Meditations on Mot
A response to Scott Alexander
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
Holy the lone juggernaut! Holy the vast lamb of the middleclass! Holy the crazy shepherds of rebellion! Who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles!
Holy New York Holy San Francisco Holy Peoria & Seattle Holy Paris Holy Tangiers Holy Moscow Holy Istanbul!
Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the clocks in space holy the fourth dimension holy the fifth International holy the Angel in Moloch!
- Footnote to Howl
Scene: Carl and Allen, two old friends, are having a conversation about theodicy.
Carl: “Let me tell you about the god who is responsible for almost all our suffering. This god is an ancient Canaanite god, one who has been seen throughout history as a source of death and destruction. Of course, he doesn’t exist in a literal sense, but we can conceptualize him as a manifestation of forces that persist even today, and which play a crucial role in making the world worse. His name is M-”
Allen: “-oloch, right? Scott Alexander’s god of coordination failures. Yeah, I’ve read Meditations on Moloch. It’s an amazing post; it resonated with me very deeply.”
Carl: “I was actually going to say Mot, the Canaanite god of death, bringer of famine and drought.”
Allen: “Huh. Okay, you got me. Tell me about Mot, then; what does he represent?”
Carl: “Mot is the god of sterility and lifelessness. To me, he represents the lack of technology in our lives. With technology, we can tame famine, avert drought, and cure disease. We can perform feats that our ancestors would have seen as miracles: flying through the air, and even into space. But we’re still so so far from achieving the true potential of technology—and I think of Mot as the personification of what’s blocking us.
“You can see Mot everywhere, when you know what to look for. Whenever a patient lies suffering from a disease that we haven’t cured yet, that’s Mot’s hand at work. Whenever a child grows up in poverty, that’s because of Mot too. We could have flying cars, and space elevators, and so much more, if it weren’t for Mot.
“Look out your window and you see buildings, trees, people. But if you don’t see skyscrapers literally miles high, or trees that have been bioengineered to light the streets, or people who are eternally youthful and disease-free, then you’re not just seeing Earth—you’re also seeing Mot. Hell, the fact that we’re still on this planet, in physical bodies, is a testament to Mot’s influence. We could be settling the stars, and living in virtual utopias, and even merging our minds, if it weren’t for Mot.”
Allen: “Huh. Well, I feel you there; I want all those things too. And you’re right that god-like technology could solve almost all the issues we face today. But something does feel pretty weird about describing all of this as a single problem, let alone blaming a god of lacking-technology.”
Carl: “Say more?”
Allen: “Well, there’s not any unified force holding back the progress of technology, right? If anything, it’s the opposite. Absence of advanced technology is the default state, which we need to work hard to escape—and that’s difficult not because of any opposition, but just because of entropy.”
Allen: “But in those cases you don’t need to appeal to Mot—you can just say ‘our enemy is overregulation’. Or if you defined Mot as the god of overregulation, I’d be totally on board. But you’re making a much bigger claim than that. The reason we haven’t uploaded ourselves yet isn’t that there’s a force that’s blocking us, it’s almost entirely that scientific progress is really really hard!”
Carl: “Yepp, I agree with all your arguments. And you’ve probably already guessed where I’m going with this, but let’s spell it out: why don’t these objections to blaming our problems on lack of technology, aka Mot, apply just as much to blaming them on lack of coordination, aka Moloch?”
Allen: “Yeah, I’ve been trying to figure that out. First of all, a lot of the intuitive force behind the concept of Moloch comes from really blatant coordination failures, like the ones that Scott lays out in the original post. If you’re stuck in a situation that nobody wants, then something’s gone terribly wrong; and when something goes terribly wrong, then it’s natural to start blaming enemy action.”
Carl: “There are really blatant examples of lack-of-technology too, though. Look at a wheel. It’s a literal circle; it’s hard to imagine any technology that’s simpler. Yet humans spent millennia gathering crops and carrying loads before inventing it. Or think about cases where we narrowly missed out on transformative breakthroughs. The Romans built toy steam engines—they just never managed to scale them up to produce an industrial revolution. Getting so close to accelerating a post-scarcity world by two millennia, but just missing, surely counts as something going terribly, tragically wrong. Don’t these cases demonstrate that Mot’s presence can be just as blatant as Moloch’s?”
Allen: “Well, a big part of both of those stories was the absence of demand. Wheels just weren’t very useful before there were high-quality roads; and early steam engines just weren’t very useful in the absence of large coal mines. Of course they both turned out to be very worthwhile in the long term, but that’s really hard to foresee.”
Carl: “So you’re saying that we sometimes need to jump out of a local trap in order to make longer-term technological progress. Remind me, what was your position on understanding local obstacles to progress by anthropomorphizing them as Canaanite gods?”
Allen: “Okay, fair point. But Moloch isn’t just an external obstacle—it’s also a state of mind. When you pretend that you’re going to cooperate when you’re not, or you place your own interests above those of the group, you’re channeling Moloch. And when enough people do that, societal trust breaks down, and the Molochian dynamics become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Carl: “And when you ridicule people for trying something different, or lobby for legislative barriers to deploying new technology, you’re channeling Mot. And when enough people do that, society loses faith in positive-sum growth, and progress stagnates. It’s directly analogous. Come on, what’s your true objection here?”
Allen: “I mean, I can’t fully articulate it. But the ideal of perfect coordination feels much more achievable to me than the ideal of perfect technology. We could just agree to act in a unified way—it’s simply a matter of wanting it enough. In other words, saying that lack of technology is responsible for our problems isn’t very actionable—you can’t just magic up technology out of nowhere. But saying that lack of coordination is responsible for our problems is a straightforward step towards convincing people to become more coordinated.”
Carl: “Actually, the last few centuries could pretty reasonably be described as humanity continually magicking up technology out of nowhere. Of course, scientific and technological progress still takes a lot of work, and a lot of iteration. But when it works, it lets you jump directly to far better outcomes. By contrast, it’s incredibly difficult to improve things like government competence or social trust—or even to prevent them from declining. So overall, boosting technological progress is far more actionable than increasing coordination, and we should write off the phrase ‘we could just agree’ as a particularly seductive appeal to magic.”
Allen: “I do agree that scientific and technological progress has far outstripped progress in governance and coordination. So on an intellectual level, I think you’ve convinced me that Moloch is no more useful a concept than Mot. But I still don’t feel like I’ve dissolved the question of why Moloch seems more compelling than Mot. Do you have any explanation for that?”
Carl: “I think the illusion comes from Scott using a simplistic notion of coordination, as exemplified by his claim that ‘the opposite of a trap is a garden… with a single gardener dictating where everything should go’. In other words, he implicitly assumes that ‘coordinate’ is synonymous with ‘centralize power’. From that perspective, we can view coordination as a single spectrum, with ‘Moloch’ at one end and ‘just put one guy in charge of everything’ at the other. But the space of possibilities is much richer and more complicated than that, along at least three different dimensions.
“Firstly, coordination is complicated in the same way that science is complicated: it requires developing new concepts and frameworks that are totally alien from your current perspective, even if they’ll seem obvious in hindsight. For most people throughout history, ideas like liberalism, democracy, and free speech were deeply counterintuitive (or, in Scott’s terminology, ‘terrifying unspeakable Elder Gods’). In terms of spreading prosperity across the world, the limited liability company was just as important an invention as the steam engine. If you wouldn’t blame Mot for all the difficulties of labor and locomotion that were eventually solved by steam engines, you shouldn’t blame Moloch for all the difficulties of trust and incentive alignment that were eventually solved by LLCs.
“Secondly, coordination is complicated in the same way that engineering large-scale systems is complicated: there are always just a huge number of practical obstacles and messy details to deal with. It took the best part of a century to get from the first commercial steam engine to Watts’ design; and even today, some of the hardest software engineering problems simply involve getting well-understood algorithms to work at much larger scales (like serving search results, or training LLMs). Similarly, when we look at important real-life coordination problems, they’re very different from toy problems like prisoner’s dilemmas or tragedies of the commons. Even when there’s a simple ‘headline idea’ for a better equilibrium, actually reaching that equilibrium requires a huge amount of legwork: engaging with different stakeholders, building trust, standardizing communication protocols, creating common knowledge, balancing competing interests, designing agreements, iterating to fix problems that come up, and so on.
