Vladimir Jerić Vlidi
Dispossession by numbers: 2017/10/70/100
(A visual essay for Red Thread: Networkfailure.net/dispossession-by-numbers-2017)
(10) – THE DEPTH AND THE DEBT
This July marked 10 years since “the crisis” opened the way for the Global Austerity Regime; in September, populations were reminded that it is 10 years since the concept of the smartphone was introduced to the world. The closure of the decade marked by the proliferation of rectangles of all sizes and the decline of all welfare (also) reminds of the forming of entire new generations emerging under a different social horizon. Today, words such as freedom, equality and revolution come carrying different meanings. There is nothing and nobody not being the hostage of something and somebody, and this circle seems complete now.
The controversy of the arrival of what is called Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the midst of the Global Austerity Regime was simply baffling: while people were being repeatedly told that more and more cuts are necessary—Austerity must continue because there is simply not enough of the stuff for everybody to be sustained—now they are at the same time being told that jobs, and all work, will be rapidly cancelled as category because the new machines can produce more stuff, faster and cheaper than humans ever could.
This was the important part of the Public Address, in the terms of what is already happening now; but it came enwrapped in “the spectacle of disaster” projected in an indeterminate future, as another aspect of the advancing phenomena of AI caught even more attention. On the very surface of the announcement, it wants people to know that the problem with jobs may be just an innocent introduction; this technology, if not properly supervised, is probably about to enact “the end of history” by superseding humans—and all biological life—as the dominant form of existence; it will probably do this by conquering or erasing humanity, one way or another.
The various different reasons given for the panic-inducing warnings of the arrival of what is rightly or wrongly called Artificial Intelligence are for most people not easy to discern. It will all be further obfuscated by the use of acronyms, scientific jargon, myriad statistics and charts, with most of the argumentation resembling an endless exercise in comparing these numbers with those. (Even more or less successful attempts to explain the problem in a popular manner appear as somewhat anxious and hectic in an effort to “give meaning to numbers”.) The problems of complexity and of literacy escalated in various different ways, and people seem to be confused; no wonder that these days one engineer establishes an AI-worshipping religion, the other speculates about reproductive sex between humans and robots, while another started referring to humans as “them”. While the people will still be trying to figure out this conundrum of too much and not enough (combined together into not much, or too enough?), the scientists will issue Open Letters and comments on the announcements by businesses, celebrities and “the internet” will address the politicians who will reply with press releases, while the entrepreneurs will be seen as sovereign in running the show.
(90) PERSPECTIVES / PROSPECTS
All time is “real-time” now, acknowledging that such warping of time is inseparable from the spatial turn of rendering all the global space as here: charted and conquered, ready and available. In such a distanceless “supernow”, these mutually reinforcing mechanisms prevent in advance any attempts to achieve “a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” Even when such technology of perception condensing all reality into a single point was in its early stage, now 90 years ago, the careful observer Walter Benjamin could note that “criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint.” Today, it is well past that point.
(In the key of this Red Thread issue dedicated to the phenomena of dispossession, this would be one instance of dispossession among many to be noted in this text: taking away the sense of public, not only as in “public space” but also as in “public debate”. The very term of dispossession will be taken in a general and generic manner, while the subject matter, the crime scene, reflecting the general state of confusion, will be (incorrectly) alluded to through different internet-related phenomena, referred to as “algorithms”, “AI”, or “numbers”, and sometimes as the thing.)
Both the “anniversaries” mentioned—the first decade of Austerity overlapping with the first decade of smartphones—did reflect the phenomena of advancing automated intelligence in their own way. Austerity normalized various different dramatic shifts in how some historical dilemmas and challenges are being recognized and understood. After 10 years of the systemic dispossession of everything, of wealth and culture, of politics and all “reality”, now it is the paradigm of automation / automatization, and not of social (in)equality that informs the discussion of the various possible implementations of what is most frequently referred to as Universal Basic Income (UBI). Such significant reframing of what were the recognizable concepts of the previous century will be one of the topics of examination of this text.
