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Dreamtime Social Games

Ten years ago, I posted one of my most popular essays: “This is the Dreamtime.” In it, I argued that, because we are rich,

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Today I want to talk about dreamtime social games.

For at least a million years, our ancestors wandered the Earth in small bands of 20-50 people. These groups were so big that they ran out of food if they stayed in one place, which is why they wandered. But such groups were big and smart enough to spread individual risks well, and to be relative safe from predators.

So in good times at least, the main environment that mattered to our forager ancestors was each other. That is, they succeeded or failed mostly based on winning social games. Those who achieved higher status in their group gained more food, protection, lovers, and kids. And so, while foragers pretended that they were all equal, they actually spent much of their time and energy trying to win such status games. They tried to look impressive, to join respected alliances, to undermine rival alliances, and so on. Usually in the context of grand impractical leisure and play.

As I described recently, status is usually based on a wide range of clues regarding one’s impressiveness, and the relative weight on these clues does vary across cultures. But there are many generic clues that tend to be important in most all cultures, including strength, courage, intelligence, wit, art, loyalty, social support etc.

When an ability was important for survival in a local environment, cultural selection tended to encourage societies to put more weight on that ability in local status ratings, especially when their society felt under threat. So given famine, hunters gain status, given war warriors gain status, and when searching for a new home explorers gain status.

But when the local environment seemed less threatening, humans have tended to revert back to a more standard human social game, focused on less clearly useful abilities. And the more secure a society, and the longer it has felt secure, the more strongly it reverts. So across history the social worlds of comfortable elites have been remarkably similar. In the social worlds such as Versailles, Tales of Genji, or Google today, we see less emphasis on abilities that help win in larger harsher world, or that protect this smaller world from larger worlds, and more emphasis on complex internal politics based on beauty, wit, abstract ideas, artistic tastes, political factions, and who likes who.

That is, as people feel safer, local status metrics and social institutions drift toward emphasizing likability over effectiveness, popularity and impressiveness over useful accomplishment, and art and design over engineering. And as our world has been getting richer and safer for many centuries now, our culture has long been moving toward emphasizing such forager values and attitudes. (Though crises like wars often push us back temporarily.)

“Liberals” tend to have moved further on this path than “conservatives”, as indicated by typical jobs:

jobs that lean conservative … [are] where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. … Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them. … Jobs that lean liberal… [have] small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success … [or] people who talk well.

Also, “conservative” attitudes toward marriage have focused on raising kids and on a division of labor in production, while “liberal” attitudes have focused on sex, romance, and sharing leisure activities.

Rather than acknowledging that our status priorities change as we feel safer, humans often give lip service to valuing useful outcomes, while actually more valuing the usual social game criteria. So we pretend to go to school to learn useful class material, but we actually gain prestige while learning little that is useful. We pretend that we pick lawyers who win cases, yet don’t bother to publish track records and mainly pick lawyers based on institutional prestige. We pretend we pick doctors to improve health, but also don’t publish track records and mainly pick via institutional prestige, and don’t notice that there’s little correlation between health and medicine. We pretend to invest in hedge funds to gain higher returns, but really gain status via association with impressive fund managers, and pay via lower average returns.

I recently realized that, alas, my desire to move our institutions more toward “paying for results” is at odds with this strong social trend. Our institutions could be much more effective at getting us the things we say we want out of them, but we seem mostly content to let them be run by the usual social status games. We put high status people in change and give them a lot of discretion, as long as they give lip service to our usual practical goals. It feels to most people like a loss in collective status if they let their institutions actually focus too much on results.

A focus on results would probably result in the rise to power of less impressive looking people who manage to get more useful things done. That is what we’ve seen when firms have adopted prediction markets. At first firms hope that such markets may help them identify the best informed employees. But are are disappointed to learn that winners tend not to look socially impressive, but are more nerdy difficult inarticulate contrarians. Not the sort they actually want to promote.

