Why Neglect Social Results?

For many decades I’ve heard people argue about the possibility of ems, i.e., brain emulations (also called “uploads”). Many like to talk about whether ems are possible, when they might happen, and if ems would be conscious, or whether they would “be me.”  People also love to read fiction set in worlds where there are ems. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a short article on the social implications of a world of emulations — what that would actually be like. But that didn’t kick-start much interest in the subject – most discussion is still on possibility, timing, consciousness, identity, and story settings.

Over the years I’ve also heard many people argue about the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Twelve years ago I wrote a short article “How to live in a simulation,” on how you should live your life differently to take this possibility into account. That article also didn’t kick-start much interest in social implications. Today, most discussion of the simulation possibility continues to focus on using it as a setting for fiction, on the chances that it is true, on clues for inferring if it is true, and on what it implies for identity, consciousness, physics, etc. There remains almost no discussion of life strategies conditional on a simulation.

I just now noticed how similar are these situations, a similarity that cries out for explanation. I see three somewhat related candidate explanations:

  1. The sorts of people who most like these topics are techies, who mostly don’t believe that social and human sciences exist, and thus aren’t interested in hearing about  applications of such sciences.
  2. People are mainly interested in these sorts of topics as ways to stretch and stress-test their basic concepts. So only people with a library of grand social concepts are interested in using these topics to stretch and stress-test such concepts. There aren’t many such people.
  3. I personally did a poor job of introducing these topics. Had someone more prestigious or articulate done the job, there might well be much larger conversations now about these topics.

Whatever the explanation, this bodes poorly for interest in my more elaborated book-length discussion of the social implications of ems. However, I will soldier on nonetheless.

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  • sflicht

    I think your candidate explanation (1) is ridiculous, insofar as I believe “techies” — broadly speaking — do in fact believe social science exists and is useful. However, it’s possible that 12-20 years ago this was less the case. Arguably technologists have progressed much further and faster along the axis of appreciation for social science than have physical scientists.

  • You might consider the possibility that social context influences the way we think about our problems. In bygone eras, similar concepts were discussed in the language of “life is only a dream.” At best, people would compare life to an opium dream, but back then there was no such a concept as a “computer simulation.” Perhaps it was the advent of the computer simulation that lead us to think of problems this way – before that, we still thought about these problems, we just used a different language to do it.

    Consider the following:

    Every paradigm is informed by its contemporary society, even if they seem unrelated. The go-to example of this is Freud’s theories, from which we derive “pent up” and “release” and “drives” and “pressures”– all of which are the language of the turn-of-the century steam industrial world. Whether Freud was right or not isn’t the point– he just sounds wrong because we don’t use steam engines and the brain doesn’t look like an engine anymore.

    The point here is that we acknowledge the ideas of prior cultures relied on their context, but we willfully ignore our own immersion in our context. I read this in The Economist:

    [quote from the Economist – ed.]However, unlike Freud’s unconscious (a hot, claustrophobic place full of repressed memories and inappropriate sexual fantasies about one’s parents) the modern unconscious is a place of super-fast data processing, useful survival mechanisms and rules of thumb about the world that have been honed by millions of years of evolution. It is the unconscious, for instance, that stitches together data on colour, shape, movement…

    Note that this isn’t merely a metaphor or analogy to modern computers– it is an earnest but uncritical assumption of an actual similarity.

    Apologies if the double-blockquoting gets screwed up. The link is here: http://partialobjects.com/2012/05/you-must-escape-your-context/

    • oldoddjobs

      Sounds like sub-Marxist claptrap. Next you’ll claim that Newton discovered gravity because he was feeling down.

  • Samuel Hammond

    I think the explanation is that at some level people don’t *really* take the simulation argument, or the em scenerio, seriously. Meaning, they like to discuss them not because of their inherent plausibility (in which case, social-practical questions would be paramount) but instead because they’re provocative thought experiments for teasing out those issues of identity, consciousness, etc.

    For example, the simulation argument is very useful for reaching the conclusion that the practical implications are slim to none. The standard darwinian story is that perception of the world is already in effect a simulation, as a set of innate ontological commitments biased towards survival. Whether we’re plugged into a mainframe, or plugged into reality via our biological senses, all that is changing is the “ultimate” source of our particularly human modality. “Meaning”, and thus action and motivation is, in either case, sui generis.

    So in short. A very small fraction of people who like to discuss Ems really, vicersally, believe they will hapen. They therefore discuss it because it gives plausibility to ‘brain in vat’ style thought experiments, the purpose of which is to tease out the reality of our present self.

