Coming to Grips with the Cyberpunk Dystopia

Knee-jerk objection to AI technology has become for the left what objection to vaccines was for the right.  That’s not to say AI and vaccines are at all comparable in terms of benefit to society and in how they affect our lives, but I have witnessed lefties bring up AI completely out of the blue in an unrelated context specifically to ferret out the lefty credentials of other people in the room, reverse McCarthy style.  Stalin style?  Are you now or have you ever been amused by an application of AI technology?  Go thou presently unto hell.

I’m not telling anybody how to be lefty or that they have to love AI, but I am saying this is a losing fight, and tying yourself to cement blocks when you’re out on the water might not be the wisdom.  If any of you imagine for a second this genie can be re-bottled, you have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.  AI in visual art (the domain I most understand) is much like the invention of photography in almost every respect – nobody could keep that technology from happening, they aren’t going to stop this one either.  AI in all other aspects of technology, it’s like the invention of the wheel.  This is the dawn of an extremely different world.  Unless you plan to go full an-prim, you need to figure out how you’re going to live in that world.

AI is a problem but it is also a solution.  It’s being used for horrible things and for great things.  It will be used for both horrible and great things regardless of what we wish would happen, so we have to stop wishing and start dealing with it.

I saw an article about how AI could run certain chemical tests a thousand times faster than human scientists and some well-meaning lefty said “this is terrible.”  It objectively isn’t.  As long as all appropriate measures are used for quality control on the products of those operations, this could accelerate the development of cures for every human illness in a massive way.  Don’t see the benefit in that?  You must’ve lucked out and not picked up any of the myriad failures the average human body accumulates over time.  But you will join us in Cripland someday, and at that point, I hope no luddites have slowed medicine to save work that sensible scientists don’t even want to be doing.

On the flip, AI is being used to gather intelligence for marketing and manipulation of the masses.  Ooh.  Scary.  Some version of this has been happening for decades, and just because it’s happening faster doesn’t mean the fundamental issues aren’t still exactly the same.  Change government, change society, and you can change how technology is used – for or against the masses.  Hacktivists can absolutely use AI as well, and frankly, they should.  Fuck up the program.  Fight the AI, but if you want to keep up, you are going to have to use AI.

This hit lefties in the feels because it’s going to hurt writing and art jobs, and because we’re still in love with “the human soul” in our secular way.  It’s also going to hurt music jobs, though that hasn’t happened as much yet.  Pretty much every field of human creativity is going to be invaded by AI in some way, and as long as we live under capitalism, as long as we live in a technologically advanced world*, it is going to impact your ability to make money as an artist.  If it hasn’t happened yet, brace for impact, because technology this useful literally cannot be stopped.

What are the plans for stopping it?  Legal action to protect your property rights?  (Slightly amusing that intellectual property has become a leftist concern but I’m not getting into that.)  Anything that involves law is going to favor the moneyed.  There’s no labor victory in that scenario.  The best you can hope for is the ability to protect your future creative content from being used in AI – legally, but of course it will still happen illegally all over the place – or for temporarily expunging AI datasets that use “unethically” harvested content.  All that does is set the tech back a couple of years, and when new datasets emerge with “ethically” obtained data?  What’s your argument then?  What’s your legal recourse?

Like portrait painters when photography was invented, all creatives – including writers like those on this network – have to figure out what our role will be in a world where our labor can be simulated with technology.  We can console ourselves with the weakness of that technology now.  AI art can be samey or deformed, AI writing is basic pabulum and incoherent in long form.  But those weaknesses can be solved with time, training, and tweaking.  What then?

There will still be call for human creators.  Oil painters, marble sculptors, writers, comedians, guitarists, and more.  But their labors will be inherently less valuable as corporate media replaces them all with sufficiently marketable simulacra.  The masses will be into it.  The quirks of AI will inform their artistic sensibilities, and they will start writing like the AIs, kids trying to sing like vocoders.  You will be able to market the fact that you are human, and – for now – you are noticeably superior to AI art.  But will you be able to make a living under capitalism?  Not in art, not anymore than teamsters can make a living as coachmen for horse-drawn buggies.

