Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Why Not Extend Formal Social Systems?

Once humans had only informal systems of gossip and norm enforcement, but now we also have formal systems of law. These formal legal systems supposedly have many features designed to overcome problems with prior informal norm systems. For example, with gossip we tend to support the claims of our immediate associates without investigating contrary evidence, but we require formal law judges to instead consider evidence from all sides before making their judgments.

We seem to believe these claims that formal law systems overcome informal system failings, because we are quite reluctant to give up our formal systems. Few of us support dropping our formal law systems, and replacing them with informal gossip and mobs. But if so, why do we still use informal norm systems to deal with so many topics, instead of law?

We often say that we rely on informal norms when formal law systems are too slow or expensive. But when offered specific proposals for ways to drastically reduce the time and expense of formal legal systems, so that they can be used more widely, most people seem quite reluctant to endorse such changes. But if law fixes serious problems with informal norms, and if we could replace such norms with law in more places, why not do so?

What makes this even more puzzling is the fact that centuries ago in the U.S. our formal legal systems were much simpler and lower cost. The law was simpler, most people could go to court without a lawyer, and juries made most decisions. All of which did allow the law to deal with more kinds of conflicts. The scope of law has declined over the last few centuries as we’ve allowed law to get more complex and expensive.

One theory is suggested by the idea of “snitches”. Children punish each other for complaining about each other to parents or teachers; they are supposed to instead rely on informal systems among children. Insiders complaining to outsiders can make any group look bad to outsiders, and thus loyalty to a group can require that one keep one’s complaints inside the group. Thus we may prefer informal systems as ways to show loyalty to our groups.

Just like we’ve added formal systems of conflict resolution to our prior informal systems of gossip and norms, we’ve also added formal systems of abstract conversation to our prior informal talk systems.

For example, in academia we have many norms regarding how we present abstract claims and arguments to each other in books and journal articles, and how we evaluate such things. For most of these norms, we have stories about how they fix problems with informal talk. And few academics would endorse getting rid of all these norms and just reverting entirely to informal talk.

And yet, as new mediums and genres of conversation have appeared over the last few decades, we’ve seen relatively little support for extending the usual academic norms into these new places. I expect many would offer knee-jerk explanations saying that academic norms take too much time and energy to apply to these new places. But that seems to me mostly an excuse; I doubt that they’ve actually thought much about actual time and energy costs.

Regarding both dispute resolution and abstract conversation, it seems that we mostly just want to continue with formal institutions in their current scope of application, but not to apply them more widely, even when that becomes feasible. Perhaps because we prefer to show loyalty to the communities that manage our informal norm systems. But loyalty signaling doesn’t seem a good reason to think this is better for the world, or for our larger societies.

Added 10a: Speculative markets are another area where we don’t want to get rid of the ones we have, but we also don’t want more of them, to aggregate info into consensus on more topics. The cost of creating them has come way down, allowing a lot more of them, that we don’t want.

Property registries is yet another area. The cost of managing them have come way down, yet we don’t have official registries for many more kinds of property than we once did.

Perhaps the simplest theory here is that we’ve lost our taste for social change. Whatever was continues, but nothing new shall be added.

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Douthat’s God Argument

Ross Douthat argues for God:

idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art. …

idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why [you are] … obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment. …

assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained … incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand. …

speculation about a multiverse in part because [we have] … repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. … “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, … our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. (More)

So the phenomena (P) to explain are:
A) our part of the universe seems tuned to allow life, which exists here, and is ordered,
B) humans now exist, are conscious, and have particular concepts of beauty and morals
C) humans think big thoughts, and have made some progress understanding the universe
D) humans also come across some weird stuff we don’t understand

The usual “science” (S) theory says:
A) a big enough dumb universe can have many differently-tuned parts; in one life arises
B) lasting life eventually creates order and minds with abstract intelligence
C) intelligence naturally creates concepts of consciousness, beauty, and morality
D) intelligence will try to and can understand some but not all of its universe

The alternative “God” (G) theory says:
A) A “perfect” mind exists without a universe, or even time, needs no resources, has no mental limits
B) Just by thinking, this mind can learn anything and create universes, life, creatures, and minds
C) This mind has particular concepts of beauty and morals, and gave them to humans
D) This mind makes some humans see strange things for various mostly-unknown reasons

So which of theories S or G does better at explaining P?

