by: Storey Clayton
The Singularity is already here. It’s corporations, not computers.
You’ve probably heard of the Singularity. It’s a hypothetical future event, dystopian in nature, wherein the need for human intervention in human affairs is swept aside by super-intelligent computers who self-teach, self-improve, and self-replicate their way to utter dominance. The idea is that if we create sufficiently smart artificial intelligence and give it the power to make autonomous decisions, it will eventually reach a critical mass of understanding that gives it unassailably more capability than humans could ever have. After all, computing power scales exponentially compared to human intelligence, or at least will in theory once we build a computer as impressive as a human brain. Given the history of chess computers starting out as pathetic and evolving into unmatched world champions, this is seen as academically a matter of time. The Singularity is taken as a when, not an if, by most serious scientific communities.
The scary part of the Singularity is not that there could be something more intelligent than human beings, either individually or collectively. It’s a blow to our ego we perhaps haven’t fully internalized, but the thing that really terrifies us is that we would be enslaved by our new hyper-smart robot overlords. It is a distinctly human fear that anything possessing more intelligence than we have wants to capture, kill, and enslave. Then again, we would have programmed the robots in the first place, so probably a legitimate concern that it would reflect traditional human values. And a lot of the doomsday scenarios proposed by scientists hand-wringing about the Singularity have this darkly comic note about what the robots might be trying to achieve. Because at the point of Singularity, the robot’s goal might just be to produce more cereal boxes or to organize the most efficient transportation system possible in Los Angeles, California. Yet with unlimited power fueled by unlimited intelligence, the robots could run wild, literally manipulating all human emotion and action into the cause of cereal box production or keeping the trains running on time. Robots and computers, after all, are not programmed with a multiplicity of functions and goals in mind. We teach them to value one thing at a time.
Let’s suspend, briefly, the obvious flaw in this theory, which is that something could simultaneously be smart enough to run circles around the collective intelligence of all of human history, yet sufficiently unsophisticated as to have literally one job. More advanced notions of the Singularity discuss a wider community of robots and computers all making each other more intelligent, but that also seems to conveniently leave out the ensuing debate they’d have about cereal boxes vs. LA transportation as priorities. And the idea that they might make their own decisions about what to value is often absent from the conversation entirely, though many observe that they are not likely to value human life with the same vigor that our own societies claim (yet fail) to. Then again, the movie adaptation of “I, Robot” offered a striking vision of the opposite dictum, namely a world where robots take the law “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” so seriously that they remove all free will from humans so they stop hurting each other. Which, hey, fair point. This is the same principle, near I as I can tell, that formed the basis of the Patriot Act.
But here’s what you need to know about what’s scary about the Singularity:
1. It’s a systematic structure that governs the goals and behaviors of all human society.
2. It manipulates and abuses human free will into doing terrible things to further its goals.
3. It cannot be stopped or reversed by humans.
What does that sound like to you?
Because to me, it sounds like free market corporate capitalism, circa 2017.
The programmed goal, of course, is the maximization of corporate profit. We live in a world where, under the label of “growing the economy”, maximization of corporate profit is seen as literally the only goal of individuals, groups, and government. Every speech by every Presidential candidate in 2016 (save for Bernie Sanders, and we all know how far he got) took for granted that this was the priority, nay, the purpose of government. Corporations are literally obliged to follow this dictate, under pain of lawsuit and removal from the economy. These same corporations and their minions are hastily trying to infuse the same goal into every government’s own laws, or supra-national laws, enabling people to sue the government for violation of the law of profit-seeking. The notion that profits must be made and must grow and that everything else good that can happen to people will flow from that fundamental principle stands as the unquestioned religious doctrine underpinning our society.
But here’s the insidious thing: no one is really making it happen. No one is pulling the strings. Oh sure, there are people like Milton Friedman and his henchmen who did the initial programming, that tried to plant as many people in as many positions of power to create this worldview. Like I say on the daily these days, read your Shock Doctrine. But the really dangerous thing about this world, now set in motion, is that there’s no one who feels like they are above the fundamental principle or has the power to stop it. We live in fear of “The Economy” like it’s a giant independent weather system or vengeful God, one that can be approached and we can react to, but is beyond our fundamental control. We don’t look at The Economy like a series of willful suspensions of disbelief or self-manipulations (you know, what it is). Instead, we see it as this all-powerful force of nature that governs who lives and dies, who lives well and lives poorly, who does what and how and why and every facet of existence therefrom.
But if you talk to a CEO, if you talk to a Board member, if you talk to the most powerful people on the planet, they will sigh and shake their head and try to convince you just how little power they have. A CEO will say they are hostages of the Board, of the profit mandate, of shareholders demanding growth. The Board will say the same about shareholders and legal obligations and that they can only do so much to influence the CEO they allegedly govern. And the shareholders will say they are just one of many in a sea of cacophonous opinions that only demand profit. No one is minding the store. The system is on autopilot, self-generating its goals. Even the Fed Chair feels pretty much enslaved by the whims of the market traders, who in turn feel powerless in the face of decisions made by CEOs and political leaders. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog. It’s the truly invisible hand.
Of course, this scenario is just as dystopian as us all being enslaved in the pursuit of cereal box production. Remarkably, that’s basically exactly what this scenario is. The pursuit of ever-spiraling economic growth is arguably the most destructive force in the history of humanity, jockeying to overtake nationalism with every passing day. (And it can’t be overlooked that this motivation fueled a lot of the greatest harms of imperialistic nationalism over the last half-millennium.)
