The Moloch Tragedy

image from Midjourney

So you’re at a concert, everyone politely seated enjoying the performance. But some people are very tall, some are huddled together, and some are wearing hats, so you can’t see the stage quite as well as you’d like. Amidst the bobbing from side to side to see the performers, someone in front of you stands up, cheering and applauding, their apparent enthusiasm used as a cover to get a clearer, unimpeded view. There may be grumbling and “down in front!” shouts, but even if they work there’s soon another person standing, and then two, and that gives those behind them an excuse to stand as well. And soon everyone is standing; it’s the only way they can see the stage. We may politely mask this as excitement, a willingness to stand instead of sitting comfortably. But what has happened is that now, everyone is forced to stand. The individual advantage of standing constitutes a disadvantage to everyone else, and when everyone individually stands, everyone is worse off than they were when everyone was seated.

Who or what do we “blame” for this, and how do we “fix” this unfortunate situation? The answer is: No one is to blame, and, It can’t be fixed. If we want to personify a villain for this tragedy, we might blame Moloch, the god of child sacrifices and perverse systems.

We see the same when-one-‘cheats’-everyone-loses phenomenon in the Tragedy of the Commons, in the actions that have led us to ecological and economic collapse, in the Two-Income Trap, the Wal-Mart dilemma (the “race to the bottom”), the exhaustion of inexpensive oil, capitalism, government and corporate corruption, monoculture agriculture, arms races, and a hundred other ultimately-dysfunctional collective results of initially well-intended individual behaviours.

In each case, individuals trying to exploit some situation of scarcity for personal advantage end up inadvertently creating more scarcity for all. Who do we blame? Moloch.

We try to address this scarcity at a societal level in one or both of two ways — relieve the scarcity by producing more “supply” of everything, or by reducing the aggregate “demand”. Increase the numerator or decrease the denominator. But increasing the numerator always runs up against the limits to growth in a finite world. And decreasing the denominator means creating vast numbers of have-nots. Instead of selling 20,000 $50 concert tickets with limited views, we could sell ten $100,000 tickets to ten billionaires who’d each get a perfect view, and generate the same revenue. Or we could make the performers work for half the hourly rate, provide two concerts and only sell seats to odd-numbered rows in the stadium, so even standees wouldn’t block the view of those behind them. Neither solution is any more satisfactory than Moloch’s standing-only result.

When I was a youth protesting the many outrages of the day, one of my mentors stressed to me that we were not fighting ‘evil’ people, we were fighting a dysfunctional system. We had to “smash the system”, rather than just changing the people responsible for administering and trying to control it. As I’ve written before, “the system” doesn’t really exist. The standees at the concert, the atrocities that contribute to ecological and economic collapse, and the forces driving us into disastrous and potentially nuclear wars — everything that we call “the system” is just a label we put on the collective result of some subset of eight billion (well-intentioned, IMO) people doing their best, what they’ve been conditioned to do. Some of those people, of course, have more power and influence than others on the end result, but even those powerful people are diverse, unconnected, unorganized, and often at odds with each other.

So we can’t “smash the system”. How then do we deal with Moloch?

The problem — or more precisely the predicament — is that we cannot. What we are dealing with in Moloch Tragedy situations is a combination of (i) an unresolvable scarcity and (ii) the fact that the ‘players’ in the system are disconnected from each other and unable to appreciate each other’s situation. If it’s a private concert and everyone know everyone else, the occasional standee will quickly be implored to sit, and will comply. Or if there were ten empty seats for every attendee, the audience would find a way to work around any standees, and there would be no advantage to standing in any case.

Likewise, a small tribe living in abundance will never be inclined to hoard resources, both because there is no need to and because their connection to the rest of the tribe would make such behaviour anathema (the game theory term for this is that there is a “cooperative norm”). Many creatures that have not lost their connection to the rest of the natural world actually biologically or culturally self-limit their populations so that (i) they don’t create scarcities, and (ii) they don’t disadvantage the rest of the creatures in the ecosystems of which they are inseparably a part. They do this unconsciously. No room for Moloch there.

We have inadvertently created scarcities of clean, affordable, reusable/renewable essential resources, so that we have incentivized people to cheat (“defect” from the norm of egalitarian sharing behaviour) to obtain what they need. And we have (perhaps as a consequence of being inflicted with the scary idea we are separate, individual selves, or perhaps just because we have scaled our creations and systems to the point we have become anonymous and atomized) lost our connection with all other life on earth, a connection that might otherwise temper our tendency to act unfairly to each other and to the whole. Enter Moloch.