Theory S should be discounted to the extent that it seems a priori unlikely that a dumb universe would be that enormously big. Also discount S to the extent you doubt (much more than I) the usual theories suggesting why enough dumb matter might create life, and some creatures might gain abstract intelligence, seek to understand their universe, and develop concepts of feelings, beauty, and morality. Also discount S if you think the human level of understanding vs. not of its universe differs greatly from what you’d expect from the most intelligent creatures to evolve in the particular-sized societies we have seen. I don’t, and don’t see how humans understanding some things but not understanding others can both be taken as evidence for G over S.

Theory G should be discounted to the extent that you (like me) see minds like ours as way too complex to be the primitives that one postulates for a scenario, and find the idea of unconstrained minds out-of-time that make things via their thoughts to be strange and borderline incoherent. After all, all the minds we have ever seen in detail have been in time, with a great many limitations (e.g., memory, speed, mistakes, sensor input) tied in detail to the limitations of particular complex localized physical objects (i.e., particular brains). If this perfect mind can make minds more like itself, why does it make these very limited minds tied in such detail to these limited brains?

Yes, theory S may fail to predict many details of human beauty and morality concepts; according to S some details are arbitrary and random, based on contingent features of the species involved. And yes, theory G predicts that these features come from the perfect mind. But G also fails to predict those same details; it just assumes them as part of the perfect mind.

Furthermore, I don’t at all see how strange stuff that some humans see but can’t explain is support for G over S. Under both theories, there would sometimes be strange stuff that humans find hard to understand. Some claim that particular variations of the perfect mind is the best explanation of particular strange stuff, but there are many conflicting such claims. As there are variations of both S and G that predict more strange stuff, and variations that predict less strange stuff, I don’t see how the existence of strange stuff supports one over the other.

Me, I find it far easier to believe in an enormous dumb universe than in unlimited minds that can make anything by thinking, yet choose to make minds with limits tied in such detail to the limits of particular brains. Seems far simpler to me to just see the minds we see as the activity that results from the evolved brains we see, with no non-brain-based minds existing.

Added 18Aug: I should note that perhaps the most common objection to G is the “problem of evil”. If the idea of this perfect mind sharing your moral ideals is a key part of the appeal, you can indeed be put off by their appearing not to act in the way this would suggest.

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Why Does Reason’s Reach Vary?

Where does reason have the most and least reach in our lives? That is, where are we most and least able and expected to give reasons for our conclusions and actions?

Math seems like a max reason case. Every math claim must be backed up by a proof. But even then, I know that in many math literatures papers are usually rejected not for having incorrect proofs, but for not making the assumptions that referees would have preferred. Such referees are usually not expected to or able to articulate well why some assumption sets are preferred, and paper authors can only imperfectly predict their choices.

Romance and art seem near to min reason cases. There we are consistently unable to give reasons to account for our choices, or even to predict our and others’ choices. And we don’t even like to be pushed to try. But why? You might explain this as due to complexity, but math and many other reason-filled areas of life can be quite complex.

I suspect mixed strategies and hidden motives. That is, our being able to give reasons and predict choices would allow others to infer our motives, or to control us via threats and promises. And so such issues must be especially important in romance and art. But this is just speculation, and I’m honestly curious: why exactly does reason have so little reach in romance and art?

Added 10a: It seems obvious that we want to be unpredictable and to hide our motives in romance. We don’t want others to control such an important choice, and we sometimes want to cheat. The fact that reason also has little reach in art suggests that art and mating are strongly linked. We use art to solicit mates and we use art to pick with whom to mate, but we deny these things and claim we just love art for its own sake.

Is charity another area with a low reach of reason?

