Of Course Artificial-Intelligence Startups Are Helping Businesses Fake Diversity

Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Ill. March 26, 2019. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)
Where “identity” is commoditized, diversity becomes just another product to buy and sell.

Pity the man who hates markets. Attempt to do away with them, a la Stalin in the ’30s or Mao in the ’50s, and the rabble will begin to trade illegally. Maintain a command economy long enough, and reformers will arise to push the pendulum in the other direction. So powerful are market forces, in fact, that they direct the politics of 21st-century America as plainly as 20th-century Russia and China. Just as Stalinism created the conditions that would yield Nikita Khrushchev and Maoism the soil in which Deng Xiaoping would grow, so the commodity that is Donald Trump was bought by a people disappointed with the inauthenticity of previous electoral “purchases.” For every need, a product.

That (the appearance of) diversity is one of the needs of our time is a fact evident to anyone who examines a marketing brochure or glances at an institutional website. So necessary is the presence of men and women “of color” in such materials that more than one organization has stumbled hilariously in the attempt to provide it. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, came under fire some years ago for attempting to photoshop a young black man into a picture of students celebrating at a football game. More recently, the University of Texas-Arlington and the cereal brand Curves have been accused of doctoring images in the pursuit of diversity-office compliance.

(Note to General Mills: Swapping out a Caucasian model’s head is insufficient if her exposed midriff remains white.)

So numerous are the instances of inclusivity-related fakery that scholars have begun to connect it to a larger phenomenon — what Nancy Leong of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law has called “racial capitalism.” According to Leong, racial capitalism is at work whenever one person or group derives “social and economic value from [another person or group’s] racial identity.” As such, the term encompasses not only Republicans’ ham-fisted attempts to remind the public of their historic link to, e.g., Frederick Douglass, but Democrats’ handwringing about the lily-whiteness of their top tier of presidential candidates, as well. Racial capitalism is the inevitable consequence of the commoditization of black and brown people in a market economy. It is, furthermore, an increasingly remunerative proposition in a world in which a surging share of purchasing power lies in the hands of white gentry liberals.

Or so one is forced to conclude after reading the Washington Post, which broke, on Tuesday, the fascinating if utterly predictable story that artificial-intelligence startups have begun offering companies “a chance to . . . increase diversity in their ads without needing human beings.” According to the Post, one such enterprise, the Argentina-based firm Icons8, uses artificial-intelligence software to provide “worry-free, diverse models on-demand.” (One wonders what to make of that “worry-free.”) Another, San Francisco’s Rosebud AI, offers clients a chance to purchase “AI-customized models of different ethnicities.”

With exactly the humility that one would expect of a tech company, Icons8 boasted to the Post that its clients already include “an American university, a dating app, and a human-resources planning firm.” Rosebud AI, meanwhile, informed the paper that “about 2,000 prospective clients are on the waiting list.” Yet despite these indiscretions, it is a safe bet that both firms will guard their customers’ identities as if they were nuclear rods. A compelling argument can be made that diversity ensures the proper use of human capital and guarantees that a multiplicity of perspectives is heard. Pretend diversity, on the other hand, does . . . what, exactly?

While the fake-diversity industry may be unique in its cynicism, sleaziness, and willingness to profit from progressive hypocrisy, important corollaries exist that cast further light on the social mechanisms at work. The first is the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015, in which contrived external standards — namely, U.S. regulatory specifications — led to shocking and intentional dishonesty. Though Volkswagen’s actual crimes in that affair were fraud and false advertising, its chief moral infraction was arguably two-facedness: gesturing in the direction of a cause (environmentalism) for which it cared nothing in practice. So it will be with any American corporation that gets caught doing business with an AI fake-maker. The backlash against the dishonesty will be significant. The outcry over the faithless “allyship” will be deafening.

The second corollary, and the less obvious of the two, is the “hate-crime hoax” phenomenon that has long bedeviled progressives (and amused conservatives) in the post-civil-rights West. Just as the manufacturers of hate-crime hoaxes are responding to an enticement — a progressive-media economy that demands an endless stream of racial offenses — so the fake-diversity machine has whirred its way into existence to meet the needs of institutions that want the social rewards of wokeness without the bother or expense. Never mind whether the offenses really happened or the diversity is achieved with actual people. The Left’s narratives require them, and that requirement cannot go unfulfilled for long in a world populated by human beings.

Which brings us back to the resilience, the deathlessness, of the market. If a consumer wants to feel a certain thing about race in America — to warm himself by the consoling fire of self-regard — a corporation will happily arise to sell him that feeling. That isn’t a corruption of human nature. It’s a description of it.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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