Humanity Can’t Steer Its Future Much

I can’t recall ever applying to an essay contest before. But I did for this FQXi contest:

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. …

In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.

Possible topics or sub-questions include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the best state that humanity can realistically achieve?
  • What is your plan for getting us there? Who implements this plan?
  • What technology (construed broadly to include practices and techniques) does your plan rely on? What are the risks of those technologies? How can those risks be mitigated?

My submission mainly takes issue with the idea that we can do much steering:

Humanity can best steer its future by working hard to clearly see the future it will have if we do nothing. Because most likely we will do little to steer our future. Yes, this answer frustrates our hunger for inspiring visions. Even so, it seems right. Let me explain.

Imagine you are holding on to a log, floating down the rapids of a wide fast murky river at night. You hear rough water ahead. How should you steer yourself?

You should not try to figure out what river you’d most rather be on, or what landscape you wished the river flowed through. Instead, you should focus on details of the actual river in front of you. You should also not just swim for the best looking spot in the river ahead; in a wide fast river you probably can’t get most places.

What you should do is, keeping in mind your limited stamina and abilities, look to see the places ahead where you could plausibly swim. See them as clearly as possible, and try to infer what might be just under the water where you cannot see. Don’t immediately swim before you look, but also don’t wait too long before starting a plan.

Steering humanity’s future is like swimming this river. It is way too fun and easy to assume that we can create any future world we can imagine. Yes the future is made by the sum total of all our actions, but we actually have very limited abilities to coordinate those actions, abilities that get worse on larger space and time scales. We don’t have a world government, and won’t anytime soon. The organizations we do have, they rarely plan more than a decade ahead.

Given our limited abilities to influence the future, our first priority must be to see as clearly as possible the likely outcomes if we do absolutely nothing. After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it. And the future world will likely be similar.

Yes, science fiction is full of stories of a few foresighted heroes swinging the tide of their civilization. And yes, inspiring speakers often rouse audiences to cheer by framing their causes as ways to help the future. But honestly, people are mostly moved to action by the world around them, not the distant future.

Seeing the future in enough detail does seem the hard part; deciding what to do given any specific vision seems easier. For example, if you see in the river ahead a sharp rock a bit off to the left, you should swim to the right. Seeing the rock is hard; deciding which way to swim is easy.

True, it may feel more inspiring to think about how you’d want to restructure the whole river landscape. But focusing on the rocks straight ahead is the best way to avoid smashing against them.

To read the rest, go here. You can also comment on my and others’ essays there.

Added 20Aug: Seems I won a “special commendation prize” of $1000.

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    I don’t like the river analogy: the river analogy forces you to think quickly while this isn’t necessary in real life. In real life you have plenty of time to think about the obstacles ahead of you and what to do about them once you’ve identified them. It’s like comparing a game of command & conquer or starcraft to the real world: in the real world the construction time of a tank is much longer compared to the time you need to think things over so you get plenty of time to strategize (instead of just having to react quickly) and that changes the game significantly.

    • Doug

      In Starcrat you’re in God mode over your units. But in the real world your control over all of humanity is very small. Even the most powerful men ultimately have little effect on the order of centuries.

      It’s best to realize that in all likelihood any effort you exert will only have a very small effect, and therefore the only relevant variable is the impact on the margin. The likelihood that anything you do will have higher effects is vanishingly small.

      Just pay attention to the gradient, and ignore the non-local landscape.

      • This conflates two questions. 1) How much influence can an individual have on humanity?; and 2) how much influence does humanity have over its future?

        Hanson answers ‘very little’ to both, but he should realize that they’re different questions. (And question 1 is a lot easier than question 2.)

      • Mahmet Tokarev

        You are misunderstanding the question. It isn’t “how much influence does humanity have over its future,” it’s “how much can people now realistically coordinate to change the long-term future?”

      • That question is equivocal, and you’ve all been equivocating. “How much can people now realistically coordinate” has been interpreted as meaning something like 1) what’s the marginal utility of any efforts I make to effect the future and 2) how much successful conscious coordination can be expected (for long term) to occur in human society.

        These represent two distinct kinds of bases for evaluating participation in mass movements. 1) Does it matter if I participate? 2) Does it matter if my side wins, provided it has a reasonable chance of winning)?

        If you mean 1) (the individual marginal utility question), then the answer is very obvious. But people don’t justify participating in collective movements that change society for the longterm based (only) on marginal utility calculations. (There would be no social movements if they did.) They want to know (at least in principle) whether the movement has a chance of changing society.

        In short, if you’re asking the individualist question, you’re uninterestingly correct. But you all think the inidividualist question is interesting because you conflate it with 2).

  • Steve_Reilly

    Planning for the future is not about planning for the future. Come on, do I have to write this stuff for you?

  • Philo

    In your submission I thought this sentence was a special
    gem: “the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it.” You might have added that many of the ways in which human beings *have* made it different are ways that were not *intended* by those human beings. (Example: global warming.)