Paying more for results would feel to most people like having to invite less suave and lower class engineers or apartment sups to your swanky parties because they are useful as associates. Or having to switch from dating hip hunky Tinder dudes to reliable practical guys with steady jobs. In status terms, that all feels less like admiring prestige and more like submitting to domination, which is a forager no-no. Paying for results is the sort of thing that poor practical people have to do, not rich prestigious folks like you.

Of course our society is full of social situations where practical people get enough rewards to keep them doing practical things. So that the world actually works. People sometimes try to kill such things, but then they suffer badly and learn to stop. But most folks who express interest in social reforms seem to care more about projecting their grand hopes and ideals, relative to making stuff work better. Strong emotional support for efficiency-driven reform must come from those who have deeply felt the sting of inefficiency. Perhaps regarding crime?

Ordinary human intuitions work well for playing the usual social status games. You can just rely on standard intuitions re who you like and are impressed by, and who you should say what to. In contrast, figuring out how to actually and effectively pay for results is far more complex, and depends more on the details of your world. So good solutions there are unlikely to be well described by simple slogans, and are not optimized for showing off one’s good values. Which, alas, seems another big obstacle to creating better institutions.

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Dreamtime Finance

In 1956, John Kelly introduced his “Kelly criteria” betting strategy: bet on each possible outcome in proportion to (your estimate of) that outcome’s chances of winning, regardless of the betting odds offered. More generally, a Kelly rule invests in each possible asset in proportion to its expected future payout, regardless of current asset prices. For example, if you estimate land will be worth 30% of world wealth in the distant future, you put 30% of your investments into land today, regardless of today’s land prices.

It turns out that the Kelly rule is close to the optimal long run investment plan, i.e., the one that would win an evolutionary competition. The exact best strategy would consider current prices and expected future price trajectories and carefully choose investments to max expected growth, i.e., the expected log of a distant future portfolio. But Kelly’s rule is far simpler, gets better than average growth regardless of state, time, or prices, and approaches the exact best strategy as good strategies come to dominate prices. In fact:

A stock market is evolutionary stable if and only if stocks are [price] evaluated by [Kelly rule] expected relative dividends. Any other market can be invaded in the sense that there is a portfolio rule that, when introduced on the market with arbitrarily small initial wealth, increases its market share at the incumbent’s expense. (more)

(More on evolutionary finance here, here, here, here; see especially this review.) We’ve had big financial markets for at least a century. Has that been long enough for near-optimal strategies to dominate? Not remotely. John Cochrane explains just how bad things are:

We thought returns were uncorrelated over time, so variation in price-dividend ratios was due to variation in expected cash flows. Now it seems all price-dividend variation corresponds to discount-rate variation. We thought that the cross-section of expected returns came from the CAPM. Now we have a zoo of new factors. … For stocks, bonds, credit spreads, foreign exchange, sovereign debt and houses, a yield or valuation ratio translates one-for-one to expected excess returns, and does not forecast the cash flow or price change we may have expected. In each case our view of the facts have changed 100% since the 1970s. …

All of these facts and theories are really about discount rates … and risk premiums. None are fundamentally about slow or imperfect diffusion of cash-flow information, i.e. informational “inefficiency.” Informational efficiency isn’t wrong or disproved. Efficiency basically won, and we moved on. When we see information, it is quickly incorporated in asset prices. … Informational efficiency is much easier for markets and models to obtain than wide risk sharing or desegmentation, which is perhaps why it holds more broadly. (more)

Got that? Finance prices today do a great job of aggregating info – relative prices between similar assets are great predictors of relative payouts. But when it comes to broad price aggregates, such as stocks in general or land in general, price changes basically reflect crazily-changing values. While in markets dominated by near-optimal traders, prices would only change when expected future payouts changed, in fact aggregate prices changes have almost no relation to matching future payouts changes. For example, land prices change plenty (as in the recent real estate bubble), but aggregate land price changes say almost nothing about future land rents.