This is why I am, intuitively, a collapsnik. Where Moloch reigns, I believe a collapse of “the system” that has given him entry is inevitable. There might be a deus ex machina that resolves the scarcity (a meteor hit, cosmic storm, or — just joking — a Rapture), if we were able to survive it. But failing that, we just have to wait for it all to fall apart, and hope that what’s left is sufficiently abundant for the survivors, and that we are able to reconnect with each other and live in harmony with the rest of life, after the fall. Those of us alive today are witnessing the fall, but it will be slow enough that none of us is likely to know what emerges from the ruins.

In a fascinating recent interview, Daniel Schmachtenberger describes how the Moloch Tragedy metaphor could be applied to capitalism and the rapid acceleration of AI.

Capitalism, he says, “is already an autopoietic [ie self-maintaining, self-organizing, self-replicating] artificial superintelligence, using a combination of distributed human intelligence and massive computational power as its engine, that has become misaligned with the interests of the planet and is hence driving ecological and economic collapse, polarization, militarization, arms races etc, that nobody can pull the plug on.” And “it [the superintelligence of Moloch Tragedy capitalism] is building AI, not humans”.

Daniel asserts that AI is not itself a Moloch. In fact, he thinks it could potentially solve a number of intractable problems that we humans so far have not been able to resolve. Rather, AI is an accelerator of the capacities of current systems, including Moloch-‘infected’ systems. (Gerrymandering, for example, in its current extreme application, is essentially an early application of AI that is accelerating the dysfunction of the collapsing US political system.)

Daniel’s optimistic view is that we must strive to “find ways to realign our misaligned systems, not [to align them] with human intent (which has not served us well), but rather [to align them] with the objectively determinable well-being of the planet.”

“We are just not good stewards of power”, he concludes, so to amp up the power that is available to us with unregulated AI, especially beyond the relatively harmless LLMPD (publicly deployed) applications like ChatGPT and Midjourney, is probably not a good idea.

As I’ve written elsewhere, he’s not saying that such realignment is possible, but insists we have to try.

Of course, I don’t share his hopefulness, or that belief. My sense is that our human conditioning of each other is not leading in that direction. I’m not even sure where we would start.

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6 Responses to The Moloch Tragedy

  1. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Yes, I broadly agree with Schmachtenberger that the only conceivable way out of these multi-polar traps is by the creation of powerful, more-than-human systems and institutions that constrain our worst instincts and behaviours (and ideally promote and restore planetary well-being). Sadly, we spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to circumvent the systems and institutions we have already created to do this, and we have also created many alternative systems that are highly efficient at dismantling said systems and which are also remarkably good at amplifying our worst instincts too (e.g. capitalism, social media). Similar to yourself I lack any of Schmachtenberger’s hopefulness. We are far too deep into our particular progress traps to escape; too far past the event horizon of our species’ eco-social collapse.

  2. Paleontology has evidence that for us, like innumerable other specialist species there was NEVER a way out, even at the beginning. Skulls of the fearsome and extinct giant baboon with concave fractures of the brain pan are found occasionally in South African caves. They were contemporaries of some thirty humanoid experiments who also disappeared around the same time, perhaps limiting our own genetic diversity with one more ultimately fatal consequence. What the hell, it’s been an interesting ride.

  3. Julia says:

    Put very shortly: the system IS that no real system exists….

    I would be happy to talk to you !

  4. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Likely to repeat myself here, but at the current moment in history there doesn’t seem sufficient political and social commitment to creating powerful institutions with the authority to both shackle our worst instincts and to tackle the global problems we are facing. Yes, there are rising popularist and neo-facist trends (arguably amplifying the wrong behaviours), and yes the are many emergent ecological and social movements (driven by those who are perceive the enormity of the problems), but there are strong countervailing libertarian commitments too and – tragically – the old, still hegemonic, sclerotic social, economic and political systems keep executing the zombie logic of the multi-polar traps, to apocalypse and beyond. One can imagine some scenarios where there might be a sufficient shock to promotes a species-wide moment of clarity. I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future does this (although I haven’t read it yet), but the likelihood of relapse and falling back into the same-old traps seems exceptionally high. From my own perspective, multiple and unevenly distributed collapses seem to stretch into the distant future, before either extinction (possible, but not likely) or something approximating homeostasis are achieved (whether that would be a return to hunter-gather or another form of subsistence living, who knows). Planetary limits, physics, basic maths and entropy will eventually grind us back down to something that is sustainable.

  5. Ray says:

    Be human. Think shorttime only. Grab whatever you can before somebody else does. Obey the Maximum Power Principle.
    … And for enjoyment have endless discussions about how we should act and reorganize in order to have a nice future.

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