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I’ve noticed a hole recently. More specifically, a hole in my writing. I frequently meet people who I think would enjoy or appreciate my ideas, and yes, occasionally, when I meet these people, I say “Check out my blog!” and give them the URL. But I do it less often than I should, and part of the reason for that is I’m unsure where I should tell them to start. There was the very first post, which was intended as an introduction, but at this point that was two and a half years ago, and in that time things have evolved somewhat. And even assuming they read the first post, where do they go from there? Certainly I can’t expect them to then read everything up to the present day. So this is the post where I’m going to fill that hole. If you’re not its intended audience, i.e. you’re one of the people who’s been faithfully reading since the beginning or at least a long time, then I hope that it will be interesting to you as well, but you have my permission to skip it.
This blog starts with two basic and related questions. “What does the future hold?” And, “What should I be doing about it?” Many people, if not most, don’t think very deeply about the future, and what thoughts they do have assume it will be similar to the present, except possibly with better smartphones. Meaning they should largely continue to do what they’ve been doing. There is another, smaller group of people, who do think deeply about the future and they’ve concluded it’s going to be “Awesome!” That technology will solve all our problems. And beyond working to bring that future to pass as quickly as possible, what they intend to do is sit back and enjoy it.
My answer is different than both groups. It’s taken from a verse in the Bible, the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
This answer is the theme of the blog, and also the origin of the domain name as well. But to properly understand how I arrived at that it I’m going to have to walk you through a few things first. To start with, when people think about the future they usually do so on one of four levels, two of which I’ve already alluded to:
1- Taking the present as a guide: These are essentially the people I mentioned above who don’t think very deeply about the future, and default to assuming it’s going to be similar to the present. To be fair, if you’re just going from one year to the next most years are pretty similar, so this isn’t a horrible strategy. Also thinking about the future is difficult, as we’ll see.
2- Taking the recent past as a guide: Not that long ago, by historical standards, we learned to start “harvesting” technology, and we entered a “summer” of progress. The harvest was bountiful and the summer was bright. As I said above, it’s been pretty awesome. We went from the steam engine all the way to nuclear power. We eliminated slavery and promoted democracy. We experienced exponential economic growth. And, at least in the developed countries, even relatively poor people have it pretty good when compared with the historical average. These people are not so naive as to think that nothing changes, but they feel that the harvest of technology and summer of progress have altered conditions so completely that only recent trends matter.
3- Taking all of human history as a guide: This approach is similar to the last one, but broader, and while no one in this category gives the same weight to 25 AD that they give to last year, when attempting to predict the future, they still give some weight to 25 AD. This obviously makes them less inclined to think that we have permanently banished war between the great powers, and less inclined to cast aside religion and tradition. They also have a greater tendency to think differences in culture are profound, or that technology has not changed things as much as people think.
4- Taking the attitude that the future can’t be predicted: It could be argued that this attitude is undoubtedly true, but not very useful. Perhaps, but just because I said that the future can’t be predicted doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. The mere realization of its unpredictability makes some actions better than others. For example diversification vs. betting everything on a single investment, regardless of how safe it seems. A lesson some Bernie Madoff investors learned too late.
Of these four levels, the first level is fine probably 90% of the time, maybe even more. Which is part of why most people end up on this level, but when we start talking about how often it works at a societal level, it goes from adequate to hopelessly naive. And I think we can safely remove it from further consideration.
The second level is the “Awesome!” level. The idea that the harvest is going to continue and the summer is never going to end.
The third and fourth levels might seem different, but the difference is less than you imagine. Level four says bad things might happen and we should live in such a way that, if they do, if things turn out to not be awesome, then it won’t be the end of the world (and I mean this literally). Level three says that bad things have happened a lot, and that based on historical evidence the world has generally not been awesome, and that further, religions, traditions and cultural norms have developed to minimize the impact of the bad things when they do happen.
We can combine three and four together into the camp of people who think the future is not going to be awesome versus, level two, the camp of people who think it is going to be awesome. I’m in the non-awesome camp. Though I’m aware that I may be wrong, and when people in the “awesome camp” point out that things are pretty great right now, relatively speaking, they’re not wrong. What we’ve been able to do over the last few hundred years has been truly incredible. But here’s the main point, and if there was one thing I want you to take away from this post, and actually from everything I’ve written it’s this:
If I’m wrong and the future is awesome, then we will have only lost the time and resources that I, and others like me, spent preparing for something that never happened. But if the other side is wrong, if the future is not awesome, if catastrophes happen which could have been avoided, then the cost is the full weight of those avoidable catastrophes. Which could be millions of people dying, or billions, or everybody.
