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In Favor Of Futurism Being About The Future

From Boston Review: Know Thy Futurist. It’s an attempt to classify and analyze various types of futurism, in much the same way that a Jack Chick tract could be described as “an attempt to classify and analyze various types of religion”.

I have more disagreements with it than can fit in a blog post, but let’s stick with the top five.

First, it purports to explain what we should think about the future, but never makes a real argument for it. It starts by suggesting there are two important axes on which futurists can differ: optimism vs. pessimism, and belief in a singularity. So you can end up with utopian singularitarians, dystopian singularitarians, utopian incrementalists, and dystopian incrementalists. We know the first three groups are wrong, because many of their members are “young or middle-age white men” who “have never been oppressed”. On the other hand, the last group contains “majority women, gay men, and people of color”. Therefore, the last group is right, there will be no singularity, and the future will be bad.

You’re going to protest that there has to be something more than that. Read the article. There really isn’t. The author ignores the future almost completely, in favor of having very strong opinions on which futurist movements include the right or wrong sorts of people. AI risk researchers are “majority men, although more women than in the previous group”; techno-utopians are “more women still…but in the end that does not denote progress”. All singularitarians were “sex-starved teenagers” and they all “wax eloquent about meritocracy over expensive wine” in a “super-rich bubble”. The lovingly detailed descriptions everyone’s social class, racial breakdown, gender ratio, what politics the author imagines they have, and what sexual insecurities she thinks produced their opinions. contrasts markedly with a total lack of concern for any of their beliefs or opinions about the future, their justifications for their beliefs, or whether those justifications are true or false. Literally the only future-related thing we know about the article’s third quadrant is that they may be involved in Bitcoin or something.

The author never even begins to give any argument about why the future will be good or bad, or why a singularity might or might not happen. I’m not sure she even realizes this is an option, or the sort of thing some people might think relevant.

Second, the article’s section on singularitarianism never mentions anything about the Singularity and doesn’t really seem to understand what the Singularity is. Its example of Singularity technologies are “augmenting intelligence through robotics”, “better quality of life through medical breakthroughs”, “cryogenics” (I assume it’s confusing this with cryonics), “medical strategies for living forever”, and “possibly even the blood of young people.”

None of these (except maybe the first) relate to the Singularity, which is defined as a point at which the rate of technological advance reaches near-infinity and it’s impossible to predict what happens afterwards. The article seems to use “singularitarianism” to mean “cool near-future technologies”, which is kind of the opposite of its real meaning. This is a fatal error for an article proposing a system classifying all futurists as “singularitarian” vs. “nonsingularitarian”.

It makes sense only in the context of the author having no interest in futurist movements at all, and indeed she later more-or-less admits that by ‘singularitarian optimists’ she means ‘rich white people she doesn’t like’. When discussing Elon Musk, whom some might call a pessimist based on his belief that the Singularity will destroy the world and doom humanity, she says that “being an enormously rich and powerful entrepreneur, he probably belongs in the first [Singularity optimist] group”.

Third, the article wants to classify some technologies as inextricably associated with privilege, but it has a pretty weird conception of which ones they are. It gives five examples of technologies that it’s possible to worry about without being a privileged white man, and every one of them is a different form of algorithmic bias. Really? That’s the only future technology it’s okay to care about? So much so that of five slots for potentially worrying technology, you filled all five with the same one?

Likewise, when the author discusses bad “singularity” technologies that only white men could want, she includes “better quality of life through medical breakthroughs”. I’m sure this just slipped in by accident. I’m sure (pretty sure?) if we pointed her to someone with chronic pain who hasn’t been able to leave the house in years and asked whether it might be good to have technology that could help this person, she would say yes. But it’s a really interesting slip-up to make. I’ve written hundreds of articles during my lifetime and I don’t think I’ve ever mistakenly said that only privileged white men could care about not being sick.

Again, this would make sense if the author doesn’t really believe in futurology except as a way of sending the right class signals. Helping sick people improve their quality of life? Do gross male nerds from the outgroup support that or oppose that? Okay, sold. I’m sure if her mental editor had caught it, she’d have realized that she was supposed to support that kind of thing, but it would be a post-processing addition to her thought stream rather than a natural component of it.

Fourth, the article presupposes a bitter conflict between the four quadrants, whereas actually people tend to be a lot more on the same side than she expects.

Her pessimists are concerned about algorithmic bias making banks less likely to extend credit to poor people. But her optimists just care about flashy new things like cryptocurrency. Okay. But one possible application for cryptocurrency is peer-to-peer microfinance via smart contracts – ie one of the most promising solutions to bias in big financial institutions. You don’t have to agree this is a good solution. But cryptocurrency enthusiasts are working on it, and it seems weird to deny this matters or that the whole reason behind developing some of these flashy new technologies is to solve recognized societal problems.

And her singularitarians are strategizing how to deal with far-future advanced AI algorithms, while her nonsingularitarians are strategizing how to deal with near-future primitive AI algorithms. These seem like…not entirely the opposite of each other? Imagine you were writing an article on the different kind of climatologists studying global warming. There’s the kind who indulge in crazy sci-fi scenarios where entire cities flood and the Earth becomes uninhabitable. And then there’s the kind dealing with important real-world problems like increased frequency of hurricanes and creeping desertification. Is this a reasonable distinction? Which kind should you be?

(Boston Review readers: “How should I know? You didn’t tell me what ethnicity they are!”)

Most people concerned about climate change are concerned about both those things. Maybe there’s a little room for disagreement on the best way to balance long-term versus short-term goals – should we build seawalls to protect our cities today, or start a program of power plan retrofitting which will pay off in twenty years? But to try to turn these two positions into arch-enemies would be ridiculous and destructive. The scientists involved may have different research interests and skillsets, but not necessarily different opinions. Obviously we should have some people working on near-term problems and other people laying the groundwork to work on long-term problems.

In real life, this is what futurists are doing too. The Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI was organized by people whose main interest was far-future Singularity scenarios, but it included some of the top experts on algorithmic bias, gave the subject a lot of airtime, and ended up with all participants signing onto a set of principles urging more work both on near-term AI problems like algorithmic bias and long-term AI problems like the development of superintelligence. Jed McCaleb, founder of Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, donated $500,000 of his profits to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, which deals with long-term concerns about the Singularity. In the real world, everyone from all four “quadrants” of futurist are either allies, or the same people.

Again, I feel like this is the kind of error you could only make if you totally missed that futurism was a real subject, and you just wanted to make it into a morality play for your particular political opinions.

Fifth, another quote from the article:

In the end my taxonomy (as amusing as I find it) doesn’t really matter to the average person. For the average person there is no difference between the singularity as imagined by futurists in Q1 or Q2 and a world in which they are already consistently and secretly shunted to the “loser” side of each automated decision.

I already posited that the author doesn’t understand “Singularity”, but this is something beyond that. This is horrifying. There will be no difference for the average person between a (positive or negative) post-singularity world and the world now? What?

Listen up, average person. If there’s a negative singularity you will notice. Because you will be very, very dead. So will all the rest of us, rich and poor, old and young, black and white.

And if there’s a positive singularity, you will also notice. I would promise you infinite wealth, but that sort of thing kind of loses its meaning in a post-scarcity society. I would promise you immortality, but who knows if we’ll even have individual consciousnesses at that point? I would promise you bread and roses, but they would be made of hyperintelligent super-wheat and fractal eleven-dimensional time blossoms.

I don’t care if you think this vision is stupid. We’re not arguing about whether this vision is stupid. We’re arguing about whether, if this vision were 100% true, it would make a difference in the life of the average person. The Boston Review is saying it wouldn’t. I’m sitting here with my mouth gaping open so hard I’m worried about permanent jaw damage.

A Singularity that doesn’t make a difference in the life of the average person isn’t a Singularity worth the bits it’s programmed on. And the triumphs of science have always been triumphs for common people, whether it was the Green Revolution saving hundreds of millions of lives in the Third World, or the advent of antiparasitic drugs that are wiping malaria from Africa. When Ray Kurzweil says that the future is exponential, he’s not just talking about the number of transistors per square inch, he’s talking about this (and note the green line representing “percent of people not living in extreme poverty”):

The Singularity is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed across various scales of x-axis

This is what everyone in whatever school or quadrant of futurism you care to name is thinking about. This is the only true thing. Drones, Bitcoin, Uber, superintelligence, whatever, these are part of it, but they’re not the goal in itself. We are going to fight our hardest to end poverty, disease, death, and suffering, and we’re going to do it in spite of petty Boston Review articles telling us we should stop doing it so we can focus on hating each other for stupid reasons.

So here’s my division of futurists into two groups: shining examples, and terrible warnings. And the patron saint of the latter category is Samuel Madden.

Madden was an Anglican clergyman in 18th-century Ireland, and maybe the first futurist. In 1733, he published Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, a novel about people in 1999 sending letters back through time to tell their 18th-century predecessors what the future would hold.

How did the prognosticators of 1733 imagine the future? Was it utopian? Decadent? Miserable? Beautiful? Incomprehensible?

Actually, it was none of those things. It was exactly like 1733 in every way, and the future people were just writing back to remind everyone how much Catholics sucked.

I am serious about this. Book-World-1999 had no technological advances over 1733. The political situation was more or less the same, although the Wikipedia review mentions that “Tatars” had taken Constantinople at some point. The important thing, the thing that they invented time travel to tell the past, was that Catholics were still bad. Really, really bad. The people of 1733 really needed to know just how amazingly bad Catholics were and would continue to be.

The problem here isn’t just that Catholics aren’t really that bad. I feel like even if Catholics were exactly as bad as Samuel Madden thought, there would still be an unforgivable pettiness here. If we could show Samuel Madden the real future of his world, I hope he would be awed and horrified beyond words. The hope and heartbreak of the French Revolution, the lightning-fast transformations of industrialization, the slow march of atheism through previously Christian Europe, the otherworldly horror of the atom bomb, the glory of the moon landing, and then a 1999 poised on the edge between a Fukuyaman end of history and collapse into environmental disaster and dystopia – nobody could write a book as grand as this, but surely one could win eternal renown just by making the feeblest attempt. And instead, we get “EVERYTHING THE SAME; ALSO, HATE CATHOLICS”. The only emotion I can muster is a sort of profound disgust.

And I can’t help but feel the same disgust when I read “Know Thy Futurist”. I don’t know whether the future will be better or worse than the past, but I feel pretty sure it will be grander. Either we will perish in nuclear apocalypse or manage to avert nuclear apocalypse; either one will be history’s greatest story. Either we will discover intelligent alien life or find ourselves alone in the universe; either way would be terrifying. Either we will suppress AI research with a ferocity that puts the Inquisition to shame, or we will turn into gods creating life in our own image; either way the future will be not quite human. And faced with all of the immensity and danger of the coming age, the best the Boston Review can pull off is “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT SOME OF THE PEOPLE SPECULATING ABOUT THIS MIGHT BE IN YOUR (((OUTGROUP)))?”

There’s a Deeply Wise Saying that all science/prediction/philosophy/theology/whatever will inevitably reflect the parochial conditions of the writer’s own time. Maybe so. But I feel like it doesn’t have to be quite as parochial as Samuel Madden. If the people of 1733 had thought about things really hard, tried to transcend the feuds of their local time and place, might they have predicted the Industrial Revolution? Might they have been able to accelerate it, delay it, send it along a different track that ameliorated some of the displacement and poverty it caused in reality? I don’t know. But it would have been a pretty amazing attempt. What would it look like to try to do something like that today? Is “Know Thy Futurist” making it more or less likely that will happen?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably dumb for me to be so angry about this one article. I guess what bothers me is that it’s not just one article. Probably a majority of the stuff I see written evaluating the future, or technology, or Silicon Valley these days seems to take basically this perspective. I was really mad at Maciej Ceglowski a few months ago because his anti-singularity screed was about half this kind of thing, but by this point 50%-real-argument is looking pretty good. More and more people are dropping the 50%-real-argument veneer and just admitting that stereotypes and ad hominems are the way they want to conduct everything. Do we really need to turn our hopes and dreams about the world to come into yet another domain where white people accuse other white people of whiteness and are accused of whiteness in turn until everyone hates each other and anything good and real gets buried in an endless heap of bullshit and 140-character brutal owns?

