In a talk on the immanent climate collapse, the famous climate activist and writer George Monbiot vividly describes how everything that society is built on depends on the continuous functioning of the complex planetary climate systems – everything that is loved and hated, every dream and desire, every thought and plan. If these systems become unstable or collapse, everything else will break down as well. Worryingly, this is not a distant scenario anymore, but lies within the near future.
This daunting reality can be attributed to the mechanisms of the current economic system, its energy-wasting drive for profits and its resources-consuming extractivism. This destructive instrumentalization of nature is fundamentally rooted in the processes of capitalism, which “make Nature’s elements ‘cheap’ in price” and “render [it] inferior in an ethico-political sense” as Jason W. Moore puts it in his book “Anthropocene or Capitalocene?”.
In this respect, we as researchers, activists, and journalists face the challenge of continuously elaborating and making clear that capitalism as a whole must be overcome – be it carbon-capitalism or its newer, flashier version green capitalism in whose shadow a companion capitalist form is emerging, but, and this is the starting point for my intervention, so far has largely been neglected in regards to the climate crisis: AI capitalism, a term that has been coined by Nick Dyer-Witheford as well as Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki in 2019/2022, albeit with somewhat different intentions.
The rise of AI capitalism
Many of the largest and most valuable corporations around the globe – such as Google, Amazon, Meta, Baidu, Tencent and others – are AI companies. In recent years, AI – in the general public-facing understanding including various Machine Learning algorithms and other practices of data analysis – has become a fundamental part of the economy. It now has the standing of a general-purpose technology which is put to use, often provided by these leading companies, across the economy in a wide range of fields.
AI has reached such importance, that one may even call it a general condition of production in Marxist terminology. Or, to paraphrase Timo Daum: Artificial intelligence is now the latest machine of modern capitalism. That is, AI technologies are the most important tools to process and capitalize on the vast amounts of data that today are collected virtually everywhere. All of this data then, by being algorithmically connected, becomes a commodity known as Big Data. In the current form of capitalism, this commodity is the central asset for making profits – it constitutes the essence of economic activity. This activity of extracting, evaluating and valorizing data essentially depends on AI technologies. In short, AI in virtue of Big Data has become a fundamentally defining process of contemporary capitalism.
But despite these fundamental shifts within the economic system, AI capitalism has not yet received much attention when it comes to the climate crisis. The propaganda of green capitalists has it that ‘the digital’ is generally “clean,” “climate neutral,” and does not constitute any genuinely new challenges for the climate. Countering this propaganda, the main criticism of AI capitalism is attributed to the massive resource consumption of the underlying infrastructures and the ever more conspicuous technologies they represent. Such a critique essentially goes back to and targets the inherent problems of the capitalist system at large, its drive for profits and its planetary extractivism. However, putting these valid and necessary discussions aside, AI capitalism also brings with it other aggravating amplifiers of the climate crisis that are not usually voiced. What is frequently overseen is that the data extractivism of AI technologies bears its very own and unique problems for climate justice and environmental action.
Data extractivism and future building
One of these problems I take up here: In virtue of the all-pervasive practices of data extraction – that is the accumulation, evaluation, and exploitation of immense amounts of data – AI capitalism fundamentally aims at creating a controllable future. In her book on surveillance capitalism Shoshana Zuboff pointedly describes that one of the starting points of this endeavor was Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Due to Google's intention, information that would normally age and fall into oblivion now remains forever young. In this way, data extractivism aggregates, stores, and makes available the past and the present. Most importantly, it also shapes the future on this basis. In its aggregation and application, Big Data and predictive algorithms are helping corporate and governmental players to capture collective consciousness – massively influencing our perception of the world, its crises, and possible ways out – and hence appropriate, even build the future. In other words, AI technologies are increasingly determining what lies ahead; they determine what data subjects will see, where they will live, where they will travel, what they will buy, and, ultimately, how they will act upon emergencies.
As Shoshana Zuboff describes, such predictive analytics now enable markets that deal exclusively in human futures. Using Big Data and AI to make the uncertainties created by human action manageable, and to thus create a future of minimal uncertainty is what legal scholar Antoinette Rouvroy describes as “data behaviorism.” This means that the future is not merely predicted – in the sense of anticipating election results or the like. But, the future is being actively built and determined – in the sense of Google determining what information you can see, or banks and health insurance companies denying their services to you as they predict you to be uncreditworthy or at risk of health issues. What is important here is that this future is almost exclusively made for the imperatives of AI capitalism. As Jathan Sadowski frames it, the decided goal of the AI-based future building is to “terraform” a society for Big Tech to thrive.
