What should we think about AI? To corporate boosters and their camp followers (an army of relentless shouters) , so-called artificial intelligence is a world altering technology, sweeping across the globe like a wave made from the plots of forgotten science fiction novels. Among critics, thoughts are more varied. Some focus on debunking hyped claims, others, on the industry’s racist conceptions (such as the presentation of a cohort of men, mostly White, who work with ‘code’ as being the pinnacle of human achievement) and still others, on the seldom examined ideology of ‘intelligence’ itself.
For Dan McQuillan, author of the taut (seven chapters) yet expansive book, ‘Resisting AI: An Anti-Facist Approach to Artificial Intelligence’ AI, is, under current conditions but not inherently, the computational manifestation of ever present fascist ideologies of control, categorization and exclusion. McQuillan has written a vital manifesto, the sort of work which, many years from now, may be recalled, if we’re fortunate, as being among the defining calls to arms of its age. In several interviews (including this one for Machine Learning Street Talk) McQuillan has described the book’s origin as a planned, scholarly review of the industry that, as its true state became clearer to him, evolved into a warning.
We can be glad he had the courage to follow the evidence where it led.
Both In and Of the World
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled” the saying goes, “was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” The tech industry, our very own Mephistopheles (though lacking the expected fashion sense) has pulled a similar trick with ‘AI’ convincing us that, alone among technical methods, it exists as a force disconnected from the world’s socio-political concerns. In short order, McQuillan dispenses with this in the introduction:
It would be troubling enough if AI was a technology being tested in the lab or applied in a few pioneering startups, but it already has huge institutional and cultural momentum. […] AI derives a lot of its authority from its association with methods of scientific analysis, especially abstraction and reduction, an association which also fuels the hubris of some of its practitioners. The roll out of AI across swathes of industry doesn’t so much lead to a loss of jobs as to an amplification of casualized and precarious work. [emphasis mine] Rather than being an apocalyptic technology, AI is more aptly characterized as a form of supercharged bureaucracy that ramps up everyday cruelties, such as those in our systems of welfare. In general, […] AI doesn’t lead to a new dystopia ruled over by machines but an intensification of existing misery through speculative tendencies that echo those of finance capital. These tendencies are given a particular cutting edge by the way Al operates with and through race. AI is a form of computation that inherits concepts developed under colonialism and reproduces them as a form of race science. This is the payload of real AI under the status quo. [Introduction, pg 4]
Rather than acting as the bridge to an unprecedented new world, AI systems (really, statistical inference engines) are the perfect tool for the continuance of existing modes of control, intensified and excused by the cover of supposed silicon impartiality.
Later, in chapter two, titled, ‘AI Violence’ McQuillan sharpens his argument that the systems imposed on us are engines of automated abuse.
AI operationalizes [a] reductive view through its representations. […] , Aľ’s representations of the world consist of the set of weights in the [processing] layers plus the model architecture of the layers themselves. Like science, Al’s representations are presented as distinct from that which they claim to represent. In other words, there is assumed to be an underlying base reality that is independent of the practices by which such representations are constructed. But […] the entities represented by AI systems- the ‘careful Amazon driver’ or the ‘trustworthy citizen’- are partly constructed by the systems that represent them. AI needs to be understood not as an instrument of scientific measurement but as an apparatus that establishes ‘relations of becoming between subjects and representations. The subject co-emerges along with the representation. The society represented by AI is the one that it actively produces.
We are familiar with the categories McQuillan highlights such as ‘careful drivers’ from insurance and other industries and government agencies which use the tagging and statistical sorting of discrete attributes to manage people and their movements within narrow parameters. AI, as McQuillan repeatedly stresses, supercharges already existing methods and ways of thinking, embedded within system logic. We don’t get a future, we are trapped in a frozen present, in which new thinking and new arrangements are inhibited via the computational enforcement of past structures.
For me, the most powerful diagnostic section of the book is chapter 4, ‘Necropolitics.’ Although McQuillan is careful to not declare AI systems fascist by nature (beginning the work of imagining other uses for computational infrastructure in Chapter 5, ‘Post Machinic Learning’) he does make the critical point that these systems, embedded within a fraying political economy, are being promoted and made inescapable at a moment of mounting danger:
Al is entangled with our systems of ordering society. […] It helps accelerate a shift towards far-right politics. AI is emerging from within a convolution of ongoing crises, each of which has the potential to be fascism-inducing, including austerity, COVID-19 and climate change. Alongside these there is an internal crisis in the ‘relations of oppression’, especially the general destabilization of White male supremacy by decolonial, feminist, LGBTQI and other social movements (Palheta, 2021). The enrollment of AI in the management of these various crises produces ‘states of exception’ – forms of exclusion that render people vulnerable in an absolute sense. The multiplication of algorithmic states of exception across carceral, social and healthcare systems makes visible the necropolitics of Al; that is, its role in deciding who should live and who should be allowed to die.
As 20th century Marxists were fond of saying, it is no accident that as the capitalist social order faces ever more significant challenges, ranging from demands from the multitudes subjected to its tyranny to the growing instability of nature itself as climate change’s impacts accelerate, there is a turn, by elites, to a technology of command and control to reassert some sense of order. McQuillan’s urgency is born of a recognition of global emergency and the ways the collection of computational methods called ‘AI’ is being marshalled to meet that emergency using what can clearly be identified as fascist approaches.
There’s much more to say but I will leave it here so you can explore on your own. Resisting AI: An Anti-Facist Approach to Artificial Intelligence, is an important and necessary book.
As the hype, indeed, propaganda about AI and its supposed benefits and even dangers (such as the delusions about ‘superintelligence’ a red herring) are broadcast ever more loudly, we need a collectivity of counterbalancing ideas and voices. McQuillan has provided us with a powerful contribution.