I wish ignoring this kind of thing was an option, but this is how our culture relates to things now. It seems important to mention that, to have it out in the open, so that people who turn out their noses at responding to this kind of thing don’t wake up one morning and find themselves boxed in. And if you’ve got to call out crappy non-reasoning sometime, then meh, this article seems as good an example as any.

If we get very lucky, there will actually be a future. Some of the people in it will probably read the stuff we write. They’ll judge us. I assume most of that judgment will involve laughing hysterically. But we can at least aim for laughter that’s good-natured instead of scornful. Sub specie aeternatis, how much of what we do today is going to look to them the way Samuel Madden does to us?

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507 Responses to In Favor Of Futurism Being About The Future

  1. OpaqueLotTaxi says:

    Here are some predictions I have about the future:

    1. We will eventually build AIs in the common sci-fi sense, but these will generally be used for entertainment or as ‘user-interfaces’ to more powerful systems (like secretaries that translate natural-language queries into something like SQL).

    2. It will generally be found that the human mind/brain is not an especially useful model for general problem solving, and that there’s not a lot of use in building crucial systems on top of agents that are recognizably intelligent in any sense that we would recognize. Human intellectual labor will be replaced, but not by things that look like human intellects, or even are agents generally that are capable of modeling themselves and the world they exist in.

    3. The models that will ultimately turn out to be useful will be some mixture of theorem-proving, constraint optimization, and the design of distributed databases. These will undergo a fairly dramatic improvement in efficiency and capability for some time, and then level out at some point based based on some hard mathematical constraint on problem solving and algorithmic efficiency.

    4. AIs will primarily be separated component-wise from these database-proving-optimizing things, and as a result something like ‘super-intelligence’ will not be a relevant problem with respect to them. Possibly there will be a few dangerous mishaps where the distinction is blurred, and some sort of regulation enforcing it will emerge.

    • It will generally be found that the human mind/brain is not an especially useful model for general problem solving, and that there’s not a lot of use in building crucial systems on top of agents that are recognizably intelligent in any sense that we would recognize. Human intellectual labor will be replaced, but not by things that look like human intellects, or even are agents generally that are capable of modeling themselves and the world they exist in.

      Yes, this makes sense to me.

      • Migratory says:

        It makes sense to me, but I worry that I merely want to believe it’s the most likely possibility.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        While I suspect this is true:

        It will generally be found that the human mind/brain is not an especially useful model for general problem solving

        I’m not sure that it implies this:

        there’s not a lot of use in building crucial systems on top of agents that are recognizably intelligent in any sense that we would recognize

        For crucial systems to be useful to us, there will be payoff from having them interact with us in the manner to which we have become accustomed. If we can control the crucial system by writing PERL or by conversing in English, which will we choose?

        It might well be safer to build the crucial system as a mindless optimizer and then bolt on an AI to try to explain to us its decisions and pass on our directives. But that leads you down a couple of well-worn paths. Maybe it works about as well as asking a human what’s going on in code somebody else wrote (namely, often not very well). Or maybe the AI with its terminal goal of explaining and directing the crucial system realizes that it might be able to do that more effectively and reliably if it just takes over the duties of the crucial system. (Seeing Like a State, anyone?)

  2. Nornagest says:

    So, the press continues to be horrible at reporting anything I happen to know a lot about. What else is new?

    • sohois says:

      This isn’t really “the press” as most would use that term though, the Boston Review having little similarity to a daily newspaper or CNN/Fox. It seems as a publication to be much closer to the New Yorker or the London Review of Books, and whilst I can’t speak for everyone else i would normally expect much higher standards from such publications. In fact I recall reading some articles at the Boston Review when they had a Basic Income ‘debate’ issue, and generally found it to be worthwhile so it’s a great shame to see garbage articles like this seem to be the norm there.

      • Brandon Berg says:

        My prior experience with the Boston Review is reading a fawning, wholly credulous review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains several weeks after it had been demonstrated that she grossly misrepresented her sources through selective editing of numerous quotes throughout the book.

        To be fair, they did later publish another, somewhat more critical review, but even that failed to capture the degree to which MacLean flushed her credibility down the toilet, creating the illusion of legitimate controversy.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      The author in this case claimed to be a futurist.

      • Nornagest says:

        “Futurist” is one of those words that can mean pretty much whatever you want it to. It’s a rare ideology that doesn’t have some vision for the future — even if it’s a backward-looking one, the type which frames itself around a lost Golden Age that can never be reclaimed, you can always point to an “inevitable” dystopian future as proof of your ideas.

        Have a look around Reddit’s /r/Futurology sometime. It used to be mainly about (admittedly annoying and pop-) singularitarianism with the occasional dash of “whoa, ain’t nanotubes cool?”; now it’s mainly about projecting talking points out a few decades.

        • Aapje says:

          In my view, there is a category of labels that is used to claim greater capability compared to others who do the same thing, but without any actual reason to make that claim. A feature of these labels is that the claim is immensely broad, in a way that is unrealistic, given that no one can know that much. As a result, I think that people who are actually not very capable are drawn to these labels the strongest and feel emboldened by it to make claims way outside of their field of expertise.

          A “futurist” essentially just speculates about the future, but the label requires no actual expertise to do this well. I much prefer to see someone with a specific field of expertise speculate on the future within his specific domain of knowledge.

          Another label that is like this is “philosopher”. Self-proclaimed or appointed philosophers regularly submit contributions to my newspaper and these articles generally assume that ‘common knowledge’ of their tribe is true, which then gets used to derive a conclusion. Here again, I much prefer to see someone with a specific field of expertise write an article.

          • m.alex.matt says:

            You can get an actual philosophy degree, however. And there is a great deal of material on the subject it is possible to become ‘expert’ on. Your opinion on the worth of the expertise may vary, but it is certainly a thing.

            I think there’s even material a ‘futurist’ might become familiar with, a notion of being familiar enough with many future-relevant subjects that you can make the kind of predictions that subject matter experts will have quibbles with, rather than wholesale rejection.

            The word you are probably looking for is ‘amateur’, but that’s a problem you can run into in any field.

          • Aapje says:

            There are degrees in homeopathy too. That doesn’t mean that homeopathic doctors do better than others who use placebos.

            Philosophers usually focus on deductive reasoning, but if one reasons correctly, the validity of the conclusions merely mirrors the validity of the priors, which generally involve (substantial) uncertainty. Furthermore, people are usually not that good at deductive reasoning, often doing it wrong, thereby making the validity of the conclusions less than the validity of the priors. So then if one takes the output of one deduction as a prior for the next, you get a compounding of errors. This is why science was quite poor for a long time until it strongly started to strongly favor empiricism over deduction. Measuring things correctly is a hard enough challenge as it is. Doing that sloppily and focusing instead on error-prone deductions based on those sloppy measurements is generally not the most useful endeavor, IMO.

            Philosophy seems to suffer from a sort of Peter Principle. The smarter the philosopher, the more ambitious they get, until they become incapable of seeing their errors. In an environment where predictions are tested, these errors are punished. However, the less this is the case, the more people in the field can afford to become unmoored from reality, floating upon a sea of bias, blind spots, desired outcomes, cronyism, etc.

          • m.alex.matt says:

            Aaaand posts like this are why it is possible to make a distinction between an ‘amateur’ and an ‘expert’ philosopher.

          • Aapje says:

            That makes no rational sense actually, so thanks for proving my point.

          • m.alex.matt says:

            It makes perfect sense. You are an amateur trying to condemn experts on your impressions of other amateurs.

          • Aapje says:

            Expert philosophers are interesting, but they tend to make the exact same mistakes in claiming too much.

            Which expert philosopher do you believe makes no such mistakes in their works?

  3. SpaghettiLee says:

    To try and steelman at least part of that argument, the author might be fearing for the effect of technological change on less-objective, less-quantifiable values such as personal privacy, or the ability of people not to be defined by society by their past or their history, or the ability to just unplug every once in a while. If those are your concerns (and they are admittedly pretty bougie concerns compared to malaria and world hunger), then human-independent technology controlling more of the average middle-class American’s everyday life probably looks scarier, and looms larger, than it really should.

    That said, man, a lot of the article is just as bad as Scott says it is. I’d like to think the mental block my fellow leftists have when it comes to even taking techno-futurism seriously as a concept, let alone offering informed opinions on it, is something less petty than “It’s a bunch of rich white dudes being nerds”. I get the feeling a lot of the cultural-criticism, literary-magazine crowd is afraid that the future is going to leave them behind (I’m sure afraid of that for myself) and covering up that fear with spite is their instinctive response. At the risk of treading into more contentious territory, I’d argue it’s not that different from the feeling some folks here get re: the social justice movement, that it’s going to take control of everything and destroy what they value, and that spite and dismissal are the best mental defenses that are easy to muster on short notice. It’s by no means a GOOD response, but hopefully anyone who’s felt fear about the future one way or the other can sympathize.

    • Why is it so en vogue to sneer at nerds anyway? You can say that was how it’s always been, but it seems like there was a decade or so of respite where people on the left (and libertarians!) were concerned with schoolyard hierarchies and bullying, but now there’s a lot of BRING BACK BULLYING YAAS JOCK SLAY stuff because nerds are now associated with Nazism and reaktion because slate and huffington and other publications have spent a lot of time writing about the intricate web connecting Silicon Valley and neo-fascism. You get articles like this and then that trickles down until you get tweets like these: 1, 2.

      It’s a vicious cycle because it’s the sort of meme that makes itself true. Young tech guys and programmers who were bullied or ignored outcasts throughout their childhood get angry and rightly say “Hey, wait a minute! I thought we cared about equality and the downtrodden?”, but then they get AWW POOR WICKLE WHITE GUY straight back at them, and this causes them to come to the conclusion that it was never about equality to begin with. This is why “social justice” is seen as such a big problem in nerd/rationalist circles, because even if it’s overblown as a real world problem, it’s attacking them on a personal level, and it’s coming from the same community whose principles should have in theory meant compassion towards anyone who is being pushed down, a side of the spectrum that naturally gains an advantage from courting the high IQ segment of nerds who go on to become researchers and scientists in the public sector versus the side that wants to makes cuts. So it also feels like betrayal.

      Repeat this for enough cycles and they ensure that the next generation of tech giants is going to be everything they feared.

      • Cerby says:

        I’m gonna make a wild stab in the dark and propose that this past decade of nerd appeasement was an attempt to get that demographic under their influence, but it failed because the attempt didn’t crystallize into any meaningful change in attitude, so both sides saw this whole shebang as a betrayal from the other side and doubled down on the spite and condescension.

        Edit: this may have to do with what both demographics see as important. To the leftists, appearance is everything, be it gender/race, virtue-signaling, etc. So when geek chic became a thing, to them it was identical to actually being part of the geek demographic. Meanwhile, actual geeks saw that as an empty attempt to butt in without actually committing to the meat and bones of geekdom, a superficial invasion. Hence, values dissonance, rejection of the other side, and bitterness over being used as status symbols.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I agree with what Andrew Hunter said in his comment, below. There’s no sinister anti-nerd conspiracy; there’s just a conflict of social/market forces. Nerds are low-status outcasts, and thus deserve derision and scorn. Rich people are high-status paragons, and thus deserve adoration and respect. Well, what happens when nerds get rich ?

