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Burning Man, Dreamtime and Dragons
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Like many people I went on a short vacation over the Labor Day weekend. Mine took me out to the Bay Area, where I attended the Pleasanton Scottish Festival with my family. I should mention that the festival was gigantic. It’s supposed to be the largest Scottish Festival west of the Mississippi and after being there, I can believe it. But the marvels of caber-tossing, bagpipe competitions, and sheep-dog trials (exclusive to the Pleasanton Scottish Festival as far as I can tell) are not what I want to talk about.
I did not realize, until we were on our way back, that the Labor Day weekend is also when Burning Man ends. My first clue was when we checked into a hotel in Reno on Sunday night, and I overheard someone talking about it, only to then realize that basically the entire lobby was filled with burners, as they’re called. Their presence continued to make itself felt on the drive home on Monday. As we drove east on I-80, I would estimate that half of the cars sharing the road with us were on their way home from Burning Man, so much so that my wife and I made a game of pointing them out. It wasn’t necessarily a hard game, people coming back from “The Burn” are pretty distinctive. If nothing else, there’s the distinctive dust of the playa, the dry lake bed in northern Nevada where Burning Man is held. This dust would generally be covering the entire vehicle, though sometimes just the bikes the person had strapped on to the back of their old RV and sometimes just the wheels, as in the case when my wife identified a burner I had missed.
So, then, Burning Man is what I want to talk about? No, or at least not directly. And before I get any farther, there are probably some of you who have never heard of Burning Man, or if you have heard of it, you’re not sure what it is. Well this is not the place to find out, but I have found that this quote from an old article about the phenomenon from Slate, does a pretty good job of encapsulating the weirdness, while also finally making the connection to the subject I do want to cover:
A good friend who's been to many Burns but (to his tremendous disappointment) couldn't make it out to the desert this year insisted that I visit him at his New York apartment to receive some pre-Burn instruction and advice. "Burning Man is an effort to reinvent the culture of Earth," he told me, in dead serious tones. "If you go, you must surrender to the spirit of the endeavor. You have a duty to participate. You can't just observe. You'll bring everybody down." He then solemnly handed me a white fur vest, a spangly blue cowboy hat, and a pair of ski goggles. I wasn't sure what I was meant to do with them. He assured me all would become clear soon enough.
I’ve never been to Burning Man, though I have several friends who’ve gone, and I get the impression that the tagline “Reinventing the Culture of the Earth in a White Fur Vest and a Spangly Blue Cowboy Hat” would not be very far from the mark. Alternatively the Slate article also described Burning Man as a collection of “unshowered vegans [and] jet-setting art freaks” which also seems pretty accurate from what I can tell. (If you detect some disdain at this point, it might be due to the fact that a group of very loud burners decided to have a conversation right outside my hotel room at 3:30 am when I was in Reno.) But as I said I’ve never gone, so it’s entirely possible that I’m misrepresenting it. But that line about reinventing the culture of the Earth always stuck with me, and it suggests that there are some people who think that a thousand years from now, “Burning” will be viewed as a movement similar in impact to Christianity or Buddhism. Put me down as someone who thinks this is very unlikely, but I do think that even if Burning Man specifically doesn’t end up deserving a special place in history, that this era more generally will. And here, finally, is what I want to talk about.
If humanity is around in a thousand years (and I certainly hope they are, in one form or another.) What place will this era hold in our history? Well first, it might be interesting to ask how how people of the future will demarcate this era. Will it be the era of American dominance? The era of hedonism?
Will they draw a line after World War II because that will have been the last big war? Will they draw a line at the start of the enlightenment? At the invention of the steam engine? At the fall of the Soviet Union?
I could see a case being made for any of the above, but I would vote for a line drawn after World War II. And not necessarily because it was the last big war (I’m on record as saying that it won’t be) but because it was the era when all the rules changed. Previously democracy was rare, now it’s common. Previously hierarchies were explicit, now equality is expected (if not always realized). Previously war was diplomacy by other means, now war is apocalyptic. Previously someone’s rights were abstract and rarely considered, now they’re central and frequently referred to. Now, obviously, this all didn’t happen instantly at the end of World War II, it was a gradual process, and as I said I can see drawing a line at any number of places, from the Civil War to the French Revolution to the impeachment of Trump (should it happen). But I think World War II was (at least for America) when it became apparent that the road ahead was clear, and it was time to put on the gas.
