Postone on Capital and History

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This Moishe Postone lecture has been the soundtrack to this morning’s chores. It’s really great, and provides a straightforward unpacking of a lot the stuff going on in his dense-but-awesome 1993 work Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

One of the very intriguing points that Postone makes in his book is the way that, in chapter four Capital Volume 1 – the chapter that introduces the classic M – C – M’ ‘feedback loop’ schema – Marx resurrects Hegel’s depiction of the Geist, as an independent or self-moving substance, to describe capital itself. It’s an incredibly important point for understanding what is going on in Marx’s mature work, as undoes the common perception of the proletariat or humanity (ascending to the realization of its species-being) as the ‘subject’ of history, and attributes this position instead to capital itself.

Postone delves into this in the lecture above, and it’s worth reiterating here because it is stated so clearly. Speaking of the inner dynamics of the capitalist system (this starts somewhere in minute 37), he states:

On the one hand, it is characterized by ongoing, even accelerating, transformations of production and of social life. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental conditions as an unchanging feature of social life. Namely, that value is reconstituted, that social mediation ultimately remained affected by labor, and that living labor remains integral to the total social process of production, regardless of the level of productivity. So the historical dynamic of capitalism, and I think people only usually get one side, ceaselessly generates what is the same while always generating what is new. As I will elaborate, it both generates the possibility of another organization of labor and of social life, and at the same time hinders that possibility from being realized.

This dynamic, generated by the dialectic of abstract time and dialectical time, is at the heart of the category of capital, which for Marx is a category of movement. It’s value in motion. It has no fixed material embodiment. Now since this is an institute of philosophy, it’s significant that when Marx first introduces the category of capital in the book Das Kapital, he describes it with exactly the same language that Hegel used with reference to the Geist in the Phenomenology. The “self-moving substance” that is the subject of its own process. People like Althusser say to just forget all of this Hegelian language. In so doing, Marx suggests that Hegel’s notion of history, as having a logic, as the dialectical unfolding of a subject, is valid, but only for capitalist society. Moreover, Marx does not define Hegel’s subject with the proletariat, or even with humanity. Instead he identifies it with capital: a dynamic structure of abstract domination that, although constituted by humans, is independent of their will.

What I’m suggesting is that Marx’s mature critique of Hegel does not involve an anthropological inversion of Hegel’s idealist dialectic. Rather, I’m going to suggest that this is the idealist dialectic’s material justification. Marx implicitly argues that the rational core of Hegel’s dialectic is precisely its idealistic character. It is an expression of a mode of domination constituted by alienated relations – that is, relations that acquire a quasi-independent existence vis-a-vis individuals, exert a certain form of compulsion on them, and that because of their dualistic character are dialectical. Notice that categories like historical subject, totality, labor have now become the objects of Marx’s critique, not the standpoint of his critique.

The first part of the above quoted clearly speaks the central concern reiterated by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, that of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of constantly putting things into play, producing the new, even things that threaten to overwhelm itself, but also restraining these things, cutting them off, appropriating and recoding them, or even dredging up archaisms to repress them. In the language of Difference and Repetition, we might describe this situate as the subordination of difference to the Repetition of the Same – and it is probably by no mistake, then, that in the very second paragraph of the book’s introduction Deleuze writes of equivalence as a generality, that is, “a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another”. For Marx, money – an expression of the law of value, that which flows through the self-expanding, self-moving, cyberpositive process of M – C – M’, plays the role of the general equivalent, the special category of commodities that all other commodities can be translated into or otherwise mediated by.

Elsewhere in this lecture Postone posits a Marxist understanding history that is neither linear-determinist or strictly contingent, and in this he comes close to that which has haunted all debates in the accelerationist sphere, the Kantian antimony of causal determinism and spontaneity – or to put it in more contemporary, system theoretic terms, the troubled intermingling of lock-in effects and self-organization. Or again, as the esteemed Thomas Murphy once put it, the Deleuzian problematic of hierarchies and anarchies, ‘solved’ in the form of the morphogenetic crowned anarchy.

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ACC vs DEC

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Modernity is in trouble. That’s the line, at least that is emerging from a particular sector of the twitterverse. It’s not a new line, of course: it’s the common call of the environmentalist movement writ large. What makes these new voices significant, however, is that their position is not only cybernetic, but transcendental. To declare oneself a decelerationist – and this applies to both those who seek a decelerationist praxis (as in, annihilating industrial civilization) or see deceleration as a given (leaving room only for mitigation and reaction when the SHTF) – is the engendering of an inverted mirror of the accelerationist. Whereas acceleration is the diagram of modernity, understood as the tragic loop of techno-capital undergoing amplificatory self-excitation, decelerationism throws the unconditional back upon the body of the earth, rife with its own loops and pressure points.