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Seeking Status Fashion Stats

Some societies are more healthy, productive, innovative, and stronger than others. We now understand many factors that contribute to this difference, and we collect and track many stats related to these factors. To predict future changes in social health, it is especially important to track well the stats that change the fastest. After all, for slowly changing factors infrequent noisy measures may do fine.

However, I see one factor which is important, which can and does change rapidly, and yet where we do very little tracking of related stats. That factor is: fashions in the status markers seen as determining who is more elite. Let me explain.

All cultures and subcultures distinguish people by their status, via agreed-upon markers, such as wealth, power, attractiveness, credentials, wit, and much more. While the weights that different cultures put on these things usually have the same signs, their magnitudes can differ greatly. I’ve seen such weights vary greatly over my lifetime, and across the many social worlds I’ve inhabited. For example, societies that put more weight on military valor are likely to fight more wars, those that put more weight on business profits will see more wealth, and those that care more about music will hear more music.

These differences have huge consequences, as a big fraction of social energy is devoted to seeking higher status. Especially among the “best” people. These difference probably vary not only by nation, but by city and region, by industry and profession, and by ethnic and other subcultures. And over time, status marker fashion changes not only with overall fashions, but also with the status of subareas, such as recently when tech got rich and was then taken over by traditional elites.

Changes in status fashion have the potential to bring great societies crashing down, and to raise up once low societies. Such fashions do in fact often seem to change a lot over time timescale of decades. And yet I know of no attempts to create data series to measure these crucial changes. Seems a hole worth filling.

We should also put a lot more thought into how to change our status markers to be promote social health. And to prevent the rise of unhealthy markers.

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Green Knight Disses Glory

Many stories have morals. While such morals could be stated directly, perhaps via witty aphorisms, many claim that we use stories to make our moral lessons clearer and more vivid, to show us how they are applied in concrete familiar situations. As Jesus did with his parables. Sounds helpful, right?

But then we get parables like the movie The Green Knight, which describe strange events in alien worlds, with their moral lessons encoded elusively. Elite movie reviewers love it, in part because it is based on a medieval story many of them had to study in college. For them, difficult to follow literary references, and difficult to interpret moral lessons, are part of the attraction, as viewers can show their sophistication by figuring it all out.

(There are mild spoilers in what follows; you are warned.) Continue reading "Green Knight Disses Glory" »

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Neglecting Hard-To-Judge Abilities

Long ago when I first started teaching undergrads, I noticed that while they were equally bad at math and writing, they could more easily see that they were bad at math. So they were happier to get writing assignments. Math assignments made them face the uncomfortable fact that they were bad at something valuable, while writing assignments did not. So students liked my classes better when I assigned writing more.

Science fiction stories are usually set in a possible future world, and you might think that some people would specialize in working out the details of such worlds, while others would specialize in setting stories in those worlds. But while people (like me) who work out future scenarios are well aware that we are not good at writing stories in those worlds, it seems that the people who are good at writing stories don’t believe that they need any help figuring out the details of their worlds. Early in their career most sf authors have already collected a lifetime supply of story settings for their future stories; they have little interest in collaborating with world builders.

In the world of ideas, some people are especially good at finding and exploring interesting ideas, and some people are especially good at writing about such ideas in ways that are compelling and engaging to wide audiences. The people who are good at ideas usually know that they aren’t so good at writing about them, are generally interested in collaborating with those better at writing. But for the most part, the people who are good at writing well to wide audiences are not much interested in such collaboration. Those good writers mostly believe that the ideas that they have are among the best; no need to work together with idea people, as they are idea people.

In general, we see distorted behaviors resulting from the fact that some abilities are both respected and hard to judge. The people with the easier to judge abilities tend to assume that they are also the best at those other opaque but respected abilities. And so our world is full of people who rise to prominence because they are best at what we can more easily judge, who tell themselves and us that they are also best at important things that are much harder to judge. And we seem willing to believe, even if this seems quite implausible.

