Great Filter TEDx

This Saturday I’ll speak on the great filter at TEDx Limassol in Cyprus. Though I first wrote about the subject in 1996, this is actually the first time I’ve been invited to speak on it. It only took 19 years. I’ll post links here to slides and video when available.

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Did Industry Cause Nations?

An interesting claim: the nation-state didn’t exist before, and was caused by, the industrial revolution. Oh there were empires before, but most people didn’t identify much with empires, or see empires as much influencing their lives. In contrast people identify with nation-states, which they see as greatly influencing their lives. More:

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. … If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in. …

Agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. … Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. … Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes.

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. …

The industrial revolution … demanded a different kind of government. … “In 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” … Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split.

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around. …

“nation building” … required the creation of an ideology of nationalism that emotionally equated the nation with people’s Dunbar circle of family and friends. That in turn relied heavily on mass communication technologies. … Nationalist feelings … arose after mass-market books standardised vernaculars and created linguistic communities. Newspapers allowed people to learn about events of common concern, creating a large “horizontal” community that was previously impossible. National identity was also deliberately fostered by state-funded mass education. Continue reading "Did Industry Cause Nations?" »

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Tarot Counselors

[Tarot card] readers claim to be able to describe a person’s life, his problems, hopes and fears, his personality and even his future. (more)

I recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading. The reader threw out various interpretations of the cards she placed, in terms of the subjects personality and life, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to options where the subject seemed more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Economists have long been puzzled by the lack of student interest in career info. Career counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or graduation rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence-based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences of the subjects, or to outcomes in which subjects are very emotionally engaged. The advice is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot-like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly had the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

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Do Economists Care?

Art Carden:

Heavy traffic is a problem every economist in the world knows how to solve: price road access, and charge high prices during rush hour. With technologies like E-ZPass and mobile apps, it’s easier than ever. That we don’t pick this low-hanging fruit is a pretty serious indictment of public policy. If we can’t address what is literally a principles-level textbook example of a negative spillover with a fairly easy fix, what hope do we have for effective public policy on other margins? (more)

Yes! If economists actually cared about influencing real policy, they would:

  1. Identify a few strong candidate policies that are a) widely endorsed by economists, b) based on relatively simple clean analysis, c) not much adopted in the wider world, and d) should bring big gains.
  2. Try to engage other intellectuals in detail on one or a few of these, seeking to either gain their endorsement, or to understand better the barriers that block them. If possible, do this as a group, and using all our status levers to make them respond in detail. If we succeed in persuading intellectuals, then join with them to try to persuade policy-makers, again either succeeding or better understanding barriers.
  3. Once we better understand barriers, focus our economic research on doing what it takes to overcome them.

By not doing this, we basically say that while we think we know how to make a better world, we don’t much care if that happens; our priorities are elsewhere.

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Open Thread

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

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Beware Status Arrogance

Imagine that you are expert in field A, and a subject in field B comes up at party. You know that there may be others at the party who are expert in field B. How reluctant does this make you to openly speculate about this topic? Do you clam up and only cautiously express safe opinions, or do you toss out the thoughts that pop into your head as if you knew as much about the subject as anyone?

If you are like most people, the relative status of fields A and B will likely influence your choice. If the other field has higher status than yours, you are more likely to be cautious, while if the other field has lower status than yours, you are more likely to speculate freely. In both cases your subconscious will have made good guesses about the likely status consequences to you if an expert in B were to speak up and challenge your speculations. At some level you would know that others at the party are likely to back whomever has the higher status, even if the subject is within the other person’s area of expertise.

But while you are likely to be relatively safe from status losses, you should know that you are not safe from being wrong. When people from different fields argue about something within one of their areas of expertise, that expert is usually right, even when the other field has higher status. Yes people from your field may on average be smarter and harder-working, and your field may have contributed more to human progress. Even so, people who’ve studied more about the details of something usually know more about it.

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Fundamentalists Are Not Traditionalists

In my last two years of college I rebelled against the system. I stopped doing homework and instead studied physics by playing with equations (and acing exams). In this I was a “school fundamentalist.” I wanted to cut out what I saw as irrelevant and insincere ritual, so that school could better serve what I saw as its fundamental purpose, which was to help curious people learn. I contrasted myself with “traditionalists” who just unthinkingly continued with previous habits and customs.

One of the big social trends over the last few centuries has been a move toward reforming previous rituals and institutions to become more “sincere,” i.e., to more closely align with stated purposes, especially purposes related to internal feelings. For example, the protestant revolution tried to reform religious rituals and institutions toward a stated purpose of improving personal relations with God. (Christian and Islamic “fundamentalists” continue in this vein today.) The romantic revolution in marriage was to move marriage toward a stated purpose of promoting loving romantic relations. And various revolutions in government have been justified as moving government toward stated purposes of legitimacy, representation, and accountability.

