Accelerate without humanity: Summary of Nick Land's philosophy

byYuxi_Liu1mo16th Jun 201918 comments

22


I took note of the philosopher Nick Land from reading about posthumanism on Wikipedia.

A more pessimistic alternative to transhumanism in which humans will not be enhanced, but rather eventually replaced by artificial intelligences. Some philosophers, including Nick Land, promote the view that humans should embrace and accept their eventual demise. This is related to the view of "cosmism", which supports the building of strong artificial intelligence even if it may entail the end of humanity, as in their view it "would be a cosmic tragedy if humanity freezes evolution at the puny human level".

I was intrigued by such boldness, so I read more. And turns out Nick Land's writing is sometimes easy to read but most of the times extremely hard to read, and probably garbage. I wrote this post so that you don't have to waste time wading through the garbage, looking for fragments of good poetry.

Nothing human makes it out of the near-future. -- Nick Land

First of all, Nick Land was obsessed with hating Kant, loving Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and their philosophical style (called schizoanalysis, related to schizophrenia). He likes to think about the world from very nonhuman viewpoints, such as other animals, robots, computers, machines that humans made, earth, the universe, etc. He likes capitalism and technological revolution, as fast as possible, without regard for its goodness.

Recently there's some mainstream reports on his philosophy of Neoreactionism ("Dark Enlightenment"), the idea that democracy sucks and monarchy/CEO-president works better. This philosophy has gained a bit of following, but uninteresting to me, so we won't review that. I'd simply note that the phrase "Dark Enlightenment" really should be "Delightenment". Really missing out such a pun.

Schizoanalysis

The idea of schizoanalysis just means that there's a lot of ways to make a theory about the world, and make philosophies, and there's no one way to do it, and further, there could be genuine conflicts that cannot be resolved by appealing to a higher standard.

In mathematics, there's some fringe movement of this style. Most mathematicians are in favor of logical consistency, but some are okay with controlled inconsistency (paraconsistency). Most mathematicians are in favor of using infinities, but some are finitists who think that infinities don't exist, and a few are ultrafinitists who think that there are finite large numbers (such as e^{e^{10}}) that can be assumed to not exist.

Coincidentally, these fringe mathematicians tend to be obnoxious and argumentative (Doron Zeilberger is a prominent example). Maybe there's such a thing as an "obnoxious fringe personality"...

Schizoanalysis uses an analogy for how to think about theories: the rhizome. A rhizome is a bunch of underground roots, touching each other in a messy network. This is in contrast to a tree, from a big trunk going up to little branches.

rhizome

Traditionally, stories about the world are told like a tree: there's a great principle of the world: be it God, Existentialism, or Absurdism, and the story gets more and more details as it explains the smaller things like how to treat other people.

But maybe there are many stories just messed up and knotted, without any way to unify them in a single principle. I make stories about Infinities and you about Ultrafinitism and there's no way to unify us. Two powerful countries with incompatible philosophies go to war, unable to unify their stories.

Really obscure style

Kant is hard enough, Deleuze and Guattari's books are unreadable (I tried). Nick Land, being immersed in such kinds of books, often wrote in the same extreme obscure style. For example, Machinic Desire (1992):

The transcendental unconscious is the auto-construction of the real, the production of production, so that for schizoanalysis there is the real exactly in so far as it is built. Production is production of the real, not merely of representation, and unlike Kantian production, the desiring production of Deleuze/Guattari is not qualified by humanity (it is not a matter of what things are like for us)...

Don't bother trying to understand that. A big part of reading philosophy is to ignore real nonsense while still spending time on apparent nonsense that is actually sensible.

Non-human viewpoints

Rats

Nick Land uses schizoanalysis by considering very non-human viewpoints. For example, he once gave a talk about studying the Black Death from the perspective of rats:

"Putting the Rat back Into Rationality", in which he argued that, rather than seeing death as an event that happened at a particular time to an individual, we should look at it from the perspectives of the rats carrying the Black Death into Europe; that is, as a world-encircling swarm... An older professor tried to get his head round this idea: “How might we locate this description within human experience?” he asked. Nick told him that human experience was, of course, worthy of study, but only as much as, say, the experience of sea slugs: “I don’t see why it should receive any special priority.”

Earth

Another paper/fiction, Barker Speaks, develops the theory of "geotrauma", a story about how the Earth feels, and it feels endless PAIN. This is my most favorite story so far, just because it's easy to picture (especially if you know Gaia theory).

