Here Not Be Dragons

“Here be dragons” is a phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures in uncharted areas of maps. (more)

Stories tend to be more interesting if they a) have characters like us, b) have extreme items, creatures, events, etc., and c) don’t seem clearly impossible. So story tellers face tradeoffs – they often try to make stories as extreme as they can without seeming impossible.

Once upon a time, a handy way to make this tradeoff was to tell stories about familiar kinds of people in far away lands. Because less was known with confidence about far away places, the “don’t seem impossible” rule constrained stories the least there. In far away places, there might plausibly be extreme animals, buildings, devices, customs, etc.

Just like parents today who conspire not to tell their kids the truth about Santa Claus, ancient travelers who visited distant places probably tended to conspire not to reveal that foreigners weren’t so strange. After all, travelers could get more approval from telling tall tales of strange things far away. And they could bond with sophisticates via winks that say “yes, you and I are smart enough to know better.” Lovers of stories, imagination, creativity, etc. who knew better probably reasoned that most people enjoy life more if they can believe in far away strangeness, and saw little harm in the exaggeration since few locals ever interacted with distant others.

Today we know too much about far away places to let ourselves set much story strangeness there. So when we want to tell strange but not impossible stories, we tend to set them in our future — the future is our go-to place for plausible strangeness. No one has actually seen the future, so no one can contradict stories about strange futures with much authority. Furthermore, lovers of imagination and creativity tend to excuse the impossibilities in such stories, because they think folks enjoy their lives better when they see anything as possible in the future.

Actually, this idea that anything will be possible in the future seems to be an axiom of faith for many. I’ve had several folks react this way to my em econ talks on this basis – how dare I forecast when we all know forecasts are impossible?

For some, believing in an anything-goes future expresses faith in human innovation and potential. For others, it says societies are too complex to be understood by simple theories. For still others, it expresses allegiance to scientific method – scientists must only say things that they can prove with theory or experiment, and if neither applies to the future scientists must stay silent about it, which in practice gives the impression that all future speculations consistent with basic science are equally valid and believable.

The big problem with anything-goes futurism is, of course, that keeps us from learning about and preparing for the actual future. If an ancient society were about to actually move en mass to a far away land, their story-inspired misconceptions about distant lands could do great harm. Alas, since our society is actually moving whole-sale and rapidly toward that supposedly anything-goes future world, our misconceptions can matter a lot.

The future will of course have some strange elements, at least to our eyes, if not to theirs. But it will be far from maximally strange. The more one learns about technology, economics, biology, etc. the fewer of our commonly-heard strange futures seem possible. No, we can’t prove much, but we can in practice learn a lot. Yes, those well-informed level-headed forecasts won’t be as creatively inspiring, won’t make for stories as fun, and may fail to affirm a faith in unlimited human potential. Our real descendants will have real limits. But they will really exist, and our actions will really matter for them.

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  • manwhoisthursday

    No doubt tall tales tend to be more interesting than mundane reality.  And, yes, far away places (both in terms of time and distance) can be more probably peopled with improbable things.

    Yet, not all of this is may be due to the factors you list.  Tanya Luhrman writes in her book When God Talks Back about doing visualization exercises while studying druids in England and how she ended up seeing visions.  It may be that pre-modern cultures did this to people naturally, without having to engage in deliberate exercises, and so magical and supernatural things seem more plausible to them, because they have actually experienced them.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    If you would have told someone in 1920 how we will have computers in 2000 that are interconnected and used to swap enormous amount of porn imagery, the person would have labeled your forecast as very strange.

    If you would have asked an economist 30 years ago to forecast whether something like Wikipedia could work, he would have labeled the forecast of Wikipedia is very stange. 

    As far as telling stories about reality, I have made multiple experiences in the last time that would seem impossible to many people I know.
    Most people are massively overconfident about their understanding of current reality. 

    • AspiringRationalist

      Strange things happen; it’s just incredibly difficult to predict which ones.  The examples you mention would have sounded extremely strange at the time, and they did happen, but the vast majority of thing that would have sounded equally strange at that time did not happen.

      If I tell you I’m about to flip a fair coin 20 times and they will come up HTTTHTTTTTTTTTTTHTTH, you would say that’s extremely unlikely. If I told you I just flipped a coin 20 times and it came up in that sequence, it would sound a lot less strange (I didn’t plan on getting 11 tails in a row, but that happens sometimes).

      • Christian Kleineidam

        In the case of flipping a coin the function that generate the result is quite clear. For most events that matter the function is a lot less clear. Using coin flips as example for real life uncertainity is what Nassim Taleb calls the ludic fallacy ( ).

        But even if coin flips would be a good model, forcasting the future is hard. Hansan should add more uncertainity into his forcasts to account for the fact.

  • Margin

    Our real descendants will have real limits. But they will really exist


    I don’t have kids, and your descendants aren’t mine.

    You are trying to sneak in imaginary common interests by using the pronoun “our”.

    The use of “us” and “we” and “our” is one of the most sneaky propaganda tricks in history.

    “Worship The Tribe! Sacrifice your interests for its Grand Plan!”


    • Mercher

       Nothing in the argument requires the future people in question to be our descendants — the people could be our older selves.

  • Chris

    The post suggests a narrow and limited reading history or a
    straw man is being set up to support a bias. Three novels about the future:
    George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous
    Huxley’s Brave New World, Anthony
    Burgess’s Clockwork Orange are
    examples of political dragons as powerful as mythic medieval ones. The authors
    of these books configure an information matrix that shapes thinking many
    decades later. Literature is warning alarm about the dangers that come with
    accumulation of power in the hands of a few. Technological change lives in that
    strange land of the future. It is the dragon that can never be tamed.

  • JD

    Ancient travelers who visited distant places probably tended to conspire not to reveal that foreigners weren’t so strange. After all, travelers could get more approval from telling tall tales of strange things far away

    The modern traveler holds on to this desire. Markets for exotic experiences, unrelated to local norms and behaviors, form in places perceived as exotic. It explains the existence of places like Beijing’s Wangfujing area, where crowds of (Western) tourists buy exotic snacks from vendors (scorpion, silkworm, etc)–despite that these treats are equally exotic to Chinese people. They are not buying culinary experiences, but rather stories and pictures that display the strangeness of foreigners.

    • PJF

      I suspect the point of the display is more their own bravery / daring rather than foreign strangeness in its own right.

  • Lydia Laurenson

    Have you spent any time in deep culture shock?  I ask not out of a desire to be rude, but because I have traveled extensively, including Peace Corps service.  I often think that deep culture shock is harder to find nowadays than it would have been in past centuries; you have to do a lot more than merely change location to experience it.  I also think that the experience of deep culture shock is far more intense, destructive, and creative than most people understand it to be.  It really does feel like you’re among aliens.

    I also often think that past cultures seem more willing to describe things in terms of artistic metaphors, which people probably knew weren’t “really” true, than modern cultures are (maybe because of our love for the empirical).  Such past tales are probably better understood as stylized rather than perfectly accurate.  If a future person saw Disney, they would think all American girls were insane Manic Pixie Dream Girls who love to burst into song.