Between each there is a glimpse of a future political terrain to be caught. As anticipated with remarkable foresight by FM-2030, this terrain will be battleground where the “upwing” and the “downwing” collide. The latter looks to the earth, and thus would be like the extensive articulation of deceleration in the realm of politics, with the former being that of acceleration, gazing skyward. To those returning to the earth, the color green, and to those taking flight, black:

FM-2030 was an inveterate up-winger whose vitrified corpse awaits resurrection at the Arizona cryonics mecca, Alcor. However, even as the ecology movement was gathering steam, FM-2030 failed to see that the down-wing tendency could generate at least as much passion as his own political faith. Nowadays, down-wingers proudly self-identify as ‘Greens’. As for the up-wingers, they have begun to be colour-coded as ‘Blacks’ — and not simply because of their 1980s dress sense. The phrase ‘Black Sky Thinking’ was coined in a 2004 study by the centre-left UK think-thank Demos, and over the past decade it has increasingly been used to refer to schemes to make the whole inky expanse of the universe fit for human habitation.

As the political binary of left and right collapse into noise and nonsense (understood in the most unproductive sense), green and black stand to be serious contenders for their replacement – implying, by extension, a host of strange mixtures and hybrids, third positions, odd ghosts, and diagonalizations, but we’re running far ahead of ourselves…

The tragic loop of acceleration is that of positive feedback. This image is convergent with the thesis of John Michael Greer, Arch-Druid and decelerationist avant la lettre: civilization, particularly in its industrial phase, unfolds through phases of explosive positive feedback, thrusting creative forces to ever-higher heights. Yet this comes at an immense cost: for Greer, positive feedback is ultimately aberrant in nature. It breaks with the higher order feedback process that dominates nature and lends to it the capacity for auto-correction – that is, negative feedback, the return to homeostasis. Stripping themselves of the ability to correct their runaway trajectories, civilizations become suicide machines. The skyward flight becomes a terrifying fall back to the earth, culminating in green pastures littered with burning wreckage.

Greer’s bloody war between positive and negative feedback is thus a rigorous cybernetic account for cyclical theories of history. Read through the lenses of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, one could even say that Greer’s history is a theater where repetition of the same carries out its staccato dance; after all, it is under the repetition of the same that the abstract cycle is carried out, always bringing a system back to its initial condition. A society or civilization will always be born into the world, grow, engage creatively with nature, peak, curdle with corruption, stagnate, and collapse. Trace this pattern upwards beyond individual civilizations, to the swath of human civilization understood as a whole, or up even higher, to the great movement of nature itself, or the movement of the cosmos, and you’ll arrive at the position of Greer. There’s no better way to articulate the horizon of the decelerationist thesis.

On one hand, the conflict becomes one of competing motors governing development in itself: is it the knowing homeostat with gently violent negative feedback pressure, or is the homeostat missing, with the heat of cyberpositive runaway taking precedence (there is no easy answer to this question yet, but it is worth noting that both ultimately end in doom)? On the other hand, however, things get a little murky. If deceleration is raised under the specter of the cycle, this would imply that acceleration is that of the straight line. For Kant (and Deleuze as well), time is ultimately the straight line that cuts through everything that is. It is cold, uncaring, empty and open-ended development in its most abstracted sense, the permanent revolution that composes the stretch of the infinite itself. But this isn’t the time of acceleration itself. Following Land, acceleration must be thought of as unfolding within the straight line of time, but in the form of the spiral: the diagonalization between the straight line and the cycle, the uncompensated and the compensatory mechanism, attached to the running of “innovation and tradition together as Siamese twins” across its masked surface.

If acceleration is the accurate diagram of modernity, the cycle is already present. The future terrain stays the same, but color shades subtly adjust themselves. The burning question at the heart of it all – what is modernity doing? – can be answered as thus: critique. The posing of solutions to problems. If capitalism works by breaking down, by learning to learning, it is because modernity advances itself through encounters with problems that must either be solved or routed-around. The ecological pressure cooker bearing down on global civilization is the articulation of an immense problem, one that is indeed perhaps unsolvable. The cry to assault modernity on account of this problem is a forceful posing of the problem from the interior of modernity itself, the early spasms of a coming transformation.

