“Writing is the only way to distance oneself from the century in which it was one’s lot to be born.”
The people who shape the world today are a small group of people, in a small number of places. They know each other, have the same interests, worked for the same companies and drink coffee at the same shops. We live in a secular era, so these people don’t believe in organized religions anymore. It’s possible you’re powerful, religious and think you shape the world, but you don’t shape it, you resist changes on behalf of the demographic of people who don’t want things to change because they benefit from the current situation. Conservatives of every kind, whether it’s conservatives who protest against embryo selection, against carbon taxes, or against gay marriage are people who don’t shape society, but delay the pace at which other people can redesign our society. In general this leads to problems, because the changes they resist are necessary to solve new problems that emerge.
There’s an argument to be made however, that the people who shape our world don’t really shape it either, they simply descend down a dungeon carefully crafted by a dungeon master known to us as post-industrial capitalist society. The heroes think they’re in control, but they’re not. The path was laid out in advance for them, the monsters were just strong enough to beat, the different directions in the cave lead to the same outcome, the NPC’s can’t be killed and eventually tell our heroes what to do next.
In our case, the heroes have no choice but to descend down the path that leads to the most profit. The people who don’t descend down that path, don’t become heroes, but remain background characters. The dungeon master lets his heroes earn their spurs by setting up popular websites in their twenties, allowing them to condense enormous amounts of wealth by the time they’re in their thirties. This kind of wealth then eventually allows them to redesign society in accordance to their own ideology. Peter Thiel doesn’t like college, so he pays young people to drop out. Vitalik Buterin wants to live forever, so he throws money at radical life extension. Of course what these men really did was set up projects that seem inevitable. It’s inevitable something like Facebook would emerge, because we need to stay in contact with people who we don’t see on a daily basis. Tumblr emerged because we like to gather pretty pictures. Amazon emerged because we don’t want to visit fifty different websites to order our groceries.
Note that there are some things the heroes can’t do. The heroes can’t say to the old man in the inn that they’re not going to join a caravan to the far north in search of a dormant volcano home to a dragon who is rumored to eat orphans, because to do so would inevitably lead to a cataclysmic upheaval of the world. In a similar manner, Elon Musk can be very afraid of climate change and throw vast sums of money at developing renewable energy innovations that stimulate a transition to renewable energy. Elon Musk however, is also very afraid of artificial intelligence. Note the difference here. Elon Musk can’t say that he’s going to devote his wealth and power to discouraging the development of advanced forms of artificial intelligence. Bill Gates is very afraid of genetically engineered epidemics that would kill millions. Bill Gates doesn’t spend his money, time and energy discouraging the proliferation of genetic technology. He spends his money on contraception for third world women. The battle with the dragon on top of the dormant volcano needs to happen, even if they suspect it will open a portal to the other dimension and allow hordes of goblins to invade the world. They have resigned themselves to this fate, they’re merely gathering their weapons and supplies in anticipation of the horror that awaits them.
Another metaphor we might use is that these men are interested in sowing seeds, not in removing weeds. They have fifty seconds and five dollar to devote to farming, how do they use it to create a good harvest? They go to the farmer’s market, seek out seeds that will do well on their own, stock up on them, hurry to the field, spray a variety of seeds over the field, ignore the ugly weeds that seem to have their first leaves and move on with their lives. What is Y Combinator? A company that takes a lot of money, divides it into small bits and sprays it at a wide variety of projects. Over 90+% of these will perish and a tiny fraction will change our world. Do men like Paul Graham and Peter Thiel spend a lot of time contemplating every individual project they throw money at? They can’t afford to, because their time is too expensive for that. What matters to them is that they pick at least a few seeds that hatch. They don’t weigh every individual seed they purchase on the farmer’s market, studying its flaws and spots.
So, carrying on with our metaphor, what the world’s powerful people don’t do is spend a lot of time removing weeds. If your seeds do well enough, they should end up overcrowding the weeds. I’m going to sketch a hypothetical assumption here, that Bill Gates is a man who is deeply critical of Islam. In such a scenario, would Bill Gates spend billions to ensure that young Muslim children come to believe the Quran consists of a bunch of myths? No. Modern technology made Christianity irrelevant to people in the Western world. If you work in an office instead of toiling in the fields, you don’t want five children. If you have to leave your hometown to find a job in the city, you’re probably not going to marry your cousin. A country in which women are educated and leave their village to work in a cubicle in a city, is a country in which traditional Islam struggles to maintain control over people. Birth control, agricultural modernization, college education and other modern phenomena, are fiercely growing saplings that overcrowd the weeds that normally grow in the field.
The world’s powerful and successful people have a mentality of sowing seeds, because this has worked for them throughout their lives. They start a lot of different projects, one of those grows big, you start using it, their name shows up on Wikipedia and these men become relevant. We live in a society where we face problems caused by excess activity. We produce too much plastic junk, so the ocean is filled with microplastics that damage our health. We use too much energy, so carbon dioxide builds up in the air. How do you deal with this, if you’re a successful wealthy man, a Peter Thiel or an Elon Musk? The answer is that these men look for new activities that cancel out bad activities. Stagnation, degrowth, slowing down and inactivity, are theoretical solutions that are not even on their radar. If the ocean is filled with plastic, we’re going to build a device that filters plastic out of the ocean. We’re then going to earn money, selling the plastic we gathered. If the atmosphere has too much carbon dioxide we’re not going to respond by using less electricity, we’re going to invent lab-grown meat and mine minerals that react with carbon dioxide in the air. Restraint, is never an answer to them. Restraint is an answer offered by activists, who spend their whole lives always managing to delay the inevitable by a few more weeks.
