The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Technocratic Elites Aren’t Trusted (Sam Altman Edition)

So, Sam Altman recently said something which seems reasonable, but isn’t:

using technology to create abundance–intelligence, energy, longevity, whatever–will not solve all problems and will not magically make everyone happy. but it is an unequivocally great thing to do, and expands our option space. to me, it feels like a moral imperative...

most surprising takeaway from recent college visits: this is a surprisingly controversial opinion with certain demographics.

(lack of capitalization from original.)

Back in the original Greek writings on rhetoric and argument, one of the three steps was Ethos: this is the rhetorician’s qualifications, including his ethical qualifications. The “why should we listen to you?” part. If you’re talking about courage, are you brave? If charity, are you charitable?

If technology, do you use it for the good of others?

What most people can’t explicate about their objection to Altman’s thesis that using technology to create abundance is a good thing is that they don’t trust Altman. OpenAI was originally a non-profit, meant to create AI in a way which would benefit everyone. Altman turned it into a for profit, and no one except billionaires and sycophants think that companies are out to be beneficial to the majority of people: we work in them, we know it’s bullshit.

And how did Altman create his AIs? By training them on other people’s work, without permission or payment. Further, the AIs compete with the people whose data they trained on: you can ask for a picture in the style of a particular artist, for example, and they compete with artists, writers and other professionals in general.

So, the people whose actual work made AIs (they aren’t really AIs but I use the term for convenience) possible, are the ones harmed by them AND they didn’t give their permission or get paid.

Why they hell would anyone other than a shareholder or a well paid employee “trust” Sam Altman?

Now let’s move on to the Altman’s actual argument (his logos and pathos)

using technology to create abundance–intelligence, energy, longevity, whatever–will not solve all problems and will not magically make everyone happy. but it is an unequivocally great thing to do, and expands our option space. to me, it feels like a moral imperative...

Now, this is a case where the logos is almost entirely true.

But what’s the actual track record of using technology to create abundance?

We’re losing our topsoil. Nutrition in food is less than it used to be. We’ve created climate change, which appears to now be past key tipping points and will kill and impoverish billions. Most of the American population is fat, they weren’t fifty years ago, so it’s not “individual choices.” We have widespread ecological collapse, including the loss of most large mammals and so few insects compared to even fifty years ago that there is no longer “bug splat” on windshields. The oceans are full of plastic, and the coral reefs are dying, while fish stocks collapse.

None of this is to say that technology hasn’t had vast benefits, but we’re using it also to reduce our option space: to damage the carrying capacity of the Earth in ways which will take tens of thousand of years to recover from, as a best case estimate (millions for some of the issues.) The last 40 years, when people like Altman have had the most influence, have seen a vast rise in inequality, and a huge number of homeless. Altman and co. blame left wingers, but who are the billionaires? Who actually has the power?

Altman’s making an argument which is true on its face, but he belong to a class of people whose actions do a great deal of harm. Most people can’t clearly articulate this, but they know he and his class can’t be trusted, so they instinctively disagree with him, but since they can’t quite say why, they sound incoherent.

But they’re right to distrust Altman. Technology could be used to benefit everyone, even in the long term, but Altman isn’t trying to do that: he’s trying to get rich, and if that hurts a lot of people along the way, he’s OK with it.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – May 5 2024


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  1. Jan Wiklund

    It seems that neoliberals think people are nothing but consumers. The stalinists thought they were nothing but producers. To my knowledge, we are both. Over-emphasizing any of them will make life a hell.

  2. During the Glorious technocratic era we’ve been blessed with:

    -Facebook/Social media which is to friendship what a book without content is.
    -1 in 25 children with Autism
    -Lost our privacy so the oligarchs can sell us shit advertisements tell us we want.
    -50+% of people with a chronic illness
    -Appliances/products that break in a few years so we can buy a cooler new one
    -A way to be with people and simultaneously ignore them
    -Planes that bring us thrills because they might crash and burn
    -AI that tells us what the rich deem we should know

    People like Altman just cannot even imagine why other people don’t see how moral and imperative this wonderous age is!

  3. Jefferson Hamilton

    I don’t even think Altman’s argument is true on it’s face but is the kind of facile, “assume a spherical cow” sounds-truism that you get from libertarians all the time, with a boatload of assumptions built in.

  4. Feral Finster

    TL:DR: power is to sociopaths what catnip is to cats.

    Even if an Open AI were as altruistic as it is possible for a human organization to be, once it got power it would draw sociopaths the way fresh dog shit draws flies.

  5. Willy

    About the meritocracy:
    I worked for an engineering Phd who had many imbecilic ideas. He sometimes didn’t even seem to understand basic engineering concepts. He did respect my own ideas which came from a less educated place. Other times I had to sneak them past his massively insecure ego, gently dropping clues in the direction I wanted us to go, like so many bread crumbs.

