Here Not Be Dragons

“Here be dragons” is a phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures in uncharted areas of maps. (more)

Stories tend to be more interesting if they a) have characters like us, b) have extreme items, creatures, events, etc., and c) don’t seem clearly impossible. So story tellers face tradeoffs – they often try to make stories as extreme as they can without seeming impossible.

Once upon a time, a handy way to make this tradeoff was to tell stories about familiar kinds of people in far away lands. Because less was known with confidence about far away places, the “don’t seem impossible” rule constrained stories the least there. In far away places, there might plausibly be extreme animals, buildings, devices, customs, etc.

Just like parents today who conspire not to tell their kids the truth about Santa Claus, ancient travelers who visited distant places probably tended to conspire not to reveal that foreigners weren’t so strange. After all, travelers could get more approval from telling tall tales of strange things far away. And they could bond with sophisticates via winks that say “yes, you and I are smart enough to know better.” Lovers of stories, imagination, creativity, etc. who knew better probably reasoned that most people enjoy life more if they can believe in far away strangeness, and saw little harm in the exaggeration since few locals ever interacted with distant others.

Today we know too much about far away places to let ourselves set much story strangeness there. So when we want to tell strange but not impossible stories, we tend to set them in our future — the future is our go-to place for plausible strangeness. No one has actually seen the future, so no one can contradict stories about strange futures with much authority. Furthermore, lovers of imagination and creativity tend to excuse the impossibilities in such stories, because they think folks enjoy their lives better when they see anything as possible in the future.

Actually, this idea that anything will be possible in the future seems to be an axiom of faith for many. I’ve had several folks react this way to my em econ talks on this basis – how dare I forecast when we all know forecasts are impossible?

For some, believing in an anything-goes future expresses faith in human innovation and potential. For others, it says societies are too complex to be understood by simple theories. For still others, it expresses allegiance to scientific method – scientists must only say things that they can prove with theory or experiment, and if neither applies to the future scientists must stay silent about it, which in practice gives the impression that all future speculations consistent with basic science are equally valid and believable.

The big problem with anything-goes futurism is, of course, that keeps us from learning about and preparing for the actual future. If an ancient society were about to actually move en mass to a far away land, their story-inspired misconceptions about distant lands could do great harm. Alas, since our society is actually moving whole-sale and rapidly toward that supposedly anything-goes future world, our misconceptions can matter a lot.

The future will of course have some strange elements, at least to our eyes, if not to theirs. But it will be far from maximally strange. The more one learns about technology, economics, biology, etc. the fewer of our commonly-heard strange futures seem possible. No, we can’t prove much, but we can in practice learn a lot. Yes, those well-informed level-headed forecasts won’t be as creatively inspiring, won’t make for stories as fun, and may fail to affirm a faith in unlimited human potential. Our real descendants will have real limits. But they will really exist, and our actions will really matter for them.

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