Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Why Not Clearer Legitimacy?

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime, … a system of government, … without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. … Unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite. …

In moral philosophy, the term legitimacy is often positively interpreted as the normative status conferred by a governed people upon their governors’ institutions, offices, and actions, based upon the belief that their government’s actions are appropriate uses of power by a legally constituted government. (More)

Legitimacy is a common belief among the governed that they prefer their current system of government to possible alternatives. This is widely seen as a good thing, and in its absence many say that violent revolt or foreign influence is justified. So you might think that regimes would be eager to show their legitimacy to those they govern, and to the world.

Now the absence of a recent violent revolt is evidence for some degree of legitimacy. But let us define the degree of legitimacy of a regime as the cost that its governed would be willing to pay to keep that regime from changing. In this case, the absence of recent revolt only places a rather low and negative lower bound on the degree of legitimacy. So you might think regimes would be eager to show much higher degrees of legitimacy. Perhaps even positive degrees.

A second way to show legitimacy is to offer an official way to change the system. Many regimes have a constitution that can in principle be changed if enough people lobby hard and long enough to trigger the various official acts required by that constitution to effect change. But while this sets a higher (negative) lower bound than does the absence of revolt, honestly it isn’t usually that much higher. The governed could still strongly prefer an alternative system of government, and yet not care enough to coordinate to sufficiently push the usual constitutional process.

A third way to show legitimacy is to advertise the results of polls of the governed on the topic. But not only are such polls almost never done, observers can reasonably question their neutrality and relevance. Who is trusted to do them, and how well do citizen responses to random questions on the subject out of the blue indicate what they’d say if they thought about the topic more?

Regular referenda seem like a more informative approach. Hold elections at standard intervals wherein the governed is asked to endorse either the status quo or change. (In the system, not the people.) In this case, discussion leading up to the election could induce more thought, and give change advocates a better chance to make their case and persuade voters.

Voters might be asked to pick one of several directions of change, or they might just initiate a process that will soon generate more concrete alternatives and then offer them to the electorate. I’m sure that a lot could be said about the best way to run such referenda, but for today my focus is on the fact that almost no regimes ever hold such referenda. Not even bad ones intended to prevent regime change and produce the appearance of more legitimacy than actually exists.

Regimes the world over give lip service to the idea of regime legitimacy, saying both that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy, and claiming that they in particular have high legitimacy. Yet in fact the most that regimes usually do is to include in their constitutions very slow difficult processes for regime change, processes that are rarely ever actually invoked. Regimes point to that plus the lack of recent revolts as sufficient evidence of their legitimacy. They do not institute regular legitimacy referenda.

Of course most ordinary people are not very upset about this fact. If they were to demand such referenda, then politicians might run on platforms which support them, and they might happen. Yet if asked these same ordinary people would also probably claim that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy. Especially their own. It seems that both the governed and their governors pretend to care more about legitimacy than they do.

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Our Hidden Motive To Submit

Dominance and submission are deeply embedded in animal and primate psychology, yet foragers had a strong norm against both, though they embraced the somewhat similar concept prestige. And we humans today retain this forager norm. So dominance and submission are obvious hidden motives to expect in human behavior, often under the cover of prestige. Over the years, I’ve noticed many behaviors that may be best explained by such hidden motives:

Why are we so terrified of, and bad at, public speaking? … I suspect that for our distant ancestors, it was dangerous to do well on an important mental task in front of a large group, if your performance could be clearly compared to other members. Doing so in a calm confident manner was likely considered a bid for high status. If you did not have the abilities and allies to make good on that bid, you might get squashed by others resisting your bid. So it was often more important to show a submissive low-status attitude than to do well on such things. (More)

A key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees. (More)

If humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former. … Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. … Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions. …. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained. When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. (More)

In addition, many people better informed than I about such things say that dominance and submission are big but usually-denied parts of sexual attraction.

The most obvious place where we say we disapprove of domination and submission is in politics. Everyone has heard that in the bad old days everyone should have been ashamed to have kings, but in the good todays we have democracy, where we the public now runs the show. Now of course in those old day it was other nations who were said to have tyrants, while our king was good to us, and far from a tyrant. Even today most people say other politicians are bad people, but theirs are okay. And in our world today a great many areas of life are basically run by people who are very secure, hard to displace, and thus not very accountable.

