Monday, July 01, 2024

There are no more human elites of any sort...

 I want to pass on the conclusion of a great essay by Venkatesh Rao, giving the meanings of several acronyms in parentheses. You should read the entire piece.

"Let me cut to the conclusion: There are no more human elites of any sort. In the sense of natural rulers that is. There are certainly all sorts of privileged and entitled types who want the benefits of being elites, but no humans up to the task of actually being elite.

It is only our anthropocentric conceits that lead us to conclude that a complex system like “civilization” must necessarily have a legible “head,” and legible and governable internal processes for staffing that head. Preferably with the Right Sorts of People, People Like Us.

We’re all under the API (Application Programming Interface) in one way or another. What’s more, we have been for a while, since before the rise of modern AI (which just makes it embarrassingly obvious by paving the cowpaths of our subservience to technological modernity).

To know just how little you know about anything, be it car lightbulbs or national constitutions, whatever your degrees say, just ask ChatGPT to explain some deep knowledge areas to you. I don’t care if you’re a qualified automative technician or Elon Musk or clerking for the Supreme Court. Whether you’re failson C-average George W. Bush or a DEI (Diversity-Equity-Inclusion) activist trying to swap out some Greek classics for modern lesbian classics in the canon.

What you don’t know about the world humanity has built up over millennia utterly dwarfs what you think you know. Whatever the source of your elite pretensions, they’re just that — pretensions. Whatever claims you have to being the most natural member of the governing class, it is somewhere between weak to non-existent. Your claim is really about suitability for casting in a governance LARP (Live Action Role-Playing), not aptitude for governing as a natural member of an elite.

Humans do not like this idea. We ultimately like the idea of a designated elite, and legible, just processes for choosing, installing, and removing them that legitimize our own fantasies of worth and agency. We want to believe that yes, we too can be President, and would deserve to be, and do a good job.

The alternative hypothesis is that modern civilization, with its millennia of evolved technological complexity crammed onto the cramped surface of the planet, does not admit any simple, just, and enduring notion of elite that we can use to govern ourselves. The knowledge, aptitudes, and talents required to govern the world are distributed all over, in unpredictable, unfair, constantly shifting, and messy ways. When a lightbulb fails, there is no default answer to the question of how to replace it, and what to do when mistakes are made.

The rise of modern AI is presenting us with seemingly new forms of these questions. Those who yearn for a reliable class of elites, even if they must both revere and fear that class, are predictably trying to cast AIs themselves as the new elites. Those attached to their anthropocentric conceits are trying to figure out cunning schemes to keep some group of humans reliably in charge.

But there is nobody in charge. No elites, natural or not, deserving or undeserving. And it’s been this way for longer than we care to admit.

And this is a good thing. Stop looking for elites, and look askance at anyone claiming to be part of any elite or muttering conspiratorially about any elites. The world runs itself in more complex and powerful ways than they are capable of imagining. To buy into their self-mythologizing and delusions of grandeur is to be blind to the power and complexity of the world as it actually is.

And if you ever need to remind yourself of this, try changing a car headlamp lightbulb."

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