Moloch and hyperselection

Weak selection versus goodharting

I would like to connect this to metis and ecological ideas of creative destruction.

For now, here is the work of someone else. Immoral mazes is an essay series by Zvi Mowshowitz about a bunch of topics dear to me in one package which I am therefore looking forward to reading. There is a summary.

A long time ago, Scott Alexander wrote Meditations on Moloch. Moloch represents the inevitability of competitive selection pressure, given a long enough time horizon, completely binding all behavior, and thus destroying all value, then all life.

This hasn’t fully happened yet. But it will. Unless we use this one opportunity offered to us by our technological progress before that happens, and stop it.

A less long time ago, I introduced the (pre-existing) concept of Slack. Slack is the absence of binding constraints on behavior. Metaphorically, slack is life. Literally, slack is also life. Without slack, life is unable to both survive and retain the ability to adapt, and thus loses one, then the other, and dies.

Recently, Scott wrote Studies on Slack, which made a lot of this more explicit and easier to understand, especially the point that slack is life.

Image: a different Scott, Scott H. Young’s Explore or Exploit

One metaphor is being trapped in bad collective local optima, and the mazes are a particular form of mad local optimum. I will come back to that, should I have time. Contemporary pertinence notable in bureaucracy, and biodiversity

I’m not sure the math lives up to their claims, but I like these lines:

In other words, (14) says that the capacity for a system to undergo evolutionary change or self-organization consists of two aspects: It must be capable of exercising sufficient directed power (ascendancy) to maintain its integrity over time. Simultaneously, it must possess a reserve of flexible actions that can be used to meet the exigencies of novel disturbances. According to (14) these two aspects are literally complementary.

The two aspects are ‘ascendancy’, which is something like efficiency or being optimized, and ‘reserve capacity’, which is something like random junk that might come in handy if something unexpected comes up.

You know those gadgets you kept in the back of your kitchen drawer and never needed… until you did? If you’re aiming for ‘ascendancy’ you’d clear out those drawers. But if you keep that stuff, you’ve got more ‘reserve capacity’. They both have their good points. Ideally you want to strike a wise balance. You’ve probably sensed this every time you clean out your house: should I keep this thing because I might need it, or should I get rid of it?

While the dynamics of this dialectic interaction can be quite subtle and highly complex, one thing is boldly clear—systems with either vanishingly small ascendancy or insignificant reserves are destined to perish before long. A system lacking ascendancy has neither the extent of activity nor the internal organization needed to survive. By contrast, systems that are so tightly constrained and honed to a particular environment appear “brittle” in the sense of Holling (1986) or “senescent” in the sense of Salthe (1993) and are prone to collapse in the face of even minor novel disturbances. Systems that endure—that is, are sustainable—lie somewhere between these extremes. But, where?

Winning is for losers might fit?

Martin Sustrik analyses this model in terms of evolutionary theory and considers various other models that might relate, such as slack as random mutation and Moloch as deterministic evolution.

Nintil - Slaying Alexander’s Moloch

Slack in measurement and recruiting.

Yudkowsky’s memetic collapse post:

I’ve had the sense before that the Internet is turning our society stupider and meaner. My primary hypothesis is “The Internet is selecting harder on a larger population of ideas, and sanity falls off the selective frontier once you select hard enough”.

To review, there’s a general idea that strong (social) selection on a characteristic imperfectly correlated with some other metric of goodness can be bad for that metric, where weak (social) selection on that characteristic was good. If you press scientists a little for publishable work, they might do science that’s of greater interest to others. If you select very harshly on publication records, the academics spend all their time worrying about publishing and real science falls by the wayside. On my feed yesterday was an essay complaining about how the intense competition to get into Harvard is producing a monoculture of students who’ve lined up every single standard accomplishment and how these students don’t know anything else they want to do with their lives. Gentle, soft competition on a few accomplishments might select genuinely stronger students; hypercompetition for the appearance of strength produces weakness, or just emptiness.

A hypothesis I find plausible is that the Internet, and maybe television before it, selected much more harshly from a much wider field of memes; and also allowed tailoring content more narrowly to narrower audiences. The Internet is making it possible for ideas that are optimized to appeal hedonically-virally within a filter bubble to outcompete ideas that have been even slightly optimized for anything else. We’re looking at a collapse of reference to expertise because deferring to expertise costs a couple of hedons compared to being told that all your intuitions are perfectly right, and at the harsh selective frontier there’s no room for that. We’re looking at a collapse of interaction between bubbles because there used to be just a few newspapers serving all the bubbles; and now that the bubbles have separated there’s little incentive to show people how to be fair in their judgment of ideas for other bubbles, it’s not the most appealing Tumblr content. Print magazines in the 1950s were hardly perfect, but they could get away with sometimes presenting complicated issues as complicated, because there weren’t a hundred blogs saying otherwise and stealing their clicks. Or at least, that’s the hypothesis.


Gopnik, Alison. 2020. Childhood as a Solution to Explore–Exploit Tensions.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 375 (1803): 20190502.
Gueudré, Thomas, Alexander Dobrinevski, and Jean-Philippe Bouchaud. 2014. Explore or Exploit? A Generic Model and an Exactly Solvable Case.” Physical Review Letters 112 (5): 050602.
Judson, Olivia P. 2017. The Energy Expansions of Evolution.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 1 (April): 0138.
Ulanowicz, Robert E., Sally J. Goerner, Bernard Lietaer, and Rocio Gomez. 2009. Quantifying Sustainability: Resilience, Efficiency and the Return of Information Theory.” Ecological Complexity 6 (1): 27–36.

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