Pluralistic: AI is a WMD (09 May 2024)

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A lonely mud-brick well in a brown desert. It has been modified to add a 'caganar' - a traditional Spanish figure of a man crouching down and defecating - perched on the edge of the well. The caganar's head has been replaced with the menacing red eye of HAL9000 from Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.' The sky behind this scene has been blended with a 'code waterfall' effect as seen in the credit sequences of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movies.

AI is a WMD (permalink)

Fun fact: "The Tragedy Of the Commons" is a hoax created by the white nationalist Garrett Hardin to justify stealing land from colonized people and moving it from collective ownership, "rescuing" it from the inevitable tragedy by putting it in the hands of a private owner, who will care for it properly, thanks to "rational self-interest":

Get that? If control over a key resource is diffused among the people who rely on it, then (Garrett claims) those people will all behave like selfish assholes, overusing and undermaintaining the commons. It's only when we let someone own that commons and charge rent for its use that (Hardin says) we will get sound management.

By that logic, Google should be the internet's most competent and reliable manager. After all, the company used its access to the capital markets to buy control over the internet, spending billions every year to make sure that you never try a search-engine other than its own, thus guaranteeing it a 90% market share:

Google seems to think it's got the problem of deciding what we see on the internet licked. Otherwise, why would the company flush $80b down the toilet with a giant stock-buyback, and then do multiple waves of mass layoffs, from last year's 12,000 person bloodbath to this year's deep cuts to the company's "core teams"?

And yet, Google is overrun with scams and spam, which find their way to the very top of the first page of its search results:

The entire internet is shaped by Google's decisions about what shows up on that first page of listings. When Google decided to prioritize shopping site results over informative discussions and other possible matches, the entire internet shifted its focus to producing affiliate-link-strewn "reviews" that would show up on Google's front door:

This was catnip to the kind of sociopath who a) owns a hedge-fund and b) hates journalists for being pain-in-the-ass, stick-in-the-mud sticklers for "truth" and "facts" and other impediments to the care and maintenance of a functional reality-distortion field. These dickheads started buying up beloved news sites and converting them to spam-farms, filled with garbage "reviews" and other Google-pleasing, affiliate-fee-generating nonsense.

(These news-sites were vulnerable to acquisition in large part thanks to Google, whose dominance of ad-tech lets it cream 51 cents off every ad dollar and whose mobile OS monopoly lets it steal 30 cents off every in-app subscriber dollar):

Now, the spam on these sites didn't write itself. Much to the chagrin of the tech/finance bros who bought up Sports Illustrated and other venerable news sites, they still needed to pay actual human writers to produce plausible word-salads. This was a waste of money that could be better spent on reverse-engineering Google's ranking algorithm and getting pride-of-place on search results pages:

That's where AI comes in. Spicy autocomplete absolutely can't replace journalists. The planet-destroying, next-word-guessing programs from Openai and its competitors are incorrigible liars that require so much "supervision" that they cost more than they save in a newsroom:

But while a chatbot can't produce truthful and informative articles, it can produce bullshit – at unimaginable scale. Chatbots are the workers that hedge-fund wreckers dream of: tireless, uncomplaining, compliant and obedient producers of nonsense on demand.

That's why the capital class is so insatiably horny for chatbots. Chatbots aren't going to write Hollywood movies, but studio bosses hyperventilated at the prospect of a "writer" that would accept your brilliant idea and diligently turned it into a movie. You prompt an LLM in exactly the same way a studio exec gives writers notes. The difference is that the LLM won't roll its eyes and make sarcastic remarks about your brainwaves like "ET, but starring a dog, with a love plot in the second act and a big car-chase at the end":

Similarly, chatbots are a dream come true for a hedge fundie who ends up running a beloved news site, only to have to fight with their own writers to get the profitable nonsense produced at a scale and velocity that will guarantee a high Google ranking and millions in "passive income" from affiliate links.

