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. …
The trick is that those near-mode urges don't have to be abstract to coincide with far mode ideals. It could even be as simple as the person in near mode only caring about coming across as someone who does a lot with far mode ideals. On the other hand there's the "good person", the personality type that really gets near mode satisfaction from helping people or working for a cause: if raising orphans brings me joy because it appeals to my strong paternal instincts then I can effortlessly work towards my far mode ideals regarding orphans even when I'm in near mode. I don't even have to stumble upon it: when I'm in far mode I can force myself to look for an activity that conforms to my far ideals and gives me near satisfaction. With your background I suppose you could answer the question of whether cognitive therapy could make a person enjoy something in near mode that they didn't enjoy previously.
You're merely playing on the vagueness of "better."
I guess one thing we shouldn't be forgetting is far and near mode ideals converging in some people, when that happens those people can really devote themselves to influencing the future.
It's an interesting question: to what extent is our inability to influence the future due to technology having a (socially) spontaneous dynamic and to what extent it is due to (as another commenter said) influencing the future not really being about influencing the future. (This is implicitly discounted in Robin's raft analogy: there's little question that the raft person really wants to get to shore. In fact, I think it's a serious weakness in the analogy.)
I'm uncertain, but I question whether anyone has so close a match between far-mode ideals and near-more urges. I don't think we're wired to have abstract near-mode urges.
Perhaps biographical investigation of personalities thought to be particularly "selfless" could help resolve the question.
I guess one thing we shouldn't be forgetting is far and near mode ideals converging in some people, when that happens those people can really devote themselves to influencing the future. They would bring what others consider sacrifices though they won't fully feel like sacrifices to these people. An example would be a person who's quit a hundred jobs and finally finds job satisfaction aiding some cause that they also see as improving humanity's future, or an emperor/king who devotes his every waking moment to improving his realm because he really enjoys building and perfecting a big project, or even because he wants to be remembered as a great ruler.
I would claim that idealism is inherently associated with the idea of making the world a better place, so "idealism not directed towards improving the future" is basically an oxymoron. "Distant" you can haggle over, I'll admit.
Idealism isn't the same as idealism directed toward improving the distant future. And few who systematized knowledge or wrote books did do so mainly to help the distant future.
"After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it."
It is not clear to me that this is correct, even if it is sharpened to be meaningfully falsifiable.
Without specific people taking actions which related to idealostic goals, I doubt we would have science. It seems to me that without those who devoted themselves to various selfless goals, humanity would get stuck at roughly the level of the Aztecs: we would probably farm, we would have heirarchies and we would have politics and bloody wars with primitive weapons. But without the systematization of knowledge and the efforts of those who wrote books laboriously by hand, I doubt that humanity would have moved beyond basic farming and killing people with pointy sticks.
I suppose it's a tough counterfactual to consider because you have to imagine the effect of total selfishness and disregard for the greater good on many different aspects of human life; for example without at least some idealism I doubt that you would get empires like Rome, you'd probably get many feifdoms and the occasional mongol horde that rampaged through it all based upon a military edge. In fact to what extent is human society dependent on at least some people thinking of the long term good of the whole? What is the maximum size of empire or kingdom you can run if everyone is totally selfish and cares naught about the greater good? I would love to know.
From the submission:
Okay, now that we have a clearer vision of the river ahead, how can we realistically steer it, given our very limited sphere of influence? The easiest advice to give helps individuals and small groups, and requires little larger coordination. First, diversify both your financial and social assets, especially away from your abilities to earn wages, and toward the industries and locations most likely to host the new em economy. Second, teach your descendants to hope to start one of the most copied em clans. Realizing the odds are greatly against you, take great risks to achieve and show your high and reliable productivity and flexibility, in em--]world--]like tasks and environments. Learn to get along well with people much like yourself, and to value life when it is hard and alien.
Your solution to the problem, how to steer the future, is to try very hard to become an em.