All of which is to say, even if I’m not sure where they’ll draw the line, I think it’s clear that when people look back they will see our time as a distinct era, and an important one as well. Mostly because of all the changes I just mentioned. Though, saying that this is an important and distinct period is not particularly revolutionary or even noteworthy. The real question I’m curious about is, a thousand years on, what will the impact of this era have been? Will I be wrong and people will call it the “Era of Burning Man?” There are apparently some people who think so, but, as I said I don’t think that’s one of the likely scenarios. And, of course, if I’m speaking of likely scenarios for something a thousand years in the future I can only speak very broadly. But in very broad terms here are a few likely scenarios:
The Beginning of Utopia: Though humans a thousand years from now might not give a place a pride to Burning Man, they may still view this era as the time when humanity passed from brutishness to true enlightenment. When the Long Peace started, the peace that eventually turned into the Forever Peace. When the initial faint promise of Transhumanism and AI turned into the Singularity and humans turned into gods. When all the hate and cruelty and inhumanity was done away with and when the era of tolerance and love, and individual flourishing began. Here, I offer my usual caveat. I would love it if this were the case, but even if I thought it were likely I would still argue that all of the rest of the items on this list are bad enough that we should still spend a significant amount of effort hedging against them.
Large Scale Nuclear War Happens: If this ends up happening then people a thousand years in the future will look back on this era as one of unmitigated folly. As the time when we had developed nuclear weapons but went blithely along, unconcerned by how destructive they were and how certain (in retrospect) their eventual use was. (This also would be a powerful argument for starting the era at the end of World War II.) I assume they would also view it as a time of vast hedonistic excess as well, considering everything we did between developing nukes and the eventual war as the worst trade-off of long-term responsibility for immediate pleasure in the history of humanity.
Some Other Negative Black Swan: I could have included nuclear war in this category as well, but I think it’s special enough that it deserves it’s own section. In this scenario we manage to avoid large scale nuclear war, but there is some other large negative event that we should have seen coming, but didn’t. I’ve talked about this a lot in past posts, including this one from just a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here. Particularly since the list of potential swans is nearly endless, and even if it’s one no one thought of, I imagine that the people of the future, much like ourselves, will not cut us much slack if we overlook our eventual doom, no matter how unlikely it seemed at the time.
Adolescent Idealism: Some people have put forth the theory that humanity is passing through something resembling college or maybe high school. A time when you feel like you know everything and the traditions and rules of your parents (and society in general) seem hopelessly antiquated, needlessly repressive and entirely unimportant in light of all the new knowledge you’ve just gained. Oftentimes this is accompanied by the belief that they’re going to change the world through social justice, equality, and radical redistribution. Sometimes these feelings last, but in general people discover that it’s all a lot harder than they thought. People a thousand years from now might look back on this as just such an era of “youthful” idealism. This view could exist alongside of possibilities two and three, or it could be that we avoid major negative events, and yet still appear hopelessly naive to our descendents.
Dreamtime: Many years ago Robin Hanson wrote an article where he speculated that our descendents would look back on this era as something of a “dreamtime”. He mentions many differences which will probably exist between us and our descendants, but he calls it dreamtime because of one huge difference, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” Why is that? Well he offers seven reasons in the original article, but all of them basically boil down to the idea that we are adapted to live in a world very different from the one we live in now. For 99.9% of human history we lived in a world with far fewer people, hardly any wealth, and almost no ongoing technological advancement. This difference is something I’ve mentioned many times in the past, and Hansen hits on many of the same things. The part where it gets interesting is when he points out that these are differences which not only existed between us and our ancestors, but which will exist between us and our descendents as well. Something I’d like to dig into a little bit more.
The idea of far fewer people may be where Hanson is on the shakiest ground. It certainly doesn’t feel, at this point, that this is likely to be that different for our descendents. But if you toss in the idea that we will eventually spread to the stars than this assertion makes perfect sense. Right now humanity is as global and connected as it has ever been, and possibly as it ever will be. I could, in theory, drop everything, hop on Skype and talk to anyone in the world. If, in the far future, the average descendent ends up on a planet light years away from Earth or any other planet, then this will obviously no longer be the case. Also whatever planet that is, it’s unlikely to have seven billion people on it. Now whether this will happen in a thousand years or not, I don’t know, but you can see where the tiny, widely separated colonies Hanson envisions for the future will be more similar to the world of yesterday than the world of today.
When someone says there was hardly any wealth in the past, no one is inclined to argue very much, but when Hanson points out that there will be hardly any wealth in the future, there are plenty of people willing to argue. But as I pointed out in a previous post, The current level of growth cannot continue forever, eventually it has to fall back to the level of “barely above zero” it was for most of human history. Hanson says it this way:
If income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.
Finally there’s the idea of almost no ongoing technological advancement. This is another area where things can’t continue forever. Or rather if it can continue forever than this era definitely does represent the beginning of utopia, and we can cease to worry about basically anything else. More likely there are still many things to discover, but the pace of discovery will start to slow, and discovering anything truly new will become rarer and rarer, until eventually we reach, a permanent technological plateau. This ends up being one of the key reasons for Hanson’s claim that future generations will view us as delusional.