The future, at least in the West, looks grim. Whatever molar shake-ups that took place in 2016 and 2017 are fading, the sheer weirdness of the time being slowly but surely recoded back into a neoconservative status quo. The bourgeoisie remain stupified, the political class broken, the great underclass masses go through the rotations. Yet will this not change, by very want of impending ecological devastation? As the noose tightens, the political articulation of deceleration will only proliferate. The existential risk of conflict will hang like a storm cloud as the black and the green draw respective lines – but this rain could very well be nourishing fluids for modernity. This is not to say that the dialectical parring is what saves modernity for itself, or that on side will necessarily win against the other. Instead, such a conflict would be learning, modernity itself working through to an other side that we cannot, by necessity, know in advance.

Understood as elements tangled in auto-critique and production, black and green are both trapped right from the start. It is in the rising from this to the level of the loops that the future of civilization will be made, or will be broken.

Compensation and Escape

 

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In the earlier post Mixed Bag, I mentioned briefly Land’s argument that long-term cyberpositive trends – that is, cybernetic excitation or positive feedback unfolding primarily through technomic cycling – is continually dampened by a compensatory mechanism. Perhaps we can think of being similar to the importance of frequency compensation in electrical engineering, particularly in the case of amplifiers, which deploy negative feedback  mechanisms in order to pull back the wild oscillations and distortion engender by the lock-in to a positive feedback loop. Slotting this into the historical drift of technomic escalation, however, changes this a bit: the positive feedback process remains in the primary position, and dampening can only be secondary. Paradoxically – and this is where things get truly loopy – is that this secondary becomes a conduit through which the primary expresses itself. Consider the three forms of cybernetic circuits that cut across cyberpositive and cybernegative tendencies, as described by Land in his CCRU-era essay “Circuitries”:

  1. Long-range positive feedback: the primary cyberpositive process, characterized by continual escalation and the folding-in of machinic convergence (the ultimate unknown unknown of impending technomic concresence).
  2. Short-range positive feedback: short, harsh, unstable bursts of cyberpositivity that burn themselves out.
  3. Stabilization mechanisms: circuits that operate against cyberpositive in an attempt to suppress mutation and contagion. Ecumenonical.

These forms can be further related to the cybernetic model of history cultivated by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, where development unfolds through the coding, territorialization, decoding, and deterritorialization of flows, and the modulation of these forms through mechanisms that ward off  mutagenic shocks to each historical stage. The primitive socius carried out a dual-warding suspended between the figure of the warrior and the shaman; the former, as Clastres demonstrated, played a role in preventing the formation of the State through the use of constant warfare, while the latter capture deterritorializing flows that threatened to return the socius to the biocosmic ocean. In the age of the despotic State, it was the body of the despot itself that capture these flows, which in the age of the Civilized Capitalist Machine passed to the capitalist state (as the force of anti-production that is subordinated to, yet aids, capitalist production) and Oedipus itself. For the despotic State, warding-off the impending flux of capital was paramount; for the Civilized Capitalist Machine, it is the pull of capital itself towards the edge of the edge, where everything gives way to burning, cosmic schizophrenia. Schizo-Marketization.

The long arc that bends towards this future apocalypse is the long-range positive feedback process, and the mechanisms for warding-off and capture constitute stabilization mechanisms. In each case the slippage towards what is warded off can be deferred for a while, but can never be absolute. It happens despite all attempts to halt it. What does tend to get churned out, however, are those explosions of short-range positive feedback.

In the parlance of Land’s more contemporary work, the stabilization mechanism of the capitalist epoch is precisely what Moldbug described as the Cathedral. To return to Re-accelerationism:

…the Cathedral acquires its teleological definition from its emergent function as the cancellation of capitalism: what it has to become is the more-or-less precise negative of historical primary process, such that it composes — together with the ever more wide-flung society-in-liquidation it parasitizes — a metastatic cybernetic megasystem, or super-social trap. ‘Progress’ in its overt, mature, ideological incarnation is the anti-trend required to bring history to a halt. Conceive what is needed to prevent acceleration into techno-commercial Singularity, and the Cathedral is what it will be.

