The Future Of Intellectuals

Back in 1991, … [a reporter] described Andrew Ross, a doyen of American studies, strolling through the Modern Language Association conference … as admiring graduate students gawked and murmured, “That’s him!” That was academic stardom then. Today, we are more likely to bestow the aura and perks of stardom on speakers at “ideas” conferences like TED. …

Plenty of observers have argued that some of the new channels for distributing information simplify and flatten the world of ideas, that they valorize in particular a quick-hit, name-branded, business-friendly kind of self-helpish insight—or they force truly important ideas into that kind of template. (more)

Across time and space, societies have differed greatly in what they celebrated their intellectuals for. Five variations stand out:

  • Influence – They compete to privately teach and advise the most influential folks in society. The ones who teach or advised kings, CEOs, etc. are the best. In many nations today, the top intellectuals do little else but teach the next generation of elites.
  • Attention – They compete to make op-eds, books, talks, etc. that get attention from the intellectual-leaning public. The ones most discussed by the snooty public are the best. Think TED stars today, or french public intellectuals of a generation ago.
  • Scholarship – They compete to master stable classics in great detail. When disputes arise on those classics, the ones who other scholars say win those disputes are the best. Think scholars who oversaw the ancient Chinese civil service exams.
  • Fashion – They compete to be first to be visibly associated with new intellectual fads, and to avoid association with out-of-fashion topics, methods, and conclusions. The ones who fashionable people say have the best fashion sense are the best. Think architecture and design today.
  • Innovation – They compete to add new results, methods, and conclusions to an accumulation of such things that lasts and is stable over the long run. Think hard sciences and engineering today.

Over the last half century, in the most prestigious fields and in the world’s dominant nations, intellectuals have been celebrated most for their innovation. But other standards have applied through most of history, in most fields in most nations today, and in many fields today in our dominant nations. Thus innovation standards are hardly inevitable, and may not last into the indefinite future. Instead, the world may change to celebrating the other four features more.

A thousand years ago society changed very slowly, and there was little innovation to celebrate. So intellectuals were naturally celebrated for other things that they had in greater quantities. The celebration of innovation got a big push from World War II, as innovations from intellectuals were seen as crucial to winning that war. Funding went way up for innovation-oriented intellectuals. Today, however, tech and business startups, and innovative big firms like Apple, have grabbed a lot of innovation prestige from academics. Many parts of academia may plausibly respond to this by celebrating other things besides innovation where those competitors aren’t as good.

Thus the standards of intellectuals may change in the future if academics are seen as less responsible for important innovation, or if there is much less total innovation within the career of each intellectual. Or maybe if intellectuals who are better at doing other things besides innovation to win their political battles within intellectual or wider circles.

If intellectuals were the main source of innovation in society, such a change would be very bad news for economic and social growth. But in fact, intellectuals only contribute a small fraction of innovation, so growth could continue on nearly as fast, even if intellectuals care less about innovation.

(Based on today’s lunch with Tyler Cowen & John Nye.)

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Multiplier Isn’t Reason Not To Wait

On the issue of whether to help now vs. later, many reasonable arguments have been collected on both sides. For example, positive interest rates argue for helping later, while declining need due to rising wealth argues for helping now. But I keep hearing one kind of argument I think is unreasonable, that doing stuff has good side effects:

Donating to organizations (especially those that focus on influencing people) can help them reach more people and raise even more money. (more)

Giving can send a social signal, which is useful for encouraging more giving, building communities, demonstrating our generosity, and coordinating with charities. (more)

Influencing people to become effective altruists is a pretty high value strategy for improving the world. … You can do more good with time in the present than you can with time in the future. If you spend the next 2 years doing something at least as good as influencing people to become effective altruists, then these 2 years will plausibly be more valuable than all of the rest of your life. (more)

Yes doing things now can have good side effects, but unless something changes in the side-effect processes, doing things later should have exactly the same sort of side effects. And because of positive interest rates, you can do more later, and thus induce more of those good side effects. (Also, almost everyone can trade time for money, and so convert money or time now into more money or time later.)

