No One Rules The World

I’ve talked on my book Age of Em 79 times so far (#80 comes Saturday in Pisa, Italy). As it relies a lot on economics, while I mostly talk to non-econ audiences, I’ve been exposed a lot to how ordinary people react to economics. As I posted recently, one big thing I see a low confidence in any sort of social science to say anything generalizable about anything.

But the most common error I see is a lack of appreciation that coordination is hard. I hear things like:

If you asked most people today if they want a future like this, they’d say no. So how could it happen if most people don’t like it?

Their model seems to be that social outcomes are a weighted average of individual desires. If so, an outcome most people dislike just can’t happen. If you ask for a mechanism the most common choice is revolution: if there was some feature of the world that most people didn’t like, well of course they’d have a revolution to fix that. And then the world would be fixed. And not just small things: changes as big as the industrial or farming revolutions just wouldn’t happen if most people didn’t want them.

Now people seem to be vaguely aware that revolutions are hard and rare, that many attempted revolutions have failed, or succeeded but failed to achieve its stated aims, and that the world today has many features that majorities dislike. The world today has even more features where majorities feel unsure, not knowing what to think, because things are so complicated that it is hard to understand the feasible options and action consequences. Yet people seem to hold the future to a different standard, especially the far future.

Near-far theory (aka construal level theory) offers a plausible explanation for this different attitude toward the future. As we know a lot less detail about the future, we see it in a far mode, wherein we are more confident in our theories, see fewer relevant distinctions, and emphasize basic moral values relative to practical constraints. Even if the world around us seems too complex to understand and evaluate, issues and choices seem simpler and clearer regarding a distant future where in fact we can barely envision its outlines.

But of course coordination is actually very hard. Not only do most of us only dimly understand the actual range of options and consequences of our actions today, even when we do understand we find it hard to coordinate to achieve such outcomes. It is easier to act locally to achieve our local ends, but the net effect of local actions can result in net outcomes that most of us dislike. Coordination requires that we manage large organizations which are often weak, random, expensive, and out of control.

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    And the people who attend your talks are likely to be far brighter than the average for people in general.

    Ignorance about this seems to be a huge problem for democracy.

    Do you think education can help inform the electorate about coordination problems? Economics in general?

    So far we don’t seem to be doing well at that.

  • lump1

    It’s Marx who convinced me that what you’re saying here is right. Technology (“means of production”) determines ideology – as well as the content of politics, range of our moral sentiments, etc. In this descriptive sense of Marxism, economists are far more Marxist that the general population, and you more than almost all of them: I’ve seen you argue that if Hitler won WW2, in the big scheme of things, nothing substantial about our lives would really be different now.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      The idea that cultures are heavily influenced by the way people make their living is, I think, far older than Marx.

      And let’s not forget that Hitler was right about a lot of stuff, too, but we don’t generally credit him with that, because (a) he wasn’t original about any of it, and (b) his ideas led directly to mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

      (a) and (b) apply to Marx too.

      • Almost everyone (excluding perhaps you) recognizes than Marx was an important intellectual and Hitler was not.

        As far as I know, Marx was the first to offer a thoroughly materialistic theory of ideology. Engels credits him with this. (Do you intend to virtue shame Engels too?)

      • Peter David Jones

        “A History of Environmental Determinism

        Environmental determinism’s origins go back to antiquity, when the Greek geographer Strabo wrote that climate influences the psychological disposition of different races”

      • “(a) and (b) apply to Marx too.”

        Only in the most sophistic way possible.

  • joeteicher

    Are there cases where a technology becomes popular even though no one benefits from it or likes it? I don’t see how anyone can benefit from a world where computers just interact with each other for their own benefit rather doing things that humans want.

    • UWIR

      Obviously, at the beginning at least, there will be a subset of humans that benefit from it, and likely an even larger subset that are not better off than without ems, but better off with ems and helping them than with ems and not helping them.