In a great post on this same topic, Uri the Cyborg Nomad drops this excellent diagram of the dampening effects of the Cathedral on technomic cyberpositivity. Hopefully he won’t mind it being reproduced here:

the-cathedral

This may seem different from the usual image of the Cathedral offered by neoreactionaries, which often seems to be a stand-in for progressive policies they don’t like. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t encompass that – the opposite, in fact! Far from being a particular mode of politics, the Cathedral defines totality of the political machine, which is intrinsically bound to self-replication (far from being stupid, politics wants more of itself), self-preservation, profit-seeking, hegemonic functioning, and – as a result from each of these – an inclination towards universalism in increasingly more managerial modes. It is for this reason that Land describes a Left Singularity that is locked into a doomed conflict with an impending future Right Singularity

[Many will immediately jump on this point and point out that this framing of singularities along a Left – Right line doesn’t quite gel with the muddied (and frankly nonsensical) history of these terms. I know, I know. To ward off in advance the endless quagmire of debate over what these terms means, consider the way in which Land is using them here: taken most generally, Left here designates the political, and Right designates anti-politics. Consider that what is being called unconditional accelerationism was, originally, called right accelerationism by Land:

a framework which would slot both the left accelerarionism and right accelerationism critiqued by unconditional accelerationism into the the framework of the Left. U/Acc, however, moves in a different direction by referring to the political in terms of a grand Left, but a mutually reinforcing secondary circuit in which left and right self-excite one another through reinforcement, antagonism, and constructive blurring. Clear as mud? Cool.]

Something that I’ve been interested in is how Land sees Neoreaction itself fitting into this schema. It designates something still internal to the Age of the Civilized Capitalist Machine – the encounter with the Dweller on the Threshold is still a ways off yet – but past the Cathedral proper, which is anticipated to be shattered into countless, fractioning polities. The death of politics, by way of the insane multiplication? Such a maneuver would constitute the annihilation of the universalist stabilization mechanisms, though it would – in the patchwork model, at least – make possible all sorts of localized, dynamic, and variable stabilization mechanisms available. This flips back to an argument posed on this blog before: that what Land designates the Cathedral and Fisher assessed as “capitalist realism” are, in fact, the same thing (once we separate capitalism from cyberpositive capital, and approach capitalist realism via the former), and that breaking through to the other side of these immense blockages opens into a plane of differentiation: micro-scaled units rising up like a nano-swarm. But, Land argues, and yet this is ultimately as doomed as the Cathedral itself, as is made clear by the brief comments on the ultimate fate of neoreaction at the end of Dark Techno-Commercialism:

Dark Techno-Commercialism — provisionally summarized — is the suspicion that the ‘Right Singularity’ is destined to occur in surreptitious and antagonistic relation to finalistic political institutions, that the Cathedral culminates in the Human Security System, outmatched and defeated from the Outside, and that all hopes that these ultimate historical potentialities will be harnessed for politically intelligible ends are vain. It is, therefore, the comprehension of capitalism ‘in-itself’ as an outsider that will never know — or need — political representation. Instead, as the ultimate enemy, it will envelop the entirety of political philosophy — including anything neoreaction can contribute to the genre — as the futile strategic initiatives (or death spasms) of its prey. (emphasis added)

There’s a rabbit hole to tumble down here, full of numogrammatic, Deleuzeguattarian, and Thelemaic resonances that are best left for future investigation – though it’s worth considering how the above relates to the neoreactionary Trichotomy. This triad model is used to survey the terrain of NRx in a way that, on one hand, illustrates its opposition to the Cathedral, and on the other illustrates its own internal oppositions. By sketching all of these out, the Trike reveals an intended motor of fragmentation, where the pieces can never really fit into a higher unity synthesis, and can only ever proceed through ongoing shattering. The three sides are: Theonomy, Ethnonationalism, and Techno-commercialism. The first finds itself into opposition to the treatment of religion under progressivist universalism, and is resolutely opposed to ethnonationalism and techno-commercialism; the second rejects political integration and the demand for multiculturalism, and is opposed to theonomy and techno-commercialism; and techno-commercialism clashes with the technomic dampening of the stabilization mechanisms, and can only ever be structurally opposed to theonomy and ethnonationalism (it’s clear that this latter force is intrinsically linked to the primary accelerating process, hence the identification of a dark techno-commercialism that rides beyond NRx into the unutterable void of futurity).

