Folks might be buzzing about Brooklyn-based art and design collective MSCHF's latest drops, which include the AC2 (a sporty slide version of an orthopedic boot that retails for $115) and the Gobstomper Graylag Goose (a sneaker created with four layers of colored material throughout the entire shoe—body, sole, tongue, etc.—so that different colors are revealed as the shoe is worn down that retails for $195), but that's not what I'm currently interested in.
Let folks have their silly footwear. I'm more intrigued by the fact that over 3.5 years after the launch of their project "This Foot Does Not Exist," it's still going strong. The project is in one way really simple—You text 607-409-3339 and a robot sends you AI-generated foot pics. The project website states, "We trained a computer to create fake foot pics."
The philosophy behind the project—which is detailed on their website—is more complex, though, or that's at least what MSCHF wants us to believe. Mashable explains:
It appears that the AI only knows to send foot pics when "foot" or "feet" are in the text. The actual website, however, has more information — including an explanation of how GANs work and why foot photos are such a commodity (and why they have then become a meme). The website then goes on to explain Jacobellis v. Ohio, the seminal Supreme Court case on pornographic images, as well as Arghiri Emmanuel's theory of unequal exchange.
Here's some text from the TFDNE website that explicates how the project theorizes "Foot pics as unequal exchange":
Because the foot pic may be devoid of any mainstream pornographic signifiers it is both low barrier to entry and significantly safer to distribute. The production of the picture may, depending entirely upon the person to whom the foot belongs, be essentially valueless in the mind of the producer – and yet the resulting image strongly valued by the right consumer.
We might posit that the dynamic created mirrors Arghiri Emmanuel's Theory of Unequal Exchange. This analysis observes that countries with lower wages export more embodied labor time in their commodities than they import – and that the reverse holds true for countries with higher wages. Crucially, the face monetary value of imported and exported commodities does not capture this metric.
With foot pics, then, the presence of a foot fetish, and therefore the psychological investiture in the created/consumed (imported or exported) functions as a parallel metric to labor time. Whether this implies, as Emmanuel theorizes with regard to trade between more-developed and less-developed nations, that the terms of foot pic sales will become less favorable to buyers over time is unclear.
Fundamentally we can view foot pics' spread, popularity, and accessibility as a kind of arbitrage across a foot-fetishism gradient, which moves foot images from areas of low psychological investiture (non-foot-fetishist producers) to areas of high investiture (foot-fetishist consumers).
MSCHF's theorization of foot pics as "chameleonic bimodal content," memes, foot fetishes, pornography, and unequal exchange walks a fine line between being a believable cultural studies analysis and a parodic critique of the same, reminiscent of Social Text's "Sokal Affair." I really don't know how to make that call, so I won't. I will say, though, that my short exchange with the This Foot Does Not Exist bot was mildly entertaining, and I got some super weird foot pics, so I can't complain.