For example, if you can earn 7% interest you can convert $1 now into $2 a decade from now. Yes, that $1 now might lend respectability now, induce others to copy your act soon, and induce learning by the charity and its observers. But that $2 in a decade should be able to induce twice as much of all those benefits, just delayed by a decade.

In math terms, good side effects are multipliers, which multiply the gains from your good act. But multipliers are just not good reasons to prefer $1 over $2, if both of them will get the same multiplier. If the multiplier is M, you’d just be preferring $1M to $2M.

Now it does seem that many people are arguing that these side-effect processes are in fact changing, and changing a lot. They suggest that that if you work with or donate to them or their friends, then these efforts today can produce huge gains in inducing others to copy you, or in learning better how to do things, gains that won’t be available in the future. Because they and you and now are special.

I think one should in general be rather suspicious of investing or donating to groups on the basis that they, or you, or now, is special. Better to just do what would be good even if you aren’t special. Because usually, you aren’t.

Now one very believable way in which you might be special now is that you might be at a particular age. But the objectively best age to help is probably when you have peak abilities and resources, around age 40 or 60. If you are near your peak age, then, yes, maybe you should help now. If you are younger though, you should probably wait.

Added 14Apr: Every generation has new groups with seemingly newly urgent or valuable causes. So you need some concrete evidence to believe that your new cause is especially good relative to the others. I am not at all persuaded that today is very special just because some people throw around the phrase “effective altruism.”

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Rah Manic Monopolists?

The vast majority of economic growth is caused by innovation. So when it comes to long term policy, innovation is almost the entire game – whatever policy causes substantially more innovation is probably better, even if has many other big downsides.

One simple robust solution to the innovation problem would seem to be manic monopolists: one aggressively-profit-maximizing firm per industry. Such a firm would internalize the entire innovation problem within that industry, all the way from designers to suppliers to producers to customers – it would have full incentives to encourage all of those parties to put nearly the right amount and type of efforts into innovation.

Yes, even monopolists don’t have exactly the right incentives. They will tend to focus on what marginal customers want, at the expense of both lower-value customers pushed out by inflated monopolist prices, and higher-value infra-marginal customers. And when innovations can cross industry boundaries, industry monopolists may also fail to coordinate with monopolists from other industries. But still, this approach seems to get a lot closer to optimal that anything other simple policy. And if two industries had enough innovation interaction, one might just have a single firm cover both industries.

Ideally these monopolies would be global, but if not national ones might still be a big win over the status quo.

Admittedly, common intuitions don’t agree with this. For one thing we tend to think of monopolists as too lazy to innovate – it takes competition to push them out of their comfort zone. And I agree that this is a common situation for regulated utilities and government agencies. Often the employees of a monopolist tend to have enough political power to entrench themselves and resist change, at the expense of investors and customers. This is why I specified manic monopolists – we need investors to have enough power to impose their will, and we need to have  enough competition to fill these investor roles.

Yes, we also tend to be uncomfortable with the inequality and power concentration that manic monopolists would embody and require. It isn’t at all what foragers are prone to praise. But still, if innovation is important enough, shouldn’t we be willing to tolerate a lot more inequality to get it?

Added 8a 11Apr: In general, industries that are more concentrated, i.e., more in the direction of having a monopolist, have more patents, all else equal. This seems to be because they invest more in R&D. Data here, here.

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Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned. Continue reading "Review of LockStep" »

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Who Gains From Grit?

I’ve often said that while foragers did what felt natural, farmer cultures used religion, conformity, self-control, and “grit,” to get farmers do less-natural-feeling things. But as we’ve become rich over the last few centuries, we’ve felt those pressures less, and revived forager-like attitudes. Today “conservatives” and “liberals” have farmer-like and forager-like attitudes, respectively. I think the following recent quotes support this view.