Behind the Neoreactionary Trichotomy is a second, more esoteric triadic formation that maps not the political, but fate itself: the Horrorist Trichotomy. Each point is rendered as that which cannot be escaped from: Providence, Heredity, and Catallaxy. If the Neoreactionary Trike is ecumenonical, the Horrorist Trike serves as the planomenon. The alignments are clear: Theonomy to Providence, Ethnonationalism to Heredity, and Catallaxy to Techno-commercialism.

What relevance does this strange architecture, twisting as it does through the political and arcane materialism, have to these questions of compensation and accelerating trendlines (or: why this deep dive into the far end of NRx theory)? The answer to this follows the introduction of yet another triadic formulation, one that clearly anticipates the Neoreactionary Trichotomy: the “Golden Meme” introduced by Walter Russell Mead, and discussed by Land in an ancient post from waaay back in 2011 titled “Reign of the Tripod” (reign indeed!). In Mead’s historiography, the Golden Meme (i.e. the concept of the invisible hand) is the formula that produced the two centuries of “Anglosphere hegemony” – or what ensured the long-term stability of the British empire and the United States. Three points of a triangle: “Newtonian celestial mechanics” (serving as the modernization of “the religious idea of providence”), “Smithian political economy”,  and “Darwinian evolutionary biology. Again, the alignments are clear, though at the same time they cannot put fracture a little. Both Newtonian celestial mechanics and theonomy derive from providence, but one charts a secularizing path whilst the other stakes out a religious one. Something is shifting here.

Land writes that opposition that cannot be reconciled via synthesis becomes institutionalized in a power balance. In other words, the Golden Meme functioned because the three points checked one another. A compensatory dynamo is generated, one capable of pressing down on short-term burnouts that could arise from each triangle tip. Yet what stabilizes also sows the seeds for fracture:

Cultural hegemony follows from a semi-deliberate fatalization, as the sovereign center is displaced by a substantially automated social process, which no social agent is able to master or entirely impede. Each major faction steps back into its position in the triangle, from which it can strategically engage the others, but never fully dominate or eradicate them. The triangle as a whole constitutes a social and historical motor, without adequate representation at any identifiable point.

By placing the three Trichotomies in alignment, we arrive at a picture of ecumenonic consolidation and subsequent fragmentation, both shot through with the concealed Horrorist diagram of fate:

[Providence] :: Newtonian point of the Golden Meme –> Theonomy

[Heredity] :: Darwinian point of the Golden Meme –> Ethnonationalism

[Catallaxy] :: Smithian point of the Golden Meme –> Techno-commercialism

This picture is clearly a messy one and needs further work into integrating it into a more cohesive model, but it reveals a certain insight into neoreaction itself (or at least the form that Land is sifting through, which seems to go far beyond the work of many of his interlocutors). If the Golden Meme is the production and governing protocols for the Anglospherical compensatory mechanism, then it is what produces the Cathedral itself, which would as the Atlantean summit of this development. It follows, then, that if the NRx Trike etches a cartography of fragmentation that proceeds from this, then NRx is not simply an opposition to the Cathedral (as an activist movement for politico-cultural restoration would be, for example); it is the dynamical fall-out of the Cathedral’s fracturing in itself.

This is the very position staked out by Land in a post titled “Crypto-Brahmins”:

The Brahmin priest caste, like the digital elite, specializes in signs, but they are signs of exhortation, rather than of intrinsic efficiency. Is not the Cathedral precisely a name for that apparatus of signs — (non-STEM) academia, media, bureaucracy, politics … — which cannot in principle ever compile? The Cathedral is a secular religion, which has to preach because it does not work.

When NRx insists upon a division within ‘progress’ between techno-economics (which works) and socio-politics (which decays), it opens a rift that splits the Brahmins, rather than further separating them from social inferiors. NRx, at its core, is a ‘Brahmin’ civil war.

There’s much more to be said here, especially in light of how US democracy promotion exercises export Cathedral-capitalist realist-style governing protocols around the world through a model of capture that relies on keeping elite power balanced between multiple competitive fractions – not to mention the analysis offered by Peter Turchin on the relationship between elite overproduction and political fragmentation. But best to leave these thoughts for another post!

Some excellent recent posts that are swimming in similar waters:

Xenobuddhism: Non-Oriented Accelerationism

Xenogoth: Nationalist Realism

Deep End

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If the QWERTY keyboard is the production of a destiny by serving as an (ultimately sub-optimal) lock-in driven by the positive feedback of increasing returns – and can be cognitively handled as “a key to the nature of modernistic time”, the “Capitalist Revelation” – is it insane to make the leap from

esc key + function keys

1234567890

QWERTYUIOP

ASDFGHJKL

ZXCVBNM

to

EARTH

CLOUD

CITY

ADDRESS

INTERFACE

USER

Two six-layered Stacks, each articulated as an accident, both are phenomenon of global-scale computation (and the infrastructure for it), and both cut across each other at all scales. The question: how did these particular stratifications become produced the way that they have?