    The creators of the context may have intended it as utopian
    rather than practical, as raising the question, How (in broad outline) would all human beings behave from now on so as to produce the optimal future (starting now)? The answer to this question will have no practical implications for anyone (whereas the question, What behavior *by me* would produce the best future, given all other facts, including facts about the behavior of others? does have practical significance *for me*). Admittedly, if my suggestion were correct one would have expected not to find the sentence, “Who implements this plan?”: obviously *all mankind* would implement it (and obviously the probability that they would do so is vanishingly small).

    • “the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it.”

      Would the world not be different today if (for example) the French hadn’t risen in 1789 demanding liberty, equality, and fraternity. That is, didn’t the French revolution make a substantial difference–roughly in the way it intended?

      I sense equivocation between the two questions I mentioned in a previous post.

      • Mahmet Tokarev

        Obviously a lot of human actions have had impacts on the future… It seems clear that Hanson’s point is that they largely weren’t self-conscious efforts to change the world decades or centuries down the line. They were attempts to achieve goals in the near term.

        And actually look at the French Revolution. The impact was:

        1. A short period of Republican democracy,
        2. A dictatorial Reign of Terror
        3. The rise of a dictatorial Empire
        4. A return to absolute monarchy lasting for decades.

        Mostly it seems like democracy triumphed eventually for broad economic reasons, not because of the individual actions of some French intellectuals.

      • Yes, Mahmet understands me.

      • “Obviously a lot of human actions have had impacts on the future.”

        Yes, obviously Hanson is saying more than that human actions can have impacts on the future. He’s saying that social coordination to “achieve objectives decades or even centuries down the line” have failed in these objectives.

        But you commit the same equivocation as does Hanson when you reduce a case of of the efficacy of social coordination on distant goals to the “individual actions of some French intellectuals.” That’s the question of individual efficacy rather that the question of the efficacy of conscious social coordination. The question of the long-term efficacy of conscious social coordination is much harder than that pertaining to individuals’ actions.

        The distinction might be clarified by analogy to the problem of whether elections matter—in distinction to whether it matters who any individual votes for. Obviously, each individuals vote means, for practical purposes, nothing. Does it matter which party wins? Maybe not, but it’s a separate question.

        If the French Revolution’s contribution to eventual democracy was only partial (“mostly” due to “broad economic reasons”), then it still was a partly successful coordination achieving its intended long-term effects.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    It seems to me that your essay answers a different prompt than the actual essay prompt. Your essay answers the prompt “how should a particular human steer humanity’s future”. The sentence “After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it” is obviously false when read literally. Our ancestors have done a ton to influence the world today: they’ve invented technology, developed culture, harmed the environment, restored the environment, etc.

    I agree that any particular human should stay realistic about their ability to have an impact on the far future. But history seems full of instances of a long-standing status quo being overturned in a way that seemed highly implausible. (Communism, the Arab Spring, and the invention of flight all come to mind; also this blog post by Bryan Caplan: ) So redesigning society from the ground up is probably unrealistic, but if you have one crazy, important idea that has a plausible path for execution (ex.: charter cities), it might be worth putting your weight behind it.

    Another thing that applies to the “how should a particular human steer humanity’s future” question: lately I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some kind of power-law distribution of human effectiveness. If you have a history of kicking as much ass as Elon Musk does, it makes sense to aim higher.

    • Actions may have influenced the future, but that is different from those actions being taken because actors anticipating those particular influences changing things in an expected desirable direction.

      • John_Maxwell_IV


    • John_Maxwell_IV

      There are a few other points I wanted to make in relation to the question “How should a particular human work to steer humanity’s future?”. I think it’s pretty obvious that the median person doesn’t change the world much. But there’s a subset of the population that has a much higher ability to steer humanity’s future. The answer to the question “How should a particular human work to steer humanity’s future?” is going to be much different if that particular human is Barack Obama. In fact, I would argue that the majority of future-steering happens as a result of the influence of top intellectuals, politicians, businesspeople, thought leaders, etc. Given any historical scenario, I’d guess you could cause it to go entirely differently if you were just given the opportunity to swap out the top 1% of the population (according to some aggregate measure of wealth, intelligence, influence, etc.)

      So any good answer to the question “How should a particular human work to steer humanity’s future?” should first of all have the listener determine how much influence they already have and how much influence they could feasibly attain. Otherwise you risk having people who actually have quite a bit of influence, or could have quite a bit of influence, throw up their hands in despair upon reading an answer targeted at the median human. These people are very important and we don’t want to be giving them the wrong message! I’d rather see an essay targeting them in particular and ignoring typical folks than an essay targeting typical folks and ignoring folks who actually could have significant influence.

