The Banality of Evil


Figure 1: "But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness." – Metal Gear Solid 2

WARNING: Spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 2 follow

The postmodern movement in the arts came about as a response to a perceived apex in humanity's ability to inflict suffering upon itself; creating spaces that made clear the pretentions of modern rationality, only those who indulge in the absurd will be afforded clarity.

Of course, an absurdist take on the current state of the world provides a natural camoflauge, a perfect stage to play out an audience's beliefs while leaving them open to subversion. The writers of Metal Gear Solid 2 made such an attempt to great success, leaving players in 2001 completely blindsided and nearly unconscious to the messaging that played out right before them. In some ways, that success might have transcended even the author's original intentions.

Metal Gear Solid 2 was made in the climate of the dotcom rampup, arguably the first large scale information economy to emerge after the computer revolution. Despite the true innovations in electronic commerce that were had in the dotcom era, it was not hard to see a capital-driven inflation creating redundant and unnecessary products. The internet became an ill-fitted sieve for incomprehensible amounts of data, created by an insatiable appetite for profit-seeking.

The writers response to these real-world events was to see data creation as a supply-side force in this economy, to be met by an actor providing demand. Naturally, this was to be an autonomous artificial general intelligence that took form as a consequence of our lives being reified in data. Our genetic sequence provides the instructions necessary to produce intelligent, conscious agents, so why couldn't a stochastic model estimate its way to fully meddling in human affairs?

The odd departure from most "robots taking over the world" movies, was that this artificial being purports to have our best interests in mind. It does not seek to control us, but to sift out the signal from the noise in the accumulating pile of information we create, to reverse entropy on our behalf and preserve what precious amount of cultural ingredients we have left. Towards the end of the game, the avatars of the AGI you've been tricked into working with reveal their program as "Selection for Societal Sanity", to act as an evolutionary pressure for the 'memetic' DNA of society at large.

It's not very hard to fit narrative frames to our current circumstance, sense making nearly demands we find or invent tales to suss out the ever maddening condition of our lives. However, I would argue most popular interpretations of MGS2's postmodern subversions did not read the text to completion. Most essays and commentary on the game see the setting as Hideo Kojima's usual antics of player agency subversion, using the fact of your playing the game to question your actions in context of the narrative. The Big Shell, the monster of the week villains, and even the scary AGI great filter are merely there to remind you of the absurd nature of what you're doing.

With my clear, current year of 2024 eyes, I can see that the writers were seeing the big picture of information being valued purely by its quantity. Its natural to see in the big bad villain plot of the AGI, why else would it concern itself with saving us from the heat death of our culture? Its also very telling that the AGI decides to test its program by creating a high-tension hostage rescue scenario by manipulating independent actors into a terrorist collective.

I would argue the AGI in question, GW, has already manifested. It lacks intentionality, but it has already consumed the minds of "AI Engineers" currently building the products of the sort you see from OpenAI. This manifestation of a cultural CRISPR is currently limited in scope, but its mode of interaction is deception, just like GW. Given these system's tendency to overfit on self-produced synthetic examples, it almost makes sense that GW would try to preserve our society, in order to maintain its own coherency.

Some in the space are aware of the synthetic data poison pill, but they don't seem to care as far as generative AI models producing junk that gets in the way of our lives. AI might be sold by tech companies as a way to direct the development of our collective intelligence, but I'd argue that's where the real GW falls short. Without intentionality, we only have the intrepid captains of capital to direct these systems and their production, and it appears their goal is only to make us work harder and maximize profits, even at the expense of culture.

In some way, I wish GW was actually real, compared to this garbage.

Date: 2024-04-08 Mon 00:00

Created: 2024-04-09 Tue 11:12