      • joeteicher

        People can benefit from ems doing things for them if ems turn out to be the most efficient form of software to perform certain tasks (I think the likelihood of that is near 0). But how do people benefit from em-em interactions? Isn’t that the whole problem with ems is that we presume that they will trade/interact with each other and use up all our resources doing so? Why in the world would we let them do that?

      • UWIR

        Because they would pay us to do so.

      • joeteicher

        ems would pay us to let them interact? Where do they get resources to pay with? Right now all resources belong to people.

        I guess you can argue that they will need to interact with each other some minimal amount in order to be productive. In the same way that people need that now. But surely we can limit their non-productive activities to the minimum possible amount, and hopefully quickly fix the problem of them “needing” to do anything other than serve us.

      • UWIR

        See, you’re saying “we”, like “we” make decisions collectively. The whole point of this post is that there is no “we”. Each person is going to act in their own self interest, and there are going to be people who benefit from giving resources to ems. And how will trying to create a slave race of ems go over with ems? How will it go over with humans?

      • joeteicher

        I still don’t see why it would be in someone’s self interest to give resources to an em. who cares how ems “feel” about being slaves? If it becomes an issue can’t the developers/owners of the ems just stop them from feeling things? I cannot ever imagine voting for someone who wanted to give human rights to computer software. I think I am in the majority in that regard, so I think the humans are gonna be just fine with ems being “slaves.”

      • IMASBA

        If they’re slaves they can rapidly make an oligarchy of em owners very rich, if they’re not slaves some of them will become an oligarchy. Either way most humans and most ems are screwed.

      • joeteicher

        people in democracies seem to have at least a modest ability to get money from rich people through taxation + redistribution. The trend has been for the rich to get richer but redistribution has also been rising. I don’t see why ems would change either of those trends.

      • IMASBA

        Democracy has rarely led to enough redistribution to stop the growth of income inequality. Catastrophes have historically fulfilled that role. Such strong redistribution would actually require as much global cooperation as treaties on em use would.

      • ” I don’t see why ems would change either of those trends.”

        Well, you’re quite stupid, and your inability to see things is irrelevant.

      • joeteicher

        We’re discussing a speculative future that none of us will live to see. Its just for fun. Why do you have to be such an asshole?

      • Its just for fun.

        Your attitude and mine, but not Robin’s.

      • Why do you have to be such an imbecile?

      • arch1

        Jim, have you ever thought carefully about the conditions under which saying things such as “you’re quite stupid” is optimal, or even a good idea?

      • Fuck off and die.

      • arch1

        *Have* you, Jim?

      • Boring dimwitted tone troll. I don’t operate according to Hansonesque expectations.

      • UWIR

        “I still don’t see why it would be in someone’s self interest to give resources to an em.”

        Lots of reasons. If emulation can be done of living people, some people will choose to “back up” themselves. If not, some will make arrangements for them to be emulation on death, like cryogenics is used now, and some will emulate loved ones. That’s on top of economic reasons, such as emulating professionals. For instance, a corporation might decide that emulating a CEO is cheaper and more effective than paying a human several million dollars.

        “who cares how ems “feel” about being slaves?”

        There are people who care about animal welfare. There are people who care about fetuses. I’m sure there will be people who care about ems. And there will also be people who worry that having a slave class will desensitize people to exploitation.

        “If it becomes an issue can’t the developers/owners of the ems just stop them from feeling things?”

        That wouldn’t address all objections, and would likely not be feasible.

      • “I still don’t see why it would be in someone’s self interest to give resources to an em.”

        You were told: they will be paid for them. Duh.

        “I cannot ever imagine voting for someone who wanted to give human rights to computer software.”

        First, you have crap for an imagination. And how would you know that they did want that? Most people don’t want to vote for corrupt politicians, and yet they do.

        You really are quite stupid, and most people are even dumber than you are, so don’t count on humanity never voting against its best interests.

