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Notebook: (2) Thought Plutocrats
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
A volunteer serves a plate of food to a homeless man during the traditional Thanksgiving meal served by the nonprofit Midnight Mission to nearly two thousand homeless people in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, November 25, 2021. Followers of Effective Altruism argue that responding with caring to those suffering close to you may give you a “warm fuzzy feeling,” but it’s more effective to use that time and money where it could produce the most demonstrable benefit (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)
Read Part One of this post here!
Meanwhile the other big story of hubris and oversized ego in tech these days, the implosion of Samuel Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency exchange FTX, also has an intellectual layer. Bankman-Fried got his start as a protégé of philosopher William McAskill, one of the founders of “Effective Altruism” (recent book here). Effective Altruism began as a utilitarian-based movement in Oxford whose adherents committed to spending a significant share of their income on those causes that could be shown maximally to benefit the most people. They soon adopted an “earn to give” paradigm—encouraging young people to go into lucrative fields in order to maximize their giving potential, hence Samuel Bankman-Fried, who met MacAskill as an animal-rights activist undergraduate, finds cryptocurrency.
In recent years Effective Altruists have migrated away from providing immediate goods to living people (and other creatures), and toward considering projected goods for unknown future people, believed to be more consequential numerically, leading them into some of the murkier areas of techno-utopianism, attractive—as their quantitatively based approach to moral reasoning was at the outset—to Silicon Valley. When Bankman-Fried’s exchange and its enormous related philanthropic enterprises collapsed on November 11 on charges of defrauding customers, the question before Effective Altruism was: had he made a case internally that the benefit of cheating people to grow rich and give the money away computed out, or had he just fallen apart? MacAskill himself was quick to assert that he did not consider fraud a legitimate means of reaching desirable ends, but such an argument is not necessarily beyond the calculus of Effective Altruism. Meanwhile, the practice’s readiness to center world-altering decision-making in the hands of people of great wealth, encouraged to believe they are in possession of infallible criteria for evaluating the good, makes the practice vulnerable to such outcomes in a way that seems particularly of-our-moment. To wit, Elon Musk has appeared at Effective Altruism events and voiced his enthusiasm for the approach.
Our environment where the fate of institutions that shape what we read and learn is in the singular hands of men who have achieved power and riches by means that do not necessarily render them qualified for such expansive leadership seems very comfortable with the tenets of a mechanistic philosophy like Effective Altruism. I was struck by how accounts of Effective Altruism scorn philanthropy in the service of arts and education (though many of its adherents benefit from expensive educations themselves). There is an underlying confidence in the power of numbers and the objectivity and wisdom of those who wield them that seems blinkered in dangerous ways. Samuel Bankman-Fried had made significant investments and donations to media enterprises: Semafor, ProPublica, and Vox, which had a whole unit devoted to Effective Altruism. Bankman-Fried was said to be developing an alternative to Substack, to be populated by his friends. (Jeff Bezos also stepped into the forum of values formation last week by, in lieu of paying taxes, giving a $100,000 grant for “courage and civility” to Dolly Parton, who, we can’t deny, has been a wonderful force for literacy, but still, who asked you Jeff Bezos.) Meanwhile Harper and Row employees, as well as University of California graduate students and part-time faculty at The New School, are striking for a living wage.
One preoccupation of the “future-oriented” Effective Altruists is the threat of overreach by artificial intelligence. The Verge reported recently on legal challenges to “generative AI”’s use of existing creative content to train computers to imitate human artists. Meta AI released and took back an “open source large language model” that searches for and summarizes scientific papers, after widespread complaints that it reproduced prejudice and spread misinformation. MIT Technology Review characterized it as “a mindless bot that cannot tell fact from fiction,” saying that Meta and other companies working on “large language models” have been warned about the models’ dangers but in their “hubris” have failed to take warnings seriously. (Here’s a description of the sorts of AI tools that are coming online for writers now.)
Where will writing and deliberate thought find refuge as the tech companies, and their unilateral, unchallenged bosses, turn away from art and the written word, and dress all value decisions in the supposed universality of computation and fungibility? It will be nice for us if we can build walled gardens in which to celebrate the work we care about, but I wonder if that is enough for the rest of the world.
Last Wednesday at the National Book Awards (watch ceremony here), the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to was given to Art Spiegelman, whose graphic memoir Maus, has been banned from classrooms in Tennessee and Missouri, and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community went to executive director of the American Library Association Tracie D. Hall, who said, “Let history show of this period that librarians and the writers whose works they protect from being removed or erased were on the front lines in upholding our democracy.” PEN America Center reported last week that Missouri has banned nearly three hundred books since a new law criminalizing the provision of “explicit sexual material” to students went into effect in August.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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