Imagining Futures Past

Our past can be summarized as a sequence of increasingly fast eras: animals, foragers, farmers, industry. Foragers grew by a factor of about four hundred over two million years, farmers grew by a factor of about two hundred over ten thousand years, and the industry economy has so far grown by a factor of about eight hundred over three hundred years. If this trend continues then before this era grows by another factor of a thousand, our economy should transition to another even faster growing era.

I saw the latest Star Trek movie today. It struck me yet again that such stories, set two centuries in our future, imagine a unlikely continuation of industry era styles, trends, and growth rates. At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period. Yet their cities, homes, workplaces, etc. look quite recognizably industrial, and quite distinct from either farmer or forager era styles. The main ways their world is different from ours is in continuing industry era trends, such as to richer and healthier individuals, and to more centralized government.

While this seems unlikely, it does make sense as a way to engage the audiences of today. But it leads me to wonder: what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?

For example, imagine that the industrial revolution had never happened, and that the farming era had continued for another ten thousand years, leading to more than today’s world population, mostly farming at subsistence incomes within farmer-era social institutions. Oh there’d be a lot of sci/tech advances, just not creating much industry. Perhaps they’d farm the oceans and skies, and have melted the poles. Following farmer era trends, there’d be less violence, and longer term planning horizons. There’d be a lot more thoughtful writings, but without much intellectual specialization having arisen. Towns and firms would also still be small and less specialized.

Or, imagine that the farming revolution had never happened, but that foragers had continued to advance for another two million years, also reaching a population like today. They’d still live in small wandering bands collecting wild food, but in a much wider range of environments. Maybe they’d forage the seas and the skies. Their brains would be bigger, their tools more advanced, and their culture of participatory dance, music, and stories far more elaborate.

These sound like fascinating worlds to imagine, and would make good object lessons as well. Our future may be as different from the world of Star Trek as these imagined worlds would be from our world today.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    How would foragers or farmers get access to the sky without industrial technology?

    How would farmers get to a population of a trillion (100 times today’s population) without industry?

    • RobinHanson

      I changed the hypothetical to today’s population, so as not to distract from the main idea. Also this is supposed to be a scenario as reasonably imagined by that era, so it doesn’t have to be completely realistic.

  • mike shupp

    Forager densities in the past rarely exceeded one person per square mile, which suggests a maximum population of under 20 million humans. Unless you want to propose that alliterate societies could devise extremely sophisticated ecological controls and purposely direct the evolutionary transformation of plants and prey animals. Assuming such, would it still make sense to call these humans hunter-gatherers?

    • RobinHanson

      The standard estimate for world population just before the dawn of farming was about ten million. Two million years would give a lot of time for trial and error.

  • Marc Geddes

    I would have thought that was exactly what Robins EM scenarios are? He’s taken a 19th century system of economics (free-market capitalism), assumed its a fixed truth, and extrapolated it forward into a fantastical yarn ;)

    • IMASBA

      Amen, I’ve been saying that for months!

      • Marc Geddes

        My own scenario for history goes more like:

        Foragers >> Farmers >>> Industralists >>> Hackers

        Cyber-punk is the sci-fi genre with the best track-record (think Bruce Sterling), and this depicts hackers in conflict with industralists (the trope of the lone cowboy hacker battling big corporations), suggesting that industralist culture is indeed giving way to hacker culture.

        The economic system dominant in any given era is largely tied to the culture of that era, and gives way to a new system when the culture changes.

        It seems to me that Robin’s Libertarian ideas are more tied to the 19th century (industralist era) and wont be that relevant to the new ‘hacking’ era.

        Foragers >>> Communal politics

        Famers >>>> Authoritarian politics

        Industralists>>Free-market politics


        The hacker is the new hero for the new world, the ‘programmer at arms’, the ‘munchkin’, born in an era of adversity and existential risk, adapted for rapid change.

        Hacker culture emphasizes a new set of culural virtues. Rationality will one of the new virtues, but it is not, I think, the prime virtue of the hacker. Rather the defining virtue of the hacker is more like *applied* rationality, things such as non-conformity, imagination, novelty, ability to come up with practical creative solutions to problems on the fly.

        The battle is joined. The hacker revolution is coming, and it will likely result in the end of free-market capitalism as we know it. What new system will replace it, I know not (hence the question mark).

      • Doug

        That’s a really romantic and heroic story about the future, but there’s no empirical support for it.