      • ” But surely we can limit their non-productive activities to the minimum possible amount”

        Did you even read the article?

    • “Are there cases where a technology becomes popular even though no one benefits from it or likes it?”

      Of course. Smog production, for instance. Of course that’s not how people think of it, but it’s a valid description.

      “I don’t see how anyone can benefit from a world where computers just interact with each other for their own benefit rather doing things that humans want.”

      Um, have you ever heard of viruses, worms, DDoS attacks? The first internet worm was partially intentional and partially accidental. And there’s a recent case of ransomware that was ransom-proof because of a bug or error on the part of the hacker … the files got encrypted irreversibly. No one wanted that.

  • Was thinking about how you could make this point in your talks. Maybe you already have a way to do this. But if not, perhaps you could use the tragedy of the commons to convince people. Something like….

    speaker: Now…a common objection I get to the idea of ems ruling the earth is that no one really wants that, so it won’t happen. Raise your hand if you think this makes sense. ok. 80% believe it won’t happen because we don’t want it. Fine.
    speaker: Now. Let me ask one more question. How many people in this room are in *favor* of global warming? Raise your hands. Hmmm. Nobody. Yet. You drove here today and contributed to global warming.
    speaker: So, we can see that we’ve proved global warming doesn’t exist! All of you deny it’s possible that it could happen, because nobody wants it to happen. So it won’t. Whew! Glad we’ve solved that problem. Every time I give this talk I always seem to give it to a majority who deny climate change.
    speaker: So what’s going on? [show slide making explicit analogy of climate change to being ruled by ems] Collective action problems are common to *all* social systems, not just human ones. And ems are exactly the same kind of collective action problem as climate change. If you think these kind of problems will always be solved, then you must also believe climate change is easy to solve too. But it’s not.

    Anyway, just an idea on how you might make an audience realize major things happen all the time that no one intends.

    • I’ve honed my talk to a sleek core, and handle most of these topics in Q&A. Trying to handle them all in the talk would make it far longer, and audiences like that less.

      • Hah. Makes sense. Just thought the climate change analogy to ems ruling earth was a good current events example of the collective action problem to drive home realization of what’s going on. Obviously you’ve already got ways to deal with this having given the talk so many times.

        Anyway, did find it one of those interesting observations that seems very surprising (if you’ve corrupted your mind by reading enough economics and/or history) that people don’t believe collective action problem could happen even if people are aware of it. But once pointed out, obviously would be a very common reaction.

  • Slartibartfarst

    I was struck by your statement:
    “Their model seems to be that social outcomes are a weighted average of individual desires. If so, an outcome most people dislike just can’t happen.”

    Maybe not necessarily true nor the only model though. For example, there is one model described that I gather would directly contradict your hypothesis. It is described in the SRI report “The Changing Images of Man”

    In the report/book, the authors, in considering a potential future, postulated a hypothetical and naturally-occurring system of two sinus-like waves intersecting each other, but on an upwards trend, over time (horiz. x-axis), against a notional measure of improved human societal progress (y-axis).
    One sinus-like wave was the force given by the image in the minds of Man as to what the direction of Man’s purpose, etc. could/should be, and the other was the force of direction imposed on Man in those societies, by prevailing socio-political standards/forces.
    The suggestion was that these two forces alternately pushed and pulled each other apart in a cyclical fashion, and that when they were furthest apart the force to come together became strongest, so they came together and crossed over in a form of over-compensation or drag, exchanging the role of leadership in the alternating push-pull effect. It was a very hopeful model really, but it did offer a fit with history and explained how, for example, periods of tyranny could/would be overcome (e.g., the ending of the oppressive and totalitarian Nazi National Socialist regime in WW2) and society would develop/progress until it met the next period of tyranny, and so on. A model of history repeating, I suppose.

