Neglected Big Problems

Some problems are often mentioned in media, such as global warming, war, medical funding, political conflicts. Some problems are less often mentioned in media, but still often discussed in academic publications: encouraging innovation, managing large organizations, extending lifespans, and setting the right amount of regulation. But some problems are obviously big, yet rarely much discussed in media or academia as problems to solve. They are neglected. Oh people on occasion lament such problems, but they don’t often talk seriously about how we might think systematically about solving or mitigating them.

In this post I’d just like to remind folks of a few big neglected problems. I’m not going to propose solutions to them here, though I wouldn’t mind inspiring others to think more about them. Most of them have to do with ancient inherited habits that don’t seem to work that well in the modern world.

Relearn Every Generation – We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes, or that millions or billions of others are currently learning in parallel with us. There seem huge potential gains from finding better ways to learn from our ancestors and colleagues.

Changing World – Early in life we read the world around us and choose life plans and paths matched to that world. During our life the world around us changes, and we make some adaptations to that, but they seem insufficient. For example, we often seek to achieve in ways that were awarded with high status when we were young, to find that our achievements are much less valued by the new world.

Poor Matching – We match people as friends, lovers, spouses, and workers. Our distant ancestors only had a few available options for matches, and we inherited many intuitive mechanisms appropriate for that situation. But we now have a vast world with far more matches possible, and it seems like we don’t use that larger scope very well. We still rely heavily on inherited informal mechanisms. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

Varied Commitment – We must each choose how much to commit to our careers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods, brands, etc. We do commit somewhat, but we also switch on occasion. And it isn’t remotely clear that we do this well. We must each match our commitment to the commitment choices of folks around us, and we often lack ways to commit to avoid temptations. We could also do a lot better at predicting the future, to better inform our commitment choices.

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  • J

    Geography: think how much more efficient cities would be if it was easy to move and we could collectively optimize to be closer to our friends, family and jobs. People end up in suboptimal jobs, away from loved ones, and spend hours a day commuting, creating traffic jams, wasting fuel.

  • Re: Relearn Every Generation – The Y Combinator folks talk a lot about how this is an issue for startup founders.

    “When I was running Y Combinator we used to joke that our function was to tell founders things they would ignore, and it’s really true” – Paul Graham,

  • Dave Lindbergh

    One of your best posts. Ever.

    99% of what we learn in life is lost when we die; all progress is due to the other 1%.

    We do *try* to teach – I’ve notes for a book on “Life and how to live it”. The old invent aphorisms, but they succeed mostly as mnemonics for the experienced, as aphorisms seem obvious and trivial until personal experience illustrates their full meaning.

    Ah, but a word to the wise is sufficient. You know what I mean. 🙂

  • edsheppa

    Biological immortality is coming.

  • J T

    We have to step back and basically not do this. Or at least allow me to question it, if not for only a moment. There is a much bigger problem, and that is the problem of framing arguments in such a way that a hidden bias makes it unsolvable (and not useful).

    >. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

    Yes but you have implied that better matching would fix the loneliness but it might be be that the problem of their loneliness is cause by not having a proper mate.

    Loneliness, is something you can’t fix by having a proper mate, it is something you might work on, by yourself, learn to be whole, and then you might naturally attract a good mate.

    I don’t think there are enough smart people in the world to match everyone such that they can fix their loneliness with a partner.

    • J T

      We do this in regard to all our dualities. Climate change for example. People are generally saying “what should we do about climate change?” But I’d argue thats a socialist perspective and that it basically is like saying “how can we create regulations that fix climate change?”

      It’s important because we need to be able to ask “Should we try to fix climate change, or perhaps should we just innovate and spend our energy building and not protesting?”.

      We have to be VERY careful how we frame our questions, and I don’t feel like the author was careful to craft out their bias’.

  • Robert Koslover

    Well, we do far better than any other animal on the planet in regard to the “relearn every generation” problem. That said, I was rather impressed the other day to see a vulture hop away from a road-kill meal, and then just wait, over at the side of the road, as I drove around a curve hurtling toward it. Note that I said “curve.” I was still headed toward the vulture, but it wasn’t afraid. It calmly waited at the edge of the street, evidently knowing that I would stay on the road and that it could hop right back out after I passed. Somehow, it had learned that cars tend to stay on the roads. Smart bird! Now, how will it ever teach that to its descendants?

  • Sid

    Online dating is solving the mismatch problem for spouses and lovers.

  • efalken

    Is there any data on the results of on-line marriages vs. traditional marriages?

  • aprilharding

    I’m with Dave Lindbergh – this is one of your best posts ever Robin. I’ve been thinking about the ‘changing world’ problem for years. It strikes me as a widespread problem which should be amenable to improvement. I have an outline/prospectus for a book called “Jumping the Tracks” – which would present the stories of how a range of people came to make sizable life changes and what happened. I think many people have a sense somewhere (somewheres) in midlife that they’d be happier if they made some changes – but they have a lot of anxiety about how it will work out. I was hopeful that getting to know the stories of a few people who ‘jumped the tracks’ so to speak might encourage them to jump too. My World Bank colleague David Evans wrote a blog encouraging more people to jump – discussing his own experience, as well as Dan Ariely’s, Steve Levitt’s and Neil Gaiman’s (!) work

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  • Gunnar Zarncke

    I wonder about the big problem of human coordination. I’m not sure it is exactly neglected but at least some sub problems of that seem to be. Was just reminded of that by this comment over at LW:

    > Yesterday I was reading about a medical student who discovered to suffer from Castleman disease, so he managed to specialize in that disease and in creating a network to coordinate various researchers. This is also common between people who suffer from or have a close relative that died from a rare disease (my fiancée is deeply fond of “Mystery diagnosis”): it seems that creating a foundation to raise awareness and coordinate effort is a very common response.
    > One would think that in the era of globalization and the Web such things would be trivial, but as the Scott’s notes [on the Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI] show, coordination and common knowledge between human beings is still a huge added value.

    — MrMind


  • I don’t know that social-problem oriented research really has much to show for itself. A distraction from constructing the basic theories from which social problems could actually be addressed.

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  • Jordan Walker coming soon to start work on the matching problem?