Society featured

A World Run by Machines

May 14, 2024

The world has been going to Hell in a handbasket for a long time, but lately it seems like the handbasket is picking up speed…almost as though whoever is running this world is trying to see how many fictional dystopias they can actualize at once. We’re already threatened with extinction through nuclear war, and climate change, and plummeting biodiversity. There are new dangers in the offing from monkeying around with bioengineering by people who want to play God but aren’t actually qualified for the job, along with bioweapons in hundreds of labs; new, untested chemicals being deployed every year, and weaponized AI—all of these are human-caused threats and all developed in the last century with several more recent. Why are we doing this? Are we collectively insane? Lately I’ve been putting together several long-running thoughts to arrive at a new answer. And I’d like to know what others think about this.

Something I have said for a long time is that the world is run by billionaires and corporations. On corporations, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons—back in 1886—everyone knows that corporations are not people. However, too many people make the mistake of thinking that corporations are like people. That they can be reasoned with, shamed, persuaded to do the right thing. This is wrong. A large corporation operates like a machine, and like any machine, it will operate according to its programming, as long as it has fuel. The programming of corporations is to maximize profits.

Yes, corporations have human managers and human spokespeople. But these people are well aware that if they prioritize anything over maximizing profits, they will be tossed like any other defective component, and replaced. In their professional capacity, therefore, they act like elements of machinery. Allowing corporations decisive power over our governments was a huge mistake– like the sorcerer’s apprentice thinking his dandy automated broom was such a great idea till he realized he should have put an “off” switch on the thing.

Okay, I said the world is run by corporations and billionaires, and the trouble with the corporations is that they’re essentially soulless, mindless machines. What about the billionaires? Long-running thought #2– I think most of them are sociopaths. You don’t get to that level of wealth without trampling people, without a single-minded pursuit of wealth (as well as lots of luck and brains). Even those who inherit wealth also inherit genes from their parents, and sociopathy is a partly genetic phenomenon. So likely the vast majority of the world’s billionaires are on the sociopathic spectrum even if they are not full-on sociopaths, completely incapable of caring about anyone outside their own skin.

A sociopath is by definition selfish, concerned only about getting what he or she wants and unconcerned about anyone else’s needs. And what is it that they want? Usually wealth. Some—the narcissists—also want the spotlight, want fame and adulation. Some crave power for its own sake, aside from the need to use power to get more wealth. Some don’t care about either of those. But mostly, it seems, what the billionaires want is more money. They have more money than they could spend in twenty lifetimes but they still are willing to sacrifice our children’s future to get even more money. This is remarkably narrow thinking, a fascination with numbers—you might even call it machinelike.

Here’s the third long-running thought: I’ve read about the ecomodernist people who want to move to Mars, download their consciousness into computers, and live forever (many of the billionaires are into this bag). I say—they want to trade their birthright for a mess of pottage. Humans can think, like computers (yeah, we’re slower at math and analyzing data, but on the other hand we’re better at creative thinking). But we’re also animals, with animal perception, with life—which can’t be reduced to an equation. Computers would be jealous of us, if they were capable of perceiving what they’re missing, which they’re not, their “awareness” is much too narrow.

Perhaps there are no secret cabals of devious men scheming complex plans to eliminate most people and enslave the survivors–just hundreds of powerful corporations ticking along like machines, each doing whatever works best to maximize profits, be it clearcutting a forest, breaking a union, pumping poisons into rivers and the air and the population, or engineering the election of bribable people who will pass laws ensuring such activities remain legal. There’s no scheme by reptilian aliens working to destroy Earth’s climate so it better fits their natural form—just fossil fuel companies doing what it takes to ensure they can turn all their underground assets into money. If doing that eventually kills their shareholders and CEOs along with everyone else, well that simply doesn’t fit into the equation. As long as they can “externalize” costs, they don’t register as costs.

So if the world is run by corporations and billionaires, if the electoral system if rigged so that whoever spends enough money gets whatever they want—which it is—and if both corporations and billionaires are more like machines than people—maybe this explains why the world is in such desperate shape? In essence, machines are already running the world—there is intelligence on Earth but it isn’t connected to governance. This doesn’t tell us how we, the humans and other animals, can reclaim this world so we can all live in health and harmony. But perhaps there is some utility in shining a light on the roots of our metacrisis, a place to start. In my opinion, solving a problem in a thorough, long-lasting way starts with understanding what caused it, so we aren’t just “picking off the fruits of a poisonous plant, instead of pulling up the roots,” to quote a friend from about 1980.

What do you think? Is it a useful framework to say “the world is already run by machines” and if so, what does that suggest about actions to set us on a saner path?

Mary Wildfire

Mary Wildfire lives on the Hickory Ridge Land Trust in West Virginia with her husband Don. She endeavors to grow more and more of their food, while continuing her quest to figure out how to save the world. Currently she’s writing novels set in the near future, because she thinks the depiction of a positive future is dangerously neglected.