    • That sounds a lot like my #2.

      • Samuel Hammond

        Yea, in so many words. It’s like if you were confused by why people weren’t taking the social implications of a Nozick experience machine seriously. Maybe an experience machine would cause the labour share of income to fall precipitously, but working that out kinda misses the point of why people discuss it in the first place.

      • Dan Browne

        Nick Bostrom argues that in order for this to
        likely be a simulation we would need a world which is 1. Capable of building accurate
        human simulations and 2. Wants to simulate humans and 3. Then goes ahead and
        builds lots and lots of simulations of humans. We need all 3 to be true for
        there to be more accurate human simulations than “real” humans.

        If any of these are false (and I believe that #2
        and #3 are false) then the number of human simulations vs real humans
        dramatically drops and the probability of this being a simulation correspondingly
        dramatically drops.

      • praxtime

        Yes for #2. It’s a lack of seriousness on the possibility really coming true. The solution (perhaps unfortunately) is dramatization. If a Spielberg quality movie like AI were done about ems with technical details right, people beyond very limited hard core enthusiasts would start to believe. After all, ET sightings skyrocketed for decades after 3rd encounters. And even this comments section of enthusiasts has plenty of movie references. Visceral emotional belief most naturally comes from dramatization, not intellectual reasoning. Belief is about tribal belonging through joint emotional bonding as much as logic. Obviously an em movie is beyond your control for the success of your ems book. Though I would be happy to see one!

      • VV

        I suppose you never heard of the Matrix franchise

      • Ilya Shpitser

        Or almost any Phillip K Dick story in movie form (The Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall, etc.)


    Well, I can think of a couple of reasons, there’s what Sammuel Hammond said below (many people don’t really believe (some only subconsciously perhaps) that EMs will ever exist. Then there is the fact that it’s really difficult to predict social implications because those are bound to depend on culture and we do not know what future culture EMs will derive from. People are sceptical when they hear social predictions of the far future, and rightly so: the social sciences can’t make such detailed predictions.

    • I read you as favoring #1.

      • IMASBA

        I don’t think saying that the social sciences cannot, in a very detailed manner, predict what far future cultures will be like is the same as saying social sciences don’t really exist as a science.

      • IMASBA

        That’s a bit like saying meteorology isn’t a real science because meteorologists can’t accurately predict the weather 20 years in advance.

      • Meteorology can predict many things 20 years in advance. For example, it can predict how the weather in some area would change 20 years later if at that time there were fewer trees, or more dust in the air, or more CO2 worldwide.

      • IMASBA

        Right, some of your global predictions about EM society are like predicting CO2 levels, others are akin to saying people in Denmark should take an umbrella if they go outside on 24 May 2081, because you are trying to predict very specific cultural attitudes that simply cannot be predicted, so I’d say that’s a reason for some people to not believe in your detailed predictions. Of course that doesn’t tell us why many people don’t want to discuss these things at all (like you I find the subject fascinating, so I’m also disappointed few people want to discuss these things), for that your #2 is probably the better explanation.

  • Scifi is not normally actually about the stuff it talks about. Claims to serious prognostication or analysis are highly suspect and usually result in very boring text. Scifi is usually relevant to people today with today’s tech, in one way or another.

    For example, Minority Report might be seen as being about a future dystopia where crimes can be foretold. But it’s actually about reassuring people that their futures are not set in stone, that they can hope. It’s ultimately a long ego-stroke. How real or not the “tech” is is irrelevant. The philosophical implications or otherwise of actually being able to foretell crimes is not interesting and is not investigated – but the aura of philosophically investigating these things is, but no more than an TV nature documentary represents actual science or encourages even an iota of effortful thinking.

    Stories about ems usually go in a similar direction; that there is something ineffably superior about the natural human (i.e. the human that’s watching). Sometimes they end up in wish fulfillment territory as bullied people fantasize about an alternate existence – even more onanistic.

    So my explanation would be that you misunderstood the nature of the appeal of such fiction.

    • How can you mistake this for a post on science fiction?

    • oldoddjobs

      Nothing to do with the o.p

      Also, blatantly wrong about scifi

  • Robert-Robot Koslover

    Since we are very unlikely to be simulations, why ponder the problem? The hypothesis that we are simulations has, so far, not led to ANY new predictions about the universe that have been found to be true. Thus, the hypothesis violates Occam’s razor. And I really like Occam’s razor (and yes, I think you should like it too).