Even after knowing all of the above, I was surprised by the following poll results on preferences for kings versus democracy:

In addition, I asked what should be the default choice when we don’t know what to do. Here are the results, sorted by % favor ruler:

When you ask in general (eg re default), people pick voting three times as often as rulers, but if you ask about specific areas, there is apparently nearly as much support for rulers as for democracy! We see this in the average response percentages (22% vs. 26%) , as well as in the number of choices where a plurality favors each approach (3 vs. 4). And this is in poll responses; I’ll bet that in actual practice people are even more accepting of rulers.

Note that, as indicated by this poll, respondents are most willing to accept rulers on technical topics. Perhaps because my followers tend to be technical, and imagine that they’d be a ruler. Maybe this suggests we are more willing to accept political rulers from technical backgrounds, such as is common in China.

We pretend to disapprove of dominance, but we lie.

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Abstract Views Are Coming

Two years ago I predicted that the future will eventually take a long view:

If competition continues for long enough, eventually our world should contain units that do care about the distant future, and are capable of planning effectively over long timescales. And eventually these units should have enough of a competitive advantage to dominate. … The future not being neglected seems such a wonderfully good outcome that I’m tempted to call the “Long View Day” when this starts one of the most important future dates.

Today I predict that the future will also eventually take a more abstract view, also to its benefit. Let me explain.

Recently I posted on how while we don’t have a world government today, we do now have a close substitute: a strong culture of oft-talking world elites, that can and does successfully pressure authorities everywhere to adopt their consensus regulation opinions. This is much like how in forager bands, the prestigious would gossip to form a consensus plan, which everyone would follow.

This “world forager elite”, as I called them, includes experts, but often overrules them in their areas of expertise. And on the many topics for which this elite doesn’t bother to form a consensus, other institutions and powers are allowed to made key decisions.

The quality of their judgements depends on how able and knowledgeable is this global elite, and on how long and carefully they deliberate on each topic. And these parameters are in turn influenced by the types of topics on which they choose to have opinions, and on how thinly they spread themselves across the many topics they consider.

And this is where abstraction has great potential. For example, in order of increasing generality these elites could form opinions on the particular kinds of straws offered in a particular London restaurant, or on plastic straws in general at all restaurants, or on all kinds of straws used everywhere, on how to set taxes and subsidies for plastic and paper for all food use, or on how to set policy on all plastic and paper taxes and subsidies.

The higher they go up this abstraction ladder, they more that elites can economize on their efforts, to deal with many issues all at once. Yes, it can take more work to reason more abstractly, and there can be more ways to go wrong. And it often helps to first think about concrete examples, and then try to generalize to more abstract conclusions. But abstraction also helps to avoid biases that push us toward arbitrarily treat fundamentally similar things differently. And abstraction can better encompass indirect effects often neglected by concrete analysis. It is certainly my long experience as a social scientist and intellectual that abstraction often pays huge dividends.

So why don’t elites reason more abstractly now? Because they are mostly amateurs who do not understand most topics well enough to abstract them. And because they tend to focus on topics with strong moral colors, for which there is often an expectation of “automatic norms”, wherein we are just supposed to intuit norms without too much explicit analysis.

In the future, I expect us to have smarter better-trained better-selected elites (such as ems), who thus know more basics of more different fields, and are more able to reason abstractly about them. This has been the long term historical trend. Instead of thinking concrete issues through for themselves, and then overruling experts when they disagree, elites are more likely to focus on how manage experts and give them better incentives, so they can instead trust expert judgements. This should produce better judgements about what to regulate how, and what to leave alone how.

The future will take longer, and more abstract, views. And thus make more sensible decisions. Finally.

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How To Pick A Quack: Theory

A few weeks ago I posted on the 25 most common types of clues mentioned in “How to pick an X” web guides for these 18 types of experts (sorted by ave # clue types per guide):

Lawyer, Private Eye, Therapist, Accountant, Chiropractor, Auto Repair, Doctor, Music Teacher, College, Dentist, Financial Advisor, Interior Decorator, Astrologer, Hedge Fund, Pastor, Charity, Health Plan, Fortune Teller

I said:

Guides do not often mention outcome-related clues, presumably as few customers attend to them. In general, we can’t tell if a type of expert X is a “quack”, where “better” versions don’t help customers much more with outcomes, by the kind of clues people use to pick X. Maybe most people can’t tell the difference.