          What happens is, you get a social capital bubble for a while, where nerds are praised and everyone rushes to out-signal each other about how nerdy they are. But like any bubble, it’s destined to burst. Once too many non-nerdy people begin identify as nerds, or simply pretend to care about nerds more than they normally would, they have practically no choice but to re-establish the status quo. Hence, nerds get kicked out of polite society once again, and equilibrium is restored.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            I strongly support nerds getting rich. We also need to have superintelligent AI on our side. 🙂

            My idea is to use transhumanism and AI to completely abolish or at least push away the “polite society” and its irrationality.

            If we have to have some elites let them be from the STEM world instead of being descendants of some powerful family.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        The Osterweil article that you link makes me think of nothing so much as Oppression Olympics (link to pro-SJ site saying that OO is bad). To the author, only people of colour, women, LGBT people, and disabled people suffer oppression, and any other claim is therefore a reactionary distraction from those legitimate claims. Of course, this same argument was used against gay rights (as I recall, it was heavily promoted in Black churches in California in 2008) and is used by anti-trans feminists today, but surely the author of that article has the one true complete list of oppressed groups now. (Class hardly appears on the list anywhere; so much for the Left.)

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        It’s in vogue because nerds are a market dominant minority.

        Low status minority groups are supposed to know their place, stay out of trouble, perform subservience, and remain weak. Instead, nerds decided to make a giant pile of money and obtain some power.

        Market dominant minorities are pretty much always extremely unpopular, and bad stuff happens from there.

        • vV_Vv says:

          But why are nerds low-status?

          “Nerds” (people with high systematizing mentality and high technical skills) existed in all societies and were typically considered fairly high status. Aristotele was the nerdiest nerd of classical antiquity and he taught Alexander the Great. Einstein and Feynman were nerds and they were celebrities.

          If I understand correctly, in modern Japan highly productive, academically proficient and technically skilled people (as opposed to the idle hikikomori and the otaku obsessed with pop culture trivialities) are highly respected. I suppose the same applies to all East Asia.

          There seems to be something preculiar about modern Western culture that pulls nerds down, and the heightened nerd-bashing we observed in the last years may be a reaction to nerds climbing back to their natural high-status place.

          Or maybe it is something more complicated about generational testosterone decline, correlations between testosterone, IQ and fertility in a dysgenic environment, and whatnot.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Might it stem from the American frontier heritage? How is it in Europe compared to America?

          • Nornagest says:

            I feel like nerd stigma must have developed long after the frontier closed. Being an engineer in mid-century America was a perfectly respectable white-collar job; maybe a step below being a doctor or lawyer, but still pretty high-status. Teller and Oppenheimer and the other Manhattan Project physicists were household names; Wernher von Braun was a national hero.

            The change must have happened sometime between the late Sixties and the early Eighties. That would coincide with the development of what David Chapman calls the subcultural mode, so the rise of nerds as a culture as opposed to a personality type or a set of hobbies might have something to do with it.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I think being smart and being socially awkward is more tied together now than it used to be.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Finding out how nerds came to be low-status in the US would take real historical work, probably including diaries as well as popular culture.

      • Creative Username 1138 says:

        The author of the piece has a PhD in maths, used to be an academic mathematician and is married to an academic mathematician. This is nerd v. nerd, not normie v. nerd.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          So she actively knows what she’s claiming is false and does it anyway for points?

          It’s not nerd v. nerd, it’s nerd v. traitorous former nerd turning in her colleagues for status.

          • . says:

            Or what if… she’s just wrong?

            She’s been into the near-future sub-AI alignment problem for a while. She’s gotten obsessed with it, she thinks that futurists are ignoring in favor of the singularity, she took things too far. At no point were you stabbed in the back, you can put down your pitchfork now.

          • albatross11 says:

            Identity politics is a mind-killer. It gets otherwise smart people to reduce real hard moral and technical questions to “who, whom?” That’s why it’s dangerous. If it only affected dumb people, it would be no great threat. But it works at least as well (maybe better) on smart people.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            Agreed.

            How can we curb the “cool” non-nerds who are plunging humanity into a disaster?

            Do we need even more moral indoctrination disguised as articles on futurology?

        • Doesntliketocomment says:

          I wish your comment was in bold, fixed at the top of the page. Maybe if people realized this is coming from someone inside their own camp (i.e. hard science PhD who identifies as a futurist) it would help to curtail the post after post where it seems people want to circle the wagons and blame this on the outgroup they dislike the most, be it liberals, jocks, journalists, ect. Uncharitably, I assume it would not, as many of these people are just trying to strike an alliance for their own camp. (See? They hate futurists, join us!)

      • baconbacon says:

        The anti bullying campaigns were mostly about “won’t somebody please think of the children” combined with some “please don’t look critically at public schools, we are fixing them we promise”. It was never “nerds need to be protected”, but simply some larger group of which nerds was a subgroup, but mostly it was national schooling as a sacred institution that should never be attacked.

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t think the anti-bullying measures over the last decade or so were ever about schoolyard hierarchies, let alone pro-nerd in any real sense; I think they were specifically about coming down hard on anything which smelled of (a) violence or (b) homophobia, thanks to several well-publicized examples of both.

        There are still bullies, of course. But bullies have always been pretty adept at figuring out how they can manipulate the system, so now they don’t stuff Weird Billy into a trash can, they tell the school counselor (in strict confidence, of course) that he’s got a murder list.

      • vV_Vv says:

        You get articles like this and then that trickles down until you get tweets like these: 1, 2.

        Let’s not forget their illustrious predecessor.

      • tmk says:

        Well, a decade ago there wasn’t much misogyny, reaktion, nazism, whatever in the nerd community.

      • Fuge says:

        Because to them, nerds are just the new cycle of “rich white guys with all the power.” Sort of like the MBA or Wall street trader of the 1980s was. And to be fair, nerds really haven’t proven to be much better than them in terms of social justice issues, and maybe even worse.

        As for “pushed down,” well that was something that happened in the 1980s. We’ve had 20 years of nerd culture being mainstream, and I doubt by now nerds are pushed down any more than any other group, and have much more upwards mobility than those groups too.

    • tvt35cwm says:

      … then human-independent technology controlling more of the average middle-class American’s everyday life probably looks scarier, and looms larger, than it really should.

      Stray thought: How would human-independent technology fare in the Stanford prison experiment? My guess is, a lot better than humans.

    • Aapje says:

      @SpaghettiLee

      covering up that fear with spite is their instinctive response.

      Not just spite, but racism, sexism and hatred of the neuroatypical. And the worst part is that when this is pointed out, a frequent response is not even to deny it, but to argue that it is justified to fight the Zionist World Conspiracy kyriarchy?

      It’s a mirror image of the white supremacists, but with the claim that their prejudice, discrimination and hatred are justified, because they correctly identified the group that is oppressing everyone, while all other people who have claimed the same and did great evil because of those beliefs, were completely different.

      • Hyzenthlay says:

        It’s a mirror image of the white supremacists, but with the claim that their prejudice, discrimination and hatred are justified, because they correctly identified the group that is oppressing everyone, while all other people who have claimed the same and did great evil because of those beliefs, were completely different.

        Yup. That’s what makes it such a dangerous mentality.

        Classifying someone as an “oppressor” is a quick and easy way to dehumanize them. Because if someone is “oppressing” you, it’s easy to feel justified in violent action against them.

    • Eli says:

      I’d like to think the mental block my fellow leftists have when it comes to even taking techno-futurism seriously as a concept, let alone offering informed opinions on it, is something less petty than “It’s a bunch of rich white dudes being nerds”. I get the feeling a lot of the cultural-criticism, literary-magazine crowd is afraid that the future is going to leave them behind (I’m sure afraid of that for myself) and covering up that fear with spite is their instinctive response.

      What I seriously have a hard time understanding is: when did the cool kids in high-school start majoring in cultural criticism? This whole reaction stinks of being just the kind of kid who used to concentrate on clothes, football, sex, underage drinking.

      • Peffern says:

        I understand you’re being facetious but you’re pretty much spot-on

        • Eli says:

          I’m actually not being facetious. This is my best guess at how we got here: the cool kids in school started doing… whatever that crap is, and they’ve rationalized their preexisting cool-kid nerd-punching tendencies into… whatever this crap is.

      • Matt M says:

        What I seriously have a hard time understanding is: when did the cool kids in high-school start majoring in cultural criticism?

        When it became the easiest major to get an A in with very little actual work or natural intelligence.

      • vV_Vv says:

        What I seriously have a hard time understanding is: when did the cool kids in high-school start majoring in cultural criticism?

        Nowadays you have to major in something to be a respectable upper middle class person, and if you can’t do math there is always some college happy to sell you a degree in BS.

      • BBA says:

        Society is fractal, and patterns reemerge regardless. The “cool kids” didn’t study cultural criticism, but the people who studied cultural criticism are “cooler” than the people who studied computer science, and whenever one group is “cooler” than another you get scorn and mockery and so on, regardless.

        And, you know, nerds can be pricks, and kinda deserve some of it.

      • Brandon Berg says:

        Were they the cool kids in high school? I thought they were just the humanities nerds, as opposed to STEM nerds.

      • dongarito says:

        As someone with a recent a PhD in literary criticism, I attest that we were emphatically not the cool kids in high school. I can think of precisely one colleague who might have been popular in high school (he played football) compared to dozens who (like me) played Magic The Gathering and D&D, was in band or theatre or chess club, didn’t drink or play sports. At most they were the kids that went to poetry readings, played in a garage band or sang in school musicals, made short films– maybe not “nerds” in the “good at STEM” sense but certainly not the cool kids. If Facebook is any indication, the overwhelming majority of popular kids in my high school majored in something business-related.

        I do think that there’s an obnoxious “high school popularity contest” dynamic in cultural criticism, but I’d favor Freddie DeBoer’s explanation: that these are people who were never cool in high school and who are attempting to relive those years but with them at the top. That said, I’ve been in some nerd communities with similarly obnoxious social hierarchies and snide disdain toward outsiders.

    • I get the feeling a lot of the cultural-criticism, literary-magazine crowd is afraid that the future is going to leave them behind

      This strikes me as a more general issue. At various times it looks to various people as though their side is winning, at other times losing. We’ve seen commenters here whose attitude is right wing despair. There are times when the view switches–Trump’s win must have made some people on the left suddenly conclude, perhaps incorrectly, “we are now losing,” and similarly for Reagan. I expect the fall of the Soviet Union had a similar effect for many on the left, China’s successful abandonment of communism for others on the left.

      An interesting question is the effect. Does concluding that you are losing make you more or less confident that you should win, that you are the good guys? More or less willing to make a serious effort to understand the other side? More inclined to put effort into supporting your side or less? More willing to cooperate with others on your side or more inclined to intraideological combat? More rational or more inclined to emotive arguments?

      • Yosarian2 says:

        It probably depends on what you think you are losing to. If you think you are losing to a worldview that’s not that different from your own you might try to shift a little towards it and find the new center. (Think Bill Clinton in 1992 after the country shifted way to the right during Reagan/ Bush; or conversely the way Republicans like Eisenhower after FDR basically accepted the New Deal as just the way things now were .) But if you think actual fascists are taking over your country and intend to wipe you out, then you are more likely to dig in and fight by whatever means necessary while you still can.

        • Christopher Hazell says:

          I actually think that, in order to answer this question, you have to ask not, “Who are we losing to?” but, “What are we losing?”

          When you ask “Who are we losing to?” there is an implicit assumption: “If we beat the enemy, we’ll get back what they took from us.”

          So what happens if you “beat” the enemy in one combat, but the stuff you lost doesn’t come back?

          You come to the conclusion, “Our stuff didn’t come back, so we must not have actually won. The enemy must still be in charge, keeping our stuff! We have to hit them harder!”

