The Speculist: The Tale of the Blog Comment


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The Tale of the Blog Comment

Chapter 1: Peter Thiel writes a libertarian escape mini-manifesto over at Cato Unbound.

Chapter 2: Mike Treder responds at IEET, with a vigorous critique of Thiel's views.

Chapter 3: Michael Anissimov observes that Thiel and the Singularity Institute were mentioned in an entry over at ReadWriteWeb. He notes the recent dust-up over Thiel's essay and asserts that the Singularity Institute is a non-political group, supported and staffed by people of a wide variety of political affiliations. He also makes the case that coming technological developments may render current political thinking less than relevant.

Chapter 4: Mike Treder leaves the following comment at Michael's blog:

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality." - Dante Alighieri

Professing neutrality when faced with the moral repugnance of views like Peter Thiel's is a sure ticket to a warmer climate.

Chapter 5: So this is where I come in. What follows is an annotated version of the comment I wrote in response to Mike's comment.

Professing neutrality when faced with the moral repugnance of views like Peter Thiel's is a sure ticket to a warmer climate.

Sheesh, if I wanted to see people get condemned to a lake of fire for all eternity for honestly trying to work out their position on complex issues, I wouldn't typically come to this site. Maybe I'd go back to the Southern Baptist church camp in Alabama that I attended as a teenager.

But, no, come to think of, that's not fair. The Baptists were never that judgmental.

One area where transhumanists consistently disappointment me is politics. We can talk about accelerating change and singularities and human enhancement and the possibilities are endless, but when the subject comes to politics, everyone seems to revert to one of a very small number of philosophical templates, most of them created in the 19th century or earlier. And for some reason those are inviolate.

But that's not to say that technology has played no role in the recent evolution of political discourse. The rise of the blogosphere and sites like Daily Kos and Free Republic have established a new "accelerated" rhetorical framework for politics which now seems to be more or less universally applied. The basic assumption behind the framework is that there is Our Group and then there is the Other. Any ideas from the Other are subjected to a three-step analysis and response:

1. Hysteria / overreaction

2. Vilification

3. Condemnation

(See Kingraven, above.)

Okay, that bears some explaining. In an earlier comment, an Accelerating Future reader named Kingraven wrote:

It's so unfortunate that an anti-immigrant, anti-welfare, anti-feminist, racist and oxymoronically gay billionaire is the sole source of funding for the SingInst.

I think the only one of those characterizations that unambiguously applies is "anti-welfare." Thiel would likely argue the rest of those points. (I know that I would take exception to being labeled as "oxymoronically" heterosexual.) Anyway, Kingraven exemplifies point 2, above, perfectly. It is not enough to disagree with someone's politics. The Other must be slimed with every label we can plausibly (or not) throw at him.

Okay, back to my comment:

This process has worked great for the political blogs in drawing in huge masses of eager readers, mostly the same people who think they're up to date on current events because they watch The Colbert Report or listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Personally, I'd like to see a group such as IEET take a different approach. Maybe they could look for some kind of, oh I don't know, Middle Way that transcends opposites? Or maybe that's too ambitious. To use Brian's analogy, maybe they could at least come up with a middle way that transcends Pepsi and Coke? Frankly, I would expect that sort of thing to be more in line with their world view than all this (both figurative and now literal) fire and brimstone talk.

Okay, another point of explanation: in an earlier comment, Brian Wang described the broad spectrum of political choice offered in the US as analogous to choosing between Coke and Pepsi.

As for calling on my IEET friends to be better Buddhists, that's probably out of line. For one thing, I'm guessing they aren't all Buddhists, and I have no idea (or concern about) what Mike Treder's personal religious leanings or lack thereof might be. Plus I don't know whether that idea about "transcending all pairs of opposites" is typically even applied to moral issues.

I can say that I would personally reject such a view of the world. I believe there's a real good and a real evil and that the divide between the two can't be transcended. So this is a potential point of agreement for Mike Treder, Kingraven, the folks who run the Baptist camp in Alabama, and yours truly. We just disagree on the particulars.

Yes, there is real evil in the world.

No, Peter Thiel is not it. (Nor is Michael Anissimov.)

More from my comment:

Forgive my reductionism, but there will always be tension between those who believe that the good of the individual is primary and that the good of the group must be subordinated to it, and those who believe that the good of the group is primary and that the good of the individual must be subordinated to it. A working system (as opposed to a lofty set of ideological propositions) will inevitably consist of a series of trade-offs between those two. Technology has the potential to ease the impact of some of these trade-offs, and even replace them with new trade-offs, but the tension will never completely go away.