Technology will in return offer ever faster and more powerful ways to extract people’s data; the new microchip introduced in 2017 by Apple is not called A11 bionic neural engine without reason, as “this chip does assist in speeding up image recognition including biometrics”, is capable of performing “600 billion operations per second”, and is “custom-built for handling artificial intelligence workloads”. (Google responded with the “AI first” campaign, and Huawei introduced “Kirin – the first mobile AI computing platform”.) This AI runs on 600 billion processes now, and it is just warming up. About what it means to hand over the future to such a conception of technology would be another important issue to be discussed, probably in 600 billion words.
(30) SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION
Recently, there has been a renewed interest in the work of philosopher and writer Vilém Flusser and his early observations on the transformation of society under the arrival of new media technologies; 30 years ago, it was obvious to Flusser that “discourse has been substituted by calculus”, which may explain the contemporary structural incapacity of criticism. From his 1988 interview:
“When the alphabet was invented, mythical thought gave way to historical critical thought because the structure of linear writing is a uni-dimensional, un-directed line. So that, by and by, people started to think historically in a causal way, and in a critical way. Now that this line has been disrupted into points, now that discourse has been substituted by calculus, historical progressive thinking is being abandoned in favor of a new type of thinking which I would like to call, let’s say, a systemic or a structural way of thinking.”
He felt that what is about to follow is “a revolution which can be compared to the one which gave origin to history”, leading towards a certain “post-historical” situation. As Flusser noted observing the arrival of 1980s digital technology:
“Every revolution, be it political, economic, social or aesthetic, is in the last analysis a technical revolution. […] So is the present one. But there is one difference: so far techniques have always simulated the body. For the first time our new techniques simulate the nervous system. So that this is for the first time a really immaterial, and to use an old term, spiritual revolution.”
As the ability of critical distance shrank to “0”, rendering the critic just another among the many voices having something to say in “real time”, another distance was vastly enlarged; inequality grows greater every day, and there is little shared between the tiny fraction of “the winners” and the rest. It seems not to be anymore, as McKenzie Wark could observe from the perspective of only several years ago, about “we get all the culture; they get all the revenue”;  the situation escalated so they get both the revenue and the culture now.
It is 10 years now since Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker wrote that “as a political program […] communications protocols are technologies of conservative absorption. They are algorithms for translating the liberal into the conservative. And today the world’s adoption of universal communications protocols is nearing completion […].” So would this be a witnessing of neo-liberalism overplaying itself somehow, miscalculating its own merger with neo-conservativism in creating the 1980s as they were? But then Galloway and Thacker continue by pointing out that “the rigid austerity measures of neoliberal capitalism have absorbed all global markets.” Is this regime winning or losing? Is it even possible to tell? Is such distinction still a category, and under what circumstances? This sentiment is recently acknowledged in no ambiguous terms: “this civilization is over, and even its defenders know it” (McKenzie Wark); or “our disenchantment with the internet is a fact – yet again, enlightenment does not bring us liberation but depression.” (Geert Lovink)
(40) HIGH-SPEED MORONS, BUT STILL MORONS
Arthur C. Clarke got many things right, like the early envisioning of concepts of geostationary satellites, location devices and mobile telecommunication technologies. In 1964, he could see the arrival of personal computers and “accurately predicted the rise of the internet, and even further, online banking almost to the year.” In “2001: A Space Odyssey”, he presented the computer HAL 9000 as one of the main actors of the story, creating the iconic image of a machine madness reflecting the conflicting interests and contradictory orders of its creators (and also, implying that no logic can substitute for consciousness in a messy, ambivalent world of humans). From the perspective of 1978 it was obvious to Clarke that Artificial Intelligence will “[one day] outpace and be more intelligent than us” (It remained unclear, especially given Clarke’s ambivalent tone while giving the statement combined with his somewhat dim view of AI as expressed in his writings, if this is a good or a bad thing, or will be a continuation or a cancellation of humanity.) What was pretty much without question for Clarke and the other participants of this late 1970s conversation was both that humanity is heading towards the “post-work” (a way off, but inevitable) future, but also that at the moment “our most complex computer systems are still morons, high-speed morons, but still morons.”