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Status Madness Starves Religion

A big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. … evolution had humans use their absolute income/wealth to judge their relative status. (I’m talking here about overall status in the larger community, not status relative to particular associates …) Yes, this method would work badly in environments where communities varied greatly in average levels of absolute income/wealth. …

This theory predicts that humans came to live much longer after the industrial revolution. … this theory predicts what we have seen: declining rates of violence and conflict, less war, and widening moral circles. … key prediction is: we are more mad for status, as we think we already have a lot of it. … this predicts more school … [as predicted,] fertility has fallen dramatically over the last few centuries … people more eager for news, talk, politics, democracy, government, and paternalistic policies. …

Regarding religion, our seeing ourselves as higher status makes us more expect to be prophets, priests, monks, martyrs, and activists, but less to be the prototypical attendee of religious services, the meek supplicant to whom religion offers comfort and meaning in their hard life. (More)

Centuries ago states took power and property from the church, and then over time participation in religion by ordinary people has greatly declined; I can see this decline directly in my family in in the families of people around me. Across nations (though not much within nations), this decline (and a decline in superstition) has been correlated with rising income, education, and welfare spending. People are mainly religious because parents push it on them, and religious change seems to be concentrated in childhood; once people reach adulthood they mostly retain their prior religion levels.

While many theories have been offered to explain this decline, status madness seems to me a pretty good candidate. People in richer and more educated nations see themselves as higher status. And the higher that people see themselves, the less willing they are to bow down to others. Culture has eliminated most of the ways that people once had to defer and bow to elites around them. We’ve used democracy to get rid of kings, and to see ourselves as partial rulers. And, full of ourselves, we are reluctant to bow down before and worship gods. Even ideal gods.

Some see the key dynamic here as people slowly learning over time the fact that there are no gods. But why should a nation have to get rich itself to learn this fact, if other nations around it have already learned it? Furthermore, this learning theory predicts that opinion change should follow a random walk, not a straight trend. And even today very few people actually understand the relevant evidence well enough to make this judgment.

Furthermore there are actually are gods! Maybe not the gods described in the most popular religions, but gods nonetheless. We should estimate that roughly half of the universe out there right now is filled with advanced creatures who are to us as gods. This part of the universe will be filled with gods within a billion years, and much sooner if we don’t all kill ourselves. And we might be being visited by UFO aliens right now.

Someday most of our descendants will meet creatures who are to them as gods. (Even if those gods are other of our descendants.) At that point I predict that they will no longer be so status mad, and so full of themselves, as to be unwilling to respect those gods. They will bow down to, and even worship, their betters.

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Envisioning Artificial Life

For billions of years Earth has been filled with a great many small biological organisms. Each one is designed to not die, and to collect and process enough resources to make close but not exact copies of itself, copies which then must each search for and defend a niche wherein this story can be repeated.

Recently humans have introduce some new kinds of entities, including human organizations and artificial devices. It seems obvious to me that within a millennia all these things will merge into something new: “artificial life”. Which will then forever more dominate the universe (if it survives). And it seems worth trying to think through what this will look like. Here are eight key features I predict for artificial life:

Advanced – Over billions of years bio life has developed some amazing innovations, and used these to colonize a wide range of niches on Earth. But there are still many places near here where life has had at most only a mild impact. And in far less than billions of years humans have found a great many innovations that bio never found, or made much use of. Such as metal smelting, trains, jet engines, nuclear power, rocket ships, radio, computers, and far far more. Using these, humans have been able to go more places, use more kinds of energy, and do more things. Artificial life will mix up these bio- and human-discovered design elements in a huge variety of ways, and colonize a far wider range of niches. Artificial life will live on and in a wide range of planets, stars, rocks, clouds, and volumes, and reorganize such things to make whole new places and things. Artificial life will grow faster, at least until the solar system is nearly filled.

Specialized – Lone bio cells have to do basically everything themselves. Which means they can’t achieve the very large scale and scope economies possible via a division of labor. Multi-cellular organisms have more of an internal specialization, but still each organism must do most everything itself. Social animals allow still more division of labor, but even so only over relatively small scales. In contrast, artificial life can manage a civilization-wide division of labor, limited mainly by transport costs, allowing each particular part to take on very specialized roles. Most artificial creatures can’t forage, digest, reproduce, etc. by themselves very well, but are designed to function well mainly within large complex societies. Artificial life is quite inter-dependent.

