Is a New Renaissance on the Horizon Thanks to AI Revolution?

I read somewhere that Artificial Intelligence is bringing such disruption to the fields of science, arts, and business comparable to the Renaissance. I would always be very careful about these historical comparisons, it is not the first time that similar proposals have been made but they are rather unrealistic. Of course, every technological revolution brings upheavals and if we want to say that AI is already revolutionising the way of doing things and, like any technology, also that of interpreting the world, well, then, we can also clearly agree, in a broad sense.

The Renaissance — a period spanning roughly from the 14th to the 17th century — was marked by a number of characteristic traits that distinguished it from earlier historical periods, which, for brevity, we can summarise as follows:

  • Revival of Classical Antiquity: There was a renewed interest in the art, literature, and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. This classical influence was evident in the architecture, sculpture, and painting of the time, as well as in the intellectual pursuits and humanistic studies.
  • Humanism: Humanism was a key intellectual movement of the Renaissance. It focused on the study of classical texts, the dignity and worth of the individual, and the pursuit of secular subjects rather than purely religious ones. Humanists believed in the potential for human achievement and emphasised the importance of education and knowledge.
  • Artistic Innovations: The Renaissance witnessed significant developments in art. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael pushed boundaries in realism, perspective, and human anatomy. The use of oil paints became more prevalent, allowing for richer colour and texture.
  • Scientific Endeavours and Discoveries: This period saw major advancements in science. Figures like Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus challenged established views and laid the groundwork for modern scientific thought. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg also revolutionised the spread of knowledge.
  • Exploration and Expansion: The Renaissance era was a time of great geographical exploration. Explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama expanded European horizons, leading to the discovery of new lands and the establishment of trade routes.
  • Cultural and Intellectual Growth: Literature flourished with writers like William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. Music saw the transition from medieval to more modern forms. Philosophy and politics were also profoundly impacted, with thinkers like Machiavelli influencing future generations.
  • Individualism and Secularism: There was a shift from collective religious life to individual achievement and expression. Secular themes became more common in art and literature, reflecting a more worldly perspective than the predominantly religious focus of the Middle Ages.
  • Urbanisation and Social Change: The Renaissance period saw a rise in the importance of cities and a gradual shift from a feudal to a more capitalist economy. This change fostered a more diverse society with increased social mobility.

These traits collectively represent a profound transformation in European thought, culture, and society, marking the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

However, our societies today are very different, as are our problems and the challenges that await us. Making easy comparisons is a temptation, they help simplify reality but also create a lot of confusion. Syncretism – that is, the easy and confused mixing of concepts, ideas and cultures – tends to prevail in a society which sees its cultural bases impoverished and which is unable to make appropriate distinctions. A bit like the night when all the cows are black – as Hegel specified in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit.This is a critical commentary on the limits of abstract thinking. While it’s useful to consider general principles or categories, doing so excessively can lead to a loss of the important details and nuances that give things their individuality and distinctiveness.

Obviously, AI is already changing everything that can be changed, I also highlighted these things well in my manual Navigating AI from Ground Zero. What we cannot see at the moment is a change in the social paradigm that will take us out of the swamp we have found ourselves in: the inability of politics to solve people’s problems, an economic system that increases the gap between rich and poor, global crises which trigger wars, environmental crises and new forms of use of natural and energy resources. These are crucial questions where AI can help us but will never be solved by technology. Those who delude themselves do a disservice to themselves and to society.

Many harbour a fear that art will suffer a decline in quality, but it’s important to remember that art, much like language, is ever-evolving. Just as the languages spoken centuries or even decades ago have transformed, so too must art inevitably embrace new forms and expressions. The notion that any form of expression, including art, remains static is fundamentally flawed. Art, in its essence, is a dynamic and ever-changing force, continually adapting and flourishing with each new era and innovation.

