An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

When I consider the world at large, there are three interrelated futures which terrify me.

Fear #1 is the culture war. Per the law of cultural proximity and musical outgroups, I expect this conflict to get worse in the near future as battle lines are more firmly drawn, and neutrality becomes increasingly impossible (I gave a few possibilities at the end of Musical Outgroups, but I’m now leaning more firmly towards “the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces”). We can already see this happening in recent events like protesters threatening passersby they assume are neutral.

Fear #2 is The Second American Civil War. David Shor makes a compelling case that post-Biden, the Republican party will end up with a multi-term lock on the presidency and the senate. A government consistently elected by a violently-hated minority (see fear #1) seems like a recipe for disaster. We’ve only had one term of Trump so far, and already witness renewed talk of Californian secession, and protester-led self-governing zones springing up and then fading away.

Fear #3 is World War 3. (Huh; fear #2 is the second civil war and fear #3 is the third world war. That’s numerically convenient). With America in turmoil, and civil war as a possible future, the age of Pax Americana (general world peace through American military dominance) has started to draw to a close. China and Russia are already starting to flex their muscles by snipping off bits of territory. They’re currently relying more on American being distracted than on an actual power shift, but that could change very rapidly if America descends into a genuine constitutional crisis or civil war.

I sincerely hope this is just my imagination running away with me, and none of this comes true.

Frankenstein Delenda Est

I.

I am terrified by the idea that one day, I will look back on my life, and realize that I helped create a monster. That my actions and my decisions pushed humanity a little further along the path to suffering and ruin. I step back sometimes from the gears of the technology I am creating, from the web of ideas I am promoting, and from the vision of the future that I am chasing, and I wonder if any of it is good.

Of course I play only the tiniest of roles in the world, and there will be no great reckoning for me. I am a drop in the ocean of the many, many others who are also trying to build the future. But still, I am here. I push, and the levers of the world move, however fractionally. Gears turn. Webs are spun. If I push in a different direction, then the future will be different. I must believe that my actions have meaning, because otherwise they have nothing at all.

No, I do not doubt my ability to shape the future; I doubt my ability to choose it well. The world is dense with opportunity, and we sit at the controls of a society with immense potential and awful power. We have at our disposal a library full of blueprints, each one claiming to be better than the last. I would scream, but in this library I simply whisper, to the blueprints: how do you know? How do you know that the future you propose has been authored by The Goddess of Everything Else, and is not another tendril of Moloch sneaking into our world?

Many people claim to know, to have ascended the mountain and to be pronouncing upon their return the commandments of the one true future: There is a way. Where we are going today, that is not the way. But there is a way. Believe in the way.

I hear these people speak and I am overcome with doubt. I think of butterflies, who flap their wings and create Brownian motion, as unfathomable as any hurricane. I think of fungi, whose simple mushrooms can hide a thousand acres of interwoven root. I think of the human brain, a few pounds of soggy meat whose spark eludes us. The weight of complexity is crushing, and any claim to understanding must be counterbalanced by the collected humility of a thousand generations of ignorance.

And on this complexity, we build our civilization. Synthesizing bold new chemicals, organizing the world’s information, and shaping the future through a patchwork mess of incentives, choices, and paths of least resistance. Visions of the future coalesce around politics of the moment, but there is no vision of the future that can account for our own radical invention. Do not doubt that Russell Marker and Bob Taylor did as much to shape today as any president or dictator. The levers we pull are slow, and their lengths are hidden, but some of them will certainly move the world.

And on these levers, we build our civilization. Invisible hands pull the levers that turn the gears that spin the webs that hold us fast, and those invisible hands belong to us. We pronounce our visions of a gleamingly efficient future, accumulating power in our bid to challenge Moloch, never asking whether Moloch is, simply, us. The institutions of the American experiment were shaped by the wisdom of centuries of political philosophy. That they have so readily crumbled is not an indictment of their authors, but of the radical societal changes none of those authors could foresee. Our new society is being thrown together slapdash by a bare handful of engineers more interested in optimizing behaviour than in guiding it, and the resulting institutions are as sociologically destructive as they are economically productive.

