Humanity Can’t Steer Its Future Much
I can’t recall ever applying to an essay contest before. But I did for this FQXi contest:
How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. …
In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.
Possible topics or sub-questions include, but are not limited to:
What is the best state that humanity can realistically achieve?
What is your plan for getting us there? Who implements this plan?
What technology (construed broadly to include practices and techniques) does your plan rely on? What are the risks of those technologies? How can those risks be mitigated?
My submission mainly takes issue with the idea that we can do much steering:
Humanity can best steer its future by working hard to clearly see the future it will have if we do nothing. Because most likely we will do little to steer our future. Yes, this answer frustrates our hunger for inspiring visions. Even so, it seems right. Let me explain.
Imagine you are holding on to a log, floating down the rapids of a wide fast murky river at night. You hear rough water ahead. How should you steer yourself?
You should not try to figure out what river you’d most rather be on, or what landscape you wished the river flowed through. Instead, you should focus on details of the actual river in front of you. You should also not just swim for the best looking spot in the river ahead; in a wide fast river you probably can’t get most places.
What you should do is, keeping in mind your limited stamina and abilities, look to see the places ahead where you could plausibly swim. See them as clearly as possible, and try to infer what might be just under the water where you cannot see. Don’t immediately swim before you look, but also don’t wait too long before starting a plan.
Steering humanity’s future is like swimming this river. It is way too fun and easy to assume that we can create any future world we can imagine. Yes the future is made by the sum total of all our actions, but we actually have very limited abilities to coordinate those actions, abilities that get worse on larger space and time scales. We don’t have a world government, and won’t anytime soon. The organizations we do have, they rarely plan more than a decade ahead.
Given our limited abilities to influence the future, our first priority must be to see as clearly as possible the likely outcomes if we do absolutely nothing. After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it. And the future world will likely be similar.
Yes, science fiction is full of stories of a few foresighted heroes swinging the tide of their civilization. And yes, inspiring speakers often rouse audiences to cheer by framing their causes as ways to help the future. But honestly, people are mostly moved to action by the world around them, not the distant future.
Seeing the future in enough detail does seem the hard part; deciding what to do given any specific vision seems easier. For example, if you see in the river ahead a sharp rock a bit off to the left, you should swim to the right. Seeing the rock is hard; deciding which way to swim is easy.
True, it may feel more inspiring to think about how you’d want to restructure the whole river landscape. But focusing on the rocks straight ahead is the best way to avoid smashing against them.
To read the rest, go here. You can also comment on my and others’ essays there.
Added 20Aug: Seems I won a “special commendation prize” of $1000.