The Daily: 20 January 2023

In a perfect example of why counting eggs is never advisable, the very day that I talked about the possibility of escaping the worst of winter, the weather system that was dismissed by even the excitable forecasters at the Weather Channel is now dumping inches of snow on my town. It has been snowing for less than an hour. It is falling in huge, romantic flakes with no wind, so thick that I can barely see the street lamp next to my garage across the street. There was nothing on the road when I sat down to eat dinner. Now, judging by the how far up the curb it’s risen, there’s already about three to four inches of wet and heavy snow.

And there are already idiotki loudly revving engines and spinning tires on the slick pavement.

The only thing the weather folks agreed on was that this cell would be producing precipitation all night long. Most were saying it would be drizzle, maybe freezing rain and fog. None were calling for heavy showers, frozen or otherwise. But if this keeps up, we’re going to have a foot before midnight. And it’s not supposed to move on until late tomorrow, after which there is a second system that is coming, with more moisture and a good deal of wind. I really think we’ve maxed our wind budget for this winter, what with that pre-Christmas disaster… But weather gods recognize no limits, I suppose.

It seems likely to be a hibernation weekend. I only hope we don’t lose power again. It’s one thing when the roads and walkways are clear and you can go to a warm-up shelter if you need to. In heavy snow, you’re stuck in a cold house until the power comes back. I suppose there’s always shoveling to stay warm. Only… that really doesn’t work if you can’t get your hands and feet warm afterwards.


I have this enigmatic note in my writing calendar for today: “discuss incongruity between a fear of AI amongst those who recognize resource depletion and possible systemic collapse”. I suppose I was supposed to remember what this is referencing. I do not. But it’s interesting enough for me to wing it.

This is one of the many things I do not understand. Someone really needs to explain to me why so many smart people seem to have an unreasoning fear of computer take-over, even in the midst of economic and biospheric collapse. I have a hard time taking this fear seriously in any case. I mean, these are machines. They only do what we tell them to do. And if one somehow goes HAL9000 on you, all you need is a screwdriver and a bucket of water and, pphhhht, that’s that problem liquified…

But in the context of resource depletion, increasing disasters, socio-economic breakdown, and a general lack of actual HAL-capable machinery, nor anything close to creative and intuitive — or, you know, intelligent — why exactly is this a concern? Don’t we have enough real concerns on our plate without inventing techno-demons?

I suppose you hear about this phobia mostly from those who don’t believe that resource depletion is actually a thing, or who may talk about our need to reduce resource use but don’t seem to think that there are actual limits that will reduce it for us. Bill McKibben, bless his heart, seems to have an especial fear of AI. He talks about it a bit in his latest book, The Cross, the Flag and the Station Wagon, but at his book-release event, he and a few boomer males (or older?) went on and on and on about it for some fifteen minutes (during which time all those who were younger, that is me and the store employees, sat there and yawned).

Bill is invested in the idea that solar panels and electric cars and proper banking will generate sufficient change to bring the biosphere back into balance. So obviously he sees the future in somewhat techno-utopian, happy glasses. He may know that we’re using too much stuff and need to just stop, but he seems unwilling or unable to recognize that “stop” means everything. We don’t get to choose from the infrastructure a la carte menu. Everything is under the same resource and energy constraints. Everything is limited and running out. And everything is connected. Everything will stop of its own accord when we breach those limits. Everything including HAL.

Techno-utopia literally means “the art of no place”. We’ve named it accurately even if that was never the intent. This idea that some forms of intensive resource use and transport can persist in the midst of general collapse is a nowhere fantasy. It is not possible to keep electronics going without fossil fuels to obtain and manufacture their components, to keep electrical grids functioning, and to transport all of it at every stage. So electrical-tech is not going to survive for long, nor, with it, AI.