Let me elaborate here, and describe what sort of expert incentives are produced by customers using each type of clue. (Next to each clue is the % of guides mentioning that clue.) A key question to keep in mind is how, if at all, use of that clue plays out differently if this type of expert is a “quack” who provides no more customer value than reassuring customers that they cared for, are high status, and are doing what most people think is what you are supposed to do for their problem. Continue reading "How To Pick A Quack: Theory" »

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The World Forager Elite

My last post was on Where’s My Flying Car?, which argues that changing US attitudes created a tsunami of reluctance and regulation that killed nuclear power, planes, and ate the future that could have been. This explanation, however, has a problem: if there are many dozens of nations, how can regulation in one nation kill a tech? Why would regulatory choices be so strongly correlated across nations? If nations compete, won’t one nation forgoing a tech advantage make others all the more eager to try it?

Now as nuclear power tech is close to nuclear weapon tech, maybe major powers exerted strong pressures re how others pursued nuclear power. Also, those techs are high and require large scales, limiting how many nations could feasibly do them differently.

But we also see high global correlation for many other kinds of regulation. For example, as Hazlett explains, the US started out with a reasonable property approach to spectrum, but then Hoover broke that on purpose, to create a problem he could solve via nationalization, thereby gaining political power that helped him become U.S. president. Pretty much all other nations then copied this bad US approach, instead of the better prior property approach, and kept doing so for many decades.

The world has mostly copied bad US approaches to over-regulating planes as well. We also see regulatory convergence in topics like human cloning; many had speculated that China would be defy the consensus elsewhere against it, but that turned out not to be true. Public prediction markets on interesting topics seems to be blocked by regulations almost everywhere, and insider trading laws are most everywhere an obstacle to internal corporate markets.

Back in February we saw a dramatic example of world regulatory coordination. Around the world public health authorities were talking about treating this virus like they had treated all the others in the last few decades. But then world elites talked a lot, and suddenly they all agreed that this virus must be treated differently, such as with lockdowns and masks. Most public health authorities quickly caved, and then most of the world adopted the same policies. Contrarian alternatives like variolation, challenge trials, and cheap fast lower-reliability tests have also been rejected everywhere; small experiments have not even been allowed.

One possible explanation for all this convergence is that regulators are just following what is obviously the best policy. But if you dig into the details you will quickly see that the usual policies are not at all obviously right. Often, they seem obviously wrong. And having all the regulatory bodies suddenly change at once, even when no new strong evidence appeared, seems especially telling.

It seems to me that we instead have a strong world culture of regulators, driven by a stronger world culture of elites. Elites all over the world talk, and then form a consensus, and then authorities everywhere are pressured into following that consensus. Regulators most everywhere are quite reluctant to deviate from what most other regulators are doing; they’ll be blamed far more for failures if they deviate. If elites talk some more, and change their consensus, then authorities must then change their polices. On topic X, the usual experts on X are part of that conversation, but often elites overrule them, or choose contrarians from among them, and insist on something other than what most X experts recommend.

This looks a lot like the ancient forager system of conflict resolution within bands. Forager bands would gossip about a problem, come to a consensus about what to do, and then everyone would just do that. Because each one would lose status if they didn’t. In this system, there were no formal rules, and on the surface everyone had an equal say, though in fact some people had a lot more prestige and thus a lot more influence.

This world system also looks new – I doubt this description applied as well to the world centuries or millennia ago, even within smaller regions. So this looks like another way in which our world has become more forager-like over the last few centuries, as we’ve felt more rich and safe. Big world wars probably cut into this feeling, so there was probably a big jump in the few decades after WWII, helping to explain the big change in attitudes ~1970.

Elites like to talk about this system as if it were “democratic”, so that any faction that opposes it “undermines democracy”. And it is true that this system isn’t run by a central command structure. But it is also far from egalitarian. It embodies a huge inequality of influence, even if individuals within it claim that they are mainly driven by trying to help the world, or “the little guy”.

This system seems a big obstacle for my hopes to create better policy institutions driven by expert understanding of institutions, and to get trials to test and develop such things. Because as soon as any policy choice seems important, such by triggering moral feelings, world elite culture feels free to gossip and then pressure authorities to adopt whatever solution their gossip prefers. Experts can only influence policy via their prestige. Very prestigious types of experts, such as in physics, can win, especially on topics about which world elites care little. But otherwise, elite gossip wins, whenever it bothers to generate an opinion.