I’ve talked before about how our era is a rare extreme “dreamtime,” with fast change and behavior quite out of equilibrium with evolutionary selection pressures. We not only have dreamtime fertility, i.e., far fewer kids per couple than selection would favor, we also have crazy-price dreamtime finance. This allows a relatively clear prediction of the future: finance will eventually “equilibrate.” Either the world will coordinate to block the creation of investment funds following near Kelly rules that reinvest most gains, or financial prices will eventually come to be dominated by such near-Kelly funds.

Once dominated by near-Kelly funds, finance prices will no longer suffer huge crazy booms and busts, like the recent dotcom boom or real-estate crash. Furthermore, interest rates should fall dramatically — future returns will no longer be discounted intrinsically, but only for opportunity cost reasons.

Apparently many funds today do now follow near Kelly rules:

The claim has been made that well-known successful investors including Warren Buffett and Bill Gross use Kelly methods. (more)

So the main barrier seems to be fund ability and inclination to reinvest most gains. As I wrote a year ago:

Many folks would be willing to create trusts that accumulated funds long after their death and then paid distant descendants (perhaps indirectly) to do things like remember their ancestor’s name, pray to his gods, etc. Unless stolen, such funds would eventually come to dominate the world economy and dramatically lower interest rates. With lower interest rates … businesses and governments would have far stronger incentives to attend to the interests of distant future folks, such as via global warming policies. But we in fact refuse to enforce a great many such long term deals. (more)

In a large decentralized world, however, I doubt this barrier will stand. Nor can I see why it should. I for one welcome our new financial overlords. Seriously.

I wonder if anyone could estimate how long it should take Buffett/Gross size Kelly funds to dominate finance prices. More Kelly rule details from that review: Continue reading "Dreamtime Finance" »

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DreamTime

The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. …

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. …

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. …

Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.  First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn’t include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you. (more)

Yes modern stories and art are more enticing than were those of our distant forager ancestors.  But their stories and art also occupied much of their time, especially when food was plentiful.  It seems rather implausible that this was only because “imagination … hijack[s] mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure.”  Surely our foragers would have evolved a resistance to such imagination, if it in fact wasted valuable time.  I’m pretty confident that since foragers had stories and art, then stories and art must have served, and still serve, important functions.

Modern humans often prefer to believe that the activities which they most treasure have no evolutionary function – that they were accidents.  This attitude helps them stay blind to those functions, awareness of which would make their treasured activities seem less noble.

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Dreamtime Drama

After a record two feet of snow this weekend, my area (DC) has another 5-9 inches coming tomorrow.  My street hasn’t been plowed, and likely won’t be until next week.  So this might seem one of those “stories to tell your grandkids.”  Except, well, we have water, power, heat, tv, internet, plenty of food, and no more than the usual work to do.  Not exactly a disaster story for the ages.

This is of course one of the prices we pay for being dreamtime richies – stories about our suffering just aren’t going to elicit much sympathy from our distant descendants.  We can hardly get worked up about them ourselves.  The far future may, however, be fascinated to gawk at our freaky facades, ginormous growth, strange scenarios, and bizarre beliefs.  We are history’s circus; which circus wonder are you?

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Two Faces of Dreamtime

In the US:

moremystic

In China:

More than 30 years after China’s one-child policy was introduced, creating two generations of notoriously chubby, spoiled only children affectionately nicknamed “little emperors,” a population crisis is looming. … The average birthrate has plummeted to 1.8 children per couple. …  The imbalance is worse in wealthy coastal cities with highly educated populations, such as Shanghai. Last year, … [its] birthrate was less than one child per couple. …

Officials have gradually softened their stance on the one-child policy. … In July, Shanghai became the first Chinese city to launch an aggressive campaign to encourage more births, … [but its] more urban districts report no change. …

Financial considerations are probably the main reason. … “We were at the center of our families and used to everyone taking care of us. We are not used to taking care of and don’t really want to take care of others.” … It’s about being successful enough to be selfish. … “A mother has to give up at least two years of her social life. … You have to remodel your apartment … You have to have a résumé ready by the time the child is 9 months old for the best preschools.” Most of his friends are willing to deal with this once, Chen said, but not twice.

