Menaced By Moloch

Menaced By Moloch
Moloch! (Generated via
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Excerpt from "Howl", by Allen Ginsberg

Nowadays, there are a few things that Ginsberg may have added:

Moloch the disinformation hydra! Mutually Assured Destruction! Isolation! Bench spikes! Lies of Hollywood! Slums of Makoko! Prostitutes of New Orleans! Old women mourning a fake yesterday!

Moloch! Moloch! Moloch who screams 'God is dead!' Moloch who turns brother against brother! Moloch the maker of night-shift zombies! Moloch who suckles bureaucrats at their tits! Moloch! Moloch!

What/who is Moloch?

I'm referring to Moloch in the way that Scott Alexander popularized in this article. If you haven't read it, this post might make very little sense.

The modern Moloch is this guy's cousin.

The gist is that Moloch, in this context, is not talking about the ancient Carthaginian god who was remarkably fond of devouring infants.

Instead, Moloch is a personification of "the system." It's what people mean when they say they want to "rage against the machine." More academically, Moloch is the multi-polar trap, or a large-scale prisoner's dilemma, where everyone begins to defect.

An example of this is the current state of Instagram.

Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!

Moloch in our world

Let's say (I know you'll need to use your imagination) that I'm a 20-something girl, trying to build a following on Instagram.

Oversimplifying the situation, let's say I have two options:

  1. Lead an authentic life, and document that. Show my imperfect body, and my life, as I go through the highs and lows.
  2. Say "screw authenticity." Use filters and edited photos to aim to look like a Greek goddess, and give the world dysmorphia. Only take deceptively positive photos, and make the world depressed.

Scrolling through any social media platform, it's easy to see which option has become the overwhelmingly popular choice.

Moloch whose blood is running money!

Cheap rage and lies are the bedrock of our society's entertainment. Who did this? It's hard to place the blame on any individual star in the limelight, or the legions of wannabe microinfluencers hustling in hope of success.

Moloch did this. Most people in that system may be decent on their own. But the pressures of the system force them to sacrifice ethics and depth in favor of the merciless logic of impressions, clicks, and revenue.

Moloch in other guises

Moloch hides everywhere in our society. He is microplastics making rain water unsafe to drink anywhere on the planet.  He is Chinese companies dumping blue dye into rivers. He is the impending death of the Amazon for lumber.

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!

He is the 600+ billion in advertising in 2022 alone, largely meant to sell us unneeded consumerist rubbish. He greedily devours our ocean's fish, so that seafood fisheries may collapse by 2050.

In short, he is the tragedy of ruthless competition, and the tragedy of the commons.

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries...!

Why have we not been devoured by Moloch?

Fortunately, Moloch has chinks in his armor. In our era of abundance, Moloch is pushed back in many domains. People make art, they go to college and take classes on aerial silks, they cut up in pubs, throw feasts and costume parties, and do many other things that would not be associated with a maximally competitive society.

In short, people have slack.

Slack: The absence of binding constraints on behavior.1

But even farther back in time, Moloch had chinks in his armor. The Greeks made beautiful buildings. The Chinese created gorgeous silks. Humanity has stubbornly resisted.

Are things different today?

Unfortunately, we now risk summoning Moloch as a dark god, fully formed, out of the abyss.

Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Here's a few reasons why Moloch may be more dangerous than every before.

Increased Human Capability

Humanity now has the power to completely render the world uninhabitable to human civilization, with several other options on the near horizon.

Nuclear weapons

In the multipolar prisoner's dilemma matrix of nuclear weapons, humanity's deterrence option is a Nash Equilibrium of dual defection. Every nation that can has chosen to build nuclear weapons, or borrow those of a great power. This is a ticking time bomb, with multiple close calls almost having caused nuclear apocalypse.

Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!

Biological weapons

When smallpox first entered the Americas, ~90% of the native population perished. Teeming civilizations of millions were reduced to nothing but dirt mounds, overgrown structures, and shards of pottery.

Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless!

That was an accident. We don't know the exact capabilities of engineered bioweapons. But we don't want to find out.

Moloch's merciless logic of mutually assured destruction, if applied to world-ending bioweapons, could make a lab leak, premature attack, or terrorist action something that humanity would never recover from.

Unaligned Artificial General Intelligence

Perhaps the most dangerous of all of these is the prospect of an AI that doesn't share human values. In the classic example, the race to eke out maximum value out of a factory could easily lead to an early AI model being put in charge of something as benign as maximizing production of paperclips.

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! 

In this case, we could all be dead before we even realize what is happening, killed by an alien god of our own creation.

How can we defeat Moloch?

How do we avoid the myriad of traps that threaten our world's destruction?

Great question. But that's a separate post.

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