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  • Lex van der steen

AI and the Production of the Common

In a short essay named Production and Distribution of the Common, Michael Hardt responds to the relation between aesthetics and politics as elaborated by Jacques Rancière. In light of this relation, Hardt’s intention is to additionally point out how contemporary society is increasingly defined by the production of the immaterial common. By doing so, Hardt is able to pose new questions concerning the political potential of the artistic practice. Hardt’s essay was first published in 2009, and since then much has changed. Here I will take the opportunity to very briefly reflect upon the line of thought that is established in Hardt’s essay, and, by taking into account some of the recent technological developments, posit new questions.

For Rancière, within both aesthetics and politics operates a ‘distribution of the sensible’. Hardt quotes Rancière, who writes that he calls “the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of the common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (Rancière, 2004, p. 7). Rancière goes on writing that “A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts” (ibidem). The distribution of the sensible concerns a certain a priori of what can be seen, said, and heard (and what remains unseen, unsaid and unheard), and by whom. For example, in many societies, the complaints, aspirations and interests of certain groups, like immigrants, ethnic minorities, and the poor, are and remain unrecognized – or rather: unseen and unheard. Simultaneously, these groups are then often perceived as lazy and ignorant. The ‘distribution of the sensible’ (le partage du sensible) establishes a common, something that is shared in common, something which can be sensed by a community, and also establishes what this something is, and thus also what it is not (or whom). Note that the French verb partage has two meanings, which are both operative in this case: sharing and dividing.

Hardt writes that “Rancière thus establishes not an immediate link between politics and aesthetics, but a parallel operation they both enact on the common” (Hardt, 2012, p. 48). Within the domain of aesthetics, artistic practices, like the visual arts, can disclose shared elements of the visual, like particular ways of seeing, while simultaneously drawing a line between the visible and the invisible. An artwork can reveal ways of looking at the world, but by doing so it also makes a certain selection of what it renders sensible (a single artwork cannot disclose all of existence, nor all ways of approaching it). Within the domain of politics, the ‘distribution of the sensible’ manifests itself rather in the delineation and accessibility of a community’s wealth, power, knowledge, and resources. The distribution of the sensible, again, both in aesthetics and politics, reveals who has a part in the common.

The central point of Hardt’s reaction to Rancière’s idea of the distribution of the sensible is that today “The common is dynamic and artificial, produced through a wide variety of social circuits and encounters” (Hardt, 2012, p. 49). Hardt points out that the notion of the common often refers to natural land and resources. Despite his specific understanding of the ‘common’, the idea that the common is something given, something that already exists before its distribution, also applies to Rancière’s understanding of the common, according to Hardt. Together with Antonio Negri, Hardt deviates from this understanding of the common by arguing that “we are in the midst of a shift of the dominant or hegemonic form of economic production from the industrial to the immaterial or biopolitical” (Hardt, 2012, p. 50). This is not a quantitative claim, since the majority of economic production could still be industrial. Rather, for Negri and Hardt the hegemonic form of economic production is that one which imposes its qualities over other forms of production, like, for example, how in the mid-nineteenth century agriculture had to industrialize by adopting the qualities of industrial production. The hegemonic form of economic production, according to Hardt, is shifting towards the immaterial or biopolitical, which refers for him to “various sectors of the economy in which are produced goods that are in large portion immaterial, including information, ideas, knowledge, languages, communication, images, codes and affects” (ibidem). What characterizes these forms of immaterial production is, according to Hardt, that they centralize the production of the common. The internet is a perfect example of such an ‘information common’. The information, images, texts, websites, videos, articles, etcetera, that make up the internet, now make up the common around which the currently hegemonic form of economic production centers. As such, for Hardt, the common is not natural, but produced.

Thus, Hardt argues that today, under the hegemony of immaterial and biopolitical production, politics and aesthetics not only divide the common, but also produce it. This new type of common is no longer defined by scarcity (natural resources are limited), and therefore, according to Hardt, it no longer requires the same strict sense of property and its logic of exclusion and inclusion. While using something like a house excludes others from using it, images, ideas, and other types of immaterial common can be used simultaneously by an unlimited amount of people. The immaterial common rather requires accessibility and sharing to be most productive. Sharing things like ideas and knowledge, or even social relations, stimulates the creation and productivity of the immaterial common. This type of exchange and production is inherently something social. Therefore,

Instead of thinking of the endpoint of capitalist production in terms of commodities, in other words, and considering capital as a thing, this forces us to consider capital as a social relation, as Marx suggested, and to recognize capitalist production as the (re)production of social relations. Commodity production seen in this light is really just a midpoint in the production of social relations and forms of life. (Hardt, 2012, p. 52)

The biopolitical element of this new hegemonic mode of production lies in the fact that, according to Hardt, economic production and political action become increasingly harder to differentiate, since immaterial products are, in contrast to material ones, not exhausted by their instrumental goal. Economic production becomes increasingly more characterized by language and speech and does not find its end in a concrete product, but rather encompasses a continuous and endless (re)production of social relations, immaterial products, and forms of life (like politics).

As such, Hardt adds the economic dimension to Rancière’s connection between aesthetics and politics. None of these fully overlap, but rather are all connected, exactly as Rancière already argued about aesthetics and politics, through a similar logic of relating to the common. Yet, this logic now no longer concerns division and sharing (partage), but rather production and sharing: “All three domains – art, politics and economics – are thus linked via the common and oriented towards the production of social relations and forms of life” (Hardt, 2012, p. 54).

What Hardt wants to emphasize is the creative aspect of the creation of the common that has now turned out to be pivotal. The artistic practice now overlaps with economic production and politics insofar all are oriented towards the production (creation) of the common. It is for this reason, for example, that art biennales have popped up in more and more cities over the last decades, and that cities everywhere seek to brand themselves as ‘creative’. Similarly, the placement of artists and artistic institutions within certain areas has become one of the most important tools for gentrification (the increase of a neighborhood's economic value through strategic city planning). Artistic and economic production overlap more and more. Therefore, according to Hardt, “the skills and talents for artistic practice are increasingly the same ones required for economic production” (ibidem). As such, Hardt comes to conclude his essay with a couple of interesting questions, which he does not try to answer for now:

What possibilities are opened in the biopolitical context by the recognition that artistic practice and political action are both engaged in the production and distribution of the common? Does this relation provide a means for artists to participate, through their artistic practice, in the many contemporary political struggles around the world in defence of the common, for an equitable distribution of the common, and for autonomy in the production of the common? ... How can ... artistic skills and talents be deployed in a democratic project of the defence, production and distribution of the common? (Hardt, 2012, p. 55)

As Hardt mentions himself, artists are probably more qualified to respond to these questions.

Now, the work of Hardt (and Negri) is interesting and valuable enough by itself. Yet, I have lately been wondering what the effects of certain technological developments are and will be for this line of thought. As such, I simply will add some questions to the line of thought put out so far.

If AI will get used more and more for producing large amounts of new images, texts, services, codes, art and perhaps even ideas, won’t the creative aspect of the production of the common get lost, or at least affected in a qualitative way? And, as a result of that, won’t the potential of the artists and workers to engage in the ‘democratic project of defence, production and distribution of the common’ get lost or affected as well? Asking these questions within this line of thought emphasizes a certain danger that looms in the rise of AI: the inability of individuals and particular groups of people to act against oppressive and problematic societal structures, specifically those that are associated with capitalism, through their work and practices. For a moment perhaps, it seemed as if the immaterial production concerned jobs and practices that could not be replaced by artificial means, like the creation of art and speech. And perhaps that on the basis of this assumption Hardt’s claim that ‘the skills and talents for artistic practice are increasingly the same ones required for economic production’ seemed to have powerful consequences. If indeed economic production requires those skills and practices that currently cannot be appropriated or owned in the same way machines can be, but always are part of the worker and its form of life, then one can argue that this development can offer hope and ‘a means for artists to participate, through their artistic practice, in the many contemporary political struggles around the world in defence of the common, for an equitable distribution of the common, and for autonomy in the production of the common’, because in that case the artist of worker has become the indispensable producer of the common. Yet, it seems that the current developments of AI have shown that many jobs which used to be perceived as practices that could impossibly be taken over by machines, can actually be done by AI.

If the common is no longer ‘given’, but rather produced, and the production is not in hands of workers but of machines that are owned and used by a few, has the situation not gotten worse? A point that could be brought against this direction of thinking is that AI is not used by a few, but is open and accessible. As such, one could say that AI does not replace workers in the production of the common, but is only a tool that actually makes the production of the immaterial common easier and more accessible. AI, in that sense, could be understood as a democratizing element. For example, the creation of animation or animated pictures can now be done by a group of people that is much larger than the group of those that could do these things before. Almost anyone can access tools like ChatGPT and benefit from their power.

Perhaps then, what can be said is the following: AI can contribute to the creative possibilities that Hardt and Negri designate in the production of the immaterial common, but to do so it needs to remain accessible. Yet, I remain having some concerns. What if a tool that offers a possibility, turns into a necessity? What if the skills of the workers and artists that create the immaterial common, are slowly lost, or at least have become rarer or harder to maintain, due to the introduction of a tool that does the work for them? Does the introduction of AI, and the possibility of doing certain tasks with way less time and skill, contribute to the overall acceleration of society? And does this further acceleration not make it harder for people to maintain, develop or use certain skills, like writing texts, drawing images or creating animation ‘the old way’, because doing so would result in them not keeping up with the accelerated pace of the market? In other words, will the increased acceleration stimulated by the introduction of AI, not make the use of AI indispensable for workers to keep up and make a living? And does this not create a situation in which workers are dependent on machines that they don’t actually own (or understand, given its immense complexity)? Again, if AI is a necessity instead of a mere possibility, does it still have a liberating, democratizing effect? Perhaps, the opposite is true. Perhaps a certain freedom-limiting dependence on AI will be created, since without the use of AI, workers will not be able to keep up with the acceleration caused by its introduction. Being part of the creation of the common will be less and less an opportunity, and increasingly more of a necessity, a limit. Another closely related concern would be that in this case the workers are subjected to the will of a few. Because, won’t there most likely remain people that ‘own’ the machines of AI? And won’t those people have the power to, at any time, withhold the accessibility of AI from the workers that rely on it, thereby indirectly excluding them from the economic relations that allow for their basic needs?

This is a wave of perhaps too pessimistic questions. I hope they are too pessimistic. Again, AI will undoubtedly create new opportunities for humanity. I just want to share some specific concerns, that is, thoughts. These relate to the specific topic of the (potentially artistic) production of the immaterial common. I have way more concerns about AI to be honest, some of which are much darker and bleak than these ones. These are just thoughts that have been thought by me, and can be thought by you or anyone else as well. I think and hope that sharing and thinking these concerns collectively will stimulate the actions that are needed to make these technologies less dangerous and more salutary. For now, what seems to me to be an important step in countering the possible scenarios I just reflected on is the care we can give to our manual skills. Without disavowing the potential of AI, we should remain in contact with our abilities to create, whether these are texts, images, or speech, without the use of the highly complex tools that are available today. Make sure that you, up to a certain, know how to, for example, write or draw. Let’s try to keep on making things with as little as prefabricated tools as possible. And, more importantly, I believe we can actually have a lot of fun doing so.


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