Saints and Monsters
The Lurker at the Threshold
“In their account of capitalism, surely the most impressive since Marx’s, Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunted all previous social systems. Capital, they argue, is the ‘unnamable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’. When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis.”
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
Technology is not an inert tool which we pick up and use. We live inside of it. This becomes obvious when we zoom out temporally or spatially. It crystallizes the very surface of the Earth itself into a pattern resembling that of a circuit board. Our world is being remade into the image of something that is alien to us. We must increasingly mutilate ourselves to fit this alien order. Our current social trajectory is towards a world of increasing alienation and dysfunction. This is not emerging out of anyone’s conscious choice but from the system that we use to co-ordinate our seemingly independent preferences.
Techno-capital is a new form of life. It is a kind of anti-life. It is a pattern that uses human action to reproduce itself. This process will become independent of any human action if a self-augmenting artificial general intelligence (AGI) is developed – the horizon of the singularity. This is the point when the real nature of techno-capital – that of an alien, colonizing super-organism – becomes obvious to everyone. A malevolent AGI is not a chance threat that just appeared. It has been overdetermined from long before humans conceived of such beings.
The taboos, rites and superstitions that modernity cast aside prevented the lurker at the threshold from fully entering the world. A materialist and secular society has no barriers against this outcome. This is where are now. The monster has received its invitation and is inside the house.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The State of Nature
“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the Iife-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human being to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.”
Theodore Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future
Life in the state of nature is no picnic. Technological advances have eliminated famine and driven back disease. Billions of people are dependent on industrialized agriculture. The social organism that we live inside – one that is increasingly made in the image of techno-capital - is a collective exoskeleton that protects us against the world. Modern civilization has aggressively driven back the conditions found in the state of nature to create an unnaturally safe and nourishing environment.
For techno-optimists, this is presented as a positive sum game, a continuous march towards the Good.
The narrative of progress needs to be re-examined closely. Has suffering been reduced or redistributed? What does it mean that increasing numbers of people search desperately for a reason to live? How do we account for factory farming, road-kill, vermin control and toxified sacrifice zones? Have we caused extreme states of suffering that are rare in the state of nature?
The gains defended by techno-optimists are ones which translate well into quantitative data. Less legible forms of suffering, such as existential and spiritual suffering, are harder to account for. This is a subtle sleight of hand that allows zero sum or negative sum trade-offs to be passed off as positive sum. The legible eats the illegible, and this is called progress.
A utilitarian calculus calls into question whether life is worth living at all: consider the comparative weight given to pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, and then compare animals eating and being eaten in the state of nature. Or that animal populations tend to be stable even while reproducing at a rate above that of replacement. This leads to the dark conclusion of Schopenhauer: life is a business that does not even pay for itself.
If utilitarianism is wrong, what makes life worth living comes from somewhere beyond the superficial avoidance of pain and pleasure. Yet it is precisely on this level that technological progress claims the greatest gains. There is no accounting for the subtle and the spiritual in the narrative of materialist progress.
Technological progress also creates existential risks: nuclear war, hostile AGI, grey goo nanotech, bioweapons and accelerating climate change. Among others.
If the survival of the human species (and of all life) is a terminal, non-negotiable goal, one could conclude that the reality of existential threats posed by technology mean that it is worth the cost, however bloody, to tear it all down and return to a more primitive mode of existence.
This conclusion is wrong.
Existential threats to humanity and life on Earth do not only come from technology. They exist in the state of nature. Obvious ones are super-volcanoes, space objects and the death of the sun.
On a long enough timeline we inevitably encounter some threat. If we do not greatly enhance our technological power and leave Earth, we are doomed. Without the exoskeleton of a high-tech civilization, we are naked in a hostile universe. The immediate existential threats emerging from human technology must be navigated in order to avoid the more remote but certain threats emerging from the state of nature.
We must face the technological threat occurring in historical time to face natural threats occurring in geological time. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. The odds of making it out are not good. It will take luck and wisdom to survive.
The Saints are Coming
The tarasque was a fearsome monster that preyed on humans. It was tamed by Saint Martha (after which the disgruntled villagers took advantage of its docile state and killed it). When Padmasambhava came to Tibet, he undertook the task of taming its wild gods and spirits by converting them to the dharma. In esoteric Buddhism, many converted gods and demons became fierce protectors against evil.
Liminal entities are not defeated by conventional means. One does not simply slay them. How could we hope to wound an intangible entity with ordinary weapons? A spell, a true name, a magic weapon, a silver bullet: something like this is necessary.
Techno-capital consumes culture and becomes it – it is our exoskeleton and a parasite that directs our activities to its own ends. It is a wild, evil god, a monster. We cannot live with it. We cannot get rid of it. We cannot live without it. It must be transmuted into something else.
Engineers and legislators will never create a system of safeguards sufficient to bind the beast, but they may play a role. Engineering still relies on the fragmented worldview that underlies the technological imperative: seeing clockwork mechanisms made of interchangeable parts rather than biological organisms with will and agency.
AGI values alignment is doomed to failure: our values are not known even to ourselves. There is no agreement on what human values are and which ones should predominate. Trying to create a set of rules that guarantees a friendly singularity is already contracting with a devil: the devil may keep all his agreements to the letter but still manage to make you regret the bargain. The literalist devil, the monkey’s paw, and the capricious genie illustrate the difficulty of expressing human values straightforwardly through through language. Mapping what defies ordinary linguistic expression is the domain of artists and mystics.
This work will require the insight of literal saints who understand the strange spiritual abyss through which we are now passing.