How Is Our Era Unique?

We are entering an era where most anyone can quickly talk to most anyone else who can talk.  Talking will get easier as more people speak English, and perhaps as automatic translation is improved.  Easy talking wasn’t true before the widespread use of telephones, and it won’t be true after our descendants spread across the stars, or think billions of times faster.  The next few centuries will contain the easiest talking era in all of history.

For similar reasons, our current era is likely unique in having the least contact with strange cultures.  Our distant ancestors heard rumors from travelers about distant strange cultures.  Our descendants may also have contact with strange cultures when they re-engineer themselves and fragment Cambrian-explosion-style into a vast space of possible creatures, grouped into local cultures.  Or they may spread across space, and diverge culturally due to the rare slow contact across such vast distances.

I also suspect our era is uniquely rich, in terms of thinking-talking folks having a median income so far above their subsistence levels. (This goes with a uniquely high econ growth rate and low-vs-median income inequality.)  Most animals have always been pretty close to subsistence level, and until the industrial revolution so were most humans.  Today median world income is now roughly five times subsistence level and rising.  But eventually incomes must fall, as we may learn to make people much faster (as in brain ems), or when econ growth rates fall below feasible population growth rates.

In what other ways is our era likely unique?  You will of course have diverse opinions, but I’m most interested in analyses based on assumptions I share: our lineage probably won’t go extinct, we’ll keep growing, spread across space, redesign our minds and bodies, and eventually learn all tech, all within a mostly competitive framework.

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  • Nathan

    Will we speak English in a few centuries? My guess would be something like Lojban (especially with self-modification making language a contest of merit, not accident).

  • Jef Allbright

    Our era is unique for being on the cusp of information technology providing views and decision-making capability surpassing that of any individual.

  • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

    Our era is unique for the amount of typing going on.

  • Norman

    “eventually incomes must fall”

    I’m continually amazed that people still insist on the logical necessity of Malthus. Nevermind the fact that we know how to make people faster than we do now, yet we choose lower birth rates the wealthier we get. Nevermind that most models of endogenous growth have wealthy societies grow *faster* with more population growth rather than the other way around. The conclusions offered seem to require as a necessary condition that possible technologies are a finite resource, and will eventually fall prey to a ‘peak oil’ argument (nevermind that the evidence on this isn’t even great for oil). While this may seem reasonable from a philosophical perspective, there’s no real evidence for it as far as I can tell.

    Since Malthus is obviously not falsifiable (if he were, what more evidence would we need than the last couple of centuries?), one has to wonder what transformed him from a scientific figure into such a powerful religious figure.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      A few days I ago I elaborated:

      We’ll eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms, and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light. So over this timescale growth rates simply must fall below feasible population growth rates.

      Endogenous growth requires more tech or more atoms.

      • Dan

        That’s a very metaphysical belief. How do you know that we eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms? You also say “we are more likely than not to survive the next thousand years.” This sounds again to me like your personal religion.

        Some decades ago people expecting that everybody would have flying cars soon and live like the Jetsons. Long-term speculations fail because of all possible contingencies.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Dan, is it my particular beliefs on these topics that you consider metaphysical and religious, or the very idea of having beliefs on such topics?

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        Agree with Dan; disagree with Robin (at least in spirit). The problem of how best to arrange atoms may be a tricky one – and it might scale up with the size of civilization – for a loooong time.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Tim do you really think we, for a million years, could keep discovering enough better ways to arrange atoms to keep our economy doubling every century over that time?

      • http://blogjack.net Glen Raphael

        It seems to me that econ growth rates are already below feasible population growth rates. What they aren’t below is actual population growth rates. I see no reason for that to change, and thus no reason to expect incomes to drop towards subsistence level. What am I missing? What are you expecting to change in human nature or human society that changes the current dynamic, in which people are physically capable of having more kids than they do but generally don’t have kids until they can expect to give their offspring something *better* than a subsistence-level existence?

        Knowing that if you wait a little while to have kids you can give those kids “a better life” leads most people to wait a little while to have kids; the average wait has been getting longer as our aspirations for ourselves and for them have increased. (If raising kids into prosperous adults gets cheaper and easier I’d expect people to have more kids, but that change wouldn’t be consistent with a lower standard of living.)

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Glen, until two hundred years ago humanity had always lived near subsistence levels because population grew fast enough to soak up the slowly accumulating tech gains. When tech grows that slowly again, I expect the same effects.