Try to see such events via the eyes of our distant descendants in a few centuries or millennia, with a vast powerful civilization of folks who, like our distant ancestors, are happy but poor, achieving personal goals via behaviors well adapted to a larger civilization’s preservation and growth.  They will truly marvel at our dreamtime, when folks were so individually rich and self-indulgent that they mainly believed whatever it seemed pleasant to believe, and did whatever it seemed pleasant to do.  Compared to our descendants:

Our lives [today] are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.

Added: Since 1990, US folks who have felt in touch with dead folks is up 17 to 29%, and those who have been in the presence of a ghost is up 9 to 18%.

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Why Are We Weird?

The following has long been a useful heuristic: if your usual theory says that something important looks like a big outlier, seek another theory where it isn’t. For example, when some physics calculations suggested that most brains like ours in the history of the universe would be random fluctuation “Boltzman brains” in the distant future, many took that as suggesting that those calculations were wrong. Which it seems that they in fact were. Many now feel similarly about eternal inflation calculations suggesting we are very late in our inflation bubble’s lifetime compared to the average space-time volume.

This heuristic gives us doubts about theories which say that we today are weird compared to all the other “we”s that we could have been. For example, if the history of the universe so far is representative of its future, and if each of us could counterfactually have been any lump of matter in the universe, or even any small volume, then we should be very surprised to find ourselves among the very rare sentient creatures. And even if we think we could only have been sentient creatures, we should still be pretty surprised (even if less surprised) to find ourselves among the few most complex conscious creatures that have ever been on our planet.

Yes, we have clear evidence that we are not dead lumps of matter, nor simpler creatures, but even so we can be surprised to see such evidence. Yes, only creatures as smart as we are with language could even ask such questions via language. But that needn’t stop our surprise. Is there alternate theory that makes these less surprising?

What if we don’t take the past of the universe to be representative of its future? For example, our grabby aliens model predicts that the universe will fill up within a few billion years and then be densely and efficiently populated with artificial life, much of it intelligent and sentient. If we include all that among the creatures that we could have been, then we should be surprised to find ourselves so early in the history of the universe, out of all those future sentient creatures.

Now there must be some average number of future descendants per alien civilization that would make us today more typical, sitting midway between all those sentient animals in our past, and all that future artificial life before our civilization ends. But there’s no particular good reason to expect civilizations to have anything near that average number of future descendants. And even then we’d be unusual in living in a rare short special dreamtime between those vast pasts and futures.

I don’t really have any answer to offer here. This situation puts me on the lookout for a plausible theory that would make us less weird, but so far I don’t see one. Seems we are in fact weird. You might think this would make us more sympathetic to the more weird among us, but no.

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We Moderns Are Status-Drunk

Twelve years ago I posted on how our era is a rare unique “dreamtime” of fast growth, wide cultural integration, and delusional beliefs. But I think I missed a big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. Let me explain.

The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that evolution shaped our behaviors to be adaptive in our ancestral environments. That is, we do stuff that gives us more descendants. But because our ancestors only experienced a limited range of environments, we only evolved behavior rules sufficient to induce adaptive behavior in those actual environments. This made our behavior indeterminate in the other new environments which humans have experienced since then. So a re-run of the process of evolution could easily lead to different behaviors in these new environments. That is, human behavior today results not just from adaptation to ancestral environments, but also from the many random ways that evolution happened to encode our behavior in rules.

For example, our ancestors needed to drink water to avoid dehydration, but because in their environments water always had the same combination of water smell and water feel, we could have evolved either to check that stuff is water by its smell, or by its feel. If those two water features always go together, and if both methods are just as easy, then this difference won’t make much difference to behavior. We find water, check that it is water, and drink it. But if later we encountered stuff that had water smell but not water feel, or water feel but not water smell, then these two different ways to detect water might lead to very different behaviors. For example, water-smell humans might drink stuff that smells but doesn’t feel like water, while water-feel humans would not drink such stuff.