And on these institutions, we build our civilization.

II.

Sometimes, I believe that with a little work and a lot of care, humanity might be able to engineer its way out of its current rough patch and forward, into a stable equilibrium of happy society. Sometimes, if we just run a little faster and work a little harder, we might reach utopia.

There is a pleasant circularity to this dream. Sure, technology has forced disparate parts of our society together in a way that creates polarized echo chambers and threatens to tear society apart. But if we just dream a little bigger we can create new technology to solve that problem. And honestly, we probably can do just that. But a butterfly flaps its wings, and the gears turn, and whatever new technical solution we create will generate a hurricane in some other part of society. Any claims that it won’t must be counterbalanced by the collected humility of a thousand generations of mistakes.

Sometimes, I believe that the future is lying in plain sight, waiting to swallow us when we finally fall. If we just let things take their natural course, then the Amish and the Mennonites and (to a lesser extent) the Mormons will be there with their moral capital and their technological ludditism and their ultimately functional societies to pick up the pieces left by our self-destruction. Natural selection can be awful if you’re on the wrong end of it, but it still ultimately works.

Or maybe, sometimes, it’s all a wash and we’ll stumble along to weirder and weirder futures with their own fractal echoes of our current problems, as in Greg Daniels’s Upload. But I think of the complexity of this path, and I am overcome with doubt.

III.

I am terrified by the idea that one day, I will look back on my life, and realize that I helped create a monster. Not a grand, societal-collapse kind of monster or an elder-god-sucking-the-good-out-of-everything kind of monster. Just a prosaic, every-day, run-of-the-mill, Frankenstinian monster. I step back sometimes from the gears of the technology I am creating, from the web of ideas I am promoting, and from the vision of the future that I am chasing, and I wonder if it’s the right one.

From the grand library of societal blueprints, I have chosen a set. I have spent my life building the gears to make it go, and spinning the webs that hold it together. But I look up from my labour and I see other people building on other blueprints entirely. I see protests, and essays, and argument, and conflict. I am confident in my epistemology, but epistemology brings me only a method of transportation, not a destination.

I am terrified that it is hubris to claim one blueprint as my own. That I am no better than anyone else, coming down from the mountaintop, proclaiming the way. That society will destroy my monster of a future with pitchforks, or that worse, my monster will grow to devour what would have otherwise been a beautiful idyll.

Frankenstein was not the monster; Frankenstein created the monster.

The Law of Cultural Proximity

[Not my area of expertise, but I would be surprised if the core thesis was wrong in a significant way. Probably not as original as I think it is. Based on a previous blog post of mine that went in a very different/weird direction.]

Introduction

Currently, different human cultures have different behavioural norms around all sorts of things. These norms cover all kinds of personal and interpersonal conduct, and extend into different legal systems in countries around the globe. In politics, this is often talked about in the form of the Overton window, which is the set of political positions that are sufficiently “mainstream” in a given culture to be considered electable. Unsurprisingly, different cultures have different Overton windows. For example, Norway and the United States currently have Overton windows that tend to overlap on some policies (the punishment of theft) but perhaps not on others (social welfare).

Shared norms and a stable, well-defined Overton window are important for the stable functioning of society, since they provide the implicit contract and social fabric on which everything else operates. But what exactly is the scope of a “society” for which that is true? We just talked about the differences between Norway and the U.S., but in a very real sense, Norway and the U.S. share “western culture” when placed in comparison with Iran or North Korea. In the other direction, there are many distinct cultures entirely within the U.S. with different norms around things like gun control. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories.

However blurry these lines are, it might be tempting to assume that they get drawn roughly according to geography; it’s certainly reflected in our language (note my use of “western culture” already in this post). But this isn’t quite right: the key factor is actually interactional proximity; it’s just that in a historical setting geographical and interactional proximity were the same thing. Time for an example.

