Artificial Intelligence and the Curse of the Machine Gods

Image of electric swirls.

Image by Gertrūda Valasevičiūtė.

Sometime back in 2008 I was having a conversation with an FBI agent. This is not something I would normally care to do, but in this case it was a family member—my half-brother, who is fourteen years older than me. We didn’t grow up together and have never particularly liked each other, and his wife and I share an intense mutual loathing, but at the time I was making an effort to be more present in the lives of their two young daughters, my nieces.

We were sitting in the living room of their home in Simi Valley, where cops move so they don’t have to live in L.A. with real people. The tedious babble of a televised football game was droning in the background. Following a thread of conversation I’ve long since forgotten, we somehow got onto to the topic of theft and morality. My brother said to me—and this is an exact quote—Are you one of those people who thinks it’s wrong to steal from a mom & pop store, but it’s okay to steal from Wal-Mart because it’s a big corporation?

Sensing my time to shine, I replied as follows: in order for me to believe that it would be “stealing” to take something from Wal-Mart without paying for it, I would first have to believe that Wal-Mart is capable of owning something. I don’t.

He was immediately confused. I continued.

In my view, you must have consciousness and will in order to own something. Wal-Mart has neither of those things; it is a construct. It may have stores and employees, managers and board members, but essentially it’s a legal fiction—a synthetic entity. Wal-Mart really only exists on paper, and it’s only because of consensus social agreement—and fear of law enforcement—that it can be said to have any claim at all to its warehouses of tacky furniture and sweatshop clothing.

The “synthetic entity” part really got him; he froze like an old computer. I could almost hear the cogs of his mind grinding as he tried to process an idea that was completely alien to his worldview.

Thanks to certain rulings of the good ol’ Supreme Court, these synthetic entities have all of the “rights” of individual citizens, yet none of the liabilities… like mortality. There is not a single human servitor of Wal-Mart who is not replaceable, from the CEO to the door greeters. Like all employees of giant corporations, they’re basically wetware, serving the needs of a more or less immortal construct.

You may have figured out where I’m going with this: corporations are a form of artificial intelligence. I hate to be the one to break it to y’all, but our society was conquered by A.I. generations ago.

I call them machine gods; “gods,” because they’re fundamentally disembodied—they are primarily conceptual, like, say, Hermes. “Machines,” because they don’t have any actual will or consciousness—what they have is programming; they take objects and convert them into money, which is essentially the same thing as saying they convert objects into power. The objects themselves are created by transforming the living—trees, livestock, landscapes, sweatshop workers—into the dead.

A fun, old-fashioned occult word for such an entity is egregore.

Taking things from a mom & pop store would directly harm the livelihood of actual human beings, who have will and consciousness. That is simply not the case with Wal-Mart, or Target, or Dollar General. These companies make billions of dollars in profit, most of which goes into the pockets of a handful of corporate executives who are already wealthy. If I could do so with impunity, I would take absolutely everything I ever wanted or needed from Wal-Mart—or any other chain store—without paying for any of it.

You know, sort of like European invaders did to Turtle Island.

That I refrain from shoplifting is not a moral stance at all, but a practical one based on fear of legal punishment. Also, my finances are solid enough that I don’t need to take stuff from the machine gods without paying; unlike many people in this country, I can afford the basics of life. There’s no good reason for me to risk a larceny case. But if my situation were to change, I certainly wouldn’t feel any pangs of fucking guilt for helping myself to the shit at Wal-Mart.

And so, my brother’s attempt to trap me with his simplistic, pseudo-Christian moral conundrum failed utterly. After wearing out his cop-mind for a few minutes trying to find an angle from whence to undermine my argument, he finally landed on this: Well, where does the transition happen between a mom & pop store and Wal-Mart?

He really thought he got me with that one, but it’s clearly absurd; once it’s possible to purchase shares of a company on the stock market, we’re pretty well into machine god territory. Although technically they are both corporations, a tremendous gulf separates my local corner store from Wal-Mart. It’s like comparing a marble to Jupiter.


I would argue that the state, with its penchant not only for reproducing itself, but also for manufacturing humans who require a state, is also a form of artificial intelligence.


Since the industrial revolution, or at least since the advent of advertising and P.R. firms, every time some fancy new technology comes around there are always True Believers—the people who can’t wait to tell you How Much Better Life Will Be Now. This fable is still popular after two centuries of revealing itself as a lie—the most significant accomplishments of most new technology are: killing more of the planet, impoverishing the working class, and consolidating wealth & control.

If you were connected to the last smoldering remnants of the counterculture in the mid ‘90s, then you might remember how everyone was convinced that the internet was going to Liberate Democracy or whatever. Anyone who’d studied Marx for two seconds should have easily predicted that the ability to buy everything online was just going to put a lot of moms & pops out of business. But could they have predicted QAnon? Hmm…

A few of the early dick-riders of cybertech, like Douglas Rushkoff, have repented of their foolish technophilia… now that it’s too late. Who knows what world we might now live in if liberals and leftists would have immediately recognized the internet as a force of evil? Actually, nevermind; they probably couldn’t have stopped it. By that point the beast was coming whether we wanted it or not.

