I am obligated as both a musician and a very pessimistic futurist to write about the Twitter fight that musicians Grimes and Zola Jesus had recently. This snippet of drama is so tailor-made for me that in another world I’d have thought it was spat out by an algorithm designed to generate entertainment based on the contents of my brain.
I’d recommend looking through the tweets compiled in the Sterogum article linked above if you’re not familiar with this particular slab of fresh beef. To provide a brief summary, noted Elon Musk paramour Grimes posited that flesh-and-blood musicians would soon be obsolete in the face of music-making AI, and Zola Jesus retorted that to so glibly speak of one’s own redundancy, one must be sure that they will be sheltered by the technocratic elite when this Kurzweilian singularity eventually occurs.
I agree with Zola Jesus’ assessment here – it is a callous thing for a musician, especially one who is also intimately familiar with grueling tours and the pervasive poverty among creatives, to say that the end of not only the music industry but the end of relevant human creativity is is simply an interesting diversion along the way to some techno-utopia where humankind will live blissfully amongst the technologies that will also put it out to pasture. However, callousness isn’t what I’m concerned with here.
On a personal level, I’ve been worried about Grimes for a while.
A friend of mine, another cultural critic, has a theory that Grimes has been conceptualizing herself as the protagonist of an imagined ’90s anime. She’s the heroine who crawls into the maw of danger, in this case the laps of the elite, with the intention of staging a revolution against the forces of evil from the inside out. She’s Utena, and Usagi, and every other chipper young woman with colorful hair who was called upon by prophecy to lead humanity into a world of light. However, somewhere along the way she lost the thread. The belly of the beast became a safe enclave. Protected by power and influence, removed from the drudgery of her origins, she decided to save herself instead of everyone else, and now exists as a novelty for her compatriot-captors, a whimsical thing who reads Sun Tzu (likely at their behest – I know the type of book that gets recommended at parties hosted by people in that community) and makes a music video about it only semi-ironically. She knows she has followed a point-for-point villain origin story, and builds this into her mythology. She brands herself as a product of big tech, with Musk at the center. She assumes his logos, she calls him her creator. She is soaking up their ideologies and parroting their rhetoric. When she says “I’m not dying on a hill, just having a good time” followed by “Seems weird to withhold ideas, and even weirder that suggesting potential futures can cause so much rage” she is gaslighting in the way they do, implying that everyone who hasn’t drank their particular flavor of Kool-Aid is small-minded, that they hasn’t yet left Plato’s cave. She is using the same patronizing language that a troll on r/askphilosophy would use to explain why he is smarter and more enlightened than you, a tactic which is designed to provoke rage, thus rendering you “irrational” and deserving of scorn if you take the bait. She might as well have just written “triggered”.
And yet, I feel for her. When I was introduced to rationalism it made me feel powerful and clever too, like I had entered some agora of true knowledge, unencumbered by the virtue signaling of the left, that would reveal the secrets of the future to me as well. I spent a month absorbing their texts like a sponge and then the next one wringing myself out and discarding the irrelevant or harmful ideas. R/sneerclub was helpful for targeting toxic ideologies, and I relied on the the works of James Hillman and the guidance of a local occultist to keep my wits about me. Importantly, I made sure to do these things in isolation. I only started hanging out in the actual rationalist community once I was sure I had mastered the language and understood the discourse, and had studied the damage that could be done from eating it up wholesale. Grimes’ assessments lack ideological nuance and discipline purity. She sounds like someone who is in the thick of it, parroting things she heard at the last meetup because they sound cool and provocative, dog-whistling the accelerationists and the Dark Enlightenment in the process, which, as we all read recently, is a dangerous game to play. But if cozying up to them nets her more power, more influence, more safety? Win-win.
In I Wear The Black Hat, author Chuck Klosterman provided the most functional definition of villainy I’ve seen recently, wherein he states that a villain is the person who, in the face of an atrocity, knows the most but cares the least. Grimes meets the criteria here. She is on the inside, with access to resources most musicians can only dream of, and trade secrets that could damn large swaths of the tech industry. It is rather unrealistic to expect her to share those resources – after all, this isn’t actually an anime, and we don’t actually do socialism like that. However, her blatant indulgences, her “scientific” talking points that bulldoze not just her former contemporaries but all human ingenuity itself, her wet dream vision of the apocalypse – that’s textbook. That’s character acting.
I recently finished Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts, a novella about a generation ship that has been traveling through uncharted space for eons, with a powerful AI at its helm. Its cargo is a crew of humans the size of a small city, a mere half-dozen of whom are spun out of suspended animation every few millenia to aid the AI with wormhole navigation. The crew members wonder why the AI would ever need them, and it is tacitly decided that human creativity, or even just impulsivity, cannot be replicated even by the most advanced artificial entities. A human’s knack for novel decision-making might be the only thing that ensures the ship’s survival, and the survival of the last remnants of the human race slumbering within its hull. I much prefer this sort of speculative future to one that disregards human agency, whimsy and unpredictability, writing off what makes us unique as irrelevant. We are messy animals, and geniuses, and I still have some hope for a future where we can stare down the barrel of AI supremacy and say “betcha can’t do this.”