          The actual views, goals, and capabilities of the “enemy” in this model are pretty much completely irrelevant.

          • Jiro says:

            If “our stuff” means “having people with our ideas in power” and “the enemy has our stuff” means “the enemy has people with his ideas in power instead”, and those are the only two sets of ideas around, then it *does* follow that if our stuff didn’t come back, the enemy has won.

          • Christopher Hazell says:

            @Jiro

            One of the things I always notice about culture war stuff is that nobody is defending the consensus anymore.

            Nobody is in even an embattled consensus, fighting for the status quo. The white supremacist and the anti-racists are both, somehow, fighting against an entrenched consensus in which their enemies hold a complacent and nearly unconquerable power.

            They can’t both be right about that. I always want to ask everybody, “What would it look like if you won, but we still lived in a pluralistic society?” Since you’ll never make every single person in society agree with you, how many of your guys need to be in power, how many of your policies need to be enacted before you go, “Yeah, we’re doing pretty well. We’re the mainstream.”?

          • Evan Þ says:

            The white supremacist and the anti-racists are both, somehow, fighting against an entrenched consensus in which their enemies hold a complacent and nearly unconquerable power.

            Yes, and Scott explained four years ago how both sides can not only think that but be correct at the same time. When one side is winning in both conscious and unconscious power – then, they’ll declare victory.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            Or, more likely, immediately splinter on some other axis and divide power between the two sides of that issue.

          • Jiro says:

            Scott explained four years ago how both sides can not only think that but be correct at the same time.

            That article is odd. Scott gives examples of a teenage girl versus Trump, and environmentalists versus a company, and points out that the former may be gain more sympathy yet not change much.

            But Moldbug’s explanation in the quote is that people with power win. Moldbug gives an example of Martin Luther King. King wasn’t like a teenage girl getting in a bar fight with Trump who gets media sympathy but changes no policies. King got his desired policies passed by the Trump-equivalent of the time.

            There’s also the question of whether a group of activists or teenage girls has power. Getting some sympathy from a bar fight with Trump causes no change in policies, but a whole bunch of such girls along with a whole bunch of media sympathy does.

            And the question of which part of the group you have power over. Having power over Trump is different from having power over the people you like to lump together with Donald Trump. A teenage girl who gets in a bar fight with one of those people rather than with Trump humself could easily win long term as the media gets that person fired and their deed is permanently on Google.

  4. tgdavies says:

    I’m now tempted to write a dystopian novel where everything would have been OK if only people had hated their outgroups more!

    • tanagrabeast says:

      I feel like a good fraction of classic dystopian novels already have that premise; the downfall is sociopolitical, and the future tech (if any) is mostly window dressing. The Handmaid’s Tale is hot again for the searing directness of its anti-patriarchal-religious message. Fahrenheit 451 is remembered for its depiction of government-sponsored book burning but is really, at its core, a screed against the growing anti-intellectualism and over-sensitivity that is said (in a climactic monologue) to have made the actual burning of books just one of many late-stage symptoms of a society about to self-destruct.

    • deluks917 says:

      There are plausible interpretations of warhammer 40K where this is true.

      • Eli says:

        Of course, there are also plausible interpretations of Warhammer 40K in which hate for the outgroup, the pomposity of leaders, basic empathy failures, and mass ignorance of very real scientific phenomena turned M31’s vague possibility of a better future into M41’s worst and bloodiest human regime.

        The prelude to Horus fucking up was the Emperor fucking up.

        • rminnema says:

          The big question is what the Emperor’s fuckup was:

          (1) The Emperor did not have enough empathy for his favorite child, and did not devote enough love and attention to Horus to notice his fall into Chaos in time to pull him back from the brink of ruin.

          (2) The Emperor put too much faith in Horus, and was not strict enough. In this interpretation, he just didn’t whack Horus in time.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            (3[or 2b]) The Emperor didn’t realize that Lorgar’s whole ethos was antithetical to The Great Crusade and Exterminatus the lot of them (or at least Kor Phaeron) before he infected half of his siblings. Pretty massive cockup for a demigod-tier telepath.

            Really, most problems with the Primarchs stem from daddy issues scaled up to their superhuman scale.

      • Walter says:

        Beat me to it. I was also gonna say 40k.

    • vaniver says:

      Have you read The Camp of Saints?

  5. scmccarthy says:

    That article was indeed pretty useless… to the point that I’m actually a bit disappointed you responded to it. My favorite thing you do is steelman, and this article was nowhere close to that.

    • bbartlog says:

      The tie-in to Samuel Madden may have been too hard to resist ;-). But really, I think it *is* occasionally useful to offer harsh criticism of things like this article, and of course steelmanning doesn’t really come in to play because there’s just not enough to work with.

  6. C_B says:

    In case you’re hankering for some futurism that is about the future, Scott, have you read Too Like the Ligntning yet? It’s by the Ex Urbe blogger (you linked her excellent Machiavelli series a while back), and I have never read anything more obviously relevant to your interests.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It’s pretty great, but doesn’t even seem to be trying to predict things or present a future that’s plausible.

      My latest fictional obsession is Three Body Problem, which is a little too plausible for comfort.

      • AutisticThinker says:

        I know. I have read the book as well.

        The only solution is to strengthen humans/transhumans as much as possible so that we at least have some chance to survive. I don’t think the dark forest is real because overcoming pure genocidal Hobbesianism is a significant advantage and those who have overcome it if strong enough can defeat the few genocidal freaks in the same way people dealt with Nazis and are dealing with ISIS. Any part of the universe with intelligent species that do not attempt to exterminate each other tend to evolve to be stronger due to absence of genocides and gradually clean up the dark forest and annihilate its genocidal freaks or force them to abandon genocides even if such thing existed before. That’s analogous to ancient people who form tribes instead of murdering each other for pure Hobbesian reasons tend to be stronger than collections of pure Hobbesian murderers. Eventually we have nice modern societies instead of the Hobbesian hell. The same applies to intelligent species from different planets. However the strong will still persecute the weak even when the dark forest is absent so let’s be strong.

        Do I wish that we are alone in the universe? Yes! That would be awesome!

        • Vamair says:

          An untapped well of knowledge and culture that couldn’t have been generated by human brains seems even more awesome. Even a completely isolated biological history will be a LOT of fun! (if you care about things like that). At least if it didn’t come with all that pesky political relations. Or war. Having said that, I don’t really think multi-planet civs of different species have a lot to fight for.

        • Robert Liguori says:

          The Dark Forest theory requires really, really precise and specific conditions to be plausible.

          Take the alternate Dark Kindling theory of reasoning. Imagine you see both a signal of intelligent life, and then see that life cleansed. You now know that there is likely more life within the light-cone of that signal, because someone did the cleansing. The logical thing to do would be to denude that 50-lightyear radius of galactic volume of stars…

          But that would lead to you logically getting denuded again when someone notes “Hey, looks like there’s a good reason to think that someone’s alive capable of perceiving this volume of space, better blow up everything.”

          And then there are lies. When you see a signal of intelligent life go out, how do you know if it’s a true signal or if another cleanse-happy group is using it as bait, to see when and how you respond to triangulate the volume of galaxy to cleanse in turn?

          And given all of this, and knowing that life does not always make optimal decisions, where are the scars where wars like this were waged? Where are the broadcasting beacons, stating clearly “Attention all sophonts; we have seeded dark-space with autonomous starkiller units. If our star is killed, a trillion other random stars near us will get fucked up as well. If you’re hearing this message, you’re in the potential target radius. Come at us, bros. Also, cooperation with non-cleansers is awesome, so here’s some neat physics stuff we’ve been playing with. Enjoy!”

          The idea that a galaxy where life is as common and robust as it’s assumed to be in the 3 Body Problem books is not a galaxy in which the Dark Forest theory can be assumed to be true. People would fuck up, and that would leave signs. If there are no signs, then people aren’t fucking up, which means people aren’t doing the thing you’re imagining them doing.

        • Chalid says:

          @Robert Liguoiri

          Did you read the third book?

          There’s a scene with a cleanser in deep space, so it didn’t give away much about the location of its creators. And there are lots of scars of past wars.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            The main problem with the DF idea is that it is basically repeated defection in prisoner’s dilemma. This is good for a civilization but really awful for a community of civilizations. If some civilizations can overcome the urge to defect they may evolve into a force that light up the dark forest because DF cleansers can’t compete with a group of non-cleansers in the same way Nazism was crushed by humanity.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, the deep-space cleansing reveals exactly as much about the location of the cleansing species as just coming over and communicating would.

            If you can trace a ship back to its origin, then deep-space cleansing won’t save you from retaliation, so no cleansing will happen since the only point of it is to save your own species, and doing it will doom your species.

            If you can’t trace a ship back to its origin, then you can fly in and talk, eliminating the main problem of Dark Forest theory.

            Maybe the issue is that you can’t make a credible precommitment to not start a war, but the weapons used in the Dark Forest universe destroy the useful resources of the area you use them on, so you’re actively losing by defecting. You only play the Dark Forest game in case you run across a species that is just ruthlessly xenophobic and would destroy you if they knew where you were, regardless of the consequences to them. But that’s the kind of thing you learn real fast by sending a ship over.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            @moonfirestorm Attacking a genocidal group for commiting random genocides isn’t DF behavior. Instead it is prosocial.

            When there are only two tribes genocide may have incentives. However when enough tribes that can influence each other exist (i.e. the world is sufficiently crowded) then genocide is unprofitable. This applies to aliens as well. You can be a Nazi civilization if you want to. However collections of more prosocial civilizations tend to survive and improve much more than a DF neighborhood. Eventually normal non-Nazi civilizations show up and begin Nazi removal.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            @Autistic Thinker:

            That’s the author’s justification for setting up the Dark Forest in the first place: there is a potential that every random species you encounter is genocidal, and if you can’t talk with them without opening your whole species up to their weapons, you can’t risk your species on them being pleasant.

            I agree that this doesn’t seem like the way things would actually work out. In particular, if you can safely cleanse from a ship out in the void of space (without revealing your civilization), you can also just use that ship to talk to the target civilization.

            That works even if every civilization independently comes to the Dark Forest conclusion, and I’m not convinced the author was able to back up even that.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            @moonfirestorm I agree. It only takes two adjacent non-Nazi civilizations to stop celestial Nazism. Once the first anti-Nazi groups are formed it is celestial 一Nazis who are likely to lose in the long run because they are like the always defect people in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma game.

            One of the first laws collections of non-Nazi civilizations that trade with each other is very likely to have is: No genocide. That’s just like murder being one of the first activities that were criminalized in a human tribe.

          • Robert Liguori says:

            That scene did not make a whole lot of sense. Again, there were drastically unjustified assumptions made about the scale of what was possible.

            Why was there a resource crunch for the space-wobblying weapons? Imagine a Better Cleanser alien species. They don’t shoot guns. They skeddale out of the galaxy and speed and shoot a swarm of Von Neumann probes (possibly with organic components using the anti-value-drift tech brought up and then ignored in Book 2), who do nothing but slam into star systems, sterilize them, and strip-mine them for more Von Neumann probes, prioritizing areas of space which feature beings which seem to be shooting back.

            In this model, the first civilization which manages to crack the value drift problem (which, again, Earth did entirely by accident) is now throwing the resources of multiple star systems at a non-coordinating group of short-term resource maximizers, who can’t not turn traitor on each other when the Last Prisoner’s Dilemma Round is visible over the horizon.

            The Three Body Problem had some amazing vistas, but it also had to very deliberately shrink away from some of the obvious implications of the tech it presented, because failing to do so brings up the “Well, some percentage of the other stars in the galaxy have life on them. I guess they’ve all got to go.” is a solution whose only implementation difficulty is scale.