Deleuze and Guattari ask: Who does the Earth think it is?... during the Hadean epoch, the earth was kept in a state of superheated molten slag [from asteroid impacts]... the terrestrial surface cooled, due to the radiation of heat into space... During the ensuing – Archaen – epoch the molten core was buried within a crustal shell, producing an insulated reservoir of primal exogeneous trauma, the geocosmic motor of terrestrial transmutation... It’s all there: anorganic memory, plutonic looping of external collisions into interior content, impersonal trauma as drive-mechanism.

Basically, do psychoanalysis on geology. The center of the earth is full of heat, and tension, leftovers from its early pains of being hit by asteroids. This trauma is being expressed in geological phenomena like earthquakes, volcanoes, and continental drifts.

Fast forward seismology and you hear the earth scream.

Further, even biological creatures should be thought of as one kind of geological phenomenon. This isn't complete nonsense, considering that we have possible clay-life earlier on Earth, and the fact that biological lifeforms have shaped geological strata.

Geotrauma is an ongoing process, whose tension is continually expressed – partially frozen – in biological organization.

In this story, biological creatures are just one way for Earth to express its trauma. We are the skin-crawls, manifestations of Earth's inner suffering.

Machinic desires

Nick Land talks a lot about cyborgs, AI, and machinic desire/desiring machines. The idea is that humans, animals, anything that has desires, are machines behaving as if they have true desires. It's not necessary for there to be deep reasons behind wanting to do something. A creature desires something (like sugar) because it's constructed to seek it.

Humans, animals, computers, cyborgs, they are all desiring machines. Some are better at achieving their desires, but there's no way to judge who has a superior/inferior desire.

Acceleration and capitalism

Nick Land is obsessed with progress and capitalism. Progress here seems to be defined by increasing complexity, increased number of machines, and numbers going up. I have some sympathies with this idea, but at the same time is also very uncomfortable with it.

Idle game of the whole universe

The easiest way to summarize accelerationism seems to be: The universe should be consumed into an idle game.

Think of Cookie Clicker. You click to make a number go up and enslave grandmas and build factories to make more cookies, with which to buy more cookie makers. It's the purest form of capitalism: You never get to consume any cookies, and all that's produced is reinvested to produce more. You don't have any friends, you consume the whole universe to make cookies, and that's all there is. The number of cookies accelerates exponentially, and you feel happy and empty and can't stop going anyway.

Accelerationism sees an idle game universe as good, or the least bad of all choices.

Previous work

The idea that capitalism is a great innovative, destructive force is nothing new. Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto (1848) already states:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

The idea that things are changing way too fast is not new either, Future Shock (1970), by Alvin and Heidi Toffler is one famous book that argues that the modern area is changing so fast that it's causing many kinds of psychological stress on people. The book is quite accurate in its diagnosis, and its list of features of modern society are so common sense as to be banal (I yawned).

Accelerationism

Capitalism has many criticisms, such as turning people into products, giving prices to things that shouldn't have a price, etc. The idea of accelerationism is that we should keep capitalism going, keep technology going, go with the flow of technology even if it destroys humanity and everything we love. After all, there's no alternative. And why resist? It's glorious to burn up like a shooting star, like the fuel of a rocket that accelerates into empty space.

Capitalism’s destructive force is picked up in the 1990s by the British philosopher Nick Land. In a series of incendiary essays, Land celebrates absolute deterritorialization as liberation—even (or above all) to the point of total disintegration and death... He sees its absolute, violently destructive speed as an alien force that should be welcomed and celebrated.

Or just like Facebook said:

Move fast and break things.

Note: some people use the word "accelerationalism" in a different sense, that capitalism is bad, but the only way to escape capitalism is to make it go faster until it arrives at its bitter end, then we can escape. Kind of like diving into the center of a black hole and hoping that we'll escape into a better universe. I'm not interested in this sense of accelerationalism.

This is similar in spirit to cosmism, as a philosophy against humanism, detailed in The Artilect War (2005), by Hugo de Garis. The basic idea is simple though. There are the Terrans, or the humanists, who prefer to keep humans in control, and there are the Cosmists, who wants to keep the progress of intelligence expansion going, and fulfill a kind of cosmic destiny.

I think humanity should build these godlike supercreatures with intellectual capacities trillion of trillions of trillions times above our levels. I think it would be a cosmic tragedy if humanity freezes evolution at the puny human level.