For one, profit is literally waste. It is the money left over when everyone has already been fairly paid and accommodated. Seeking to maximize this is like programming the world to maximize trash accumulation. Which, not coincidentally, is also a major result of the infinite-growth profit motive. Profit is indifferent to consequences that are not in the realm of profit for the profit-seeker, from impoverishing others to creating literal miles-wide islands of trash in the Pacific Ocean to deforesting the entire planet. All that this motive cares about, like the production of cereal boxes, is the infinite maximization of money that is essentially waste.
Oh yes, I know there are theories that this waste will then get funneled back into the economy to help those poor people left behind. For one thing, this trickle-down notion had been thoroughly debunked even before the last ten years displayed a “recovery” that only helped the top 1-10% of the economy. But for another, even in the best case, this just funnels it back into a system that continues to have its only goal being generating more waste maximization for someone. If the someone rotates with the winds of The Economy, it can simulate the notion of upward mobility, but it’s still just choosing who gets to sit atop the largest trash heap. That person doesn’t end up really feeling any freer and any decisions they make to use that waste just go back into the same cycling system of waste creation.
Then we have environmental degradation. This is the most obvious and precipitous result of an infinite-growth model. As I’ve said repeatedly for years, the metaphor here is cancer. Infinite growth of cells that seemed helpful is literally what cancer is and it’s the deadliest and most intractable malady in current human existence. It’s almost like nature itself is trying to tell us something about how we live our lives! I mean, honestly, could the planet be any clearer? The growth model is unsustainable in every sense of the word, it is consuming resources the planet doesn’t have and converting those resources into poisons that are choking the planet and its inhabitants to death. And yet we blithely ride on autopilot, continuing to root for the cancer and fuel it in every way imaginable. Our best excuse for this is the idea that one of these cancer cells will grow big and powerful enough to come up with ways to defeat the cancer itself, while still not ceasing the necessary growth of the cancer. Or perhaps slightly more accurately, will come up with a way to enable the host to survive cancer while continuing the rapid reproduction and growth of the cancer cells. The premise seems deeply problematic. Even if this were theoretically possible, would we want to survive like that? Plenty of dystopian novels are engaging that question with a pretty universal two-letter answer.
This is to say nothing of wealth inequality, the other looming specter of unfettered capitalism. This is where the Singularity aspect of this charade starts to really ramp up, because the profit motive enables further and further consolidation of wealth. And that wealth is able to further and further buy off and corrupt elements of government control, regulation, and checks on power that would normally curb profit’s power. And this accelerates almost exponentially, where more money buys more power buys more deregulation to enable the accumulation of more money and repeat. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump, capitalist extraordinaire, is coming to power at this moment in human history. He may have technically spent less than Hillary Clinton on the campaign, but the popular thinkpiece meme that this means corporate spending on elections is no longer the magic bullet is dead wrong. He was the greater capitalist, the more accelerationist candidate for the corporate consumption of government. And many people are rightfully worried about what the country left to govern will even look like in four years after so much of its government has been chopped up and sold off to private interests.
Framing this as a partisan issue is deeply misleading, however. Bill Clinton, in the wake of Reagan’s popularity, championed privatization of everything and the reduction of government regulation as well. His slogan was not “It’s the safety net, stupid.” The fallout of violence, disenfranchisement, and poverty of his legacy is just now taking shape in the American understanding. He did just as much as Republican counterparts to dismantle any priorities for government that could rival the all-consuming profit-growth model. And now we have every government employee, literally and figuratively, deeply invested in the stock market. It’s a pyramid scheme I’ve discussed before, but the point bears repeating. When every worker in every non-profit sector, from government to schools to private non-profits, has their entire future invested, by mandate, in the world of publicly traded corporate profit, then there will be no one left to oppose the maximization of this corporate profit as an ultimate goal.
So stop your worrying about the Singularity! A far more insidious and dangerous Singularity is already here, already has lobotomized our collective imagination and replaced all of our hopes and fears with the generation of needless waste. Waste that’s killing the planet, killing those people who can’t keep up, and eventually consolidating all the wealth and power in a few small hands who still feel like those hands are tied to these all-powerful scheme. At least with cereal boxes, we might be able to see the absurdity of the system in practice. But when it’s as complex and self-serving as all the ways to maximize profit, when everyone is trained from birth to fear not having access to the wealth and privilege that comes with being on top of that profit ladder, it’s harder for us to see. Even today, as scientists rail against climate change and shout from the rooftops that something must be done, no one is connecting an end to climate change to the need to stop the corporate profit-growth model. We literally have a system designed to make humanity kill itself and its only known home in order to generate waste and no one wants to question it because the system seems even less controllable than the weather itself.
Think about that.
Again: We literally have a system designed to make humanity kill itself and its only known home in order to generate waste and no one wants to question it because the system seems even less controllable than the weather itself.
Of course, the problem is that, unlike robots that have us literally strapped into machines made to do their bidding, we can stop or reverse this Singularity. It gets harder every day, but we do have the power. We have to talk about this, have to observe the deep damage and destruction being done by the corporate profit-growth model, and start discussing better alternative ways of being. My favorite, as I’ve outlined before, is what I call The Maintenance Society. It’s a place to start. You may have a better idea. But any idea is better than this. As will become painfully obvious in retrospect to whoever digs up the carcass of this planet in a few millennia.
Maybe we just need to program super-intelligent robots to give us another priority. But I’d like to not count on that deus ex machina, or more accurately, that machinus ex deo. We can still save ourselves. We just have to recognize that the creation of ever more cereal boxes is not worth losing everything else.