Personally this doesn’t bother me, because the vast majority of art right now in most fields is nearly as robotic and half-assed as AI art.  The most human art is also just the worst, the stuff where creators are flaunting their prejudices, fetishes, or inadequacies.  If, as an artist, I end up being Wesley Willis on the street corner with a casio keyboard, this is what it was going to be.  If, on the other hand, human artists can overcome the divisions wrought by capitalism, forge a new world of creativity outside of economy, outside of money, maybe something, idk, as cyberpunk as the world we now live in?  Maybe you’ll keep hearing my voice, maybe you’ll see robo-me on corporate internet and think, hey, I’ll go for the real thing instead.  All artists have is the attention of the audience and what they choose to do with it.  If they find the AI preferable, and someday soon they just might, there is fuck-all we can do about it.

If you’ve been able to make a living as a lefty writer (who the hell has?), you’ve been able to make money from selling a revolution that will make your money obsolete.  But is it possible to make revolution happen by doing profitable things – even in some chump change way?  Or will a genuine revolution always be the work of people with nothing left to lose?

Bringing it back to the point, this tech saves labor as much as the wheel, in different ways in different contexts, and as long as humans value anything – even in a post-capitalist context – labor-saving technology will advance and persist.  Rage against that particular machine too hard and for too long, you’re eventually going to look completely ridiculous.  We live in a cyberpunk dystopia.  Figure out how to live in the world you have, or monkey it up with the anarcho-primitivists.  The people with medical technology will be available at the nearest city when you are done.

*This entire thesis is rendered meaningless if society collapses tomorrow.  As we near the actual end of history, all the theories about how this was going to play out have given way to a clear last two stages – Cyberpunk Dystopia, then Mad Max.  In Mad Max, AI is nobody’s problem.  I hope you’re not looking forward to that.  There is literally one alternate path in this billionaires-choose-everybody-else’s-adventure scenario, which is Solarpunk/Ecopunk Utopia.  Not feelin’ likely.  But if it does happen?  I’d love to have AI there making life easier for everyone.


  1. says

    I’m not meaning to propose solutions or downplay problems here. This is a dystopian situation we’re in and nothing is going to be easy about it. I’m kinda excited by the positive potentials of tech that’s getting a lot of shit from people who don’t know shit about it, just keeps annoying me to see that come up as The Party Line to which I should be adhering.

  2. says

    Like LLMs. Yeah, they’re speedrunning the death of the internet right now, choking the web with garbage, but god. They have so much potential for good. In my day job I see how inadequately the needs of the people are being met, every single fucking day. An LLM that improves on the problems of the current gen, tailored to meet the demands of the public I deal with, it could take a lot of work off my employer’s hands, in a good way. Could put me out of a job I sorely need, but I’d take that for the team, if every american’s life could be improved by 1%, if the people whose lives are imperiled by how badly my employer is understaffed could suddenly get all the help they need. You’d still need some humans, say, as the “advanced help” department, so maybe I’m still around, but we need this shit. It’s time.

  3. says

    That’s an example of the way I mean “deal with the world we’re in” rather than wishing for a better one that ain’t comin’ soon. The US is gridlocked politically in a way that makes forward motion on basic human needs all but impossible. The ideal would be my employer getting adequately funded, but it’s been getting drained for years and that ain’t gonna turn around without an unprecedented reversal in how We The People behave. If this political situation takes years to unfuck, but AI could get a significant improvement for people in the short term, I’m very OK with that happening.

  4. Dunc says

    This is not the cyberpunk dystopia I ordered! The one in the catalog had cool body mods and really, really good drugs. This one is bullshit.

  5. says

    So, I read this post of yours now that I had a bit of spare time and honestly, I do not see where we disagree. I focus in my post on different things than you do, but I do not see a disagreement in principle. Either I misunderstand your position, or you misunderstood mine or both.

  6. says

    In my day job I see how inadequately the needs of the people are being met, every single fucking day. An LLM that improves on the problems of the current gen, tailored to meet the demands of the public I deal with, it could take a lot of work off my employer’s hands, in a good way.

    My favorite example is a diagnostician chatbot. Just a simple ‘bot that will ask you questions about your condition until it is able to give a likelihood range for what ails you. No guarantees that it’s 100% accurate but then, human doctors aren’t guaranteed, either. The LLM would need to be updated with new disorders as necessary but – that’s about it. Couple it to a ticketing system that talks to an emergency room queuing system in case someone comes up with a high priority diagnosis (e.g.: “my fingernails are turning grey, is that a problem?”) Of course it could be replaced with a simple shell script that just said, “your problem is that you are in the US and are not a billionaire” but that wouldn’t help even though the accuracy would be stratospheric.

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