This asymmetry, when combined with the fact that we cannot predict the future is why I’m on the “non-awesome team”. Without the ability to predict what will happen, it’s best to prepare for the worst.
That phrase “prepare for the worst” may incline you to believe that I’m just another “prepper” who’s going to urge you to stockpile guns, ammo and food. Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you not to do that (if you’ll forgive the double negative) but I also think “the worst” could encompass situations far more subtle and slow-moving than a nuclear holocaust. For all it’s terror, wide scale nuclear war is fairly straightforward. First as I pointed out in a previous post The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope it probably doesn’t mean the end of all human life. Second if it does happen it will reduce everything down to a simple question of survival in very difficult circumstances, and I think despite the conveniences of modern life that it will turn out that we’re still pretty good at that. So, yes it is probably a good idea to prepare for that, but if it happens I think you’ll know what to do. This blog is dedicated to more subtle dangers where the correct action might not be quite so obvious.
The source of these subtle dangers turns out to be the same as the source of awesomeness: progress and technology. In addition to harvesting stuff like representative government and antibiotics, the harvest has also brought us the aforementioned danger of nuclear weapons, and by some accounts the more insidious danger of social media. So let’s talk about technology.
As I said at the beginning my answer to the question of what the future brings is that the harvest of technology is past. But what do I mean by that? Surely technology is still advancing? Don’t new smartphones still come out every year? (Now with three rear facing cameras!) They do, but a harvest implies things that are beneficial, that are life-sustaining, and more and more, new technology is neither. I mentioned social media and just this week a study was released by Stanford claiming a marked improvement in mental health from quitting Facebook. This is not to say there aren’t also stories about potential cures for cancer (though this most recent story is probably bogus) but I’m not sure where the balance between harmful and beneficial technologies sits at the moment. It may on net have tipped to harmful, and even if it hasn’t, as I pointed out in a recent post. It only takes one really bad technology to destroy us while there may be no amount of technology that will permanently save us.
Another thing to consider is how would technology save us? Over a long enough time horizon, to be truly saved we have to leave Earth. Until we do that we have “all our eggs in one basket” so to speak. I was about two years old the last time there was a man on the moon, and growing up I read a steady diet of science fiction stories from the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Card and Hogan which all naturally assumed that we would soon leave the Earth and journey out into the cosmos. (level two!) But we never even went back to the Moon, and currently we spend about $64/person/year in the US on NASA as compared to the $10,739/person/year on healthcare. Now of course you could argue that we should add the operating costs of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on top of the NASA figure, but even if we did it wouldn’t break $100/person/year, and beyond that the vast majority of that does not go towards anything that would allow us to permanently and sustainably leave Earth. Think of other things you spend more than $100/year on, McDonalds? (I admit I myself suffer from mild addition to sausage egg McMuffins) and you get some sense of how low of a priority it really is.
I compared NASA spending to healthcare spending just now for a reason, because healthcare spending represents one of the subtle and slow-moving dangers I was talking about. A big part of what makes it subtle is how unobjectionable it seems. What kind of heartless person (other than me I suppose) would have a problem with spending money on health? But why do we spend so muchmoney on it? If technology and progress are so great why are they making us less healthy? Why has the rate of diabetes increased by eight times from 1959 to 2015? Why has there been a worldwide increase in obesity? And why is it more pronounced in “more advanced” countries? Why has there been a large increase in mental illness, particularly among teens? And why does it appear to correlate with social media use? (All level four) Considering all of this, I stand by my assertion that the “summer has ended.” And, to bring it back to the original point, it’s going to be hard for technology to save us if we’re spending 100x as much on the problems technology creates as we are on the salvation we hope it will provide.
Reasonable people may disagree with my figure of 100x or the entire argument, but what you can’t disagree with is the enormous amount of change progress and technology has wrought. To return to the two original questions. Given this massive amount of change, “What does the future hold?” And “What should we be doing about it?” Thus far I’ve mostly focused on the first question but now it’s time to turn our focus to the second. As I mentioned if you believe, because of progress and technology, that the future is going to be awesome (level two) then your main goal is to bring that awesome future to pass as quickly as possible. This means adopting new technology and new morality as quickly as possible. The problem is, if we have decided that we don’t know what the future will bring (level four) and by extension what effect new technology will ultimately have, then rapid adoption just hastens the arrival of an unknown, but potentially negative future, and gives us less time to adapt to any potential harms. So what should we do about this?