In all of these cases advocates for reform have complained about insincerity and hypocrisy in prior practices and institutions. Similar sincerity concerns can be raised about birthday presents, or dinner table manners. Kids sometimes ask why, if gifts are to show feelings, people shouldn’t wait to give gifts until they most feel the mood. Or wait for when the receiver would most like the gift. Kids also sometimes ask why they must lie and say “thank you” when that is not how they feel. Here kids are being fundamentalists, while parents are traditionalists who mostly just want the kids to do the usual thing, without too much reflection on exactly why.

We economists are deep into this sincerity trend, in that we often analyze institutions according to stated purposes, and propose institutional reforms that seem to better achieve stated purposes. For example, in law & economics, the class I’m teaching this semester, we analyze which legal rules best achieve the stated purpose of creating incentives to increase economic welfare.

I’ve been made aware of this basic sincerity vs. tradition conflict by the sociology book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. While its sociology theory can make for hard reading at times, I was persuaded by its basic claim that modern intellectuals are too quick to favor the sincerity side of this conflict. For example, even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other. We’d get a lot fewer presents if people only gave them when in the mood.

Similarly, while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not. Also, my wife, who works in hospice, tells me that people today often reject traditional bereavement rituals which don’t seem to reflect their momentary sincere feelings. But such people often then feel adrift, not knowing what to do, and their bereavement process goes worse.

Of course I’m not saying we should always unthinkingly follow tradition. But I do think our efforts to reform often go badly because we focus on the most noble and flattering functions and situations, and neglect many other important ones.

From Ritual and Its Consequences I also got some useful distinctions. In addition to sincerity vs. tradition, there is also play vs. ritual. This is the distinction among less-practical “as-if” behaviors between those (play) that spin out into higher variance and those (ritual) that spin in to high predictability. Ritual in this sense can help one to feel safe when threatened, while play can bring joy when one doesn’t feel threatened. One can also distinguish between kinds of play and ritual where people’s usual roles are preserved vs. reversed, and distinguish between kinds where people are in control vs. out of control of events.

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Security Has Costs

Technical systems are often insecure, in that they allow unauthorized access and control. While strong security is usually feasible if designed in carefully from the start, such systems are usually made fast on the cheap. So they usually ignore security at first, and then later address it as an afterthought, which as a result becomes a crude ongoing struggle to patch holes as fast as holes are made or discovered.

The more complex a system is, the more different other systems it is adapted to, the more different organizations that share a system, and the more that such systems are pushed to the edge of technical or financial feasibility, the more likely that related security is full of holes.

A dramatic example of this is cell phone security. Most anyone in the world can use your cell phone to find out where your phone is, and hence where you are. And there’s not much anyone is going to do about this anytime soon. From today’s Post: Continue reading "Security Has Costs" »

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Liked For Being You

What do people want to be liked for? You are advised to tell a pretty woman she is smart and a smart woman she is pretty. But people don’t seem that happy with being liked for features like wealth, fame, beauty, strength, talent, smarts, or charisma. People do seem to prefer being liked for more stable features that they are less likely lose with time. But they still often aren’t that happy with being liked for easily visible and hence “shallow” features, relative to “deep” features that take time and attention to discover. And they sometimes say “I want to be liked just for me, not for my features.”

I’ve often puzzled over what people could mean by this; surely everything you could like about someone is a feature of some sort. And why does a feature being harder to see make it better? But I recently realized the answer is simple and even obvious: we want people to become attached to us. Attachment is a well known psychological process wherein people become bonded to particular others:

Bowlby referred to attachment bonds as a specific type of “affectional” bond. … He established five criteria for affectional bonds between individuals, and a sixth criterion for attachment bonds:

    • An affectional bond is persistent, not transitory.
    • An affectional bond involves a particular person who is not interchangeable with anyone else.
    • An affectional bond involves a relationship that is emotionally significant.
    • The individual wishes to maintain proximity or contact with the person with whom he or she has an affectional tie.
    • The individual feels sadness or distress at involuntary separation from the person.

An attachment bond has an additional criterion: the person seeks security and comfort in the relationship. (more)

Other people don’t start out with a deep preference for the exact combination of features that we embody. But if they like our shallow features they may expose themselves to us enough to see deeper features, and in the process become attached to our particular combination of all features. And it is that attachment that we really want when we say we want to be liked “for being me.”

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Regulating Infinity

As a professor of economics in the GMU Center for the Study of Public Choice, I and my colleagues are well aware of the many long detailed disputes on the proper scope of regulation.

One the one hand, the last few centuries has seen increasing demands for and expectations of government regulation. A wider range of things that might happen without regulation are seen as intolerable, and our increasing ability to manage large organizations and systems of surveillance is seen as making us increasingly capable of discerning relevant problems and managing regulatory solutions.

