Silicon Valley found religion


The biggest players in AI push messianic tech-utopia through mass media. It’s making us miserable.

America is enamored with magic. Its cultural belief in the power of manifestation, energy, and positive thinking goes way back.

“Learn how to use the concept of the reality distortion field (RDF) to bend reality in your favor and achieve your goals,” says an article in Forbes. You may be familiar with the term.

It was first used by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981 to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’s charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Macintosh project.

And here we have all the ingredients of America’s new Gods. Technology, media, and capitalism have taken the place of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology figures. AI or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is its new iteration—OpenAI the modern temple.

Some people call it a temple of doom in the media. Others write in awe at the capabilities (scraping and copying), and herald its programmers as god-sent. I call it bullshit.

Yes, there’s promise in artificial intelligence. And there are issues we need to iron out. But the real issue in one of identity and culture.

We should take AI and discussions about its safety—the risks, benefits, and governance of the technology—seriously. As for the leading AI generator, OpenAI, what’s playing in the news is not serious. It’s a distraction.

So let me begin by saying that in my view, the company is pure bullshit. Sam Altman’s contention that they are building “artificial general intelligence” or “artificial superintelligence”: Bullshit. Board members’ cult of effective altruism and AI doomerism: Bullshit. The output of ChatGPT: Bullshit. It’s all hallucinations: Pure bullshit. I even fear that the discussion of AI safety in relation to OpenAI could be bullshit.

Jeff Jarvis

The company’s goal and that of what Jarvis calls the ‘boys’ and the ‘AI fraternity’ is AGI— “a machine so powerful it could destroy humankind unless we listen to its creators. I call bullshit.”

Artificial Intelligence Artists Concept.

Jarvis was in attendance at a serious AI conference. “I knew I was in the right place when I heard AGI brought up and quickly dismissed.”

In the public portion of the conference, panel moderator Ian Bremmer said he had no interest in discussing AGI. I smiled. Andrew Ng, cofounder of Google Brain and Coursera, said he finds claims of imminent AGI doom “vague and fluffy…. I can’t prove that AI won’t wipe us out anymore than I could prove that radio waves won’t attract aliens that would wipe us out.” Gary Marcus — a welcome voice of sanity in discourse about AI — talked of trying to get Elon Musk to make good on his prediction that AGI will arrive by 2029 with a $100,000 bet. What exactly Musk means by that is no clearer than anything he says. Keep in mind that Musk has also said that by now cars would drive themselves and Twitter would be successful and he would soon (not soon enough) be on his way to Mars. One participant doubted not only the arrival of AGI but said large language models might prove to be a parlor trick.

Jeff Jarvis

There’s much more in Jarvis’ article (linked below as reference), read it. The conversation should be about responsible deployment of AI, and should be ongoing, like the technology development. While women are still ‘hidden figures.’

Sam Altman’s dismissal can give us a useful dataset, “of the 702 (out of 750) employees who signed the letter demanding Altman’s reinstatement more than 75% were men.” (Luba Kassova, The Guardian)

Identity

Compared to other countries, American women seem to have earned a seat at the table. There’s still work to do on achieving gender equality. The bigger problem continues to be to see discrimination, be aware of it. Though there’s optimism.

AI is not different. But the messianic tones are most interesting. Because they go to the very core of American identity. “This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is,” says Mr Wednesday in American Gods.

“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”

Mr Wednesday

Each era has brought into question what it means to be American. The ones who have been in America longer wrap themselves in the flag and gorge themselves on apple pie, all the while tucking away their own immigrant ancestors.

Despite disparate pasts, cultures, languages and religions, how can we make America function as a country? Even as we question heritage, language, and ‘Americanness,’ there are undefined qualities that make America distinct.

You’d be hard-pressed to list what those qualities are. Because it’s a large and diverse country. For example, it’s a challenge to describe traditions like Thanksgiving to someone who’s not experienced it.

Technology, media, and capitalism are the common characteristics America projects into the world. In turn, the world projects back the handy short-hand of what it means to be American.

And that image is smiling from the Cunningham’s living room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Have you noticed that the 1950s were a big deal in America (then the world)? It’s by design.


George Leonard attended Columbia University during the 1968s occupation and student protests. To counter the chaos, he founded acapella group Sha Na Na. They brought back revival songs from the 1950s.

