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Innovation for the sake of innovation is its opposite.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the debates around artificial intelligence have faded into the background. A few months ago, AI was the first news item on most people’s minds, unavoidable and loud. That was before a large flurry of articles and reportage increasingly worried, even panicked about the safety of the new technology, before governments started intervening.
Now, the chatter has reduced to more of a low buzz. Still in the news, but if you only read the major headlines, you’re likely to forget about it for days on end. And who could blame you? Keeping yourself alive requires the lion’s share of your attention nowadays.
This doesn’t indicate that anything has been resolved. Far from it. The screenwriters’ strike continues (with the actors now close to joining them), and one of their main sticking points is whether AI will be allowed as part of the writing process. The writers, rightly anxious about any of their purview being chipped away at, demand this be negotiated. The studios refuse. Stalemate.
The public remains largely supportive of the writers. At the same time, the studios’ intransigence and arrogance on the matter of AI seems balanced on the belief that most of us will simply come to accept its presence, albeit begrudingly. AI is here, it’s not going anywhere, and for all the jobs and livelihoods it threatens, even for all the troubling stories we hear about unhinged chatbots, we are just going to have to learn to live with it.
It’s obviously a sleazy way to go about business, but it’s also not out of the ordinary. Every time an ethical concern over technology has been raised over the past couple decades — from mass surveillance and facial recognition software to data mining — big tech has prevailed simply by waiting for the naysayers to tire out. David A. Banks, a co-host of the Ironweeds podcast who also writes about the city and technology, summed up this process in an essay for Real Life some years back:
These technologies — the email that reminds you how you’re never not working; the selfie that shows identity has always been performance, the government complex that makes bureaucratic contempt for street-level life plain — temporarily stand as explicit, “vulgar” announcements not of new social relations or arrangements but of established ones that become hard to perceive as we live with them. What was once disparate and ephemeral is consolidated into a conscious experience, unveiling to us, sometimes in strange and distorted forms, the social relations that become invisible with time.
If new technology always reveals to us something about prevailing social relations, then this goes some way toward explaining how it comes to be accepted, tolerated, and metabolized into our lives. If the logic of “no alternative” is so central to capitalist realism, then it will also apply to its major innovations.
Right now, AI remains “vulgar,” only clumsily integrated into the fabric of life. Very likely it is in for a rather prolonged period of “vulgarity” given the degree to which it might potentially upend our lives. Its boosters and, more significantly, its developers at Microsoft and Google and elsewhere, are unconcerned about the recent spate of negative coverage and commentary. They are intending to stick it out until we all just relent to this “new” reality, ground down by sheer ubiquity and repetition.
You can’t stand in the way of progress. So goes the mantra, and the logic it speaks to. As if that’s its own argument, enough to put an end to the debate. As if progress – the constant forward movement of the world – is some inexorable and unstoppable force beyond human reach. As if we would even want it to be.
Warnings around this outlook, this fetishization of the new and shiny, are as old as capitalism itself. First it was the romantics, their critique captured in the likes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Goethe’s Faust, and the poetry of William Blake. Despite the ease with which modern socialism can similarly, and incorrectly, be slapped with the Promethean label, this critique has also been part of the Marxist lineage, best represented by Walter Benjamin’s famous likening of revolution to an emergency brake.
Most prescient in this vein is Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo. Brecht’s retelling of the life of the father of the scientific method is, at first glance, and certainly in the original German version, above all else a condemnation of how absolute power can stand in the way of scientific discovery.
The revised version, most performed for English-speaking audiences today, was reworked by Brecht for the atomic age. Its scientific optimism was replaced by a deep ambivalence, appropriately so considering the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still intact is the portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church’s interference with and denunciation of Galileo’s proof that the earth isn’t the center of the universe. This discovery, and the Copernican argument it confirms, is framed less as the triumphant mastery of the stars, intercepted by small-minded cardinals, and more as an incendiary truth.
This version is far more contingent. In our own times we might see the play as beseeching us less to “trust experts” and more to internalize the scientific and critical method for ourselves, to distinguish truth from propaganda. And to know enough of ourselves and the world around us to be able to know when something is one or the other.
It is, for example, a fact that ChatGPT can crank out film and TV scripts at a rate far quicker than any writers room can. How good these scripts are is another matter (it’s a safe bet that most are utter dreck), but we’ve all been subjected to enough Marvel to know that even barely coherent movies can make hundreds of millions of dollars for the studio that produces them.
We’ve also, concerning social relations, seen enough to know that when a company can get a machine to do something, it will. One doesn’t have to have read Capital to identify this (though I am, incidentally, also in the middle of reading Capital). And while this may not eliminate entirely the flesh-and-blood writer from the filmmaking or show development process, it certainly stands to reason that it will both rob writers of creative control and cut down on their billable hours.
We haven’t seen it happen yet, but the evidence is plentiful enough to support it doing so. It’s why the writers have dug their heels in, and why the studio heads are resorting to the old bugbear: “standing in the way of progress.”
The problem, of course, if we look around with enough honesty about how the world works, is that this progress comes with a qualifier. For all the advancement it provides, it isn’t available to everyone, at least not to the same degree. In fact, precisely because it is available to only a few, it arguably plays a role in preventing the advancement of a far greater mass of human beings.
Progress, therefore, is also conjoined with a process of anachronization – the deliberate holding back or leaving behind of a large segment of the population. Though it often is embodied in technological terms today, it is driven by the more familiar but prosaic mechanisms of exploitation, oppression, neglect, or some combination of the above. And though it is frequently the case that society as a whole is advanced by a technological breakthrough, in a broad enough scope even the most benevolent of advancements simply amplifies the ability of those who have to widen the gap between them and those who don’t.
Again, we are already familiar with what much of this looks like. The latest marine tech deployed to rescue a handful of foolish billionaires at the bottom of the ocean, sparing no expense, while migrants drown in the Mediterranean. Favelas and shantytowns patrolled by the latest in surveillance drone technology. And soon, a popular culture with only the faintest hints of human touch, offering us goals and aspirations connected to real life by only the thinnest thread. At least it will be widely available to view from anywhere on our mobile devices.
Naturally, only the most depraved and evil among us would say that this is a way of life worth preserving, let alone extending. But here we are; heroes dead, enemies in power. At least we grasp the problem.
There is another facet to the process of anachronization. As Massimiliano Tomba, Harry Harootunian and other scholars have argued, this experience of mass displacement is one of the factors in anachronism’s ability to reshape history. To view it collectively, and from a clearer position, and to put it on a different trajectory. However only if they manage to move collectively. The need for a new Luddism – one that embraces what the Luddites actually stood for – is probably more urgent than ever.
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