    • UWIR

      He never said this is the only model, and he definitely was not saying was true, he was saying that it’s the model that the majority implicitly believe. And I don’t think the term “sinus-like” as an abbreviation for “sinusoidal” is an established term.

      • Slartibartfarst

        Thank you for the response. I don’t think I was trying to suggest that he was saying it was true, nor that it was the only model. I was merely commenting and agreeing on the model as he had described.
        I do apologise in that I might not have been as clear as I could have been, but I am nearly blind and also dyslexic (I hope I spelt that right, hah-hah). For that reason, I prefer to avoid making comments on forums like this as it requires too much effort on my part. I put the effort in and made the comment anyway, because I was hoping to contribute and was indeed struck by the statement – because, as I tried to describe re the SRI report on the “Changing Images of Man”, there is that model which is apparently based on the hypothesis that what is collectively in the mind of Man could in fact have a causative effect on historical outcomes, over time.
        Of course, however it might happen, that would interestingly seem to contradict the later part of the opening post, because, though there might apparently be no deliberate co-ordination of effort suggested in the SRI model, the outcome would (presumably) be as a collective result of independent actions with a vector in line with the collective and dynamically changing image in the mind of Man, over time.
        That was really the main point of my comment. You did not comment on that in your response, but don’t you at least find the SRI idea interesting? I found it fascinating in terms of its potential implications, but, of course, if it was not in line with conventional wisdom, I could quite understand.
        By the way, I was aware of the nature of a sine wave and that it was sinusoidal (I had to look it up as my dyslexic brain couldn’t recall how to spell it), and that was why I made up the term “sinus-like” ( bit of a joke), as a sine wave is apparently usually depicted as having a horizontal mean (no trend), whereas the SRI report depicts it as an upwards trend over time (i.e., it could be incorrect to call it “sinusoidal”). The book is well worth a read and by some reports has apparently opened many people’s minds up to a new perspective.


    No one rules the world… today… if it takes another 30 years for ems to become feasible the world may not quite be united yet but it is likely to be less splintered and have more advanced mechanisms in place to decide global matters.

    • If the trend over the last century continues for 30 more years “no one rules the world” should be a good summary of that future time as well.

      • IMASBA

        Like I said, the world wouldn’t be united, but I do think there would be more serious international standards and cooperation, probably modeled after agreements on climate change and the global financial system. Powerful supranational organizations such as the European and African unions would also make agreements easier to reach.

      • Joe

        Robin, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what a world government would actually be like: how paradigm-shifting it would actually be, how much it would be able to control, etc.

        My suspicion is that people may tend to exaggerate the influence a world government would have, that there could still be lots of internal competition, that a government with increased influence would actually need increased resources which it might not be able to get, and so on. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe there is a vast qualitative difference between a world with a single unified government and a world without, rather than many varying intermediate shades.

        As I said I’d be very interested to get your input on this.

      • UWIR

        A few difference that I would expect would , be a lot less defense spending and trade barriers.

  • arch1

    Thanks, I found this reminder (that global coordination is hard) very helpful. (This is especially ironic because I often find myself thinking that economists tend to *under*estimate peoples’ difficulty with / dislike of one-on-one negotiation:-)

  • UWIR

    Star-Bellied Sneetches was a good allegory about coordination problems (among other things).

    I think that one issue that affect Americans’ thinking about revolutions is the American Revolution mythos. “Revolution” is a bit of a misnomer, as it was really more a rebellion than a revolution; they didn’t tear down society and start over, they took a well-established subsystem and broke it off from the larger system. The fact that the American “revolution” led to the founding of our country distracts from the fact that almost all real revolutions end badly.

    • The U.S. Civil War represented a real revolution in the South, wouldn’t you say?

      • UWIR

        I would categorize that as more a rebellion than a revolution as well. Or do you mean the Reconstruction?

      • Yes, Reconstruction, preceded by the Union Army, not the slaveholders’ rebellion. Sorry I was unclear.

