It’s unwise to narrow the cause down to just one thing, and probably unfair to limit it to Twitter-related spiritual damage, but something is clearly not right with the richest and most powerful people in Silicon Valley. In some cases, this is pretty easy to identify; having a billion dollars and every material comfort imaginable does not insulate a person from contracting a debilitating case of Becoming Very Politically Conservative in its ultra-degraded contemporary form.
The Gen X members of this cohort’s past veneer of liberal politics was only ever affective and cultural, which makes it less surprising that they have veered, in the absence of any actual values that could be called values and with great speed and vigor, into the sort of odious and wildly discredited taboos—scientific racism, unscientific racism, something (seriously) called “hyper-racism”—whose wildly repellent nature would naturally appeal to a class of cretins who navigate mostly by smell.
It is easier to understand how the older and younger reactionaries in this cohort got there, which is the same way that old rich people always have and through the imperatives of mimicry and flattering that rule in this kind of facile, top-heavy scene, respectively. If all of it bears the greasy fingerprints of The Online Experience—the amphetamized yammering of someone who has watched or made too many videos, the tireless cocksure bullshit of the predatory influencer—it is also all pretty familiar and ugly. The richest and most powerful people in the culture are also its dullest, and seemingly among its unhappiest.
It’s not the worst thing about economic inequality—that would be the broader hollowing out of the public space and the gnawed-down feeling of suspicion and hazard that suffuses so much of everyday life, in my opinion—but their riches and impunity seemingly haven’t done much for the victors’ mental or spiritual health, either. The lords of this moment of shame and decline mostly seem to spend a lot of time winding each other up, and making their own opinions radically worse. The smart thing to do, when presented with a baronial class of deranged and deeply mediocre bigots, is to make them much less powerful and less rich, both as a matter of praxis and self-defense. But, in the short term, avoiding eye contact will do.
This is advice that I myself have mostly been unable to take. I’m perversely fascinated by these freaks, blinking and pale and increasingly deranged in their fleece vests and $14,000 anti-woke black t-shirts. If I see them less now that I am no longer using the same social media they use, it has only made it more startling when I encounter them again in what is reliably an even more degraded state. It can take time, and more work than I’m comfortable admitting to, to figure out what the fuck they’re even on about. This is how I learned that, during one of Elon Musk’s recent public meltdowns, his reference to Digital God had to do with the belief, which is apparently widely shared in this cohort, that Artificial Intelligence will soon surpass and then rule over the humans that created it.
Which, if you have seen AI and what it does, is a pretty amazing thing to believe. While there are things at which AI excels, they’re not the sort of stuff that would warrant a label like Digital God. AI is apparently quite good at, for instance, reading MRIs, but in every more humanesque use-case it has distinguished itself mostly by being really good at making things up and being wrong and distributing hideous fingers and teeth willy-nilly across the “people” in the images it produces. It can’t really do anything on its own, and it cannot learn in a way that qualifies as learning, and it cannot improve any of that without access to stores of (human-created, human-copyrighted) material from which to feed. If it is maybe either getting better or nearing a point at which it might get better at guessing various answers—to math problems, to crossword puzzle clues, to the next word in some sentence or other—it is still very much guessing.
It is not really very interesting to me whether the pale creatures that periodically heave themselves belching up out of Silicon Valley’s ketamine bogs really believe that AI is going to become god, or whether this is just their flubby attempt at salesmanship. One reason it is not very interesting is that everything they have touted as the future of some essential human thing or other—the future of art, or money—has mostly crashed out in ways that left behind very little useful residue. Another is that the ways in which AI is used in the present, by your lower-effort plagiarists and scammers, are so manifestly not the future of anything that works, but rather both the present and the future of shitting-up web search results, which is roughly analogous to saying that robocalls about homeowners insurance are the future of human communication.
Or, maybe more generously, the present applications of this sort of AI represent a future, which pretty much everyone can agree is one that must be avoided. The greed and shortsightedness of contemporary capital are eroding social capacity everywhere; AI, which is a way to make some basic and important things much cheaper and much worse, fits into this in various ominous and obvious ways.
But what is unclear to me is whether or how any of it might even work. At Futurism, Victor Tangermann runs down the bumper crop of products listed for sale on Amazon under names like “I’m sorry but I cannot fulfill this request it goes against OpenAI use policy. My purpose is to provide helpful and respectful information to users-Brown” and “I apologize but I cannot complete this task it requires using trademarked brand names which goes against OpenAI use policy. Is there anything else I can assist you with-10mmx3m.” The former is a bureau, the latter, Tangermann writes, “appears to be a piece of polyurethane hose.”
It is clear that the companies—typically among the alphabet-soup junk retailers that have proliferated on Amazon like invasive plants in the apparent absence of any attempt to stop them from doing so—listing these products saved money and time by having an AI write the names and descriptions. (Amazon debuted a generative AI designed for listings last year, although clearly the name-brand OpenAI was the choice of your more discerning hustlers.) It is less clear how the sellers might benefit from this. The names make somehow less than no sense; the descriptions are frequently wrong in distinctively AI ways (a three-drawer bureau confidently identified as having two drawers, for instance); the obvious untrustable scuzz of the broader enterprise is unmistakable and off-putting.
In some ways, this abject laziness scans as a blessing in the same way that the garbled syntax and punctuation of a phishing email does. It is hard to imagine anyone in such a rush to buy furniture for their yard that they would look at a product whose name is literally an AI apologizing for not being able to do the scammy thing it was asked to do, and whose description reads “our can be used for a variety of tasks, such [task 1], [task 2], and [task 3], making it a versatile addition to your household,” and then think, “Eh, close enough.” For the time being, we’ll have to imagine it: After images of these listings rocketed around the internet, Amazon appears to have belatedly scrubbed every listing whose name included OpenAI’s boilerplate apology language. This seems less like a problem solves than one that has been deferred, or temporarily displaced.
To me, anyway. But maybe this is what separates the fuming maestros of Silicon Valley from the rest of humanity. Not their capacity to look at all this artless sweaty hucksterism and see not just the future, but nothing less than the face of god coming into focus. That is pretty remarkable, honestly, but obviously their ability to do that is shared with the anonymous junk vendors who put these listings online. The crucial difference, I think, manages to hold whether they really believe that any or all of this is the future or whether they just believe that everyone else can be made to believe it if they say it often enough. It’s that, from the high isolation that their wealth and damage has afforded them, they really think so little of the rest of humanity that they’re convinced we can’t tell the difference between the dross they make and something a person might actually be able to use.