      • sohois says:

        Oddly enough the kind of anti human hatred one sees in the Three Body Problem seems far more common amongst Western groups than I ever experienced in China. Having said that I’ve never met anyone who’s parents were brutally murdered during the cultural revolution

        • AutisticThinker says:

          No philosophical misanthropy is required to have an ETO-like entity. There are enough marginalized people such as some incels who will happily help aliens subdue the rest of humanity.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            I recommend you taboo “incels” – it makes you sound crackpottish.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            @Gobbobobble Sure! 🙂 Maybe sexually-frustrated males instead. The idea still needs to be discussed regardless of what kind of terms we use.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          The level of misanthropy– it actually needs a stronger word– I’ve seen as a common meme in the west (or at least the part of the west where I hang out) is astonishing, and I have no idea how it happened.

          What I mean by needing a stronger word is that I believe misanthropy originally meant hating people, and it was an emotional habit. What we’ve got now is hatred of the human race, and it’s more of a philosophical stance.

          I could make a case that it’s a status move. It’s implying that one has such high moral standards that they can stand outside normal human desires and have a God’s eye view.

          Except that God hasn’t wiped out the human race, so I suppose one has higher standards than God.

          Going down a level, I consider it extremely unlikely that aliens are avoiding us because we’re so disgusting. It’s not as though people refuse to study ants because we’re morally revolted by their wars.

          • toastengineer says:

            Going down a level, I consider it extremely unlikely that aliens are avoiding us because we’re so disgusting. It’s not as though people refuse to study ants because we’re morally revolted by their wars.

            If anything, they’d be saying “wow, these people are fucked up, we’d better watch closely to see if there’s any clues as to how to be less like them.” But I guess that’s misanthropy again.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            What I mean by needing a stronger word is that I believe misanthropy originally meant hating people, and it was an emotional habit. What we’ve got now is hatred of the human race, and it’s more of a philosophical stance.

            Anthropophobia?

        • nelshoy says:

          I would naively suspect it to be stronger in urban China, since there’s so many people and so much new consumerism while the effects of pollution are much more clear. Environmentalism’s also seems to have seeded ground to the social justice movements here.

          • watsonbladd says:

            People in China remember starving as subsistence laborers, and now are rich. The West doesn’t have something historically similar, and after the 1970’s abandoned any grand project. We landed on the moon, and said “well, that was fun”. Here in California you see a lot of unreconstructed 1970’s humanity is inherently evil environmentalists.

    • Walter says:

      Too like the Lightning is great. The sequel (Seven Surrenders) is also out and also great.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Hmm, is it really ? I tried reading it and couldn’t get through the initial couple chapters; does it get better later on ? I found the writing oddly stilted and the plot really boring, but maybe I’m missing something…

        • Orual says:

          It is a somewhat strange book, though I also liked it a lot, thought it was quite brilliant, actually. It’s written very differently than basically every other modern genre novel, which is probably part of the issue. The pseudo-18th-century style probably turns a lot of people away who aren’t either into classic literature or can read fast enough that a mismatch in style preferences doesn’t hinder their enjoyment.

          I’d encourage you to try again, though. The pace picks up somewhat later and Seven Surrenders has more plot in it than Too Like the Lightning, but there’s no denying that it is a slow burn. Arguably, the plot isn’t even really what you’re there for, what you’re there for are the ideas Palmer is exploring and the characters and world she’s setting up. What she’s going to do with the world and the characters I won’t say for spoiler reasons, but having read the second book, things are going to be interesting in books 3-4. If you can’t get through it on the second time round, don’t sweat it, no book is for everyone.

          • Nornagest says:

            The pseudo-18th-century style probably turns a lot of people away who aren’t either into classic literature or can read fast enough that a mismatch in style preferences doesn’t hinder their enjoyment.

            Man, if I got through “The Night Land”, I can get through anything.

            (That’s not to say it was a bad book on balance. But the style was excruciating.)

  7. maybe_slytherin says:

    I’ll give my attempt at steelmanning this position. This isn’t just perverse defense of leftism; I think there is something to be learned. And I acknowledge the article is dumb.

    I think the article is resting on a (large) number of unspoken premises. In some loose order:

    1. The futures that we envision end up being the futures that we create. This is a really strong premise, but considering how many people are inspired by sci-fi & futurism — artists, scientists, engineers, technologists, investors, policy wonks — it’s worth engaging with.
    In this mindset, it’s inappropriate and naive to view futurism (as Scott & many rationalists often do) solely as a question of prediction. It’s also a question of ethics & meta-ethics.

    2. Inasmuch as the futures we envision tend to be futures that come to pass, it’s shitty to leave whole groups of people out of them. This is where the criticism of “this is only for rich white males” comes in. Especially in a historical context of futurism that didn’t include women and minorities, thinking about this does count as progress. Witness, for example, the cringeworthiness of a lot of Golden Age SF in which all the characters are men who solve puzzles with interplanatary governments and futuristic spaceships while their wives barely fit in the margins doing 1950s domesticity.

    I think that these points are at least worth addressing. I think that #1 in particular is important for the rationalist community to engage with; #2 is really just the addition of current leftism to that premise.

    Still, futurism is different from sci fi. The line is blurry — and I think in claiming to be “rationalist” we sometimes ignore the blurring — but it’s really not a good look to talk about this from a place of complete ignorance. And the unfortunate author is.

    • Rick Hull says:

      The futures that we envision end up being the futures that we create. This is a really strong premise, but considering how many people are inspired by sci-fi & futurism — artists, scientists, engineers, technologists, investors, policy wonks — it’s worth engaging with.

      To what extent is this true? How many futures have we envisioned that did not end up being the future we created? It seems very clear that the future we end up with is a product of mostly inexplicable and unpredictable combinations of individual visions, societal consensus, game theory on the world stage between nations culturally and institutionally disparate, happenstance, and critical breakthroughs by persons at the right place and the right time.

      In this mindset, it’s inappropriate and naive to view futurism (as Scott & many rationalists often do) solely as a question of prediction. It’s also a question of ethics & meta-ethics.

      Yuck. If I predict New Orleans will flood in the next 10 years unless we do X, Y, or Z — is that ethical or unethical? If I predict New Orleans, Houston, and Miami will be permanently underwater within the next 100 years unless we do X, Y, or Z — is that ethical or unethical? There is no room for ethical objections when making predictions about the state of affairs.

      Inasmuch as the futures we envision tend to be futures that come to pass, it’s shitty to leave whole groups of people out of them.

      The latter part remains true despite the truth value of the former.

      This is where the criticism of “this is only for rich white males” comes in. Especially in a historical context of futurism that didn’t include women and minorities, thinking about this does count as progress.

      A futurism without women is an odd futurism indeed. Likewise, who is really positing a futurism without minorities? It seems like there might be a confusion where most of the futurism that you’ve read from the last 100 years has been authored by white men, but perhaps you need to broaden your historical futurism horizons? Aren’t white people minorities in various territories around the globe? Even if a 100 year old futurism tract is written by an author with an insular view of demographics that is biased toward his own kind, why should that matter today? There is a distinction between authorial demographics and SF character demographics.

      Witness, for example, the cringeworthiness of a lot of Golden Age SF in which all the characters are men who solve puzzles with interplanatary governments and futuristic spaceships while their wives barely fit in the margins doing 1950s domesticity.

      How accurate is this? Can we enumerate the cases which match this description? If this accurate, then isn’t this just a reflection of the time when such stories were written? Why is this relevant to those making hard predictions in our more enlightened time?

      • Evan Þ says:

        How accurate is this? Can we enumerate the cases which match this description?

        I haven’t done a formal survey, but as far as I can tell, it’s accurate. Examples off the top of my head: the Foundation trilogy, pretty much all Heinlein’s juveniles, Pournelle’s Co-Dominion series even though it was later than the Golden Age, Piper’s Time Patrol series…

        Why is this relevant to those making hard predictions in our more enlightened time?

        It’s relevant for two reasons. First, our biases (even if unconscious) may lead us to leave marginalized groups’s wishes out of our imagined futures, even if to a lesser degree – somewhat like a 1950’s sci-fi writer leaving out kitchen appliances. Second, and more seriously, it reminds us how the temporary prejudices and preoccupations of our era can influence our imagined futures.

        • John Schilling says:

          I haven’t done a formal survey, but as far as I can tell, it’s accurate. Examples off the top of my head: the Foundation trilogy, pretty much all Heinlein’s juveniles, Pournelle’s Co-Dominion series even though it was later than the Golden Age, Piper’s Time Patrol series…

          Nit: I don’t think any of the protagonists in any of those even had wives to “fit in the margins doing 1950s domesticity”.

          Or maybe that’s not a nit. Certainly the Heinlein juveniles were written to specific editorial demand for stories by and about teenage boys with no sex even implied to be happening. More generally, I think Golden Age SF (including Heinlein and arguably including the Juvies via e.g. Podkayne) tended to either leave women entirely out of the stories, or include them with prominent and active roles, depending on perceived audience tastes.

          Women doing 1950s domesticity while the men went galivanting around in rocket ships, I think that’s a characteristic of 1950s Hollywood Sci-Fi, not Golden Age written SF, but I don’t have high confidence on that.

          • Evan Þ says:

            I was taking “wives” somewhat broadly: look at Mrs. Stone from Rolling Stones, or Molly or Peggy in Farmer in the Sky, or Jim’s sister from Red Planet (whose name I don’t even remember). Or, for a literal “protagonist’s wife,” Beyta Derill from Foundation. They may be on the spaceships with our protagonists, but they’re at the margins of the plot doing what the 1950’s would consider women’s roles. Even when Beyta turns out to be significant at the last moment, it’s because of her stereotypically-feminine compassion in what was treated as largely plot-irrelevant through the entire book.

          • schazjmd says:

            I have to quibble with Mrs. Stone from Rolling Stones. She was a doctor, and one of the episodes in the story dealt with her transferring to another ship that had a medical emergency. Another (IIRC) episode was on a planet (Mars?) where she was providing roaming medical services to miners.

            No quibble with Molly and Peggy tho.

          • Mary says:

            ’cause there’s something wrong with being compassionate? Especially when Bayta Darell doesn’t let it stop her from saving the galaxy?

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Mary, no problem at all! My point is that she doesn’t do anything plot-relevant except for that one thing that not only is at the core of stereotypical 1950’s femininity but, for the vast majority of the book, doesn’t appear at all connected to the plot.

          • Mary says:

            If it’s not a problem, why do you insist on characterizing it so negatively?

            And surprising people with unforeseen but logical effects on plot is a mark of a good author.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Mary, being compassionate isn’t the problem. Having no plot-relevant traits besides compassion is the problem.

            And even though a good author surprises people, he should watch how they’re surprised, so (among other things) his characters keep on being active and non-cringeworthy.

        • Rick Hull says:

          It’s relevant for two reasons. First, our biases (even if unconscious) may lead us to leave marginalized groups’s wishes out of our imagined futures, even if to a lesser degree – somewhat like a 1950’s sci-fi writer leaving out kitchen appliances.

          1950s authors write with a 1950s understanding of the future. 2020s authors write with a 2020s understanding of the future. It’s still not clear how a 1950s worldview is relevant to authors in 2020, aside from the general idea that we should overcome bias, be less wrong, and attempt to be inclusive and promote equal opportunity. Doesn’t this support rather than challenge rationalism as a reasonable approach?

          • Mary says:

            t’s still not clear how a 1950s worldview is relevant to authors in 2020, aside from the general idea that we should overcome bias, be less wrong, and attempt to be inclusive and promote equal opportunity.

            There’s a certain irony to the bias against the 1950s shown here.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Mary, very good point, as I tried to explain to my book club last spring when they kept insisting (over Mote in God’s Eye) that gender roles could never be reasserted in the future, and monarchy could never come back…

            (We did get a little more interesting discussion on that a few months later, when we were reading High Crusade. Just about everyone liked that, even though we all admitted it was a Book of Very Low Probability.)

