Picking On Cryo-Nerds

Tyler Thursday on cryonics: “My question is: why not save someone else’s life instead?”  Today, Tyler elaborates:

[Some] asked why I compare cryonics (unfavorably) to acts of charity, rather than comparing other acts of personal consumption (I enjoy the gelato here in Berlin) to charity. My view is this: the decision to have one’s head frozen is not primarily instrumental but rather expressive. Look at the skewed demographics of the people who do it, namely highly intelligent male readers of science fiction, often with tech jobs. … It’s a chance to stand for something and in a way which sets them apart … for instrumental rationality, for Science, … for the conquering of limits, … and for the notion that the subject sees hidden possiblities and resources which more traditional observers do not. …

People interested in cryonics are often highly meritorious. … So I’m … happy to endorse laissez-faire for the practice but still I don’t find myself settling into really liking the idea. … The world would be better off, and the relative status of the virtuous nerds higher, if instead the cryonics customers sent more signals which were perceived as running contrary to type. Ignoring cryonics, and promoting charity, would do more to raise the status of intelligence and analytical thinking than does cryonics.

Tyler’s argument is hard to follow here. Is he merely saying the world is better if anyone acts more contrary to type, expresses less relative to instrumenting, or donates more to charity? If so, why pick on cryonics and tech nerds in particular, why not just rail in general against all expressing, typed-acts, and non-charity? If the argument is that the world gains unusually more from tech nerds acting against type, expressing less, and giving to charity, then we need to hear an argument for that. It certainly seems odd to complain that tech nerds, usually critiqued for being overly practical, are actually overly expressive.

Let’s be concrete. Tyler goes way out of his way to be, and call attention to his being, a “foodie” – his eating a gelato in Berlin, and then mentioning on his blog, clearly has a big expressive component. Being a foodie lets Tyler join a high status community and stand for art, culture, etc. in a way that sets him apart and supports the notion he can see hidden food quality that the rest of us do not see. (I like “great” food, but honestly not much more than ordinary food.) Does Tyler think the world would be equally better off if foodies were to act contrary to type, express less via buying less fancy food, and give the difference to charity? If so, why has he never mentioned it in his hundreds of food posts?

Could it be Tyler knows that tech nerds are low status in our society and fair game for criticism? Is this really any different than rich folks complaining about inner city kids who buy $100 sneakers instead of saving their money or giving it to charity, even while they buy $1000 suits and dresses instead of saving their money or giving it to charity?

Added:  Tyler responds, sort of.

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  • http://distributedrepublic.net Brandon Berg

    Is this really any different than rich folks complaining about inner city kids who buy $100 sneakers instead of saving their money or giving it to charity, even while they buy $1000 suits and dresses instead of saving their money or giving it to charity?

    Tangential, I know, but this isn’t hypocritical at all. The argument is that people who are poor can’t afford to spend a lot of money on luxuries, and insofar as they do, it’s their own fault that they remain poor. Rich people can afford to spend a lot of money on luxuries. Granted, if they do it’s their own fault that they don’t get any richer, but millionaires generally aren’t complaining that billionaires are keeping them down.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      Actually one does here people in the low millionaire range complain about the policies of the people with a lot more money. For example, I’ve heard people in the low millionaire but high enough to trigger some unpleasant taxes complain that when people like Warren Buffet make a big deal about how such taxes are a good thing, they don’t alter Buffet’s standard of living nearly as much.

  • jsalvatier

    Are tech nerds really low status? I guess I am a tech nerd, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. Sure there are people who think of tech nerds as low status, but there are also lots of tech nerds who think people who don’t value tech are low status.

    • nazgulnarsil

      no mark of status is universal. even something obvious like having a lot of money would be status lowering in certain groups.

      status is relative to what your group values. a status raising move for one community would be status lowering in another (example: tattoos).

    • StCredZero

      Could it be Tyler knows that tech nerds are low status in our society and fair game for criticism?

