June 22, 2023

On Shoggothim

Attention conservation notice: Self-promotion of a pay-walled piece which combines a trendy topic with what even I admit is a long-held semi-crank notion.

Henry Farrell and I have an essay in The Economist, riffing off the meme that every large language model is really a shoggoth. Our point is that this is right, because an LLM is a way of taking the vast incohate chaos of written-human-language-as-recorded-on-the-Web and simplifying and abstracting it in potentially useful ways. They are, as Alison Gopnik says, cultural technologies, more analogous to library catalogs than to individual minds. This makes LLMs recent and still-minor members of a larger and older family of monsters which similarly simplify, abstract, and repurpose human minds: the market system, the corporation, the state, even the democratic state. Those are distributed information-processing systems which don't just ingest the products of human intelligence, but actually run on human beings --- a theme I have been sounding for while now.

The piece is paywalled, but Henry has a Twitter thread that provides a good summary, and Brad DeLong has excerpts, along with thoughtful commentary. (I agree with Henry's response to said comments.) Update, 7 July: Henry links to the longer, older version we cut down for The Economist.

Some things we didn't include:

Update, 23 June: Small wording tweaks and additions. More important: insightful and generous commentary from Daniel "\( D^2 \)" Davies. (It's virtually a blogosphere reunion.) Incorporated (sorry) by reference: Beniger, The Control Revolution; Yates, Control through Communication; Ashby, "Design for an Intelligence Amplifier".

(I know I learned that the correct plural of "shoggoth" is "shoggothim" from reading Ruthanna Emrys, but I cannot now locate the passage --- it may just be in her Lovecraft Reread series with Anne Pillsworth.) Update: and indeed it was (tracked down by Henry).

Self-Centered; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Cthulhiana; The Great Transformation

Posted at June 22, 2023 12:45 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth