These are the very first books, based on social scientific perspective, tackle the wide range of impacts on education, economy, politics, and modern civilisation, being imposed by the smart revolution in general and ChatGPT in specific. The first book is called “Dystopia: from Smart Revolution to Post-human Future” (written by Chow Sung-ming in Chinese, published in 2022).
Below is an extract of Chapter 7 of the second book “Catastrophe and Reconstruction: Human Future under the Impact of ChatGPT” (a new book published in Chinese in 2023).
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Chapter 7: The trajectories of catastrophe and reconstruction
In the classic science fiction novel and film adaptation “Dune” (1965/2021), there is a female order called the Bene Gesserit, which many may be familiar with. They are often referred to as witches by outsiders, because they possess the ability to see the future and are determined to change it even though it has already been foreseen. Eventually, they successfully rewrite the course of history, but with unexpected consequences.
From Existential to Experiential Certainty
In his classic sociological work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1905), Max Weber points out that in the doctrine of Protestantism, one cannot be certain of one’s own salvation (as it is entirely based on the will and grace of God), thus leading to a persistent “existential anxiety,” which eventually transforms into “worldly asceticism,” a behavioural paradigm that values hard work and frugality. This behavioural paradigm unexpectedly became an important driving force behind the development of capitalism.
For Weber, Protestants worked hard and accumulated great wealth for the sake of their faith, and the accumulation of wealth was merely an accidental byproduct. However, for those of us who came later, we are forced to conform to the paradigm already established. As the operating rules of modern capitalism become the norm, everyone is forced into this massive machine, trapped in the “iron cage” of modern economic rationality, obsessing over material details, being calculative all the time, and unable to escape. This is another unexpected consequence of Protestant ethics.
The trajectories of history is always full of deviations and surprises, and Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” is likely the most representative template of the Western modernisation process since the Enlightenment. In other words, what traditional societies sought was “existential certainty”, which may also known as internal and spiritual certainty, while what modernisation has produced is the pursuit of “experiential certainty”, may also known as external and secular certainty.
This so-called experiential certainty, narrowly speaking, refers to the rationality and logic of economic operations described by Weber. Broadly speaking, it involves the scientific spirit that has overwhelmingly dominated since the Enlightenment. In the field of social sciences, mainstream economics has long held a prominent position, not only in explaining but also in shaping and solidifying human behavioural patterns. In the field of natural sciences, the scientific spirit has not only helped people understand the world but also further transformed it.
In the modernisation process of the past three or four centuries, people gradually gave up the pursuit of existential certainty, and turned to worship experiential certainty. People have gradually cast aside existential anxiety and embraced their own experiential world of “living in the moment.” People have also placed themselves at the center of the universe, with their reason and conscience elevated, becoming the masters of their own destinies in this world. But the completely unexpected result is: people are increasingly trapped in this certainty, living according to the rules set by economics or natural sciences, losing the flexibility and freedom of individual choices.
However, this is clearly not the entire historical fact of modernity. Using the “framing and overflowing” framework of the science sociologist Michel Callon, the so-called certainty obtained by mainstream economics applies only to the closed systems it frames. For the overflows excluded from it, economists call them “externalities” – the overflows do exist, but is simply ignored or disregarded. Similarly, modern science often only focuses on established variables and lacks a systematic understanding of the entire world.
As a result, mainstream economics often only applies to those who can profit from it, but cannot be applied to others (probably the majority!) who are harmed. Behind material abundance is a high level of wealth disparity and social conflict. Modern technological progress often benefits (a significant portion of?) humanity, but excludes other species on earth. The other side of material abundance is ecological destruction and resource depletion – the existence or experiential uncertainty of the entire planet is ignored.
Extreme existential and experiential uncertainty
However, again surprisingly, this is not the “end of history” for humanity. The 2008 financial tsunami, which was the largest economic crisis in human history. During a visit to the London School of Economics, the Queen asked several professors why nobody had predicted the financial crisis. The response she received was, “The main problem was that a group of experts, both inside and outside the financial system, collectively lacked imagination and failed to identify the risks to the system as a whole.”
Since 2008, massive amounts of capital have shifted from traditional industries to the tech industries, creating the conditions for the Smart Revolution. From smartphones to a variety of smart devices, these new technologies have brought about fundamental changes in economic structures, daily lives, and even the course of human history. The prevalence of contemporary artificial intelligence and computer algorithms has further made the rules of social and natural operations more predictable and controllable, but the extreme pursuit of experiential certainty in those closed systems has, decisively, brought about an extremely uncertain future for humanity as a whole.
As Yuvah Noah Harari points out in “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2016), even in the future, society will still require high-end human intelligence, but this will only be the elite intelligence that works closely with computer algorithms, rather than the personal intelligence of ordinary people. As a result, computers will be able to make decisions for ordinary people, from choosing daily travel routes to selecting investment strategies, shopping and consumption preferences, and even major life decisions such as choosing schools, jobs, finding partners, and making reproductive decisions. In addition, computers will also have a deeper understanding than us about who will be a better political leader and which policies will be better. Welcome to the “post-liberalism” and new “data religion” era.
