How Culturally Plastic?

Typical farming behaviors violated forager values. Farmers added marriage, property, war, inequality, and much less art, leisure and travel. 100K years ago if someone had suggested that foragers would be replaced by farmers, critics could easily have doubted that foragers would act like that. But tens of thousands of years was enough time for cultural variation and selection to produce new farming cultures more compatible with the new farming ways.

A typical subsistence farmer from a thousand years ago might have been similarly skeptical about a future industrial world wherein most people (not just elites) pick leaders by voting, have little religion, spend fifteen years of their youth in schools, and are promiscuous, work few hours, abide in skyscrapers, ride in fast trains, cars, & planes, and work in factories and large organizations with much and explicit rules, ranking, and domination. Many of these acts would have scared or offended typical farmers. Even those who knew that tens of millennia was enough to create cultures that embraced farming values might have doubted a few centuries was enough for industry values. But it was.

In my book The Age of Em I describe a world after which it has adapted to brain emulation tech. While I tend to assume that culture has changed to support habits productive in the competitive em world, a common criticism of my book is that the behaviors I posit for the em world conflict with values commonly held today. For example, from Steven Poole’s Guardian review:

Hanson assumes there is no big problem about the continuity of identity among such copies. .. But there is plausibly a show-stopping problem here. If someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. The robot running an exact copy of my consciousness won’t actually be “me”. (Such issues are richly analysed in the philosophical literature stemming from Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about teleportation and the like in the 1980s.) So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen. (more)

Peter McCluskey has similar reservations about my saying at least dozens of human children would be scanned to supply an em economy with flexible young minds:

Robin predicts few regulatory obstacles to uploading children, because he expects the world to be dominated by ems. I’m skeptical of that. Ems will be dominant in the sense of having most of the population, but that doesn’t tell us much about em influence on human society – farmers became a large fraction of the world population without meddling much in hunter-gatherer political systems. And it’s unclear whether em political systems would want to alter the relevant regulations – em societies will have much the same conflicting interest groups pushing for and against immigration that human societies have. (more)

Farmers may not have meddled much in internal forager cultures, nor industry in internal farmer culture. But when prior era cultural values have conflicted with key activities of the new era, new eras have consistently won such conflicts. And since the em era should encompass thousands of years of subjective experience for typical ems, there seems plenty of time for em culture to adapt to new conditions. But as humans may only experience a few years during the em era and its preceding transition, it seems more of an open question how far human behaviors would adapt.

We are talking about the em world needing a small number of humans scanned, especially children. Such scans are probably destructive, at least initially. As individual human inclinations vary quite a lot, if the choice is up to individuals, enough humans would volunteer. So the question is if human coordinate enough in each area to prevent this, such as via law. If they coordinate well in most areas, but not in a few other areas, then if there are huge productivity advantages from being able to scan people or kids, the few places that allow it will quickly dominate the rest. And in anticipation of that loss, other places would cave as well. So without global coordination to prevent this, it happens.

Peter talks about the possibility of directly emulating the growth of baby brains all the way from the beginning. And yes if this was easy enough, the em world wouldn’t bother to fight organized human opposition. However, since emulation from conception seems a substantial new capacity, I didn’t feel comfortable assuming it in my book. So I focused on the case where it isn’t possible early on, in which case the above analysis applies.

This whole topic is mostly about: how culturally plastic are we? I’ve been assuming a lot of plasticity, and my critics have been saying less. The academics who most specialize in cultural plasticity, such as anthropologists, tend to say we are quite plastic. So as with my recent post on physicists being confident that there is no extra non-physical feeling stuff, this seems another case where most people have strong intuitions that conflict with expert claims, and they won’t defer to experts.

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