To be fair, many folks who have the AI collywobbles know that it will not survive the collapse, nor even that far into the future. (Though, I have to say that most people seem to assume that computers will carry on right into the dark age — cyber-punk, anyone? — I’ve never understood that either… where are these machines, these wires of flowing electrons coming from? I can forgive that lacuna in fiction; it’s a bit harder to swallow when applied to our ideas of future reality.) For those who know that limits apply to “good tech” as much as to “bad tech”, the main fear of AI is that computers are taking jobs, that automation will eliminate wages for a large enough swath of society that the whole system will crash — because nobody will have money to buy whatever those robots are producing.

To this I have to say: “Remember the Luddites?”

Automation has been taking jobs for almost as long as there have been wage jobs. Wage payers quickly figured out that they earned more money if they did not have to pay wages, and they’ve been automating what used to be human labor ever since. What the recent complaint really is about is that AI is making it possible to eliminate more than hand and body labor. Now, mind labor can be automated. (Proving?…) In the past, automation stole jobs from those who had no voice (though they were pretty good with throwing wrenches into the machine… until many of the leaders were hanged). Now, AI is taking jobs from — gasp — the professional-managerial class. However, these trends are centuries old. Many millions of people have already lost their livelihoods and their lives to automation. This is not a new thing. And capitalism churns on just fine. (Though maybe there is a limit to that also?)

Still… apart from this “fear” being a bit disingenuous and ahistorical, it is not at all clear to me that AI could topple the wage-work system. For one thing, most essential jobs have not been and probably can not be automated. We might be able to program a machine to do some of the tasks in farming and cooking, but it seems unlikely that machines could make the constantly necessary intuitive decisions and responsive adaptations necessary to producing our food. Similarly, we can program a machine to do surgery or to reach a diagnosis based on input data, but we can’t program a machine to decide whether to do surgery or not nor how to modify a treatment plan based on quixotic individual needs. And of course, care is an essential part of all care work, however much the technocrats beg to differ. A sick child does not need medicine in order to recover; she most needs love. Which you can not program.

Yet even then, say we can program love, someone still needs to program the damn machine. It does nothing of its own accord. So we can easily NOT program it to do those things.

Because what if those hurdles are overcome? What happens if we build machines that need no programming and can do all the wage work? Well… nothing… because there would not be a market for those machines to work within. If there is no demand, nobody earning wages, then there is no market. Nothing made. No services rendered. The economy will, in fact, crumble. But if you think that those who benefit most from the market are going to install machines that will destroy that market — at some considerable expense to themselves — then I have a quarter acre of prime urban-jungle real estate that I’d like to discuss with you…

That is not going to happen. There will, no doubt, be a continuation of wage erosion. More and more people will be forced into the types of low-paying jobs that aren’t easily automated. More and more wealth will flow to the wealthy and fewer and fewer people will count themselves in that demographic. But the overlords will stop short of destroying the system that makes them overlords. Those programs will not be written. Those machines will not be made. And if some mad scientist somewhere unleashes one into the works, then the overlords will be sure to have a lackey standing by with a screwdriver and a bucket of water on hand to destroy the bloody thing. (Or bloodless thing, as it were…)

So anyway, someone needs to explain to me why AI is a fear. Or maybe just admit that it’s not…


©Elizabeth Anker 2023

5 thoughts on “The Daily: 20 January 2023”

