Disciplined by Ideology

Disciplined by Ideology

UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #21 - Disciplined by Ideology

A year ago today, I had just gotten back from Berlin as we wrapped up Ferment AI, a year-long residency for nine artists looking to explore artificial intelligence or other cognitive technologies in their practice.

We did a showcase on October 13, 2022 and had around 100 folks show up over the course of the night. We offered some works in progress, a live performance piece by Yasmeen Nematt Alla, a mash-up of food and drink assembled from local businesses after our caterer cancelled last minute, and plenty of good conversation.

The following week, we took part in some aspects of the AI Anarchies Autumn school at the Akademie der Künste. The rest of our time in Berlin was spent meeting with folks asking related questions, enjoying some incredible art, and laughing (a lot).

Our Thursday event was in a new space in the Pfefferberg cultural quarter in Prenzlauer Berg. The website has a lot of documentation of the event and the space, but I’ll offer that it was an impressive venue. The folks running the space were from the US and Australia and they were at the centre of a community that came together online (initially). I won’t get into too much detail about the beliefs that inform the space, but I’ll offer that there was a priority given to ‘vibes’ and the culture is held together by ideas that fall under the umbrella of post-rationalism.

The AI Anarchies Autumn school was less optimistic about technology’s current path and argued for a more critical lens on sociotechnical changes. The event wanted to bring together “communities of artists, scholars, cultural producers and culture hackers, technologists, and activists” to re-imagine and re-frame conversations related to AI ethics.

Our little group, Ferment AI, advocated no coherent ideological position and existed as a space for exploration and experimentation around the materiality of AI. We spent a year meeting mostly online and Berlin was the culmination of the formal aspects of the residency.

As our group of artists collided with each of these communities in turn, I began to see a pattern of sense-making that echoed some of the ideas we’ve been exploring about centralizing and decentralizing urges in culture and in the technologies we deploy as a result.

The community at our venue had a consistent and specific way of processing information and understanding the world. If the vibes were off, that was enough to inform action. I asked a question of someone as we were setting up for the event, and rather than responding they remained silent, stared at some point six feet behind me, and then walked away. I discovered later that this was a consistent and coherent response given the values of this particular community. He didn’t vibe with me, and so he found somewhere else to be.

The AI Anarchies school was extraordinarily stimulating, with some impressive speakers. After several days, however, I noticed that not just the speakers but almost everyone in the room was embedded in an academic or other large institution of one kind or another. Here were professors and their research. I love academic research and steal from it enthusiastically. However, the framing of “AI Anarchies” contrasted somewhat with the reality of institutionally-embedded experts offering takes on where action on AI ought to go next.

The curatorial statement for the event states that the event was inspired by work at the Kunci Study Forum & Collective from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a group deploying “study through improper speculative research”. In Kunci’s approach, thinking together in the classroom becomes a vehicle for social change. Two of Kunci’s members spoke (through Zoom) at the event, and this was a high point for me. However, there were less than a dozen of us in the large room for the talk, compared to over a hundred for the better-known speakers.

Ferment AI was curated with polyphony in mind. The group is eclectic in terms of practices, lived experiences, demographics, and so on. The gap in age between the oldest and the youngest member is over 30 years. There are some consistent threads, however, including; an interest in the materiality of the digital; a history of centring care and accountability; and an openness to difference.

Ferment AI benefited greatly from having had a year together to come to trust and admire each other. Our bi-weekly online meetings were ostensibly about AI but were often efforts at deepening connection and being curious about where others were at or were going. Our sense-making in Berlin, then, became a wild, bubbling mess as we collectively tried to make sense of the events around us.

Some of us were infuriated by the responses of the community at our venue. Some of us were frustrated by the structure and inconsistencies in the AI Anarchies event. Others were excited, or curious, or disinterested. We were not disciplined by a pre-existing and centralizing ideology and could therefore process events prior to any conditioning by a set of assumed beliefs. This created a much richer and more interesting picture of what was going on. We could walk around the mountain before thinking of climbing it. This was a messy process and each of our responses was informed by our specific and intersecting experiences, privileges, and ideas.

Thankfully, as this dialogue was embedded in structures of care and curiosity, we could make progress. There was no insistence that the ‘meaning’ of an event be commonly held. We were defined by connection, not external boundaries or common sense-making approaches.

Anarchism and AI

Our work draws pretty heavily on two recurring and entangled ideas in anarchist thought: transvaluation and prefiguration. I likely can’t do justice to the theory behind either, but I can talk about their application in practice (or more specifically, in our practice).

Transvaluation comes from Nietzsche, but we're more interested in Emma Goldman’s applications and ideas. To her, the basic idea of transvaluation is that the ‘means’ toward liberation must be identical to the ‘ends’ of the desired liberation. Freedom cannot come through oppression. Inclusion cannot result from exclusion. Non-violence cannot be achieved through violence. Moreover, she argued, social revolution is not the replacement of one group for another. Transvaluation of values must occur, which is a fundamental, “transformation of the basic relations of man [sic] to man [sic], and of man [sic] to society”.

Artificial intelligence does whatever work we assign it. When that work is either in service to implicit or explicit ideologies, those ideologies become more deeply entrenched. I am less interested in the ‘right’ way to understand events and more in resisting those that would impose their ‘right’ way on others. Authoritarianism of whatever stripe relies on more efficiently delivering on a set of beliefs, on forcing the terrain to better resemble the map. My work with the David Graeber Institute, UKAI Projects, Maitri Platform, and in my own practice is on making that a harder task to accomplish.

Prefiguration is a related concept that argues for the creation of living examples of the future society we are seeking. According to the originator of the term, Carl Boggs, the intention is to embody, "within the ongoing political practice of a movement [...] those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal".

Ferment AI was an effort to centre care and curiosity in collective creation. We hoped to see multiple approaches and values show up in how artificial intelligence is developed and deployed and we structured ourselves in such a way that this intention was already present in our relations. Collisions with more internally-consistent subcultures in Berlin demonstrated the potential value of this approach. Rather than pre-processing events through a previously negotiated ideological lens, we were able to work with events as they were, or at least in a more contingent and evolving manner. We were, I think, closer to the ground than to the map.

Our long-term goal is to ground AI, and to support a polyphony of approaches and desires that can emerge in conversation with each other without insisting on the supremacy of one map of the world or another.

Now that Ferment AI has completed, the Ferment name will be retired. We're looking to be a member of a residency, rather than organizing one, and are looking for recommendations? Any ideas?

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