Alexander on Age of Em

If I ever have an executioner, I want him to be Scott Alexander. Alexander has such a winning way with words that I and his many fans enjoy him even when we disagree. I’d hardly notice my destination as his pleasing patter entranced me while we took the long way around to the gallows.

So I am honored that Alexander wrote a long review of Age of Em (9K words, 6% as long as the book), wherein he not only likes and recommends it, he also accepts pretty much all its claims within its main focus. That is, I present my book as being expert on the topic of what would actually happen if cheap ems were our next huge social change. Where Alexander disagrees is on two auxiliary topics, which I mention but on which I claim less expertise, namely how likely is this key scenario assumption, and how valuable is the resulting civilization I describe.

On the subject of value, Alexander leans forager (i.e., liberal) on the forager vs. farmer scale. He dislikes civilization evolving away from the behaviors and values of our forager ancestors, and today he partly blames this on capitalism. He doesn’t see our increase in numbers, comfort, and lifespan as sufficient compensation. (I think he’d like the book Against Civilization.) He says:

[Nick Land’s Ascended Economy] seems to me the natural end of the economic system. Right now it needs humans only as laborers, investors, and consumers. But robot laborers are potentially more efficient, companies based around algorithmic trading are already pushing out human investors, and most consumers already aren’t individuals – they’re companies and governments and organizations. At each step you can gain efficiency by eliminating humans, until finally humans aren’t involved anywhere. .. The Age of Em is an economy in the early stages of such a transformation. Instead of being able to replace everything with literal robots, it replaces them with humans who have had some aspects of their humanity stripped away. Biological bodies. The desire and ability to have children normally. ..

I envision a spectrum between the current world of humans and Nick Land’s Ascended Economy. Somewhere on the spectrum we have ems who get leisure time. A little further on the spectrum we have ems who don’t get leisure time. But we can go further. .. I expect [greatly reduced sex desire] would happen about ten minutes after the advent of the Age of Em .. Combine that with the stimulant use mentioned above, and you can have people who will never have nor want to have any thought about anything other than working on the precise task at which they are supposed to be working at any given time. ..

I see almost no interesting difference between an em world with full use of these tweaks and an Ascended Economy world. Yes, there are things that look vaguely human in outline laboring in the one and not the other, but it’s not like there will be different thought processes or different results. I’m not even sure what it would mean for the ems to be conscious in a world like this – they’re not doing anything interesting with the consciousness. .. If we get ems after all, I expect them to be lobotomized and drugged until they become effectively inhuman, cogs in the Ascended Economy that would no more fall in love than an automobile would eat hay and whinny.

Alexander seems to strongly endorse the usual forager value of leisure over work, so much so that he can’t see people focused on their work as human, conscious, or of any moral value. Creatures only seem valuable to him to the extent that they have sex, leisure time, minds wandering away from work, and desires to do things other than work.

This seems ironic because Scott Alexander is one of the most human and productive workers I know. He has a full time job as a psychiatrist, an especially demanding job, and in addition finds time to write frequent long careful analyses of many topics. I find it hard to see where he has that much time for leisure, and doubt he would in fact be substantially more productive overall if he took drugs to make him forget sex, mentally wander less, and focus more on his immediate tasks. He is exactly the sort of person an em economy would want many copies of, pretty much just as he is. Yet if we are to believe him, he only sees value in his brief leisure hours.

I see Alexander as having too little respect for the functionality of human behaviors and mind design. Yes, maximally competitive em-era behaviors and minds won’t be exactly like current ones. But that doesn’t necessarily mean one wants to throw out most existing behaviors and brain modules wholesale and start over from scratch. As these behaviors and modules all arose because they helped our ancestors be more competitive in some prior context, it makes more sense to try to repair, reform, and repurpose them.

For example, the robust productivity gains observed from workers who take breaks don’t seem to depend much on worker motivation. Breaks aren’t just about motivation; they are a deeply entrenched part of being productive. Similarly, wandering minds may take away from the current immediate task, but they help one to search for hidden problems and opportunities. Also, workers today who focus on just doing immediate tasks often lose out to others who attend more to building and managing social relations, as well as office politics. Love and sex can be very helpful in forming and maintaining relations.

Of course I’m not trying to offer any long term assurances, and it is quite reasonable to worry about what we will lose along with what we will gain. But since today most of the people we most respect and celebrate tend to be workaholics, I just can’t buy the claim that most of us today can’t find value in similarly productive and work-focused ems. And I just can’t see thoughtless workers being the most productive in the early em era of my book.

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