That is, the global Overton window isn’t much wider than are local Overton windows, and often excludes a lot of valuable options.

Notice that in this kind of world, policy has varied far more across time than across space. Context and fashion change with time, and then elites sometimes change their minds. So perhaps my hopes for policy experiments must wait for the long run. Or for a fall of forager values, such as seems likely in an Age of Em. Alas neither I nor my allies have sufficient prestige to push elites to favor our proposals.

Added 11p: It seems to me that the actual degree of experimentation and variance in policy is far below optimum in this conformist sort of policy world. We are greatly failing to try out as many alternatives as fast as we should to find out what works best. And we are failing to listen enough to our best experts, and instead too often going with the opinions of well-educated but amateur world elites.

Added4p: As John Nye reminds me, in the early years of a new tech, only a few nations in the world may be able to pursue it. They then set the initial standards of regulation. Later, more nations may be able to participate, but risk-averse regulators may feel shy about defying widely adopted initial standards.

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Elois Ate Your Flying Car

J Storrs Hall’s book Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past, told me new things I didn’t know about flying cars. The book is long, and says many things about tech and the future, including some with which I disagree. But his main thesis is a contrarian one that I’ve heard many times from engineers over my lifetime. Which is good, because by putting it all in one place, I can now tell you about it, and tell you that I agree:

We have had a very long-term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. …

One invariant in futurism before roughly 1980 was that predictions of social change overestimated, and of technological change underestimated, what actually happened. Now this invariant itself has been broken. With the notable exception of information technology, technological change has slowed and social change has mounted its crazy horse. …

In the 1970s, the centuries-long growth trend in energy (the “Henry Adams curve”) flatlined. Most of the techno-predictions from 50s and 60s SF had assumed, at least implicitly, that it would continue. The failed predictions strongly correlate to dependence on plentiful energy. American investment and innovation in transportation languished; no new developments of comparable impact have succeeded highways and airliners. …

The war on cars was handed off from beatniks to bureaucrats in the 70s. Supersonic flight was banned. Bridge building had peaked in the 1960s. … The nuclear industry found its costs jacked up by an order of magnitude and was essentially frozen in place. Interest and research in nuclear physics languished. … Green fundamentalism has become the unofficial state church of the US (and to an even greater extent Western Europe). …

In technological terms, bottom line is simple: we could very easily have flying cars today. Indeed we could have had them in 1950, but for the Depression and WWII. The proximate reason we don’t have them now is the Henry Adams curve flatline; the reasons for the flatline have taken a whole book to explore. We have let complacent nay-sayers metamorphose from pundits uttering “It can’t be done” predictions a century ago, into bureaucrats uttering “It won’t be done” prescriptions today. …

Nanotech would enable cheap home isotopic separation. Short of that, it would enable the productivity of the entire US military-industrial complex in an area the size of, say, Singapore. It’s available to anyone who has the sense to follow Feynman’s pathway and work in productive machinery instead of ivory-tower tiddley-winks. The amount of capital needed for a decent start is probably similar to a well-equipped dentist’s office.

If our pre-1970 energy use trend had continued, we’d now use ~30 times as much energy per person, mostly via nuclear power. Which is enough energy for cheap small flying cars. The raw fuel cost of nuclear power is crazy cheap; almost all the cost today is for reactors to convert power, a cost that has been made and kept high via crazy regulation and liability. Like the crazy restrictive regulations that now limit innovation in cars and planes, destroyed the small plane market, and prevented the arrival of flying cars.

Anything that goes into a certificated airplane costs ten times what the thing would otherwise. (As a pilot and airplane owner, I have personal experience of this.) It’s a lot like the high cost of human medical drugs compared with the very same drugs for veterinary use.… Building of airports remains so regulated (not just by the FAA) that only one major new one (KDEN) has been built [since 1990]. …

It seems virtually certain that if we had had [recent] cultural and regulatory environment … from, say, 1910, the development of universal private automobiles would have been suppressed. … By the end of the 70s there was virtually nothing about a car that was not dictated by regulation.