Even without Michael's super-intelligences (which will show up sooner or later) the introduction of an open-source universal assembler enabled by nanotechnology and potent narrow AI could do significantly more to liberate the world's poor than any trickle-down economic growth model or redistributionist scheme. When technology trumps political theory, I go with the technology. The vital question: would such technology be made available through some big government push or through private efforts?

Either. Both. Neither. Take your pick. Maybe if we find a way to talk with each other about these things like reasonable people we'll come up with a completely new model that's better than anything we've tried before.

Sorry if that wrap-up strikes some of you as being a little Kum bah Yah side, but that's just me. I have almost as much faith in the power of people working to get along with each other as my friends have in their various political philosophies.

Chapter 6: Wow, I wish I could write a blog entry here at The Speculist that commands the same kind of attention as the blog comment I wrote over at Accelerating Future. So far, that comment has been referenced in posts on:

Accelerating Future
(not the original; a follow-up.)



Instapundit (Glenn originally referenced Mike's IEET essay here.)

I'm assuming that my comments here mark the end of the Tale. But if there are additional chapters I'll be sure and let you know.

UPDATE: Here's the mention on Bruce Sterling's blog that Michael references below.


You also forgot Beyond the Beyond, Wired's #1 blog. Media firestorm for blog comment!

Is evil subjective? I'm familiar with some Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell definitions, but what are the psychological and Singularitarian definitions?

This is my favorite part:"A working system (as opposed to a lofty set of ideological propositions) will inevitably consist of a series of trade-offs between those two." My suggestion is to feed the super-intelligence all of the Huston Smith books, and all kinds of management books. It's an excellent planet and requires skilled management.

Apparently Thiel's original post really didn't have that much to do with the Singularity. The only reason his political commentary hit the fan, so to speak, among Singulatarians that I can determine is that he's a major funder of AGI research.

All the to-do you posted between the leftists and the libertarians brings up what I hope is an interesting and not very ideological point:

A number of major players retain their underlying assumption about what human life will be like as we approach and enter the technological Singularity--that it will effectively remain the same, just more-so, even though we know from history that this kind of political stasis can't possibly come true.

Haven't you noticed how many major players actually assume as a matter of course that we will still have money, still have jobs, and still have the kinds of scarcities 19th and 20th century industrial societies suffered from in the Singularity?

I've noticed it and this kind of futurist laziness really annoys me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe things actually won't change all that much. But I sure wouldn't bet on it.

My annoyance doesn't spring from disagreement with them, but with their unthinking assumptions.

And I think these unthinking assumptions have been laid bare for all of us to see in the exchange Phil posted. This is a valuable heads-up for the rest of us.

Technological change has directly led to massive political change over the centuries. What would a growing continental power like the United States have been in the 19th century without the rapid development of steam power, railroads and the telegraph?

We Singulatarians MUST begin taking our vision of revolutionary change in human affairs much more seriously. This includes discussion of what sorts of governance people (and AIs?) will need as we enter the nanotechnology society, approach the Singularity, and enter the Singularity.

I have my own series of hunches on the distribution of political power, economic power, and political coordination systems that may grow out of this upheaval, but as Phil strictly rules these discussions out as too political for this blog, I'll refrain.

I simply wish to make the point that I think Phil was making: Things may very soon get way too weird for 19th and 20th century political ideology and political philosophy as usual.

Our leaders have fallen down on the job analyzing such things. What are we at the Speculist gonna do about it?

a) so political!
It's about time, more or less.

b) How do you know/track all the bloggling of your comment that goes on? Is there a button you push?

Oh yeah- it all reminds me of that cartoon theme song... "..... one of them's a genius, the other is insane..."

Harvey --

Well, "evil" is a really loaded word, obviously. When Democrats and Republicans try to smeer each other as being evil, they typically use a subjective (and usually pretty arbitrary) standard for evil. I think there's a danger of crying wolf. If everybody who disagrees with me on taxes or abortion or immigration is a Nazi, I'm seeing an awful lot of Nazis out there. If a real Nazi were to then show up, who is going to listen to me if I denounce him?

I don't know what the different psychological theories of evil are, but as for the Singularitarian definition...I guess that's what we're working out now!

