Responding To The Algorithmic-Climate-Security-Weird Era
By Lee Chor Pharn
I’ve been thinking how we should think about our changing world as move into the algorithmic-climate-security-weird era, and what is the “correct” state-society response to it. To my surprise, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shazili’s concept of shoggoths (that’s one up there) helped. Now shoggoths are fictional creatures described by Lovecraft as massive, bloblike monsters. In Farrell’s telling, shoggoths represent vast, inhuman distributed systems of information processing, there is no human-like “agenda” or “purpose,” but instead “an implacable drive … to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their spheres.” We have lived among shoggoths for the past 160 years of modernity, we call them the market, bureaucracy, democracy.
1. Existing shoggoths are changing. Each shoggoth translates vast bodies of knowledge, makes them intelligible, summarising the unsummarisable -> The market economy uses the price mechanism to make sense of a large body of tacit knowledge about supply and demand, bureaucracies help the state “see” the world through standards, and then there’s democracy, a massive churn of information transmitted through opinion polls, electoral results etc. to guide political elites to understand the public. The market-bureaucracy-democracy constellation is changing form in response to de-risking/digital platforms etc. but there is more.
2. We have new shoggoths — the terraform and synthetic intelligence.
a. The climate, once assumed to be unchanging but is now like a random event generator of unprecedented fires and floods. It’s not just about energy transition — the flow, which may be achievable in the decades to come but how we adapt — we still have a stock of two centuries worth of GHGs in the atmosphere to deal with. Until and unless there is a way to remove them at scale, it becomes crucial not just to sense and model the planet and near space as a vast information system, summarise it in a few key variables but also act back on it; rinse and repeat. In other words, we start terraforming.
b. Synthetic intelligences are collective information systems that condense impossibly vast bodies of human knowledge from human text, internet etc. and are summarised stochastically to generate predictions and new text. Just as many people cannot resist describing markets as having personalities, or having an intelligence with its synapses made from the billions of decisions people make to buy and sell, humans can’t help seeing synthetic intelligences like human beings, but this is wrong in the same way. Rather than fear post-human intelligences, it is more useful to see synthetic intelligences modestly-to-substantially transform the other four shoggoths.
3. Friend, Foe or both? The current chatter is shoggoths as foes, the fear that they are out of our control, the fear of being crushed by them, and with good reason e.g., the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis wiped out decades of middle class building in a few months! But shoggoths are also friends. Brad DeLong points out they massively empower us, individually and collectively, and make us collectively so productive, so intelligent. They have built the modern world. In doing so, Brad put a finger on something I’m trying to answer, what is the “correct” state-society response in this algorithmic-climate-security-weird era?
4. Showing my hand here, I believe the correct response is a productive mix of high-tech x high trust.
a. High tech refers to a market-bureaucracy-terraform constellation of Science (foundational breakthroughs) and Scale (deep industrial base, computational structure to monitor and geoengineer the planet) enabled by technocratic, competent States. The first part of the essay to follow will elaborate, but to be honest this is easier to imagine as we are building off an East Asian industrial model that broadly works and is popular with the technocratically inclined. But it fails in creating high trust, evidenced in East Asia levels of burnout and involution. Remember, East Asian megacities are not just technological vanguards, they are cultural ones too! To quote Benjamin Bratton, we’re all Koreans now -> Black Pink plus Parasite.
b. The challenge is to be simultaneously high tech and high trust, a narrow corridor of popular legitimacy and technocratic competency. This is where many societies fail. Despite having specific national programs to generate leaders, they end up with an incestuous aristocracy, the public revolts, and political entrepreneurs cash in. The second part of the essay elaborates how the bureaucracy-democracy constellation is fumbling towards Succession (new elites, reforming the moral foundations of the public).
Lee Chor Pharn is Principal Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.