        You posit that capitalism will be replaced by some future system, “hackerism” grounded on the cultural principles of modern-day computer hacker culture.

        But we already have major industries that are economically configured for this hypothetical system. Furthermore nearly all the giants in this industry were formed in the post-industrial period, largely by people from hacker sub-cultures.

        Surely if hackerism was not only a viable economic system, but indeed the inevitable destination for the entire economy, we should surely see a good deal of its appearance in the major tech industries.

        The tech sector shows no sign of capitalism being subsumed into post-capitalist “hackerism”. Virtually all major tech firms are either publicly traded for-profit corporations or private equity funded ventures.

        Furthermore the vast majority of hackers work, own or are funded by these organizations. Similarly the vast majority of hacking is done inside or is funded by these organizations.

        Even among the major open-source projects, which should surely if anything be the prototype for the “hackerist” economy, most contributions are made by for-profit corporations. For example in the Linux kernel over 50% of changesets are contributed by a single group of 15 multi-billion dollar mega-corporations.

      • komponisto

        I think you have to look at things more closely, and pay less attention to labels, to notice whether the “hacker” theory has merit. Entities called “for-profit corporations” might be very different from each other. And the very fact that multi-billion dollar corporations are contributing to the Linux kernel instead of their own proprietary systems could be read as evidence in support of a “hacker” takeover.

      • Doug

        Corporations freely contributing to a commons, intellectual or otherwise, is nothing new under the sun. Precedents easily trace as far back to standardizations coordinated by 19th century industrialists.

        A very notable example: in the early 20th century nearly US auto manufacturers cross-licensed and contributed a huge number of patents to a common pool that was freely available to any member.

        Only someone with a cartoon understanding of capitalism would conclude that this type of behavior in intrinsically against the nature of corporations. Having a common standard that promotes efficiency, inter-operability and stability benefits all members.

        Market participants that insisted on jealously guarding all their work on proprietary platforms will often find themselves stranded on isolated islands slowly losing ground to platforms that benefit from the economies of scale offered by co-developement.

        This is true whether you’re a 21st century software shop run by hackers or a 19th century railroad baron.

      • komponisto

        Again, the point was that the existence of corporations is not necessarily incompatible with a “hacker” transition. You have to look at the sociological details of how the corporations operate in practice — just as it’s not enough to look at a country’s constitution to determine how its government works.

        Also, it may be more important that 50% of the Linux kernel was *not* written by the group of 15 mega-corporations than that 50% was. Perhaps in the old days it would have been 100%, in which case we could be witnessing a transition. I don’t know, because I haven’t studied the details, and don’t know who contributed what to the Linux kernel (especially as compared to automobile patents, railroad standards etc.). But I do know that you would have to look at these kinds of details in order to answer the question; you can’t just say “things called ‘corporations’ are still doing things, therefore there can’t be a fundamental economic transition going on.”

  • adrianratnapala

    Among farmer-era Europeans, a good proxy for this thought experiment is Atlantis. In those days it was commonly believed that the ancients were wiser than the moderns, and for them imagining back 20,000 years is a lot like us extrapolating forward 10,000.

    Unfortunately, all the legends of Atlantis that I know are terribly vague about what they thought actually went on in that land.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Your extrapolated-forager world sounds remarkably similar to the fun-theoretic world I extrapolated for the Brennan stories, though I haven’t yet published anything large set in that world. (I have a few unfinished stories from when I was a less experienced writer, but those I’m not willing to publish.) Just sayin’.

  • Matthew Graves

    Dune comes to mind, as a “what if feudal Europe conquered the stars, and then were conquered by space Bedouins?” Rereading it recently, I was shocked at how human-sized everything was, and how little that matched up with what I expected from the future. The long-term views that they had were explicitly views of stasis, which seems like a farmer view.

    • Prakash Chandrashekar

      Well, they did have the butlerian jihad and killed the possibility of their intelligence explosion…


    “At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period.”

    Their population size (10 billion) roughly corresponds to UN estimates of the future and their economy did grow a lot: everyone on Earth is more wealthy than today’s Norwegian, and they manage this with a shorter workweek while not destroying the environment.

  • Michael Caton

    Also sounds like the Neanderthal Parallax series by Sawyer. Neanderthal
    scientists from a world were agriculture was never invented finds
    himself in our world, amazed by the massive population.