In this post, I want to suggest that much of the “modern” human style which has arisen since the industrial revolution results from a particular way that evolution happened to encode human detection of relative status. This has made human history go surprisingly well in some ways, and surprisngly badly in others. Had evolution happened to have coded our status detection machinery differently, these last few centuries might have played out very differently. And perhaps they did, in alien histories. But before we get into that, let us first see how our status detection methods have shaped the modern human style. Continue reading "We Moderns Are Status-Drunk" »

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UFO Stylized Social Facts

Even though many or even most UFO sightings are best explained as delusions, hoaxes, and ordinary stuff misunderstood, there appears to be a large remnant (>1000) that are much harder to explain, and which show consistent patterns. Such as ~30-1000 second episodes peaking near ~9pm (tied to local sideral time), at random spatial locations, of quiet lights or objects in the sky with intelligent purposes and amazing speeds and accelerations. Sometimes confirmed by many people and recorded by many instruments.

If they aren’t delusions, hoaxes, or misunderstandings, the main remaining explanations are a) some sort of secret society or agency that arose on and is tied to Earth, or b) some sort of aliens. I’m not saying its aliens, but in this post, it’s aliens. That is, here I want to “go there”, and think about how best to explain UFOs, if they are in fact aliens.

Many have worked on trying to explain UFOs in terms of their immediate physical effects. I kinda like “laser pointers for cats” style theories wherein aliens in orbit send beams to paint a local disturbance, while using telescopes to watch local reactions. But these details aren’t that important for whether we believe that UFOs are aliens, as aliens would almost surely be a lot more advanced than us, and so plausibly capable of a wide range of such approaches.

No, it seems obvious to me that the main reason that most resist believing that UFOs are aliens (or secret societies for that matter) is the apparent implausibility of the social thesis. We find it hard to integrate this hypothesis with the rest of our social world views. That is, with our views on what agents can exist, how they are socially organized, and the sorts of behaviors that we expect of social agents within particular kinds of organizations. If aliens are around, why haven’t they made more direct contact, or built more obvious stuff, or traded with us, or conquered or killed us?

If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. As I’m such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens. And if we can’t, we can at least confirm more expertly that the usual reluctance is justified; the social theories you’d have to invoke are so crazy unlikely that yeah, we gotta attribute UFOs to delusions, hoaxes, and misunderstandings, no matter what our eyes and instruments seem to say.

In social science, we often prepare for theorizing about a topic by first summarizing its “stylized facts”. These are key data patterns in need of explanation, phrased in language that is closer to theory. In this post, I will attempt this “stylized fact” exercise for UFOs-as-aliens. In my next post I’ll take my shot at explaining them. Here are three key stylized facts:


1. LIMITATION – The very idea that UFOs are aliens, rather than a secret society on Earth, implies either a completely independent origin from us, or that any common ancestor was long ago. (~100Myr+.) So unless aliens civilizations are very short-lived, then any modest randomness in the timing along either evolutionary path implies that one of us reached our current level of civilization millions of years before the other. And since we just got here, it must be they who reached our level millions of years ago.

(Note that having a civilization last for many millions of years is itself quite an achievement. Which raises obvious questions: what sort of genetic, cultural, organizational, etc. changes were required to achieve that, and at what cost came such longevity?)

If UFOs on Earth are aliens from elsewhere, then there are in fact aliens out there, who can and do travel between the stars. Because here they are, aliens who have actually traveled between the stars. So right off the bat we must reject theories that say that such travel is impossible or crazy impractical. Or that some motivational convergence ensures that advanced life almost never does actually travel.