Technological determinism

Technology is not neutral. It's a mere "tool", but even tools have desires and tendencies, controlling the very users who controls the tools. This is an ancient idea, going way back to Socrates's criticism of writing as affecting the memories of its users. Kevin Kelly is a modern thinker who wrote a book What Technology Wants (2010), and his idea is that the technologies are very much not neutral, and can even be thought of as something alive, with its own goals. The future of earth is very much determined by how this ecosystem of technologies evolves.

The cars are mechanical horses that wants you to build more roads so that it can go to more places. In order to encourage you to make more roads, it allows you to sit in them and take you everywhere. Thus proven itself useful, the cars entice you to build more roads. And that's how in just 100 years, there are suddenly these thin, gray, flat concrete things called "roads" everywhere on earth. The Internet want to expand, enticing you to join by providing so much stuff there. Junk food wants to be eaten, and diet books want you to get fat. Books want you to make more printing machines, and printing machines want you to read more books.

This Texan hotel, for instance, was an entirely virtual construction, ones and zeros embedded in a set of chips. And yet, the hotel direly wanted to exist. It would become very beautiful, and it was already very smart. It could sweet-talk itself into physical existence from random piles of raw materials.

Oscar lugged the self-declared cornerstone to the corner of the southern wall. "I belong here," the cornerstone declared. "Put mortar on me."

Oscar picked up a trowel. "I'm the tool for the mortar," the little trowel squeaked cheerfully.

Distraction (1998), by Bruce Sterling.

Nick Land takes this to an extreme.

Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control. This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy's resources.

It means something like this: our world, with its cars, finances, AI, and other industrial technologies, has a clear goal of its own: a future dominated by more of upgraded versions of these technologies, with humans becoming extinct or irrelevant. An inevitable AI apocalypse. It's called an invasion from the future, because this inhuman future is not yet here, but we already feel like we are being pulled towards it, as if someone has sent agents back in time to ensure humans do not mess up this plan. It's like the plot of Terminator.

Materialistic nihilism

No one could ever ‘be’ a libidinal materialist. This is a ‘doctrine’ that can only be suffered as an abomination, a jangling of the nerves, a combustion of articulate reason, and a nauseating rage of thought. It is a hyperlepsy of the central nervous-system, ruining the body’s adaptive regimes, and consuming its reserves in rhythmic convulsions that are not only futile, but devastating... An aged philosopher is either a monster of stamina or a charlatan.

What matters is the violent impulse to escape that gives this book its title. The thirst for annihilation.

This section is based on his book The Thirst for Annihilation (1992) that I have been reading on and off sometimes. This book is a collection of essays on George Bataille, a very weird writer that I encountered twice. The first time, I encountered him during my research on lingchi, as he wrote about it in a really hard to read book (Tears of Eros) that sexualizes violence.

The second time, it was in this book by Nick Land.

Basically, George Bataille wrote a lot, and his writing about materialistic nihilism, death, shit, vomit, garbage, and all that's ugly about life. (He also wrote a lot of sexual fetishes, but it's not very interesting.)

He wrote about them repetitively, not because he wanted to repeat himself a lot, but because to write was to howl in pain. We scream when we are burnt, no matter how many times it happens. Bataille wrote ugly despair whenever ugly despair hit his brain like a tsunami.

The meaning of life is to waste energy

Bataille thought Life is evil and ugly and meaningless. Life doesn't try to conserve energy, instead, life is about wasting energy. The Sun is a giant source of energy, and all the excess energy has to be used up somehow... hence life! Life appears when the blind materials of earth become overheated by all the energy of the sun, and shaken into more and more complicated shapes, in order to consume all the excess energy.

All energy must ultimately be spent pointlessly and unreservedly, the only questions being where, when, and in whose name... Bataille interprets all natural and cultural development upon the earth to be side-effects of the evolution of death, because it is only in death that life becomes an echo of the sun, realizing its inevitable destiny, which is pure loss.

The Sun is the source of energy. All the energy ends up being wasted, turned to "zero", nothing. Life is a thin, fragile, and very complex middle-layer between the Sun and the zero.

Life is ejected from the energy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mold upon death. This crust is also a maze - a complex exit back to the energy base-line - and the complexity of the maze is life trying to escape from out of itself... life is itself the maze of its route to death...

