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AI and Marxism

David Cowles

Jul 27, 2023

“Marxism’s stated goal is to transfer ownership of the means of production to the producers. Dare I say, Mission Accomplished?”

It is a fundamental tenet of Marxist philosophy that we form a dynamic template with our technological environment; but unlike passive templates, this one is not symmetrical. To borrow from Genesis, we shape technology in our image while technology forms us in its likeness. 

Since Alan Turing, the goal of AI has been to build a machine that can fool a trained and conscientious operator into believing that she is interacting with a human being. We build our technology to reflect our own image back at us. We even give our gadgets nicknames. 

But at the same time, less obviously, technology is shaping us, its operators. According to philosophers from Marx to McLuhan, we become extensions of our technology, but philosophers notwithstanding, no one demonstrated the impact of technology on its operators and beneficiaries better than Charlie Chaplin, especially in Modern Times (1936).

I am tempted, of course, to find an analogy here with the Eucharist. I mean, who wouldn’t? Is it my Roman Catholic background, or the influence of James Joyce (Ulysses is one long Eucharistic analogy), showing here? No matter, the image is the ‘bread and wine’; the likeness, the ‘body and blood’. 

The ‘image’ enables us to approach the Eucharist, to interact with it, to consume it, but it is the ‘likeness’ that works below the surface to transform us into members of Christ’s mystical body. The Eucharist appears to us in a form we easily recognize but changes us into something we would not recognize so readily. Have I gone too far this time? Maybe.

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But back to Marx! (From Mass?) Today, everyone is worried about the impact of AI on social inequality. Understandably so! Every new technology does favor the well-to-do…temporarily: 

Who could afford a car in 1915? A TV in 1950? Or a personal computer in 1985? Maybe the one-percenters. Today, the average American family has all these things, often several times over. Initially these technologies created new divisions between haves and have-nots; ultimately those same technologies resolved those differences: we all became haves (ok, limited haves, but haves nonetheless). 

In my day, it was Ford vs. Foot, Chevy vs. Shank’s Mare, Deisel vs. Deez’ll; today it’s Lexus vs. Corolla. In 1960, access to transportation determined access to the ‘means of production’. Today, we all have access to the loci of wealth…but some of us get there in leather seats.

Of course, this leveling doesn’t happen overnight. It took 50 years for the automobile to ‘democratize’, 15 years for the TV, and 10 years for the personal computer; but AI will be fully democratized in less than 5.

Caveat: There is more to socio-economic inequality than the number of TVs in your home. Inequality has many causes and many manifestations that have little to do with technology.

That said, most every new technology does temporarily widen economic gaps but later works to narrow them, and again, AI will be no exception. The future requires no crystal ball. We live in an information age, powered by an information economy. Soon wealth will be measured in ‘bits’ rather than ‘its’. (My father’s generation had a saying, “Whoever has the most toys wins.” Not so then, not so now!)

Today, access to information is still correlated with economic advantage, but tomorrow, virtually every person on Planet Earth will enjoy the same access to the same information as everyone else. That’s the promise of AI.

From Moses (Leviticus) to Matthew (Jesus) to Marx to modern Scandinavia, curbing socio-economic inequality has been on the agenda of social reformers. Marxism’s stated goal is to transfer ownership of the means of production to the producers. Dare I say, Mission accomplished?

As history has shown, this is difficult to accomplish in an agricultural or industrial economy where productive assets require massive amounts of capital. It is hard to imagine funding a profit making farm or factory with less than $1,000,000; and how many of us have a spare $1M on hand?

Various Marxist theoreticians have proposed various solutions; I think it’s fair to say that none of them has worked…so far. But is it possible that we are growing our way out of Marx’s dilemma? The information superhighway is a toll road, to be sure, but the cost of entry is a $500 computer and a $50 internet connection. Well within reach of families with 2 cars and 3 TVs!

Of course, inequality will persist, driven by race, education, gender, etc. But the biggest single driver of inequality, access to capital, is about to disappear. ChatGPT is the new SVB! Who needs venture capital if you have a smart phone, a laptop, and a highspeed internet connection? 

Capitalism and communism converge; who’d a thunk it? (Hairspray)

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