The stage is all set, with bright lights illuminating a live streamer’s face adorned with colorful and cartoonish make-up. She adjusts her phone while stealing a glance at the bills pinned on the wall of her room. As she gazes at her reflection in the mirror, her mind ventures to how much money she needs to earn to make ends meet.
AI Live, a social media trend where people pretend to be Non-Playable Characters (NPC) to receive digital “gifts” convertible to money, has blurred the line between content and identity.
As we embrace content creation as a form of work, people capitalize on social media to transform their lives. However, success in this competitive digital landscape demands more than just creativity, grit, and luck to become successful. In today’s highly competitive digital world, AI Live turns people’s behavior and sense of identity into commodities and further encourages consumerism.
The entertainment industry has transcended traditional boundaries, seamlessly transitioning into the digital era through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. These platforms allow individuals to instantly reach massive global audiences, creating fertile ground for live streaming to thrive.
This digital transformation has given rise to social media influencers and content creators to connect with their followers on a personal level. They produce vlogs, comedy skits, product reviews, and live streams catering to niche interests and demographics. During their live stream, they respond directly to their viewers’ comments and questions, creating a real-time conversation that transcends the usual one-way communication in television.
When the pandemic struck the Philippines, live-streaming platforms like Bigo and Kumu saw a significant surge in popularity. In October 2022, Kumu reported about 6.5 million hours of livestream views per month. These platforms became a lifeline for people who had lost their jobs and were confined to their homes, offering not only entertainment but also a means of earning a livelihood. As the world shifted from physical to virtual work, live streaming became a beacon of hope for many.
This trend continues to thrive today. What was initially seen as a temporary solution to the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic has now become a legitimate career for many, including digital creator Kuya Renan TV. With over 600,000 followers, the Pinoy TikToker regularly hosts AI Live sessions and dresses up as ‘kawaii’ girl, often poking fun at himself.
This is what Sociologist Harry Collins meant when he said that technology, driven by capitalism, is leading us towards a state of "surrender" to AI culture. In this surrender, we accept trends like AI Live as convenient remedies for perennial issues, such as unemployment, low wages, and the absence of sustainable livelihood programs. However, relying on these quick fixes does not address the root problems.
Spectacle, Gaze, and Exploitation
Live streaming itself is not inherently wrong; it merely presents a dynamic evolution of entertainment and direct audience interaction. But AI Live raises important questions on how far one should go in the name of content.
AI Live draws inspiration from the spectacle of NPCs. It falls under AI aesthetics, which involves using AI technology to analyze and enhance artistic styles and human preferences in various forms of art and design. NPCs lack autonomy and exist solely to fulfill predefined roles and advance narratives.
In AI Live, streamers are dehumanized and reduced to digital avatars with personas designed to cater to the audience's desires. AI Live erodes a streamer's identity and human agency as they are transformed into a puppet. The gaze, as conceptualized by French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, illustrates how the act of looking imposes a power dynamic between the subject and the viewer. Viewers, through their comments and gifts, hold the power to command the streamer’s persona and behavior. The streamer’s autonomy and individuality then is controlled by the audience.
In this puppeteering dynamic, users become “prosumers,” actively participating in the creation and consumption of content, rather than being passive consumers. AI aesthetics are designed to make social media platforms addictive. With prolonged exposure, users tend to, if not heavily rely, on them. Since streamers need traction to make money, they must be updated with the latest trends. Hence, they only consume content that is most likely to generate income, confining their minds to such trends.
While AI Live offers opportunities for income generation, it simultaneously perpetuates consumerism, as streamers commodify themselves. It reinforces the consumerist notion that every aspect of life, even one’s identity and dignity, can be assigned a financial value. Streamers like Kuya Renan situate themselves to act absurdly and tolerate hateful comments to make a living.
AI Live is inherently objectifying as it reduces live streamers to digital puppets whose strings are pulled by the gaze of viewers. The way people look at AI Live streamers carries with it the power dynamic they choose to impose, and seeing them merely as NPCs is treating them as devoid of humanity.
Resisting the gaze and the spectacle requires engaging in critical cultural analysis and critiquing consumer culture. We must continue to emphasize the negative consequences of commodification and the alienation that can arise from excessive consumption. Instead of perpetuating consumerism, we must promote alternative cultural expressions and practices that prioritize authenticity. ●
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