The official website for the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.
While the popular rendering of King is one of a civil rights leader who now enjoys widespread acceptability in American public discourse, his radical politics and his rough-edged critique of U.S. imperial adventures have been smoothed over. The real King was committed to a democratic socialist vision that germinated from his black church roots. Specifically, there are three pillars of the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. that we should not allow holiday remembrances to whitewash: democratic socialism, transnational anti-imperialism and black prophetic Christianity.
Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in the United States. It can happen here, and all signs point in an ominous direction. Moreover, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor and genocide at home and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality with few opportunities for individuals to climb the socio-economic ladder; and it is consistently ranked by people around the world as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.
Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:
“The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.”
Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power when conditions worsened. But this assumes we are a democracy. A compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda and mindless entertainment, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population and, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win
Thurman’s spirituality was grounded not only in the beauties of the black experience, but grounded as well in the terrors of the black experience, as only someone living in Florida and Georgia could know them in 1915 and 1920 and 1930. At the same time, it was a spirituality that says: “And knowing all that, I also know that all human beings are one.”
This kind of strange combination of spiritual truth with hard political social truth led one young man in the 1930s to say this about Howard Thurman: “I’m disappointed in him. We thought we had found our Moses. And he turns out to be a mystic.” That’s the spirituality that gets people all riled up.
This way of looking at AI rests on the principle of universal Darwinism – the idea that whenever information (a replicator) is copied, with variation and selection, a new evolutionary process begins. The first successful replicator on earth was genes. Their evolution produced all living things, including animals, whose intelligence emerged from brains consisting of interconnected neurons. The second replicator was memes, let loose when humans began to imitate each other. Imitation may seem a trivial ability, but it is very far from that. An animal that can imitate another brings a new level of evolution into being because habits, skills, stories and technologies (memes) are copied, varied and selected. Our brains had to quickly expand to handle the rapidly evolving memes, leading to a new kind of emergent intelligence.
The third replicator is, I suggest, already here, but we are not seeing its true nature. We have built machines that can copy, combine, vary and select enormous quantities of information with high fidelity far beyond the capacity of the human brain. With all these three essential processes in place, this information must now evolve.
Google is a prime example. Google consults countless sources to select material copied from servers all over the world almost instantly. We may think we are still in control because humans designed the software and we put in the search terms, but other software can use Google too, copying the selected information before passing it on to yet others. Some programs can take parts of other programs and mix them up in new ways. Just as in biological evolution, most new variants will fizzle out, but if any arise that are successful at getting themselves copied, by whatever means, they will spread through the wonderfully interconnected systems of machines that we have made.
Replicators are selfish by nature. They get copied whenever and however they can, regardless of the consequences for us, for other species or for our planet. You cannot give human values to a massive system of evolving information based on machinery that is being expanded and improved every day. They do not care because they cannot care.
I refer to this third replicator as techno-memes, or temes, and I believe they are already evolving way beyond our control. Human intelligence emerged from biological brains with billions of interconnected neurons. AI is emerging in the gazillions of interconnections we have provided through our computers, servers, phones, tablets and every other piece of machinery that copies, varies and selects an ever-increasing amount of information. The scale of this new evolution is almost incomparably greater.