Against Voter Foresight

No tech is created unless someone imagines it. But how many imagine it, and for how long? Some techs are heralded decades in advance, with wide public discussion on possible implications. Other techs are only imagined by a few folks just before they are introduced. You might think it obvious that humanity does better when techs are imagined and widely discussed well ahead of time, but I have my doubts.

A good indicator that you think someone is rather irrational on topic is: you are reluctant to give them more info on it. When someone’s thoughts are especially messed up, you may well think they’d be better of not knowing more about it. They “can’t handle the truth”, you think. For example, if someone were especially irrational regarding an ex-lover, you might prefer they not hear any news about this ex-lover. Out of sight, out of mind, is what you’d be hoping for.

Unfortuately, my best guess is that public opinion is this messed up regarding techs that won’t appear for decades. Typically, when a public debate begins decades in advance of a potential new tech, it becomes a far-minded symbolic battle ground, where folks express grand positions on family values, materialism, inequality, nationalism, etc. The net effect is usually to inhibit the useful application of such techs. In contrast, when a tech appears mostly out of the blue, people tend to focus on whether they’d actually like to use it now.

For example, the pill and the web were both largely unheralded, and were thus quickly adopted and integrated into our lives. But if folks had seen thirty years in advance how the pill would change sexual practices, or how easily folks would give up privacy for web access, such techs might have been blocked or more heavily regulated, to our detriment.

IVF, genetic engineering, and nanotech, in contrast, were hotly debated well in advance of their feasibility. Such debates often were framed symbolically in ways quite at odds from typical practical application.

Yes new techs can introduce market failures, and yes with foresight and warning a rational public could mitigate such failures, to its overall benefit. But the biggest market failure regarding new techs is insufficient incentives to develop them. It can be good to have potential-developers envision techs ahead of time, so that they are inspired to do such developing. But wider awareness and concern tends to be hijacked into far symbolic land, where it mostly just gets in the way.

Alas this suggests that I should try not to make my speculations about the social implications of future tech too accessible to a wider audience. The chance of inspiring potential devleopers must be weighed against the chance of scaring everyone else.  Decisions markets about how to deal with potential future techs might allow us to better anticipate and prepare for such techs, because greedy contributors would be in a more realistic near mode.  But without such markets, I should watch what I say.

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  • JP Lewicke

    You could just stop trying to push back against people’s silliness heuristic and disguise your best ideas as silly science-fiction-esque speculation. That way the public wouldn’t be alarmed and potential idea developers who read your blog could find good ideas to work on. Or you could throw in lots of unnecessary math.

  • Salem

    I find this post very strange, because you seem to be assuming your conclusion. You are quite right that had the pill been discussed decades in advance, it might well have been banned or more heavily regulated – but would this really have been to our detriment? There are certainly those who would say it would have been a great improvement. You seem to rely on the notion that our “far” modes of thinking are defective and our “near” ones are what matter, but in fact both modes of thinking are faulty, just in different ways.

    What I fear with new tech is not market failure – but rather market success. Specifically, people using those technologies to undermine Good Things – internet users who don’t respect IP, for example. And yes, I’m aware that talking about Good Things involves expressing grand positions on family values, nationalism, etc. I think that’s fine (in moderation).

    • nikki_olson

      “You are quite right that had the pill been discussed decades in advance, it might well have been banned or more heavily regulated – but would this really have been to our detriment?”

      Many measures of quality of life indicate that it would have been to our detriment. And you can’t quantify the value of the sense of liberty the pill produces. Not to mention the detriments related to population growth that would have occurred.

      I understand that your point is probably that the perception of ‘detriment’ is relative, and that we should be on the lookout for some hindsight biases at play in discussing this matter. But I think you have to admit the presence of fairly objective statistics to support the positive impact of many technologies that might at first have seemed controversial. Many are in correlation to increased prosperity.

      • Salem

        Statistics are objective. Their meaning isn’t. People argue about causation, and they also argue about values.

        How much has the widespread availability of the pill contributed to a sense of liberty? How much has it contributed to the breakdown of traditional marriage and family? There is no way to answer these questions, but even if we could, how could we trade off one value against the other objectively?

        My point is not merely that “detriment” is subjective, although that is part of it. My point is also that to talk about benefit/detriment, we must unavoidably bring in “far” concepts – as you do in your post, by talking about population growth, sense of liberty, etc. I do not agree with Prof Hanson that far “just gets in the way.”

        I do agree with you that most technology is a net blessing.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      I agree that market failure is not the real worry about a new technology (at least not in the sense of merely pricing the item incorrectly due to incremental externalities). Quoth Bryson:

      So Whitney’s gin not only helped make many people rich on both sides of the Atlantic but also reinvigorated slavery, turned child labor into a necessity, and paved the way for the American Civil War. Perhaps at no other time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment, and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin. That is quite a lot of consequence for a simple rotating drum.

      This should damn well have been subject to voter approval.

  • Khoth

    I think you have to be very careful about availability bias here. If a hyped tech fails, you’ll know about it. If a quietly introduced tech fails, you probably won’t.

  • Zach K

    maybe you should stop talking about the Singularity to the public!

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Hmm – where does cryonics fit into this picture? In some ways, it is half of a technology: People can currently be frozen, but not currently revived. Setting up cryonics arrangements requires “near” thinking – plodding through significant paperwork! – but the point of the arrangements depends on only fuzzily-projectable future developments (“far”). Should cryonics be kept out of the public eye?

