Soft Decadence

A thoroughly-considered challenge to the accelerationist orientation is formulated by ‘Viznut’ at countercomplex, who has been receiving a lot of attention recently for this remarkable blog essay. A significant sample:

What happens if you give this buggy civilization a virtual world where the abundance of resources grows exponentially, as in Moore’s law? Exactly: it adopts the extropian attitude, aggressively harnessing as much resources as it can. Since the computing world is virtually limitless, it can serve as an interesting laboratory example where the growth-for-its-own-sake ideology takes a rather pure and extreme form. Nearly every methodology, language and tool used in the virtual world focuses on cumulative growth while neglecting many other aspects.

To concretize, consider web applications. There is a plethora of different browser versions and hardware configurations. It is difficult for developers to take all the diversity in account, so the problem has been solved by encapsulation: monolithic libraries (such as Jquery) that provide cross-browser-compatible utility blocks for client-side scripting. Also, many websites share similar basic functionality, so it would be a waste of labor time to implement everything specifically for each application. This problem has also been solved with encapsulation: huge frameworks and engines that can be customized for specific needs. These masses of code have usually been built upon previous masses of code (such as PHP) that have been designed for the exactly same purpose. Frameworks encapsulate legacy frameworks, and eventually, most of the computing resources are wasted by the intermediate bloat. Accumulation of unnecessary code dependencies also makes software more bug-prone, and debugging becomes increasingly difficult because of the ever-growing pile of potentially buggy intermediate layers.

This is an abundance-driven decadence theory, and a highly plausible one. Viznut draws his discussion towards its conclusion on a somber note: “I am convinced that our civilization is already falling and this fall cannot be prevented.” There is much here worth pondering upon (so read it all).

3 thoughts on “Soft Decadence

  1. Not really impressed. Is this what Marxism for coders looks like? (cause it’s boring as fuck)
    This for example made no sense to me:

    “Our mainstream economic system is oriented towards maximal production and growth. This effectively means that participants are forced to maximize their portions of the cake in order to stay in the game. It is therefore necessary to insert useless and even harmful “tumor material” in one’s own economical portion in order to avoid losing one’s position. This produces an ever-growing global parasite fungus that manifests as things like black boxes, planned obsolescence and artificial creation of needs.”

    Specifically the part about “maximizing portions of the cake” is ridiculous. And from that all that follows in this paragraph is completely bonkers.
    The guy seems to be saying that division of labor is bad because it causes “alienation”. (so yeah, marxism for nerds)
    Can you explain to me why you are taking this more serious that the usual romantic anti-division of labor arguments? Because, ignoring the programming references, the points this guy makes have been rehashed a billion times over the last 150 years.

    Now, cumulative growth in the modern economy, emphasizing on maximizing GDP is obviously parasitic and I would be the last guy to say that the modern economic arrangement is without its fair share of problems. But maximizing GDP, as we both know, is not *real* growth in any meaningful sense. However, from the looks of it, this guy seems to be arguing against growth maximization in general, which is why I think he sounds far too romantic.

    Isn’t higher entropy dissipation the price we pay for higher complexity? Of course more complex system will have more possible bugs than less complex ones, because (duh) they are more complex, therefore much more errors can happen. There is an obvious tradeoff at work here. Is the tradeoff worth it? That’s up to Gnon to decide. And so far more complex systems have always dominated less complex ones. What this guy is unhappy about is not just the principle of modern civilization. It is the principle of life. Complexity wins.

    Actually his whole argument rests on the assumption that complex systems necessarily bring with themselves a wasteful “bloat” which makes them buggy. The reality is not that simple however. Complex systems can suffer from wasteful bloats, but generally they evolve to be more flexible and even more efficient than simpler systems. Flexibility is the important thing here, but flexibility is also efficiency. For instance consider this example he himself gives:

    “Tell a bunch of average software developers to design a sailship. They will do a web search for available modules. They will pick a wind power module and an electric engine module, which will be attached to some kind of a floating module. When someone mentions aero- or hydrodynamics, the group will respond by saying that elementary physics is a far too specialized area, and it is cheaper and more straight-forward to just combine pre-existing modules and pray that the combination will work sufficiently well.”

    Doesn’t he realize that if the soft. developers manage to successfully build a sailship using this method, it is both more flexible AND more efficient, rather than them trying to study elementary physics in order to do it?
    That’s the whole point of division of labor. We wouldn’t fking do it in the first place if it wasn’t more efficient.

    Seriously, I started by not being sure what to think about his post and know I am almost convinced his whole thesis is quite stupid.
    Maybe I am missing something here and not reading it properly?

    • In the absence of stringent resource constraints, systems tend to degenerate into mush. That’s sound Darwinism, isn’t it?

      I agree with you that economic competition should be able to supply the necessary pressure, but when you look at software bloat (an undeniably real thing) the impression is one of almost entirely undisciplined sprawl. Fascism-phase Anglophone Capitalism shut down the creative destruction mechanism at the same time Moore’s Law hurled everyone into infotech Cornucopia — not a great recipe for lean-and-hungry Malthusian design processes.

  2. ‘limitlessness’ becomes delusional when encapsulated (ideology); difference between ‘cumulative growth’ in open and closed systems.
    what even is a ‘closed’ system, other than one for which the really-encapsulating open system has been delusionally encapsulated (as a dependency on / assumption of some particular kind of limitlessness).
    also, functions of division of physical labor & of intellectual labor are probably not analogous, considering theoretical comprehension as data compression, vs. physical economy of scale, which could be looked at as an expansion of the technical procedure-theorem (more like reciprocals than analogues).
    not a regular commenter here; please forgive (defensive) terseness. I’m gonna replicate this at countercomplex too, jus2bfair;).

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