Tyler Cowen says workers today have less grit:

There is also a special problem for some young men, namely those with especially restless temperaments. They aren’t always well-suited to the new class of service jobs, like greeting customers or taking care of the aged, which require much discipline or sometimes even a subordination of will. (more)

There were two classes of workers fired in the great liquidity shortage of 2008-2010. The first were those revealed to be not very productive or bad for firm morale. They skew male rather than female, and young rather than old. … There really are a large number of workers who fall into the first category. (more)

Alfie Kohn says grit is overrated:

More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. … The heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-century chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” …

On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse.

But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded by those who told them to do it? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for using grades as markers of success…

Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being . . . and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” …

Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. (more)

Yes, grit is conservative, and gritty people may not be as playful, open, relaxed, or creative. Grit just helps individuals to succeed, and societies to get ugly things done, like winning their competitions with other societies. But yes, you might be happier to play video games in your parent’s basement, leaving the support of society to someone else.

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Reason, Stories Tuned for Contests

Humans have a capacity to reason, i.e., to find and weigh reasons for and against conclusions. While one might expect this capacity to be designed to work well for a wide variety of types of conclusions and situations, our actual capacity seems to be tuned for more specific cases. Mercier and Sperber:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. … People turn out to be skilled arguers (more)

That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.

Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence.

Consider some forager examples. You go out to find fire wood, and return two hours later, much later than your spouse expected. During a hunt someone shot an arrow that nearly killed you. You don’t want the band to move to new hunting grounds quite yet, as your mother is sick and hard to move. Someone says something that indirectly suggests that they are a better lover than you.

In such examples, you might want to present an interpretation of related events that persuades others to adopt your favored views, including that you are able and virtuous, and that your rivals are unable and ill-motivated. You might try to do this via direct arguments, or more indirectly via telling a story that includes those events. You might even work more indirectly, by telling a fantasy story where the hero and his rival have suspicious similarities to you and your rival.

This view may help explain some (though hardly all) puzzling features of fiction:

  • Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories.
  • Compared to real events, even important ones, stories focus far more on direct conscious conflicts between people, and on violations of social norms.
  • Compared to real people, character features are more extreme, and have stronger correlations between good features.
  • Compared to real events, fictional events are far more easily predicted by character motivations, and by assuming a just world.
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To The Barricades

I recently watched the classic 1952 Kurosawa film Ikiru, and have some comments. But those comments include spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "To The Barricades" »

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Extremists Compete

Extremists hold extreme views, and struggle to persuade others of their views, or even to get them to engage such views. Since most people are not extremists, you might think extremists focus mostly on persuading non-extremists. If so, they should have a common cause in getting ordinary people to think outside the usual boxes. They should want to join together to say that the usual views tend to gain from conformity pressures, and that such views are held overconfidently.

But in fact extremists don’t seem interested in joining together to support extremism. While each individual extremist tends to hold multiple extreme views, extremists groups go out of their way to distance themselves from other extremist groups. Not only do they often hate close cousins who they see as having betrayed their cause, they are also hostile to extremists groups on orthogonal topics.

This all makes sense if, as I’ve suggested, there are extremist personality types. Extremist groups have a better chance of attracting these types to their particular sort of extremism, relative to persuading ordinary folks to adopt  extreme views.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss related topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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NASA Goddard Talk Monday

This Monday at 3:30p I talk on interstellar colonization at the Engineering Colloquim of NASA Goddard:

Attempts to model interstellar colonization may seem hopelessly compromised by uncertainties regarding the technologies and preferences of advanced civilizations. However, if light speed limits travel speeds and reliability limits travel distances, then a selection effect may eventually determine behavior at the colonization frontier. Making weak assumptions about colonization technology, I use this selection effect to predict colonists’ behavior, including which oases they colonize, how long they stay there, how many seeds they then launch, how fast and far those seeds fly, and how behavior changes with increasing congestion. This colonization model might explain some astrophysical puzzles, predicting lone oases like ours, amid large quiet regions with vast unused resources. (more here; here)

Added: Slides, Audio

I’m also talking on helping now vs. later at the DC Less Wrong Meetup Sunday (tomorrow), 3p in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.

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