      • gwern

        I would put cryonics in the endangered-by-voters category. All the laws I’ve heard of proposed for cryonics are definitely anti-cryonics. Sympathy is rare. And if you read Hanson’s NYT profile or read about the ‘hostile wife’ phenomenon, it seems to me that cryonics has serious issues with appearing disloyal and selfish and anti-women (who might naturally prefer that men seek immortality through their children or status-raising, rather than not dying…).

        For cryonics, a moderate amount of success could well be worse than a small amount of success.

  • Douglas Knight

    Yes, prior debates are dominated by far-mode signaling of loyalty, but the effect on eventual behavior and regulation seems pretty small to me. Genetic testing was heavily debated, but 23&me has managed a few unregulated years. Moreover, the past debates do not seem to inhibit near-mode decisions to use it.

    The pill got immediate near-mode reactions, but it also got a lot of far-mode reactions as well, though it may have just been slotted into ongoing debates on birth control (eg, condoms were illegal in New England). Eisenhower had a chance to act before the public, but he explicitly chose not to regulate the pill, invoking far-mode notions of limited government.

  • Daniel Haggard

    Shouldn’t you be silent on the issue itself then? You could be right or wrong about the effect of discussion on future tech. The issue is as vague and hard to determine in advance just like all such discussions. The same sorts of high-minded ideals might be brought to bear and end up constraining certain conversations that might have done great good for the development of ideas and technology.

    You might be encouraging the (self)regulation of discussions that could be really great!

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, although your audience is substantial, I think you may be overestimating your impact if you think that your choice to discuss, or to not discuss, any particular technology is going to make the difference in terms of how it is ultimately received and viewed by society as a whole. So I encourage you to go ahead to share all your views, all the time. Otherwise, you just won’t be as interesting. :)

  • Michael Anissimov

    I was very surprised at how much trouble you got in when you expressed this view in person! Makes complete sense to me.

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  • Russell Wallace

    Robert Koslover, that’s like saying you should vote Fascist/Communist for fun, because your individual vote won’t determine the outcome of the election anyway. True in a sense, but if we go around giving and following such advice, we make the world a worse place for everyone including ourselves. I think Robin has it right.

    • Robert Koslover

      I don’t understand your analogy. I think that Robin is not so much worried that his own views are wrong, but rather that they will be misunderstood and/or that his promoting of them will be counterproductive. I certainly did not encourage him to discuss/promote any ideas that he does not himself believe in, whether or not he thinks it would be fun to do so.

  • nikki_olson

    It seems to take only a few experiences with mistakenly ‘acting before thinking’, and the strong emotional responses one has in making this mistake, to produce a fairly reliable behavioral change that inhibits acting before thinking, or, at least thinking for a few moments before acting. Ancient Western philosophy promotes this mode of being, too.

    But then there are decisions that are seeming made best in a Malcom Gladwell ‘Blink’ manner, where the best knowledge you get from thinking about something happens in an instant, and further thinking can actually cause you to make a worse decision.

    Clearly, at least on the personal level, some things are better thought about for less time and others more. One can indeed ‘overthink things’.

    But how do you determine what falls in what category? It seems to come down to how the brain processes certain kinds of information. Some good decisions it seems are based more on pattern recognition/expert insight, and others on logic and contemplation.

    If increased time yields expedition to ‘symbolic land’, is it not true that some potential inventions do indeed belong in ‘symbolic land’ because it is by being entertained there that they have the best chance of being dealt with best?

    The real difficulty is figuring out when increased time stops having a positive effect on the probability of making the best decision. How do you determine the appropriate shelf life of a policy decision?

  • Lex Spoon

    Both of your examples of techs that weren’t discussed much were in fact discussed much. For the pill, Wikipedia cites a scroll from 1850 B.C. :

    For the web, see discussion on hypertext, e.g. the Xanadu project that started in the 60s:

    One might argue that the web was not discussed much by the general public, and I don’t know. However, it was at least discussed among science fiction fans.

    I’m struggling to think of actual examples where something was discussed early, and the early discussion was not just off the mark but also caused trouble. I’m blanking. Honestly, I’m also blanking on thinking of technical advances that weren’t thought of at all. People are creative beings, and we have all kind of ideas.

    My conclusions from the issues you raise run a little differently. For genetic engineering, et al, I believe two things would help being discussed widely and vigorously:

    1. Let other people be. If someone else has a genetically modified chicken, and the situation doesn’t look abusive, then mumble all you like but leave them alone.

    2. Provide resources for people to learn more information. If someone wants to stump around about genetically modified food, let’s make sure they can get the real data on how genetic modification has gone, including the slow form that has been practiced for millennia.

    I can’t believe that being silent is a good approach to learning. We are social creatures, and we learn as a group.

  • Doug S.

    The Ancient Greeks and Romans had a plant (now extinct) that may very well have been an effective contraceptive…

  • Catfish

    I think your point is excellently illustrated in the HBO series The Wire’s 4th Season. Its were the lame-duck district commander who is gonna retire, sets up a ‘drug-legal zone’ which is nicknamed ‘Hamsterdam’ (after Amsterdam) and directs all the drug dealers to setup their shop there, than committing nuisance in the other neighborhoods. It turned out that in the city, the crime rate did drop, until the newly elected mayor got to know about the whole situation, (and since he was newly elected) with his fresh rhetoric, quickly instructed the police head to round off all the gangs in that location, which initially, that district commander had in mind, in case, the upper ranks were to change their thoughts on the project. I highly recommend the Overcoming Bias Blog readers to watch the whole series its very relevant to that type of audience.