      • Michael

        I have no comment about whether grown can be sustained indefinitely, nor whether we can know that.

        But what is certain is that we can have near-zero population growth. Plenty of advanced countries already have negative growth. So even if you assume that technology-driven growth does stop eventually, you can’t conclude that “eventually incomes must fall”.

        What do you disagree with in this argument, Robin? (Perhaps you could argue that the countries with declining population and growing economies aren’t generating wealth, just sucking it out of their more populous peers? Logically this works, but I don’t buy it in the real world.)

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Michael, to keep population growth low over ten thousand years, it is not enough for most nations to keep their growth low for a few generations. Every subgroup that tries to grow its population must be stopped. A scenario where this is achieved is not a competitive scenario.

      • http://blogjack.net Glen Raphael

        Robin wrote:

        to keep population growth low over ten thousand years, it is not enough for most nations to keep their growth low for a few generations. Every subgroup that tries to grow its population must be stopped.

        I don’t believe that’s true. It’s okay for some subgroups to be growing some of the time so long as other groups are shrinking enough to compensate. The vast overwhelming worldwide trend over the last 50 years has been in the direction of lower fertility rates, to the extent that most of the developed world is already reproducing below replacement levels and the developed world is following the exact same trend just several decades behind. The fact that we see this trend across nations for essentially every nation in the world, tells me this trend is not being driven by a few enlightened countries folowing policies that oppose human nature. This trend is human nature.

        (Press the “play” button on this Gapminder.org chart of fertility versus longevity to see the trend over time. Or you can watch Hans Rosling explain the same trends in more detail in a video.)

        Robin also writes:

        until two hundred years ago humanity had always lived near subsistence levels because population grew fast enough to soak up the slowly accumulating tech gains.

        I see the causality as reversed there. I would have said that: until 200 years ago the human population hadn’t grown sufficiently to be able to reap the huge benefits from division of labor and economies of scale that ultimately enabled a modern standard of living. (Maybe throw in something about concentration of capital and accumulation of knowledge too, but that’s the gist of it.)

  • Sam Wilson

    Our era is unique in that we fret over the well-being of dumb brutes. Housepets have been anthropomorphised for many thousands of years in one culture or another (think the ban on slaying Egyptian cats [though this may have been as much for economic reasons as for cultural {imagine an infestation of mice in your papyrus harvest}]), but only recently has anyone began to worry about the happiness of livestock beyond the level of care needed to keep one’s own animals edible. Certainly, subsistence farming demands proper treatment of livestock, just as factory farms have an interest in avoiding disease, injury, parasites, and genetic disorders: such issues reduce profitability.

    In the future, supposing we can encode the human brain onto inert storage media, it’s no stretch to assume that we will be able to better communicate with other animals and illustrate, definitively what’s on their mind. With that information in hand, we should be able to better accommodate them.

    Of course, I strongly suspect that once we can pull the Dr. Doolittle act, we’ll find that most cows will be thinking something like, “I like grass” or “watch out for that spot over there, I just dropped one”.

    • Michael Turner

      “… but only recently has anyone began to worry about the happiness of livestock beyond the level of care needed to keep one’s own animals edible….”

      A rather culture-bound assumption, I’m afraid. I’ve read anthropological studies of cattle-herding/raiding cultures in East Africa whose members were vaguely repulsed at the idea of slaughtering cattle. Milk, even blood, from cows, as human nourishment — that was fine. Maybe eating their flesh after they died natural deaths — that was fair. But when it was proposed that they could supply beef to markets by encouraging faster breeding and selling the surplus at young ages, they responded, “Kill our cows? Why would we want to kill our cows? We like our cows.”

      • Sam Wilson

        The idea of repulsion at a use of animals that is inconsistent with accepted practices fits with what one would expect in an agrarian society. On a small-scale farm, the farmers may well care for a cherish their animals, but livestock is still livestock, and is treated as property, not as sovereign entities.

        To take your point even further, the Hindu reverence for cattle prohibits even barring cows from wandering about town. However, like the Masai example, the image of the cow as sacred ends up being a useful cultural adaptation for nutritional reasons, that is to say a live cow produces milk (and blood) and is better off alive under certain agricultural conditions (esp. marginal rates of substitution for pasture land). It makes sense to develop an aversion to a practice that destroys wealth.

        PETA calling fish “sea kittens” to protest commercial fishing isn’t quite the same thing.