This is not a choice, this is a necessity these men have adequately recognized. Why does Peter Thiel, in contrast to the consensus among policymakers and scientists, argue that synthetic meat is going to solve global warming? In the world in which these men were forged, something needs to earn money if you want to keep doing it. Your endeavors need to be self-sustaining. Spending money trying to keep people from doing something isn’t going to earn you money and if it doesn’t earn you money then it eventually dies. The men who work for them, as computer programmers and marketing experts have another issue to consider: They need to earn a living. If you thought the best way to solve the world’s problems is to live in a small house and spend your days playing chess while collecting welfare, you might not die of hunger but you would guarantee yourself social ostracism. A man needs to be engaged in some form of activity in our world that justifies his existence. He then finds himself faced with the need to justify his activity to himself.
And so the Sillicon Valley tech elite and their international army of flunkies see a world in which people can only be discouraged from destructive activities, by seducing them with less destructive ones. Silicon Valley cryptobrogrammers will insist that Bitcoin might use 800,000 times more electricity than a credit card per transaction, but the solution to that is to build more solar panels. It’s absurd to you and me, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to them. To them we are bacteria in a Petri dish and we need to hurry and convert everything into methanol, because the other blob would turn it into anthrax.
Are they wrong? I would argue they’re not even necessarily wrong. If there’s anything the past twenty years have shown, it’s that telling governments “please don’t burn your fossil fuels, it’s going to cause problems” has proven terribly ineffective at addressing our actual problem. The problem however, is that there are certain values and outcomes intrinsic to this mentality that takes a radical transformation and the ever increasing utilization of the world around us for granted. If you as a company, society and individual have no choice but to pursue activity, to the maximum of your ability, you are forced to construct for yourself an ideological perspective in which your ever growing hyperactivity is justifiable. Is the world better off with a decentralized Artificial Intelligence built on top of a blockchain? Probably not, but you need to pay for expensive drinks for girls in bars. Your colleagues have an ideology through which they justify their day to day activities as part of a greater struggle, expressed in terms almost reminiscent of protestant theology. You are free to choose to reject it, but on what basis do you justify your day to day activities then?
We Christen our actions Progress.You work at Google and you genuinely believe that your day to day work contributes to the development of an artificial intelligence system that might go rogue and transform society into an oppressive totalitarian dictatorship at best, or exterminate all life in the galaxy at worst. And yet your response is not to call for a moratorium on this research, because you need to drink, eat and fuck.
Please understand that I don’t take your millenarian paradise for granted. You might be wrong. I think the singularity might prove to be a dud. Artificial intelligence might be impractical to develop, peak oil might mean our standard of living lies behind us and blockchains might be the latest example in a long list of useless vaporware. There is another reason however why you believe this. It’s not just that you need the money. Our increased understanding of the universe around us has taken away our metaphysical anchor to the world. As the old religions died for us, we found ourselves alone in a fundamentally meaningless and inexplicable universe. What gave meaning to life, nation, family, church, duty and virtue, have been cast to the wayside.
There emerges a void in men’s hearts. Just as a republic doesn’t take away our longing for a king and so the new royal family becomes an Armenian American clan, atheism doesn’t take away our longing for greater meaning to our toil. And so, we come to believe that if God does not exist we will create him ourselves. The tech startups, have taken on the role of modern churches. They don’t just deliver people a comfortable income, they ultimately deliver them, as sad as it might seem, a sense of purpose to their lives. The programmer tweaks the protocol and the neural net learns to generate photos of a cat, realistic to a degree that unnerves him. He created something, and it might not be good, it might put our caravan another inch closer to the dormant volcano where the dragon quietly sleeps in anticipation of his annual feast of orphans, but he didn’t live his life in vain, he had a role in the greater story.
It frightens me. I don’t have to tell you what kind of environment I mingle in, but the convictions I see in the industry I work in remind me of a cult. It’s not just the absurd ideas, the exuberant optimism, the blindness to the pointlessness of it all that concern me. It’s the strength of the devotion. It doesn’t stop at 5 PM. They take it home. I come from a typical white working class environment, where a job starts at 9 and ends at 5. In this environment, meaning isn’t derived from an apocalyptic reinvention of the world, it’s derived from family. The programmers however, don’t have families. They don’t have wives, they don’t have children. They come from around the world, they settle down in megacities and spend their days surrounded by other men. It never stops, because there is nothing else.
They’re not slaves, because they can buy anything their heart might desire. They’re cultists. But it needs to be noted, that for the men it seems to be self-evident. Of course you don’t bother eating, you take Soylent. Of course you don’t sell stock, you start an ICO. Of course you store 500 million dollar worth of other people’s savings on a device the size of your fist, designed by a three year old company. Of course you program at 3 AM. Of course your Artificial Intelligence system will manage the world like an enlightened monarch. For the women it’s not self-evident. This didn’t interest them before they entered the labor market. They had make-up blogs and permaculture projects in their parents garden. They knitted silly hats for their pets. They adjust. They assimilate and integrate. But it’s not natural for them, they hide a horrifying grimace and they panic when you try to figure out how deep their “convictions” really go. And then eventually, after a few years spent overworked and underpaid, they disappear. They were the truest believers, free from a single heresy, but is their faith still intact after nobody has heard from them? I struggle to believe it. The woman might be able to bend her brain better than the man to fit into this vitamin D deficient Brave New World, but to fit in with the men she has to bend it to a degree that even hers becomes exhausted.
But religions die. As the scandals emerged to the surface, as the children dared to speak out about what happened to them, the faithful lost their devotion. As the SP 500 stops recovering from every dip, as your plan to retire at age thirty-four after ten boring years spent coding nonsense falls apart, as the flaws become impossible to iron out, you too will begin to question your faith. A blockchain? Dear lord, it might really just be a bad database! You get up from your chair, your soylent spills onto the floor and you begin to run for the hills.
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