Of drone swarms and phalanxes: wordcel extinction, AI, and the end of art
"The value of text is going to zero, bucko."
Whenever I think of war in its purest, most platonic form, I think of this particularly evocative passage from Bronze Age Mindset about the Greek soldiers of antiquity:
Now, I don’t raise this quote to once again litigate the morality of the ideas in Bronze Age Mindset, a culture-war topic which has been done to death a thousand times and which does not particularly interest me as a Chinese-American.1 I just want to pin you with an image that, in spite of its pro-fascist context in the span of this book, arguably points to something essential about human psychology—to something pre-ideological.
The Persians were amazed at the line of gleaming bronze running toward them and their war cry.
Take this line on its own terms. That’s quite the image, isn’t it?
It has a certain resonance. It’s noble—beautiful, in a martial kind of way.
War is a force that gives us meaning, as Chris Hedges would say.2 Males above a certain androgenic threshold will read a passage like that, imagine it, and experience a positive response that reaches all the way down into boyhood and breaches the folds of ancestral memory.
A chimp in nature doesn’t jack off—true.
What does he instead?
If war is organized violence, it’s the violence that is the essential component of war—not the organization. Thus, to say that war gives us meaning is to say that violence gives us meaning, and to say that violence gives us meaning is to say that violence is the route to self-actualization for a certain type of male—for the man who is a warrior.
Violence is an expression of power.
Power is an expression of agency.
What is the opposite of agency?
Necessarily, it must be weakness, which we might also label as dis-empowerment.
And how is the warrior dis-empowered?
Simply put, it is through technology.
I debated whether or not to post this clip here. Now, the video isn’t graphic, but it does feel like a certain type of pornography. The other half of my brain won the argument because sometimes reality is pornographic. So, I posted it here because it’s historically significant, and you should watch it to understand the moment that we’re in, because you’re not going to get the essence of this if you don’t watch the video.
Initially pioneered by the Ukrainians and later copied by the Russians, First-Person View (FPV) drones have swarmed the battlefield of Ukraine. They are remote-operated quadrocopters with front-facing cameras steered by human soldiers with goggles. An explosive warhead, usually rudimentary, is attached to the quadrocopter and typically explodes on contact with its target.
If, like me, you’re a kind of military-autist and you compulsively scroll Twitter to follow war-related accounts, you will by now have seen dozens of videos where a remote-operated drone feed has captured the last moments of both armored and non-armored military personnel in a scene that feels pulled out of a video game.
If you are not like me, and you are seeing this footage for the first time, you will have a reaction to it.
I will share with you mine.
For me, it was horrifying in a way that the distanced drone strike footage from the Global War on Terror wasn’t—because these small packages of death can more personally and cruelly hunt down individual soldiers, maiming and killing them in a way that activates the pattern recognition of predator and prey.
The proximity between drone and victim, the frantic, yet futile attempt to escape—this is self-evidently the future of warfare. Some of the videos have commentary or even music to complement the drone-operator toying with a man before killing him in a horrific, maximalist account of technologically-mediated human debasement.
Because they move so quickly and nimbly, FPV-drones cannot easily be shot down, and most of the countermeasures come down to electronic warfare or “cope cages” attached to armored vehicles.
This has yet to meaningfully penetrate the zeitgeist. For the past 20 or so years, we’ve been bombarded with Hollywood-production martial pornography in the form of “tacticool”—special operations soldiers kitted out in night-vision goggles and the latest in combat gear doing door-breaches and room-clearing. This reveals that our collective mental model of soldiering is very much still human-oriented even in an age of mechanical warfare. The symbol remains very much bipedal, very much one of sapiens, with breastplates replaced with plate carriers and spears replaced with rifles. This is true even of aerial warfare, where we worship human-steered aircraft carriers and the manned F-35.
That’s where we are in the culture: still in a slumber. What this means is that the psychic inflection hasn’t happened yet, and you and I are about to live through something enormously significant in cultural terms.
We are about to see the death of bipedal heroism.
Once, we asked ourselves: what of the phalanx in the era of the firearm?
Now, we will ask: what of the rifle in the era of mass-produced drones?
What of the warrior?
For a short interregnum, he hath become a first-person gamer, and soon, replaced by machine intelligence with sub-human reaction times, he will be substituted entirely.
The death of bipedal heroism will be a significant culturo-historical event.
