thoughts on absolution

i was doomscrolling yet another argument between machine learning researchers fighting for the moral high ground on Twitter last week when it hit me with bracing clarity: there is no moral absolution and there is no good; there is only the world and how we choose to build and live in it. it's a sophomoric conclusion to arrive at, to be clear—here is another tech worker who did some work in AI ethics and then came to the conclusion that nothing is good; maybe only that some things are less bad than other things.

i've written before that we're all just in search of absolution in whatever form we can get it, and over the past few weeks i've become more convinced that this true. the AI ethics people and the AI safety people are out for the same thing: moral absolution and moral superiority. they have non-complementary approaches on how they can get there, but it's all the same shit: everyone wants to claim the moral high ground and the power and prestige of being morally superior, sometimes moreso than they actually want to do the work.

all these smart people got high-paying jobs working at the edge of science making 250k per year and now they want to be ethical, and this is what you get: an ecosystem where everyone is out for absolution because they feel guilty about how much money they're making and how comfortable their lives are and how they're spending their free time. babe, you're already complicit under capitalism, and donating 10% of your salary toward buying malaria nets isn't going to grant you absolution. neither does putting Chinese characters in your Twitter bio and performatively talking about inequity in the public school system, or complaining about how Mechanical Turk is a blanket evil—have you considered that the minority populations you claim to be advocating for don't need your pity? everyone spends an exhausting amount of time yelling about how the other way of fixing things is the wrong one and claiming internet points for it. did you know that you can live in a way which is true to whatever ethics system you subscribe to without tweeting about it? these are the status games which smart people play: debates over superintelligent language models, arguments from wealthy white first-world citizens on whether countries in the Middle East are worthy of holding academic conferences because of their politics as if North America is a moral panacea, every single argument which has ever happened on the topic of effective altruism from people on both sides. it's a bad look, to always be in search of moral superiority: it makes you do stupid things like waste time on the internet defending your politics to people arguing in bad faith and feeling guilty about spending your time doing fun, definitely-not-altruistic things when you could be, i don't know, laying on the floor drinking boba and hiking with friends who have never heard of LessWrong dot com.

these days i aspire to be someone who no longer seeks absolution and the moral high ground. but you know what i aspire to be even more? a senior software engineer at Figma building technology which sparks joy instead of controversial headlines, living in a gorgeous well-lit apartment funded by selling my labour to capitalism, with a giant fluffy dog i can take to the beach on weekends, going to pretty gyms and blonde-wood-panelled coffee shops, booking flights without performatively lamenting their CO2 cost, dancing on the grass in the crowd at Second Sky, totally oblivious to whoever the hell Eliezer Yudkowsky is, roadtripping down the California coastline to visit friends in Los Angeles, reading griefbacon and books written by women writers which feel like collections of open secrets, movies on rooftops at sunset, existing guilt-free wearing spaghetti-strap viscose floral dresses and going to happy hours on rooftops where for the span of three hours i am immune to the ping of my phone and all things related to doing or being good, living a whole real life which is the exact opposite of being someone who has made working on “AI ethics” their main personality trait and spends evenings picking exceptionally bad arguments to go fight other AI researchers on Twitter to win stupid prizes in the Tech Status Olympics. i'm out of purgatory and i'm post-guilt now, in search of worlds with no more judges, no more trials and no more juries. these days i aspire to be someone who is no longer seeking absolution for anything at all.

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