        The further we are removed from our food source, the more abstract it gets (until we even have vegan cat food. Greater communication with the beasts of the field and the brutes of the feedlot should clear this up in a jiffy.

  • Michael Turner

    I’d say this era is unique in that pathogens and small (esp. water-borne) creatures aren’t naturally contained to their regions of origin. I was surprised to learn one day that the water-purification kit I had to use for safe potability of water from streams while hiking in the Sierra Nevada backwoods was necessary to combat an intestinal parasite that had been traced back to a reservoir in Leningrad. Remember the concern about amphibian species dying out all over the world? Was it global warming? UV from the rotting ozone layer? No, it was a communicable disease. Look up Zebra Mussel. Is it stoppable? Is it reversable? Well, maybe only if we can genetically engineer some disease that will selectively kill it.

    The first warning shot about this new ecological/pathological interpenetrated globe might have been from that Spanish explorer who traveled almost a thousand miles across North America overland, encountering only abandoned Native American settlements. Unless syphilis (a New World import) was the first warning shot.

    Of course, there have been some major benefits of species breakout from regions. I read somewhere recently that the most economically significant event ever (short of the industrial revolution) was the spread of the potato around the world. And maybe the industrial revolution required the potato, in some way, to get started.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Why don’t you think pathogens, eg computer viruses, will spread widely in the future?

      • Michael Turner

        I’d say because of both the ability and the eventual necessity of managing outbreak pathogens and invasive species with regional containment. I mentioned a possible response to the Zebra Mussel: engineering some disease that affects only them — and which maybe has a built-in species-death timer: after n cell divisions, daughter cells would self-destruct, so that there’s no time for the disease to mutate into any cause for concern stemming from the Law of Unintended Consequences. This means you’d have to keep reinfecting Zebra Mussels whenever there was a new invasion, but that might be a relatively small price to pay.

        This sort of response is likely to become increasingly common. Management will probably take the form of fighting fire with fire — setting engineered life against unwanted life; containing outbreaks using biotechnology.

        Computer viruses are pathogens? Um, maybe in some nanotech eschaton. I’m restricting myself to somewhat-foreseeable/imaginable futures. I do think that, in my lifetime, a good many problems with invasive species and contagions will be effectively met with biotechnological countermeasures. (And I’m in my early 50s, so clearly I’m an optimist in this regard.)

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I’m not sure whether you’re mostly asking about the recent past and present, or the future you’re expecting, but this is the first era in which a high proportion of people have to deal with having too much stuff and with managing how much information they want to take in.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Our era is unique in concentration of power.

    Our era is uniquely chaotic, that is, unique in the degree to which small fluctuations have large impacts on the exact future state.

    Our era is uniquely uneven in the degrees of intelligence and sanity that are applied at different points of optimization.

  • Nathan

    two questions Robin:

    why would more intelligent beings have more difficulty communicating instead of less?

    “we probably won’t go extinct” For what span of time? why won’t we evolve into something that can’t be considered human, or die off?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Won’t go extinct over 10,000 years. Holding constant comm delays, beings who think and talk very fast would see a higher ratio of delay to thought/talk times.

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        It seems unlikely to me that our descendants a few hundred years hence will self-identify as homo-sapiens. They will be designed entities. “Homo-sapien” will probably be a term of derision – much as calling someone a “Neanderthal” is today. As for 10,000 years…

  • Thanatos Savehn

    Almost everyone has access to the Lyceum. We can all walk with the thinkers online. Interacting; asking; challenging; questioning; conjecturing anew.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    If we actually do expand into space (not a done deal!), then this era will also be unique in terms of low physical shipping costs. When else were shipping costs so low that there was effectively a single global market in cheap commodities, from grain to oil? If we expand over interstellar distances, there will be very few (perhaps no) physical goods that could routinely pay for the cost to ship them to another star.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      There is something to this, but I struggle to find a robust way to express it. Perhaps the degree of large scale economic integration? The fraction of locally consumed stuff made at various distances?

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        The fraction of locally consumed stuff made at various distances sounds like a good metric. More explicitly, scaling the distance by the diameter of human space (one, just Africa, for the last 20 or millenia, the globe, eventually, perhaps, an expanding sphere in space), and expressing the fraction of stuff in terms of the fraction of the local economic activity it represents. The fact that shipping costs today are so low that modest efficiencies in production are enough to shift production halfway around the world, even for cheap bulk goods, is new.