      I hope tech nerds are low status. Under-appreciated people with real skill and knowledge tend to accrue the most concentrated caches of value.

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  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    “My view is this: the decision to have one’s head frozen is not primarily instrumental but rather expressive.”

    The “signalling” theory of cryonics. I put that forward here a while back – but was convinced by the responses, that a major motivation for prospective cryonauts really was lifespan extension. Cowen’s “demographic” evidence for the signalling theory is not very compelling.

    • Abelard Lindsey

      As someone who has been in the cryonics scene for over 20 years, trust me. Tyler’s “signaling” concept of cryonics is horse-pucky.

      My experience has been that those who have not visited the cryonics facilities and spent time around actual members of cryonics organizations usually do not understand cryonics nor the motivations of those involved in it.

      • StCredZero

        A generalization:

        Those who have not spent time around actual members of [X] usually do not understand [X] nor the motivations of those involved in it.

        One real benefit of being involved deeply in something with real value but which lies outside of the mainstream, is the opportunity to observe the distortions of the mainstream view. Our society runs on a panoply of disdainful mutual caricatures and incomplete understandings. These can be exploited for economic gain.

  • Economics

    “Is this really any different than rich folks complaining about inner city kids who buy $100 sneakers instead of saving their money or giving it to charity, even while they buy $1000 suits and dresses instead of saving their money or giving it to charity?”

    The above is completely rational under some of the least assumption-free economics! Throw in one income elasticity and I can model your objection as utterly rational and not-at-all hypocritical in a second.

    Your post sounds like you let your emotions get the better of you.

  • Peter

    My interpretation (and expansion) of Tyler’s point is that cryonics-as-a-signal is not effective because it fails on two levels:

    1. It is not counter-intuitive in the way that causes people to pay attention. To take the foodie example, Tyler’s expression of enjoyment of gourmet gelato sends a signal about his food tastes, but the signal is weak because the reader finds it unremarkable. If Tyler were to make a point such as saying that the expansion of chain restaurants has improved the average restaurant meal significantly, this would also be a signal about his food tastes (not that I ascribe this hypothetical taste to Tyler), saying that chain restaurants are not as bad as most restaurants they displace. It will be more powerful because it is unexpected for a foodie to endorse any facet of an Applebee’s, and therefore the audience is more likely to listen.

    “Sci-fi nerd like something that seems science-fiction-esque,” versus “Sci-fi nerd endorses limited use of technology to sharpen mind.”

    2. The content of the signal, to the extent it is listened to, does not make most observers like the signaler. “Smart person X gives to charity because it is self-beneficial.” has the virtue of being both counter-intuitive and likely to be listened to, and also makes person X look good. “Smart person X spends alot of resources on some esoteric technology to preserve his own life in ways most people can’t,” on the other hand, makes person X look like…well, a bit of a dick.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      Your last claim makes you look… well, silly. Every technology depended on smarter, or at least wealthier, people buying things that most others could not afford; which in turn helped lower the price to what normal people could afford. Automobiles started as toys for the wealthy; initially only the wealthy could afford heart surgery and organ transplants. If they had not purchased them, the prices could never have come down to where they are regularly available to most who need them.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        Your last claim makes you look… well, silly. Every technology depended on smarter, or at least wealthier, people buying things that most others could not afford; which in turn helped lower the price to what normal people could afford. Automobiles started as toys for the wealthy; initially only the wealthy could afford heart surgery and organ transplants. If they had not purchased them, the prices could never have come down to where they are regularly available to most who need them.

        The problem with cryogenics is that many people seem to have an emotional antipathy to the idea, not so much to its cost. If more people signed up it would become cheaper; quite likely much cheaper since the preservation itself is a very straightforward process and should benefit greatly from economies of scale.

      • Peter

        I was saying what it signaled. Buying an automobile in 1910 signaled that you were of the extreme upper-class, and had money to burn. I remember an anecdote about a car hitting a kid playing in the street in Brooklyn in the early 1900s where an angry mob formed and nearly killed the driver.