Now put these two facts together: they’ve been around for many millions of years, and they can and do travel between the stars. With so many millions of years and this same tech they used to get here, they could have gone everywhere. The big dramatic implication: they could have remade the universe, or at least a big chunk including our galaxy, but have not done so. Somehow they have self-limited their expansion.

(Note that in addition to limiting their expansion, aliens behind UFOS also seem to have limited their tech; UFO tech seems advanced, but not 100Myr+ level advanced.)

Now one possibility that I want to note, and set aside, is that the universe is in fact chock full of aliens who have in fact remade it, but that we are fooled to see otherwise by crazy advanced tech wielded by a vast tightly-coordinated alien conspiracy based on arbitrary inscrutable motives. Like theories of powerful intrusive gods and simulation managers with arbitrary inscrutable motives, it is not that such theories are impossible, but that they offer little room for structured analysis. I see little to gain from discussing them.

Stylized fact #1: UFO aliens are very old, and could have remade universe, but some self-limit stops them.


2. CORRELATION – This failure to remake the universe gets more puzzling the more common are aliens in space and time. If UFOs-as-aliens are as thick on all planets at all times as they are here and now, then there must be a crazy huge number of well-hidden alien facilities out there where UFO equipment is made, repaired, refueled, staffed, etc. All strongly limited to ensure that it never remakes its local universe.

Worse, there have been literally an astronomical number of opportunities for any one deviant alien to start to remake its local universe. If a deviation could last long enough, to acquire enough local resources and power, other aliens would have a hard time shutting it down without also acquiring similar levels of local resources, and thus also remaking their local universe. Even if some sort of local conformity pressure tends to stop most deviations, that pressure has to be crazy extreme reliable to work everywhere always in a vast densely populated universe.

The simplest way to resolve this puzzle is to posit that aliens are in fact pretty rare, and that they coordinate to preserve that rarity. After all, the fewer are the possible alien travel events, the higher of a deviant event chance that we can tolerate in our theory of their behavior.

(If aliens are very short-lived, then there have to be even huger numbers of them for one to be here now, requiring an even more crazily-low chance of any of them allowing any deviations.)

Besides perhaps interstellar travel being impractical, advanced life arising very extremely rarely is the simple story most of us most start out with to explain our empty universe. And even if one must postulate that aliens are only extremely rare, not very extremely rare, to explain humanity’s early arrival in the universe, that still means aliens are so rare that we won’t meet them for roughly a billion years.

But for aliens that rare we have a different problem: why are they right here right now, but almost nowhere else? Something has caused a huge correlation between them and us, so that even though aliens are rare enough for their facilities to stay hidden, and even though they have created local pressures to ensure that they only rarely travel or have opportunities to try to remake the universe, they’ve made an exception for traveling to be with us here now.

The rarer are such aliens, the more time they’d need to get here from where they started. So either they’ve been around for a very long time, and decided to come here based on what Earth looked like a very long time ago, or they happened to start very close to us, a remarkable spatial coincidence in need of explanation.

Stylized fact #2: UFO aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.


3. INDIRECTION –  We can think of a number of plausible practical motives for rare self-limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are explicit and intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.

In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And note the big the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. A third possible motive that can explain this is that the origins of independent aliens like us are a rare valuable datapoint to them on far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer, and then maybe destroy us later.

Note that all of these motive theories suggest a substantial ability of these aliens to organize and plan actions on the basis of such abstract, collective, and long-term considerations. A very decentralized alien society might not be capable of it, nor perhaps of maintaining whatever pressures prevent their own travel and remaking the universe.

The most striking fact about UFO encounter events is how little they seem to accomplish, not for any of these goals, nor for any other easily identifiable practical goals. Advanced aliens could surely monitor us sufficiently from a distance unseen, and to control us via commands or threats would require much more direct contact. These UFO events don’t seem to much help them collect useful info or resources, nor do they much limit or expand our info, powers, or resources. Yes, they show some of us that the universe can look weird, but surely they know that we know that fact regardless.