Some vital background:

Paul A. David – “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY”

S.J. Liebowtiz and Stephen E. Margolis – “The Fable of the Keys”

Hyperstition blog – “Intro to Qwernomics”

Deeper still: Bratton writes that the Black Stack, the Stack-to-come, ” is less the anarchist stack, or the death-metal stack, or the utterly opaque stack, than the computational totality-to-come, defined at this moment by what it is not, by the empty content fields of its framework, and by its dire inevitability… It is less a ‘possible future’ than an escape from the present” (emphasis added).

If we need to locate escape in the keyboard stack, it is the top row – the esc key. Run through the generative matrices of Anglossic Qabalah and this decodes to 54, a supremely ominous number due to the immediate Katak-ian resonances (as well as certain Egyptian demons summoned via meme magic during the course of 2016). Reversed, and we get 45, the number coding to Lo – the first message sent over the ARPAnet on October 29th, 1969.

Deeper ever more: Fifty Four and Forty Five are the same and each are 207 – the sum of the syzygies composing the numbers of the Hex.

 

Hyperwar

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In the March 2nd edition of the Wall Street Journal, Julian Barnes and Josh Chin announced the dawn of a new arms race breaking over the increasingly chaotic geopolitical arena: the competitive pursuit of artificial intelligence and related technologies. At the present moment, the United States leads the world in AI research, but with the emergence of a “Darpa with Chinese Characteristics” the mad dash is on. And behind the US and China is Russia, hoping that within the next ten years to have “30% of its military robotized” – a path that neatly compliments the country’s burgeoning efficiency in non-standard netwar.

At the horizon, Barnes and Chin suggest, is a new speed-driven, technocentric mode of conflict that has been granted the qabbalistically-suggestive name of “hyperwar”:

AI could speed up warfare to a point where unassisted humans can’t keep up—a scenario that retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen calls “hyperwar.” In a report released last year, he urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to step up its investments in AI, including creating a center to study hyperwar and a European Darpa, particularly to counter the Russian effort.

The report in question unpacks hyperwar further:

Hyper war… will place unique requirements on defence architectures and the high-tech industrial base if the Alliance is to preserve an adequate deterrence and defence posture, let alone maintain a comparative advantage over peer competitors. Artificial Intelligence, deep learning, machine learning, computer vision, neuro-linguistic programming, virtual reality and augmented reality are all part of the future battlespace. They are all underpinned by potential advances in quantum computing that will create a conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds…or even less. This development will perhaps witness the most revolutionary changes in conflict since the advent of atomic weaponry and in military technology since the 1906 launch of HMS Dreadnought. The United States is moving sharply in this direction in order to compete with similar investments being made by Russia and China, which has itself committed to a spending plan on artificial intelligence that far outstrips all the other players in this arena, including the United States. However, with the Canadian and European Allies lagging someway behind, there is now the potential for yet another dangerous technological gap within the Alliance to open up, in turn undermining NATO’s political cohesion and military interoperability.

“[A] conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds… or even less.” Let those words sink in for a moment, and consider this hastily-assembled principle: attempts to manage the speed-effects of technological development through technological means result in more and greater speed-effects. James Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society is the great compendium of historical case studies of this phenomenon in operation, tracing out a series of snaking, non-linear pathways in which technological innovation delivers a chaos that demands some of form quelling, often in the form of standards, increased visibility of operations, better methods of coordination, etc. These chaos-combating protocols become, in turn, the infrastructure of further expansion, more technological development, greater economic growth – and in this entanglement, things get faster.

Beniger’s argument is that this dynamic laid the groundwork for the information revolution, with information theory, communication theory, cybernetics, and the like all emerging from managerial discourses as ways to navigate unpredictability of modernity. We need no great summary of the effects of this particular revolution, with its space-time compression, unending cycles of events, the breakdown of discernibility between the true and the false, the rise tide of raw information that threatens to swamp us and eclipse our cognition.

Where this path of inquiry leads is to the recognition that modernity is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the maw of the accelerationist trolley problem: catastrophe is barreling forward, and the possibly space for decision-making is evaporating just as quickly. There simply isn’t enough time.

