X Politics and Dystopian Tech

This week saw two events which reveal the sort of new politics that surround us. At one the British Prime Minister interviewed Elon Musk like a gushing fan-boy asking him softball questions, at another the billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and the data analysis company Palantir (and huge funder of Trump) gave a lecture in Oxford.

Both were disturbing in different ways.

Rishi Sunak interviewed Musk at the end of their two-day AI conference, billed as the ‘world’s first safety summit’. Sky News Deputy Political Editor Sam Coates called it ‘one of the maddest political events I’ve ever covered’.

After it the PM issued a statement saying; “I know this is an anxiety that people have. We should look at AI much more as a co-pilot than something that necessarily is going to replace someone’s job. AI is a tool that can help almost everybody do their jobs better, faster, quicker, and that’s how we’re already seeing it being deployed.”

But if this seemingly cringeworthy analysis was not bad enough, the body-language of Sunak in interviewing Musk revealed the relationship not just between two men but between democracy and wealthy power. That the richest man in the world is powerful is not a revelation, but the extent and depth of power wielded by a tech giant in the modern age is astonishing and terrifying. The event seemed to confirm most peoples worst fears that AI will not be controlled by anyone at all, as that is ideologically incompatible with hyper-capitalism, and that if anyone was to control anything it would be our tech-overlords with our democratically elected leaders giggling in the background while being handed sweeties.

It was revealed that Musk has the capacity to turn on (or off) access to the internet in Gaza via his satellite system Starling and can help or hinder Ukraine in their war against Russia. This is tech-billionaire as overlords, and this farcical and embarrassing interview revealed our democracy as incapable of responding either to the power of the super-wealthy or the implications of technology. Why would they if, for example our PM is literally married to such power and data-controlling entities? Among all this banal bro chatter, was the more chilling tweet by the alleged leader of the UK promoting the event in which he replaces the No 10 with an X on Downing Street:

If this wasn’t dystopian enough for you, at one point Elon Musk began speculating that AI “friends” might be better than real-life ones. Musk’s proposition was that supercomputers that use advanced algorithms to mimic human contact might present more attractive companions for humanity than real-life friends. The Prime Minister just giggled along.

Frankly this is terrifying and the quicker Sunak is kicked out of office the better and the need to reclaim and re-create the public sphere that has been contaminated by Musk has never been more stark.

What I called (back in 2019) the era of Revolutionary Conservatism is surely upon us, where figures like Musk (and Thiel) finance and control madly erratic and wildly radical and dystopian political movements. Elsewhere – more recently – others notice the same phenomenon. The writer Andy Becket writes of the abandonment of old taboos and assumptions: “Particularly since 2021, as three successive Tory premierships have become exercises in frantic reinvention, but also over a longer period of self-doubt and experimentation, a new Conservatism has been struggling to emerge.”

“Alongside the anti-establishment rhetoric and clumsy lurches to the left have come lunges to the right – or the far right: the endless culture wars against minorities, the authoritarian approach to protest and parliament, and the attacks on any institution that frustrates the Tories’ exercise of power. For years now, the Conservatives have given the impression that they don’t like the society or economy they in large part created – and that dislike, together with their deepening unpopularity, has carried the party into a strange place. Ideas previously considered heretical or too extreme are winning converts there. Feelings of anger and electoral dread mingle with feelings of excitement.”

Brexit as Trasformismo

As the power visibly recedes from both the British and Scottish governing parties this new extremism lands in post-Brexit Britain, but also in post-indy Scotland. This new politics is darkly stupid, brutal and disconnected from principles or vision. Welcome to what Fintan O’Toole called “the United Kingdom of Absurdistan”. O’Toole noted: “Brexit is a very strange kind of revolution – the heroic overthrow of imaginary oppression, in which tragedy and farce are not sequential but simultaneous and deeply interwoven.”

Apart from the chaos and the bad-theatre the emerging reality is that Britain is a deeply unstable place. The mythical “checks and balances” don’t exist, the disgraceful state of the media is a real problem for democracy, the deep sense of privilege is merely a red-flag to the state of the whole miserable project. As the level of macho-dysfunctionality oozing out of the Covid Inquiry testifies, we are ruled by sociopathic halfwits. But as Dominic Cummings enjoyed another 15 minutes of fame spewing expletives like a jilted Malcolm Tucker, we see the landscape being sculpted by the like of Thiel and Musk. Andy Becket writes of the Thiel Oxford lecture:

“More confusingly still, he described himself as on “the centre-right”. Yet he criticised Sunak – an increasingly aggressive social conservative and lifelong free-marketeer – as too moderate and essentially the same as Keir Starmer. By the lecture’s climax, Thiel was making assertions with which even some on the right might be uncomfortable, including arguing that fascism was “more innocent” than communism.”

The venture capitalist concluded that a possible alternative to the extremes of fascism or communism might be some form of “Christian democracy”.

This era might be analogous to early Thatcherism in which she succeeded in building a new form of authoritarian populism, which encouraged people to operate with not against state power and capitalism. This is what Gramsci called ‘trasformismo‘ – the appropriation of previously hostile or dissident ideas into a ‘new political configuration’ – in new distorted manifestations. The rush for the new strange libertarianism championed by Musk and Thiel and the far-right is a grotesque parody of the actual politics they espouse and we are receiving.

Want to hand over unimaginable power to a handful of unelected individuals? Want to voluntarily hand over all of your data to these individuals to further manipulate and spy on you? Sure we do. Want to unleash unimaginably powerful technologies and make sure that it is concentrated in the hands of these same people? Want to simultaneously destroy the most precious civil and human rights with extraordinary new powers for the police? Of course.