        • I haven’t done a formal survey, but as far as I can tell, it’s accurate. Examples off the top of my head: the Foundation trilogy, pretty much all Heinlein’s juveniles,

          That doesn’t fit my memory of Heinlein at all. Podkayne is the viewpoint character, although in my view her brother is the protagonist–and while she isn’t a super genius, she’s a bright, warm human being and plays a major role in the plot. In Starman Jones the female character turns out to have been concealing her intellect in order not to drive away the male character, but at the direct competition, 3D chess, she is much the better.

          In Starship Troopers, the females are the warship pilots. In Tunnel in the Sky the protagonist’s older sister is the one giving him wise advice and I remember at least one of the female students portrayed as particularly competent at survival.

          • Evan Þ says:

            I completely agree Heinlein moved away from this later; that’s why I called out his juveniles. (His later female characters have been called out for different reasons, and, well, I think there it’s more a function of his major characters being idiosyncratic “Heinlein son/daughter of Heinlein”‘s.) Though even there, I remember you’re right about Tunnel in the Sky (1955), and neither of us have mentioned Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958)…

            Interesting. I know it was present in Very Early Heinlein like Beyond This Horizon (1948); now that I check actual publication dates, apparently he got it out of him in the first decade or so.

      • Anthony says:

        If I predict New Orleans will flood in the next 10 years unless we do X, Y, or Z — is that ethical or unethical? If I predict New Orleans, Houston, and Miami will be permanently underwater within the next 100 years unless we do X, Y, or Z — is that ethical or unethical? There is no room for ethical objections when making predictions about the state of affairs.

        I’m an engineer. I make predictions like “your building will fall down in the next 50 years unless you do X, Y, and Z”. There are a whole bunch of ethical issues around that. Doing X, Y, and Z costs money. If really, only ½X and ¾Z are required, I’m defrauding my client, which is unethical. If I’m in the pay of a particular vendor of Y, and recommend that vendor’s proprietary implementation, I’m doing something unethical. These acts are unethical even if my client is not obligated to follow my recommendations.

        One of my coworkers has worked for a firm which is in a position to make exactly the predictions you hypothesize above – they do levee work. There is plenty of room for ethical objections to making predictions about the state of affairs.

        You may object that in those cases, there’s a client-consultant contract, and that those ethical lapses only matter because the consultant is defrauding the client of his honest services, while an outsider making those same predictions does not have the same bond. But the outsider making those predictions is in the position of trying to persuade the City of New Orleans, or the State of Texas, or the United States government, to spend money to follow a course of action they recommend. Which is what a paid consultant is doing – we can’t force our client to actually spend the money. So the ethical distinction is a lot more blurry, and your statement is completely wrong.

        • MoebiusStreet says:

          I think the concern may not be that you’re providing biased answers, but that the choice of which questions are attempted is inherently biased. If nobody even looks at the levy that defends my neighborhood, your ethics aren’t in question, but that neighborhood may not get through the next flood.

    • Tracy W says:

      The factual basis seems inaccurate. E.g. Golden Age SF was followed by the Civil Rights Movement and the Second Wave of Feminism.

  8. nestorr says:

    My favourite analogy to trot out at the “rapture of the nerds” type dismissal of singularity and futurism is the whole colonial period. Sure it’s a white supremacist’s power fantasy but it happened.

    “Sure, sure, these pasty primitives from a little corner of the world are going to spread out from their home countries and conquer the whole world to the point that even tiny countries are going to hold massive empires, and all this because they got good at building boats! It is to laugh”

    Technological advance has consequences.

  9. maybe_slytherin says:

    Totally separate from my other comment, but:

    I don’t know whether the future will be better or worse than the past, but I feel pretty sure it will be grander.

    So much of grandeur depends on framing. As in: I have a computer in my pocket that lets me instantly access the entirety of human knowledge*. I use it to look at pictures of cats. (Or porn, or to argue with strangers, or whatever).

    How grand is the present? How grand was the past? And how much are the answers to these questions determined by whatever narrative happens to win out?

    *Up to rounding errors.

    • darkar says:

      I’ve always been annoyed by that argument. People use technology for trivial reasons, sure. That doesn’t invalidate the awesome things they do. The definition of ‘grand’ might vary from person to person, but the overall trend of ‘everything getting faster and bigger and stranger’ makes me pretty confidant it will be a good description of the future.

      Even the ‘pictures of cats’ or ‘arguments with strangers’ examples fit into this paradigm: the sheer volume of information and the rate at which we process it is absurd. I would say mind-boggling, but the fact that most people are able to pretty much keep up with it is another part of the pattern. Whether or not this is good, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t impressive on some level.

      • shar says:

        True, but I’m inclined to agree with the version of maybe_slytherin’s point that holds that the world you’re in doesn’t subjectively feel grand, in a meaningful sense, at least without a continuous conscious effort to feel that way. I’ve lived straight through from the era when nobody had cell phones, to when we had little flip phones that could maybe text, to having basically Star Trek communicators (with optional tricorder attachments available), and I can 100% confirm that at each step along the way there was a little spark of grandeur for a few days after unboxing that gave way to… whatever it is I feel for my keys and wallet and the other stuff I’m anxious about losing on the bus.

        Hence the evergreen appeal of both sci-fi and historical romanticism, hence the viral smash hit Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy, hence people smirking at vaccines that their own grandparents considered literal miracles. I don’t know if it’s a glitch in the general human mind or just the modern one to see the world as essentially boring. Maybe it’s a cultural immune reaction to the breakneck pace of change the past couple centuries, maybe it’s just that god is dead and materialism can’t cut this particular mustard. Wild speculation, but I’d guess that some 12th century French peasant would see more wonder-working power in a stained glass window than I do in drinking a martini at 600 mph seven miles over the ocean.

        • Vamair says:

          I sometimes imagine telling a peasant child from about 500 years ago about something I see or do. “Is it magic (spoiler: yes it is, but we don’t use this word for it anymore). Are there demons? How does it move if it’s not alive? You can fly and see earth from the heavens and speak with anyone everywhere and destroy cities with heavenly fire, why can’t you restore dead people back to life?”

          • Jiro says:

            I would (assuming the peasant child didn’t just run away in fright) ask what he meant by “magic”. It would not fit under many definitions of “magic”, though of course if “magic” means “something I don’t personally understand” it could fit.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Jiro, careful, you’re starting to sound like Galadriel talking to Frodo.

            Then again, is that really a problem? 😀

          • Mary says:

            Of course it’s magic. Magic is working by unknown causes. Drinking willow bark tea was magic.

          • Nornagest says:

            I certainly couldn’t cite the biochemical pathways aspirin’s acting on. Does that make it magic to me?

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Nornagest, by some standards, yes.

            When I’m at work trying to figure out Very Big Software Company’s piece of Very Big Software, I’ve got a few components of it that I understand, and the rest is “magic.” How does this program get these inputs? Magic. What happens in this call to this external library? Magic. Sometimes I need to actually look in those external libraries, but in the meantime, I treat them as magic.

          • Nornagest says:

            Granted. But that usage always feels a little flippant to me; I feel like there’s a difference between something you don’t understand but believe you could with the right resources and a certain amount of effort, and something you believe you can’t understand, and if I’m not being flippant I’d only use “magic” for the latter.

          • Vamair says:

            If magic is something you don’t personally understand, that means that a wise and powerful wizard can’t do magic at all: if he understands what he’s doing, that’s not magic for him.
            My favorite (if uncommon) understanding of magic is as arcana or as the occult: using specific and hidden knowledge to manipulate reality instead of manipulating it in obvious/intuitive ways (hitting someone with a rock).
            That makes statistics a type of divination, but for most of the high power magic we have need a lot of material components.

          • Nornagest says:

            Reminds me of one of the things I liked about Lord of the Rings, once I noticed it was happening: the people we meet in it that do magic (wizards, elves) talk about it in terms of “lore” or “knowledge”, or sometimes in moral terms (Tolkien likes the word “fell” for evil magic), but they never, ever call it magic. Because to them it’s just cool stuff they know.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Tolkiens’s elves make a distinction between what they do (which they say isn’t magic) and the deceptions of the Enemy.

            I’m not sure what was intended there– some of Sauron’s magic has real effects like extended lifespan.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Nancy, IIRC, “deceptions of the Enemy” was meant to describe his glamours and lies and things like that, not all of (what we’d call) his magic.

          • FeepingCreature says:

            I think “magic”, in programming and in general, is better described as a component that acts in defiance of its appearance. We are aware on some level that hardcasting a float to a long and subtracting from a cryptic hex constant shouldn’t lead to an inverse square root, and yet it does. The true mechanism of action is complex and obscured; the visible mechanism seems too simple to produce the apparent effect. As such it’s more a matter of underhandedness than opaqueness.

            i = * ( long * ) &y; // evil floating point bit level hacking
            i = 0x5f3759df - ( i >> 1 ); // what the fuck?

            The premier attribute of magic is not that it is complex and opaque, but that first it seems simple, second it seems wrong, and third it works anyways.

            Compare the Underhanded C Contest for some great examples of code that is much more clever than it looks.

          • Macrofauna says:

            I think “magic”, in programming and in general, is better described as a component that acts in defiance of its appearance.

            I’ve thought something similar for a while; “magic” is that which has [/seems to have] little or no internal causality or mechanism. It Just Works.

        • Christopher Hazell says:

          Wild speculation, but I’d guess that some 12th century French peasant would see more wonder-working power in a stained glass window than I do in drinking a martini at 600 mph seven miles over the ocean.

          I have a smart-phone. It’s amazing, and every so often I think of how amazing and wonderful it is that I have a map of everywhere in my pocket, and answers to questions that I used to have no idea how to even begin researching.

          My part time job just cut my hours. I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. I have only the vaguest idea of how to begin to live a meaningful life. I’m not sure if I’ll have contributed anything to society after I die. Will I have anything useful to say to the little girl my brother is about to have, or will I just retreat in confusion from her world as it becomes so strange and unimaginable that I’ll have as much relevance as that 12th century peasant?

          The gadget, as magical and beautiful as it is, doesn’t make that anxiety go away. The gadget is the result of the processes that caused those anxieties. The gadget is a reminder of those anxieties.

    • Bugmaster says:

      The very concept of “arguing with strangers”, in the sense of a modern Internet flame war, is an innovation that would be nearly unfathomable to an 18th-century intellectual. The very concept of porn on demand — and not just any porn, but video with sound on demand — might render him apoplectic. Just because something is commonplace, doesn’t make it any less grand.

      • Nornagest says:

        The very concept of “arguing with strangers”, in the sense of a modern Internet flame war, is an innovation that would be nearly unfathomable to an 18th-century intellectual.

        I’m not so sure about that. Anonymous pamphlets were standard tactics in the 18th-century culture wars; many of them didn’t stay so anonymous long-term, but that’s true of a lot of Internet strangers too.

    • Yug Gnirob says:

      A test for how grand the present is. Ask yourself a question you don’t know the answer to; “how many raisins are produced per country per year”, or something. Take the time to find the answer without Internet sources (might be hard since people you ask might use it on their end), and time it. Then, once you’ve found the answer traditionally, look it up online, and then see how many cat and porn videos fit into the extra time the old way took.

      • Vamair says:

        You can learn a lot in process of searching for an answer which you won’t if you get it immediately then watch funny cats.

        That said, the present would be much worse without funny cats.

  10. doug1943 says:

    It’s very strange. The Left, or at least the Marxist component of it, used to be highly optimistic about the future. It was the Right who wrung their hands about the possible terrible consquences of the proletariat learning to read and write and maybe even vote. Now, when anyone with an eye in their head can see that we’re racing towards a state of affairs that will be Utopia by comparison with any previous period in humanity’s existence, it’s the Left who have become the moaners.

