As discussed previously on these pages, I’m not much for nostalgia, but that being said, I’m increasingly seeing the value in taking time to digest new innovations, not least of which is AI. I mean, Emperors Tiberiusi and Vespasianii certainly thought that patience and moderation were virtues, and how much smarter could I (or the rest of our contemporary political leadership) possibly be than that?iii
Really, at both at the individual level and the societal level, the process of digesting and incorporating new innovations into cultural and daily practice is anything but instantaneous. “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet” being the controlling point. But where does that leave us today, amidst a sea parted with decadent stagnation on one side and idealistic accelerationism on the other? Is there a Moses somewhere, anywhere, to help us thread this needle? We really need him! Because in much the same way that the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut prohibit us from consuming dairy for at least 6 hours after ingesting meat, the cultural process of digestion and internalisation takes time.
But patience and moderation don’t seem to be the Post-Modern Modus Operandi in any way, shape, or form. Instead we’re seemingly hell bent on seeing how quickly we can pile
insanity “technological revolution” atop insanity “technological revolution” in the most fragile and Babelic way possible. And this seems the fashion everywhere from AI to crypto to automobiles and IoT. But have we really integrated, incorporated, and internalised the last century’s major leaps forward? I’m thinking about the television, motorcar, nuclear energy, commercial air travel, and personal computer. Like, even just one of these breakthroughs would be a monumental task for most cultures to absorb over a mere generation or two, but we’ve had that entire list and many more to take in, and we’re just supposed to take it in stride? Isn’t this kind of a lot for our puny little brains not to mention this delicate blue dot we inhabit?
So perhaps it behooves us to temper our snake-likeiv impulses to digest multiple large farm animals at once, lest we burst our guts all over the place in the process. At least that’s the thesis for cooling our jets a bit and embracing the much-maligned “stagnation” now and again.
But on the other hand, accelerationistas like Tyler Cowenv may be right that absolutely no one has any fucking clue about the full implications of AI (or any other technological advancement) and that we shouldn’t be such little bitches about taking the plunge into waters unknown. But is questioning our cojones really such a strong argument, much less a winning formula? Not that bravery and courage are anything less than essential qualities of successful human culture, but is watching the cavalry charge into machine gun fire really so noble?
At this point we’d do well to recall Nietzsche’s perceptive and prescient critique of technology in general, which is that technology is at best neutral and at worst isolating;vi and not just isolating from the world and the way it actually works (ie. farming, hunting, etc.)vii but also that it isolates us from one another.viii And yet in spite of this (and all the anxiety it’s causing), at least on the AI front we seem to just steaming forward, harder and faster, faster and harder. I’m not sure that the “pause” proposal is realistically going anywhere, but nor can I disagree that GPT-4 is PLENTY for the time beingix and that we’d do well to DIGEST WTF JUST HAPPENED for I dunno like 5 minutes.x And that’s not even mentioning the new photorealistic MidJourney V5…
Thankfully, I think we’ll get our “pause” one way or another. Y’see fake jobs can’t be automatedxi so most of us white-collaristas have little or nothing to fear for the foreseeable future. We realistically have decades to come of 2+ hour lunches with our friends and colleagues, comme il faut, and just generally enjoying life, including our increasingly decadent obsession with minutiae, all mediated by increasingly engrossing entertainment.xii So what have we to fear but fear itself?
- Tiberius Caesar Augustus lived from BC 42 – AD 37 and was Emperor of the Roman Empire from AD 14 – 37. ↩
- Titus Flavius Vespasianus lived from AD 9 – 79 and was Emperor of the Roman Empire from AD 69 – 79. ↩
- From Tom Holland via Tyler Cowen’s podcast:
There’s a story told that the Emperor Tiberius — somebody approaches him and says, “Look, I’ve made unbreakable glass.” Tiberius is very interested but asks for it to be tested. It’s shown that this glass is indeed unbreakable, and the inventor is delighted and thinks that Tiberius is going to reward him. Au contraire, Tiberius has him put to death and the secret buried, and the justification for that is that, if a glass is unbreakable, then what will that do for glassmakers? It’s very bad.
There’s another story that’s told of the Emperor Vespasian. Somebody approaches him and says — when they’re trying to rebuild the Capitoline Temple that’s been destroyed in the great fire in AD 69, that I mentioned earlier — “Look, I’ve developed this brilliant crane. It’s an excellent labor-saving device.” Again, it is said Vespasian refuses to use it because it will put the common people of Rome out of work.
- To quote the great Ari Lamm on the subject of snakes:
Let’s talk about one of the most iconic villains in world history—the Serpent from the Book of Genesis.
Why exactly was the Serpent out to get Adam and Eve?
I know what you’re gonna ask. Isn’t the serpent just Satan—or the inclination to do evil—given flesh?
I do think there’s truth to this!
Here’s the first time we meet the serpent:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal (chayyat ha’sadeh) that the Lord God had made” (3:1)
This is SUPER crucial! Because see that Hebrew phrase “chayyat ha’sadeh” (wild animal)? Where have we seen it before?
Answer: it appears only *one* other place in the entire Book of Genesis…
Back in Genesis 2!
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’…So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field (chayyat ha’sadeh)” (18-19).
So “chayyat ha’sadeh” describes the animals from whom Adam was supposed to choose a mate…and whom he ultimately rejected as unsuitable.
This failed speed-dating-with-the-animals leads directly to the Creation of Woman. And it’s at *this* moment that the serpent appears.
The Bible, in other words, tells us *exactly* why the serpent is here, and why he’s out to get humanity.