    • IMASBA

      Lots of nations have historic revolutions that are well known and shaped their societies.

      Most revolutions do fail but it only takes one…

      • UWIR

        Yeah, “shaped”, but rarely “clearly improved”.

      • The prototype for “revolution” is the French, for which “clearly improved” or “clearly harmed” both have their proponents. You might say, I suppose, that since there are strong opinions on both sides, the conclusion isn’t “clear.” But these differences of opinion closely track ideology.

  • This operates in reverse too. For instance, there are people who will write in Bernie Sanders with the justification that “If everyone did it”, he would win.

    • Reverse of what? When voters writing in Sanders do so, they are under no illusion that a majority will do the same. They aren’t denying the difficulty of coordination but trying to apply a Kantian maxim to the ethics of voting.

      Going for Sanders, a well-know public figure and one who is actually “presidential” (unlike, say Stein or Johnson), is a concession to the difficulties of coordination.

      [The obvious infirmity of Sanders is: do you want someone for president who favors the candidate you’re supposedly voting against? I look to a consequentialist rather than Kantian standard, but the consequences of voting include registering protest and legitimitizing and delegitimizing parties and institutions. This includes the effects of abstaining and, generally, of low versus high voter turnout. I plan to spoil my ballot in the presidential election.]

      • “They aren’t denying the difficulty of coordination ”

        The ones I’m referring to certainly are. (I suppose I shouldn’t have used Sanders as an example because of the likelihood that someone would foolishly make this about politics). A classic example of this sort of thing was Douglas Hofstadter’s Luring lottery and his absurd insistence on such a thing as “metarationality” despite numerous mathematicians and game theorists trying to explain to him that just wishing for such a thing won’t make it real.

      • I agree with you on the Palestinians. But you think a liberal Supreme Court (concerning trivial “culture war” issues) warrants supporting someone who will commit mass murder. You think that anyone who doesn’t share your narcissistic priorities is stupid. Typical of your kind.

      • My kind is anyone who isn’t an intellectually dishonest git like you.

      • “deciding trivial “culture war” issues”

        I hadn’t realized how stupid, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest you are.

      • I knew that one would get you, and you know why. You also know what I mean by “your kind.” (Unless you’re stupid.)

      • The ones I’m referring to certainly are.

        Sure, I think you’re exactly the sort of objective commentator I can rely on for what your political opponents think, particularly when it makes them look incredibly ridiculous.

      • My comment was not about politics, you projecting moronic hypocrite.

  • Conservative economists typically ignore the difficulties of coordination when they argue against some forms of redistribution. How many times have I heard about the stupidity of favoring a minimum wage or rent control. The conservative economists can provide ways of redistributing income that is much more efficient!

    Maybe efficient, but impossible to coordinate around. Whereas raising the minimum wage is typically part of a program of measures that include expanding employment and expanding poor relief.

  • zarzuelazen27

    All a potential ruler of the world needs is a sturdy laptop and Wikipedia.

    Let-me hand-out links to my crash-courses on economics based my selected groupings of wikipedia articles:

    Crash-course on ‘Applied Economics’ (82 articles – A-Z):

    Crash-course on ‘Theoretical Economics’ (51 articles – A-Z):

    Whilst theoretical econ (decision and game theory) does arguably operate a little like eternal truths, applied econ certainly doesn’t – much of the stuff in applied econ is human inventions, so there’s little reason for thinking these setups should persist into the far future.

    I think I’ve really got the hang of this ‘rationality’ thing now. Rather than looking for one big idea that explains everything, you should instead form a ‘concept cloud’ of many many related ideas , and it’s the interlocking (or ‘coherence’) of the multiple related concepts that provides the explanation.

    You can clearly see this ‘concept cloud’ conception of rationality at work in my A-Z lists of core concepts linking to wikipedia articles, and it’s really striking just how comprehensive and effective it is. It blows ‘Bayesianism’ out of the water!

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