse.

The ethics of this technology are equally complicated. The current lack of legislation around consent on training LLMs means many people are discovering that their books, music, or code has been used to train a model without their knowledge or permission. Beyond legislating, a promising idea has been proposed by programmer and composer Ed Newton-Rex, who has founded a company called Fairly Trained, which offers to monitor and certify different LLMs, providing transparency on how they were trained.

Finally, while it is hard to find accurate assessments of how much electricity these systems use, some experts predict they could soon consume as much electricity as entire countries, which should not be difficult to imagine given that the Bitcoin blockchain is estimated to consume more electricity than the whole of Argentina.

To return to Grady Booch’s idea that ‘every line of code represents an ethical and moral decision’ one could extend this to every interaction with a computer represents an ethical and moral decision. As the power of computers increases so should our responsibility, but given the rapid increases in computing power, it may be unrealistic to expect our responsibility to keep pace. Taking a step back to reflect does not make one a Luddite, and might be the most technically insightful thing to do. Only from a thoughtful perspective can we hope to understand the deep transformations occurring, and how to harness them to improve the world.

Build an interactive textile instrument

This practice-led course will show you how to make an electronic textile interface for music performance. We will learn a DIY technique to craft with e-textile materials and then explore how to make music with the handcrafted interface in a number of ways. Each session will follow on from the last, developing your knowledge through a series of hands-on projects, delivered in four online workshops. 

Level: beginner with notions of DIY electronics and programming

  • Some familiarity or experience of working with Arduino and/or Max/MSP (or similar platforms) is desirable
  • A tabletop space to work at
  • Computer, with USB port
  • Arduino IDE (Free – download here: https://www.arduino.cc/en/Main/Software)
  • Max 8 (Free 30 day trial available – you will be instructed to download this for the final session)

This workshop is available internationally. Please order your DIY kit before the dispatch date for your location. Kits will be posted using a Royal Mail tracked service.

UK dispatch date: Friday 17th November

Worldwide dispatch date: Friday 3rd November

We will work with the Lilypad Arduino, a microcontroller board designed for use with e-textiles and wearables projects, and Max/MSP, an object-orientated programming language for music making. The workshop series will cover the fundamentals of working with e-textiles and these technologies, giving a basis for participants to continue to develop their creative ideas when working with sound and interactive textiles.

Tues 24th Nov, 6pm UK –  Workshop 1: Crafting an e-textile interface

In this workshop, we will explore an approach to working with electronic textiles and handcraft. This workshop will introduce needle felting as a DIY method of working with e-textiles. We will make an interactive and touch sensitive textile interface, to then be used in a number of ways, throughout the four sessions of this course. Through crafting the brightly coloured interface, we will explore a creative approach to interface design and learn how traditional crafts can be combined with e-textile materials to result in novel interfaces for music performance.

Tues 1st Dec, 6pm UK – Workshop 2: Bringing your craft work to life: capacitive sensing and visualising sensor data with the Lilypad Arduino

In this session, we will transform the needle felted piece from Workshop 1 into an interactive and touch sensitive interface. We will introduce the Lilypad Arduino and explore capacitive sensing as a method of bringing your textile work to life. You will learn several approaches to visualising interaction data on screen, as well as the fundamentals of working with Arduino IDE.

Tues 8th Dec, 6pm UK – Workshop 3: Composing through code: making an e-textile step sequencer with the Lilypad Arduino

This week, we will develop our coding skills and learn an approach to using your e-textile interface with the Lilypad Arduino, as a standalone music making device. We will write, edit and compose through code, to create a playful step sequencer that makes music as you touch the textile interface. 

Tues 15th Dec, 6pm UK – Workshop 4: Interactive textiles and Max/MSP

Workshop 4 will introduce a method of using your handcrafted interface with Max/MSP. From this workshop, you will know how to program your Lilypad Arduino, to allow your e-textile interface to control parameters in a Max patch. We will make a software-based sampler, where pre-recorded sound files are triggered by touching the interactive textile interface. Some familiarity and a basic working knowledge of Max/MSP is desirable, but not essential. Participants with experience in Max are welcome to bring their own patches to experiment with.

A DIY kit, with all of the craft tools and materials you will need, is included in the workshop price and will be posted to your home in advance of the course.  

There are two kits available, please select the kit that you will require: 

Kit 1 is a full kit and includes a Lilypad Arduino and all of the craft tools and materials you will need for the course. 

Kit 2 includes all of the craft tools and materials you will need to make the e-textile interface, but does not include the Lilypad Arduino and USB cable. 

(Kit 2 is best suited if you already have a Lilypad Arduino or would prefer to use an alternative board. Please note that this course focuses on working with the Lilypad and so support for alternative boards will be limited and only recommended for more experienced participants.)

Kit 1 contents:

  • Lilypad Arduino
  • USB cable
  • 10 x crocodile clips
  • Speaker
  • Wool 
  • Steel wool
  • 3 x Needle felting tools 
  • Embroidery hoop
  • Fabric
  • Copper tape

Kit 2 contents:

  • 10 x crocodile clips
  • Speaker
  • Wool 
  • Steel wool
  • 3 x Needle felting tools 
  • Embroidery hoop
  • Fabric
  • Copper tape