Will Design Escape Selection?

In the past, many people and orgs have had plans and designs, many which made noticeable differences to the details of history. But regarding most of history, our best explanations of overall trends has been in terms of competition and selection, including between organisms, species, cultures, nations, empires, towns, firms, and political factions.

However, when it comes to the future, especially hopeful futures, people tend to think more in terms of design than selection. For example, H.G. Wells was willing to rely on selection to predict a future dystopia in The Time Machine, but his utopia in Things to Come was the result of conscious planning replacing prior destructive competition. Hopeful futurists have long painted pictures of shiny designed techs, planned cities, and wise cooperative institutions of charity and governance.

Today, competition and selection continue on in many forms, including political competition for the control of governance institutions. But instead of seeing governance, law, and regulation as driven largely by competition between units of governance (e.g., parties, cities, or nations), many now prefer to see them in design terms: good people coordinating to choose how we want to live together, and to limit competition in many ways. They see competition between units of governance as largely passé, and getting more so as we establish stronger global communities and governance.

My future analysis efforts have relied mostly on competition and selection. Such as in Age of Em, post-em AI, Burning the Cosmic Commons, and Grabby Aliens. And in my predictions of long views and abstract values. Their competitive elements, and what that competition produces, are often described by others as dystopian. And the most common long-term futurist vision I come across these days is of a “singleton” artificial general intelligence (A.G.I.) for whom competition and selection become irrelevant. In that vision (of which I am skeptical), there is only one A.G.I., which has no internal conflicts, grows in power and wisdom via internal reflection and redesign, and then becomes all powerful and immortal, changing the universe to match its value vision.

Many recent historical trends (e.g., slavery, democracy, religion, fertility, leisure, war, travel, art, promiscuity) can be explained in terms of rising wealth inducing a reversion to forager values and attitudes. And I see these design-oriented attitudes toward governance and the future as part of this pro-forager trend. Foragers didn’t overtly compete with each other, but instead made important decisions by consensus, and largely by appeal to community-wide altruistic goals. The farming world forced humans to more embrace competition, and become more like our pre-human ancestors, but we were never that comfortable with it.

The designs that foragers created, however, were too small to reveal the key obstacle to this vision of civilization-wide collective design to over-rule competition: rot (see 1 2 3 4). Not only is it quite hard in practice to coordinate to overturn the natural outcomes of competition and selection, the sorts of complex structures that we are tempted to use to achieve that purpose consistently rot, and decay with time. If humanity succeeds in creating world governance strong enough to manage competition, those governance structures are likely to prevent interstellar colonization, as that strongly threatens their ability to prevent competition. And such structures would slowly rot over time, eventually dragging civilization down with them.

If competition and selection manages to continue, our descendants may become grabby aliens, and join the other gods at the end of time. In that case one of the biggest unanswered question is: what will be the key units of future selection? How will those units manage to coordinate, to the extent that they do, while still avoiding the rotting of their coordination mechanisms? And how can we now best promote the rise of the best versions of such competing units?

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