Beware Upward Reference Classes

Sometimes when I see associates getting attention, I wonder, “do they really deserve more attention than me?” I less often look at those who get less attention than me, and ask whether I deserve more. Because they just don’t show up in my field of view as often; attention makes you more noticeable.

If I were to formalize my doubts, I might ask, “Among tenured econ professors, how much does luck and org politics influence who gets more funding, prestige, and attention?” And I might find many reasons to answer “lots”, and so suggest that such things be handed out more equally or randomly. Among tenured econ professors, that is. And if an economist with a lower degree, or a professor from another discipline, asked why they aren’t included in my comparison suggested redistribution, I might answer, “Oh I’m only talking about econ researchers here.”

Someone with a college econ degree might well ask if those with higher credentials like M.S., Ph.D., or a professor position really deserve the extra money, influence, and attention that they get. And if someone with only a high school degree were to ask why they aren’t included in this comparison, the econ degree person might say “oh, I’m only talking about economists here”, presuming that you can’t be considered an economists if you have no econ degree of any sort.

The pattern here is: “envy up, scorn down”. When considering fairness, we tend to define our comparison group upward, as everyone who has nearly as many qualification as we do or more, and then we ask skeptically if those in this group with more qualifications really deserve the extra gains associated with their extra qualifications. But we tend to look downward with scorn, assuming that our qualifications are essential, and thus should be baked into the definition of our reference class. That is, we prefer upward envy reference classes to justify our envying those above us, while rejecting others envying us from below.

Life on Earth has steadily increased in its abilities over time, allowing life to spread into more places and niches. We have good reasons to think that this trend may long continue, eventually allowing our descendants to spread through the universe, until they meet up with other advanced life, resulting in a universe dense with advanced life.

However, many have suggested that this view of the universe makes us today seem suspiciously early among what they see as the relevant comparison group. And thus they suggest we need a Bayesian update toward this view of the universe being less likely. But what exactly is a good comparison group? For example, if you said “We’d be very early among all creatures with access to quantum computers?”, I think we’d all get that this is not so puzzling, as the first quantum computers only appeared a few year ago.

We would also appear very early among all creatures who could knowingly ask the question “How many creatures will ever appear with feature X”, if the concept X applies to us but has only been recently introduced.  We’d also be pretty early among among all creatures who can express any question in language, if language was only invented in the last million years. It isn’t much better to talk about all creatures with self-awareness, if you say only primates and a few other animals count as having that, and they’ve only been around for a few million more years.

Thus in general in a universe where abilities improve over time, creatures that consider upward defined reference classes will tend to find themselves early. Often very early, if they insist that their class members have some very recently acquired abilities. But once you see this tendency to pick upward reference classes, the answers you get to such questions need no longer suggest updates against the hypothesis of long increasing abilities.

Furthermore, in an any universe that will eventually fill up, creatures who find themselves well before that point in time can estimate that they are very early relative to even very neutral reference classes.

It seems to me that something similar is going on when people claim that this coming century will be uniquely important, the most important one ever, as computers are the most powerful tech we have ever seen, and as the next century is plausibly when we will make most of the big choices re how to use computers.  If we generally make the most important choices about each new tech soon after finding it, and if increasingly powerful new techs keep appearing, then this sort of situation should be common, not unique, in history.

So this next century will only be the most important one (in this way) if computers are the last tech to appear that is more powerful than prior techs. But it we expect that even more important techs will continue to be found, then we shouldn’t expect this one to be the most important tech ever. No, I can’t describe these more important yet-to-be-found future techs. But I do believe they exist.

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