AI, Human Obsolescence, and Fascism

There was a report on Marketplace yesterday that included a statement from an executive at OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT. He said that AI will help companies to improve efficiency. He added that it will also cost jobs.

From a policy standpoint, how will governments address the sudden obsolescence of workers from industries so affected? You may recall that many workers who were displaced by deindustrialization and globalization never fully recovered, to say nothing of local and regional economies.

Also, and perhaps more urgently, in an age of increasing political polarization, where politicians present themselves as proto- and neo-fascists, does not such economic dislocation serve as fertile ground for insurrectionary sentiments? While these new technologies may represent a boon for corporations, they could also produce profound instability in society as a whole.

Reconstituting ourselves

I would assert that the cultural crisis that we face as a people is born of our subordinate political, economic, and cultural power.

Political power is the instrument via which a group’s will is affected upon society. It is manifest in a people’s capacity to establish rules and protocols, that all members of a given society are answerable to.

Economic power is the system that a group utilizes to propagate, sustain, and refine their worldview via the material and non-material expressions thereof. Systems of resource exchange, extraction, processing, and distribution, in addition to the provisioning of vital services fall under this domain.

Cultural power is the tool which a group utilizes to institutionalize its ethos, demarcate its bodies of practices, conceptions of historical knowledge, and worldview from competing forces, and the intergenerational transmission of such to subsequent generations.

The superordinate position of Europe and America vis-a-vis the African world community not only accounts for our subordinate state in the present, but our difficulty to reconstitute ourselves culturally in the wake of the withering legacies of slavery and colonialism. Thus, while culture is the domain that should inform a protracted struggle for self-determination informed by a “grand theory of the future” (to quote Dr. Anderson Thompson), we are largely bereft of economic and political power, thus making such a cultural vision fragile due to its lack of a powerful institutional basis to support and sustain it over time. Thus those few individuals, who due to their own constitutions, some inexplicable serendipity, or the circumstance of living in such a situation as this take up such work we are often limited in our output, to say nothing of our capacity to scale up such work. Even for those that do take on this struggle, sustainability, vision, and conceptual clarity remain as daunting challenges.

Illuminating the form and character of a better world

I just watched film Whale Rider for maybe the 10th time. I watch it from time-to-time it to remind myself of certain ideals that I have committed myself to, and how these are expressed in the stories of other people who are seeking to heal themselves in the wake of the tragedy of conquest and oppression that has established the “modern era”.

Two things that stood out to me this time was that the character Koro, though perceived as harsh and stubborn, did not see himself as acting in his own self-interest. He saw himself as one who labored for his people’s survival. This was especially evident in his interaction with his oldest son, where when asked how he was doing, he responded that “We are alright”, not referring to himself singly, but to the whole community. He saw no separation in his welfare and theirs, and as a result was under immense pressure to find a new leader, which he believed was the solution to his people’s troubles.

The other thing that stood out to me was that there was no emphasis on the context of colonialism in the film. One can interpret this many ways, but I think that this was done to emphasize that their identity as a people was not based on the arrival of the British Navy. Their history as Maori people did not begin with colonization. It began in time immemorial. Unlike many African Americans, they did not begin their history at their nadir. For us this is symbolically represented as the year 1619, and next month we will witness an abundance of presentations about our past that begin in this unhappy year. As an aide, I’ll also be doing some lecturing next month, and I assure you that I won’t be starting with Africans on a slave ship. It is true that we have to tell and re-tell our history, especially the story of the Maafa, but our history cannot start there. We cannot know who we are as a people if our history begins at the point where our capacity to control our destiny was at its weakest.

I always enjoy the end of this film because it emphasizes that the path of a people into the future will necessarily be a synthesis of their traditions and their dynamic responses to the present. I paid particular attention to the last line in the movie: “I’m not a prophet but I know that our people will keep going forward all together, with all of our strength.” I hope that this is true for the many peoples of Earth, those whose past and ancestral wisdom may yet illuminate the form and character of a better world.