With nuclear power, we’d have had far more space activity by now. Without it, most innovation in energy intensive things has gone into energy efficiency, and into smaller ecological footprints. Which has cut growth and prevented many things. The crazy regulation that killed nuclear energy is quite unjustified, not only because according to standard estimates nuclear causes far fewer deaths, but also because standard estimates are greatly inflated via wide use of a “linear no threshold model”, regarding which there are great doubts:

Several places are known in Iran, India and Europe [with high] natural background radiation … However, there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels. The millions of nuclear workers that have been monitored closely for 50 years have no higher cancer mortality than the general population but have had up to ten times the average dose. People living in Colorado and Wyoming have twice the annual dose as those in Los Angeles, but have lower cancer rates. Misasa hot springs in western Honshu, a Japan Heritage site, attracts people due to having high levels of radium, with health effects long claimed, and in a 1992 study the local residents’ cancer death rate was half the Japan average.

To explain this dramatic change of regulation and litigation, Hall says culture changed:

Western culture had essentially succeeded in supplying the needs of the physical layers of [Maslow’s] hierarchy, including the security of a well-run society; and that the shift to the Eloi [of the Well’s Time Machine story] could be thought of as people beginning to take those things—the Leave It To Beaver suburban life—for granted, and beginning to spend the bulk of their energy, efforts, and concerns on the love, esteem, and self-actualization levels. … “Make Love, Not War” slogan of the 60s … neatly sums up the Eloi shift from bravery to sensuality. …

The nuclear umbrella meant that economic, political, and moral strength of the society was no longer at a premium.

I’ll say more about explaining this cultural change in another post.

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Honest Putdowns

What do people want? Surely one thing they want is to not be insulted or put down by others. Yet if you ask people what personal features they most aspire to improve, the features they pick have no correlation with the features used in the putdowns around them! Yet putdown features have strong correlations with the features used in praise, and with the features people say they care most what others think of them. In this post, I’ll describe and interpret these new results, concluding that putdowns are our best guide to what really counts for status; aspirations are deluded, and not to be trusted.

So let’s start. Recently on Twitter I asked people for the damning descriptors that most lower folks’ status in their world. I then collect 32 such putdowns, identified the key human feature to which each referred, and then taxed the patience of my Twitter followers by posting five sets of 24 polls, with each poll comparing four of these 32 features. (Each feature appears in exactly 3 polls in each set.)

Each poll set corresponds to a different choice criteria. For the first criteria, Putdowns, I asked which feature was most often used for putdowns in their world. The next three criteria are: Praise asks which feature is most used for praise or admiration, Aspirations asks which you most aspire to improve in yourself, and ImageSeek asks for which you care most what others think of you. The last criteria TryLookBad asks for which feature (e.g., fart rate) it is most plausibly has an issue of it looking bad to try hard.

For each criteria, I fit (via min squared error) poll % responses to a simple model wherein some % of responses are random, and the rest are in proportion to the relative (positive) “priority” of each feature. The following table shows, for each criteria, the average number of responses per poll (Ave Poll N), the average root mean square error (RMSE in %) of its model in estimating poll % responses, and correlations between its prioritizes and priorities of other criteria. The correlations in red have t-stats of over 4.

Note that TryBadLook seems to have just failed as a poll question, with large errors and weak correlations; many just misunderstood it. Praise and ImageSeek are quite strongly correlated with each other and are similarly correlated with Putdowns, though only Praise is weakly correlated (t-stat 1.37) with Aspirations.

The most striking result, shown in bold, is that priorities for Putdowns and Aspirations are uncorrelated! You might think that since people don’t like to be insulted, they’d aspire more to look better on vulnerable features. But no. To help explore this puzzle, here are the best fit relative priorities for all 32 features and five questions, sorted by the difference between Aspirations and Putdowns priorities. (The % priorities for each criteria add to 100%.)

The pro-Aspiration top of the list has features like wealth, creative, brave, and articulate, that impress observers even if observers don’t value them as much. And it has features like productive and effort, which we’d like to convince others are a high priority for us. I do not at all believe that these two features are actually most people’s highest priority for improvement.

At the pro-Putdowns bottom of the list are features like menacing, biased, sanity, pleasant, and honest, which people see as important in others but not worth of improving in themselves. Plausibly, people convince others that they are not the type of folks at risk of ranking poorly on such features, so there is little need to work at them. Or, admitting that they are working on them would admit they have problems with them. It seems that people are also reluctant to admit they might have a problem with insufficient smarts.