However, I do not believe that our techno-dystopia was historically inevitable.

Back in May, author Thomas Knapp made a statement in a piece for Counterpunch that I feel is worth quoting at length before I carve it up with the Wu Tang sword:

We’ve been hurtling toward the “singularity” for at least 3.3 million years, ever since one of our ancestor hominins (probably Australopithecus or Kenyanthropus) started using tools to make their work easier.

Over those millions of years, we’ve continuously improved our tools … and our tools have continuously improved us. We’re not really the same animal we were before the automobile, let alone before the wheel. We can do things our grandparents, and those hominins, never dreamed of.

Once we started developing tools that could crack nuts better than us, speak across greater distances than us, travel faster than us, etc., it was inevitable that we’d eventually develop tools which could think better than us.”

With as much respect as is due to anyone who has just insulted their entire species, I have to say this is a gold-medal contender for the stupidest shit I’ve heard all year. I have an appreciation for healthy cynicism, but damn; this kind of Original Sin nonsense chafes my chonies.

First of all, the industrial foundation that made computer tech possible is only a couple of centuries old; go ahead and take a second to boot up your calculator, then divide 200 by 3.3 million and see what kind of ratio you get. I’d hardly describe the speed of that species-journey as “hurtling.” It looks more to me like being healthy for a hundred years, then getting total-body cancer for a fraction of a second before dropping dead.

Second, there was never anything “inevitable” about A.I., the internet, computers, industry, or even civilization. Civilization has only been around for about 5,000 years (divide that by 3.3 million; you’ll get a bigger number but not by much), and as James C. Scott examined in Against the Grain, the earliest hierarchical states were extremely fragile for any number of reasons. There was no guarantee that this way of organizing society would last as long as it has… and it probably won’t last much longer.

The industrial revolution was not the inevitable result of humans being “tool users”—a lot of other species make and use tools—it was the specific product of a specific culture in a specific region under specific circumstances. If the cosmic criminal Christopher Columbus had met a righteous end by drowning at sea before reaching Turtle Island—or, as in the short story I’m currently writing, been murdered by a coalition of time-traveling queers—it’s likely that the industrial revolution would never have happened. That means no capitalism, no planet-devouring corporations, and no motherfucking A.I.

Third, Knapp’s passage is really just a re-framing of the European “Enlightenment” myth of Progress™. The idea that factories and Skynet are part of the “natural evolution” of the human species is not only ridiculous, but it’s also a clandestine form of diet white supremacism—if the industrial revolution was a natural part of “our” evolution, and Europeans did it first, then clearly they must be more “advanced” than other people. Ergo, manifest some destiny, etc.

To commit what’s actually an enormous fuck-up and then claim it’s “natural” to the species is a phenomenal level of hubris… hubris that is basic to the social construction of whiteness. I’ve endured this crypto-racist horseshit in some form or another for my entire life, and I’m tired of it. I feel the same way about the “progress” myth that I feel about the Bering Strait Theory and White Jesus—I keep hoping it’ll retire to Debunked Land, but it never does. Since we can’t get rid of it, my only option for spiritual well-being is to mercilessly clown it.

These last few months, there have been a lot of people gnashing their teeth about the Dangers of A.I. Most of these folks have been enthusiastically feeding all of their personal data to tech companies for the last twenty years, and don’t see the relationship between the two things, but nevermind that.

I don’t see that there is any new danger from A.I. that isn’t already inherent in our cybernetic dystopia. Banal and soulless popular culture? Already got that. People relying on computers to do their thinking for them? Been common for years. Machines taking people’s jobs, or murdering them? Check. Planetary extinction? Well on our way. The “singularity” is just a secular repackaging of Judgment Day. It’s all hype.

That said, is resistance even possible?

I believe resistance is always possible… but only if you understand the threat. Over the years I’ve studied many social movements, particularly the more radical ones—labor rights, religious rebellions, anarchist insurrections, Black Power, Indigenous sovereignty, etc. One of the things all these movements have in common is that they grew from a world in which there was still such a thing as communities.

Many of the Black Panthers were organizing with neighbors whose families they’d known for two or three generations, sometimes longer. When was the last time you were in a neighborhood where everyone had known each other for that long? Gentrification is a helluva drug.

The gospels of Marxism and anarchism were spread in cafes. Nowadays, I’m ready to shed tears when I see strangers so much as strike up a conversation with each other at a cafe. Most people prefer interacting with a screen.

Our current state of hyper-alienation and total cybernetic mediation has effectively destroyed our communal relationships. Nobody like Malcolm X or Fred Hampton could ever have emerged from the world of smartphones and zuckerbook. Tech is the problem, and has been for a long time… yet people act like uncensored access to Twitter is the key to a functioning democracy.

What is to be done?

I don’t know. But I have an extra sledgehammer if you wanna play Luddite with me.


Malik Diamond is a hip hop artist, cartoonist, author, educator, and martial arts instructor. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the descendant of kidnapped Africans, conquered Natives, and rural laborers of the Scots-Irish, Swiss, and German varieties. He currently lives in Oakland, California, with two brown humans and a white cat. E-mail: malikdiamond (at) hotmail (dot) com