Can we escape the world of bits? Patrick T. Fallon/AFP Getty Images

March 21, 2024   6 mins

It has been an intense few months for OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Having survived an attempted coup, he is now looking to accelerate his artificial intelligence revolution. His next step is to raise $7 trillion in investment capital to build the chip factories needed to power the next wave of major advances. Should Altman get anywhere close to raising this astronomical sum, and creating the physical and energy infrastructure he envisions, it would amount to nothing less than a private, Silicon Valley-based, one-man industrial revolution.

Such grandiose schemes are nothing new in the tech world: after all, Elon Musk has dreamed of colonising Mars, while Peter Thiel is said to aspire to immortality. But what is significant about Altman’s trillion-dollar moonshot is that it would put him in competition with another powerful actor: the United States government. Under both Trump and Biden, the White House has pursued a policy of re-industrialisation.

For ultimately, Altman’s plans may be compared to the bipartisan CHIPs Act in their ambition. And if successful, they would address many of the underlying strategic issues that the US government is seeking to resolve, such as the danger of falling behind China in the long-term race for AI and manufacturing supremacy, or the risk posed by a microchip shortage in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, Altman is requesting Washington’s backing for his venture, most probably in anticipation of the major national security and legal antitrust objections that his gambit is likely to raise. (He is also seeking funds from foreign governments such as the UAE.)

Yet despite the apparent convergence in goals between Washington and OpenAI, there is, in fact, a stark choice to be made between them. As Thiel said, there is a great difference between progress in the world of bits and progress in the world of atoms. The problem is that while American society has had no problem churning out “innovations” of an increasingly dubious social utility in the former, it has struggled to produce any comparable achievements in the latter. While an endless stream of apps and content has inundated consumers since the advent of the Web 2.0, the material foundations of America — its electrical grid, basic infrastructure, industrial hardware, national defence base, and more generally, its collective capacity to produce material goods — has declined into obsolesce. Boeing’s string of engineering failures is just the latest example. Or, as Thiel put it a decade ago: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

And while OpenAI’s generative AI products, from ChatGPT to Sora, might appear more impressive than a 140-character tweet, they carry the same fundamental premise: large-scale innovation in the West is now something that mostly takes place in a non-corporeal universe mediated by screens. Contrary to futurist discourse promising science fiction-like visions of a radically more expansive and technically advanced built environment, Silicon Valley has instead delivered infinite arrays of two-dimensional spectacle combined with total civilisational stagnation in the crumbling three-dimensional world. Indeed, its technologies have had the effect of warping and undermining society’s shared notions of reality. And herein lies the problem with the prospect of a new industrial revolution led by Altman and his fellow travellers: it threatens to supercharge the explosion of content in the world of bits, while the accompanying benefits in the world of atoms remain vague to non-existent.

At this point, Americans must ask themselves, to what ends should America’s vast capital and energy resources be directed? Should they be devoted to perpetuating the existing bit-centred economy, which has made Americans stupider and more addicted to short-term stimulus? Or should they be marshalled toward the construction of a new paradigm, one where an atom-centred American civilisation is once again engaged in the making and building of things in the physical realm?

The present status quo goes by many names: the “information age”, “the knowledge economy”, “the Californian Ideology”, “network society”, etc. These slogans, most of which were popularised in the Nineties, reflected the late 20th-century transition from an industrial economy to a post-industrial one grounded in non-material commodities such as digital software, financial products, media franchises, and other forms of intellectual property. In this view, the old worlds of industry and mass manufacturing could safely be relegated to developing economies, while developed ones fully immersed themselves in the more advanced and enlightened forms of production, that of information, ever more abstracted from actual people and places.

The elite of this economy is, of course, Silicon Valley, which not only gave us the commercial internet, social media, smartphones and generative AI applications — but also the cultural values that came with them. The promise underlying them had always been to bring the world closer together and to allow humanity to be freer and more creative than ever before. The ethos propounded by Altman, Musk and others at OpenAI’s founding in 2015 carried many of the same liberatory and messianic undertones.

“The monumental computing power Altman dreams of likely wouldn’t be used to build anything real.”

