Will Politics Re-Organise Around the Question of Technology?

Two news stories this week were of moment beyond the Elon Musk Twitter soap opera and the tussle over the ALP’s very limited intervention in the gas market. The first was the launch of ChatGPT, an online ‘entity’ created by the Open AI foundation. ChatGPT is a vast, continuous, multi-levelled recursive learning and response module which continuously uses the whole of the internet in an undirected fashion to learn natural language structures and speech, and also facts. ChatGPT doesn’t spit out documents like Google. If you ask it about Virginia Woolf, it will reply to you with a well-formed small essay synthesising knowledge in a manner related to the specifics of your question, and sounding absolutely as if a human had composed the response—or was talking to you over the phone about it.

The effect is uncanny and disturbing—and currently inaccessible, as ChatGPT’s servers are so overloaded that it cannot currently take new inquiries—and goes well beyond the clunky ‘neural networks’ of before. It is still a long way from perfectly mimicking the full modalities of an adult within a culture. When asked to write a Monty Python-style sketch about ChatGPT, for example, it can mimic the full form, and even make some lame jokes, but cannot replicate the specific logic of the genre. But wonder at the site has been such that its CEO waded in to talk down its capacities, an unusual event in tech development.

Others had fewer qualms, describing the morning of its release as analogous to the explosion of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima in its creation of a division between a world suddenly past, and the new present as part of the future. The choice of comparison does not appear to have been intended to invoke the catastrophic possibilities that the use of atomic weapons opened up. Those using the comparison were groping for something that expressed—more than, say, the Moon landings—a qualitative change in the relationship between the very fabric of everyday life and technology as transformed at its ‘atomic’ and ‘sub-atomic’ level.

Nevertheless, it is striking that there was almost no naïve technophilia expressed about the development. Rather, there was a sense of awe, with foreboding mixed in. This was perhaps because many commentators, who produce ‘content’ for a living, were doing stories about a technology that could unquestionably replace much of the work of journalists. Journalists have seen these clunky machines come and go. But this one is the real deal, or the beginnings of such.

But it may also be because ChatGPT has appeared at a point where the last vestiges of naïve technophilia—especially around social and cultural technologies—have now entirely washed away. The story is now not unfamiliar. OpenAI began as a non-profit in 2015, established by Elon Musk and others. In 2019 it became a for-profit, with Microsoft its major investor and the preferred future licensor of its technologies. It is intended as Microsoft’s Holy Grail, a Google-killer. Its current investors include all the usual suspects in the techno-futurist push: Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, and Sam Altman of Thiel’s ‘meta-startup’ Y Combinator.

Few people know of this. Few would be surprised to find it out. But there remains a residual notion that technology has some form of socially driven logic, as was once invested, however imperfectly, in the state. ChatGPT has the appearance of a post-capitalist general technology released to humanity, even though its funding has come from the same source as much of the current tech revolution: the trillions in cheap quantitative easing money sloshing around the world during the 2010s.

Simultaneously with the release of ChatGPT there was the breathless announcement of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research, with the Lawrence Livermore laboratory achieving ‘ignition’—the point at which energy put in is exceeded by the energy given off by a process of fusion (i.e., joining atoms rather than splitting them). The report has all the characteristics of fusion research reports going back decades: a single, rumoured, unreplicated experiment, involving minute transformations, relying on a massive amount of equipment whose energy cost of production is excluded from the overall equation.

These announcements are usually later exposed as the work of crackpots or charlatans. But there is no reason to believe the process will not eventually be cracked. Decades more of development would then be required for scaling up, and hard limits of nature may intrude, as it seems they also may on the whizz-bang development of quantum computing.

But there can be no doubt about the obsession with which such a technology will be pursued. The excitement around it is expressive of deep desires going back to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and its particular transformation, the quantitative abstraction from all nature, offering an infinite vista of natural transformation and both responding to and producing the notion of humanity’s self-transcendence to become Gods. The perpetual desire for this always takes the next technology as the final, liberating one, as per Lenin’s remark that ‘communism was the Soviets plus electrification’. The semi-immateriality of electricity as a substance carried with it an air of the secular divine—a mediation between the material worlds and the ideal possibilities dreamed of in political utopias.

But it was from the critical traditions also produced by this movement that the twentieth century’s questioning of unreflective technology arose: the ‘New Left’ movement that flourished from the 1940s through to the 1970s, drawing on diverse sources from the pre-war bohemian movements around the pursuit of ‘life’ and the destructive capacities emerging from the Second World War, culminating in nuclear weapons, to the entrance of the Frankfurt School exiles into US intellectual life (some things are true even though the crazy Right says they are true). As Marcuse once drily noted, the sheer onslaught of postwar transformation itself produced resistance to the industrialisation of food, the destruction of the biosphere, the life-denying nature of suburbia, the nihilistic nature of modernist planning and design and the like (curiously, as an aside, there has been no book-length study pointing to the overwhelming role of women writers including Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Betty Friedan and, in social mores, Margaret Mead in the early 1960s part of this transformation, but the ratio can’t be coincidental).