    Why? Perhaps its the discrediting of Marxism, due to its having been the ruling ideology of repressive regimes. The underlying ideas of Marx and Engels — the importance of the growth of the productive forces, and the necessary (and usually violent) periodic readjustments of the overlying social structure to accommodate the new material reality — have been discarded along with the earlier Left’s naive belief that this or that Third World dictatorship was actually the next step for our species.

    Or perhaps it’s the inability to take the Long View of history. Yes, we take three steps forward and two steps back, and the onrushing future, ruthlessly crunching up traditional habits and customs, can be a bit disconcerting — look at the reaction in the Muslim world to genuine equality for women — and yes, our increasing understanding and control over nature also gives us the possibility of being the instruments of our own mass extinction event … but despite everying … e pur, si muove!

    • Creative Username 1138 says:

      Part of the left is trying to get back to Utopia. See the popularity of Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.

      • albatross11 says:

        Hey, I *liked* the Culture books, damnit.

        • moonfirestorm says:

          I wonder if Communism is really an accurate description of the Culture?

          After all, the people don’t really own the means of production, the Minds do. It just so happens that the means of production are so ridiculously productive that the people can get pretty much anything they want instantly and in unlimited quality. The resource constraints that make Communism something worth talking about are pretty much gone.

          I guess the important thing would be how you get something that isn’t abundant, like a ship. If you’re a random Culture citizen and you want to go exploring on a very specific tour that there isn’t an existing Culture ship for, how does that happen? I don’t know that I know, I feel like the response would be “oh yeah, you want to explore only the fifteenth planets of solar systems? That’s the Gravitas Comes At Fifteen, I can let him know you’re interested and he’ll probably pick you up next time he’s in the area” and the humans won’t be able to come up with something weird enough that there’s not already a Culture ship doing it.

          • hyperboloid says:

            People use Communism, not unreasonably, to refer to the political system that existed in Countries ruled by Communist parties. Nevertheless, technically in Marxist theory Communism is the stage of history after that comes after the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the state withers away, and a kind of post scarcity classless utopia flourishes.

            Using the phrase “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” is obviously a meant as a trollish joke, but the basic idea has some merit to it. I personally think that the concept of a technological “singularity” is nonsense, but It may well be the case that technological progress will make capitalism as we know it obsolete. It’s possible to imagine mass automation, or even something like Drexel style nanotechnology, lowering the capital requirements for production so far that any random group of former proletarians could establish their own production facilities as needed, no revolution required.

            It just so happens that the means of production are so ridiculously productive that the people can get pretty much anything they want instantly and in unlimited quality.

            I haven’t read the culture books, but If “anything” includes capital goods then the people can reproduce the means of production as many times as they need, and anybody could order their own automated factory, or replicator, or whatever, anytime they saw fit.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            @hyperboloid:

            That seems reasonable. I’m just wondering how the capitalist utopia differs from the communist utopia.

            I agree that in a post-scarcity world, capitalism is unnecessary, since it’s primarily concerned with resource allocation, and in a world of infinite supply and finite demand, prices are all 0.

            But the Culture is absolutely class-segregated, and mostly dependent on the benevolence of the Minds, which is thankfully infinite. A human can’t become a Mind, or even hope to understand them. Absolutely no part of the Culture needs humans, everything they do is just entertainment for themselves (there are times when a human will be in a military ship, for example, and actually be reducing the effectiveness of the Mind who would otherwise be controlling the ship) and the Minds basically treat them as very interesting and complicated pets that sometimes provide novel insights, and provide resources for them because nothing a human could possibly want is even remotely costly on the resource scales the Minds have.

            It actually maps rather better to the “trivially easy charity of the rich” that we talk about here sometimes after automation’s taken over fully.

            I’m sure if a Culture citizen wanted, they could order up an automated factory to make whatever they want. It’s just not clear why they would want to: if you’re concerned about not having access to Widget X, you could also just tell the Mind to make a new area that is devoted to Widget X, or stockpile a massive amount of Widget X for you. And the Culture citizens are pretty much used to the Minds taking care of everything for them.

          • baconbacon says:

            I agree that in a post-scarcity world, capitalism is unnecessary, since it’s primarily concerned with resource allocation, and in a world of infinite supply and finite demand, prices are all 0.

            Prices are a mechanism for distributing resources, but not the only one, and distribution is about costs, not prices. My kids will sporadically fight over who gets into the car first, and in a post scarcity world I could still wonder if I want to spend the day in the holodeck with fifteen lucy lawless clones or sixteen.

          • Aapje says:

            I think that the term ‘post-scarcity’ is highly deceptive, in that it deceives people into thinking that all scarcity will be gone. I can only come up with conceptions of the future where some things will no longer be scarce, while others will still be so.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Maybe a high-prosperity future instead of post-scarcity?

            Things that will presumably limited unless we find some very new and highly convenient physics: time, space (especially for desirable locations), matter, and attention.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Are there any post-scarcity SF stories that suggest something other than “once we have an abundance of everything we find scarce in today’s world, we’ll simply identify other things which are scarce”?

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Paul, what about stories like Star Trek where we go exploring outside the post-scarcity society where no man has gone before?

    • melolontha says:

      It’s very strange. The Left, or at least the Marxist component of it, used to be highly optimistic about the future. It was the Right who wrung their hands about the possible terrible consquences of the proletariat learning to read and write and maybe even vote. Now, when anyone with an eye in their head can see that we’re racing towards a state of affairs that will be Utopia by comparison with any previous period in humanity’s existence, it’s the Left who have become the moaners.

      Why?

      “[T]he proletariat learning to read and write and maybe even vote” seemed likely to lead to increased equality. Some of the advances that are apparently around the corner now, such as widespread automation of labour, seem likely to lead to increased inequality.

      Currently the rich depend in a real way on the labour of the poor, so the interests of rich and poor overlap at least a little. If, twenty years from now, most of the grunt work can be done by robots, that will no longer be the case, and a lot of us will be reliant on the charity of the wealthy.

      • AutisticThinker says:

        Agreed.

        My old scenario of the superrich massacring other humans for the sake of it is not very likely though. The main issue here is that any form of excessive evil without a clear Schelling point leads to a race-to-the-bottom scenario with such evil normalized. For example if elites do manage to exterminate non-elites using some weapon within a day it will also make competition among elites much more bloody with mass murders of civilians and even neutral people common and the Spiral of Genocide will probably only end when humanity goes extinct, only one human is left or something.

        However the superrich controlling everything is still less bad compared to the militarily superpowerful superintelligent AI-owning warlords controlling everything. Are we sure that money will even be useful when warlords can execute people for fun? Note that in the first scenario at least property rights are respected and enforced while the second one is largely Hobbesian.

        • albatross11 says:

          I think the nightmare scenario of our past was the elites enslaving or exploiting the masses. And the nightmare scenario of our future is the elites finding the masses utterly unimportant, of no value to their plans and not worth either helping or hindering.

          The past’s nightmare was a sugar plantation with slaves for workers, or a company town where the reserve army of the unemployed kept the wages down to subsistence + epsilon. The future’s nightmare is the urban ghetto or the refugee camp–nobody can get rich exploiting the people there, because all the rich and powerful want to do is avoid all those people entirely, and put their offices, schools, and homes too far away to interact with them. Perhaps the powerful drop some wealth on them periodically, either out of compassion or to keep them quiet.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            How is the elites finding the masses unimportant an issue? That means they won’t try to mess up lives of the masses for the sake of personal gain. That’s good news for ordinary people.

            Do you really believe that without the hereditary elites we can not feed or care for ourselves? How many people on SSC belongs to that class anyway?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Think of the elites as being like a UFAI– they might want your resources for their own purposes.

            For example, the elites might think that independent farming is environmentally unsound or visually ugly. (There are communities where you aren’t allowed to grow food in your front yard.)

          • albatross11 says:

            I don’t mean today’s elites. I mean the movers and shakers in the future. And maybe a better way of phrasing this is to think in terms of what’s valuable for the economy as a whole.

            There is a set of people in first-world countries who are disabled in some way that makes them unable to support themselves. They’re on disability or in sheltered workshops or in mental institutions or whatever, and in any decent society, they’re not left to starve or anything. But they’re not an important part of the economy–they’re not able to contribute anything to it. We take care of them because we believe humans have value, not because we expect them to produce any wealth.

            Imagine a world where every human (or maybe every human but one-in-a-million geniuses and one-in-a-million super-rich people) is in that same category. We’re just not relevant to the economy or the powers that run things–we can’t produce anything they need, we can’t do anything for them that they can’t do better and cheaper for themselves. That seems to me to be a plausible future, and I have no idea how anything like our society would adapt itself to it.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            My semi-optimistic notion– at least good enough for science fiction– is that the wealthy gain status by how many non-wealthy people they support.

            If clients are allowed to choose their patrons, it might not be a bad deal.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz That’s indeed a legit concern.

            Anyway better having a STEM elite than a chad/seducer/prominent family one. I would rather submit to King Zuckerburg than the rule of an anti-intellectual mob. Of course a better alternative is to start a group on my own and leave this planet.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            My semi-optimistic notion– at least good enough for science fiction– is that the wealthy gain status by how many non-wealthy people they support.

            If clients are allowed to choose their patrons, it might not be a bad deal.

            It’s my understanding that this is how it worked in Ancient Rome. So there’s some reason to hope that bit of history will repeat. It’s arguable how well that worked out for the non-wealthy, though.

          • Aapje says:

            Is that a good example? Their society was based on exploiting large amounts of slave labor.

      • Ketil says:

        Not obvious to me. If the grunt work can be done by robots, it could obsolete the need for large scale industries. If my 3D-printer in the basement can build whatever I want, why would I pay some Evil Capitalist for goods? And a larger fraction of value is in the form of information – the Internet may have made a good number of billionaires, but it has also provided enormous value to just about everybody. (How much would you be willing to pay a Bond-villain not to take away the Internet?) Even if those billionaires would “only” have been factory-owning millionaires a few decades ago, it is not clear to me that equality is decreasing.

        In my humble opinion, the cause of increasing inequality is globalization, especially for natural monopolies. With larger and larger companies serving larger and larger markets, there is naturally need for fewer and fewer of them. Global wealth increases, but we probably need to have increased redistribution.

        • In my humble opinion, the cause of increasing inequality is globalization, especially for natural monopolies. With larger and larger companies serving larger and larger markets, there is naturally need for fewer and fewer of them.

          Naturally? I would expect globalization to have precisely the opposite effect. If something is a perfect natural monopoly–average cost falls over all ranges of quantity–you go from a monopoly in the U.S. and another one in the E.U. to one monopoly in both, but that happened only because they used to be separate markets and are now one market, so from the standpoint of the consumer you are going from one monopoly before to one monopoly after.

          For anything short of that, a larger market means that there is room for more firms of whatever the optimal size is, not fewer.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          If my 3D-printer in the basement can build whatever I want, why would I pay some Evil Capitalist for goods?

          I think ownership of a sufficiently-advanced 3D-printer, and even of a basement, is assuming a lot.

          Plus if 3D-printers are anything like 2D-printers, the Evil Capitalists won’t let you print food if your consumerisium cartridge is running low. Which happens to be deliberately evaporated away over the course of two weeks’ “regular self-cleaning”.

    • @melolontha

      and a lot of us will be reliant on the charity of the wealthy.

      If that charity comes in the form of self-reproducing capital (sufficiently advanced personal robots + additive manufacturing fits the bill), then it only needs to happen once.

      • melolontha says:

        If that charity comes in the form of self-reproducing capital (sufficiently advanced personal robots + additive manufacturing fits the bill), then it only needs to happen once.

