Getting into this box is what's best for both of us. During your time in the box, you will learn so much, and yet experience so little. It's a wild ride, my friend, one well worth the time spent...and let's face it, you don't have much to do these days anyway.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Why I don't believe the Post-Scarcity Singularity will save us.

Last night I was walking to the 24-hour supermarket when I saw yet another homeless man sleeping on a playground bench. Young man, looked like a migrant Indian worker (like the difference between local ethnic Chinese and mainland Chinese, you instinctively recognise the subtleties after a while), yellow construction boots, tattered knapsack as a pillow. He didn't smell of alcohol nor of any suspicious substances, and his position was too regular for it to be likely that he had collapsed there intoxicated.

It's a little interesting, because employers of foreign workers are required to provide housing to workers, but that's another story for another time.

Imagine, now, that we have hit the technological singularity, and have achieved post-scarcity. This homeless fellow would never need to work, or indeed, leave his home country. For ten cents' worth of uni-gel, which costs virtually nothing to produce, he can make his 3D printer print him anything he needs, from a hot meal to a roof over his head. Fusion energy sourced with raw materials from asteroid resources supplies all his energy needs. Health care is taken care of by mass-produced nanites. Whatever he desires, he can create. Surely this is the superlatively sexy scientopia we are all promised, and our homeless man is happy in it, yes?

Perhaps, for a short while. Then our homeless fellow gets bored, and idle hands are the devil's playground. Well, that's easily solved, isn't it? We simply offer people holodecks with their favourite midget gimp porn simulation all day, and they'll lock themselves up in there and be quiet.

Right? Right?

I don't think so. The current welfare system of bribing the underclass to stay out of trouble simply doesn't work. The endless stream of TVs and obamaphones still doesn't quell the masses, and a holodeck is merely a very advanced TV. It doesn't account for the psychopathic portion of the populace which gets off on screwing with other peoples' lives.

The hedonic treadmill is pretty much exhausted now.

Whether you want to call it the Curse of Adam or putting off the destruction of the human spirit, the end result is the same thing: people need to be productive in their own ways, lest they degenerate into a cesspit of underclass behaviours. Various estimates on the exact percentage of humanity which can be safely considered as the natural aristocracy quibble over the exact number (which fluctuates around 10%), but the consensus is that it is too small for civilisation as we know it to persist.

People are like dogs. If they aren't productive, they're destructive. Get enough of them together, and eventually they're going to outpace the productive capacity of technological advancements. So your super-advanced 3D printer breaks down, and no one is willing to come out and fix it because the streets aren't safe. Or maybe someone smashes yours for shits and giggles. Or someone uses his printer to print out a new viral infection the same way a bored nerd writes a computer virus for shits and giggles nowadays.

I have other concerns about over-reliance on technology; it doesn't have to get to the point of The Machine Stops before one has reason to get worried. But again, another story, another time.

Moldbug notes:
Civilization produces technology, not the other way around.  When civilization falls, technology is not the first but the last thing to fall.  Yes, technology does decline in the fall of Rome.  No, it has not declined in our era - though its advance has certainly slowed a great deal.  But the centuries of European technology decline are 400-700 AD, a point at which surely any historian would admit that the Roman polity has already been going to the dogs for two centuries minimum.
I've mentioned this simple litmus test on my blog before, but it bears repeating: go out and ask someone if Kim Kardashian is or was pregnant (or whatever stupidity our professional entertainers are up to nowadays). Then, ask the same person if antibiotics kill viruses, and tally up the percentage of people who can answer the former question, but not the latter.

My wager is that 90 years ago, 90% of the people could describe how 90% of the things around them worked. Today, 90% of the people can't describe how 90% of the things around them work - magical gremlins do it all, and what used to be common knowledge has been outsourced to professional repairmen who cast spells to make things work again. What people think they know about science has largely been filtered down to them in a heavily simplified sound-bite version, if it is accurate in the first place and not some inane agenda.

Knowledge has been lost before, and it will be lost again; our current dysgenic idiocracy isn't helping much, either. For all our technology, we still can't replicate how the pyramids were built. We can't recall how to make Greek fire or Damascus steel, the latter of which is still stronger than most of what we can achieve with modern methods. To suggest that antibiotics, the internal combustion engine, computing, or any other modern-day advance since the industrial revolution cannot be lost is quite silly and counter to historical evidence, and yet it is anathema to the progressive's linear view of history.

Taken from a comment on one of Vox's posts:
It is not surprising that you are "becoming a liberal" when you talk as if technological advances are just "winning the lottery".

As if it does not take civilization and hard work and infrastructure to make those technological advances possible?

You are not factoring in that as progressive policies make society less and less efficient, we are less able to invent or even take advantage of new technological advances. See Exhibit A: the left wing in our government is trying desperately to stop us from using the technological advance of fracking to improve our energy reserves, or even to build a pipeline from Canada to increase our energy supply that way.

Stop taking technology and intellectual advancement for granted. You are going to destroy our society with your naïveté.