The group became so popular that they opened for Jimi Hendrix (Woodstock documentary) with the 1957 hit ‘At the Top.’ The 1950s were everywhere in the problematic 1970s.

1972— ‘Grease’ opens on Broadway

1973— ‘American Graffiti’ by George Lucas; ‘Happy Days’ by Garry Marshall

1978— ‘Grease’ the movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

The 1930s were on the revival menu for the 1960s. Each decade had its transient cultural artifacts and conventions from a decade safely gone. Every civilization has attempted to create a backstory for its past. America’s is on prime time TV.


I see it reflected in European articles and books. Similar ideas from country to country. Which is interesting, because you’d be hard-pressed to describe what a European is—though there are common characteristics. Bureaucracy is one of them.

In a 2006 trend report, futurist Faith Popocorn has said that “Our material opulence has left us emotionally starving. We crave physical contact.” In an earlier report, Popcorn identified tensions:

  • The forces for change vs. the pull of the past.
  • The pull of the materials things of this world vs. the claims of the inner world.
  • The pull between logic and control vs. emotion and collaboration to light the way ahead.
  • The pull of one’s own individuality vs. the pull of a group identification

Which explains why the great disconnect between economy and state of mind.

Americans are angry and anxious, and not just about prices, which may be driving economic sentiment more than their financial situations, economists say.

New York Times

But perhaps the biggest cognitive dissonance is that hiding behind the cultural assumptions that drive American choice.

  1. Individuals should determine their own destiny (shame on them when they don’t succeed)
  2. Individuals should control their social and physical environment
  3. Authority or ‘bigness’ should be viewed with suspicion (this is interesting, because America is full of Tech Giants and Monopolies)
  4. Actions should be judged in a moral light (philanthropy, for example. I’ve said elsewhere about being cautious around morality)
  5. We should have as many choices as possible (indeed, the little choices can mask how many important decisions are pre-made for us)
  6. Anything can and should be improved (progress gets measured incessantly, from sports to marketing)
  7. The future should be better than the present (the question is, do we recognize the improvement or buy the story with a vested interest?)

How are these assumptions being shaped by our current environment and circumstances?

Singularity

Perhaps then technology is the tool to give back confidence to its creators. To forge a thing in one’s image—like God did for man (note it doesn’t say humankind)—that can do amazing things.

Technology is perfect for those who say they want “to contribute to the betterment of society,” through “understanding and worship of the Godhead.” Anthony Levandoski is a software engineer in Silicon Valley.

When the big day comes and technology takes over, he wants to be on its good side. In 2015, he founded a religious group. His intent with Way of the Future was to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.”

Levandowski was a Waymo employee. Alphabet accused him of stealing trade secrets related to self-driving sensors and taking them to Uber. He was sentenced to 18 months, fined $95,000 and ordered to pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo.

Whether we’re going to merge with technology—a very flat proposition—or not, the quest is for immortality. Why be limited by this thing we call death? Can we replace the sticky question of how should we think about the fact that we’re going to die?

Living forever would eliminate the need to create a god in one’s image. You could do that by hacking your own biology. The Transhumanists want to build cyborgs. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, Larry Page have put serious money in it (billions.)

America has superforcasters via Philip E. Tetlock’s the Good Judgment Project, and Rationalists. Rationalisms says human self-transcendence is the highest possible good. They believe that scientific knowledge is a path for spiritual growth.

Techno-utopians are not affiliated to any religion. They believe in the power of desires, needs, and wants—sans the spark of divine. The question of having a soul is not part of it. Authenticity is.

Authentic is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. Which is why if you happen to take a spiritual turn, there’s TikTok Jesus. He promises divine blessings and many worldly comforts. The version whose identity we’re used to, mind you.

Humanities

American believe in competition, efficiency, freedom, mobility, that the sky’s the limit, individuality, safety, and equality. Hard work and play are the keys to success. The value or premium they put on these values varies.

Values transmit culture. People do things that signal what’s important to them. But as the tech gods move from one country to another, they may feel lost as people have different values in different cultures.

European cultural assumptions include the humanities and social sciences. They should be part of AI deployment discussions. And not just of the training pool. Though if we open up books, newspapers, and art, we should also open up the ML and make it—and the data—available in public commons.