        To phrase it another way, the dollar-weighted mean shipping distance that goods have travelled to their place of consumption has surely grown over time, and the ratio of this distance to the diameter of human space might be at a peak now (if we actually expand into space).

      • Jeff

        If, as Robin suggests, we “eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms”, physical shipping costs will not matter, even between stars. Just squirt the information (product specs) at the speed of light, and let the customer’s local nano-factory assemble the product from local atoms. The only trick is to manage the micro-royalties.

  • kevin

    Our current slice of time is unique in the sense that an individual will be able to sequence his/her genome, but still can’t realistically modify them (or even understand them). It seems that whole-genome sequencing technology will be highly affordable in the next decade, yet it seems genetic modification will be limited for decades after that.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Agreed, but the general pattern of diagnosis running ahead of treatment has a somewhat longer (though still fairly recent) history. Consider bacterial infections. After the invention of microscopy but before antibiotics there was a considerable period when one could identify infections with some precision but could do little about them.

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  • Buck Farmer

    Robin,

    Have you ever read Children of Dune or God Emperor of Dune? The era you are describing reminds me of some of Leto II’s discussions of the problems with the galactic civilization that he destroyed/re-made.

    To outline it quickly:

    (1) All of mankind was part of a single star-spanning civilization with a single centralized government that was brutally effective at enforcing peace and prosperity.

    (2) After Leto II died, the entire civilization broke down and scattered into a vast diaspora.

    (3) In the last two novels of the Dune Chronicles, the biological, social, and ideological diversity of these isolated and diverse diaspora return and compete with each other.

    Basically, Leto II’s objection to (1) was that mankind was too uniform and highly connected making it vulnerable to blind-spots in its knowledge or understanding.

    Now, if we understood everything about everything presumably this wouldn’t be a problem, but then I’m not sure how we would prove Completeness for human knowledge.

    Buck

    • http://yama-mayaa.livejournal.com Anton Tykhyy

      OTOH, Asimov in his Foundation series got progressively more pessimistic about fragmented, individual-based human culture and in the end envisioned it replaced with a homogenous, uniform, Three-Law-abiding Gaia. My impression was that Asimov found the conflict between the First and Zeroth laws insoluble assuming individual human beings, and disposed of individuality!

      • Hans

        Asimov and Herbert are polar opposites in their view of the best or most successful organisation of humanity and the importance of the individual vs that of society.

        In Asimov’s early works*, the Spacers are extremely individualistic societies. One of their planets even has a population of only 10,000 people, each of them living completely on their own, served by armies of robots. This culture eventually dies out. By contrast, protagonist Elijah Bailey lives on earth in domed cities with communal eating halls, and a rigid bureaucratic class system that regulates everything. They eventually overtake the previous space colonists (the Spacers) and spread out into space to become the Galactic Empire.
        Much later (in the series), the Galactic Empire, corrupt and inefficient, collapses, and this is the start of the Dark Ages, a reversion to barbarism. Only after a millenium of chaos does a new and improved Second Galactic Empire spring up. And this is all predicted and planned by the protagonist, Hari Seldon, through analysis of the collective behavior of humanity as a whole.

        On the other hand, in Dune, a totalitarian Empire is deliberately created by Leto II, and exists for thousands of years in order to suppress humanity so deeply that it eventually explodes in a Minsky moment; the enforced stability must give way to raging instability. To Herbert, the resulting Scattering of humanity in space, very similar to Asimov’s Dark Ages, is not a temporary reversal to barbarism in order to create a new Empire, but rather the end goal in itself. The chaos and the fact that interconnectedness is very low ensures humanity’s survival.

        This line of thinking is completely alien to Asimov, with his power-behind-the-throne Foundation controlling everything, and in turn being secretly controlled by the Second Foundation. Asimov’s Hari Seldon and Herbert’s Leto II can both look into the future, but one does it through scientific analysis to predict exact events, while the other can only glimpse unpredictable trends and does his very best to make the course of humanity unpredictable. One creates instability to end in stability, the other does the complete opposite.

        * The End of Eternity is a notable exception.

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  • Billy Oblivion

    For similar reasons, our current era is likely unique in having the least contact with strange cultures.

    http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/200558653-001/Riser

  • http://mattwarren.net Matt Warren

    On thing that I think is unique about this age is that we are firmly in a transition period wherein the structure of the family – on a global scale – is changing.