But today, science journalist Quentin Cooper talks about the arrival of “different kind of Artificial Intelligence” that is “not even close to the kind of thinking machines that are a given of so much science fiction” but still “has permeated almost every aspect of our existence: [it] monitors and diagnoses patients, does accounts and vets job applications, and in our phones and computers algorithms filter our searches and alter our world view.” What is making the computers of today less than/of a “morons”? Besides the ever-faster power of computation, besides it is 600 billion processes now, what is different about it?
- “As far as the financial markets are concerned, August 9 2007 has all the resonance of August 4 1914. It marks the cut-off point between ‘an Edwardian summer’ of prosperity and tranquillity and the trench warfare of the credit crunch – the failed banks, the petrified markets, the property markets blown to pieces by a shortage of credit.” Larry Elliott, economics editor, quoted in Patrick Kingsley, “Financial crisis: timeline”, The Guardian, August 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/aug/07/credit-crunch-boom-bust-timeline. ↑
- Rani Molla, “How Apple’s iPhone changed the world: 10 years in 10 charts”, Recode, June 26, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/6/26/15821652/iphone-apple-10-year-anniversary-launch-mobile-stats-smart-phone-steve-jobs. ↑
- Tim Urban, “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence”, January 22, 2015, https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html. ↑
- İn 2016 Anthony Levandowski, a self-driving car engineer from California, established the religion called Way of the Future (WOTF), (http://www.wayofthefuture.church), see for example Mark Harris, “Inside the First Church of Artificial Intelligence”, Wired, November 15, 2017, https://www.wired.com/story/anthony-levandowski-artificial-intelligence-religion. ↑
- See David Levy, Love and Sex With Robots, Harper Perennial, 2008; also “The Third International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots”, London, December 19-20, 2017, http://loveandsexwithrobots.org. ↑
- Describing the current success of neural networks technology, a Google senior fellow Jeff Dean stated: “But, fast forward just five years, and we are now at 3% of errors, using machine learning and much more of computing power. We are actually better than humans in this task.” Jeff Dean, “How Will Artificial Intelligence Affect Your Life”, TEDxLA, January 2017, https://youtu.be/BfDQNrVphLQ?t=499 [08:18]. ↑
- See Jelena Vesić & Vladimir Jerić Vlidi, “Under The Sycamore Tree – Curating As Currency: Actions That Say Something, Words That Do Something”, The Curatorial Conundrum – What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice?, edited by Paul O’Neill, Mick Wilson and Lucy Steeds, MIT Press/CSS Bard, 2016. ↑
- “The poet, like a careful observer, reads the image for us, in the words of Flusser, to ‘bestow significance on it’, to engage both conceptual and imaginative thought in order to reinforce them.” Teresa Bruś, “Fathoming Snapshots and Poetry”, in Belgrade BELLS (Belgrade English Language and Literature Studies), Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, vol. 2, 2010, p. 209, http://www.belgrade.bells.fil.bg.ac.rs/Bells 2.pdf. Bruś cites from Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books, 2000, (first published in English 1984). ↑
- Walter Benjamin wrote this in 1928 and published it in German as a part of the collection titled Einbahnstraße (Berlin: Rowohlt). Available online at http://archive.org/details/Einbahnstrasse. The translation into English was published in the collection One-Way Street and Other Writings, New Left Books, London, 1978, p. 89. ↑
- Some clues to the theoretical and terminological approach towards the notion and the mechanisms of dispossession could be found in this very issue of Red Thread in the interview with theorist Rastko Močnik. (Jelena Vesić & Vladimir Jerić Vlidi, “Interview with Rastko Močnik: There is No Theory Without the Practice of Confrontation”, Red Thread, Issue 4, http://red-thread.org/en/article.asp?a=75). ↑
- Michael Passingham, “Apple A11 Bionic: The fastest six-core mobile processor around”, Trusted Reviews, September 12, 2017, http://www.trustedreviews.com/news/apple-a11-processor-specs-performance-benchmarks-3286346. ↑