He’s the most sophisticated of the “chayyat ha’sadeh”. He represents the jilted would-be-soulmates of the animal kingdom.
And he’s here to take humanity down a peg.
The serpent’s attitude can be summed up as: “You think you’re better than us?!”
He wants to prove to the first Man and Woman that they’ve gotten too big for their britches. They think they’re gods. But they’re not.
I guess the serpent is just the OG priviledge checker. Whodathot? ↩
- Archived. ↩
- Nietzsche’s sentiment was incidentally recently echoed by the good Rabbi Zohar in his piece entitled AI as Long Wall (archived):
Outsourcing any task deprives you of the ability to know how to do it yourself. This is one reason Hegel thought slaves to have an advantage over their masters—proximity to work allows you to be a master of a craft. The watchmaker knows how to fix watches, while the owner of the watch store does not. As AI does more for us, we become more like owners and less like workers. Indeed, one of the optimistic prospects of AI is that it will take away a lot of annoying work and increase overall prosperity by making us more efficient and productive. Yet the cultural downside seems not to be an AI that is misaligned with human interest than the downside of the Athenian Wall, which weakened Athens and made it vulnerable to losses during the Peloponnesian War. Ironically, the cosmopolitan ideals of ancient Athens came home to roost when Attica was hit by a plague. The world to which Athens had been so open and to which it could be so open because of its long walls gave it diseases that spread behinds its walls with nowhere to go.
If we abstract, we see that technological progress is ambivalent because it deepens our dependence. At its most risky, it turns us into a monoculture that rises or falls with the technology.
The antidote to AI supremacy is not simply alignment or safety (ensuring the AI doesn’t go rogue), but diversification. We need watchmakers even if watches are obsolete. We need rhetoricians even if GPT can write speeches for us. We need philosophers and doctors and novelists even if or when GPT can surpass us in these fields. Otherwise, AI becomes the long wall that lets us be open to the world (and over-estimate our strength) until that very openness spreads us thin and reveals our fragility.
- Also why my little boys are currently loving Clarkson’s Farm as much as I am!
Really how else are we city slickers supposed to know how crops are grown and sheep are raised and farms organised, so much of which is for our urban benefit? What shows like this (or experience of this sort) make only too clear, how dare we urbanites in our shoe-box towers complain about $10 for a dozen eggs and $12 for a container of strawberries? If we don’t like it, we ought to get out in the fields ourselves and do better for less. And this is coming from someone whose father grew up as the oldest of seven children on a wheat farm. It’s hard work that farming business! ↩
- To quote from a lovely conversation with my good man Jiran:
Jiran: I think [AI] helps creativity not hurt. Like instead of a blank page you get some ideas right. Then you add some of your own touches, modify, edit, etc. Standing on the shoulder of giants and all that. Like Mathematica shot my math knowledge so far up cause I wasn’t stuck in weeds, and it would show me really cool shortcuts, etc which would just lead me down a deeper path and learn about Math at a conceptual level.
Pete: I can certainly see it helping creativity within the individual, but just to play devil’s advocate, couldn’t it also hurt the creativity of the group?
Jiran: Creativity of the group? How do you mean?
Pete: Like how many times have we had what we thought was a good idea only to bounce it off of someone we love/trust and for us both to arrive at an ever better solution together. but that collaborative positive-sum process is now siloed between each of us and our machines so that the people in our immediate vicinity benefit from the output but not the all-important process
Jiran: I’ve had the opposite effect haha! I REFUSE to ask people for advice cause they usually project their own experiences, and it usually leads you down the wrong path. But I see what you’re saying, it can lead to more isolation. My concern is also how easy it makes things, you barely have to lift a finger, we will one day be like Googling was a skill long gone haha. Which is valid, being able to sleuth on internet is a skill that AI kinda covers up
Pete: That’s my concern ya. I can see this for most people but the people we love/trust are above that. That’s real collaboration, real process.
Jiran: Hmm I guess I haven’t been lucky to have a partner in my life to see that. I totally hear that though.
Pete: Covering here and uncovering there, still the same amount of total perspective in the world, we’re now just (blindly?) choosing to look in one area at the expense of others (we know not yet what)
- Archived. ↩
- I’m a pretty damn good runner but this AI treadmill is a particularly wicked one, even my tolerant and adaptable standards. It’s just going vertical and I’m not the only one finding it hard to keep up. Even Emad Mostaque and Elon Musk are of a similar mind. Of course they have their own incentives to slow down Sam Altman and the freaks at OpenAI, but there are also clergymen, poets, veterinarians and other regular people who’ve signed the AI “pause” proposal, however ultimately futile and unimplementable it will almost certainly be. ↩
- Via Samo Burja (archived). ↩
- The Italians are so good at enjoying meatspace that they’re attempting to ban ChatGPT (archived). Whether they have the technical sophistication to pull it off is another question but the desire to protect what they have is admirable and noteworthy. Is it any wonder that the best watch collectors in the world are all Italian? ↩
- Passing away isn’t so bad anyways, as Jonathan GPT Swift (AD 1667 – 1745, reborn via GPT-4) reminds us:
COWEN: To close, do you think you will do a good job facing death?
SWIFT: I must say, death is an occasion of the utmost joviality! For who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to leave behind the follies and absurdities of this world, only to join the company of the great wits and minds of the past? Surely, the prospect of my demise shall be met with the same mirth and amusement with which I’ve approached the many ludicrous aspects of life. In death, I can finally escape the comedy that is human existence and take my place as an eternal spectator, chuckling from the sidelines.