On the other hand, some don’t see many of the “problems” regulations are set up to address as legitimate ones for governments to tackle. And others see and fear regulatory overreach, wherein perhaps well-intentioned regulatory systems actually make most of us worse off, via capture, corruption, added costs, and slowed innovation.

The poster-children of regulatory overreach are 20th century totalitarian nations. Around 1900, many were told that the efficient scale of organization, coordination, and control was rapidly increasing, and nations who did not follow suit would be left behind. Many were also told that regulatory solutions were finally available for key problems of inequality and inefficient resource allocation. So many accepted and even encouraged their nations to create vast intrusive organizations and regulatory systems. These are now largely seen to have gone too far.

Or course there have no doubt been other cases of regulatory under-reach; I don’t presume to settle this debate here. In this post I instead want to introduce jaded students of regulatory debates to something a bit new under the sun, namely a newly-prominent rationale and goal for regulation that has recently arisen in a part of the futurist community: stopping preference change.

In history we have seen change not only in technology and environments, but also in habits, cultures, attitudes, and preferences. New generations often act not just like the same people thrust into new situations, but like new kinds of people with new attitudes and preferences. This has often intensified intergenerational conflicts; generations have argued not only about who should consume and control what, but also about which generational values should dominate.

So far, this sort of intergenerational value conflict has been limited due to the relatively mild value changes that have so far appeared within individual lifetimes. But at least two robust trends suggest the future will have more value change, and thus more conflict:

  1. Longer lifespans – Holding other things constant, the longer people live the more generations will overlap at any one time, and the more different will be their values.
  2. Faster change – Holding other things constant, a faster rate of economic and social change will likely induce values to change faster as people adapt to these social changes.
  3. Value plasticity – It may become easier for our descendants to change their values, all else equal. This might be via stronger ads and schools, or direct brain rewiring. (This trend seems less robust.)

These trends robustly suggest that toward the end of their lives future folk will more often look with disapproval at the attitudes and behaviors of younger generations, even as these older generations have a smaller proportional influence on the world. There will be more “Get off my lawn! Damn kids got no respect.”

The futurists who most worry about this problem tend to assume a worst possible case. (Supporting quotes below.) That is, without a regulatory solution we face the prospect of quickly sharing the world with daemon spawn of titanic power who share almost none of our values. Not only might they not like our kind of music, they might not like music. They might not even be conscious. One standard example is that they might want only to fill the universe with paperclips, and rip us apart to make more paperclip materials. Futurists’ key argument: the space of possible values is vast, with most points far from us.

This increased intergenerational conflict is the new problem that tempts some futurists today to consider a new regulatory solution. And their preferred solution: a complete totalitarian takeover of the world, and maybe the universe, by a new super-intelligent computer.

You heard that right. Now to most of my social scientist colleagues, this will sound bonkers. But like totalitarian advocates of a century ago, these new futurists have a two-pronged argument. In addition to suggesting we’d be better off ruled by a super-intelligence, they say that a sudden takeover by such a computer will probably happen no matter what. So as long as we have to figure out how to control it, we might as well use it to solve the intergenerational conflict problem.

Now I’ve already discussed at some length why I don’t think a sudden (“foom”) takeover by a super intelligent computer is likely (see here, here, here). Nor do I think it obvious that value change will generically put us face-to-face with worst case daemon spawn. But I do grant that increasing lifespans and faster change are likely to result in more intergenerational conflict. And I can also believe that as we continue to learn just how strange the future could be, many will be disturbed enough to seek regulation to prevent value change.

Thus I accept that our literatures on regulation should be expanded to add one more entry, on the problem of intergenerational value conflict and related regulatory solutions. Some will want to regulate infinity, to prevent the values of our descendants from eventually drifting away from our values to parts unknown.

I’m much more interested here in identifying this issue than in solving it. But if you want my current opinion it is that today we are just not up to the level of coordination required to usefully control value changes across generations. And even if we were up to the task I’m not at all sure gains would be worth the quite substantial costs.

Added 8a: Some think I’m unfair to the fear-AI position to call AIs our descendants and to describe them in terms of lifespan, growth rates and value plasticity. But surely AIs being made of metal or made in factories aren’t directly what causes concern. I’ve tried to identify the relevant factors but if you think I’ve missed the key factors do tell me what I’ve missed.

Added 4p: To try to be even clearer, the standard worrisome foom scenario has a single AI that grows in power very rapidly and whose effective values drift rapidly away from ones that initially seemed friendly to humans. I see this as a combination of such AI descendants having faster growth rates and more value plasticity, which are two of the three key features I listed.

Added 15Sep: A version of this post appeared as:

Robin Hanson, Regulating Infinity, Global Government Venturing, pp.30-31, September 2014.

Those promised supporting quotes: Continue reading "Regulating Infinity" »

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