In the middle of the list are features, like breadth, curious, professional, and generous, that most people pretend to care more about than they actually do. They are neither damning enough to be worth more putdowns, nor valued enough to be worth more aspiration. Note that features like liked and attractive plausibly matter less in putdowns because audiences for putdowns don’t like to admit that they care about them as much as they do. Not also that in another poll, respondents said 3-to-1 that criticism influences reputations more than does praise, with a majority saying it does so far more.

As these interpretations of the PutdownsAspirations differences mostly blame Aspirations for being less than honest, I conclude that the priorities of Putdowns are a more accurate measure of the true determinants of status than are the other measures above. Praise and ImageSeek are closer than Aspirations, but they are also polluted, Praise by the tendency to flatter people on the features on they want to be praised, and ImageSeek by our delusions regarding what failures are plausible for us.

Putdowns show what features really determine status, and aspirations can’t be trusted, as we care a lot more about status than we care to admit.

Yes of course it would be nice to check that these results hold for larger poll pools, and to see how they might vary with different subcultures.

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Specialized Innovation Is Easier

Consider a few things we know about task specialization and innovation: Larger cities and larger firms both have both more specialization and more (i.e., faster) innovation. More global industries also have both more specialization and innovation. And across the great eras of human history (animal, forager, farmer, industry), each era has brought more specialization, and also faster rates of innovation.

Here’s a simple explanation for (part of) this widely observed correlation: It is easier to create tools and procedures to improve tasks the more detail you know about them, and the less that task context varies across the task category. (It is also easier to fully automate such tasks; human level generality is very hard.)

For example, it seems harder to find a way to make a 1% improvement in a generic truck, designed to take any type or size of stuff any distance over any type of road, in any type of weather, relative to a very specific type of truck, such as for carrying animals, oil, cars, ice cream, etc. It gets even easier if you specialize to particular distances, roads, weather, etc. Partly this is because most ways to improve the generic truck will also apply to specialized trucks, but the reverse isn’t true.

This might sound obvious, but note that this is not our usual explanation for these correlations in each context. We usually say that cities are more innovative because they allow more chance interactions that generate ideas, not because they are more specialized. We say larger firms are more innovative because they have larger market shares, and so internalize more of the gains from innovation. We say more global industries are more capital intensive, and capital innovates faster. And we say that it is just a coincidence that over time we have both specialized more and invented better ways to innovate.

My simpler more unified explanation suggests that, more often than we have previously realized, specialization is the key to innovation. So we should look more to finding better ways to specialize to promote future innovation. Such as less product variety and more remote work.

Added 25Sep: A relevant quote:

As Frank Knight once expressed it, the fundamental point about the division of labour is that it is also a system for increasing the efficiency of learning and thus the growth of knowledge

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Time Reversal In Tenet

The mew movie Tenet shows plenty of eye-candy action and charismatic characters, though it didn’t really make me care much emotionally about its characters or their problems. The movie did, however, scratch my big physics idea itch. So I’m going to talk a bit about the movie’s key physics premise. I’ll give spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "Time Reversal In Tenet" »

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Our Brave New Merged World

AGI isn’t coming in the next thirty years. Neither are Moon or Mars colonies, or starships. Or immortality. Or nano-assemblers or ems. Cities won’t be flooded due to CO2, a nuclear war won’t devastate civilization, aliens won’t arrive in the skies, and a religious jihad won’t remake culture. The rates of change in the economy, lifespans, fertility, automation, and non-carbon energy will stay about the same. Quantum computing, 3D printing, and crypto-commerce will grow but remain small. There won’t even be that many flying or self-driving cars. So if you are looking for science-fiction-level excitement re dramatic changes over this period, due to a big change we can foresee today, you’ll be disappointed.

Unless maybe you look at remote work. (Yeah, its not the best name; “work from home” may be better. But I’ll stick with the US standard name here.)

I’ve written about how remote work can, for many industries, allow the merging of many local markets into fewer much larger, often global, markets. If this potential is realized, big changes will result. In this post, I’ll outline many of them.

First and foremost, this is a more productive and richer world that would otherwise exist. It has some mix of more stuff and experiences, and a wider variety of such things. Workers are more specialized, and so take longer to train. Firms are also more specialized, and are larger on average, with wider geographic scope.