  • Handle

    If you assume that there is a limited amount of natural truth out there to discover, and that we’ve discovered most of it (especially at human scales and speeds, but hey, even the Higgs Boson), then even though our age is “faster” our knowledge is better and more “complete” and hence we are able to compensate in our imagination of future periods X years hence.

    Are we not likely to err on the other side as well? Our post-WWII predecessors were wildly over-optimistic in some of their predictions about where certain technologies (aerospace, mostly) would be in 2013. They would be stunned to learn we are still using B-52′s and 747′s as competitive with the latest rivals with only slight upgrades, and that there is no Mars colony. My point is that they didn’t know the possibilities, but they also didn’t know the hard constraints. Now that we’ve learned them, I think we are less optimistic in 2013 about 2063, then they were in 1963 about 2013.

    So, maybe the farmers, with their much more limited set of knowledge about the natural world, would be similarly wildly overoptimistic. They would imagine methods of animal husbandry, cultivation, and soil-enrichment to produce reliable abundance and plenty for all with a minimal amount of toil, with plenty of time for scholarship and religion, and few, if any, serfs or slaves, and all savages civilized in global peace. Add in some hydraulic empire advances – like a universal system of irrigation, canals, and roads to make delivery to markets easy, quick, and cheap.

    They might imagine the 1600′s New Englanders in Southern California with plenty of water.

  • lump1

    I guess there is a tiny bit of latent Marxism in me which makes this exercise of imagination impossible. I don’t know enough about the transition between foraging and farming, and I don’t have a good sense about how much was left to accidents. I just can’t picture that people in the ultra-fertile river valleys just wouldn’t begin cultivating crops. Once they do, the sheer increase of their fertility pretty much guarantees that they would displace foragers from other fertile river valleys, and later most other places.

    It’s the same with the industrial revolution. If your country doesn’t do it, it will be overrun by a country that does.

    One reason why I have trouble with fantasy settings like Dungeons and Dragons is that the mixture of potent, reliable magic in a feudal world would inevitable collapse into a powerful magic-industrial revolution. The opportunities are simply too obvious, and all the motives are there. Consider that a wizard could create a permanent wall of fire that has the heat output of a factory. A fairly low-level magic user or cleric can create objects that cast a powerful, permanent light… several times a day. Yes, they game is asking us to picture a broadly feudal society in which all these abilities are embedded, but to me, this exercise of imagination simply makes no sense.

    • IMASBA

      “I just can’t picture that people in the ultra-fertile river valleys just wouldn’t begin cultivating crops.”

      How would hunter gatherers know the river valleys are fertile? They’d probably think rainforests are the most fertile places on Earth (which they aren’t).

      Anyway, early farming sucked. You had to work hard and long for an unvaried and unreliable food source of which you had to give part to a band of armed thugs representing the Don-Corleone-like proto-king of your community. But your proto-king could raise armies from time to time (with which he could overrun hunter gatherers) and live like a king and that’s why agriculture stuck.

      It was only in the 20th century that agricultural living finally beat out hunter gatherer living through modern medicine and artificial fertilizer (which is not sustainable).

      • Weaver

        Your proto-king could displace hunter-gatherers, but that was relatively pointless. They had no loot worth speaking off. By the time of petty kings the hunter-gatherers are already driven to the margins.

        However, he could conquer other farmers, enslave, steal their grain and women, and build an empire. Profit!

      • IMASBA

        If hunter gatherers had no loot to speak off then why did anyone adopt agriculture in the first place? That was my point.

      • Weaver

        Ah – greater security of food supply? Agriculture can be stored over winter/ several seasons.

        Or hunting land constrained by neighbours? Much, much higher yields per hectare.

    • Weaver

      “magic-industrial revolution”

      Best phrase I’ve heard all day. Yes, I agree; most high (and even low) fantasy fails to account for how magical power, if remotely harnessable, would utterly transform society. You wouldn’t get wizards in lonely towers; they would be industrial-prince-engineers, and science would be taught alongside magic in large, organised colleges, with society rapidly optimising itself to exploit the vast store of energy it represented.

  • free_agent

    You write, “what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?”

    A friend noted that pre-industrial cultures had little concept of “progress”, and so fiction of a “superlative” culture wouldn’t naturally be set in the future. He suggested instead looking at utopian literature, or constructions of religious paradises for how pre-industrial cultures would envision “advanced” societies.