Comments (14)

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  1. Michael Farrell says:

    Agree with all of that.

    Sorry to be fussy about spelling but I think it is important to correct this one…

    TrasformisMo – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trasformismo

  2. Meg Macleod says:

    One might hope that the big brotherhood of tech giants might fight amongst themselves and collapse under the weight of their own aspirations.
    Their vision of our future is beyond anyones worst nightmare
    No matter which party gets elected.the doors of the trap are truly closed.it will take a miracle to turn back this tide of oppression held out to us as ‘a vision if a better future’

  3. Vroni says:

    We’re living in a dystopian world. Money rules more than ever. Horrible.

  4. John says:

    Any review of history in UK (& many other countries) will reveal that politicians have been enthralled and influenced by the rich and powerful.
    It does appear that this form of influencing is now more embedded and blatant in many countries especially UK. My memory may be failing but from my recollection politicians of yesterday tried to cover up their associations with rich and powerful where as these days they seem to increasingly revel in it?
    Either way it is corrupting our democracy or what remains of it.
    If and when Scotland becomes independent great thought must be put into how our democratic systems are actually accountable to and influenced by the citizens of the country (who pay their taxes) and not by a few rich and powerful individuals (who often avoid paying their taxes).
    I live in hope rather than expectation but based on evidence being presented to us on a daily basis democracy in an independent Scotland can only be an improvement on the Westminster form we are currently living under.

    1. Bill says:

      The lack of a written constitution and bill of rights coupled to an independent judicial system that can conduct serious scrutiny and punish offenders who breach the constitution and bill of rights only encourages those who indulge in malfeasance. To rely on individual integrity does not suffice – witness the present government in Westminster and to a lesser extent Edinburgh. There were Tories of yesteryear whose politics I abhorred, but whose integrity was not questionable. Boris the Buffoon really opened the door to unlicensed hedonism, but the situation had been created by the early work of Thatcher and the setting up by Osborne.
      Unless there is a real change of heart by Labour and Starmer, I fear for the future and would recommend my grandchildren to emigrate, preferably to New Zealand – that seems to be a country that is resisting the tide of right wing populism that is sweeping the rest of the world.


      1. Ian Stewart McMickan says:

        New Zealand has just had a general Election in which the Right wing “conservative ” party won.

        1. John says:

          You beat me to it and Thiel was fast tracked into NZ to give speeches recently.
          In addition I lived in Queensland for 3 years and was looking at moving to NZ, as it is a beautiful country, but salaries were considerably lower in NZ in healthcare sector.

      2. John says:

        I think it is only fair to mention Tony Blair’s dodgy WMD dossier , the role of unelected Alastair Campbell and how the UK managed to go to war in Iraq as another example of how democracy doesn’t function effectively in the UK.
        I would recommend my grandchildren choose a country based on global climate change predictions.

  5. Satan says:

    Predictive text is AI, as is a spellchecker. We have been using it for a while, and for a lot of people, their friends live in a little box, and don’t believe they see something that is actually happening unless they see it on their phone. Technological dystopia is here already.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I rewatched the original Omen trilogy over Halloween and there are aspects that seem quite pertinent to this piece on capital-corporate power centres. The key role of diplomats in the series are highly significant, given their undemocratic nature (in the British Empire/UK, ambassadorship is the gift of the monarch under yet another royal prerogative power), and an aspect of our political systems that regularly goes unscrutinised. At the bleeding edge of imperial power, diplomats are also prone to the occasional bout of self-reflection (see Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal for examples). Both Musk and Thiel appear to be conducting international diplomacy, although serving which master(s) is not officially announced.

  7. Niemand says:

    I agree with the thrust of this article and find the fascination and attention paid to people like Musk depressing at best. His ‘ideas’ are often simply ridiculous.

    But when it comes to AI I get the feeling we are falling for the hype. All this stuff in relation to its power, whether dystopian or utopian, is based on what exactly? In many ways ‘AI’ (whatever that is, no-one bothers even trying to say any more) is a marketing slogan that can now be applied to genuine breakthroughs in medical science, to the ability to turn one’s oven on via your phone, to some generic rubbish text generation.

    No doubt some jobs are ripe for AI-style automation but it takes only a few seconds to think of a myriad of jobs, including crucial ones, that will never be replaced by ‘AI’ unless you really believe that in the near future we are going to have replicant-like robots in the manner of Blade Runner, something that is still literally the stuff of fantasy. And as for the artistic sphere, all AI is at present, is a giant plagiarism engine churning our worthless crap.

  8. Wul says:

    It can’t just be money that gets Musk excited or Rishi all giggly and fawning. They both have obscene piles of the stuff already.

    I can only imagine it must be the thrill of power and control. Control of everybody and everything perhaps being their goal? They are both very ill people.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, and with great power comes great paranoia. Judging by this weekend’s episode of BBC Click, I think one common use of AI assistants will be managers asking them “who is plotting against me?” based on analysis of business meetings, correspondence etc. But who will be the real masters of these digital Gríma Wormtongues?

      I would point out that these artificial-agent or object-like assistants have long been foretold in folk tales:
      with common tropes including fear of replacement, losing popularity contests, desire for flattery.

      Microsoft have reportedly had to add artificial constraints to try to prevent their business AI answering questions related to the value of employees or their performances. Like that won’t immediately break down or be circumvented (didn’t they learn their lesson from the Tay disaster?).

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