        I am not claiming that luxury goods such as cryonics are intrinsically bad purchases, I am saying that they often send a bad signal, which was what Tyler was talking about.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think those of us that are secret cryonicists are a different set than those of you that are performing cryonicists. For you, cryonics may be like wearing $100 sneakers. For nerd nobodies, it may be a relatively expensive-for-you signal that you’re a hardcore techie nerd. For celebrities within the nerd community, it may be your sheep’s clothing, a signal that you’re one of them.

    For us, it’s because we don’t want to fucking information theoretic die, and being secretive about is a natural extension of seeking to maximize our personal persistence odds.

    Yeah, Prof. Cowen is being a hypocrite for the reasons you listed, celebrity-nerd Prof. Hanson.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Hopefully – agreed. A secretive cryonicist clearly isn’t using it as a signaling device (regarless of what cryonics signals).

      I’m also skeptical of Tyler Cowen’s suggestion of raising status by switching expenses from cryonics to some misc. charity for another reason: I don’t know what his social sphere is like, but at my workplace, at least, I haven’t heard what other people contribute to charity, and I haven’t mentioned what my own budget for this is. If I don’t know theirs, and they don’t know mine, how can it possibly function as a signal???

  • http://RichGriese.NET Rich Griese

    Are you sure Tyler is not Tyler Durden? In any event.. I say off with his freakin head!

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • gtown

    Cryonics is silly. Tyler is right to point out that it’s nonsense, and just a bunch of, “Hey, look how contrarian I am. Have fun ‘meeting God’, I’ll be partying in a thousand years in a cyborg body when you’re nothing, wooo!” That sentiment is often perceived as intellectually penetrating, just like the nonsense that goes along with the Singularity.

    • Matt

      “Cryonics is silly. Tyler is right to point out that it’s nonsense, and just a bunch of, “Hey, look how contrarian I am. Have fun ‘meeting God’, I’ll be partying in a thousand years in a cyborg body when you’re nothing, wooo!” That sentiment is often perceived as intellectually penetrating, just like the nonsense that goes along with the Singularity.” Not saying “the Singularity” is the best concept ever (yeah..), but I find these (very common) highly immature internet comments about it annoying. Almost always very poorly “argued”. In rare serious rebuttals to the concept, they usually demonstrate far more confidence that it will not ever occur than seems credible. I cannot be confident that an AGI driven techno-scientific/economic explosion (etc., etc., etc.) will or will not occur sometime in the indefinite future. There are many arguments for and against, and for the most part they are sufficiently plausible that they shouldn’t be completely discarded as utter bullshit. I must say I find this absurdly high confidence, almost total certainty that it will never occur very, err, head-scratch worthy (especially since it so common). Anyway, the obvious reply to cryonics skeptics is that even an extremely low chance of survival is better than zero. There is very very high doubt that it could work (in large part for non-scientific reasons), but I don’t think this is a compelling reason to see it as utterly unworthy of consideration given the stakes. I really don’t like the attitude “not only is cryonics completely and *obviously* impossible, if you disagree you’re some sort of fanatical wack-job”.

  • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

    The differences between tech nerds and your other examples:

    1) The Rich already have high status, and it’s questionable whether they would raise it more by donating to charity or conspicuous consumption.

    2) Poor ghetto kids would raise their status among people they don’t care about (us) by donating to charity instead of conspicuous consumption, but they would probably lower it among their own kind, which is what really matters to them.

    3) Even if the latter two groups would raise their status most effectively with charity, a sperg like Tyler probably doesn’t identify with the latter two groups, and probably doesn’t care as much about them as his fellow spergz. In fact, given that status-seeking is relative and therefore a zero-sum game, something that raises another group’s status would put nerds further behind.