Yet rather than creating dialogue, digital echo chambers have left society more fragmented than ever before. Humans, especially young people, have become more depressed and socially atomised due to their dependence on screens, while nearly every domain of public life, from politics to culture and artistic self-expression, is now governed by the law of the algorithm. What’s more, the latest advances in AI technology have rendered many “knowledge economy” professions, including lawyers, creative professionals, financial analysts, and software developers vulnerable to displacement by automated counterparts. (The irony is that blue-collar workers may end up suffering the least from AI replacement.)

In other words, the commanding heights of the knowledge economy are, for the first time, directly endangered by the fruits of their own celebrated innovations, namely Artificial Intelligence. Understood in this context, the trajectory of re-industrialisation under Altman would represent the culmination of these post-material and post-human currents. The monumental computing power he dreams of likely wouldn’t be used to build anything real, like in the first Industrial Revolution, but would rather be deployed toward the further subsuming of human society into the endless virtual realities.

The scale of this human-AI “merge” would not just extend to jobs but to some of the most intimately human roles: AI friends, AI lovers, AI philosophers, and eventually AI gods and godheads. One of the most popular memes in “accelerationist” circles is of a future civilisation of self-replicating AIs harvesting energy through a web of Dyson Spheres in space. It is telling because there are no humans left — their minds presumably having been merged with the singularity — and consciousness itself has been entirely disembodied. This is not a sinister conspiracy, but a vision openly aspired to by many in Silicon Valley — and one that Altman’s microchip industrial complex would surely help to realise.

But there is another, competing vision of American re-industrialisation, which can be found on both sides of the political aisle. Donald Trump has spoken of raising magnificent new “Freedom Cities” out of the American wilderness, while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called for the building of “a clean-energy manufacturing ecosystem rooted in supply chains here in North America”. Whether distilled through Right-wing populist MAGA-ism or the progressive industrial policies of Bidenomics, the common thrust of this emerging paradigm has been to reconstruct the 20th-century industrial economy of atoms for the 21st century, and to recover the strategic technological and manufacturing edge that was squandered to China after the Cold War. These precepts would provide a much firmer and saner basis for launching an industrial renaissance than Altman’s bit-centric blueprint.

This is not to say that there is no place for AI in this version of industrial renewal. Rather, a properly materialist approach would take a discerning and qualified approach to AI that channels its awesome powers toward productive uses in the real economy rather than to the diversionary “attention economy”. It could be used to enhance and synthesise everything from research-and-development, next-generation manufacturing and construction to advanced energy and resource extraction methods. Under this new paradigm, America’s decaying cities would be transformed into a dramatically more abundant material and built environment, closer to what science fiction has imagined.

The reality is far different. For instance, it is no surprise that tech capitals such as San Francisco and Palo Alto are some of the most unyielding bastions of Nimby-ism in the country, embodying the engrained post-materialist instincts of the tech world to a tee. Perhaps AI could be employed to streamline the cumbersome bureaucratic approval processes that stand in the way of new construction in these places.

But how can we hope to get there? More than a century ago, the German polymath Oswald Spengler dedicated his magnum opus, The Decline of the West, to charting the fall of “Faustian Man”, who, he argued, had dominated the Western imagination for centuries, and whose distinguishing mark was the perpetual conquest of space. It is fairer to say, however, that the Faustian spirit didn’t so much vanish as migrate from the West to the East. For in China today, the ruling party has presided over a titanic effort at reshaping physical space: entire metropolises have been ordered into existence while the most advanced industrial and computer technologies are being pioneered at a rate that puts the West to shame. Meanwhile, the party-state commands its tech sector to cut down on video games and social media fads — the precise opposite, in other words, of what goes on in America.

The choice is thus between post-Faustian man, embodied by Sam Altman and his apostles, who will complete the mind’s retreat into the realm of bits; and what may be called “Neo-Faustian man”, illustrated by Xi Jinping and China’s leadership, who is most intent on preserving, in the classical sense, human mastery over the world of atoms. As America enters a new industrial epoch, its citizens can only hope for their own “Neo-Faustian” genius, albeit one who is attuned to the values and best traditions of the West. Or else, they risk seeing material reality itself slip from their fingers — forever.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.