Henry Farrell on Age of Em

There is a difference between predicting the weather, and predicting climate. If you know many details on current air pressures, wind speeds, etc, you can predict the weather nearby a few days forward, but after weeks to months at most you basically only know an overall distribution. However, if there is some fundamental change in the environment, such as via carbon emissions, you might predict how that distribution will change as a result far into the future; that is predicting climate.

Henry Farrell, at Crooked Timber, seems to disagree with Age of Em because he thinks we can only predict social weather, not social climate:

Tyler Cowen says .. Age of Em .. won’t happen. I agree. I enjoyed the book. .. First – the book makes a strong claim for the value of social science in extrapolating likely futures. I am a lot more skeptical that social science can help you make predictions. .. Hanson’s arguments seem to me to rely on a specific combination of (a) an application of evolutionary theory to social development with (b) the notion that evolutionary solutions will rapidly converge on globally efficient outcomes. This is a common set of assumptions among economists with evolutionary predilections, but it seems to me to be implausible. In actually existing markets, we see some limited convergence in the short term on e.g. forms of organization, but this is plausibly driven at least as much by homophily and politics as by the actual identification of efficient solutions. Evolutionary forces may indeed lead to the discovery of new equilibria, but haltingly, and in unexpected ways. .. This suggests an approach to social science which doesn’t aim at specific predictions a la Hanson, so much as at identifying the underlying forces which interact (often in unpredictable ways) to shape and constrain the range of possible futures. ..

In the end, much science fiction is doing the same kind of thing as Hanson ends up doing – trying in a reasonably systematic way to think through the social, economic and political consequences of certain trends, should they develop in particular ways. The aims of extrapolationistas and science fiction writers aims may be different – prediction versus constrained fiction writing but their end result – enriching our sense of the range of possible futures that might be out there – are pretty close to each other. .. it is the reason I got value from his book. ..

So Hanson’s extrapolated future seems to me to reflect an economist’s perspective in which markets have priority, and hierarchy is either subordinated to the market or pushed aside altogether. The work of Hannu Rajaniemi provides a rich, detailed, alternative account of the future in which something like the opposite is true .. [with] vast and distributed hierarchies of exploitation. .. Rajaniemi’s books .. provide a rich counter-extrapolation of what a profoundly different society might look like. .. I don’t know what the future will look like, but I suspect it will be weird in ways that echo Rajaniemi’s way of thinking (which generates complexities) rather than Hanson’s (which breaks them down).

If we can only see forces that shape and constrain the future, but not the distribution of future outcomes, what is the point of looking at samples from the “range of possibilities”? That only seems useful if in fact you can learn things about that range. In which case you are learning about the overall distribution. Isn’t Farrell’s claim about more future “hierarchies of exploitation” relative to “markets” just the sort of overall outcome he claims we can’t know? (Rajaniemi blurbed and likes my book, so I don’t think he sees it as such a polar opposite. And how does hierarchy “generate complexities” while markets “break them down”?) Is Farrell really claiming that there is no overall tendency toward more efficient practices and institutions, making moves away from them just as likely as moves toward them? Are all the insights economic historians think they have gained using efficiency to understand history illusory?

My more charitable interpretation is that Farrell sees me as making forecasts much more confidently than I intend. While I’ve constructed a point prediction, my uncertainty is widely distributed around that point, while Farrell sees me as claiming more concentration. I’ll bet Farrell does in fact see a tendency toward efficiency, and he thinks looking at cases does teach us about distributions. And he probably even thinks supply and demand is often a reasonable first cut approximation. So I’m guessing that, with the right caveat about confidence, he actually thinks my point prediction makes a useful contribution to our understanding of the future.

One clarification. Farrell writes:

One of the unresolved tensions .. Are [ems] free agents, or are they slaves? I don’t think that Hanson’s answer is entirely consistent (or at least I wasn’t able to follow the thread of the consistent argument if it was). Sometimes he seems to suggest that they will have successful means of figuring out if they have been enslaved, and refusing to cooperate, hence leading to a likely convergence on free-ish market relations. Other times, he seems to suggest that it doesn’t make much difference to his broad predictive argument whether they are or are not slaves.

Much of the book doesn’t depend on if ems are slaves, but some parts do, such as the part on how ems might try to detect if they’ve been unwittingly enslaved.

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