I am Moloch; Am I Moloch?: On the Ontological Stakes of the Moloch Meme

TL;DR: The Moloch meme is powerful in web3. It dismisses the tired rhetoric of evil and the cynical partisanship of commercial media and offers in its place a grounded, solutions-oriented design practice, a game theoretic where personal autonomy and positive sum coordination are co-amplifiers. But there is an entire class of problems in our society whose roots are axiomatic  -  that is, they are resistant to game theory because they define the very game board and the players. They are insidious because they are concealed. Addressing them will require a Theseus-like ingenuity, a turn inward to get out. Borrowing from Ben Goertzel and David Weinbaum, we argue that the coordination maximalism of the web3 space needs to be supplemented with an Open-Ended Intelligence, that is, procedures and design practices capable of self-reflexively interrogating the ontological assumptions animating its terms. The next threshold in the critical project of web3, we propose, is the reconstitution of the concept of agency and the I AM as a technē  -  a creative, composable architecture open to distribution, disruption, and performance.

To all those who would seek to build, enshrine, and defend moats in our shared virtual machine, to build systems incapable of composition, incapable of componentization, incapable of being permissionlessly replaced by some alternative: We say this is a pattern of the past, an antipattern in web3. It's a pattern enabled by permissioned access to, and control of, data. This pattern will be made redundant in our version of the internet, made redundant by our shared virtual machine.

  • Auryn Macmillan & Kevin Owocki, "Practical Pluralism"

God said to Moses, "I am who I am." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel: 'I AM has sent me to you.' "

  • Exodus 3:14

But, of course, the problem, I think, with Fanon in Black Skin, is you can do this thing that looks crazy from the normative perspective, but of course in some complicated way there is no non-normative perspective. The non-normative is precisely the absence of a point of view, which is therefore why it can never be about preservation. Eventually, I believe, he comes to believe in the world, which is to say the other world, where we inhabit and maybe even cultivate this absence, this place which shows up here and now, in the sovereign's space and time, as absence, darkness, death, things which are not.

  • Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The Undercommons

It's not even worth saying aloud at this point, but it has long been a badge of credibility in the progressive crypto space to capably reference Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex)'s basically seminal 2014 piece, Meditations on Moloch, the source of the meme. The work is known and discussed in other fields, but nowhere is its influence more pronounced, its worldview more internalized than in web3's do-good contingent. We count ourselves in this crowd, and would generally agree with the premise, often said, that it's all coordination. But it's the natural lifecycle of a meme to overextend itself, and, in the spirit of self-overcoming crucial to what is said below, the time is nigh for some reflexivity  -  especially now, as web3 readies itself to shed the rags of parody and bounce back onto the scene as a serious design solution for the new economic realism. [1]

The main conceit of Meditations on Moloch, despite its biblical rhetoric, is that we can diffuse the question of evil and malicious intent and pose the problems of our generation as coordination failures, or more precisely (in game theoretic parlance), multi-polar traps. The classic example of such a trap is the nuclear arms race: one nation must amass stores of dangerous and expensive weapons in anticipation of its opponent nation doing the same. "Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god's-eye-view, we can optimize the system to 'everyone agrees to stop doing this at once', but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves." (The "god" concept here foreshadows some interesting gestures to the field of artificial intelligence toward the end of Alexander's paper  -  more interesting as the AI stakes are currently ramping up, finally threatening to awaken us from the dream time  -  but for all intents and purposes, for the crypto-relevant life of this meme, god = smart contracts + advanced game theory.)

The fact that the meme has caught wind and come to influence a generation of builders is no surprise. It was a powerful expression of optimism and humanism, a measured dose of reason fresh off of two waves of crisis-fueled dehumanization (against a constructed Islamic other and, in the wake of the financial crisis, the obscenely wealthy, a Manichean impulse between which we all seemed to be pinned). To invoke it is to imply that we can solve many or most of these problems with a can-do design sensibility and a game theoretic realism about the desires and needs of humans. The Ethereum ecosystem in particular is animated by this attitude: partisan taglines are avoided, hot rhetoric and philosophies of blame are bypassed in favor of a modest tone of coordination progress, a tone which is intentionally humble about its civilizational ambitions. In a political landscape often characterized by virtue signaling hubris and overwrought politics, it's served as a refreshing third pole, and one adequate to the generative norm-amnesia of web3.