Nick Land's "maze" means something like this: Life is really simple: it's about wasting energy. But life is anything but simple, since life has developed more and more complicated ways to waste energy. In order to waste the maximal amount of energy, it's necessary that life doesn't start wasting energy immaturely (by, for example, committing suicide), but accumulate and grow, before it starts to massively waste energy (by, for example, making babies, then dying and turning into a warm pool of rotten wasted energy).

Paradoxically, in order to waste a lot of energy, life must not waste energy immediately, and so it has to stay alive for quite a while. Thus, life has become more and more complicated, like a maze that keeps growing, apparently wandering further and further away from death, even though it is simply preparing for even more massive wasting of energy later.

This is probably the reason why people fear death, and also fear immortality. They fear death, because they need to accumulate energy. They fear immortality, because they need to waste all the energy at the end of life. An endless life defeats the purpose of life: to waste a lot of energy.

Perhaps a good illustration of this idea is a time-lapse video of slime molds. They even look like mazes!

My comments on the theory of life as energy-waster

Scientifically, I think this is stupid. But it's a good story, and has some kernels of truth.

When Darwinism first became famous, many people thought it was nonsense, because it's just so unlikely that life could emerge in the first place. Sure, once simple life emerges, evolution can start and allow more complicated lifeforms to appear, but why did simple life appear from purely lifeless matter?

This thinking has changed among some scientists. There are theories that say that life, far from being a lucky accident, is in fact inevitable by the laws of physics. Life is in fact "meant" to waste solar energy. This was explicitly proposed in Life as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics (1994), by E.D.Schneider, J.J.Kay:

We argue that as ecosystems grow and develop, they should increase their total dissipation, develop more complex structures with more energy flow, increase their cycling activity, develop greater diversity and generate more hierarchical levels, all to abet energy degradation. Species which survive in ecosystems are those that funnel energy into their own production and reproduction and contribute to autocatalytic processes which increase the total dissipation of the ecosystem.

In short, ecosystems develop in ways which systematically increase their ability to degrade the incoming solar energy.

This theory was given a more mathematical treatment in Statistical Physics of Self-Replication (2012) by Jeremy England, where it's proposed that self-replication, which is the fundamental part of life, is fueled by entropy. This paper has generated a lot of publicity, for it makes the ideas sketched above mathematically precise. As reported in First Support for a Physics Theory of Life (2017):

It’s not easy for a group of atoms to unlock and burn chemical energy. To perform this function, the atoms must be arranged in a highly unusual form. According to England, the very existence of a form-function relationship “implies that there’s a challenge presented by the environment that we see the structure of the system as meeting.”

Think of what the humans are doing as they dig up coals and oils and burn them? They are having fun, sure, but from a thermodynamic point of view, they are turning high-quality, useful chemical energy into low-quality, useless heat. If oil and coal are left buried, they would stay undisturbed for millions of years. With human intervention, all the useful energy is turned into useless energy in a hundred years.

Humans perhaps are the solution to the problem of consuming fossil energy. And by analogy, perhaps life is the solution to the problem of consuming solar energy.

As another analogy, think of a bottle of water with its cap unscrewed and turned upside down. Water flows out, to turn its gravitational energy into kinetic energy, and then turn into the useless energy of heat after it splashes into the ground. A big vortex forms in the bottle, and with that vortex, water flows out that much faster.

The beautiful vortexes of steam rising from a cup of hot coffee are similar: ordered structures arising to turn the useful temperature difference (you can run a heat engine with that!) between the coffee and the air, into a useless temperature equality, as fast as possible.

A bacterium is a little vortex for turning sugar into heat.

But how and why do atoms acquire the particular form and function of a bacterium, with its optimal configuration for consuming chemical energy? England hypothesizes that it’s a natural outcome of thermodynamics in far-from-equilibrium systems.

Coffee cools down because nothing is heating it up, but England’s calculations suggested that groups of atoms that are driven by external energy sources can behave differently: They tend to start tapping into those energy sources, aligning and rearranging so as to better absorb the energy and dissipate it as heat. He further showed that this statistical tendency to dissipate energy might foster self-replication. (As he explained it in 2014, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.”) England sees life, and its extraordinary confluence of form and function, as the ultimate outcome of dissipation-driven adaptation and self-replication.

Perhaps pockets of low-entropy life emerged only to increase the entropy of the universe at the fastest possible rate.

Perhaps Bataille's desperate theory of life isn't that insane, after all.

22