This is also a more standardized homogenous world. Products and services are more the same around the world, as are workers and their tools, culture, and training (including school). Regulation of work and product quality is also more standard, as are currency and accounting units. Variety becomes more across professions and industries, and less across places.

This is also a more equal world. Places that resist integration and standardization will suffer, and that is likely to especially include the richest and poorest places. But for the rest, market integration will ensure more equal wages and prices for products and services. As usual, this will help those whom the prior fragmentation hurt, and hurt those whom the prior fragmentation helped. And everyone will gain from new economies of scale and scope. Of course real persistent productivity differences, such as across regions or demographic groups, should continue to induce real wage differences.

There will be a boom in key enabling tech and infrastructure, such as avatars, avatar tools, home controllers, home offices, and low-latency bandwidth. And also a boom in personal habits and skills better suited to this world, such as introversion, self-discipline, self-motivation, and writing. (Ph.D.s look better.) And there will be a relative bust in tech and infrastructure that supported prior work habits, such as offices, high rises, work suits, parking garages, freeways, and cars. And also old-style work habits and skills. New generations who learn the new ways early will also gain.

As jobs will less force people to move, people will move areas less often, and the areas where people live will be less set by jobs. As life at work will be less social, people will have to get more of their socializing from elsewhere. Some of this will come from remote socializing, but much will still probably come from in-person socializing. So people will choose where they live more based on family, friends, leisure activities, and non-work social connections. Churches, clubs, and shared interest socializing will increase in importance. People will also pick where to live more based on climate, price, and views. Beach towns will boom, and the largest cities will lose.

Because people will move areas less often, the social connections they make in school will last them longer into life. Yet today school is widely talked about as a preparation for work. So schools will be torn between wanting to be in-person to promote local social connections, and remote to promote work skills. Perhaps schools will split, with core work-related classes being remote but electives and “after school activities” being in-person. Work hours will be less rigid, and it will be easier to do non-work tasks during usual work times.

Because of their stronger social solidarity, local areas dominated by family and informal social ties seem better suited to provide social insurance, such as medical, retirement, and unemployment benefits. But if so they should arrange for global reinsurance, to deal with risks that could hurt whole areas together. And firms might resist, having long offered social insurance to induce worker loyalties.

The firms in this new world are larger, full of foreigners, create weaker personal bonds via less in-person contact, and sit in more competitive markets for workers, customers, and investors. Local and national governments also find them harder to regulate, and the world will probably fail to coordinate to create strong global governance. These global firms may thus find it harder to get workers and customers to trust them. And so such firms may try harder to create clearer track records and incentive contracts, as substitutes for regulation and loyalties based on area or personal connection.

Some smaller firms will advertise their connections to particular areas as ways to gain allegiance from local customers and workers. But larger firms will find that doing so puts off too many customers and workers from other places. Most such firms will thus seek an international brand, not tied to particular areas. As a result, they are likely to seek to create generic customer facing workers, not clearly associated with particular areas. They might even use simple machine learning to map local worker appearances, in image or sound, into more standard appearances. For example, they might remove distinctive local accents.

Most work interactions will be recorded, making rule-violating discrimination, sexual harassment, and conspiracies harder at work. But those things will still be common in person among friends, family, clubs, etc. Automation will be promoted by the fact that tasks done remotely satisfy more prerequisites of automation. Large datasets of workers doing tasks would be created, and remote service workers could easily invoke an automation to do a small task, often without clients even noticing the difference. Even so, automation progress will continue to be slow.

Some firms may retain in-person work and interactions at their headquarters, with personnel drawn more from in-person social networks and schools in a nearby local area. Even if this puts such firms at a global disadvantage, local political games may make it hard for outsiders to get in. At the other extreme, some workers may be so unskilled and poor as to not make it worth the bother to have them work remotely. Remote works seems to most help folks in the middle: middle professions and middle nations.

While fictional depictions of remote service work often try to make it seem alien, harsh, and degrading, everyone is more likely to work to make it seem natural, friendly, and comfortable. For example, instead of people wearing goggles that completely obscure their view of their immediate world while they immerse themselves in distant work, workers are more likely to see both worlds in overlay. Somewhat like how through a window you might see both the world outside and a refection of your room. And avatars that deal directly with customers are likely to prominently show a human face and voice.

A brave new world of remote work awaits. It isn’t AGI or aliens, but it is a pretty big change, coming to your world in the next few decades.

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