“Thirdly, coordination is complicated in the same way that security is complicated: you don’t just need to build effective tools, you need to prevent them from being hijacked and misused. Remember that both fascist and communist despots gained power by appealing to the benefits of cooperation—‘fascism’ is even named after ‘fasces’, the bundles of sticks that are stronger together than apart. If we’d truly learned the lessons of history, then categorizing actions as ‘cooperating’ versus ‘defecting’ would feel as simplistic as categorizing people as ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. And in fact many people do sense this intuitively, which is why there’s so commonly strong resistance to top-down solutions to coordination problems, and why the scientific and engineering problems of building coordination technologies are so tricky.”
Allen: “I buy that coordination is often far more complicated than it seems. But blaming Moloch for coordination breakdowns still seems valuable insofar as it stops us from just blaming each other, which can disrupt any hope of improvement.”
Carl: “Yeah, I agree. I think of this in terms of the spectrum from conflict theory to mistake theory. Saying that few immoral defectors are responsible for coordination problems is pure conflict theory. The concept of Moloch reframes things so that, instead of ‘defectors’ being our enemies, an abstract anthropomorphic entity is our enemy instead. And that’s progress! But it’s still partly conflict-theoretic, because it tells us that we just need to identify the enemy and kill it. That biases us towards trying to find ‘silver bullets’ which would restore us to our rightful coordinated state. Instead, it’d be better to lean even further into mistake theory: discord is the default, and to prevent it we need to do the hard work of designing and implementing complicated alien coordination technologies.”
Allen: “You shouldn’t underestimate the value of conflict theory, though. It’s incredibly good at harnessing people’s tribal instincts towards actually doing something useful. We can’t be cold and rational all the time—we need emotionally salient motivations to get us fired up.”
Carl: “Right. So I don’t think we should get rid of Moloch as a rallying cry. But I do think that we should get rid of Moloch as a causal node in our ontologies: as a reason why the world is one way, rather than another. And I think we should be much more careful about terminology like ‘coordination failure’ or ‘inadequate equilibria’, which both mistakenly suggest that there’s a binary threshold between enough coordination and not-enough coordination. That’s like saying that cars which can go faster than 80 miles per hour are ‘adequate technology’, but cars which can’t are a ‘technology failure’. Maybe that’s occasionally a useful distinction, but it misses the bigger picture: that they’re actually very similar on almost all axes, because it takes so much complex technology to build a car at all.
“For Scott, there’s no better temple to Moloch than Las Vegas. But even there, my argument applies. You could look at Vegas and see Moloch’s hand at work. Or you could see Vegas as a product of the miraculous coordination technology that is modern capitalism—perhaps an edge case of it, but still an example of its brilliance. Or you could see Vegas as a testament to the wisdom of the constitution: casinos are banned almost everywhere in the US, but for the sake of diversity and robustness it sure seems like there should be at least one major city which allows them. Or you could see Vegas as an example of incredible restraint: there are innumerable possible ways to extract money from addled tourists in the desert, and Vegas prevents almost all of them. Or you could see it as a testament to the cooperative instinct inside humans: every day thousands of employees go to work and put in far more effort than the bare minimum it would take to not get fired. Setting aside the concept of Moloch makes it easier to see the sheer scale of coordination all around us, which is the crucial first step towards designing even better coordination technologies.
‘In Las Vegas, Scott saw Moloch. But in Scott’s description of Moloch, I see Mot. We can do better than thinking of coordination as war and deicide. We can think of it as science, as engineering, as security—and as the gradual construction, as we sail down the river, of the ship that will take us across the sea.”
Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the abyss!
Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!
Thanks for reading Mind the Future! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.