    What’s unclear to me is *what* exactly it will re-form into, all I know is that vastly improved medicine, more accessible nutrition, and industrialization have made the underpinnings of the pre-modern world moot. Children don’t generate income anymore, but rather cost money.

    My (admittedly limited) understanding of this demographic change leads directly to things such as women’s rights and a broader tolerance for less traditional family arrangements.

    These are interesting questions, thanks for posing them.

  • Andy

    Our era is unique in that the Red Sox won the World Series. Since steroids have been cracked down on, it won’t happen again. :)

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  • Chad Rector

    This is the era in which dangerous people are at their most dangerous.

    This may be the time when it is least expensive for genocidal terrorists or dictators to kill off a substantial portion (maybe even all) of humanity. World-ending bombs, germs, etc. weren’t possible before, and if Robin is right then in the future we’ll be on multiple worlds and it will likely be harder to destroy many worlds at once.

    Compared to other eras, it is harder for us to solve social conflicts by separating, migration, etc. Communities have the greatest incentive to preemptively seek out dangerous people and eliminate them.

  • http://www.streetwriter.net James Street

    You’ve forgotten the possibility that human society might decline into chaos and anarchy.
    I’m not predicting it, I’m just observing a hole in your thinking-feeling.

  • http://www.streetwriter.net James Street

    And I also suppose that you, like most people, don’t listen to words but troll for names and reputations.
    It’s a modern disease that we have caught from former cultures and civilizations.
    The number of head feathers and the size of muscles have always trumped reason and insight.

  • http://musingsnotamusing.blogspot.com Jordan

    We can’t make nearly enough good predictions about the future to really know in what sense we’ll be unique with respect to the entire lifespan of our civilsation. I mean its fun to speculate, but its firmly science fiction territory.

    There are, I would argue, more or less 3 fundamental goods in the universe of value to our current civilisation and its feasible descendents, as far as we can tell today. Matter/energy, spacetime, and ideas (the latter is obviously a rather board and vaguely defined category – it includes things like evolution’s “engineering” of anti-biotic substances, which we have appropriate into our cultural knowledge base.)

    We don’t even yet know enough physics to fully understand the long run economic constraints on categories one and two. Thermodynamics shows Energy is fixed and Entropy increasing in a closed system, but is the universe closed? More to the point, can we expand indefinitely to new energy sources faster than we consume them? Likewise Special Relativity puts a hard speed limit on the local spread of our spacetime bubble, but General Relativity hints we may one day be able to cheat…..

    As for the third category, no one even has the slightest clue yet. There are finite ways in which to arrange the atoms within the spacetime only if we really do live in a fully quantum, discrete universe. Any genuinely real physical variables, or “truly external state” (say the seeds in the long run pseudo-random number generators that the photons are running…) means local state perumtations, and thefefore “potential technologies”, are infinite, maybe even with some crazy cardinality like c or aleph 1.

  • Ryan Tetrick

    For similar reasons, our current era is likely unique in having the least contact with strange cultures.

    Related to this, our era is unique in being the first and last era when humanity will easily conceive of itself as “one”, as a single “family”. (I expect this will persist for several centuries yet.) This is the last era in which we will (arguably) be and think that “we are all in this together”.

    There are several aspects of the current era that make this the case:

    Environmental impact. This hardly needs further elaboration than is already prevalent in worldwide environmentalist discussions. Not until the 20th century did we attain and recognize our capacity to significantly impact and radically change, and destroy, our biosphere as a whole. This physically and morally binds all peoples to all others.

    Weapon’s technology. Most notably with the atomic bomb, the ability of any faction of the world’s population to endanger another increased dramatically. Flight and long range, biological, & chemical weapons of course also play into this dynamic. The result is that no confederation is ignorable. Even the most remote regions and and cultures must be addressed and contended with to provide the highest probability of maintaining the peace (or minimally survival) of others.

    Transportation technology. The barriers to reaching any part of human civilization are now as small as they will ever be: space travel to extraterrestrial colonies will be prohibitive in terms of time and money during the early centuries of our emigration off the planet. In centuries following that the human (or sentient) diaspora will be too dispersed do know of or visit all parts of it.

    Communication/information technology. Brian notes the ease with which we can talk to anyone in this era. Indeed all forms of telecommunication continue to swiftly approach zero. I would add that the technology evolving over the past half century has facilitated a sort of economic and social mono-culture (caveat: concurrently, subcultures are thriving as well). We freely access images, news stories, arts and entertainment from all parts of human habitation, and can interact with a sizable fraction of all humans. This binds us together psychically allowing us to conceive of ourselves as a single, unified entity, species, or family.

