Issue 1/2021 - Net section

Silent Works

A forum against AI capitalism’s fantasies of powerlessness

Kevin Rittberger

In an impressive lecture, poet and scholar Sudesh Mishra referred to the iTaukei myth “The Great Flood” at the MORE WORLD conference, hosted by the Berliner Gazette in 2019. It is about the sacred serpent Degei, who is awakened every morning by the dove that lives on a fig tree. Degei bestowed on the people the craft of building boats. When, in order not to have to work, the humans kill the dove which regulates their daily routine, Degei causes the boat builders to perish in a deluge. The reef, the new habitat of the fig tree, now serves as a memorial to arriving people. Mishra used the myth to point towards the fragility of humans within the whole structure, the Zoē-assemblage. Destroyed Zoē-assemblages for humans mean that their arbitrariness towards everything non-human in fact leads to their own failure.
However, in the “Capitalocene” man has also understood that he or she can create myths in order to describe the man-made course of events as natural or fateful, while consolidating relations of exploitation and power. Fake ideologies such as the “invisible hand” or a self-regulating market are examples of delegating intentional market asymmetries to “higher powers.” It is precisely around this blind spot that the Berliner Gazette held its latest Winter School – SILENT WORKS – in November 2020.
SILENT WORKS appears in a moment when Artificial Intelligence is taking on a quasi-divine function in the current iteration of capitalism as AI Capitalism, while behind the glorious veil of an omnipotent computer intelligence, work is invisibilized and working people are further disempowered. Whereas Karl Marx once understood work as an appendage of machinery, crowdworkers, clickworkers, and content moderators are now increasingly being left behind. Meanwhile, AI capitalism boasts that it is the most Promethean variety yet. In order for the machine to shine in all its glory, workers should not be able to organize or make their voices heard in any other way. It is not a social democratic move, even if Big Tech entrepreneurs are now aggressively promoting an unconditional basic income. They know that the valued work in Industry 4.0 is concentrated among ever fewer people on ever higher-priced top floors, and that the unemployed and “bullshit jobbers” (David Graeber), however, still serve well as passive consumers. AI capitalism produces fantasies of powerlessness in disguise. This is closely linked to the cult of genius of the super-rich, whose fortunes are growing rapidly while the pandemic exacerbates inequalities.
However, AI capitalism cannot be comprehended without the preceding capitalist fantasy activity, Berliner Gazette editors Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki emphasize. Media scholar Nick Dyer-Witheford also uses the term AI capitalism to contrast it with AI communism. This “real-world AI capitalism,” Taube and Woznicki say, “refers explicitly and exclusively to concrete technologies and concrete business models.” Without the imagination as a precursor to technology, however, AI capitalism cannot be understood, they say. Taube and Woznicki are also concerned with the inferences this allows for resistant positions. “Artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” in AI capitalism, they argue, are notions like those of the invisible hand of the market. The hands that program, control, maintain, and reconfigure AI must therefore be made visible, as must the psychological dimension inherent in AI capitalism. Resistant AI must ultimately be thought of as HI, as human intelligence at eye level.
Many participants in SILENT WORKS want to make the transformation of the world of work visible and design counter-strategies. And so Big Tech’s fantasy of powerlessness is countered by a concentrated charge of situationist intelligence, affirmative technology reclaiming and – yes! – activist, counterfactual and collective imagination. The Winter School, held at Berlin’s Haus der Statistik, encompassed an exhibition and a conference, much of which ran via the Zoom alternative BigBlueButton (a GDPR-compliant open source tool) due to the pandemic. The wealth of talks, artistic contributions, workshops, and articles, as well as the multitude of participants, are well-documented on the SILENT WORKS website.
In a workshop called “Work, Care, and Invisible Organization: Mapping Power and Resistance in 2030,” social thinker Max Haiven and software developer Yonatan Miller, who are regular contributors to the Berliner Gazette network, imagine with many others a counter-hegemonically constituted World Care Forum (WCF) by 2030, a planetary alliance of workers in cooperatives and autonomous zones. The WCF is stepping up to defy a hypothetical sellout of breath by the platform capitalism that is still raging.
In another workshop called “What if Invisibilized Workers Reclaimed the Future?,” participants, including hvale vale (#feministinternet) and commons activist Friederike Habermann, assume that Amazon, also in 2030, will be transformed into a nonprofit syndicate called Commazon. In a co-writing process, humorous new beginnings are formulated with activist references from a wide variety of countries, future commonists and workers’ councils chat naturally about better pay in care work, about other forms of ownership that are neither state nor private, and about more local production cycles.
In many contributions, it seems self-evident that AI capitalism cannot be overcome by accelerating it, as the accelerationists have claimed. It also seems that the expropriation of AI-capitalist relations of production will tend to shrink productive forces into “folk machines,” to borrow a term from Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, as the climate crisis progresses. And it seems that the great achievement of SILENT WORKS is that what has been given a new, albeit only symbolic, recognition as “essential” during the pandemic, is being brought into focus. For the revaluation of a Human General Intelligence, which must be wrested from a threatening Artificial General Intelligence, cannot happen without the revaluation of reproductive work.
The trickster activists from Peng! have struck again, this time at the pandemic crisis winner, Lieferando food delivery service. In an interview with Peng! – aka the “Federal Office for Crisis Protection and Economic Aid” – Lieferando founder Jörg Gerbig gets carried away and proposes a law to politicians to avert the establishment of workers’ councils for the roughly 3,700 drivers. Under the smooth surface of the Lieferando app, “all the old shit” (Karl Marx) becomes visible. In her talk, Sana Ahmad, a researcher at the Free University of Berlin, highlights the fact that workers’ rights are also lacking or even completely absent on the Indian labor market of content moderators. Muzzling labor is a proven entrepreneurial spirit of the Global North and the exact opposite of commons-based common good economics.
The holy snake Degei is certainly not needed to better teach the people, who continue to serve a domineering and exploitative AI capitalism. The next drought, the next flood are anyway no longer just “fate” but man-made. It is time to recognize Inhuman Labor as Janus-faced: on the one hand, the inhumane working conditions, including the impossibility of precarized wage workers to use AI for emancipative, sustainable and non-capitalist purposes; on the other, Big Tech’s fantasy of powerlessness, which needs to be exposed as just that. The powerlessness of AI workers, AI users, AI consumers, those policed by AI, and those deprived of the means of AI production consolidates corporations’ power. Only their collective empowerment – in the form of social relations, as author Luise Meier points out in her SILENT WORKS video talk – can constitute the basis of the overthrow of AI capitalism. The humanism inherent in humane labor would then only have to be “re-enchanted” (Sylvia Wynter).

You can find SILENT WORKS video talks, artworks, texts, workshop projects, and audio documents tackling AI capitalism’s hidden labor on the project’s website