Now we humans are widely known to often act on indirect motives, not tied very closely to simple direct practical outcomes. Many animals “play.” Human ancestors who did things for “symbolic” reasons are often seen as especially “advanced”. People today often have “obsessions” that make them spend far more on some things than simple practical ends can explain. Lazy secure organizations are at times quite “wasteful”, doing things that pretend to achieve practical ends, but in fact achieve them at best quite ineffectively. And I’ve recently coauthored a book on how common are hidden motives in humans today; many things we do just don’t much accomplish the goals to which we give lip service, like learning at schools, and healing at hospitals.

So it isn’t crazy to think that aliens might have indirect obsessive lazy motives for UFO encounters, motives hidden perhaps even from themselves. But this case, of overcoming the usual coordinated limits to take eons to fly to a distant star just to glow-buzz their treetops, seems spectacularly extravagant even by the standards of dreamtime humans today.

For this to happen, aliens need a sufficient level of “slack” resources available to spend on such symbolic activities. And even with hidden motives and lazy organizations, we humans usually at least make up vague stories about practical ends served by our actions, even when such stories don’t stand up to close scrutiny. So a decent theory of aliens should explain their level of slack, and suggest some ideas for what stories aliens are telling themselves about the ends they accomplish via UFO encounters. And why they haven’t just destroyed us.

Stylized fact #3: Alien-driven UFO encounters accomplish little, yet must somehow be justified to them. 


And those are the key stylized facts that a social theory of aliens must explain. Again, it is the lack of seeing a sufficiently plausible explanation of such facts that is why most are reluctant to believe in UFOs-as-aliens. (Yes, many are not so reluctant, but mostly because they don’t understand enough to be puzzled.)

Added 31Mar: My explanation attempt is here.

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Mormon Transhumanists

A standard trope of science fiction has religious groups using violence to stop a new technology. Perhaps because of this, many are surprised by the existence of religious transhumanists. Saturday I gave a keynote talk on Age of Em at the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) annual conference, and had a chance to study such folks in more detail. And I should say right off the top that this MTA audience, compared to other audiences, had notably fewer morality or religious related objections to my em scenario.

I’m not surprised by the existence of religious tech futurists. Overall, the major world religions have been quite successful in adapting to the many social changes since most of them first appeared many millennia ago. Also, the main predictor of interest in tech futurism and science fiction is an interest in science and technology, and religious folks are not underrepresented there. Even so, you might ask what your favorite theories of religion predict about how MTA folk would differ from other transhumanists.

The most obvious difference I saw is that MTA does community very well, with good organization, little shirking, and lots of polite, respectful, and friendly interaction. This makes sense. Mormons in general have strong community norms, and one of the main functions of religion is to build strong communities. Mormonism is a relatively high commitment religion, and those tend to promote stronger bonds.

Though I did not anticipate it, a predictable consequence of this is that MTA is more of a transhuman take on Mormonism than a Mormon take on transhumanism. On reflection, this reveals an interesting way that long-lived groups with dogmas retain and co-op smart intellectuals. Let me explain.

One standard sales technique is to try to get your mark to spend lots of time considering your product. This is a reason why salespeople often seem so slow and chatty. The more time you spend considering their product, the longer that you will estimate it will take to consider other products, and the more likely you are to quit searching and take their product.

Similarly, religions often expose children to a mass of details, as in religious stories. Smart children can be especially engaged by these details because they like to show off their ability to remember and understand detail. Later on, such people can show off their ability to interpret these details in many ways, and to identify awkward and conflicting elements.

Even if the conflicts they find are so severe as to reasonably call into question the entire thing, by that time such people have invested so much in learning details of their religion that they’d lose a lot of ability to show off if they just left and never talked about it again. Some become vocally against their old religion, which lets them keep talking and showing off about it. But even in opposition, they are still then mostly defined by that religion.