The New Left dominated intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century to such a degree that it is still difficult to step back from it and assess the contingent dimension of its character. Even when its collective revolutionary energies had been exhausted, it flowed into the steady transformation of individualised everyday life, from health food to personal development, a more challenging popular culture, and the like. Though its development was surely overdetermined to a degree, it was a development that happened within a society in which state, capital and technology had been fused together and valorised, and its leading rebels were largely those within the social groupings that had been educated and trained to further this new socio-political structure. As a point of comparison, it did not happen in the USSR, because any explicit technocritical thinking was actively suppressed (hence its unique science-fiction genres in which critique was rendered as fable), and one can see the result in post-Soviet Russia: its hilariously flashy, naïvely neophiliac culture, poor in social movements and now capable of being rounded up to support a patriotic high-tech war with the potential to escalate to nuclear exchange is, paradoxically, what happens when a New Left is absent.

But so too is our present. By the 1980s, the deep critique of technology, growth and the culture and psychology arising from it had been exhausted—beaten by the impasse of the historical moment. The neoliberalism that rushed in in the 1980s revived an unreflective technophilia, and used the New Left period as the butt of satire. When that paradigm was exhausted, the alternative movements that returned had a dual attitude towards technology—largely critical of its implementation, but bypassing the New Left deep critique to create a new continuity with the techno-optimistic traditions of the nineteenth-century Left. Fewer dams and tractors, plenty of networks and devices.

Now that a series of new developments is raising the possibility that we may be in the historical position where fresh radical transformations of everyday life, and the framework of collective human existence, may be in the offing, it is worth asking whether a political movement that puts a critical approach to technology at its heart may re-emerge. The current, substantial absence of one might dishearten, but the prospect is suggested by the seeming exhaustion of techno-optimism as an everyday mass ideology. The overwhelming attitude towards these mass technological transformations now appears to be one that mixes foreboding and fatalism, with little excitement. Even at the most superficial level, many people can see that there is no comprehensive plan in place for technical social transformation, and that political and social practices lag far behind technological development. In the techno-fantasies of an earlier period—crystallised, perhaps in the early 60s cartoon The Jetsons—social-political management of technology is simply assumed. George Jetson works two hours per week making space sprockets; the hi-tech lifestyle his family pursues is presumably provided as free distribution or through Universal Income; minimal residual work suggests that fully automated communism is almost there.

Such pop-culture moments combined an everyday excitement about the future with some slight undertones of satire about such hopes. But the optimism was required for the satire. Can anyone see anything like that in the West, save among doctrinaire accelerationists and the grim priesthood of techno-capital? Does that provide the first ground—the preliminary clearing whereby a multi-sourced technocritical movement might develop?

Of course, anyone looking for that to happen tomorrow is fooling themselves. The development of technology may have lost its excitement, but it has not yet lost its sense of inevitability. However, that too may take a knock if the West does indeed enter another global recession in 2023. That is surely near inevitable as a consequence of the turning off of the global QE tap, which seems equally inevitable if global take-off inflation heading towards Turkish or other peripheral levels of 60, 70 or 80 per cent is to be avoided. Within this crucible of new tech, we can see that this tightening is crashing the last wave of new tech, in particular cryptocurrency, fattened by transferred investment and now coming down around its own ears. That will surely have a socio-political consequence that is yet to be realised, since the crypto dream has been sold to millions, particularly the younger generation whose shrinking wages could not cover their life costs and who had ‘imperfect inoculation’ against money’s capacity to present itself magically (a comparison can be made with the Ponzi schemes that raced through post-Cold War Eastern Europe, and entirely bankrupted Albania, because people had no capacity to assess the character of money).

The initial result of a recession, and multiple crashes within it, may well be, as it usually is, a turn to the conspiratorial Right, which offers a concretised myth of betrayal into which hatred, anguish and despair can be cleanly projected. There is no doubt that the full return of a vicious anti-Semitism and, of all things, Hitler-worship, is a first expression of this. The idea that sections of a younger generation may be too enmeshed in abstract material processes and the universalist ethic that arises from them does not survive all we know about how such cultural collapses into concrete myth occur, and how the character of a generation—the post-First World War generation, for example—can be shaped and then characterised by such occurrences. A new recession, coming on top of a decade of failed recovery and wage power shrinkage, would confirm to many millions that their future has been finally and fully stolen from them. The same phenomena occurred once before in post-Soviet Russia, when its citizens realised they had not only missed postwar Western capitalism, but had been gazumped by the take-off of Eastern capitalism and were now stranded in a perpetual, futureless, inadequate present. What came from that was its range of whacky rightist movements, mixed fascism, strands of Bolshevism, performance art and Baudrillardian anti-realism. The beneficiary of all this was the more prosaic petro-authoritarianism of Putin, but the movements served to further corrode the possibility of a social-democratic resistance to his rule.