    That said, perhaps I’m merely trying to confuse you, to prevent the simulation’s programmers from being discovered? Well, I have a response for that accusation too, courtesy of Battlestar Galactica:

    Chief Petty Officer Tyrol: But how do you know I’m human?
    Brother Cavil: Oh, maybe because I’m a cylon and I’ve never seen you at any of the meetings.

    • Even if you aren’t interested in the subject, many others are. I’m trying to understand why they are only interested in some aspects of the subject.

      • Robert Koslover

        OK, but why are they interested in it? Sure, I enjoyed the Matrix movie too. And as a child, my friends and I often pondered the deep (to us) question of how to know whether one was the only sentient human in the world while everyone else might actually be a robot. But the simulation hypothesis seems to be just a techno-ized spin on an old idea, that the material world is simply an illusion (e.g., see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjective_idealism). Berkeley concluded from this that we should endeavor to please God (since He is delivering these illusions to us), while you conclude that we should please the programmer(s). Aside from the century, and that I think more highly of you than of Berkeley, it is not obvious to me that yours is the more logical and/or realistic investigation. Meanwhile, there exist billions of people who, rightly or wrongly, believe in one or more gods. In contrast, I wonder how many believe we are in a simulation? Of course, you might get a bit more mileage out of promoting this if you declare that the programmer is God (and if you really want to go for broke, that you are his prophet). You’d lose most of your academic audience, but you could gain a cult following if you played your cards right. It worked (perhaps far too well) for L. Ron Hubbard. Personally, I think you have a more convincing case than he did. 🙂

    • Dan Browne

      Actually there is some evidence that the universe *may* have a “preferred” direction, which is something that you might expect to see if this were in fact a simulation.

      • VV

        I hope this is not the same kind of “evidence” the IDists/creationists rant about…

      • Dan Browne
      • VV

        So, not able to actually substantiate your claim, you resort to name calling and link a blog post about an obscure fringe one-man theory which doesn’t even appear to be related to the simulation hypothesis.


  • Anonymous

    “However, I will soldier on nonetheless.”

    It seems quite possible that whatever is leading you to this behavior is also leading others to their behavior.

  • I for one would be *very* interested in a more basic text from you – “social science for tech nerds” explaining what the different social sciences are, what their different methods are, what they’re actually good/bad at explaining, understanding, and predicting (as well as what they *claim*), and clear specific recommendations on how to learn more from each field in that category.

    I mean, this looks okay but it’s long and a little expensive. (If I were pretty sure it were good I’d buy it anyway): http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0205702716/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1394806061&sr=8-1&pi=SY200_QL40

    Without that background it seems nuts for me to have any sort of opinion about speculative social science predictions, as fun as it is to hear you talk about it.

    • It isn’t obvious that a social science textbook targeted at tech nerds would be much different than a textbook for a generic audience. A textbook targeted at those with a strong math background might find a place, but even that is pretty iffy; the audience is likely too small to pay for the effort.

      • Fair enough. That was more intended as a vague gesture than a precise book proposal.

        I was thinking of the kind of person who understands at least in very general terms what quantitative methods are and why we use them, but is suspicious of the “soft” sciences. And a book might be overdoing it; probably a treatment the length of a magazine article or long blog post would get 80% of the benefit.

  • Sebastian_H

    “The higher the probability you live in a simulation, the more influence that possibility should have on your decision.”

    This is the key pivot of your second piece because the converse is also true. People believe the probability is very very low, and they act like the probability is very very low.

    It is further complicated by the fact that even if we were living in a sim, it isn’t obvious that we would be empowered to figure out what the programmers want out of the sim. So multiply the two low probabilities together and most people won’t care about the vanishingly low possibility.

    I suspect your error is in not realizing that your estimate on the probabilities is much higher than the general estimate.

    • But the probability of it being real should also diminish interest in all of the other aspects of the topic by the same proportion.

  • Matt Elder

    Perhaps another explanation:

    When I’m in the mental mood to admit that far-mode ideas have near-mode social and personal consequences, it’s harder to believe the far-mode idea. Odd things in far mode are interesting intellectual toys; odd things in near mode have social consequences, and affect what I signal, and are therefore scary. The idea actually being scary makes it harder to think about, and harder to adopt.

    When I’m instead in the mental mood to treat far-mode ideas strictly in far mode, I feel safe to consider them impersonally, in a sort of mental space detached from my usual group signals. This makes it much easier to discuss and believe the far-mode ideas, but that bubble of comfort breaks down if I seriously consider near-mode implications.

