In this post I continue to use MindBlog as my private reference library to put down essential ideas I want to hang onto by extracting relevant clips, in this case from the most recent essay by Venkatesh Rao. Here are the clips:
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard something about the short but dramatic saga that unfolded at OpenAI over the last week…The Open AI saga doesn’t yet have a name, but I am calling it EAgate, after Effective Altruism or EA, one of the main religions involved in what was essentially an early skirmish in a brewing six-way religious war that looks set to last at least a decade…Not just for the AI sector, but for all of tech…We are not just unwilling to talk to perceived ideological adversaries, we are unable to do so; their terms of reference for talking about things feel so not-even-wrong, we are reduced to incredulous stares.
Incredulous stares are an inarticulate prelude to more consequential hostilities. Instead of civil or uncivil debate, or even talking past each other, we are reduced to demanding that others acquire literacy in our own religious discourses and notions of sacredness before even verbal hostilities can commence…actual engagement across mutually incompatible religious mental models has become impossible.
Want to criticize EA in terms that can even get through to them? You’d better learn to talk in terms of “alignment,” “orthogonality thesis,” “instrumental convergence,” and “coherent extrapolated volition” before they’ll even understand what you’re saying, let alone realize you’re making fun of them, or bother to engage in ritual hostilities with you.
Want to talk to the accelerationists? Be prepared to first shudder in theatrical awe at literal aliens and new life taking birth before us. You’re not capable of such allegorically overwrought awe? Trot out the incredulous stare.
Want to talk to the woke crowd? Be prepared to ignore everything actually interesting about the technology and talk in pious sermons about decolonization and bias in AI models. You’re not? Well, trot out the incredulous stare.
Want to talk to me? You’d better get up to speed on oozification, artificial time, mediocre computing, Labatutian-Lovecraftian-Ballardian cycles, and AI-crypto convergence. My little artisan religion is not among the big and popular ones precipitating boardroom struggles, but it’s in the fray here, and will of course prove to be the One True Faith. You’re not willing to dive into my profound writings on my extended universe of made-up concepts? Feel free to direct an incredulous stare at me and move on.
It’s not that there’s no common ground. Everyone agrees GPUs are important, Nvidia’s CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) is evil, and that there are matrix multiplications going on somewhere. The problem is the part that is common ground is largely disconnected from the contentious bits.
In such a situation, we typically dispense with debates, hostile or otherwise, and skip right to active warfare. Religious warfare is perhaps continuation of incredulous staring by other means. Such as boardroom warfare where the idea of destroying the org is a valid option on the table, bombing datacenters suspected of harboring Unaligned GPUs (which some religious extremists have suggested doing), and in the future, perhaps actual hot wars.
Why do I think we are we entering a religious era? It’s a confluence of many factors, but the three primary ones, in my opinion, are: a) The vacuum of meaning created by the unraveling of the political landscape, b) the grand spectacle a dozen aging tech billionaires performing their philosopher-king midlife crises in public, and c) finally, the emergence of genuinely startling new technologies that nobody has yet successfully managed to wrap their minds around, not even the Charismatic Great Men from whom we have become accustomed to taking our cues.
The Six Religions
Here’s my list of primary religions, along with the specific manifestations in the events of EAgate… there are significant overlaps and loose alliances that can be mistaken for primary religions …as well as a long tail of more esoteric beliefs in the mix that aren’t really consequential yet.
The religion of Great Man Adoration (GMA): Represented in EAgate by the cult of personality that was revealed to exist, attached to Sam Altman.
The religion of Platform Paternalism (PP): Represented in EAgate by Microsoft and in particular the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick leadership style of Satya Nadella.
The religion of Rationalism: Represented by the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. EA represented (and continues to represent) a particular millenarian notion of “AI safety” focused on the “X-risk” of runaway God-like AIs.
The religion of Accelerationism: Often referred to as e/acc (for Effective Accelerationism), initially an ironic/satirical response to EA that first emerged as a genre of memes a few years ago.
The religion of wokeness: Mostly on the sidelines for EAgate, it did appear briefly in a post-credits scene, as competing priesthoods briefly circled the question of the future of OpenAI’s new and too-small board.
The religion of neopaganism: Built around a “small gods” polytheistic vision of the future of AI, fueled by open-source models and cheap, commodity hardware once we’re past the current Nvidia-controlled GPU near-monopoly, this religion … is clearly helping shape the multi-faceted moral panic that is EA.
Why do I call these currents of thought religions, rather than merely contending political ideologies, such as those that featured in the culture wars of the last decade?
The reason is that all are shaped by their unique responses to fundamentally new phenomena being injected into the world by technology. These responses are about technology qua technology. …. Ordinary political interests, while present, are secondary.
The simmering religious wars of today are about the nature and meaning of emerging technologies themselves. And not just technologies with a retail presence like AI, crypto, and climate tech. It is no accident that geopolitics today is warily circling the TSMC fabs in Taiwan. Sub-3nm semiconductor manufacturing is yet another mysterious technological regime…
The technological revolutions are real even if the first responses lack the poetry and philosophical sophistication we have come to expect.
What comes next? As we get tired of holding each other in incredulous gazes, most of us will return to our chosen native religions to make sense of the unfolding reality.