Comments on “How AI destroyed the future”

covid flip flops

daniel 2023-03-27

I recall one flip flop when the “anti-Chinese Trumpism” idea gave way to the “mask up take the jab” position, I don’t recall more than that. When did they happen?

Neoliberalism as a foreclosure on the future

Danyl Strype 2024-02-02

“What sort of society and culture do we want, and how do we get that” is the topic of the AI-driven culture war. The culture war prevents us from thinking clearly about the future.

I agree with this, although rather than “AI-driven” I would say “AI-amplified”. The DataFarms (or “MoogleBook” as you describe them) have certainly fanned the flames with their automated aggregation of eyeballs, but the initial fire was lit long before they existed.

By whom and why? I agree with the theories put forward by the late Mark Fisher in ‘Capitalist Realism’, and by the late David Graeber in a number of his works, including ‘The Democracy Project’. They argue that destroying our capacity to imagine and realise progressive futures was the main purpose of neoliberalism. Which they see as a political project rather than an economic one. A rearguard action by a capitalist establishment shaken by the upheavals of the 1960s and early 70s, and determined to make sure there was as little change as possible from the 1980s onward, in case change once again threatened their concentrations of power and wealth.

Along with the displacement activity of the Culture War - which itself began before social media although it was less mainstream - you can see the effects of neoliberal pessimism at work in the changing themes of sci-fi. Which increasingly depicted futures that were much worse than the present, rather than better.

Take the totalitarian dystopia genre. True, pioneering authors like Orwell, Huxley, Kafka, Hesse, and Burgess were writing about these much earlier, as a veiled critique of existing authoritarianism and technocracy. But dystopian socities started to become more common in sci-fi in the late 1970s and early 80s, with movies like Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, The Running Man, They Live, Brazil and Starship Troopers; TV series like Blake’s 7 and Max Headroom; books like A Handmaid’s Tale; and comics like V for Vendetta and Judge Dredd. Over the last 20-30 years we’ve seen positive visions of the future almost completely displaced by powerful dystopias in young adult sci-fi (from Tomorrow When the War Began to The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner etc);

Another common type of bleak sci-fi future is the post-armageddon wasteland. Mad Max, one of the most famous examples, was released in 1979. Through the 1980s-90s there were dozens of these, including Blade Runner, The Quiet Earth, Escape from New York, The Day After, Twelve Monkies, and Waterworld, as well as TV series like Survivors, The Tripods (admittedly based on a 1960s novel series), and V (the initial 5-part mini-series and spinoff series). In the last couple of decades there have been dozens of movies, TV series and video games about nuclear armageddon (The 100, Jericho), climate armageddon (Snowpiercer, The Day After Tomorrow), viral pandemic armageddon (The Tribe, The Last Ship, The Rain, The Stand), technology armageddon (Terminator, The Postman, Revolution), astronomical armageddon (Rage, Melancholia, These Finals Hours, The Long Dark, Greenland, Don’t Look Up), alien invasion armageddon (Independence Day, Half-Life, Defiance, Falling Skies, A Quiet Place), or zombie armageddon (Resident Evil, The Living Dead etc).

Then there’s the designer despair of cyberpunk. True, Philip K. Dick was experimenting with this aesthetic from the 1960s onwards, but it didn’t really take off as a sci-fi subgenre until Neuromancer was published in 1984. The Matrix movies were an example of both cyberpunk despair and post-armageddon survivalism. By the time they were released, between 1999 and 2003, cyberpunk gloom had totally replaced the ‘gee whizz’ optimism of the Star Wars and Star Trek era, to the point where even the new films and TV series in those franchises adopted a dark, brooding tone.

As a result of all this foreclosing of the future, to quote Fisher; “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Or as The Sex Pistols put it in back in 1977 in God Save the Queen, “No future for you”. The DataFarms and their recommendation algorithms just put all this on digital steroids.

Science fiction to the rescue

David Chapman 2024-02-02

I agree with what you say here.

I’d add that there may be an opportunity for science fiction to help us out of the current nihilistic pit: by imagining utopia, or at least pretty-good outcomes, again. That’s the theme of this final chapter of Better without AI, in fact. The first step in getting a future we would like is imagining one, as realistically as we can.

That is currently difficult, but not impossible.

Who sold the future?

Danyl Strype 2024-02-02

I’d add that there may be an opportunity for science fiction to help us out of the current nihilistic pit: by imagining utopia, or at least pretty-good outcomes, again.

I totally agree. I’ve been very encouraged by some of the more utopian subgenres that branched off cyberpunk, as the net became mainstream and the subcultural mode broke down in the social grey goo of the atomised mode. The emergence of solarpunk in particular has been encouraging. Here’s my own little contribution to the genre;

Living in China for a couple of years was an interesting contrast to neoliberalised Aotearoa. They are literally building a Tomorrowland of gleaming skyscrapers and superfast electric trains, and a solarpunk landscape of solar panels sited above what look like fish farms. The Chinese are also living in an emerging cyberpunk dystopia, as their increasingly autocratic leaders re-centralise political power (as we see in Hong Kong), and exert more direct control over the corporations behind pervasive tech platforms like WeChat, TaoBao and TikTok. Yet those I spoke to seemed as optimistic about the future as I imagine people would have been in the US in the years after WW2.