    As we emigrate to other worlds and begin to speciate this existential and psychic reality will reach a final end. It will become physically–and eventually psychically–prohibitive to maintain integrated economic and cultural relations. Positively, we will also be freed from environmental and military danger that any one faction of humanity poses to the entirety of the species.

    This idea (and reality) that we are all “one” is almost wallpaper in the modern “global village”. It is a given. But on the scale of eons, in the longue durée, it is a unique, nonce occurrence.

    • Ryan Tetrick

      I regret replying to myself, but I realized that I accidentally wrote “Brian” not “Robin”. Very sorry about that. My attention lapsed. Sincere regrets.

  • http://youtube.com/leearnold Lee A. Arnold

    Robin I know you want an argument based on the given assumptions, but I have to say I don’t share the “spreading out over space” thing beyond the distance for easy communication. I don’t understand why anybody would want to do that. I’m not even sure I understand why you would want to spend four years going to Alpha Centauri, at nearlight speed your spaceship racing. If our locale here gets crowded we’ll be building adjacent local Dyson spheres, not hopping to the next natural dirtball. If we figure out the sun is going to explode, well then, we’re all going — or the ones left behind won’t be here to talk to unless they’ve got good shields. I suppose if we build solar-system-wide telescopes we might see something that piques our interest way way out there, some siren beckoning beyond any reason. And of course we shall shortly all live forever, so each may explore the entire universe at his or her own leisure. (“His” or “her” if there are still sexes.) You could drift there in your spacesuit, you’ll live so long! But what I really believe is that we will have technology to go faster than the speed of light, within another century I imagine, so we won’t be out of touch: and therefore, the easytalk era will never end.

    • John

      We don’t need a large number of people to expand into space. How many people do you need to have sufficient biological diversity to survive? 100? 1,000? What percentage of the world population is that? Once those people leave for another planet or star, they only need to survive and grow to eventually fill the new location with people.

      I agree that going to another star, or even another planet in our solar system, may not be the most efficient way to make room for more people. But neither is climbing mountains, and people still do that.

      • http://youtube.com/leearnold Lee A. Arnold

        So they are going to another star and missing who wins the World Series “because it’s there?” Don’t their mothers talk them out of it, first?

  • JSIS

    I didn’t know you were into 60s-70s hippie literature. You should check out Robert Anton Wilson, on SMI²LE SM (Space Migration) + I² (intelligence increase) + LE (Life extension), if you haven’t.

  • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

    Tim do you really think we, for a million years, could keep discovering enough better ways to arrange atoms to keep our economy doubling every century over that time?

    Do you really think that if everyone had the equivalent of 20 million dollars (in today’s dollars) there would be any need for such thing as an “economy”?

    The per-capita “economy” will not need to double more than ~5 more times before the concept of an “economy” will be irrelevant. And that should happen by the end of this century.

    • Ryan Tetrick

      Do you really think that if everyone had the equivalent of 20 million dollars (in today’s dollars) there would be any need for such thing as an “economy”?

      Yes. While I think there is something to what you’re saying (and perhaps think what you are saying should be true), I do not think it is the case.

      On the first day of many students’ first economics class they will learn some variation of: “Economics is the study of how individuals and societies satisfy their unlimited wants relative to their limited means.” You are positing that our wants are not unlimited. You will not have to look far to find that there are many deca-millionaires who are not financially sated. In fact, likewise deca-billionaires. Why would this change if we were all multi-millionaires? As has been noted, the mean human income is already many multiples of subsistence levels, why should anyone be striving for more now?

      • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

        You are positing that our wants are not unlimited. You will not have to look far to find that there are many deca-millionaires who are not financially sated. In fact, likewise deca-billionaires.

        They are financially sated. What they aren’t is satisfied with doing nothing. Bill Gates is financially sated. Warren Buffet is financially sated. The Waltons are financially sated. What they aren’t is satisfied with is doing nothing.

        Why would this change if we were all multi-millionaires?

        Ugh, I hate to do this, but there was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that addressed this. A millionaire (among others) was frozen and sent into space right before he died. When the Enterprise found their ship, the millionaire was depressed because money was irrelevant. But he realized/acknowledged that it was never about the money, even in his own time. It was about power.