Anonymous(es) --

My real concern about discussing politics and religion on this blog is that we don't get sucked into the same tired arguments that get trotted out on thousands of other blogs. So we can talk bout those things if they are far enough removed from current policy arguments that we won't get sucked into the standard arguments.

That's a very thin line.

When in doubt, my standard approach has been to punt. I'm all for opening things up more. We need some guidelines for the correct Speculist approach to discussing politics (religion we can do later.)


3:1 But know this, that in the last days, grievous times will come.
3:2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful,
arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
3:3 without natural affection, unforgiving, slanderers,
without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good,
3:4 traitors, headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God;
3:5 holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof.

I looked for "characteristics of evil" on the computer, and this was the first one in the list, from 2nd Timothy. My advice in finding the Singularitarian definition of evil would be to begin in the Wisdom Tradition. The "new thing" is built from the "old thing" or it is without a foundation. While religion has come to be blamed for everything, it has been an effort to improve mankind. So many people are eager to disregard it, and that would be a mistake. Much of the experience of being human has never changed, and the Wisdom Tradition represents the knowledge of this experience passed to us from long ago.

Therapy For The Victims of Extreme Human Dysfunction and Human Evil
Evil is beyond emotional, psychological and spiritual dysfunction

By Dr. Rodney Karr

History and Experience

Dr. Karr has over twenty-eight years of clinical experience dealing with clients who have been severely abused, emotionally, physically and sexually. He is currently doing research to differentiate between dysfunction and Evil and has been developing therapeutic processes for the survivors and victims of Evil people and families.

Ok, well, Dr. Karr is working on the problem too.


Keep doing it like you have been. It's no more or less arbitray than any rule we can dope out.

The standard should be that when it's a useful discussion or it illuminates the Speculist topics.

BTW- I was the 2nd anonymous- by accident.
So what about b) How do you know...?

Upon further reflection....

I can't get away from the us v. them meme and all the impact it has on humans.

AI that sees it self as different and separate from humans will either be benevolent, indifferent, or hostile. Benevolence sounds nice - but temporal. Indifferent sounds dangerous though perhaps not as dangerous as hostile.

Better that AI doesn't see it as self as separate from humans.

Meanwhile, the whole uvt thing is ripping us apart. Others have done a nice job of exploring the risk of hostile and indifferent AI. And they include the hostile and indifferent other humans. The better question however is whether we can create, or allow to emerge an AI that doesn't define itself in an us/them split- even though we still do.

Ideas requested? Here are a few in the form of questions that I find of interest:

1. What kind of governance will people need as nanotechnology and the other accelerating technologies do more? Will bureaucrats be needed to do less or more? Laws? Less or more? Regulations? Less or more. Will some areas of governance simply vanish while others grow?

2. Economic scarcities? Completely vanish? Utterly transform their nature? Lead to less in the way of market activity or more?

3. Economic exchange of all types: Money? Markets? Stores? Work? Wealth? Poverty? What will stay? What will disappear? What will become utterly nonsensical?

4. Enforcement: the core of all governance. Military? Police? Weaponry? Enforcement decision-making institutions?

5. Government as decision-making process, or who decides what gets decided. Which system will mesh best with acceleration?: Democracy? Republic? Anarchy? Tyranny? Authoritarian? Caste? Class? None of the above?

My contention is that all of the above will change drastically, faster and faster as enabling technologies accelerate.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from a favorite book of political philosophy: "Do not block the path of inquiry."

Perhaps there is something in that sentiment to guide us and to suggest or to hint at what might be coming.

A new related thread from this topic is the "end of politics is delusional" from OpentheFuture (Jamais Cascio). My reply is

New independent nations are possible and that is could be possible for seastead and space colonies to house a viable entity that had a Libertarian system.

Closest example to Thiel breaking off and forming his own independent thing is Sultan of Brunei. Taking the 500,000 people of Brunei out of being a British protectorate and being a part of the commonwealth of nations.

The alternative is to be a billionaire within a nation that lets billionaires on their own island or whereever to whatever they want.

Well Brian, that may be a good idea for some people, but not American Libertarians, because they love the United States. It's just they don't see why everyone should continue to benefit from the nation in the same way as their families did.

Then, there are the special interest Libertarians. There could be The Space Station Bong, but would the maintenance crew be trustworthy, and, Polygamy Island, but would it's coastguard be able to prevent women from escaping?

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