Organizing is Needed More Than Ever in the Age of AI
May 11, 2023
Contributor: Ned Howey
In the age of AI, the real threats to democracy and our societies lie not with the machines themselves, but with the way we will change with full integration of this technology. The impact of social media and the internet on our democracies has already created a crisis of authenticity in politics, and AI is poised to make this exponentially worse, highlighting the urgent need for new forms of political organizing and collective action.
AI will be a disaster for our politics. And democracy more generally.
Probably not in the way we are currently concerning ourselves, however. AI is not going to conduct a hostile takeover of our governments and rule over us. The machines are unlikely to rise up against us in some Terminator-like fashion. But the real threats are perhaps just as serious.
It's not the machines themselves and their capabilities we need to worry about. It's us and the way we will change ourselves with full integration of this technology: changes to our societies, and the way these societies make decisions for our populations. As always, humans are the problem.
The Rise of the Machines?
We are in a political context where we have a crisis of authenticity in our politics, rooted in distrust. This is a crisis which we have not yet managed to surmount, and which is actively chipping away at our democracies. This is a result of the impact social media and the internet have had on our democracies - evaporating everyday civics in our lives and leaving a gap between lived experience and government institutions where we don’t see our place. AI is inevitably going to make this crisis of trust exponentially worse. Due to this, our need to develop new relevant and effective forms of political organizing and collective action are greater than ever.
In March of this year, several researchers, scientists and tech leaders signed an open letter to AI labs calling for them to slow the development of AI until the potential risks to our economy and society could be studied and more fully understood. (One has to wonder how a half century of science fiction works didn’t prepare us for thinking this one through).
Naysayers will claim there is nothing to worry about, that these fears come about with every major leap forward in technology from electricity to the internet. And while they might have made life more complicated, unfair and unhealthy for the human brain, societies have endured.
There are clearly many valid concerns of AI already being widely discussed - some of which reflect fears that did not come to fruition from previous industrial advances: loss of jobs, harm to the economy, accelerating inequity, regulatory systems unprepared to keep businesses in fair competition, and even nazi AIs. Less discussed is my primary worry: we are entirely unprepared for the impact of AI on the world’s democracies.
Should development of AI be slowed as the open letter pleads? Or are we ready for the AI age? If not, when will we be? If being prepared means having the regulatory frameworks and civic engagement necessary to address potential harms and negative impacts, it's clear that we are not even ready for the effects of the internet age, started two decades ago. Even less so for the consequences of AI’s integration into our culture.
What Social Media and the Internet Has Done to Our Democracies
Central to our work at Tectonica is to innovate the way we do politics, and more specifically to do this in ways that reconnects and represents marginalized voices successfully in the digital age.
In this context the challenge at times seems almost impossible. The social technologies that at first claimed to connect us all, in reality left us with a shadow of real human connection, and a resulting decay of traditional deeper civics in our everyday lives, including traditional political organizing practices - practices that historically allowed for the rebalancing of power injustices. The real cultural and societal impact of social media technologies is a landscape of distrust and discontent. The gap between unchanged government and democratic institutions and human lives has created a situation ripe for populist revolt and take-over.
Remember when we saw a moment of excitement for the power of digital to spur change in the early days of social media? With movements ignited by social media from Obama's new campaign methods to the Arab Spring, the height of excitement was seen around 2014. We could go beyond geographies, create accessibility, reach and scale, like never before. But this seeming dream of new movements was followed fairly quickly with a period of "surprise" wins by forces we once never thought imaginable - Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, etc. - exposing the real impact of this new social media world on our civics.
Those who study democracies around the world are more than clear on the sad state of its decline (here, here, here and here). Even in so-called ‘stable’ democracies, insurrection is a seeming seasonal affair now among elected officials unwilling to concede democratic loss and leave office. The underlying problem is not that of our election day practices. Nor just of bad players, cheap tricks, and voter disenfranchisement.
Endemic symptoms appear as phenomena like disinformation and malicious big data (theft) microtargeting practices (such as those performed by Cambridge Analytica). But their impact and effectiveness are rooted in a far greater problem - the way democracy integrates in our culture every day and the ruptures to these practices caused by the cultural shift of the social media age. We live in a digital age where institutions and participatory opportunities of deeper civic voice and commitment have eroded and ceded ground to connections and communications on online platforms.
The platforms themselves have been shown universally to encourage behavior in users exactly counter to the creation of good democratic norms: They encourage us to question less, engage less, polarize more. The product design encourages sharing misinformation, which has 9 times the organic reach over regular news. Those who consume most of their information on social media have an overall dismal understanding of civics as a result.