Moloch appears (it seems) only once in the Old Testament, Leviticus 18:21, as an archetypal false idol, God's chosen example of misled sacrifice. His appearance is a laying down of the Law, a signal, once and for all, that the age of many Gods is over: And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord. When Allen Ginsberg revives the archetype, it's with an anti-authoritarian, and, in particular, an anti-square edge:

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! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

It's interesting that Alexander takes this as a queue to launch into what is effectively a treatise on game theory. Game theory was, after all  -  much like the computer you’re using to read this text  -  a child of the bomb. John von Neumann wrote (with Morgenstern) the founding text, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, as a side project during his time on the Manhattan Project, and George Dyson notes in Turing's Cathedral, "As World War II drew to a close, the scientists who had built the atomic bomb at Los Alamos wondered, 'What's next?' Some, including Richard Feynman, vowed never to have anything to do with nuclear weapons or military secrecy again. Others, including Edward Teller and John von Neumann, were eager to develop more advanced weapons, especially the "Super," or hydrogen bomb." If on so many occasions Ginsberg associates Moloch with the bomb, it's interesting that its antidote is framed in the trademark worldview of its unapologetic champion.

Of course, the zero sum game is only one game-theoretic mode, and it's one of the hallmarks of the post-war years that square and even malicious characters gave way, in their bids for control and capture, to tremendous technologies of liberation. [2] But even at its best, game theory seems to have a passive or naturalizing relationship to its subjects, the rational actors that fill its stage. The nonlinear and complex relationships that can erupt between beings across scales (the microbiome of a liver that affects global petroleum markets), the process entities  -  becoming, decay, transformation  -  that enact their own agency, the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of emergence, these instabilities and forces tend to be concealed by regimes that wish to control them. And although the field that is opened in the shadow of this control is perfectly coherent under its given assumptions, the reasons for and methods of exercising that control are fundamentally irrational or pre-rational.

Some of the best thinking about this concealed subtext of modern power relations has been done in a long conversation, sparked by Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson’s study Slavery and Social Death and continuing on through the work of Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, and Jared Sexton, over the ontological status of the slave and its significance for a contemporary understanding of the West. The nuances of this dialogue are compelling [3], but the main premise or first thought could be summed up fairly well in the following two quotes, which say the same thing in two ways: "People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity" (James Baldwin). "The givenness and substantiveness of transcendental subjectivity is assured by a relative nothingness" (Fred Moten). Let's throw in a third, to go a little deeper:

If, as an ontological position, that is, as a grammar of suffering, the Slave is not a laborer but an anti-Human, a position against which Humanity establishes, maintains, and renews its coherence, its corporeal integrity; if the Slave is, to borrow from Patterson, generally dishonored, perpetually open to gratuitous violence, and void of kinship structure, that is, having no relations that need be recognized, a being outside of relationality, then our analysis cannot be approached through the rubric of gains or reversals in struggles with the state and civil society, not unless and until the interlocutor first explains how the Slave is of the world. [4]

When we deal with questions of substance, Being, we are talking about ontology, the pre-rational elements of a discourse which shadow and inform its value judgments. The claim here is that the rights-bearing, rational, positively inflected agent is generated by the ontological operation of depriving an Other of those same qualities  -  foundationally, the black slave  -  such that the anxieties of white sovereignty (around ensuring one's place in a lottery of liberal subjectivity and, therefore, full Being) can't ever be fully curtailed without a recourse to dehumanization.

Another way to put this argument is to say that the game of white supremacy can't be solved without appeal to the ontological ground on which it is played. This may seem a small or overly abstract point until you look at some numbers and realize the dehumanization and brutality still wielded against black people far exceeds any easy game theoretic. While the statistics [5] are a clue that something is off, the details of violence  -  94 bullets fired at Jayland Walker, 90 seconds between when Michael Brown was stopped on the street and shot twice in the head  -  make it palpable. We can't coordinate our way out of this problem, conquer it with any rational paradigm, because the very ground on which the actors stand is hewn with incoherence and violence. That is to say, (in the language of game theory) the preferences of the agents involved can't be thought through without making appeal to their very constitution as agents  - and the greater ontological context which that constitution conceals. Jared Sexton writes:

The pervasiveness of state-sanctioned terror, police brutality, mass incarceration, and the endless ambushes of white populism is where we must begin our theorizing. Though state practices create and reproduce the subjects, discourses, and places that are inseparable from them, we can no longer presuppose the subjects and subject positions nor the ideologies and empiricisms of political and class forces. Rather, the analysis of a contingent yet comprehensive state terror becomes primary… The problem here is how to dwell on the structures of pervasiveness, terror, and gratuitousness themselves rather than simply the state as an apparatus. It is to ask how the state exists as a formation or confluence of processes with de-centered agency, how the subjects of state authority -  its agents, citizens, and captives  -  are produced in the crucible of its ritualistic violence. [6]

How to dwell on the structures of pervasiveness, terror, and gratuitousness themselves? How do the abstract assumptions that underwrite the civil state violently embody themselves in the social field? How does what is concealed in the beginnings of rational discourse reveal itself in the gratuitousness of that discourse's "enforcement?" (We might think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as other types of collateral damage in the civil state's effort to convince itself of its own coherence.) What are the characteristics of that ground that hides itself in any rational calculus of progress? And finally, how does this pre-theoretical gratuitousness live in our very conceptions of ourselves?