Informed – Bio organisms mainly know about what they can directly see, and the insight implicitly embodied in their genes. In contrast, artificial creatures can also use large specialized communication networks and institutions to learn about a great many things. The main limits are data, costs of distance and computation, and strategic incentives to deceive.

Invited – Bio tends to just make stuff when it can, without attending much to if there is a demand for that stuff. In contrast, artificial stuff tends to be made when and where demand is envisioned. New firms are made when investors guess they can make a profit. New couches are made and shipped to stores where firms guess buyers are likely to want them. And so on. Invited creatures have to worry less about their place in the world, or wonder why they exist; they wouldn’t exist unless there had been at least a reasonable place for them.

Designed – New bio things tend to be quite similar to their creators, adding mostly random variations. In contrast, artificial stuff is often more carefully designed to be suitable for some demand, and substantially different from prior things. A building is designed to fit its lot, a firm is designed to fit its market, and so on. Compared to bio designs, artificial designs draw on a much wider range of prior designs, and a lot more effort goes into figuring out these new designs. Artificial life is more like one big civ-wide species, and less breaks into separate lineages with designs only derived from its species. Some artificial creatures specialize in designing parts of other ones.

Governed – Artificial creatures coordinate to avoid destructive conflicts via empowering governance organizations, such as firms, clubs, law, and government. Such governance tends to be of wider scope and more stable than other structures, and is thus harder to influence. Yet each such structure has some ultimate owners who control it over larger scopes of space and time. When interacting with an artificial creature, one may want to know about the larger governance units with which it is allied.

Varied – While before humans biological organisms had a huge range of sizes and abilities, our more recent era has been dominated by creatures with quite similar sizes and abilities. Namely humans. With artificial life variety will return, and greatly expand. Trying to count military or political power by counting heads just won’t work at all.

Owned – The bio world has little property; stuff can and is oft stolen. Only property that can be directly created and defended exists. But the artificial world has far more property (and liability) rights. As a result, to use resources one must create, purchase, or inherit them. Thus someone will have to pay for the resources and design effort needed to make each new piece of artificial life. Those who pay to create something will often reserve some property (or liability) rights over it, often in the form of debt or equity. Though the created thing will usually hold some rights in itself. Creatures and groups will often trade shares in each other as a way to align their interests more closely.

This last owned features seems the most likely to bother people today. But my job is to tell you what seems most likely, not what you want to hear.

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How High Our Elite Tax?

In the ancient world, invading armies were mostly men who, if they won, stayed and took over the top status slots in the new society. After a few generations, the locals would almost completely submit, and see invader descendants as the highest status elite members of “us”.

When invaders had distinctive looks, styles, etc. then those became marks of high status. People would seek such marks for they and their family, and try to associate with those who had such marks. To get people to support their ventures, they’d try to give them the appearance of elite support, via attracting elite members, investors, customers, suppliers, regulators, etc. As any substantial elite opposition could doom their ventures.

These elites would of course charge a price for their support, and such prices would add up to an elite tax on the society. The size of this tax would depend on how many such elites had to be “paid off” in this way to make anything happen, and how well suited were such elites for the roles they took on. In the limit of many available elites who were actually just directly the best people for their roles, this elite tax was zero. But the more that ventures had to pay off elites who were not otherwise the best for their roles, and have people do things in other than the best ways, in order to gain that crucial perception of elite support, the larger the tax.

Societies in history have varied in how they define status, and thus have varied in how much they waste in efforts to achieve status. When war was important, for example, societies that defined status in terms of military accomplishment had in essence a lower tax, and thus a competitive advantage over rivals. Today when innovation is important, then organizations where status is rewarded for promoting innovation can be at a similar advantage.