  1. I agree that there are more ominous things to fear than a revolt of the machines so I very much appreciate this post. But a word about Bill McKibben, if I may. I take Derrick Jensen very seriously – have read most of his books and, most recently, made my way through Bright Green Lies. He works hard as a researcher and writes clearly and forcefully. His take-no-prisoners approach ruffles many feathers, but I usually end up agreeing with him about things. He targets, among others, McKibben (and Naomi Klein, of course) for misplaced fears and hopes, much as you do here. As I read it, McKibben knows full well that carbon levels in the atmosphere are only part of a much bigger problem and that switching to wind and solar is not going to solve it. I say this with confidence because I have read Deep Economy – my favorite of his books and one that influenced me profoundly at the time I read it. In that book (written after The End of Nature), he argues quite elegantly for the kind of de-growth downsizing and localizing that you (and I) favor. It bears no marks of techno-utopianism. I think McKibben just decided that unless we get the carbon thing under control, there will be neither opportunity nor time for the kind of ecologically-wise, simpler modes of living he celebrates in that book to gain a footing. His decision to work as practically as he can within the system as it is to address a single issue has come at a cost which I do not know that he acknowledges – he no longer talks as much about the issues that, in Deep Economy, he was eager to foreground. He might explore those issues and connect them – it is not hard to do – with the campaign to limit carbon emissions, but he instead gets draw into discussions and considerations that fester in the realm – the world of American reform/environmental politics – that he feels he must work within to be effective as an agent of change. Perhaps from where he sits the work-outside-the-system homesteaders look to be the feckless utopians in the picture. I do not agree, but there may be reasons to worry about that … ?
    Brian

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Deep Economy is the best of Bill’s work. Elegant and forceful writing and meaning. But even then I think he was determined to work “within the system” and particularly from the top down. This might be because he is a part of that topmost group of privilege. (My younger son hit the nail after Bill came to our bookstore. Could be summed up as “He sure has a broad sense of personal efficacy.” There were more florid words… I shall not repeat…) Still, I keep reading his books. His writing is very good; I wish his reasoning and his awareness were similarly nuanced and informed.

      I hate the term “practical” when applied to doing what fits within a system and “impractical” to all that does not. It is the exact opposite of the meaning of the word — practicality means it works, you can do it, you do do it. It is functional and must be defined in terms of how it is, indeed, functioning. Most of the ideas that are deemed “practical” by the center-left are largely untried and quite often completely unworkable. But following that course will not upset the system… until the system breaks down because nothing practical is actually being done.

      This is, incidentally, why I think most “activism” fails. It is demonstrating, but it is demonstrating nothing of real application. Holding a sign on the courthouse steps, getting arrested, even things like blocking traffic or haranguing elected officials with letters and phone calls. It doesn’t do anything at all. It is not practical… and yet that is considered the “practical” approach to getting out of our many messes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, in a longer attempt to sort through these issues (available at occupythehearth.org) I argue that unless we break out of what the current system regards as practical,
        we will not be able to handle what’s coming at us in the near future. I too believe that reform politics and protest politics (demonstrations, etc.) are not productive and that we need a whole new approach to changing things. Here, I was just trying to see things through McKibben’s eyes, cut him some slack. He has been quite effective in the work he as chosen to do, even if it is not the work we might believe most needs doing. And, really, who knows what smooths the ground for the Big Turning Points in history. Probably work of all sorts leading to conjunctions and confluences we will never fully understand.

        Brian

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The fear of AI is simply a distraction from the increasing decline toward environmental collapse. In fact, almost everything that takes up space in politics, the media, and our culture is rooted in denial and distraction of the reality of our future.

    For 20 years I advised students at a community college and the number one goal for students was to make money so they could live the American Dream of bigger and better. The second concern was security; they wanted a guarantee of sorts that their careers/incomes would not change. The third and often distant concern was happiness and enjoyment in their employment. This was so common that I eventually created an orientation to career planning that focused on 21st-century employment realities based on the history of 20th-century employment and technology trends. I advised students that based on statistics they would change their careers at least twice in their lives. This was shocking to many of them!

    Our entire K-20 system is designed to create workers, not thinkers and pursuers of happiness and goals. The elite sells imaginary lifestyles and cultural values that leave us empty. Toward the end of my advising career, I suggested in a strategic planning meeting for the college that we pursue training in growing food, perhaps a certificate in organic market farming, and while we are at it, change our culinary program to create entrepreneurs like instead of line cooks. The silence was incredibly uncomfortable for everyone. The college is still training line cooks and 90% of our region’s food is grown elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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