The answer is: “Be antifragile.” What does that mean? Antifragile is a word coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book of the same name, to describe things that get stronger when they’re subjected to stress. Of course, this can only be true up to a point, nothing is infinitely antifragile, but, as you probably guessed, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. In other words, if you’re antifragile then even if the future isn’t awesome you’ll be okay, in fact you may even be better off. Of course you might also add in slow down the adoption of new technology and morality, but as an individual that’s something you have very little influence over. Also having an antifragile mindset give you an intellectual backing for the what, the how and the why of slowing things down.
Of course, it’s easy to say, “Just do that thing where bad stuff makes you stronger.” But what does it actually look like in practice? Allow me to turn to one of my favorite quotes from Taleb:
If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.
This example perfectly illustrates the point I made above. If you’re wrong and there are never any difficulties (but how likely is that?) then you’re just that somewhat eccentric guy with spam in his basement who could have had a boat, or a bigger house instead. But if the guy in debt is wrong and difficulties arise then he ends up bankrupt with possibly no house.
Additionally this doesn’t just apply to cash. If you’re married, and in a strong religious community, than difficulties are a lot easier to face than if you’re single, or have no large community to draw on. This is most apparent when you’re speaking of single parent families which are much more fragile than two parent families.
Early on I grouped the historical view (level three) and the skeptical view (level four) together. It’s now time to separate them again because the historical view has a lot to teach us about how to be antifragile. First it’s important to realize that things are either fragile or antifragile. They are either harmed by stress and disorder or they are helped by it. There is a third category, robust, things that are neither harmed nor helped, but in practice very few things are truly robust so I’m going to ignore it.
As it turns out the amount of stress and disorder something has been subjected to is, to a good approximation, equal to the amount of time it’s been around. Meaning that long standing beliefs including culture, religion and tradition are almost certainly antifragile, because the only other option is for them to be fragile, and if they were, they would have disappeared at some point. Broken by the stress and disorder which inevitably occurs over a sufficiently long period of time.
This makes sense, the past contained all sorts of difficulties and uncertainties and it’s only to be expected that people would have developed tools to soften those difficulties. One of these tools was obviously religion, which encouraged things like having kids only if you had two people to raise them, a spare parent in case something happened. And it’s why a taboo against premarital sex didn’t just exist in Christian Europe, it existed in the Muslim Middle East, and even Ancient China.
Accordingly this blog spends a lot of time defending traditional beliefs and religion, because I think they’re still the best strategy for dealing with an uncertain future. This is contrary to the more common refrain that we no longer need religion and traditions because things have changed so much, but if things are changing so much and so fast how do we know what we need? To know that we would have to know what’s going to happen, and we can’t. And if that’s the case, the best strategy is to be antifragile and the best way to do that is using the tools which have been developed over thousands of years for exactly that purpose: traditional religion.
There is, of course, another reason for religion, one I personally subscribe to. Unlike, progress and technology, which I have argued don’t offer salvation, religion does offer that hope. I agree it’s a hope not a certainty. I agree that it requires faith, but I still think it gives better odds than us being saved under our own power.
To tie everything together, I think we should prepare for a future which is not-awesome. That technology and progress are moving things into unknown territory, and bringing with them the potential of subtle and slow moving catastrophes. But that despite these changes the best way to prepare is the same as it’s always been, follow traditional values, because they’re traditional for a reason.
For those encountering my writing for the first time, if any of this resonates with you I urge you to keep reading, I put out a new post every week. (Here’s a link to my mailing list if you’d like to be notified.) And if you’re ready for more right now here are some other posts you might find interesting:
If you’d like to read more about the subtle ways that technology is making things worse check out my post on supernormal stimuli. Examples include things like twinkies and pornography.
One reason to be pessimistic about the ability of technology to save us is that it doesn’t appear to have worked anywhere else. The universe is silent. This is called Fermi’s Paradox and I’ve written lots of posts about it, including what it might say about the existence of God.
As I mentioned above the “awesome camp” has a lot to recommend it, if you’re interested in a deeper examination of why I’ve decided to bet the other way I’d recommend the post where I review Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.
I’ve just barely scratched the surface of antifragility, to say nothing of Taleb’s other ideas like Black Swan events. If you’re interested in learning more see my post on The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
The idea I’m perhaps best known for is the realization that proposals for ensuring the morality of god-like AIs strongly resemble the LDS Plan of Salvation. If you’re interested I did a whole three part series on it. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
Finally, remember this: The world is in a state of flux. Things are changing more rapidly than people realize. The future is not guaranteed to be awesome. Religion is not a useless relic of the past and we are not saved.
If this is the first post of mine you’ve read then another thing I do is come up with a clever (or not so clever) way to ask for your donation at the end of every post. But I’ll forebear this time. Just as there as some things you shouldn't do on a first date, it’s probably inappropriate to ask for money on the first post.