The Fetish of Intelligent Machines

Alan Díaz Alva
Pages 1–27| Published online: 17 March 2024

Díaz Alva, Alan. 2024. “The Fetish of Intelligent Machines:From Ilyenkov to the Neue Marx Lektüre.” Marxism & Sciences 3(1): 1–27.


Recent critical scholarship in the nascent field of critical AI studies has vigorously defended the thesis that the forms of ‘machine intelligence’ deployed by data-intensive capital today (such as machine learning and deep neural networks) depend for their existence on material factors that range from rare minerals to human subjectivity, experience and social practice broadly speaking. Thus, the alleged ‘intelligence’ or ‘smartness’ of these technologies is often denounced as a mystified appearance of objectified human activity that ought to be unveiled. While accepting the contemporary relevance and importance of these interventions, in this article I will explore a different line of critique. I will dwell on the idea that machines appear in a certain way in virtue of their social form and the social relations they are entangled with. I will argue that, instead of dismissing the idea of ‘intelligent machines’ as a mere ideological semblance, it is crucial to also ask why and how it is that machines appear as intelligent or as endowed with ‘intellectual life.’ In other words, I will not defend or critique the idea that machine intelligence might be, at bottom, objectified human activity; nor will I denounce the attribution of any kind of intelligence to machines as false. Rather, my purpose is to present the argument that intelligence appearing as an attribute of capitalist technology is not merely an illusion, but rather a necessary appearance of capital’s development. To develop this Marxist critique of the notion of machine intelligence, I will draw primarily from two theoretical sources. Firstly, the systematisation of Marx’s critique of fetishism developed by authors in the tradition of the Neue Marx Lektüre, particularly in Clara Ramas San Miguel’s recent work. I will try to show how such readings demonstrate the fetishism of machines as a strict continuity of the commodity fetish. Secondly, this will be complemented with Evald Ilyenkov’s theorisation of the ideal as a phase of social practice. While Ilyenkov did not treat the problem of fetishism in a systematic fashion, I argue that his account of the dialectical relation between thought and being is crucial to understand how knowledge can be ‘absorbed’ in technology and how it can subsequently assume a mystified socially objective appearance.

KEYWORDS: Fetishism, machine intelligence, Ilyenkov, the ideal, Neue Marx Lektüre.


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