Ooms and Looms

Back in the neolithic era, the tribe of Oom and the tribe of Loom occupied opposite banks of their local river. These two tribes were closely linked in every aspect: geographically, linguistically, economically, and of course, culturally. Because the Ooms and the Looms were forced into interaction on such a regular basis, it was functionally necessary that they shared the same cultural norms in broad strokes. There was still room for minor differences of course, but if one tribe started believing in ritual murder and the other didn’t, that was a short path to disagreement and conflict.

Of course, neolithic tribes sometimes migrated, which is what happened a short time later when the tribe of Pa moved into the region from a distant valley. Compared to the Ooms and the Looms, the Pas were practically alien: they had different customs, different beliefs, and spoke a different language altogether. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of conflict resulted. One day an amorous Oomite threw a walnut towards a Pa, which was of course a common courting ritual among both the Ooms and the Looms. Unfortunately, the Pa saw it as an act of aggression. War quickly followed.

Ultimately, the poor Pa were outnumbered and mostly wiped out. The remaining Pa were assimilated into the culture of their new neighbours, though a few Pa words stuck around in the local dialect. Neolithic life went on.

In this kind of setting, you could predict cultural similarity between two people or groups purely based on geographic proximity. It was possible to have two very different peoples living side by side, but this was ultimately unstable. In the long run, such things resulted in conflict, assimilation, or at best a gradual homogenization as memes were exchanged and selected. But imagine an only-slightly-different world where the river between the Ooms and the Looms was uncrossable; we would have no reason to believe that Oom culture and Loom culture would look anything alike in this case. The law that describes this is the law of cultural proximity:

In the long run, the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact.

More First Contact

Hopefully the law of cultural proximity was fairly self-evident in the original world of neolithic tribes. But over time, trade and technology started playing an increasing role in people’s lives. The neolithic world was simple because interactions between cultures were heavily mediated by geographic proximity, but the advent of long-distance trade started to wear away at that principle. Ooms would travel to distant lands, and they wouldn’t just carry home goods; they would carry snippets of culture too. Suddenly cultures separated by great distances could interact more directly, even if only infrequently. Innovations in transportation (roads, ship design, etc) made travel easier and further increased the level of interaction.

This gradual connecting of the world led to a substantial number of conflicts between distant cultures that wouldn’t have even know about each other in a previous age. The Ooms and the Looms eventually ran into their neighbour the Dooms, who conquered and assimilated them both in order to control their supply of cocoa. The victor of successive conflicts, the Dooms formed an empire, developed new technologies, and expanded their reach even farther afield. On the other side of a once-uncrossable sea, the Dooms met the Petys; they interacted infrequently at first, but over time their cultures homogenized until they were basically indistinguishable from each other.

The Great Connecting

Now fast-forward to modern day and take note of the technical innovations of the last two centuries: the telegraph, the airplane, the radio, the television, the internet. While the prior millennia saw a gradual connecting of the world’s cultures, the last two hundred years have seen a massive step change: the great connecting. On any computer or phone today, I can easily interact with people from one hundred different countries around the globe. Past technologies metaphorically shrank the physical distance between cultures; the internet eliminates that distance entirely.

But now remember the law of cultural proximity: the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact. This law still holds, over the long run. However the internet is new, and the long run is long. We are currently living in a world where wildly different cultures are interacting on an incredibly regular basis via the internet. The result should not be a surprise.

The Future

[This section is much more speculative and less confident than the rest.]

The implications for the future are… interesting. It seems inevitable that in a couple of generations the world will have a much smaller range of cultures than it does today. The process of getting there will be difficult, and sometimes violent, but the result will be a more peaceful planet with fewer international disagreements or “culture wars”. A unified world culture also seems likely to make a unified world government possible. Whether the UN or some other body takes on this role, I expect something in that space to grow increasingly powerful.

While a stable world government seems like it would be nice, homogeneity has its pitfalls. There’s a reason we care about ecological diversity so much.

Of course in the farther future, human culture will fragment again as it spreads into space. The speed of light is a hard limit, and while our first Martian colony will likely stay fairly connected to Earth, our first extra-solar colony will be isolated by sheer distance and will be able to forge its own cultural path. Beyond that, only time will tell.