It’s important to recognize, in beginning, that artificial intelligence is by nature often fictional. Computers only do what they are programmed to do — their seeming autonomy only attests to the effort put into endless optimizations and tweaking. And yet, at some point in the history of technology, computers stopped being tools and started assuming the status of beings with agency. We can see this with the rampant use of the word “smart” to describe comically fallible appliances with simple scripts written into them, or the reliance on algorithms as arbiters of human affairs. This assumption saturates culture to such an extent that technology has, in some cases, shifted into the cultural space usually reserved for magic and fiction. It’s possible that technology was always our replacement for magic to some extent — see the humanoid robots in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short stories in the 1820s. And as the world is increasingly covered by data-collecting devices and as algorithmic optimization is applied to every process and product, this enchantment spreads over the world like a thin film. The internet, in a little over 30 years, went from a communication protocol to a sprawling superstructure implicated in communication, supply chains and the minutiae of personal life.
In talking about the internet as an integrated entity, the language makes the jump from magical to religious, sometimes literally. The “Way Of The Future Church” was founded in 2017 by Anthony Levandowski, a self-driving car engineer who worked for Google and Uber. The organization’s one-page website is a manifesto that advocates for “creating a peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet from people to people plus ‘machines.’” It ends with some ominous statements: “We believe it may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is not.”
This manifesto bears a strange resemblance to Grimes’s recent single with the Japanese synthpop artist HANA, “We Appreciate Power.” The song is a piece of fictional propaganda for an AI regime, and includes lines like “people like to say that we’re insane / but AI will reward us when it reigns” underneath churning guitars reminiscent of Trent Reznor.
It’s very different from her previous music, which was sometimes collagistic and sometimes tightly constructed but always unapologetically idiosyncratic. To listen to her discography in order is to witness form and coherence being made on its own terms, from the amorphous, unreal first projects to the clarity of “Visions” to the full mastery of “Art Angels.” Her creative energies, which were always too self-directed to be contained by labels like “pop,” are here singularly trained on an industrial sound. The relatively constrained sound is mirrored by the specificity of her topic — her previous lyrics are thematically vague, sometimes deliberately obscured by reverb and delay.
It’s banal at this point to make the connection between “We Appreciate Power” and Grimes’s recent relationship with Elon Musk, the endlessly vexing CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. It has been speculated that the song is a declaration of what she finds attractive in the tech lord, but really it doesn’t seem to live in Musk’s world at all — he is quoted as saying that AI poses an existential threat to human society, and not in the seductive, death-drive way that Grimes seems to be aiming for.
What I think Levandowski and Grimes have in common is that they assume the position not of control over AI, but rather an appeal for allyship. Levandowski seems to be 100 percent sincere on his belief that technology will inevitably bring about an uncontrollable godhead, and he wants to get on its good side in the same way that Grimes’s fictional propaganda does.
At some point when considering this sort of thing, it starts to feel ridiculous to consider technology, no matter how extensive and powerful it is, as anything but a large collection of tools. That a coherent response to contemporary society is to pray to some vague entity that’s half globalized accelerationist capitalism and part atomized niche startup capitalism is… strange. It doesn’t bode well for the collective action necessary to reform a society headed toward disaster that we seem to view growth and progress as entities disembodied from human agency, like lost pieces of computer script, furiously iterating.