Accelerationism – Careful what you wish for

Had this Grauniad piece bookmarked for a couple of weeks:

Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in.

As usual the headline is misleading click-bait. Anyone could have predicted that ubiquitous speed-of-light comms was going to “accelerate” things in general – Kondratiev, Kuhn and many more already did. In fact my whole agenda has been about understanding and dealing with the fact the acceleration in comms continues to exacerbate long-standing problems with humans evolving fast enough to keep ahead of the technology curve. Simple fact is our problems – in acting best on what we know – are made worse faster than solutions can be made better.

The piece is about more than predicting the situation, more than the headline.
This paragraph seems a pretty honest statement of what Accelerationism really is:

Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified ” either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative. Accelerationists favour automation. They favour the further merging of the digital and the human. They often favour the deregulation of business, and drastically scaled-back government. They believe that people should stop deluding themselves that economic and technological progress can be controlled. They often believe that social and political upheaval has a value in itself.

Obviously I’d agree there is no point resisting performance acceleration in every computer-aided application. The only moderating test should be appropriateness; recognising effectiveness (and unintended consequences) as well as basic efficiency. Narrowly defined efficiency isn’t everything.

Where I part company with the accelerationists is in the idea that the whole trend should be encouraged to accelerate as fast as possible. Sure we should embrace opportunities for “fast failures” wherever we can, they are the best learning opportunities provided people are actually listening, understanding and reflecting.

But these fast learning opportunities have to be in the context of a (relatively) stable background. This is basic evolutionary theory – that mutation at the genetic / epigenetic level can only ever be constructive in a phenotypic population of high “fecundity and fidelity”. That is conservatism (with a small c) – most things in life most often need to follow established patterns. Once the rate of mutation is too great – most mutations are degenerate – there ceases to be a reproducing population.

All change and no stability is chaotic anarchy, a useful precursor to revolution, but not conducive to progressive evolution. Not surprisingly accelerationists are explicitly quite happy to smash the establishment system(s) – it is their primary intention.

Upheaval has value – value in learning to better make better changes faster – but the upheaval is not an end in itself, except to the anarchist. All opportunity and no establishment. What we should be doing is getting to grips with learning and understanding what is happening and how to achieve the right balance between change and stability, and the mechanisms to best moderate the processes in free-democratic societies.

What we are agreed on is that, right now, the speed of communication is faster than humanity’s ability to learn. The last thing we need is to treat the whole of humanity as one enormous opportunity for a fast failure. We are not a repeatable experiment.


Interestingly whilst the above link was sat on my desktop, Taleb posted this last weekend:

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