Our knowledge has been growing so fast, and bringing such radical changes, that many of us see anything as possible, so that nothing can really be labeled a delusion.
So what should we be doing?
As I said, it may be that this era will be viewed by people in the future as the beginning of utopia, and what we should really be doing is rushing towards it as fast as possible. But I also listed four other likely scenarios which indicate that perhaps we should be exercising both more caution and more humility. Now I don’t claim that because there are four bad scenarios and only one good one that this means that the bad scenarios are more likely by a factor of four to one (though they might be, it’s impossible to know.) On the other hand, I think dismissing those scenarios, as so many people are quick to do, is equally, if not more foolish. The argument I’m making is that we live in a unique era, which, above all else, calls for unique caution. And this takes me to another, much more recent article by Robin Hanson.
He theorizes that one of the things that’s unique about this era is that rather than exploring new physical spaces, that we have moved to exploring new cultural spaces:
I want to suggest that Spaceship Earth is in fact a story of a brave crew risking much to explore a strange new territory. But the space we explore is more cultural than physical.
During the industrial era, the world economy has doubled roughly every fifteen years. Each such doubling of output has moved us into new uncharted cultural territory. This growth has put new pressures on our environment, and has resulted in large and rapid changes to our culture and social organization.
This growth results mostly from innovation, and most innovations are small and well tested against local conditions, giving us little reason to doubt their local value. But all these small changes add up to big overall moves that are often entangled with externalities, coordination failures, and other reasons to doubt their net value.
So humanity continues to venture out into new untried and risky cultural spaces, via changes to cultural conditions with which we don’t have much experience, and which thus risk disaster and destruction. The good crew of Spaceship Earth should carefully weigh these risks when considering where and how fast to venture.
This is a great way of framing what I’ve been saying from the very beginning. And when I assert, as the theme of this blog that, “We are not saved.” One of the reasons for making that assertion is that rather than moving cautiously and slowly into this new cultural space, we appear to be moving faster and getting less cautious with each passing year.
My guess is that there are two reasons why this is happening. First, as I just said, if people believe that this is the start of a future utopia, then it makes sense to be rushing towards it as fast as possible. But, as I have argued, not only is this not a given, it may not even be likely. And paradoxically, rushing into it, may make it less likely rather than more. Second there is the inertia of the status quo, which has had a bias towards “progress” for decades if not centuries, a belief that there is no level at which progress becomes bad, and faster progress is always better than slower progress.
This metaphor of the current era as a ship engaged in risky and rapid (cultural) exploration was the primary thing I wanted to pass along from the article, but Hanson does tie it into the culture war (as you might imagine) and gives the usual plea for more reasonable debate:
The most common framing today for such issues is one of cultural war. You ask yourself which side feels right to you, commiserate with your moral allies, then puff yourself up with righteous indignation against those who see things differently, and go to war with them. But we might do better to frame these as reasonable debates on how much to risk as we explore culture space.
This got me to thinking, people always offer up reasonable debate as a potential solution to this problem. And it does seem eminently sensible, things would probably go better if there was more talking and less war. I have certainly also advocated for this position, particularly in preference to Godzilla trudging back and forth. But I have also pointed out that there were decades of reasonable debates before the current crisis, and yet it had very little effect on the speed of cultural exploration. Also, in a certain sense, the cultural war is a debate, particularly given that, even using very extreme estimates, there have been almost no fatalities in this war (so far). The problem we’re facing is not that we need to have more debates or that the debates need to be more reasonable (though neither would hurt). The problem is that our policies don’t do a very good job of reflecting the uncertainty we are (or at least should be) experiencing.
I have definitely covered many areas where we should be less certain than we are. This is well covered territory (in this blog and a few others, though not much outside that.) But perhaps framing it as the idea of risky exploration, or of a unique era calling for unique caution makes it clear to some people in a way that previous explanations didn’t. Also, once we realize that humanity is engaged in cultural exploration we can go on to realize that this exploration is proceeding at a faster rate than ever.
What does the future hold? How will this era be viewed a thousand years from now? I don’t know, but I think the next few decades could be very consequential to that future view. The old maps used to mark unexplored areas of the world with pictures of dragons, or sea serpents: here be dragons, as they say. As it turns out there weren’t any dragons, but as we explore the space of culture, we may find out, that this time, there are.
Speaking of unexplored spaces, I’m guessing that many reading this blog have not explored the space of donations. It’s actually not as bad as you think. In fact I guarantee there are no dragons.