Grey goo and the singularity are nearer than they appear Sept 12, 2021
In the early 2000s two near-future apocalyptic scenarios got a decent amount of anxiety airtime: "grey goo" and "the singularity".
Grey goo is the idea that a bacterium could be genetically engineered to metabolize some basic element of the biosphere like nitrogen or water, and would reproduce uncontrollably, covering our previously liveable planet in the eponymous goo.
The singularity is the idea that a machine-based intelligence would exceed humanity in speed and power and subordinate us. This one is a lot more common, and everyone from Elon Musk to Yuval Noah Harari have fretted about it, while Ridley Scott and James Cameron (among others) have elevated it to popular consciousness (e.g. the Terminator films' "Skynet"). (Charles Stross's "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise" are not as well known, but I enjoyed them.)
There are interesting nuanced discussions about the real world possibility of either scenario, but I'm going to sidestep those.
I'm interested in these scenarios as narratives that tap into some preexisting zeigeist-level anxieties. Specifically – and it's funny that it took me a few decades to see this clearly – they are clear allegories for capitalism.
"Grey goo" resonates, I think, because it gives a visceral image to the way the global economic and technological system flattens everything into a commodity – physically, culturally, spiritually.
It's been noted, that there are very few American cities that are actually distinct in any meaningful way. The same chain stores, cultural and economic divisions, coffeeshop decor, housing developments are increasingly available. The same processes are displacing or commodifying everything from regional accents, culinary styles.
Profit-making mind viruses sweep through social media, commodifying friendships and acquaintances as a critical mass seeks to escape the rat race and find their four hour work week.
Out beyond the big boxes and online retailers, natural landscapes are parcelled and packaged as real estate, fracking wells, mines or farmland owned by Bill Gates or some Saudi holding company.
Grey goo indeed.
The singularity isn't "near," as Ray Kurzweil put it in 2005, it already exists. The infection of everything with profit-seeking has created a social and economic system that has transcended and exceeded human agency.
The breakdown (through erosion or direct attack) of institutions that could support and grow non-capitalist ways of acting has left us with capitalist logic as the reigning sovereign. If anyone in a position of wealth or power deviates from exploiting people and lands to generate profit, then they are either replaced or phased out. The best case scenario is that they are tolerated as statistical noise, a stochastic margin that any system lives with. But if their activity becomes a clear, self-amplifying pattern, then it has to be dealt with.
Take Jeff Bezos, now "worth" over $200 billion. He technically does have a choice about whether he continues to ruthlessly exploit not just workers, but the entire social and ecological fabric. If he took Amazon itself in a different direction, he would be very rapidly either devalued or replaced -- the crisis would be instant. But he still has a massive margin of agency.
He *could*, as an individual, have some kind of revelation, cash out rapidly (probably avoiding losing too much of his stock value) and go ahead and have a seismic, global effect on the direction fo the planet.
But to do so, he would literally have to stop being Jeff Bezos, and he would also have to transplant his entire social sphere, intellectual framework and institutional logic all at once.
Now, I maintain that it is *possible* for a human being to have that kind of revelation and subsequent transformation. But for someone in Bezos's position, it's exceedingly unlikely.
The (still very low) likelihood increases during intergenerational transfers of wealth. Warren Buffet's son Peter actually dabbles a bit in, if not anti-capitalist then counter-capitalist projects, for example.
But for someone to reach the global pinnacle of wealth accumulation, there are a lot of safeguards in place against that happening. Even discounting the external influences, cultural mores and hidden assumptions that make up most of our daily lives, the work it would take to turn off all the mental patterns built up during the exploitation phase and put new ones in place is a lifetime of effort for most people.
And to be clear, that doesn't just apply to Bezos. Everyone in a position of any wealth or influence in contemporary global capitalism is subject to this choice of greasing the wheels or getting run over by them.
We mostly keep our eddies of thought or action that run against the current of capitalism small and marginal. Or we pay the price. And why should I be the one to pay the price when those people over there are getting the benefits? I'll miss the chance to bring my values to the table and give them a fair hearing!
And as Justin pointed out on the last episode of Half Past Capitalism, capitalism is not a policy. It's a system of incentives and power allocation that transcends human agency.
Until it doesn't. If that all sounds bleak, it's because it is. If the scenario doesn't seem dystopian to you, it's almost certainly because of the comforting buffer that capitalism is allowing you to have.
It seems inexorable. But as Ursula Le Guin put it, "so did the divine right of kings". It's a collective hallucination, and humanity will get off that bus one way or another. The timing is the key variable.
The questions are different based on position. For the working poor, the question is how to find the energy to organize in a way that unifies people in a common understanding of the source of their exploitation and the origin of their misery, overcoming the endless distractions, entertainments and blind alleys thrown up by capitalism.
For those closer to the administrative core, the question is about what source of motivation can fuel a collective transcendence of the desire for short term gains in relative wealth and power within the individualized logic of the system?
I think in both cases to overcome – to scrape off the grey goo and reenchant the world, and to stop being outsmarted and divided by the singularity – requires tinkering with what it means to be human. And that's really a spiritual question, but it gets resolved through daily behaviour. And that behaviour is shaped by institutions, culture, and socially created incentive structures.
And if that sounds like a network of educational workshops and support groups, that is not far off the mark, at least structurally speaking.
I've said this before, but one of the reasons I think people are so fascinated by cults right now in popular culture is twofold: one is that we're all in thrall to the cult of capital; the other is that we're scared of and fascinated by the idea of subordinating some or all of our labour or ideology to some way of being that is outside the mainstream.
Joining a socialist organization or even a union can feel like a cult, or at least a subculture, because operating on a different logical plane inherently requires different ways of behaving and speaking.
These in turn can be fetishized – mistaken for the goal itself, which is creating a lived experience of solidarity in action that can spread through society and eventually transform it. And the fetishization can definitely be a little queasy-making for those who haven't bought in to an alternative, and are more comfortable in the flattened grey-goo cultural sphere of Netflix norms and Coca Cola conduct.
The origin stories of grey goo and the singularity are themselves part of the mythology that needs to be broken down. Both are seen as arriving as the inevitable result of a process of technological development.
But metaphorically or otherwise there's nothing inevitable about that development. It requires huge amounts of human effort to support, maintain and grow the systems that create self-replicating bio-nanobots, or self-replicating social incentive patterns.
Nothing is static, and our current reality is saturated with contradictions. The question is, how are we preparing now to respond when those contradictions (in ecological systems, in societies and within souls, if you'll allow me the metaphor) reach a crisis point.