Machines shouldn’t feed on crap, as Jarvis put it. But Big Tech should not profit from the work of writers and artists, to then put them all out of work. I have an article on Sarah Silverman’s case in the references about where the law is falling.

We should learn more about what the scholars who study AI are learning. And yes, explore how they suggest we hold AI proponents to account.

Where are the authors of the Stochastic Parrots paper, former Google AI safety chiefs Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, along with linguists Emily M. Bender and Angelina McMillan-Major? Where are the women and scholars of color who have been warning of the present-tense costs and risks of AI, instead of the future-shock doomsaying of the AI boys? Where is Dr. Émile P. Torres , who studies the faux philosophies that guide AI’s proponents and doomsayers, which Torres and Gebru group under the acronym TESCREAL?

Jeff Jarvis

You can learn more about TESCREAL (Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singutaliarism, Cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, Long-Termism — that’s a lot of isms) and these remixed quasi-religious beliefs in the video.

The approach to ethics of the TESCREAL believers is very quantitative. Basically, they see it as a branch of economics. Now we have the funding and teaching of these beliefs systems along with their development.

Meaning, purpose, community, and ritual are not enough apparently. “These tech boys have the self-righteous belief that we can manage the future,” as Jarvis put it.

Transhumanism, the backbone of the acronym, goes back to the 20th century. Its believes have strong connections with eugenics. It was not all ‘happy days’ in the 1950s and 1960s. Transhumanism’s goal is to ‘perfect the human race.’


From ‘making a dent in the universe,’ Silicon Valley aims to fix the problems of the world. Meet the ‘pronatalists,’ who are aiming to halt the demographic decline by having as many babies as possible. More of the same is on the menu.

“We are quite familiar with the pronatalist movement and are supporters of it,” says Jake Kozloski, the Miami-based co-founder of an AI matchmaking service called Keeper, which aims to address the ‘fertility crisis fueled by a marriage crisis’ by helping clients find the other parent of their future children.”

Ian Dodds, The Telegraph


Part of the transhumanism theory includes the fear of degeneration. And I’ll stop here. If you’re interested, historian and philosopher Dr. Émile P. Torres explains these concepts with extreme clarity and simplicity.

What I’ll say is that literature is the best place to learn about humankind in all its beautiful and ugly glory. Including invented traditions, tensions between the past, which is in front of us, and the future, which is behind us, deeply flawed ideas of who is progressing and who isn’t, and the tension between old and new.

It’s all stored there and other forms of art. Culture, as humanist Martin Puchner defines, is “the lived experience of individuals and borrowed forms and ideas that help individuals understand and articulate their experience in new ways.”

We need it to make sense of what’s going on. Now more than ever.

I’ll return to literature to explore how and if it can help us understand ‘war’ in a two-part series for supporters in the coming weeks.


References

‘God Is a Bot, and Anthony Levandowski Is His Messenger,’ Mark Harris, Wired (September 27, 2017)

‘Artificial Intelligence: Silicon Valley’s New Deity,’ Leslie Hook, Financial Times (October 25, 2017)

Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, Philadelphia

Gaiman, Neil, American Gods (William Morrow, 2001)

‘Only the Gods are Real,’ A Guide to the Gods featured in American Gods, Reddit

Burton, Tara Isabella, Strange Rites (PublicAffairs, 2020)

‘Key takeaways on Americans’ views on gender equality a century after U.S. women gained the right to vote,’ Pew Research Center (August 13, 2020)

Marx, W. David, Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (Viking, 2022)

‘The state of AI in 2022—and a half decade in review,’ McKinsey (December 2022)

‘Artificial General Bullshit,’ Jeff Jarvis, Medium (November 19, 2023)

‘Where are all the ‘godmothers’ of AI? Women’s voices are not being heard,’ Luba Kassova, The Guardian (November 25, 2023)

‘The legal framework for AI is being built in real time, and a ruling in the Sarah Silverman case should give publishers pause,’ Joshua Benton, Neiman Lab (November 27, 2023)

‘A TikTok Jesus promises divine blessings and many worldly comforts,’ The Conversation (November 15, 2023)

‘Authentic: Merriam-Webster’s word of the year,’ BBC (November 27, 2023)

‘Meet the ‘elite’ couples breeding to save mankind,’ Ian Dodds, The Telegraph (April 19, 2023)

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