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Meltdown by Nick Land

One of the greatest works of social theory from the 1990s, annotated.

The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off.

Video.

The advent of modernity represents a nonlinear takeoff. A quick look at economic output over time will corroborate this claim. For all of pre-modern history, economic growth and technological progress were slow and linear. With the industrial revolution, both lines go vertical.

Historians and theorists have debated the cause of modernity's "singularity"—e.g, double-entry bookkeeping, the arrival of Arabic numerals in Europe, and many other candidate explanations—but "renaissance rationalization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off" is a valid and helpfully parsimonious summary. Social scientists call these kinds of theoretical constructs stylized facts.

Whichever causes you prefer, it is clear that such a nonlinear takeoff can only be the outcome of multiple causes in positive feedback. Consistent with Crosby (1998), "rationalization" summarizes perfectly the quantitative mentalité that arrives precisely during the Renaissance.

Crosby believes that quantification and visualization are two variables that enter into a particularly important feedback loop during the Renaissance. It's well known that perspective in painting arrives during the Renaissance, but why does vision matter? Crosby believes that vision imposes on all of the other senses. The distinguishing characteristic of vision is its consistency with quantitative measurement in terms of uniform and manipulable quanta. When you visualize ideas on paper, or you record events on paper, or you record music on paper, you can then rearrange them. Rearranging historical facts on paper is a kind of time travel. Crosby's emphasis on vision is particularly interesting given Land's claim, later in the essay, that the human control system is "predominantly vision-configured."

Here are just three examples of renaissance rationalization that supercharged oceanic navigation:

  • The practical astrolabe (~1400)
  • Accurate cartography (e.g., Ptolemy's Geographia in 1400)
  • Joint-stock companies (~1553 in the case of England).

Oceanic navigation made money, funding more rationalization, making oceanic navigation more profitable, and so on.

Early computational rationalization plus financial rationalization made oceanic navigation an early form of distributed, loosely organized, human-in-the-loop Artificial Intelligence. The Earth is captured by abstract value optimization; it locks in a swarm of financiers, seamen, and commodity traders. Commoditization take-off.

Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway.

Video.

Logistical acceleration refers to an S-shaped growth curve.

  • In the first phase, growth is slow.
  • In the second phase, growth is vertiginous.
  • In the third phase, growth slows again as it asymptotically approaches a saturation point.

The societal adoption of new technologies is widely understood to follow a logistic curve.

Techno-economic interactivity is a key postulate of Land's ideas.

Elsewhere, he will frequently use the adjective techonomic.

Using tools and saving money are the same thing: A diversion of resources from the present to the future.

Technology and money are the co-components of Capital.

"As basic co-components of capital, technology and economics have only a limited, formal distinctiveness." ("Teleoplexy" in #Accelerate Reader)

The concept of "techonomics" is classic Landian compression. Economics and Technology are considered separate categories for essentially disciplinary reasons, but if you're aiming for maximum philosophical parsimony, you might as well compress them into one concept. There's nothing wrong with separate fields of study and experimentation, it can be very useful to distinguish between technology and economics—academic Economics, pure Engineering research, the startup ecosystem of people building companies—but if you're just a person trying to theorize ultimate truths then you should compress whatever can be justifiably compressed. Land is a master of tactical lexical compression.

Techno-economic interactivity logistically accelerates because that's a formal feature of any positive feedback loop.

The mental model here is trivial. If X increases Y and Y increases X, then it only requires X or Y to increase by any non-zero amount for both X and Y to asymptotically approach infinity. In practice, external constraints typically create a ceiling or saturation point where the system maxes out. In the absence of constraints, any positive feedback loop is better thought of as an explosion.

Compare the adoption curve of consumer televisions to the energy curve of a nuclear bomb. Both are positive feedback loops. When the first TV company sells its first few TVs, the company earns money and TVs enter society. The company uses that money to make TVs better and cheaper, which makes more people want TVs, but TV growth is capped by the human population. So it's a logistic curve. The TV is a manageable phenomenon.

A nuclear bomb, on the other hand, explodes. In a fission reaction, a neutron collides with a uranium atom and breaks it. The split uranium atom releases new neutrons, which collide with other uranium atoms, and so on. The result of a nuclear bomb is an explosion, the opposite of a manageable phenomenon.

One interesting question in the so-called 'accelerationist' perspective is whether the acceleration of Capital is manageable or explosive. Is techonomic acceleration a nuclear bomb or a consumer television?

Perhaps the initiation of techonomic acceleration is like a fission reaction, which dooms every advanced society to extinction. Techonomic acceleration would therefore be one candidate for the so-called Great Filter, the reason why we don't observe any other advanced societies in the universe.

Or perhaps techonomic acceleration can be mastered by humans and channeled into a post-scarcity, multi-planetary species that lives in comfort forever.

Nick Land definitely seems to be in the former camp. He calls himself a "horrorist" and seems to think modernity is more like a nuclear bomb.

Interestingly, in this regard, most of the "woke" social justice activists are in the same camp as the "based and redpilled" libertarian tech figures. Your typical blue-haired professor of queer studies will agree with Peter Thiel and Elon Musk in their belief that technology should and can be controlled by humans. They have different visions for how techonomic acceleration should be managed and harnessed, but they agree that it should and can be harnessed.

Also surprisingly, blackpilled atheist edgelords like Nick Land are in the same camp as traditional millenarian Christians who believe in the eventual coming of the End Times. This camp rejects naive humanistic calls to control and manage the techonomic explosion, instead theorizing either a nihilistic merging-with-the-machines or some kind of final apocalypse.

Whatever you think of modernity's long-term equilibrium, there's no question that it crumbles social order.

The history of capitalism is a history of crumbling traditional social structures.

As Marx famously said, with capitalism "all that is solid melts into air."

The socially disruptive aspects of capital acceleration should not require too much elaboration.

Finally, we come to the concept of auto-sophisticating machine runaway. Most of this is already implied in the first half of the sentence, but there is one new and crucial added to the mix: The concept of the machine.

Here Land is using the word "machine" in a Deleuzian sense. You should not think of an industrial machine you'd find in a factory, or even an AI robot. If technological devices and capital flows operate in a relation of positive feedback, it is easy to see that we are already talking about the increasing complexity and autonomy of essentially non-human entities.

Even mainstream research on artificial intelligence supports this view. If you look at Nick Bostrom's book Superintelligence, for instance, he acknowledges that capitalism can be understood as a kind of superintelligence. He dismisses it as a "loosely organized" superintelligence, and passes over it quickly—but that's his mistake, and Nick Land's genius.

You can say humans are ultimately behind all technologies and all capital, and perhaps... But you can just as well say that technology and capital consume human beings. Look around you? Do you see humans controlling technology, or do you see technology controlling humans? Machines are not little toys that we use as we please. Our civilization is a machine literally too complex for us to fully comprehend, and this machine gets smarter every day.

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