- “I try to say in this book [Die Schrift, Göttingen: Immatrix Publications, 1987] the following: when alphabetical writing was invented, let’s say 3500 years ago, a total transformation of our – not only our experience, but even our action was involved. Before the invention of writing, traditional images where used as maps of the world, and the structure of images involves a specific way of looking at the world which is the mythical way. Now when the alphabet was invented, mythical thought gave way to historical critical thought. Because the structure of linear writing is a uni-dimensional, un-directed line. So that, by and by, people started to think historically in a causal way, and in a critical way. Now that this line has been disrupted into points, now that discourse has been substituted by calculus, historical progressive thinking is being abandoned in favor of a new type of thinking which I would like to call, let’s say, a systemic or a structural way of thinking. So that I believe that we are present and witness to a revolution which can be compared to the one which gave origin to history. In my terminology I say that before the invention of writing, people thought in a prehistoric way, after the invention of the alphabet, historical consciousness was elaborated. And now we are in the process of elaborating a post-historical, structural way of thinking.” Mikós Peternác, Interview with Vilém Flusser, “1988 interview about technical revolution”, Osnabrück, September 1988, https://youtu.be/lyfOcAAcoH8?t=180 [03:00]. ↑
- Vilém Flusser, “1988 interview about technical revolution”, Osnabrück, 1988, https://youtu.be/lyfOcAAcoH8?t=558 [09:20]. ↑
- McKenzie Wark, “Considerations of a Hacker Manifesto”, Digital Labour: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, Routledge, 2012. ↑
- Alexander R. Galloway & Eugene Thacker, The Exploit. A Theory of Networks, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 131 (from “Part 2: Edges”). ↑
- McKenzie Wark, “Metadata Punk”, Public Library, What, How & for Whom/Multimedia Institute, Zagreb 2015, p. 117, http://www.whw.hr/download/books/medak_mars_whw_public_library_javna_knjiznica.pdf. ↑
- Geert Lovink, “Overcoming Internet Disillusionment: On the Principles of Meme Design”, e-flux Journal #83, June 2017, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/141287/overcoming-internet-disillusionment-on-the-principles-of-meme-design. ↑
- Jared Hill, “Can you name Arthur C. Clarke’s top 5 astounding predictions?”, November 14, 2014, https://damiengwalter.com/2014/11/14/can-you-name-arthur-c-clarkes-top-5-astounding-predictions. ↑
- “I think that we are doing now is in a sense creating our own successors. We have seen the first crude beginnings of Artificial Intelligence. It doesn’t really exist yet on any level, because our most complex computer systems are still morons, high-speed morons, but still morons. Nevertheless, some of them are capable of learning, and we will one day be able to design systems that can go on improving themselves, sort of. At that stage, we have the possibility of machines which can outpace their creators, and therefore become more intelligent than us.” Arthur C. Clarke in “The Mind Machines”, NOVA, series 5, episode 10, March 22, 1978, https://youtu.be/2Nk-m7ZJ3wo?t=13 [54:55]. ↑
- “A long time ago when I studied Artificial Intelligence lecturers and other AI experts often told me we are only a decade or so away from machines as intelligent as humans. Ten years later I was informed that we’re only a decade away from machines as smart as cats. Another ten years, the consensus was we were a mere decade away from machines with the cognitive power of microbes. The truth is that while we aren’t even close to the kind of thinking machines that are a given of so much science fiction, a different kind of Artificial Intelligence has permeated almost every aspect of our existence. In hospitals, AI monitors and diagnoses patients, in offices software does accounts and vets job applications, and in our phones and computers algorithms filter our searches and alter our world view.” Quentin Cooper (host), “Do We Need Artificial Intelligence?”, The Forum, BBC World Service, October 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04c7kdx (with guests Zoubin Ghahramani, Lydia Nicholas, Kentaro Toyama). ↑