One of the premier profitable nonsense companies is Advon, which helped usher in an era in which sites from Forbes to Money to USA Today create semi-secret "review" sites that are stuffed full of badly researched top-ten lists for products from air purifiers to cat beds:

Advon swears that it only uses living humans to produce nonsense, and not AI. This isn't just wildly implausible, it's also belied by easily uncovered evidence, like its own employees' Linkedin profiles, which boast of using AI to create "content":

It's not true. Advon uses AI to produce its nonsense, at scale. In an excellent, deeply reported piece for Futurism, Maggie Harrison Dupré brings proof that Advon replaced its miserable human nonsense-writers with tireless chatbots:

Dupré describes how Advon's ability to create botshit at scale contributed to the enshittification of clients from Yoga Journal to the LA Times, "Us Weekly" to the Miami Herald.

All of this is very timely, because this is the week that Google finally bestirred itself to commence downranking publishers who engage in "site reputation abuse" – creating these SEO-stuffed fake reviews with the help of third parties like Advon:

(Google's policy only forbids site reputation abuse with the help of third parties; if these publishers take their nonsense production in-house, Google may allow them to continue to dominate its search listings):

There's a reason so many people believed Hardin's racist "Tragedy of the Commons" hoax. We have an intuitive understanding that commons are fragile. All it takes is one monster to start shitting in the well where the rest of us get our drinking water and we're all poisoned.

The financial markets love these monsters. Mark Zuckerberg's key insight was that he could make billions by assembling vast dossiers of compromising, sensitive personal information on half the world's population without their consent, but only if he kept his costs down by failing to safeguard that data and the systems for exploiting it. He's like a guy who figures out that if he accumulates enough oily rags, he can extract so much low-grade oil from them that he can grow rich, but only if he doesn't waste money on fire-suppression:

Now Zuckerberg and the wealthy, powerful monsters who seized control over our commons are getting a comeuppance. The weak countermeasures they created to maintain the minimum levels of quality to keep their platforms as viable, going concerns are being overwhelmed by AI. This was a totally foreseeable outcome: the history of the internet is a story of bad actors who upended the assumptions built into our security systems by automating their attacks, transforming an assault that wouldn't be economically viable into a global, high-speed crime wave:

But it is possible for a community to maintain a commons. This is something Hardin could have discovered by studying actual commons, instead of inventing imaginary histories in which commons turned tragic. As it happens, someone else did exactly that: Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom:

Ostrom described how commons can be wisely managed, over very long timescales, by communities that self-governed. Part of her work concerns how users of a commons must have the ability to exclude bad actors from their shared resources.

When that breaks down, commons can fail – because there's always someone who thinks it's fine to shit in the well rather than walk 100 yards to the outhouse.

Enshittification is the process by which control over the internet moved from self-governance by members of the commons to acts of wanton destruction committed by despicable, greedy assholes who shit in the well over and over again.

It's not just the spammers who take advantage of Google's lazy incompetence, either. Take "copyleft trolls," who post images using outdated Creative Commons licenses that allow them to terminate the CC license if a user makes minor errors in attributing the images they use:

The first copyleft trolls were individuals, but these days, the racket is dominated by a company called Pixsy, which pretends to be a "rights protection" agency that helps photographers track down copyright infringers. In reality, the company is committed to helping copyleft trolls entrap innocent Creative Commons users into paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to use images that are licensed for free use. Just as Advon upends the economics of spam and deception through automation, Pixsy has figured out how to send legal threats at scale, robolawyering demand letters that aren't signed by lawyers; the company refuses to say whether any lawyer ever reviews these threats:

This is shitting in the well, at scale. It's an online WMD, designed to wipe out the commons. Creative Commons has allowed millions of creators to produce a commons with billions of works in it, and Pixsy exploits a minor error in the early versions of CC licenses to indiscriminately manufacture legal land-mines, wantonly blowing off innocent commons-users' legs and laughing all the way to the bank:

We can have an online commons, but only if it's run by and for its users. Google has shown us that any "benevolent dictator" who amasses power in the name of defending the open internet will eventually grow too big to care, and will allow our commons to be demolished by well-shitters:

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0; Catherine Poh Huay Tan, Laia BalaguerĂł, CC BY 2.0; modified)

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