      Note that readers of this blog and probably the entries in this essay contest are selected for various characteristics that make it more likely that they’ll steer the future: high intelligence, high unconventionality, and an actual interest in steering the future. And that brings me to the biggest reason why I suspect it’s surprisingly possible to steer the future: not many people are trying very hard. At least in certain ways; I’ll cite you here Robin:

  • Storewars News

    Nice read! Very informative. Did you know that? P&G
    Picked a Tough Time to Expand Abroad. Full story here:

  • Robert Koslover

    I found your likely-unconscious choice of words amusing: “I can’t recall ever applying to an essay contest before.” Applying? One “enters” a contest; one “applies” for a grant. 🙂

  • Petter

    Is there a longer explanation somewhere that the technology for ems may only be a century away?

  • From the submission:

    Okay, now that we have a clearer vision of the river ahead, how can we realistically steer it, given our very limited sphere of influence? The easiest advice to give helps individuals and small groups, and requires little larger coordination. First, diversify both your financial and social assets, especially away from your abilities to earn wages, and toward the industries and locations most likely to host the new em economy. Second, teach your descendants to hope to start one of the most copied em clans. Realizing the odds are greatly against you, take great risks to achieve and show your high and reliable productivity and flexibility, in em–]world–]like tasks and environments. Learn to get along well with people much like yourself, and to value life when it is hard and alien.

    Your solution to the problem, how to steer the future, is to try very hard to become an em.

    But this is only a solution if your idea of steering the future is becoming, yourself, very rich and powerful. Even if a billionaire can do little to steer the future long-term, maybe an em trillionaire can. But this is a quite peculiar form of “steering”: you don’t really know even the direction you will want to take once you’re emmed.

  • Rationalist

    “After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it.”

    It is not clear to me that this is correct, even if it is sharpened to be meaningfully falsifiable.

    Without specific people taking actions which related to idealostic goals, I doubt we would have science. It seems to me that without those who devoted themselves to various selfless goals, humanity would get stuck at roughly the level of the Aztecs: we would probably farm, we would have heirarchies and we would have politics and bloody wars with primitive weapons. But without the systematization of knowledge and the efforts of those who wrote books laboriously by hand, I doubt that humanity would have moved beyond basic farming and killing people with pointy sticks.

    I suppose it’s a tough counterfactual to consider because you have to imagine the effect of total selfishness and disregard for the greater good on many different aspects of human life; for example without at least some idealism I doubt that you would get empires like Rome, you’d probably get many feifdoms and the occasional mongol horde that rampaged through it all based upon a military edge. In fact to what extent is human society dependent on at least some people thinking of the long term good of the whole? What is the maximum size of empire or kingdom you can run if everyone is totally selfish and cares naught about the greater good? I would love to know.

    • Idealism isn’t the same as idealism directed toward improving the distant future. And few who systematized knowledge or wrote books did do so mainly to help the distant future.

      • Rationalist

        I would claim that idealism is inherently associated with the idea of making the world a better place, so “idealism not directed towards improving the future” is basically an oxymoron. “Distant” you can haggle over, I’ll admit.

      • You’re merely playing on the vagueness of “better.”

      • IMASBA

        I guess one thing we shouldn’t be forgetting is far and near mode ideals converging in some people, when that happens those people can really devote themselves to influencing the future. They would bring what others consider sacrifices though they won’t fully feel like sacrifices to these people. An example would be a person who’s quit a hundred jobs and finally finds job satisfaction aiding some cause that they also see as improving humanity’s future, or an emperor/king who devotes his every waking moment to improving his realm because he really enjoys building and perfecting a big project, or even because he wants to be remembered as a great ruler.

      • I guess one thing we shouldn’t be forgetting is far and near mode ideals converging in some people, when that happens those people can really devote themselves to influencing the future.

        It’s an interesting question: to what extent is our inability to influence the future due to technology having a (socially) spontaneous dynamic and to what extent it is due to (as another commenter said) influencing the future not really being about influencing the future. (This is implicitly discounted in Robin’s raft analogy: there’s little question that the raft person really wants to get to shore. In fact, I think it’s a serious weakness in the analogy.)

        I’m uncertain, but I question whether anyone has so close a match between far-mode ideals and near-more urges. I don’t really think we’re structure to have abstract near-mode urges.

        Perhaps biographical investigation of personalities thought to be particularly “selfless” could help resolve the question.

      • IMASBA

        The trick is that those near-mode urges don’t have to be abstract to coincide with far mode ideals. It could even be as simple as the person in near mode only caring about coming across as someone who does a lot with far mode ideals. On the other hand there’s the “good person”, the personality type that really gets near mode satisfaction from helping people or working for a cause: if raising orphans brings me joy because it appeals to my strong paternal instincts then I can effortlessly work towards my far mode ideals regarding orphans even when I’m in near mode. I don’t even have to stumble upon it: when I’m in far mode I can force myself to look for an activity that conforms to my far ideals and gives me near satisfaction. With your background I suppose you could answer the question of whether cognitive therapy could make a person enjoy something in near mode that they didn’t enjoy previously.

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