I didn’t meet any MTA who took Mormon claims on miraculous historical events literally. They seemed well informed on science and tech and willing to apply typical engineering and science standards to such things. Even so, MTA folks are so focused on their own Mormon world that they tend to be less interested in asking how Mormons could anticipate and prepare for future changes, and more interested in how future/sci/tech themes could reframe and interpret key Mormon theological debates and claims. In practice their strong desire to remain Mormons in good standing means that they mostly accept practical church authority, including the many ways that the church hides the awkward and conflicting elements of its religions stories and dogma.

For example, MTA folks exploring a “new god argument” seek scenarios wherein we might live in a simulation that resonate with Mormon claims of a universe full of life and gods. While these folks aren’t indifferent to the relative plausibility of hypotheses, this sort of exercise is quite different from just asking what sort of simulations would be most likely if we in fact did live in a simulation.

I’ve said that we today live in an unprecedented dreamtime of unadaptive behavior, a dream from which some will eventually awake. Religious folks in general tend to be better positioned to awake sooner, as they have stronger communities, more self-control, and higher fertility. But even if the trope applies far more in fiction than in reality, it remains possible that Mormon religious orthodoxy could interfere with Mormons adapting to the future.

MTA could help to deal with such problems by becoming trusted guides to the future for other Mormons. To fill that role, they would of course need to show enough interest in Mormon theology to convince the others that they are good Mormons. But they would also need to pay more attention to just studying the future regardless of its relevance to Mormon theology. Look at what is possible, what is likely, and the consequences of various actions. For their sakes, I hope that they can make this adjustment.

By the way, we can talk similarly about libertarians who focus on criticizing government regulation and redistribution. The more one studies the details of government actions, showing off via knowing more such detail, then even if one mostly criticizes such actions, still one’s thinking becomes mostly defined by government. To avoid this outcome, focus more on thinking about what non-government organizations should do and how. It isn’t enough to say “without government, the market will do it.” Become part of a market that does things.

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Oxford To Publish The Age Of Em

Eighteen months ago I asked here for readers to criticize my Em Econ book draft, then 62K words. (137 of you sent comments – thanks!) Today I announce that Oxford University Press will publish its descendant (now 212K words) in Spring 2016. Tentative title, summary, outline:

The Age Of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule The Earth

Author Robin Hanson takes an oft-mentioned disruptive future tech, brain emulations, and expertly analyzes its social consequences in unprecedented breadth and detail. His book is intended to prove: we can foresee our social future, not just by projecting trends, but also by analyzing the detailed social consequences of particular disruptive future technologies.

I. Basics
1. Start: Contents, Preface, Introduction, Summary
2. Modes: Precedents, Factors, Dreamtime, Limits
3. Mechanics: Emulations, Opacity, Hardware, Security
II. Physics
4. Scales: Time, Space, Reversing
5. Infrastructure: Climate, Cooling, Buildings
6. Existence: Virtuality, Views, Fakery, Copying, Darkness
7. Farewells: Fragility, Retirement, Death
III. Economics
8. Labor: Wages, Selection, Enough
9. Efficiency: Competition, Eliteness, Spurs, Power
10. Business: Institutions, Growth, Finance, Manufacturing
11. Lifecycle: Careers, Age, Preparation, Training
IV. Organization
12. Clumping: Cities, Speeds, Transport
13. Extremes: Software, Inequality, War
14. Groups: Clans, Nepotism, Firms, Teams
15. Conflict: Governance, Law, Innovation
V. Sociology
16. Connection: Mating, Signaling, Identity, Ritual
17. Collaboration: Conversation, Synchronization, Coalitions
18. Society: Profanity, Divisions, Culture, Stories
19. Minds: Humans, Unhumans, Intelligence, Psychology
VI. Implications
20. Variations: Trends, Alternatives, Transition, Aliens
21. Choices: Evaluation, Policy, Charity, Success
22. Finale: Critics, Conclusion, References, Thanks
23. Appendix: Motivation, Method, Biases

Added Sept2015: The book now has a website.

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