In academia, we often see similar effects on smaller scales. Particular fields are taken over by a mutual admiration insider’s club, and then everyone in that field must pay tribute to these insiders to get anything done. If you do not sufficiently praise, cite, fund, hire, etc. such insiders, you will be excluded from the field.

So how big a tax does our society pay for the perception of elite support? Much of status in our world is set via graduating from elite schools and being hired for elite jobs, and many say that we have a “meritocracy” in picking applicants to such positions only on the basis of directly relevant abilities. But of course we know this is only partially true.

As I’ve discussed before, in many areas today elites from around the world have merged into a single elite community which share common standards on who is elite and what criteria they use to decide status. As this world elite faces no competition from other worlds, our world is now more vulnerable to drifting status criteria; competition between societies won’t suppress wasteful criteria. For example, if elites everywhere measure status via years of pointless school, then the whole world could just keeping doing too much such school.

One interesting way to try to measure our elite tax is to look at events where the tax rose quickly and dramatically. Sometimes a particular field is low status, with people there paid accordingly, and then suddenly the field rises greatly income and status. At which point high status people enter and take over the highest status positions of that field. Such elite entrants tend to be young and lack experience in that field, and so tend to denigrate the old and experienced there. They push for generic elite practices that may not be the best for this area.

For example, tech used to be nerdy and lower status, and then made a lot of money and rose in status. Top school kids decided to take jobs in tech, especially right after investment banking jobs dried up after the 2008 crash. And so top school kids took over tech, putting a new extra premium on youth and top school degrees. Tech priorities and practices changed, including a lot more interest in woke politics.

Studies that compared the productivity, innovativeness, and social value produced by tech before and after this transition might give us valuable data on our elite tax. Similar studies might be done regarding other suddenly-prestigious areas before and after their status transition. Seems to me an important topic to study.

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Will Tech Help Totalitarians?

Governments are overthrown when a sufficiently large fraction of local potential military power coordinates to organize a rebellion. To prevent this, a totalitarian government can try to stop people from talking to each other about their inclinations toward or plans re rebellions. Governments can do this by controlling schools and news media, and by hiding many spies among the population. And by packing people densely enough that all said is heard by many, and authority is close at hand to punish violators. And also by recursively doing this all the more among the government official who manage all this.

However, if this society isn’t completely isolated from other societies, then the many extra costs produced by this system can make it lose to outside competitors. (This seems to have happened to many totalitarian governments so far in history.) And the more contact there is across borders, the more than insiders may be able to escape, or to coordinate with each other via outsiders, or to learn that insiders are worse off.

How has this situation changed in the last few centuries? On the one hand, today’s world grows faster, it talks, travels, and trades more widely, and it is more inter-dependent, all of which increases these problems of contact with and competition with outsiders. On the other hand, we have gotten a lot better at managing large organizations, which allows for big complex governments, and with today’s tech it is easier to spread approved news and schooling to everyone. Also, totalitarians could put microphones and detectors at each person to see what they say, and thus don’t have to pack people so close.

What about in the future? You might think that AI also helps to automatically listen and report suspicious talk, but I suspect that for below-human-level AI this is relatively easy to evade by just talking more indirectly. You might also be able to directly put “kill switches” on people, in effect putting bombs on them, but I also don’t see this offering that much advantage over the usual easy ways governments have to kill disorganized locals.

As I discuss in my book Age of Em, those with direct access to the computers running brain emulations should be able to read the surface of em minds. (And also to directly end local copies.) However, I don’t see this offering that much advantage over being able to hear and read everything said, and to control their sources of news and education. Rebels could talk indirectly in ways missed by shallow mind reading, and might be helped by lazy, corrupt, or rebellious enforcers. A bigger concern is that most of the em world would be crammed into one or a few big cities, which makes a world government more feasible and likely. (More on that below.)

In two posts of July 13 & 27, Holden Karnofsky says there’s a substantial chance that widespread totalitarian governments controlling the virtual environments of digital people (e.g., ems) could lock themselves in power for tens of billions of years. Continue reading "Will Tech Help Totalitarians?" »

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