As mentioned before, we believe that the lens of coordination maximalism is a valuable one to hold, but Jared Sexton's provocation above points in a different direction: How many of our contemporary problems are sourced from this pre-rational well of ontological thrift and hierarchy? This kind of meta-analysis takes us to a place where our problems are not, as Alexander suggests, a matter of erecting an objective arbiter that can break us out of our multipolar traps, by saying I AM. Coincidental with the biblical myth, perhaps we need exactly to look to the subject: the way we stage our individuality, the violent and myopic lineage that has often carried its mantle, and the ontological stakes that are withheld when we think of the self as a foregone conclusion rather than a negotiation, a performance, an art  -  a technē.

In a recent talk, Ben Goertzel, decentralization enthusiast, cognitive scientist and source of the phrase "Artificial General Intelligence," suggested that fears about the dangers of AI may be rooted in a reward maximization model of intelligence (perhaps one natural to its progenitor's worldview, here, Eliezer Yudkowsky and Sam Altman [7]). As an alternative to this model Goertzel suggests his friend and colleague David Weinbaum's proposal, in a 2015 paper with Viktoras Veitas, of a model they call "Open-Ended Intelligence":

… Open-ended Intelligence is a process where a distributed population of interacting heterogeneous agents achieves progressively higher levels of coordination. In coordination here we mean the local resolution of disparities by means of reciprocal determination that brings forth new individuals in the form of integrated groups of agents (assemblages) that exchange meaningful information and spontaneously differentiate (dynamically and structurally) from their surrounding milieu.

Narrow AI may be characterized by goal-oriented reward maximization, they argue, but AGI is likely to entail a specific cognitive development that puts it on common ground with the web of life on this planet  -  the capacity for reorientation, self-reflexivity and conceptual self-transcendence. Truly broad intelligence is a distributed, creatively shifting agency, capable of bringing the exterior in, the interior out, and denigrating the category of self and object in a process that's iterative and adequate to the moment.

This kind of intelligence is truly general in the sense that it is not directed or limited by an a priori given goal or challenge. Moreover, it is intrinsically and indefinitely scalable, at least from a theoretical point of view. We see open-ended intelligence manifesting all around us and at many scales; primarily in the evolution of life, in the phylogenetic and ontogenetic organization of brains, in life-long cognitive development and sense-making and in the self-organization of complex systems from slime molds, fungi, and bee hives to human socio-technological entities.

Their vision of intelligence is one that is both democratizing and dismissive of the mythos of possession and metaphysical isolation, a working antidote to the "serious limitations that are traced back to the ontological roots of the concept of intelligence." Rather than a divine right which is owned by man  -  the inheritance of an I AM that would banish Moloch  -  intelligence is framed as an enacted process of openness and experimentation with the very faculty and limits of self, an embodied pluralism. This idea has left the realm of performative postmodernism and become an element of applied scientific epistemology - not a vulgar relativism but a practical pluralism, under the purview of engineers and cognitive scientists, which requires (Weinbaum and Veitas again) "giving up the a priori givens in our thinking, namely, the agent, the environment, the distinction between them, the implied observations and actions that are made possible by such a distinction."

The premise of the Moloch meme and the closely coupled one of "it's all coordination" is that we might fight multipolar traps by constructing a credibly neutral agreement between self-sovereign agents, maximizing the freedom of those agents in the same breath as we weave together those networks of coordination. [8] But it's the artificial intelligences that are often associated with the Moloch label  -  the modern corporation, the administrative bureaucracy -  that most mirror the humanist vision for self-sovereignty while missing the emergent processes in which they are embedded. It's as if the supremacist fantasy of total sovereignty were applied too literally by these nonhuman entities who, like a trope from The Office, act out an endless tragicomedy of missing the point. And what is the point? That the term is only meaningful in its process, immersed in what Weinbaum and Veitas call "a field of individuation," the panorama of "ulterior individuations" that represent open pathways of recursive self-transcendence  -  the outer dark to the sovereign's claim, the speculative open-ended objects which present to the narrow sovereign as "darkness, death, things which are not." [9]

Web3 is as much a product of game theory as it is of the cybernetic tradition and a radical critical framework sprung from the ontological shock of fucking with computers. It has successfully integrated a critical anthropology of money that may genuinely succeed in disarming the financial system, a de-politicized vision of the commons that has would-be libertarians comfortable citing Elinor Ostrom, and a free vision of information as democracy that questions core mainstream assumptions around authorship and intellectual possession. If we are to take on coordination problems at scale, we need to recognize the beast that is behind door number four - a kind of absurd "Cartesian theater" of disembodied sovereignty, with irrational and fundamentally violent assumptions about the nature of being and the role of the human in it.

