Burning Man, Dreamtime and Dragons - 2023
Originally published in 2019 — modernized for your edification. Why this one from all the other dreck? Robin Hanson read it and said, "Another thoughtful post: good job." Suck on that haters!
If you prefer an audio version click here.
Back in 2019, I went on a short vacation over the Labor Day weekend. This took me out to the Bay Area, where I attended the Pleasanton Scottish Festival with my family. The festival was gigantic — it’s allegedly the largest Scottish Festival west of the Mississippi and I can believe it after attending. 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.
Until we were on our way back, I had not realized that 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 hard.
People coming back from “The Burn” are pretty distinctive. If nothing else, there’s the 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 the dust just clung to 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. I have found that this 2011 article does a pretty good job of encapsulating the weirdness. Here’s my favorite quote which, in addition to being insane, will finally introduce the subject I do intend 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 have, 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 2011 article also describes Burning Man as a collection of “unshowered vegans [and] jet-setting art freaks”. This also seems pretty accurate based on what I’ve seen and heard. (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.
If humanity is around in a thousand years (and I certainly hope we are, in one form or another.) What place will this era hold in our history? Well first, it might be interesting to ask how people of the future will demarcate this era. Will it be the era of American dominance? The era of hedonism?
Will our progeny 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 would personally draw the line right after World War II. 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 the pedal to the metal”.
Even if it’s unclear where to draw the line, it is clear that a line should be drawn. 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?” Some people think so, but I continue to maintain that it’s extremely unlikely.
In very broad terms, below are are a few hypothetical scenarios:
The Beginning of Utopia: Though humans a thousand years from now might not give a place of 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 made themselves 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.
All Out Nuclear War: As I have pointed out elsewhere, all out nuclear war will not mean the end of humanity. But it would definitely be something that would be remembered a thousand years from now. But would it be remembered as the very last war or the first of many nuclear wars? In the former case our era will be important because it was the end of the horror. In the latter case we’ll be noteworthy because we began the horror. In both cases the last few decades will be viewed as a period of blissful ignorance, where we didn’t realize how good we had it and focused on the wrong dangers.
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 its 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. Perhaps a pandemic worse than COVID. Perhaps we’re just slowly eroded by decadence. The list is nearly endless, with some items that we’ve yet to consider. Should our doom come “out of left field” 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/or 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 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.
Let’s take each of Hanson’s points in turn:
People have been worried about overpopulation for decades, so the idea that our descendents will live in a world with far fewer people seems at first glance to be unlikely. But a key part of Hanson’s prediction hinges on the idea that we will eventually spread to the stars. Once you take that into account, Hanson’s prediction about a sparsely populated future seems obvious.
Right now humanity is as global and connected as it has ever been, and possibly as it ever will be. I could, in theory, 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 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.
Moving on, 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 his 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. He writes:
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.
Given these various possibilities, what should we do?
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 that’s just one of the possibilities, all of the remaining possibilities would suggest that we should be exercising both more caution and more humility.
I am not claiming that the quantity of bad to good, four to one, is the deciding factor. Probability is more important than number of possibilities. Unfortunately we can’t truly know what the probabilities are, so dismissing the negative possibilities is premature. We live in a unique era which presents unique challenges. And this takes me to another article by Robin Hanson.
In this article 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.
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.
That said, the solution is much more difficult than just turning up the “reasonable debate” knob. People always offer up reasonable debate as a potential solution to this problem. 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.
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 as we explore new cultural territory.
I have definitely covered many areas where we should be less certain than we are. This is well covered territory. 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. And, 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 legendary creatures: sea serpents and the like. 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.
Some additional thoughts in 2023:
I had forgotten the metaphor of progress as the exploration of cultural space. This is surprising because it’s a rather good one. As it turns out we’re not just exploring the newly discovered territories of massive social connection, gender self-identification, and unlimited, trivially accessible, hardcore porn we’re building houses there. It would be one thing if some brave volunteer wanted to explore these places and then come back and report, it’s quite another for everyone to immediately pack up and move there…