23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

The state of AI and social media shows capitalism is unlikely to end with a robot rebellion | Jeff Sparrow

In a recent post for her Thesis Whisperer blog, Inger Mewburn described the evolution of social media as a process of “enshittification”.

The term, borrowed from Cory Doctorow, perfectly captures the trajectory of the major platforms, all of which provide a significantly crappier experience than they did even a few years back.

As everyone knows, Elon Musk bought Twitter for a preposterous $44bn (seemingly to impress his rich-idiot buddies) and then set out destroying each and every feature its users actually liked.

Since then, Reddit has cut off access to much-loved third-party apps, with its CEO Steve Huffman telling NBC that he saw in Musk’s efforts “an example for Reddit”.

(He didn’t quite shout “Follow that lemming – it knows where it’s going”, but he might well have).

As for Threads, Jason O Gilbert neatly summed up Meta’s attempt to fish in Twitter’s troubled waters as “casual Friday on LinkedIn”. Determined to avoid the whiff of Weimar increasingly associated with his rival, Mark Zuckerberg has opted instead for corporate blandness, creating the social media equivalent of the music playing in a particularly respectable elevator.

To date, Threads lacks Instagram and Facebook’s intrusive, obsessive ad placement (where the algorithm assumes that because you bought a mattress once you’re interested in nothing at all apart from bedding). Rest assured, though, it will be coming soon enough.

We tend to think about media disruption as driven by technological innovation. But the enshittification of our socials shows that the tech itself plays a relatively minor role.

Twitter launched in 2006; Facebook dates from 2004. In theory, the internet today can do all kinds of stuff that, back then, no one imagined possible.

So why haven’t the sites become correspondingly better, instead of, well, kind of merde?

The problem, of course, pertains not to the technology but the ability – or lack thereof – of that technology to make someone money.

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” That’s always been the mantra of capitalism’s apologists. Their system, they say, fosters innovation, monetising (and thus encouraging) every advance in rodent extermination.

In reality, the relationship between capital and technology has never been that simple. The profit motive traditionally stifles as many mousetraps as it nurtures them, even back when the economy offered something like a level playing field. Today, the dominance of ruthless monopolies in almost every industry means that innovations rarely get used to their full capability, at least not in ways that actually help people.

We’ve reached, you could say, the faecal stage of capitalism, an era of general shittification.

Artificial intelligence provides another example.

Had you demonstrated Chat GPT to, say, an audience of science fiction novelists circa 1961, they would have hailed a future of permanent leisure, in which suave robot butlers topped up the martinis while we humans debated existentialism and listened to free jazz in our bath robes.

Nowadays, though, everyone knows that the wizardry of neural networks will simply make tomorrow like today, except slightly worse. The proliferation of AI-driven clickbait websites hints at what’s coming, as entrepreneurs seize on the facility of natural language generators to amplify what David Graeber once called “bullshit jobs”. Spam emails, corporate guff, website help chats: all of that will be automated and intensified, throwing low-paid workers on to the scrapheap and driving everyone else insane.

In that sense, enshittification relates to Mark Fisher’s notion of a “boring dystopia”, a condition simultaneously awful and mundane. The fantasies about an all-powerful AI taking over the world go wrong precisely because they’re too exciting. If you want a realistic scenario, don’t picture an action movie. Instead, think of querying your power bill … and then imagine you’re talking to Chat GPT because your utility company sacked its human staff.

Capitalism is unlikely to end with a robot rebellion or gladiatorial Hunger Games competitions: it just plods on, getting slowly but steadily grimmer.

Mind you, it’s worth recalling the famous scene in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises in which the war veteran Mike Campbell gets asked how he went bankrupt.

‘Two ways,” he says. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Enshittification can be like that, too.

The early attempts to motivate climate action – films such as The Day After Tomorrow – focused on catastrophic tsunamis and other apocalyptic outcomes. But most of the time, warming just makes everything slightly shittier. There’s less of the Amazon than there used to be; the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t extend quite so far; birds, animals and insects don’t appear in the numbers we remember from a few years ago.

Nevertheless, at a certain point, quantity turns into quality – and, as they say, the shit hits the fan.

Given what’s happening in the rest of the world, should the fate of Twitter be something about which we give a crap?

No, probably not – except that it’s a reminder of why we can’t have nice things.

William Morris once speculated that capitalism would culminate in a “counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap”.

Cinders or shit, the point still stands.

Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist