Long Legacies

How might what we do today influence the lives of our distant descendants, slowly-changing lives well adapted to their world, long after our dreamtime has passed?  I see seven long LEGACIES:

  • L – Lag – We can delay when that future begins in full.  A slower economic growth rate, or a lack of early investment in pivotal techs, could delay by a few decades, while a drastic but not total collapse could delay it for longer.
  • E – Existence – We can do things now to reduce the chance of a full and permanent civilization collapse.  Even if this chance is only 1%, reducing that chance to 0.5% would be a huge benefit our descendants.
  • G – Government – Our institutions of global governance may grow, follow us as we expand, and entrench themselves forever.  On the downside, they might perpetuate themselves even if they hurt our descendants on net.  On the upside, we might use them to overcome key coordination failures.
  • A – Ancients – Particular entities, such as particular people, races, cities, or planets, may over time collect enough resources to perpetuate themselves indefinitely.  If only modestly less efficient than newer substitutes, saved resources could make up for this deficit.  They might hold physical resources with a defensive military advantage, or might own property protected by a shared entrenched legal system.
  • C – Crossroads – We can become so invested in the particular spatial arrangements we use to coordinate our activities, such as particular roads, cities, or communication lines, that we can’t afford to individually switch to more efficient arrangements, and can’t manage to coordinate to switch together.  For example, Earth’s first space elevator location might retain the most off-planet transport, or Sol might remain a hub of galactic fashion news.
  • I – Info – We can save info for them about what actually happened during our epically strange dreamtime era.   They can run sims to guess, but would really want to know.
  • E – Existence – This is mentioned twice, as it matters more than any other.
  • S – Standards – We can become so invested in the conventions, interfaces, and standards we use to coordinate our activities that we each can’t afford to individually switch to more efficient standards, and we also can’t manage to coordinate to switch together. Conceivably, the genetic code, base ten math, ASCII, English language and units, Java, or the Windows operating system might last for trillions of years.

I’ll post more about these over the next few days.

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  • Tyrrell McAllister

    the Windows operating system might last for trillions of years.

    As Eliezer wrote in reply to another prediction of yours, “I guess I don’t ultimately understand the psychology that can write that and not fight fanatically to the last breath to prevent the dark vision from coming to pass.” ;).

  • Cyan

    I see six long LEGACIES…

    Seven, surely? (Unless you want to treat Crossroads and Standards as essentially the same lock-in effect.)

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    What does the second E stand for? You already used it to stand for Existence.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      Erm, nevermind. I only just noticed that you’re going for an acrostic.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        Maybe E could be Errors. Your disagreements with Eliezer notwithstanding, there might be some ways that we could, or could fail, to manage the transition to futurity intelligently. And if we fail, our errors could have long-term consequences. No one wants to be forced to be a smiley-face forever.

  • Ultimately, I think that no one really cares much about the far or even medium-term future; that’s why h+ ideas are so marginal.

    For example, existential risk mitigation gets very, very little press coverage. People hear you talking about the chance of human civilization surviving and thriving in 2150, and they simply don’t have much to say about it; it doesn’t tap into any standard political intuitions or standard human emotions.

  • Anon

    Educate…. ourselves and others about this issue and this list

  • Paul Ralley

    The process of creative destruction reveles ideas, methods and organisational structures that are efficient, effective or close to optimal – thereby advancing progress by potentially decades (e.g. industrial revolution)

  • This post is easy to bash because it’s ambitious and is willing to go into details with examples (like of course the Windows one) but it’s an excellent and brave post for that reason.

    • Also, this post is the first real competition I’ve seen to Vinge’s efforts to realistically imagine the technosocial future.

  • ASCII? Surely you meant Unicode.
    English language and units? You mean the metric system?
    Java? You mean Python, no? COBOL?

    Just because it takes a lot of effort to change something, it only means that it has a low probability of changing in any given year. But over time, the probability that it will change approaches 1.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Good points, but I still think that standards – particularly pervasive standards like the metric system, are probably a longer legacy than most of the other structures Prof. Hanson suggests here. In particular, I think that both the metric system and arabic numbers, will have much longer survival times than “Ancients”. Most entities (e.g. large corporations) have lifespans not much longer than humans, typically decades. Amongst other things, they are often in direct competition with other similar entities, and get killed off by these battles – (and if we can’t stop Hanson’s subsistence future, I think the same will happen to any people transiently surviving from this era). A standard like the metric system has far fewer competitors and is far harder to dislodge.

  • Eric Johnson

    I dont think the re-malthusianized end of the dreamtime is inevitable. If no aliens ever come here, and government(s) thwart higher reproductive drives from evolving, the situation on earth could be stable forever. There is no need to start thwarting evolution now. We can wait some centuries before beginning.

  • mjgeddes

    Standards is a very interesting one – we could *create* a communication standard so general-purpose that it could enable a seamless transition -a fully general purpose (upper) ontology of reality capable of subsuming all other standards under a single framework.

    The three main types of standards are for physical communication (e.g. XML – physical lay out of web-elements), social communication (e.g. Narrative /artistic rules) and logical communication (e.g. OWL – Web Ontology Language). The latter type is the most general.

    There’s a three-fold communication pattern running through everything, which, why in the hell does no one else but me see this? 😉 For instance a projection of the pattern onto logic matches to the three known types of inference (deduction, induction, categorization), with categorization in effect a sort of ‘communication standard’ for logic itself (that’s why I so sure it must be more powerful than Bayes).

    Again, I think the key is to look for a ‘communication standard’ so general it becomes difficult to distangle from any model of reality. This is a standard that can last a very long time.

  • ShardPhoenix

    I doubt Java specifically will survive, but the JVM (and descendants thereof) might. So might C.

    • So might C.

      what, into the far future? You must be kidding!

  • Joe

    I think you don’t even need an full-blown general AI to convert everything you need from windows to a different system.

  • Matt

    E could stand for entertainment. As in we think of kings and knights and pharaohs as fantastic characters, and we think of Ceasar’s story as pure drama. Maybe some day people will look back at us and say, “Those people were crazy! I mean, they voted for Bush twice and then for Obama?! That’s wild.”

  • ChristianK

    I would doubt that we will program quantum computers or quantum/normal computers in Java.
    We will probably want to change to new programing languages at that point.

    Changing the genetic code can actually be a good idea when we want to create artificial species to prevent them from mutating on their own by having 5 base pairs per animo acid instead of 3 and choosing to to translate a lot of possible combinations into nothing.
    Having different codes for different species might also help to prevent them from exchange genes.

    Once we get protein design and RNA design right, we can create a 5 base pair per animo acid system and probably should do so if we want to rewrite our complete genome.
    We don’t really need natural mutations in our DNA. It causes messy things like cancer and organism we create might mutate out of our control.

  • David J

    About Standards, we should be more worried about the risk of the opposite — that we fail to achieve long-lived Standards, and thus cannot communicate with our descendants or each other.

    Have you watched your VHS tapes lately? What’s on the Rosetta stone? How big is a cubit? How were the Pyramids of Egypt made? How much of Shakespeare or the Bible can you recite?

    Most of the Standards that dominate our landscape have not been around for very long; the age distribution of current Standards seems related to their expected duration (I constructed a marvelous proof but this web page is too small to contain it).

    • TranshumanReflector

      >>the age distribution of current Standards seems related to their expected duration (I constructed a marvelous proof but this web page is too small to contain it<<

      Many thanks, Pierre. I hear they're offering a prize for someone who can reconstruct that proof first.

  • Languages, and I mean human languages. As I understand it, languages and religions are the longest lived human cultural institutions.

    I expect that new languages will get added, but it will be easier to build on old languages, and this mean that they’ll be used for back-compatibility and communication across subcultures.

    I have no idea what the far future will do to religions. Considering how much a lot of people like religions (or if you prefer, keep them as stable patterns of signaling), I wouldn’t be surprised if religions continue in some form.

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  • Ialdabaoth

    Regarding Standards, I’d be more worried about the Metric system becoming entrenched than English units. Anything that keeps us from switching to Planck units would be a Bad Thing.