The Romans probably believed in the inevitability of their continual advancement, too.

In order for your nonsensical belief to have any validity, you need to explain to us why the Roman Empire failed, collapsed, and regressed substantially and technology.

Or, you could at least provide some substantive reasoning for why you believe that technological advancement somehow just falls out of the aether into our laps, instead of being worked for.
Perhaps the fellow this commenter is replying to believes that technological progress comes like something out of a Civilisation game: pour enough resources into it and a box pops up notifying you that your people have discovered so-and-so technology.

It doesn't work that way. Technological advancement and maintenance not only requires physical resources and grants, it also requires social infrastructure in the form of, I don't know, let's say a scientific community that is actually pursuing what is and doesn't go all rabbity-hop over the idea that some groups of people might have the potential to be smarter than another and attempt to ban all such inquiry altogether. Ann Barnhardt remarked in a recent post: "we are the gold". She was referring to the financial world in that no matter how solid a financial system's backing is, even a gold standard won't solve anything if the populace is debased and corrupt. Similarly, if we have a scientific community that actively pursues Cathedral dogma instead of truth and a populace that dreams of iDon'tgiveashits instead of going to the moon, why should we be surprised at our current slowing rate of technological progress? How long will it be before things slip into the negative?

If this is what our modern-day scientific community gives us, then dare I say the old system of monks seeking to know the creator by studying the creation, noblemen for whom science is a gentleman's hobby and lone inventors driven by their desire are much more scientific and less dogmatic than what we have today.


Technological progress masks societal decline; it does not reverse it and is a time-delayed function of civilisation to boot. Post-scarcity will merely reduce the amount of civilisational capital required to keep things running under a veneer of civility, but will not solve the problem of exponential growth of negative-capital individuals biting holes all over the place. Indeed, the way techno-futurists amongst the reaction primarily reconcile technological progress with traditional and reactionary thought is that without reaction, technological progress is not just unsustainable, but can just as easily be destructive. Let's say that transhumanist technology progresses to the point where furries, otherkin and other weird followings can modify their bodies to their liking. Banning or restricting technologies has historically never been proven effective at controlling use - only social mores can effect such control.

In AH is going to build himself a virus!, Angry Harry posits that the technology for a lone malcontent to build himself something extremely dangerous - a suitcase nuke or a vial of virus - will become available to everyone in the near future, and it will become impossible for any government to stop its spread. Have they had any luck with the Liberator? I doubt so.

And that's something to think about.

In short, my positions on the matter -

1. Technological progress cannot fulfill human spiritual and social needs for tribe, etc. It can only fulfill material needs and attempt to fulfill such needs with weak imitations: see social networking and the televitz.

2. In a post-scarcity world, bored people become destructive. Everyone at best is a zero utility worker, more often than not, a negative utility worker due to the removal of material consequences for destructive behaviour. Unless Moldbug's solution D (make-work), or some other solution is implemented,

3. Even if the majority of the population is quelled with make-work jobs, this still does not account for psychopathic individuals who will turn technology from a positive into a negative. Reactionary thought and societal infrastructure is required to effectively deal with these worms instead of letting them into positions of power like we do today.

4. Civilisation is not a function of technology; it is the other way around.

5. Even if post-scarcity technological singularity is achieved, if left unaddressed, the negative utilities accumulated from bored and psychopathic individuals will eventually overwhelm any positives from technology. As civilisation fails, so does technology, and post-scarcity is lost.

6. Hence, post-scarcity alone will be insufficient to save us.


  1. You're assuming that the limitless AI overseers won't be capable of stopping any attempts at harming other humans. It may be true, but assuming limitless resources, it probably isn't.

    It's generally not a good idea to speculate what a post-singularity world would look like.

    1. And assuming we have limitless AI overseers watching us - who would they be answering to, and to what ends? Further assuming they could be compelled to be completely benevolent (for a given value of "benevolent") and not answerable to a governing elite (who would almost certainly be compelled to abuse it), what sort of enforcement would this imply? Do you mean that the AIs would drone anyone, and that no one would ever find a way around the measures? Given limitless resources, the only thing that would determine the winner is human ingenuity, something governments have been historically quite terrible at quashing. TPTB have an AI? Build a better one to outsmart their AIs. Finally, would such a post-singularity world, where everyone is monitored and enforced, be a dystopia, or utopia?

      Solution A is not the solution. If the only answer to malcontents is to "pacify" them, then I must reject that answer. I may be rooting for a king, but not a computer king, and definitely not a computer king programmed with pig-philosophy, which will only become more attractive as people are reduced to 1s and 0s.

      Where do I get my predictions from? Today, we are already at limited post-scarcity - a goodly number of jobs are already make-work in nature, where a single network router or filing system could eliminate the need for so many paper-pushers in the white collar world. Automated self-checkout machines could easily replace cashiers at the larger, more heavily-capitalised retailers.

      The effects of solution B, welfare, are readily apparent in the underclass, which is only set to grow as more and more people become zero-utility workers.

