AI portraits, metaverse fashion and killing robots: a natural catastrophe?

by Donatella Gasparro.

Even before embracing degrowth and becoming generally critical of the mainstream conception of linear “progress”, I’ve always been sceptical about relentless unquestioned technological innovation. I thus do not necessarily attribute my allergic reaction to recent high-tech news and talks to my relatively fresh radicalization, but to a much older, maybe ancestral hunch, which I hope to share with more people.

We’ve been hearing lots of curious news recently from the world of what we more strictly tend to call “technology”. Artificial intelligence bots have been having fascinating conversations with twitter users, or making beautiful portraits based on selfies, enraging artists worldwide; the virtual world of the metaverse is attracting millions in virtual land investments, with even digital fashion brands being born; and maybe much scarier news come from police forces embracing robots for control (but luckily being stopped by citizens).

Now, this conversation could go in a thousand directions, as I do have many opinions. And you do too, and most people do as well, unsurprisingly. And possibly, a lot of people on the left progressive spectrum share the feeling that many of these developments, though some more than others, are… fundamentally undesirable. Nonetheless, lately, when conversing on these topics with close friends and seeing related discussions in alternative news outlets, I have been, again and again, met with conclusions along the lines of, more or less: “Well, whether we like or not, this is the direction we‘re going, and it is going to happen anyways.”

I am no sociologist of technology, nor a philosopher of science, or a philosopher of any kind for that matter. But I have a pressing question: what is this surrendering to technological innovations as if they are some uncontrollable force majeure? None of this is happening on its own.
There is no such thing as “oh, it’s happening anyways”. It is not “happening”, they’re not tsunamis, nor natural catastrophes (although, arguably they may be catastrophes).
It is people making this happen. What’s more, there is no “we”. It’s rather misleading to even say it is people making it happen – it is only some people, and those are strikingly few.

I call for a rapid dismantling of this fatalist speech. I call for standing our ground against corporate futuristic narratives that fundamentally undermine democracy. I call for a reappropriation of our shared future, a radical problematization of technological decision making, a collective refusal of dystopian inevitability. If we think that this is happening anyways, how do we even pretend to live under more or less democratic institutions? If we don’t have any control over what we’re producing, if we don’t have a say in what’s okay and what is really not, how can we be at peace with the status quo? We, at the very least, should not accept this direction as the only possible one that “is happening anyways”. At the very least, we must refuse to embrace harmful, useless, wasteful technology as a given part of our future.

It goes without saying that investing in the metaverse is a ridiculous waste of resources in the midst of a planetary socio-ecological crisis, that killer robots are absolutely unacceptable and that luxury fashion brands shouldn’t even exist in real life, let alone in an imaginary virtual world. While I understand it is hard to go and stop Zuckerberg from his visionary hallucinations, I say it is relatively easy to stop swallowing them as the holy inevitable manna of a superior god-like entity.

This is ultimately an unpretentious call for watching our speech, and training our thoughts, as the first necessary step for a re-appropriation of the very realm of technology, and the decisions surrounding it. The very first step of a long uphill hike towards convivial tools that serve humans, instead of subjugating them. To conclude, I leave here an antidote to the metaverse (no paid partnership involved), and a low-tech idea to keep you warm, in case you are, like me, in the cold North.


Donatella Gasparro is a PhD student in Economic Geography at the Institute for Geography of the University of Münster, Germany. With a background in agroecology, she’s now finishing the master’s in Political Ecology, Degrowth & Environmental Justice at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Her research focuses on radically re-imagining the economy in rural hinterlands, with a focus on the South of Italy.

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.