        People will work even after money becomes obsolete…which it may even in the lifetime of some who read this. They will work because doing nothing is boring.

      • Ryan Tetrick

        They are financially sated.

        I wouldn’t argue that it is not possible to renounce worldly possessions, desire for additional resources, and all that. But I suggest that it is unlikely-to-the-point-of-impossibility that it will become a universal attitude. (Much like Robin’s argument above about sustained near-zero population growth rates.) It is simply not a resilient aspect of human nature and sociology. Even in a society where every child is born with a billion dollar trust fund there would still be invidious comparison. Further, even sans social competition, it is not necessarily rational that individuals should at any point choose to forgo additional resources. For instance, if further technilogical advances and additional materials and energy could sustain my life indefinitely, why would I at any point become sated?

        Even if your desires are to work merely for power or philanthropic ends an individual requires resources to attain those ends. Resources being scarce (at some point), they must be competed for in a marketplace.

  • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

    For instance, if further technological advances and additional materials and energy could sustain my life indefinitely, why would I at any point become sated?

    I agree you wouldn’t. I think technological advances will be available within this century such that you can sustain your life indefinitely. So what other things would people demand money for, if they are already immortal?

    Even if your desires are to work merely for power or philanthropic ends an individual requires resources to attain those ends.

    What philanthropic end is there if everyone is born with a billion dollar trust fund?

    And how could individuals obtain power if everyone could obtain whatever it is these individuals are selling for virtually nothing?

    • Ryan Tetrick

      Your thinking seems to assume that there is an upper limit to desire. I am less than convinced that this is the case. There are (or at lest the evidential appearance is that there are) limits in the the universe, a limited amount of matter & energy and/or the speed limit of “c”. Given that there are limits an indefinite number of immortal individuals could not be supported, resulting in competition.

      Again, if everyone had a billion-dollar trust fund and was immortal there would still be competition for relative status and or scarce resources.

      There are currently recipients of philanthropy who are well above subsistence income (not only through things like strict social welfare, but also through arts grants, etc.) Even if we were all billionaires, I am not convinced that there would not be trillionaire philanthropists.

      • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

        Your thinking seems to assume that there is an upper limit to desire.

        If I am indeed thinking ;-), my thought is more along the lines that desires can be achieved in ways other than money. Look at Linux and other open source software. People work on it, but they don’t get paid.

        Also, your thinking seems to assume that the only entities on the planet capable of doing human work are humans. I think even before the middle of this century, that won’t be true for the vast majority of current human jobs.

        For example, Brad Pitt gets paid millions of dollars per picture. But I think before mid-century it will be possible to produce a movie with a CGI Brad Pitt that is completely indistinguishable from the real Brad Pitt. So who is going to pay the real Brad Pitt, if CGI Brad Pitts are available for free? And even if they do pay Brad Pitt, who is going to pay $10 to see a Brad Pitt movie with the real Brad Pitt if a 1000 CGI Brad Pitt movies are available for free?

        Again, if everyone had a billion-dollar trust fund and was immortal there would still be competition for relative status and or scarce resources.

        There might be competition among humans, but there needn’t be among machines. How are the humans who want to compete going to be able to compete with the machines who will work for free, and with the “open source” humans who are also willing to work for free (even if that does not include the entire population of humans)?

        There are currently recipients of philanthropy who are well above subsistence income (not only through things like strict social welfare, but also through arts grants, etc.)

        Yes, because, for example, the members of symphony orchestras aren’t all immortal billionaires. If they were all immortal billionaires,

        Even if we were all billionaires, I am not convinced that there would not be trillionaire philanthropists.

        If I was an immortal billionaire, I’d be too embarrassed to accept money from a trillionaire philanthropist. (I think. I hope to be in the position to find out, but I was probably born 50 years too early.)

  • John Maxwell IV

    Why must population growth eventually outstrip economic growth? That certainly isn’t happening in European countries with negative population growth is it?

  • John

    An era where children know more about the basic technology of the day than adults must be unique.

    This era is already ending. I’m 31 and teens don’t know more about computers than most of my friends, and they definitely don’t know more about technology than 25-year-olds.

    They might use different technologies and systems–more text messaging, less email–but they don’t have a fundamental basic knowledge of anything that older folks don’t. By contrast I understand computers like my father never will.

    New technologies, as they’re developed, seem likely to me to be adopted as widely by people in their 20s and 30s as young folks.

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