    • StCredZero

      2) Poor ghetto kids would raise their status among people they don’t care about (us) by donating to charity instead of conspicuous consumption, but they would probably lower it among their own kind, which is what really matters to them.

      That is a very good point. However, I suspect that many of those kids are making a fundamental mistake. I suspect that many of them are trying to raise their status with people who they care about, but who don’t care about them in turn. Also, much of the basis for the perception of benefit is emotional, as it is with my peers who talk about buying iPhones.

  • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

    One more thing – conspicuous consumption isn’t just about spending money – it’s also about taste. The kind of status display rich people do (buying art or whatever) is more impressive to most people than cryonics is. Paying for cryonics would probably actually lower your status among normal people, sort of like buying velvet paintings of the Insane Clown Posse instead of the “right” art would. It’s “tasteless” by conventional standards.

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

    cold, if Tyler had just meant “don’t do weird stuff if you want people to like you” he could have just said that.

    Econonomics, yes of course one can introduce arguments that distinguish those two cases, but we’d want to hear those arguments. Similarly, Tyler could offer arguments that say nerd expressions are worse than foodie expressions.

  • burger flipper

    eating fancy foods and deep-freezing your noggin both bring Katja Grace’s post on murder to mind.

    http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/murder/

    you’ve mentioned driving a little red convertible, and described your bumper stickers, which of course are both signalling.

    but driving a ragtop significantly raises the chances your brains could end up an indecipherable pink glyph on the pavement, which suggests to me that you aren’t that serious about preserving it.

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      “but driving a ragtop significantly raises the chances your brains could end up an indecipherable pink glyph on the pavement, which suggests to me that you aren’t that serious about preserving it.”

      You’ve missed all the recent advances in cog sci? Sounds like you’re operating on a naive version of a revealed preference model of the human mind.

  • mjgeddes

    Tyler knows that tech nerds are low status in our society and fair game for criticism

    How much longer are you going to continue to take orders Robin? You should man up. You know and I know how your status can be massively increased…develop artificial general intelligence first and over-throw the system altogether, placing tech-nerds firmly at the top of the status pole once and for all.

  • Jason Malloy

    “My view is this: the decision to have one’s head frozen is not primarily instrumental but rather expressive. Look at the skewed demographics of the people who do it, namely highly intelligent male readers of science fiction, often with tech jobs. Is it that they love their lives especially much? Unlikely. “

    This is a weak basis for a signaling theory of Cryonics. Of course intelligent, tech-oriented people are going to be the ones cognizant of a complex, technical solution. But the Problem of Death is more widely agreed upon; it’s just that less intelligent people without technical interests believe the correct solution is religion.

    In fact, it would make more sense to say that religious people are just signaling, since it is less plausible that low intelligence people have enough future-time orientation to truly care about “life after death”.

  • Fallibilist

    What are these “advances” of which you speak? Enlighten us…

  • http://www.gavinsullivan.com Gavin Sullivan

    Reducing Robin’s interest in cryonics to ‘signalling’–while parading his own ‘wholesome’/'highbrow’ preference for Berlin’s gelato–Tyler signals his own sanctimony.

  • Sarah

    I think there’s confusion as to what he means.

    If cryonicists are trying to tell the world something — to value human life more, to value reason more, to overcome technological limits — it’s hard to get the message across if you’re just buying something for yourself. (Namely, a cryonics policy.) Tyler is observing that cryonics is a particularly idealistic kind of purchase, and then criticizing it for not being very good at spreading ideals.

    Vaccination — another technology that helped people live longer — was promoted through community vaccinations, funded by a charitable organization (Edward Jenner’s Jennerian Institution.) The convention of vaccination did not spread because a small group of scientists chose to vaccinate themselves. It spread through charitable and, soon after, governmental support. People can respond well to the call “Help save children’s lives!” They don’t respond so well to “I want to save my own life with my own money.”

    In other words, if you want cryonics to catch on, buy it for somebody else.

    • Luke

      This is actually very insightful. Thank you Sarah.