    So, I expect that being willing to connect far- and near-mode thoughts anti-correlates with the ability to believe radical far ideas, unless your in-group that takes those ideas very seriously indeed.

    • But can’t people be interested in social consequences in far mode? They wouldn’t be as focused on consequences for themselves now, true, but why not on consequences for other people later?

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    It seems like most things most people write don’t receive much attention… I wouldn’t update very much based on a particular piece of writing not garnering very much interest.

  • VV

    Have you considered the possibility that your idea didn’t receive much attention simply because they weren’t very good?

    • oldoddjobs

      What about all the terrible ideas that receive loads of attention?

  • Clinton McMurray

    I place more weight on (1) than the other explanations. Having been the lone social science guy among techies in conversations about the implications of some future tech I can attest that this attitude often prevents detailed discussion of social outcomes. Sometimes this is as explicit as “I don’t think social science can predict much at all” and sometimes more implicit with the conversation turning then too scenarios from science fiction, which at least everyone is familiar with, as a basis for further discussion. Oddly, the same group often will often find my possible explanations of social outcomes of historical (sometimes in far history) events interesting and highly plausible.

    I think there are two main reasons for this attitude. (1) These people, being intimate with the set of knowledge behind the future tech somehow, subconsciously, conflate that with ability to predict the social implications of that tech OR realise that they don’t have this ability but neither do social scientists. Afterall they don’t even understand the tech. (2) They have the newspaper version of social science, especially economics, and see these people arguing over both predictions and past events constantly, not realising that there is a whole body of knowledge and insight that are agreed upon within that social science and that the disagreements are at the margin.

  • Joshua Fox

    On the question of how the creation of ems may affect society, you stand in the middle of a continuum. Most people can only imagine a human society much like ours, with ems in a supporting role, as in *Her* (I haven’t actually seen that movie).

    Most MIRIans, among others, imagine changes so radical that society will be absolutely nothing like today — to the point that ordinary extrapolation is useless.

    When there are so many unknowns and when expected changes are as radical as you and MIRIans imagine, any small uncertainty will radically throw off any predictions.

    Your approach does have the virtue of using standard processes of direct extrapolation.

  • Michael Mouse

    I think a version of (1) applies.

    Looking at the converse, people who are very interested in social aspects of topics tend overwhelmingly to be politicians in the broad sense: they are involved in decision-making and relationships/coalitions between people. Such people are likely to be more interested in things that can materially affect their interests than more abstract topics.

    Similarly, researchers interested in society are (if they’re any good) acutely aware of the possibility of researcher bias and projection in their work, and of the difficulty in producing generalisable findings. It’s hard enough to produce descriptive work (‘how things are’) in the social sciences; predictive work (‘how things will be’) is extremely hard, and has chequered history, to be polite. Even prima facie trivial question of simply counting how many people there are – arguably the most basic quantification of humanity -turns out to be pretty tricky, and contested politically.

    This theory has a testable corollary: if ems become obviously much closer to existing, or if results emerge from work on the simulation hypothesis that have a clear, immediate impact, expect a sudden rush of interest from people who are interested in social aspects, and a huge political storm over your results.

  • Artocrat1

    Please Robin, its the name, em sucks. Its an interesting and important subject and I have read you faithfully and every time I read a blog or article I hate “em” and think why is it called this? Sex it up have a contest whatever you have to do but find a better name. Your 1994 article is good but those of us with small brains need a hook to engage.

  • Philip Goetz

    “The sorts of people who most like these topics are techies, who mostly don’t believe that social and human sciences exist, and thus aren’t interested in hearing about applications of such sciences.”

    All printed information is sorted into genres for marketing purposes. Each genre emphasizes one principle component from the space of things interesting to humans. Editors and publishers choose things to publish that excel on that one dimension, at the expense of all other dimensions. A science fiction editor will not publish a story about social implications because readers would be interested in it; he must believe readers would be more interested in it than one about tech or popular philosophy.

    Many sociological science fiction novels were published in the 1960s. You could write to some editors & ask why that happened.

    • Douglas Knight

      What specific novels are you thinking of?

  • KM

    There is no point in anyone modifying their behaviour to account for simulation without knowing the purpose of the simulation. There is no way to know the criteria by which your behaviour may be judged. With this in mind, the dangerous and supremely selfish behaviour advocated in the original article might possibly be why no one really wanted to discuss it.

    Besides, I find assuming one is the subject of the simulation rather than one of billions+ of simulated beings on possibly billions+ of simulated worlds rather arrogant.

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