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Bow To Our Future Overlords
The political left and right each have a big long term problem about which they cry most. For the left it is global warming; for the right fertility decline. (Sure, a few tech people cry about AI, but far fewer than re these others.)
Great efforts are devoted to these causes by well meaning folks, and this does induce concrete actions that do “move the needle”. But few seem willing to face a hard fact: neither problem is likely to be solved in the recommended way. While at some level people do kinda know this, they are too invested in outrage re it still not being too late. (It just feels so good to focus on outrage.)
Re global warming, yes, we could still adopt huge well-enforced carbon taxes and other regs to cut material consumption. And yes we keep getting global deals to do so. But they keep being deals without teeth, and they keep being violated. Yes, a few nations are doing what they agreed, but far from enough. Yes we are developing better alt tech, but it’s far from good enough to keep us from emitting carbon. Overall we are only somewhat delaying a high carbon emission future.
So some of us at least should think about a Plan B. To figure out how to adapt to a high carbon world, such as one warmer with higher sea levels and more storm variance. Plan for your descendants to keep away from low flooding shores, and maybe move to nicer climates, like say Canada or Russia. Or maybe try geo-engineering to artificially block sunlight, but without global permission, which is unlikely to come.
Re fertility decline, yes, as the main change in the last half century is the number of women who become moms, not the number of kids per mom, all we need is a larger fraction of women having kids. Yes, as that used to happen, it must still be feasible. Yes, a big enough subsidy per kid would work, and we could make the new kids pay for that via government debt. And yes, as we’ve seen fertility rise at some times and places, there’s historical variation that we could plausibly mine to find factors to promote fertility.
However, it takes voters who want more kids to vote in politicians who promote them. After all, the cultural ask re higher fertility is huge, plausibly even larger than to cut carbon emissions. The trends to be opposed are in both cases deeply embedded in existing culture, and in ways that most of us treasure. Societies in history that have loudly lamented fertility declines, and tried to reverse them, either among elites or more widely, have consistently failed. This includes recent versions of our societies. Our world’s fertility decline has been pretty consistent for ~2.5 centuries, and local deviations have so far always been temporary.
Thirteen years ago I guessed fertility to be our biggest problem, but didn’t let it distract me much. Two years ago I guessed that insular fertile subcultures is how fertility decline will end, but still didn’t let the topic distract me. A few months I realized that innovation would grind to a halt during a declining economy, and since have read and talked much on the topic.
Alas this has confirmed my worse fears. I’m not sure quite how best to persuade you all of this, but world population will soon fall fast, and then unless we achieve full AGI or end aging by then, our total world economic capacity will also fall, with scale economies and innovation rates both falling roughly in proportion. Actually innovation will fall faster due to diminishing returns, populations getting older, and lower-than-Western African innovation quality.
And the most likely way fertility rises again is via the rise of Amish-like insular fertile cultures. Like how Christians outbred the rest of the Roman Empire. (Amish have doubled every two decades for over a century.) Their rejection of tech, innovation, and large scale econ processes will hurt them much less in an era of little innovation and shrinking econ scales. Yes they will face obstacles in adapting to encompassing an entire economy, and in defending themselves. Some factions may, like the Mormons, fly too close to the world cultural Sun and assimilate to it and its fertility habits. But even so, these seem much better positioned to win out than any identifiable competitors. If no one succeeds, we go extinct.
The main thing that the discussions of fertility I’ve seen most miss is the centrality of insularity. Activists often seek factors they could push to promote fertility, but don’t seem to notice how hard it will be to get groups to deviate from world culture standards as our world gets more tightly integrated culturally. Over recent centuries nations have tended to have quite different cultures rather resistant to outside influence, and yet these were quite insufficient levels of insularity; world cultures greatly converged. So in addition to getting some group to adopt a more pro-fertility culture, you also need that group to become quite culturally insular. The Amish and a few others have achieved the required level, but it is a rare achievement that has only happened a few times worldwide in the last few centuries.
Thus, as with global warming, I’m pulled to consider a Plan B. If in fact, as I expect, one or more Amish-like cultures take over the world by just outbreeding the rest, they become our world’s new “overlords”. So if we want to influence the world they will control, we probably need to mostly achieve that via their consent and cooperation. In this role, we must bow to and serve our future overlords.
Amish-like insular fertile subcultures are known for living in small rural pacifist egalitarian fundamentalist-religious isolated communities, and limiting their tech to be small scale and socially insular. That is, they don’t want members to interact much with outsiders, and so don’t like techs that allow or induce much social contact with outsiders or their culture, either via typical use of a tech, or via training of those who must support that tech. Like cars, phones, the internet, or outside schools. They also don’t like tech which violates their religious rules, like contraception or loans with interest. Such societies seem likely to reject many prior techs and cultural values.
If there are precious things that our civ has worked hard to acquire or develop, things which we don’t want thrown away in this transition, forcing their rediscovery or recreation much later, our big question becomes: how can we get our future overlords to save them?
You might try to scatter many info chips around full of all that we know, summarized well, available via many languages, and topped with tempting porn, bitcoin, and entertainment to seduce future folk into opening them. But future authorities would discover this fact, arm their folks mentally against such temptations, and methodically destroy them. And then hold a grudge against any associated with this plan.
Consider the analogy of medieval monks who decided what to save and copy from the Roman Empire, and what to throw away. They plausibly threw away many Roman devices or manuscripts that offended them, even when such things contained other value. We want to avoid our precious stuff being thrown away after our civilization falls.
So I suggest that we first work hard to identify the things we value that our future overlords should also honestly value according to their different overlord values, and then second work to separate those things from other stuff these overlords are likely to dislike. And also to simplify, scale down, and make modular our precious things, so that future folk can try them at lower cost and more experimentally and incrementally. After all, they are our customers in this effort, and the customer is always right.
For example, we economists could work to isolate what we have learned in general about how to achieve any social goals one might have from what we have learned about how to achieve the particular goals of recent societies, goals which overlords may reject. And then to simplify this, and explain it clearly, so that overlords can apply them to their quite different goals, needing only cheaper smaller-scale supporting tools.
I expect many will be tempted to trick or force these overlords into assimilating our key cultural values such as democracy, tolerance, diversity, authenticity, self-expression, etc. Such as by packaging exposure to those values with other valuable info and tech. I warn against this; overlords will anticipate this, and probably successfully evade it. And such attempts may pollute the efforts of others to sincerely help them.
If we see this new overlord future as preferable to humanity going extinct (without AI or em descendants), then the other big thing we should do is try is prevent our declining descendants from stomping on these replacements. While the new Amish-like insular fertile cultures are small, it would be quite feasible for our declining but powerful civilization to intervene, forcing them to adopt more of our culture and practices. Which might result in their fertility falling to that of world culture. A consistent practice like this would raise the risk of human extinction.
Alas I fear that cryonics tech, and its patients, are a big ask as a tech for them save. This cuts the value of trying cryonics, but hardly to zero; after all, cryonics seems a good investment even if it has only a 5% chance of working.
Notice an analogy here with UFO aliens, if they exist. The best story I can come up with to explain UFOs as aliens posits that they are panspermia siblings here to persuade us to voluntarily adopt their no-expansion policy, via domesticating us by being nearby, peaceful, and impressive. In this scenario it would be quite hard and probably unwise to try to trick or overtly defy them. We must instead bow, serve, and if we want something from them we must try to persuade them, on their own terms re their own goals.
On reflection, I think most of my original insights are in spaces most others avoid, seeing insights there as ugly or distasteful. My tolerance for that, or my alt framing to see them as less so, probably explains my successes as well as my smarts or creativity. This post seems an example of that.