    My online communications with a psychology Phd about spirituality were often of such poor quality, that I wound up diagnosing him as being somewhere between a dysfunctional neurotic and clinically insane.

    About A.I. benefitting the mob:
    I respected the Wachowski brothers for their concept of giving the powerless poor a place to live out their lives. Even after the brothers became sisters. But it dawned on me that the plutocracy would never want such a thing. There’d be little profit from a massive jobless class who consumed little besides liquified dead and pod space. And then all that excrement to dispose of! Our plutocrats need the satisfaction, the rush, the jollies… which comes from being perceived as a superior being.

    Now if Altman means coming home one day to discover himself locked outside by his own personal version of VIKI (I am Robot)… then I’d be all for that. Maybe even more so if I got to be rich and someone important, like an actor.

    An aside but for personal amusement, I’d suggest visiting and then sarcastically commenting, at one of Elon Musk’s many fanboy sites. There’s usually a lot of material to work with.

  6. Purple Library Guy

    How we structure things has a huge impact on what technology ends up doing. I mean, I’m fundamentally all in favour of reducing the amount of work time required to get everything done that we want doing. In the abstract, that could result in everyone ending up with a three hour workday and lots of leisure time. That’s a Good Thing.

    Except, capitalist oligarchs really don’t want a situation where their employees can make a decent living with three hours of work per day. There are two basic reasons: Cost and control. So, first, if you can make it so your employees have to work 12 hours to make a living, that means you’re paying 1/4 as much per hour as if they work 3 hours to make a living. Employers want to pay less, not more. And second, more broadly, employers want employees to be totally dependent on those jobs, and ideally they want a fair number of unemployed out there, barely surviving and hungry. If you spread all the jobs among everyone who wants one, you lose that reserve army of people who will scramble to grab the job of anyone you fire. If your employee is working 3 hours a day and that’s a living, and they don’t like working for you, they’ve got plenty of time to find alternatives, plenty of ability to do some side stuff to build up a cushion. You lose control over them.

    And, capitalism wants growth, which means if there’s a bunch of extra capacity for work to be done, someone’s going to try to find some way to produce more, to create more demand, get people to want more, until most of that extra labour gets soaked up.

    And so you end up with unions deeply suspicious of technological change, because they know it isn’t going to result in everyone not working as hard, it’s going to result in layoffs. But if our economy was structured in some fundamentally different way, technology wouldn’t have to be a fight between workers and owners.

  7. GlassHammer


    When I read “to me, it feels like a moral imperative…” I instantly thought of “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene.

    Particularly the following description of the villan of the tale:
    “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

  8. mago

    The United States of ASSasination, genocide, hucksterism, con artists, film-flam men, carny barkers, Barnum and Bailey suckers and clowns and the car they rode in on. It’s hypocrisy Inc all the way, baby.
    On a more serious note, regarding environmental degradation, the last time I experienced windshield splat while cruising down a rural highway was in the mid 90’s.
    Cicadas, where art though? It’s been so long I forget.
    Transient spring songbirds don’t come around my mountain bird feeder any more, whereas they were recently reliable visitors.
    However, rodents, mosquitoes, ticks, and other rapacious types thrive quite nicely, thank you.
    Sorry, too lazy to tie all that together. However, thanks to Ian for deconstructing the Altman phenomenon.
    These days we go around with our heads down, scratching them, wondering wtf? and making the best sense we can of it according to individual capacity.
    I confess to ignorance.

  9. bruce wilder

    capitalism wants growth

    to the point of exhaustion. capitalism wants to stress workers and the organizations that they are embedded in. and press to the marginal sale and more. it ends up wasting a lot of people’s time and attention with excessive salesmanship and pointless, meaningless work

  10. Jan Wiklund

    bruce wilder:

    – It doesn’t want growth of anything else than the profits for the super rich.

    Growth was much bigger in the Keynesian era of 1945-1975. But which capitalist would like to return to it? I bet they are few.

  11. Barnes

    another blogger on the same topic, going in the same direction:

    Altman story in the 2nd section…

    Good piece.

  12. BaryonicBeing

    My common refrain when talking of advanced technologies these days is “Sounds great! But in this society?”

    Electric cars: Sounds great! But they have software locks, aren’t easily repairable, and track your location and driving habits to feed to insurance companies and law enforcement (tbf, non-EVs do too).

    LLMs/AI: Sounds great! But they steal actually talented peoples’ ideas and art and will be used to replace critical workers and produce absolutely terrible products/services.

    Blockchain (note: not Bitcoin): Sounds great! But it’s being used to run all sorts of pseudo-legal scams and inflate weird asset bubbles, very little actually productive.

    Robotics advances: Sounds great! But the major use case will be in war, and the vast majority will be priced out of having personal robot servants or mobility assistance.


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