However, does this leave space for the majority of people to survive? Assuming that political and technological power are relatively evenly distributed, the few elites will still face some checks and balances. However, if political and technological power becomes highly concentrated, it will be a great question as to whether elites will still be willing to take on the burden of the majority who are short of political and economic functions. The global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 fully demonstrated that this is no longer a parable. Perhaps, as British sociologist Peter Frase proposed in his book “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism” (2016), if resources and ecological environments deteriorate sharply, a large population will face the fate of elimination.
Or, as I pointed out in my book “Post-Employment Society: Who’s the Tech-nobility? Whose Artificial Intelligence?” (2018), as the “post-employment society” emerges, the “post-liberalism” and “post-human society” will follow closely.
As Helga Nowotny quoted in Chapter 2 of this book, in her new work on artificial intelligence, “In AI We Trust: Illusion and Control of Predictive Algorithms” (2021), she points out that as the predictive ability of computer programs continues to improve, it brings an extreme sense of certainty to ordinary people’s experiences, which is actually a self-deception – it is only a good feeling created by the elite who control cutting-edge technology for all those living within a defined, enclosed space. Once they step out of this “comfort zone”, everyone will see the reality of uncertainty filled with global warming, extreme weather, ecological crises, public health crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which are systemic crises that are beyond the scope of existing technology to predict and control.
Since the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, everyone has been further trapped in their homes, and information and communication technology has become the only way to break the “social distance”. Even after the pandemic is over, people’s lifestyles have undergone fundamental changes and will inevitably rely more on computer screens to solve their working and shopping needs, meaning that people will be more willing to stay in the comfort zone created by technology – when the virus is no longer spreading among human bodies, the various promises and threats brought by technology will spread on the internet like a virus, conclusively directing the collective fate of humanity.
The key issue is that ordinary people living in the comfort zone for a long time are inevitably losing their sense of uncertainty and crisis, both in experience and existence, and becoming white mice being manipulated in the laboratory, relying on computer programs to replace thinking. In addition to being happy to “harvest” the tempting wealth and power, the elites cannot resist the charming allure of being a “modern Faust” and lose their vigilance to the challenges outside the laboratory – it is not the distance between technology and people, but the significant distance between the elites and ordinary people, that is the core concern.
Therefore, to resolve the challenges of super artificial intelligence to human civilisation, the answer is actually very simple – simple enough to make people take it lightly! That is to rediscover the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, which seems to be very simple but has always remained only at the level of slogans in the past and present, and has not been seriously examined and implemented – under the historical context of the intelligence revolution, these must also include freedom from intelligent manipulation and the right to own and control technology.
The pursuits and rewards in human future
In the book “Dystopia: Four Human Futures under Smart Revolution” (2022), I borrowed three science fiction films to try to outline the divergent paths of humanity’s future. Here, I will only briefly summarise and not repeat them:
“WALL-E”: in which humans will live on the spaceship “Axiom” in totally detached from the ground, where computers fully rule and tightly control everything, embracing a form of extreme certainty in experience. This can be called a “happy idiot” society.
“Ready Player One”: Humans live in poverty and can only continue to resist the ruling elite in the virtual reality world of “Oasis”, but this also means an extreme uncertainty in experience. This can be called a “network guerrilla” society.
“The Dark Knight”: Due to extreme political corruption and the domination of gangs, humans can only live in Gotham City controlled by monopolies, and face extreme uncertainty in existence and experience. This can be called a “self-destructive capitalist” society.
In addition, there is a “Goblin Mode”, recently selected as the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. Goblins are common in Western mythology and movies as small green dwarves, and Goblin Mode is defined as a behaviour of guiltlessly self-indulging, lazy, messy, or greedy, usually expressing a refusal of social norms or expectations. In Chinese context, it is roughly equivalent to the “lying flat mode”.
It is clear that compared to the constant struggle and the disruptive mode of the Oasis or Gotham City, the Goblin or lying-flat mode represents humans giving up on pursuing the future as a response to the uncertainties of existence and experience. Actually, in the “happy idiot” society of Axiom, humans have long been “lying flat” and become hollow existences like zombies, but “luckily”, they can still maintain material abundance and carefree life. Therefore, it may be ironic that “lying flat” may not be the worst choice for humans after all.
Of course, all of these are just words. As I have repeatedly emphasised, the future trajectories are still full of variables, and it is too early to say which trajectory will dominate the world. However, it is certain that digital humanism will play a crucial role. As this book has been emphasising from very beginning, only by getting rid of the technology-centered thinking can we truly understand the challenges of technology, and have the opportunity to find effective ways to respond. Only by putting technology and humans back in their proper places, affirming the role of people, systems, and society in owning and managing technology, can humans, including ordinary people, retake their world of experience and value of existence, and rebuild their own future.
As always, history is always variable and changing, depending on how humans collectively choose their future. There is no fixed trajectory or end point in history, and it all depends on how humans grasp their own destiny and create the future history.
(Tentatively translated by ChatGPT, further editing and polishing is required)