Should that occur in the West, it will pit one part of a rising generation against another part—the progressive Gen Z, whose activism and votes can now be seen manifesting in results such as the US midterms and the Victorian state election. Or the influence of the latter may take the dissatisfaction leftwards, as is clearly occurring in the UK, where the recession has already occurred—one not of mass unemployment, but of the simple evaporation of wage power, making life unlivable. One has a sense that some sort of movement combining anger, anti-system values, concrete demands, specific enemies and a memetic serious/not-serious culture must always emerge—even as an expression of new social divisions—from such conditions. To such a movement, Donald Trump would appear as a precursor, his mass-media memes now seen as crude and passé.

Within such a mess, there may well be a renewed techno-solutionism: a last hope in the next big thing. If so, it will surely be brief. The last cultural burst of techno-optimism—the simultaneous creation of social media and the smartphone in the mid-2000s—came at the end of a twenty-year series of bubble growths in the West, in which new technology was taken up in the late 1990s. For many, things did seem to be getting better and shinier, and some had the wages to afford them. This was the era in which an event like the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show went from an industry event to a cultural phenomenon, where the imminent future could be glimpsed—a world in which everything was migrating from the old, resistant physical world to the fluid, recombinant possibilities of the digital. Infinity beckoned, was affordable, and was presented as radically democratic.

Technology is now the masters’ discourse. It is the joyless libertarianism of Peter Thiel, loaded with resentment and projecting the social anxieties of a certain type of techno-financial adept into fantasylands (seasteading, or creating lawless communities in international waters, for example), the tedious caprice of Elon Musk, the Hitlerolatry of Kanye West (whose admiration for the Nazis appears in part based on IG Farben’s development of modern sound-recording technologies), the frat-boy privileges of the fallen crypto wizards, and more. Thus detached from any sort of reciprocal relationship with the wider population, its character—as driven equally by the tides of capital and the archaic transcendental hopes locked within technology itself—may be the crack within which a wider questioning could be opened with a campaign of ideas directed at key intellectual figures.

However, the creation of such—which would be a process of years, and dependent on a degree of propitious circumstance—would also require those intent on it, to understand it as a new political, or meta-political, division, respecting of neither the old economic left-right distinction, nor the current cultural left-right division. It would require a thorough renegotiation between technocritics from the Left, religious critics of secularism, cultural conservatives, and—however unlikely it seems—the revival of a socio-cultural political conscience and commitment among a generation which departed into an abstruse philosophical quietism as a Bartlebyesque response to the epochal defeat of the twentieth-century radical Left in the 1990s. It would require a revival of social commitment from those who have retreated to the hyperindividualism of Lacanian practice as a mode of manageable critical practice.

As did the New Left, it would draw on the inherent reflexive and critical potential of the new blocs/groups/classes which have been tasked with running this vast and visibly failing machine. But in doing so it would have to recognise the contradiction at the heart of the New Left, in its belief that a transformed deep culture could be expressed in a renewed version of Marx’s communism—a realm where the major contradictions of individualism and collectivism could be overcome, and where life could be regrounded without the inheritance of transmitted tradition. Indeed, that is where what the Left is now would split, as one part—based on not only personal orientation, but also perhaps the technical/interpretive division of intellectual practices—went towards a commanding techno-optimism at the same time as a critical section emerged.

This is already happening, and the mark of it is the gradual, initially reluctant, turn towards nuclear power by European Green parties, following the lead of writers such as George Monbiot and the late James Lovelock, in the teeth of the European energy crisis. For this side of the Green movement, the deep critique of nuclear in which the movement was founded—that the technology introduces a level of total manipulation of nature which therefore makes possible both a total destruction of life, and necessarily authoritarian political forms of control—will be simply treated as error, in the same way that Marxism rejected communalist forms of anti-capitalism. The new Greens will embrace ‘smart’ nuclear power as being exactly expressive of political possibilities—transcendently powerful technology, capable of being directed by reflexive intelligent people to social ends—and its abstracted atomic form as being expressive with, and homologous to, their networked social forms. The anti-nuclear movement of the New Left will look, from this perspective, as ancient and flyblown as the craft-and-smocks socialism of William Morris looked to Second International and Leninist Marxism. This transformation may well result in wrenching splits, but they may be productive ones: the new techno-Greens might be capable of attracting a vast new support base to which they give a refashioned techno-optimism.

There is a ways to go, and technology has the character of permanent daily revolution. But in the possible success of a fusion experiment, reaching every deeper into external nature—and of ChatGPT reaching every deeper into our internal nature—we may just have a signpost for the way ahead, and the terrain to come.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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