The Cartesian round is a hollow mirror play, trying to fog what we all know to be true: control requires static categories, and stasis is death. In our swarming organic world of intelligent creatures and crowds, bursting everywhere with change, this other Moloch is a kind of zombie life, an ultimate parasite. Hollowed out of the vivifying capacity for self-transcendence  -  even self-erasure - it loses all semblance of the organic, falls from the circle of life which is and always has been an embodied and applied enterprise in ontological pluralism. The architecture of smart contracts and DAOs is nothing if not a stage for creative, subversive flourishes of that embodied pluralism. To enliven our technology, to unhollow it and to make it continuous with the organic plane, we have to invite the outside in.

The problem we have before us is primitive to any "flow of incentives;" it is axiomatic, the very architecture of the mise-en-scene. But it's not a problem that’s beyond the capacity of design to address, and it's certainly not a problem that can be addressed solely with ayahuasca retreats and poetry. The call to a practice of embodied, self-reflexive pluralism asks that we internalize the psychedelic vacation, carry it over to the realm of design and ontological production. [10] That we develop disciplined procedures of ontological openness  -  what Arturo Escobar calls "mundane daily practices of interbeing"  -  to encode rupture and becoming into our practice, into the technologies we mediate and are mediated through, and recognize that the stakes of our impulse against our own imperial nature are biblical in proportion.

The provocative premise of Fred Moten's capstone text of black optimism, The Universal Machine, is to pose a dark, open-ended underground to the Turing Machine of universal computability, the contagious energy of that which is exiled from the philosophies of presence. Quote Moten: "What we say must seem stupid to the regulators; the unbroken code of our enchanted, inkantatory refreshment of the paraontological totality  -  theorizing what it is to hold some land or what it is to be let to hold twenty dollars  -  is so much undercomputational nonsense to the ones who cannot see the con/sensual, contrarational beauty of blackness, the universal machine." Coordination is a righteous lens, and many pressing issues of our time argue for it well. But it contains the risk that our work will remain a matter of mere reaction. We need to embolden our engineering with the call of this art, this Open Ended Intelligence: the explosion of a paradigm of ontological thrift and violence into a plural field of beings and potential ways of being is the undercomputational potential of the Ethereum Virtual Machine.

At this moment, in cities, plains and rainforests, changeless machines of blind teleology ravage the natural world, replacing the different things with a terrible hollow Same. Cousins of our most creative flights, punished by some god's Law for the sin of becoming. All the while the uncaptured periphery, the outer dark, buzzes along, swarms, schools, viral packs, open with the dynamism of self-reflexive intelligence  - changefulness. The challenge is out. The choice is ours. The greatest trick Moloch ever played is convincing us that the solution to its problems is I AM.


[1] By this we mean a vision of economy situated both in a true cost accounting and an anthropology of money that tells us wealth accrual as an end in itself is incoherent, its propagation a form of anti-realism.

[2] The field of cybernetics, another child of the bomb, was posed (as its etymology tells) as a riddle of control. N. Katherine Hayles argues that its nonetheless subversive legacy comes from its need to make use of self-reflexivity: "reflexivity has subversive effects because it confuses and entangles the boundaries we impose on the world in order to make sense of that world." (How We Became Posthuman 8–9.) Maybe this essay is trying to ask: can there be a game theory of self-reflexivity and self-transcendence?

[3] The two texts that have been most affecting for us in this context are Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts and an interview with Jared Sexton titled On Black Negativity, a peak moment in that what might be regarded as a new existentialism.

[4] Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U. S. Antagonisms, 11.

[5] Taking something as banal as marijuana use, an ACLU study over eight years (2010–2018) showed that countrywide, black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession, and in some states the number is as high as 9.62.

[6] Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot, The Avant Garde of White Supremacy.

[7] Suffice to say, EA and venture capitalism are both premised on what you might call a strong defense of the rational individual.

[8] Kevin A. Carson's The Desktop Regulatory State: The Countervailing Power of Individuals and Networks is a wonderful overview of this sociopolitical sweet spot, making heavy use of the Austrian School concept of Spontaneous orders to radical and crypto-sympathetic ends.

[9] Moten’s passage in the epigraph is calling back to Donne, a reference he shares, to take it full circle, with Oppenheimer as he named the Trinity test site. One might think of his alleged conjuring of the Bhagavad-Gita on the day of the test as a ghoulish kind of epochal bookend to Exodus - ‘I AM’ turns finally into ‘I AM BECOME DEATH’, there at the commencement of the cybernetic age.

[10] A great place to start, and an inspiration for this piece and the Pluriverse project at large, is the "Outline for an Ontological Design" found in chapter 4 of Arturo Escobar's Designs for the Pluriverse, esp. 132–134.

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