AI’s advent marks a revolution in all human activities. In the realm of the arts, it stands not as a replacement but as a catalyst for human creativity. Imagine the potential: poetry, figurative arts, and beyond, all infused with the unique capabilities of AI. Yet, remember, these technological wonders hinge on the spark of human creativity. AI, in its most profound essence, is an artistic collaborator, not a creator.

As we stand at this crossroads, it’s essential to recognize that the true power of AI in the arts lies in its partnership with the artist. This symbiosis promises to elevate art to unprecedented heights, forging new styles and expressions that blend emotional depth with computational innovation. However, this is not a narrative of human talent being overshadowed by the cold mechanics of technology. Rather, it is a testament to the indomitable spirit of human creativity, which uses AI as a brush, a chisel, a pen, not as a replacement for the artist’s soul.

In this new landscape, where digital and human creativity intertwine, our greatest creations still depend on the human heart and mind. The fear that technology might eclipse human genius is misplaced. AI is a mirror reflecting our own ingenuity, a tool shaped and directed by our hands. It is not the AI that lacks talent or vision; it is a conduit for our own. As we embrace this new era, let us not forget: the artistry, the genius, the creative fire – all burn brightly within us, undimmed by the tools we choose to wield.

The most substantial difference, in my opinion, between the Renaissance and today, is that the Renaissance represented a hope for change in society, stripping it of superstitions and freeing it from the oppressive and obsessive weight of religion. This only happened in part, clearly, but today that hope cannot be seen on the horizon. Of course, our globalised world is very different from the West that saw the Renaissance back then, and Western culture itself is in decline today, certainly not due to migratory flows or other amenities that are rumoured.

Here the discussion becomes complicated and we enter somewhat slippery terrain, and it would require much more in-depth analysis. However, it is urgent for me to note that our beautiful Western culture, having lost its original traits for some time now, is increasingly radicalised into bigoted and obscurantist forms, becoming increasingly reactionary and relying on old patterns and superstitions that open up the abyss of destruction in front of us.

I see a society on the brink of collapse, propelled by a tangled web of ideological problems, of which I can identify four main causes:

  1. Return of Outdated Social Paradigms: This speaks to a reversion to old ways of thinking and acting that many had hoped were left in the past. These outdated paradigms could include rigid class structures, racial or gender discrimination, or authoritarian governance models. Their resurgence signals a retreat from progressive values and a threat to social cohesion and equity.
  2. Dominance Structures: The re-emergence of hierarchical and dominance-based structures in society often leads to the suppression of individual freedoms and the marginalization of certain groups. This resurgence can manifest in various forms, from corporate monopolies stifling innovation to political systems that prioritize power over the well-being of citizens.
  3. Rise of Luddites Fearful of Technological Change: The concept points to the rise of individuals with narcissistic traits who perceive technological advancements, particularly in AI and digital domains, as a threat to their established beliefs and power. These individuals might resist or denigrate technological progress due to fear that it will undermine their personal beliefs or the control they hold.
  4. Social Jealousy and Desire for Vengeance: This aspect highlights a growing undercurrent of envy and a desire for retribution within society. As disparities in wealth, opportunity, and recognition become more pronounced, feelings of injustice and resentment can lead to social unrest. This environment can be fertile ground for populist movements that exploit these emotions, often at the expense of rational policymaking and social harmony.

In essence, we can see that instead of moving forward with the potential benefits of technological advancement and enlightened social structures, there’s a risk of regressing to a more divisive and tumultuous state. This regression is fuelled by a combination of societal dynamics (when the economy fails and poverty rises, dreadful repercussions follow), and emotional responses (like envy and a desire for vengeance) to the challenges and changes of the modern world. This scenario poses significant challenges to global stability, democratic values, and the potential for a more equitable and progressive future.

Consequently, I don’t perceive this purported new Renaissance, ostensibly ushered in by sheer technological advancements, at all. This situation underscores that AI is merely a tool; something far more significant must stir within us to liberate us from our profound afflictions.

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Bob Mazzei
Bob Mazzei

AI Consultant, IT Engineer

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