In the age of technocapital acceleration—in the age of AGI—it will only be one among many deaths of categorical meaning in multiple domains.
As machine intelligence incrementally (and perhaps suddenly) usurps human intelligence, we will see the following sequence replicate itself in multiple domains:
Suddenly, a machine can execute task XYZ.
We will experience immediate relative human disempowerment in task XYZ.
Because of this relative disempowerment, we will experience a collective deflation in the amount of personal meaning that can be derived via human execution of task XYZ.
I call this process meaning deflation, and it’s not solely going to affect soldiers. It’s coming for artists too.
That is to say: AI won’t only deflate the cost of goods and services.
It will also deflate meaning in life.
Rather, it will shred it.
I’m going to focus on writers for a moment.
Here’s what’s going to happen in the near-to-medium term (the next couple of years):3
LLM’s are going to get better and better as enormous amounts of human capital and technocapital get poured into improving the scale of these systems.
The gap between the quality of sentence-level or paragraph-level prose that LLM’s can produce and what humans can produce will narrow, probably to near-zero. The distinction between prose crafted by a graduate of the Iowa school of writing and the prose crafted by an LLM (provided it is prompted correctly) will become functionally indistinguishable. This means that it will be possible to produce outstanding Cormac McCarthy-tier descriptive passages in under a second, rendering the skill of sentence-level writing more or less moot.4
By stringing together prompts or by using purpose-built models optimized for narrative architecture, dog-shit writers/midwit savants will be able to architect very well written stories using LLM’s. Purpose-built LLM’s like SudoWrite will also become further optimized for macro-level narrative structure as well. These texts will play your brain like a musician plays an instrument.
The internet will get flooded with massive amounts of genre-slop (vampire sex pornography for teens and adolescent-psychology wish-fulfillment-slop for TFR-zero adults), but it will also be flooded with moderate-to-even-high-quality literary fiction that is (mostly) produced by LLM’s, crowding out real human writers—suffocating “organic” art.
The value of spending years of your life learning (and crafting) high-quality literary fiction will go to zero. The pipeline will almost completely die out and the literary form will be gifted to midwit-savants who are spiritually Reddit.
Even if you read a novel that you like, you will have no way of knowing how much of it, if any, was crafted by an unconscious p-zombie running on a server cluster somewhere.5 This will break the sacred bond between writer and reader, soiling your relationship to the text and leaving you in perpetual doubt about whether or not the words you are reading were consecrated through the filter of human consciousness.
People will care even less about literary fiction and the form will do something worse than dying—it will be mutated into an affront to God and nature, similar to the tableau of a man making a futile run from an FPV-drone before getting pureed into meat.
For writers, the value of producing text will go to zero.
Now, it’s possible that I’m wrong and the bearish scenarios, like those envisioned by writers like , will play out. I’ve also seen domain experts likeargue that we will hit diminishing returns on hardware scaling as an alternative technical trajctory.6
I’m not a technical person, so all I can do is read different articles and intuit a likely development trajectory. Perhaps because I am an artistic pessimist by nature, I lean toward toward bullish developmental trajectories for AI.
The proper way to doom
And yet—here I am, writing this article, and even planning my next novel.
Yes: it may well be that we will reach a computational threshold that debases the value of literary fiction.
But, in my view, even if that day comes 2, 3, or 5 years from now, books written before then will still have a certain kind of canonical status. We will look back on these books with a certain degree of confidence, knowing that they were quality works produced by human beings.
So yes—ashas said, we are all of us, now, in a race against the machines (or rather, a race from them).
This sense of futile competition is, I suspect, hard-coded into our DNA, a kind of survival instinct that extrapolates itself from the world of physical survival and into the world of meaning survival.
Because—brother, when the drone comes for me—I’m still going to run.
Anything less would be an insult to my ancestors.
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy my debut novel, INCEL, a bio-materialist tragedy (and comedy) about a young Houellecqian graduate student in early 2010’s America.
From a purely platonic, detached vacuum of amoral literary criticism, I think it’s an extremely well-executed text on a number of different levels, but I obviously don’t support the thesis of a book that derogates Chinese people as subhuman and deserving of permanent racial subjugation.
Militarism is manifestly essential to the American nation and our collective psyche. Stats are available at the Military Intervention Project.
For a discussion of whether or not scaling will lead all the way to AGI, check out’s excellent piece on the question for a good non-technical overview.