Crucially, within this future – still dominated by the interests of capital – there is no space for climate action or for a just transition. Despite claims to the contrary, such issues are pushed to the edges. The visions of AI capitalism are in fact geared only towards a privileged group of people, namely those who are included in the objectives of Big Tech, who can adequately use their services and afford them. For instance, Adrian Daub describes in his book “What tech calls thinking”, how the mobility services of Lyft and Uber only work for people who own a smartphone, know how to use it, and also own a credit card needed to install their apps. Thus, the fantasies of data extractivism constitute a restrictive and self-determined project where other needs and perspectives are repressed and excluded.
The climate crisis is, of course, not a concern for this capital-driven project. Rather, as Jonathan Beller distinctly describes, data extractivism acts as a form of radical dispossession that especially expropriates the marginalized and the Global South. As Beller puts it, the result is a “totalitarian systemic practice despite the relatively clear facts that the earth is headed towards environmental catastrophe and that two billion people … are even now laboring to survive actually existing Armageddon.” While carbon capitalism stole and still steals the planetary future, the technological developments of AI capitalism continue this theft – and add an extra layer by colonizing the future at the level of collective consciousness: based on algorithmically-calculated models of a perfect, that is, less uncertain and more green tomorrow, recommendations and directives are being dictated for the here now. Needless to say, the underlying promise of a better planet to come is a false one. This future is dictated by the visions of AI capitalists – visions that do not include the climate crisis nor the interests of the marginalized and of those most affected.
The visions of AI capitalism
But what are the visions of AI capitalism and where is this future headed? Already in 1993, critical technology and feminist scholar Sue Curry Jansen put into words what could not have been better predicted: “‘Astronauts’ preparing to exit the planet with ‘golden parachutes’ are not to be trusted to mend the hole in the ozone layer,” and we “can no longer afford to leave the boys alone with their toys.” About 30 years later, “the boys” – which Jansen sweepingly calls the Western male elite, i.e. the scientists, technologists and business entrepreneurs at the forefront of AI capitalism – were left alone for far too long. They have literally become astronauts who are at once trying to conquer the climate crisis with their AI solutions and technofixes.
In 2021, Jeff Bezos – the founder of Amazon, one of the largest players in AI capitalism – went to space, while his company supposedly aims to become CO2-neutral. The rocket launch of Bezos took place at a time in which parts of the Amazon forest – one of the largest CO2 sinks of the world – started to emit CO2 rather than absorbing it. This paints an almost caricature-like picture of reality: The new Amazon of AI capitalism is superseding the old Amazon forest. Simultaneously, Elon Musk, digital technologist and entrepreneur par excellence, is working on colonizing Mars, while his company Tesla is at the forefront of ostensibly “sustainable” mobility. And aren’t their counterparts in the Gulf region driven by a similar delusional escapism?
Clearly, while the boys and their toys have succeeded to convince the masses that they are saving the planet with their techno-solutionism, they are in fact facilitating a continuously worsening crisis. This provides only a small glimpse of the futures that lie ahead of us.
The co-founder of Google, Larry Page, envisioned that you should never have to ask Google questions. Rather, the search engine should always know and give you the answer before you can even ask the question. He thus precisely describes the ideal of a foreclosed future that is controlled by AI corporations. It is a vision built on a capital-oriented epistemology and substantiated by data extractivism. In its extreme this can also be observed in Facebook’s rebranding as ‘Meta’ and the company’s version of a ‘Metaverse’. In classical AI capitalist fashion, the company essentially aims to create a whole new digital world, where everything you could need, want or imagine is possible and within reach, always provided and predicted by them.
Thus, when thinking about a just transition towards ‘better futures,’ it is crucial to realize that terraformed societies leave little space for environmental action, both on a systemic and individual level. It is hard for subjects to escape the image of reality that is produced by AI capitalism foreclosing the futures they can move into. Within these visions, the climate crisis becomes a distant and abstract feature of a world that is seemingly overridden and ruled by data extractivist dreams. The climate crisis and attempts towards just climate action are thus obscured and neglected – or belittled by greenwashing. Ultimately, they remain hidden in the mist of Big Data’s epistemology and are pushed aside in AI capital’s movement towards the future. These often-neglected obstacles are important to keep in mind, when aiming to dismantle the structures underlying the status quo.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Paul Schütze is a research assistant in the Ethics of AI research group at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück. In his research he focuses on the structure and functioning of digital capitalism and its connections to the climate crisis. Particularly, he is interested in the textures of power and subjectivation in the age of Big Data.