Even in the basic, preliminary foreshadows of the problem, command-and-control systems tend to find themselves submerged and incapacitated. Diagramming decision-making and adjusting the role of the human in that diagram is the foremost response (and one completely flush with the assessment drawn from Beniger sketched out briefly above). First-order cybernetics accomplished this by drawing out the position of the human agent within the feedback loops of the system in question and better integrating the decision-making capacity of the agent in line with these processes. From Norbert Wiener’s AA predictor to the SAGE computer system to Operation Igloo White in Vietnam, this not only blurred the human-machine boundary but laid the groundwork for the impending removal outright of the human agent from the loop.

tote

Consider the TOTE model of human behavior, which imported perfectly the fundamental loop of first order cybernetics into the nascent field of cognitive psychology. TOTE: test-operate-test-exit. Goal-seeking behavior in this model follows a basic process of testing the alignment of an operation’s effect with the goal, and adjusting in kind. But consider two systems whose goals are to win out over the other one, each following the TOTE model in relation to the respective actions of each. The decisions made in one system impact the decisions made in the other, veering the entanglement of the two away from anything resembling homeostasis. Add in the variables of speed, the impossibility of achieving total information awareness in the environment, and the hard cognitive limits of the human agent gets us to the position where the role of the human in the loop becomes a liability. But it’s not just the human, as the US military learned in Vietnam: the entire infrastructure, even with the aid of the cybernetic toolkit, falls victim to the information bottlenecks, decision-making paralysis, and the fog of war. The crushing necessity of better, more efficient tools is revealed in the aftermath – but this, of course, will deepen the problem as it unfolds along the line of time.

Enter the John Boyd’s OODA loop. As with the trajectory of Wiener’s thought, Boyd’s theory was first drawn from the study of aviation combat and radiated outwards from there. OODA stands for observation-orientation-decision-action, and like the TOTE model it emphasized cognitive behavior in decision-making as a series of loops. Observation entails the absorption of environmental information by the agent or system, which is processed in the orientation phase to provide context and a range of operational possibilities to choose from. Decision is the choice of an operational possibility, which is then executed as an action. This returns the agent or system to the observation phase, and the process repeats.

 

Screenshot from 2018-03-06 14-57-17

This might look at first blush like the linear loop of first order cybernetics and the TOTE model, but as Antoine Bousquet argues this is not so:

A closer look at the diagram of the OODA “loop” reveals that orientation actually exerts “implicit guidance and control” over the observation and action phases as well as shaping the decision phase. Furthermore, “the entire ‘loop’ (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection” in which all elements of the “loop” are simultaneous active. In this sense, the OODA “loop” is not truly a cycle and is presented sequentially only for convenience of exposition (hence the scare quotes around “loop”).

Early cybernetic approaches to conflict battlespace insisted achieving a full-scale view of all the variables in play – a complete worldview through which the loops would proceed linearly. It was, in other words, a flattened notion of learning. Boyd, by contrast, insists on the impossibility of achieving such a vantage point. Cognitive behavior, both inside and outside the battlespace, is forever being pummeled by an intrinsically incomplete understanding of the world. In first-order cybernetics, the need for total information awareness raised the specter of a Manichean conflict between signal and noise, with noise being the factor that impinges on the smooth transmission of the information (and thus breaks down the durability of the feedback loop executing and testing the operation). For Boyd this is reversed: passage through the world partially blind, besieged by noise, makes the ‘loop’ a process of continual adaptation through encounter with novelty – a dynamism that he describes, echoing Schumpeter’s famous description of capitalism’s constant drive to technoeconomic development, as cycles of destruction and creation:

When we begin to turn inward and use the new concept—within its own pattern of ideas and interactions—to produce a finer grain match with observed reality we note that the new concept and its match-up with observed reality begins to self-destruct just as before. Accordingly, the dialectic cycle of destruction and creation begins to repeat itself once again. In other words, as suggested by Godel’s Proof of Incompleteness, we imply that the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly in moving to higher and broader levels of elaboration. In this unfolding drama, the alternating cycle of entropy increase toward more and more dis-order and the entropy decrease toward more and more order appears to be one part of a control mechanism that literally seems to drive and regulate this alternating cycle of destruction and creation toward higher and broader levels of elaboration.