But this is only a solution if your idea of steering the future is becoming, yourself, very rich and powerful. Even if a billionaire can do little to steer the future long-term, maybe an em trillionaire can. But this is a quite peculiar form of "steering": you don't really know even the direction you will want to take once you're emmed.
That question is equivocal, and you've all been equivocating. "How much can people now realistically coordinate" has been interpreted as meaning something like 1) what's the marginal utility of any efforts I make to affect the future and 2) how much successful conscious coordination can be expected (for long term) to occur in human society.
These represent two distinct kinds of bases for evaluating participation in mass movements. 1) Does it matter if I participate? 2) Does it matter if my side wins, provided it has a reasonable chance of winning)?
If you mean 1) (the individual marginal utility question), then the answer is very obvious. But people don't justify participating in collective movements that change society for the long term based (only) on marginal utility calculations. (There would be no social movements if they did.) They want to know (at least in principle) whether the movement has a chance of changing society.
In short, if you're asking the individualist question, you're uninterestingly correct. But you all think the individualist question is interesting because you conflate it with 2).
Is there a longer explanation somewhere that the technology for ems may only be a century away?
I found your likely-unconscious choice of words amusing: "I can’t recall ever applying to an essay contest before." Applying? One "enters" a contest; one "applies" for a grant. :)
"Obviously a lot of human actions have had impacts on the future."
Yes, obviously Hanson is saying more than that human actions can have impacts on the future. He's saying that social coordination to "achieve objectives ... centuries down the line" fails in these objectives.
But you commit the same equivocation as does Hanson when you reduce a problem concerning the efficacy of social coordination on distant goals to the "individual actions of some French intellectuals." That's the question of individual efficacy rather that the question of the efficacy of conscious social coordination. The question of the long-term efficacy of conscious social coordination is much harder than that pertaining to individuals' actions.
The distinction might be clarified by analogy to the problem of whether elections matter—in distinction to whether it matters who any individual votes for. Obviously, each individuals vote means, for practical purposes, nothing. Does it matter which party wins? Maybe not, but it's a separate question. (A sufficiently separate question that Robin votes.)
If the French Revolution's contribution to eventual democracy was only partial, was "mostly" due to "broad economic reasons," then it still was a partly successful coordination achieving important intended long-term effects.
There are a few other points I wanted to make in relation to the question "How should a particular human work to steer humanity's future?". I think it's pretty obvious that the median person doesn't change the world much. But there's a subset of the population that has a much higher ability to steer humanity's future. The answer to the question "How should a particular human work to steer humanity's future?" is going to be much different if that particular human is Barack Obama. In fact, I would argue that the majority of future-steering happens as a result of the influence of top intellectuals, politicians, businesspeople, thought leaders, etc. Given any historical scenario, I'd guess you could cause it to go entirely differently if you were just given the opportunity to swap out the top 1% of the population (according to some aggregate measure of wealth, intelligence, influence, etc.)
So any good answer to the question "How should a particular human work to steer humanity's future?" should first of all have the listener determine how much influence they already have and how much influence they could feasibly attain. Otherwise you risk having people who actually have quite a bit of influence, or could have quite a bit of influence, throw up their hands in despair upon reading an answer targeted at the median human. These people are very important and we don't want to be giving them the wrong message! I'd rather see an essay targeting them in particular and ignoring typical folks than an essay targeting typical folks and ignoring folks who actually could have significant influence.
Note that readers of this blog and probably the entries in this essay contest are selected for various characteristics that make it more likely that they'll steer the future: high intelligence, high unconventionality, and an actual interest in steering the future. And that brings me to the biggest reason why I suspect it's surprisingly possible to steer the future: not many people are trying very hard. At least in certain ways; I'll cite you here Robin: http://www.overcomingbias.c...
Actions may have influenced the future, but that is different from those actions being taken because actors anticipated those particular influences changing things in an expected desirable direction.