Don’t fear progress and technology, fear capitalism – Friday

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“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the wealth produced by the machines is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the owners of the machines press against the redistribution of wealth. So far, the trend seems to be towards the latter. option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality. “

Stephen Hawking

The belief that technological advances will lead us to a better future was once a cornerstone of public debate. Poverty, hunger, disease and subsequently climate change were considered powerless against human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity. After all, technological advances in the Western world have allowed for an unprecedented life of luxury and abundance (the South of the world, exploited and oppressed for centuries, is another story altogether).

As our lives lengthened, our caloric intake increased, our cities conquered the world and every desert corner of the planet, leaving no ecosystem intact; As we overcome numerous diseases and continue to make strides to eliminate others, at some point one must ask: where will all this end?

Now, why does technology seem to keep turning against us? Innovations and advances used to make our life easier and more comfortable; now they are fueling increasing anxiety and stress, fueling the almost omnipresent fear of economic and social collapse. The continuous exploitation of our planet, its resources and everything that walks, crawls, flies or swims on it. Is it the same technological progress that has turned against us? Could it be time to stop progress? stop time?

The staple maximizer

To illustrate how progress and cultural ideology, especially capitalism, are inextricably intertwined, let us consider the thought experiment Staple Maximizers (“Staple Maximizer”), first described by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003.

A staple maximizer is a hypothetical artificial intelligence (AI) programmed to produce as many staples as possible. This is their only purpose. What would be the implications of this behavior? To increase staple production, AI would constantly improve and optimize its design and manufacturing process, using ever-increasing amounts of resources. In theory, it would become so effective at making staples that it would eventually consume all available means of production, including its creators and other living beings (whose very contain usable metal), runs out. Our planet would be transformed into a giant paper clip factory.

Would AI be cruel in this thought experiment? Would the technology it is based on be evil? The only way for AI to interact with its environment is to decide whether to produce more staples or not. It has no other relationship to the world or other (programmed) beliefs and values. It only acts within the scope of its instructions below, which it cannot change on its own. Perhaps their creators, who just wanted to produce more staples, haven’t thought about all the implications of their actions?

Modern large corporations and, to some extent, governments and states act similarly. They too follow a very specific set of rules dictated by the capitalist system. Profit, shareholder value, share prices, exploitation and expansion, GDP growth, artificial scarcity and the elimination of public and freely available resources these are all beliefs that we have imposed on our institutions with almost religious zeal. Every technological achievement and research effort is designed to achieve these goals. Progress is defined on the basis of these key figures. Well-known economist Jason Hickel calls it growthism (“Thinking about growth”). Businesses and governments, just like staple AI, operate within a strictly defined framework. They are not inherently evil or bad; they just do what we programmed them to do. They carry out the instructions.

We wouldn’t expect staple AI to care about environmental degradation, climate change, or human lives why should it? Your only job is to make paper clips and nothing else. To achieve this, he would do everything in his (ever increasing) power. If left unchecked, it would eventually destroy the planet. So why should companies and states behave differently? Why should they worry about ecosystems, climate change, poverty, human suffering and resource depletion?

According to science fiction author Charlie Stross modern companies are so-called “slow AI”. Like Bostrom’s Paperclip Maximizer, these AIs follow these companies a set of rules that forces them to optimize towards the wrong goals and see human values ​​as obstacles. Helping is not profitable; exploitation very well.

The unstoppable machine

It could be argued that, unlike artificial intelligence in the above thought experiment, companies do not enjoy total freedom of action. people us as a company stop them as soon as they cause too much damage. Well, that’s exactly where we are now. Some would argue that we are already too late.

Indeed, in the name of growth and neoliberalism, we have more or less allowed multinationals to do what they want. They could exploit and capitalize resources and people at will. In the West, strong civil society structures such as trade unions or environmental protection groups have helped to mitigate the negative consequences of this behavior (although they too have been considerably weakened in recent decades). But capitalism has not simply stopped exploiting; it simply moved to greener pastures. As every time the capitalist system has faced structural limitations, it has a solution a fix ” to found. Neocolonialism in the form of IMF and World Bank forced structural adjustment programs or the 1970s debt trap they made the system a great service. At the same time, they have led and maintained the nations of the global South in conditions of poverty and with no prospects.

In fact, companies are actively killing people for making paper clips. They just don’t do it in our backyards anymore. They do it in Nigeria where BP and other Western companies fund violent militias and gangs to further their interestsand they do so in the cobalt and lithium mines in Congo, Zimbabwe or Namibia, where unsafe working conditions and child labor kill untold (and mostly undocumented) numbers of miners. But mostly they kill indirectly. Maintaining the status quo; through exploitation and impoverishment; through policies aimed at capitalizing freely available resources; influencing and corrupting politics; and driving climate change.

There seems to be not enough incentive to put an end to this yet. By the time we actually accomplish what we have allowed, it will already be too late.

what we really fear

Most fears of technological progress are more likely to be interpreted as fears of capitalism. As a concern about how capitalism might exploit new technology and use it against us.

How great would our fear of progress, the future and new technologies be if we lived in a more just world? In a system whose foundations are not determined by competition, individualism, selfishness, infinite growth, exploitation and the desire to put a price on everything? What if we lived in a fairer society? In a society where the resources and fruits of progress would be shared equally among us all?

What we perceive today as fear of progress and the future is actually fear of how the capitalist system will use that progress. First of how it makes our lives even harder, of how it widens inequalities and enriches some less, while continuing to exploit the masses. Historically, any innovation that improves efficiency has been used to increase profits and increase exploitation rather than improving people’s lives (by reducing hours worked or sharing profits, for example). Economists call this disturbing fact the Jevons paradox.

It is important to realize that such behavior is not an intrinsic and inevitable part of technological progress and innovation. Rather, it is about how progress is perceived and implemented in our society. The problem is capitalism and its absurd doctrine of infinite growth with limited resources. Instead of embracing potentially life-enhancing technologies, we must constantly ask ourselves how capitalism will exploit these advances – wWe have to constantly look over our shoulder. Does this correspond to the behavior of a healthy society?

Technology is not impartial or neutral. It is created with a specific purpose and purpose, shaped by its socio-historical context. This context defines and limits the scope of their potential areas of application. Our ability and imagination to use technology beyond this predetermined horizon is constrained by capitalist ideological thinking. Under capitalist conditions, it is easier to imagine how disruptive new technology would make our lives more difficult than it would allow us to work less and enjoy more free time. One of the most devastating consequences of capitalism is its imaginative nature, which prevents us from imagining and working for a better world. Apathy and indifference are just other symptoms of capitalist realism.

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

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