What Boyd is describing, then, isn’t simply learning, but the process of learning to learn. For the individual agent and complex system alike, this is the continual re-assessment of reality following the (vital) trauma of ontological crisis – or, in other words, a continual optimization for intelligence, a competitive pursuit of more effective, more efficient means of expanding itself. It is for this reason that Grant Hammond, a professor at the Air War College, finds in Boyd’s OODA ‘loop’ a model of life itself, “that process of seeking harmony with one’s environment, growing, interacting with others, adapting, isolating oneself when necessary, winning, siring offspring, losing, contributing what one can, learning, and ultimately dying.” Tug on that thread a bit and the operations of a complex, emergent system begin to look rather uncanny – or is it the learning-to-learn carried out by the human agent that begins to look like the uncanny thing?

Back to hyperwar.

For Boyd, the dynamics of a given OODA ‘loop’ are the same as the scenario detailed above about the two competing TOTE systems that lock-in to speed-driven (and driving) escalation. Whichever loop evolves better and faster wins – and in the context of highly non-linear, borderless, technologically-integrated warfare, the unreliability of the human agent remains central as the key element to be overcome. Hence hyperwar, as General John Allen makes clear by trying to get a grip on the accelerationist trolley problem:

In military terms, hyperwar may be redefined as a type of conflict where human decision making is almost entirely absent from the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop. As a consequence, the time associated with an OODA cycle will be reduced to near-instantaneous responses. The implications of these developments are many and game changing.

Allen suggests here that there is still some capacity for human decision-making in the hyperwar version of the ‘loop’ – but as he points out in the elsewhere, the US’s military competitors (namely: China) are not likely to feel “particularly constrained” about the usage of totally autonomous AI. A China that doesn’t feel constrained will entail, inevitably, a US that will re-evaluate this position, and it is at this point that things get truly weird. If escalating decision-making and behavior through OODA ‘loop’ competition is an evolutionary model of learning-to-learn, then the intelligence optimization that is, by extension, unfolding through hyperwar will be carried out at a continuous, near-instant rate. At that level the whole notion of combat is eclipsed into a singularity that is completely alien to the human observer that, even in the pre-hyperwar phase of history, has become lost in the labyrinth. War, like the forces of capital, automates and autonomizes and becomes like a life unto itself.

Deviation Amplification

chaos-never-dies-day

It’s doubtful that there is a better introduction to the forces and implications of positive feedback than “The Second Cybernetics: Deviation-Amplifying Mutual Causal Processes”, published in 1963 by the all-too-unknown Magoroh Maruyama.

Since its inception, cybernetics was more or less identified as a science of self-regulating and equilibrating systems. Thermostats, physiological regulation of body temperature, automatic steering devices, economic and political processes were studied under a general mathematical model of deviation-counteracting feedback networks.

By focusing on the deviation-counteracting aspect of mutual causal relationships however, the cyberneticians paid less attention to the systems in which the mutual causal effects are deviation-amplifying. Such systems are ubiquitous: accumulation of capital in industry, evolution of living organisms, the rise of cultures of various types, interpersonal processes that produce mental illness, international conflict, and the processes that are loosely termed as “vicious circles” and “compound interest”: in short, all processes of mutual causal relationship that amplify an insignificant or accidental initial kick, build up deviation and diverge from the initial condition.

In contrast to the progress in the study of equilibrating systems, the deviation-amplifying systems have not been given much investment of time and energy by the mathematical scientists on one hand, and an understanding and practical application on the part of geneticists, ecologists, politicians and psychotherapists on the other hand.

The deviation-counteracting mutual causal systems and the deviation-amplifying mutual causal system may appear to be the opposite types of systems.

But they have one essential feature in common: they are both mutual causal systems, i.e. the elements within a system influence each other either simultaneously or alternatingly.

The difference between the two types of systems is that the deviation-counteracting system has mutual negative feedback between the elements in it, while the deviation-amplifying system has mutual positive feedbacks between elements in it.

Related:

  • “…modernist cybernetics has trivialized escalation processes into unsustainable episodes of quantitative inflation, thus side-lining exploratory mutation over against a homeostatic paradigm. ‘Positive feedback is the source of instability, leading if unchecked to the destruction of the system itself’, writes one neo-Wienerian, in strict fidelity to the security cybernetics which continues to propagate an antidelirial technoscience caged within negative feedback, and attuned to statist paranoia of a senescing industrialism.” (Nick Land, “Circuitries”, in Fanged Noumena, pp. 297-298)