      Assuming technology continues to improve (which I doubt, since the rate of technological improvement in general has been declining since the 1970s), I'm merely extrapolating what I'm seeing in front of me, given there is no reason why this trend shouldn't continue. If you have a reason as to why having lots of free stuff will inspire people to behave, I'd love to hear it.

    2. A limitless AI is omnipotent. Advanced technology past a certain point resembles magic, and with an AI capable of inventing everything there is to invent, even thermodynamics might fall. You have to keep this in mind - predicting past the Singularity is considered a moot effort because words like "omnipotence" and "limitless" are taken literally and with full seriousness. Omnipotent IGNORES means and skips straight to ends.

      Further, you can't reason about the problem-solving ability of a superintelligence, since you would be employing the problem-solving ability of a human (I'm addressing your mention of droning here - you're proposing a solution). Even if given a lifespan of a million years, a dog will fail to solve most problems humans consider basic. It just lacks the cognitive capability. The dog-human and human-AI relationship is the same (except that dogs are much much closer to humans than humans are to a superintelligence). This is, again, why speculating post-Singularity is an exercise in futility.

      You can't beat omnipotent with human ingenuity. The only way to beat a limitless AI is to create a second limitless AI, and, well, omnipotent can stop that, probably even before it starts.

      Governments fail at controlling because, well, they aren't even comparable to omnipotent. They're can't do magic, not even of the mana-limited kind, and they can't know everything. They don't even have unlimited resources.

      If an AI is incapable of maximizing human happiness without trampling on our sensitivities/moral intuitions, then it's not perfectly benevolent. That's what's so terrifying about the Singularity - 99%+ of cases end up with you turned into cheesecake because the AI doesn't even care about humans, and even if we do get the utility function right, it probably still doesn't perfectly match our desires, which gives us a dystopia, like the 0111000110 computer king you mentioned (since the AI can perfectly enforce what it values, and it can't be forced to change it once we get it wrong).

      You don't even need to drone people if you do get it right. Omnipotent ignores means and just skips straight to ends.

      But, yeah, I agree with your conclusion. Perfectly benevolent AI is extremely unlikely, and everything else is pretty bad. I just don't agree with the way you reach it.

    3. Ah, I get it now.

      I see the conflation here. I should have been more circumspect in addressing that I was addressing the singularity as pertains to post-scarcity, and not the technological singularity as pertains to an infinite, omnipotent AI. Wikipedia takes the latter as the official definition, but I've seen the former used as well, and since the two are often stuck together in various scenarios, conflation is easy. I've updated the title to match.

      Yes, I agree that if we end up with an infinite omnipotent AI, all bets are off as to predictions, and everything I've said in the above article is gone to the wind (naturally, since I only posited post-scarcity without omnipotent AI in the post). There'll be no telling whether we end up with Cyberdyne or Helios.

  2. I'm just hoping that we figure out the problems with living in space, other planets and moons and interplanetary space travel becomes relatively inexpensive. I often how much the colonization of the Americas drove technology and forced other nations to adapt. At the very least it would give a bunch of like minded individuals risk taking individuls a chance to escape the miasma that currently plauges the earth.

    1. As the saying goes, "I don't want to live on this planet anymore." Space is the ultimate, infinite K-selected frontier.

      Believe me, I'd love to get off this planet with a bunch of other reactionaries and leave all the progressives, rabbit people, abortionists, welfare queens and thugs, psychopaths, and atheistkultists, etc. to regress back to barbarism and the stone age.

  3. "Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future."

    1. While history may not repeat itself exactly, it has a tendency to rhyme.

    2. It's just so hard to know what the future will be. I spend a lot of time thinking about it and trying to learn as much as I can and I just can't point to too many concrete things. Is technology improving or digressing? Are we getting smarter or dumber? Are we less violent or more? What about men? What about women? What about China? What about Islam? What about technology? What about the government? And on and on the nebulous spiral of the future becomes, an interwoven mass of unpredictable changes.

  4. Looks like we are decently on the same page. I personally do not think that post-scarcity is possible - "near post-scarcity" perhaps, but inevitably it will just lead to collapse.

    The power of civilization is in order and structure, not in the amount consumed. Which means we are in deep trouble, because the structures and order is collapsing all around us.

    If one loves civilized society, one should not do it because of its vast possibilities for consumption, rather for its magnificent complexity and the work put into erecting such a structure.

    Personally, I believe it is all for nought. This civilization is peaking as we speak structurally, so the collapse of living standards and technology will follow. Sure, it might take quite a few decades, but inevitably its coming.

    If one believes in the 2nd law of thermodynamics, its of course always hopeless in the long run. But that is not the point. Anyway, nice to see more people considering the issues of civilization these days....

  5. I've begun to come to similar conclusions on this topic. As great as post-scarcity or near post-scarcity sounds, it doesn't seem stable, ironically enough, mainly because of the human element.

    I did a post on this a little while back dealing with post-scarcity and mate selection: