For capitalism to sustain itself, to reproduce indefinitely, it needs to incrementally gobble up more and more. It must continually overturn any balanced cycles, as they can lead to stagnation and lost opportunities for growth. Extinctions are drawn to it like filaments to a magnet. The imperative to grow and the need for unrestricted license to devastate are two sides of the same coin—not only mutually dependent but structurally essential. Yet, however deplorable, growth and devastation can be aesthetically generative: they set us on a course toward imagining what the world will look like as it slides toward the inorganic.
By constantly invading and liquidating resource-rich contexts, capitalism encourages images that project what will inevitably be left in its wake: a dead world. And just as one can imagine (or see) patches of devastated and desolate land, a kind of localized post-extraction desertification, one can just as easily imagine this becoming a planetary condition: the globe as a rotating, dead lithosphere, coated in a fine dust of decomposing once-organic particles. Individual patches of dead world synthesized into a continuous crust.
In 1986, Dr. K. Eric Drexler, at the time a Research Affiliate at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, published Engines of Creation, a book celebrating the growing productive capabilities of nanotechnology and the coming age of mechanochemical manufacturing. He was preparing us for the “assembler breakthrough”—the moment when self-replicating machines as small as molecules would become the driving engines of contemporary technology. Like science fiction, it was a testament of—or from—the future. It came in a warm language of affirmation and delight: a less arduous life was guaranteed by the inevitable emergence of molecular technology. We were moving up, pushing forward, relieving ourselves of unseemly burdens such as those of aging and dying or having to work for a living. But in one chapter in the book—Chapter 11, “Engines of Destruction”—Drexler slips out of character and offers a simple and formal warning, one with enough seductive charge and narrative potential to take on a life of its own:
The early transistorized computers soon beat the most advanced vacuum-tube computers because they were based on superior devices. For the same reason, early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. “Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop—at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.
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