As we heard clearly from our Report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe - the platforms work counter to communicating complex messages - like those of marginalized experiences or the system impact on the environment. The reach of messages that are simplistic, populist, hate and fear-based will always go out further on these platforms - and quite frankly are built for right wing propaganda and the maintenance of power control of the privileged and elite classes. Progressives cannot go toe-to-toe here on communicating the lives of migrants, trans people, or any marginalized group. Nor the complexity of systemic change needed to prevent the ecocide of the human species.
No amount of regulation, content moderation or updates to the products will make them appropriate for a good democratic culture: Their basic design was built to sell us products. The core design doesn’t consider the promotion of anti-democratic behavior in users. They are fundamentally created to act at scale through algorithms that will keep eyeballs on ads for shoes. These systems are integrated entirely into our lives and societies and mirror, strengthen, and reinforce profit-based systems (ones that already govern our world and source further injustices).
As Shoshana Zuboff notes, “These spaces cannot exist solely under corporate control . . . We’re two decades into the digital era but we have never, as democracies, taken stock of the meaning of these technologies.”
Decay of Real Connections in Our Civics
Social media claimed to connect us, but did so in only the most shallow of ways. And it changed our expectations in a way that changed our societies and politics. Fake news and online populism, however, are just symptoms of a greater underlying issue of our modern digital age: that the underlying civics that connected us more deeply have decayed. While our online connections have expanded, our deeper forms of connection - in civics and otherwise - have degraded almost entirely. The real connections that are fundamental to a politics fighting for fairness no longer exist in the same way. The Saturday night dance that would happen at the union dance hall 50 or 100 years ago does not happen much today. Now we have facebook sh*t posting instead. And organizing, which builds the power to stand together in collective action, rarely - if ever - happens online. What people usually call “digital organizing” - the political actions on social media - is usually glaringly free of any real elements of organizing.
The rise of over-professionalized political operations focussed on mass messaging made populations acutely aware of the inauthenticity of carefully crafted messaging. The shift to messaging based solely on polling, and perfectly pitched to offend no one and choose no side, resulted in a vacuum of human relatability in representative democracy. As social media rose, information was filtered through and interpreted by peers, causing an expectation shift and a desire for authenticity. Hilary Clinton's loss in 2016 was a revolt against professionalized politics that had become detached from communities. The resulting election put Trump in power, a racist demagogue who attacked the US system of democracy. His direct-from-the-man tweets at 2am were successful exactly because they were a hot mess. They tapped into a want to protest against the inauthentic established political class constructed by scientifically structured messaging. Liberal elites were aghast at spelling mistakes, but Trump's team pushed aside political professional practices and capitalized on this desire. And with it put in power a man focussed on destroying democratic institutions, norms, and safeguards for his own benefit.
The warning is clear: if we only pay attention only to the benefits of our new digital world without acknowledging the underlying dangers to our civics, our democracies in every dimension will be lost. The internet, social media, and now AI ages are upon us. The amplification through algorithms of systemic forces in a world where the market increasingly governs all aspects of life is a setup for a doomed democratic state of the world.
With AI the Trust Crisis of Our Civics Will Grow Exponentially
We dreamed of the internet awakening an age of enlightenment. Sadly, it more closely resembles the dark ages - up to the all too on-the-nose movement of people arguing the Earth is really flat. The rise of populist authoritarians, like Trump, have emerged because we live in a context where the technologies we use to connect us, leave us fundamentally disconnected, and ultimately distrusting. In Anand Giridharadas’ book “The Persuaders” he opens the book by examining the influence of fake social media accounts set up by the Internet Research Agency - a Kremlin troll farm originally set up in 2014 to spread propaganda to the US around the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Giridharadas notes that rather than spread any particular political or ideological message, the aim of the organization was to spread distrust of fellow Americans.
“Again and again, in one way or another, the IRA posts were sending the same message: These people are not to be trusted. They will never change. They are who they are. And who they are is a risk to your being.” The IRA capitalized on the context shift in our culture driven by our adoption of new technologies.
It's not just politicians in the social media age that we’ve grown distrustful of - it's each other. Polarization, populism and an underlying toxicity injected into our democratic norms as they appear in our every day lives have resulted.
AI won’t help.
It will make it multiple times worse.
We don’t need to worry about Skynet or the Cylons. We need to worry about us. The integration of AI into our lives looks more like the Borg - something that will take over and play a part in controlling us with or without our individual consent.
Civics are built on an ethics of obligation to the Other - one whose conscious experience we cannot share, but we recognize as real. I’ve previously argued that civic engagement and activism is driven less by passion for a specific cause than by human connections and shared experience with other humans. According to the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, the fundamental recognition of the other as having a human experience is the basis of ethics. It is also the basis of human connection and fundamental power of organizing.
The Turing test has become such a central part of our thinking on AI precisely because it would test our inability to distinguish when we are confronted with a machine versus an actual human. It is this approximation of realness in today’s AI that both carries value and fear.
From art to videos, to speech writing, the latest AI technologies have evolved incredibly in recent months. These abilities of creativity and insight, thought for our whole lives to be the most irreplaceable of human qualities, are able to be produced easily and rapidly by ChatGPT, MidJourney, and others.
In a context where distrust of our fellow humans is already high, and where our desire for authenticity in politics has turned toxic, the more human AI becomes, the more likely our fellow humans will grow increasingly suspicious of one another. How do we know what comes from a human? How do I know you are human? How do I know you share an experience of consciousness similar and equally valid as my own? Why would I participate in creating a greater society if I’m not even sure all the players are authentically human as my own experience? Will we become a society driven towards cultural psychopathology? If so, democracy doesn’t have a hope.
AI will not only present new challenges to our targets to demand change - strengthening our already disproportionately powerful oppressors - but to us and our ability to resist injustices as the very context of our cultures shift. Our voice, representation of our real human experience is what we must fight for.
We Need Organizing More Than Ever
It would be futile to ignore the values of, deny the inevitable presence of, or ask AI to not be a part of our world. It has arrived and we are already in the age of AI. While we can call for the slowing of its development and the proper regulation of the companies and technologies, our efforts need to grow to respond by adjusting and adapting the way we do politics for this new reality and the likely impacts on our societies.
We need to find new ways to fight the injustices and promote fair representation of people in our world and this means to recognize the gap that is being created in our societies by these new technologies. Interestingly enough, the importance of human connection in our civics and its place in the everyday might become even more evident by its growing absence. There must be a point in which our societies realize how important the value of communities are - hopefully acting in a response that strengthens our democracy, rather than attempts to throw it out in frustration.
While new challenges to trust will be presented, the solution is not to demand that people just trust, but to develop new ways to earn that trust. Fundamentally this means working to reconnect the politics of representational democracy to the everyday lives of people. People must see themselves in the movements we need them to engage in. And we must adjust our social entities - organizations, political parties, unions, NGOs, etc - transforming them to operate in new ways where people see themselves, are represented, have a voice and a seat at the table, feel their agency and role, and connect deeply and humanly with others in the same effort. Today’s technological innovations don’t need to be antithetical to this. It can play a role.
It is heartening to see one of the first major responses to AI coming from the Writers Guild of America going on strike. (✊🏽) One of the core ways our world connects - through narratives about our lives in the entertainment industry - is already seeing a revolt to a key role creative humans play. Yes, the strike is not all about AI, but AI very clearly features centrally in it. One of the demands by the striking writers is that studios should not be allowed to use AI to write or rewrite stories. In response, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers rejected the request, although it did agree to an annual meeting to discuss new technology.
It is important that this action is a strike - a collective action - where people are standing together and others are standing with them in solidarity. As our politics has become more professionalized and scientific, as the age of mass media and digital has driven our political works away from the politics in our everyday lives connecting real people at the local level, we have become increasingly transactional in our role with civics: give money, volunteer a few hours, sign a petition, vote to support. The tradition of civics is being lost. Collective action, like a strike, is a form of organizing which holds its true potential in being transformational to individuals and communities, rather than just transactional.
But we must find new and more relevant ways to conduct transformational politics. And at the core this work needs to be about connecting people. While the appeal of reach and scale that comes with massive digital actions can be appealing, we must reconnect with the underlying values of transformational organizing practices and use today’s technologies to innovate towards them. We must acknowledge the realities of the moment and innovate with that context in mind. We need to build constructive responses rather than fight an overwhelming reality. We must help campaigns do what they can with the realities they work within.
Can I offer an exact vision of what this innovation looks like? Honestly, no. It is something we are developing and experimenting with through our work with our clients every day here at Tectonica. It is something we spend time on in the research, writing, and models we develop for this community. We know the direction, but are still working on the solutions. Tectonica continues to innovate and experiment, always with a focus on people having the power to make change. But innovation is a continual act of developing, trying, testing, and improving.
While we might not have a clear answer on the way, ultimately we do have the power. So long as we - the humans - are in control and at the center, we can only be oppressed by that which we permit to subjugate us.
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