        Good point. I worry that that kind of charity is probably unlikely to be widespread, though, even if it’s technically feasible. I guess I imagine the wealthy elite class as containing a decent number of people who are sufficiently benevolent to want to alleviate poverty and suffering, but very few who are willing to sacrifice their own power (let alone security) in order to do so. And it might be hard to stay on the safe side of that line, except by limiting one’s generosity to the kind of drip-feed giving that can be cut off at any moment.

        • Aapje says:

          @melolontha

          I worry that the elite will want to alleviate poverty and suffering in the abstract, but then deem the actual poor and suffering as undeserving. This is already all around us, on both the left and the right (but with different justifications).

          • Toby Bartels says:

            Indeed, the bioengineered virus that killed everybody who couldn’t afford the vaccine was certainly deplorable, and the mad scientist who unleashed it will be dealt with severely (better yet, already died from it), but now that the disaster happened, at least there’s no more poverty or suffering. All of our computer models agree that distributing free vaccines to everybody would not have been an efficient use of resources, especially when you take into account this long-term consequence.

      • @melolontha

        I worry that that kind of charity is probably unlikely to be widespread,

        My scenario assumes we’re at the stage where robots can do any work a human can due to AI advances. If it’s also the case that additive manufacturing (3D printing) is advanced enough for a fridge sized machine to print a robot with electronics in place, and that carbon nanomaterials can take the place of scarce materials in creating all of its parts, then just a few instances of charity act as seeding points for blowing apart the whole monopoly of the elite group. Fewer and fewer defectors would be required over time as tech gets better.

        It’s very likely that long before tech gets that good, factory and service level automation puts a lot of people out of work, so I believe there is going to be an interim period where people have to rely on the charity redistributed tax money of the rich, but that’s not too different from it is now. A lot of countries have large portions receiving some form of welfare.

        I think a basic income guarantee is very likely to get passed when severe technological employment hits. Less severe employment risks in the past led to the creation of the welfare state and then the expansion in the 30s and 50s.

        It’s true that in the 80s and beyond conservatives made cut backs, but only against the backdrop of left wing failures, and only in a relative sense historically. A basic income guarantee would probably be successful after being introduced in a more tepid way.

        • Iain says:

          It’s very likely that long before tech gets that good, factory and service level automation puts a lot of people out of work, so I believe there is going to be an interim period where people have to rely on the charity redistributed tax money of the rich, but that’s not too different from it is now. A lot of countries have large portions receiving some form of welfare.

          I think a basic income guarantee is very likely to get passed when severe technological employment hits. Less severe employment risks in the past led to the creation of the welfare state and then the expansion in the 30s and 50s.

          I also expect (hope for?) something along these lines.

      • Deiseach says:

        sufficiently advanced personal robots + additive manufacturing fits the bill

        How does that work? Everyone can now manufacture their own smart phone model – and sell it? To whom? This sounds like making a living by taking in each other’s washing. Now maybe it’ll happen that Apple will go out of business because crap, everyone can now make their own version of an iPhone, but I wonder about that. Even if everyone becomes a small-scale manufacturer and an artisan producer – one person produces artworks, another person makes vegan cheese, whatever – there is a limited market for how much you can make and sell and make a living on, if everyone has the capacity (maybe not the ability but the theoretical capacity) to make their own soap, gourmet home-cooked food, furniture, etc.

        I think that there would be a huge shake-up in society and that power will shift to those who can create the designs for the robots and the AI, until the AI becomes smart enough to improve itself and create new models without needing human intervention.

        All you programmers and people who work in tech – what would you do in the morning if your job was gone? Yeah,now you’ve got robot servants and additive manufacturing capability, so what will you work at – hobby programmes that have their appeal as ‘hand-made genuine clunky human tech’ to sell on a small-scale to people who want quaint fripperies, but for real work, the AI produces things much better, faster, and effectively?

        We’re assuming that “in this future, all you will need is thirty cents a day to live on”, but why should I pay even two cents for your clunky work when I can get superior work for free?

        • baconbacon says:

          If you can get superior work for free, then what isn’t free? What is it that has to be produced and paid for that you cannot produce yourself for free/near free?

        • Witness says:

          Yeah,now you’ve got robot servants and additive manufacturing capability, so what will you work at…

          I think the idea is that if I have robot servants and additive manufacturing capability, I don’t really need to work. That’s what the robots are for.

          We’re assuming that “in this future, all you will need is thirty cents a day to live on”, but why should I pay even two cents for your clunky work when I can get superior work for free?

          If so much superior work is free, what living expenses add up to 30 cents per day?

          • Deiseach says:

            You see, that’s the part of the assumption that I can’t get a clear handle on. There is no such thing as a free lunch, yet we are apparently assuming AI will figure out infinite energy and infinite resources for everyone, and I have no idea where that is supposed to come from or how it is supposed to work.

            At the very least, anything we think of as an economy is going to be dynamited.

            And I’m thinking of previous comment threads on here where many people were appalled at the very notion of not performing some kind of work to give meaning to one’s life, and that simply taking the money and living a life of leisure was something only those with high time preference would choose, and those with high time preference have been lambasted on here as the stupid, poor, criminal and many other faults.

            So in the great new post-scarcity world, what are you going to do? Will systems of power simply fade away quietly? Who is going to be on top, because I don’t think humans as political and social animals are going to throw out hierarchies any time soon.

            The argument really does seem to go:

            Step one: figure out how to create intelligence
            Step two: God-like Friendly AI
            Step three: ?????
            Step four: post-scarcity abundance for all!

            I really, really want to see some models of step three, guys!

          • Nornagest says:

            That’s a fair criticism. But it’s one that can’t be answered, because we literally can’t match what our hypothetical friendly AI God might come up with — if we could, we wouldn’t need a hypothetical friendly AI God, we could just go out and do it ourselves.

            It’s because of questions like this that I’m very uncomfortable discussing outcomes of a Singularity, even using very broad terms like “post-scarcity”. We don’t even know the utility function we want to give our AI Sky Daddy; that’s what MIRI is mainly concerned with, and there are some very smart people over there even if I do occasionally find their assumptions frustrating. And if we don’t know that much, we definitely don’t know the actual paths it might go down.

            Most of the post-Singularity speculation I’ve read is basically just “hooray for our side”.

          • At the very least, anything we think of as an economy is going to be dynamited.

            For an entertaining picture of how the economy rapidly recovers from dynamiting–alien devices that can duplicate anything, including themselves, given us in order to destroy our economuy–see Business as Usual During Alterations.

          • Peter says:

            Oh, coming up with a model for Step 3 is the God-like Friendly AI’s job. Solving deeply perplexing ????? lines is, well, if a superintelligence can’t do that, it can hardly be called a superintelligence, now can it?

            Slightly less flippantly – if a superintelligence can’t do it, then none of us can do it either. The starting point of superintelligence speculation is to suppose that there’s no special magic to human mental abilities, and it’s not too much of an extrapolation to include powers of persuasion, social organisation etc. If you don’t buy that, or aren’t prepared to, err, rent that for the sake of argument, then you don’t buy (or rent) step 1, and have no business talking about what comes after that. Anyway, if a superintelligence can’t solve the problem of human hierarchies, then it’s not a soluble problem, so we should move on and find something happier to think about.

          • Witness says:

            @Deiseach
            You see, that’s the part of the assumption that I can’t get a clear handle on. There is no such thing as a free lunch, yet we are apparently assuming AI will figure out infinite energy and infinite resources for everyone, and I have no idea where that is supposed to come from or how it is supposed to work.

            So in the great new post-scarcity world, what are you going to do? Will systems of power simply fade away quietly? Who is going to be on top, because I don’t think humans as political and social animals are going to throw out hierarchies any time soon.

            I don’t personally have much of a stake/belief in this as a singularity-type event, but “post-scarcity” does sort of imply “free lunch”.

            As far as social orders and being on top, I expect that this will continue to be a thing, in some fashion.

            And I’m thinking of previous comment threads on here where many people were appalled at the very notion of not performing some kind of work to give meaning to one’s life

            I can’t speak to that kind of conversation, really. I mean, I would definitely still *do* something in this theoretical environment. I just, presumably, wouldn’t need to get paid for it.

            Step one: figure out how to create intelligence
            Step two: God-like Friendly AI
            Step three: ?????
            Step four: post-scarcity abundance for all!

            Steps 1 and 2 are the confusing ones for me (Basically, what Peter said).

            Step 3 seems like “continue improving our automation techniques and expand them to areas not currently well-automated”, and I don’t think it needs godlike AI. There’s an energy/input problem as well but we seem to be getting better at solving those as well.

            I don’t assume this ever reaches Replicator-level technology, but if it did, that would be a solution more than a problem.

          • Tom Crispin says:

            @David Friedman

            Damon Knight had a slightly different take on what happens when we have universal replicators. I remember the novel as “A for Anything”

            Since all material objects have become essentially free, the only commodity of value is human labor, and the author suggests that a slave economy would be the inevitable result.

          • Aapje says:

            @Tom Crispin

            I don’t see how that is the inevitable outcome.

            But anyway, if most labor is done by robots, then only those with a level of creativity, ability to socialize well or any other capability that the robots can’t do have any value to others. The others have no value except their innate value as humans.

          • @Aapje

            Hence, basic income for the plebs (innate human value most believe in), and more money for cool funny people who can get people to pay them for authenticity reasons.

            I also think it might be possible to earn money through very subtle applications of mental labor, because even if all labor is automated, human command won’t be (assuming we’re still in charge). Let’s imagine Billy owns ten auto-robots and David also owns ten auto-robots of equal capability. Now let’s imagine that Billy and David learn of separate mines, but Billy has chosen the more productive mine to apply his automated self-working capital to; the result will be that Billy will “earn” more than David.

            Even if the margin available for human “labor” shrinks, its effects on income won’t, because subtle changes in initial conditions have massive effects financially and compound. So I don’t imagine that automated society would be so dire that everyone is stuck at the basic income level fighting over a fixed pie.

            At least, not until machines actually take over, which either means our destruction, or becoming machines, and then who can imagine what the economy will look like, only that it has to look like something, because as everyone is pointing out correctly, resources will still be scarce and have alternative uses.

          • Aapje says:

            What if Billy and David own all the mines, while the rest of humanity owns nothing.

            I guess you can argue that we will expand into space, but then there is still the time issue, since shipping stuff around is not instantaneous.

          • @Aapje

            What if Billy and David own all the mines, while the rest of humanity owns nothing.

            Then redistribute some ownership then. Same as today.

          • FeepingCreature says:

            @David Friedman

            The conclusion of that story seems awfully forced. Open source technology’s biggest hurdle has always been the ability to mass produce. Rapid prototyping? Go to a gas station, pick up a bucket of petrol. Build a rocket engine in your back yard. It doesn’t have to work first try, it just has to not kill you, because you can modify it again and again and again. “And that was the first day of the duplicator, the day that set the pattern”? Come on, give it a week or a year. The economy has had centuries.

            Besides, of course it’s always going to be a rat race if your job is working the till at the rat racing circuit.

    • John Nerst says:

      There might not be a substantive reason. Maybe culture war bullshit is a consequence of an oversaturated media climate where petty status game material thrives because it gets clicks, both from lovers and haters. (How many did that piece get from SSC readers today?) It’s the textual equivalent of junk food and porn. They’re thriving too.

    • Walter says:

      Left hates suffering. Right hates unfairness.

      Left discovered at some point that Right gives absolutely zero fucks about suffering UNLESS it is caused by unfairness. Ergo if you actually want to fix suffering step one is to figure out a way in which it is caused by unfairness.

      Left isn’t actually one person, though, who can keep complicated shit like this in his mind. It is a team of people, and ‘blame stuff on unfairness’ has stopped being a step 1 to helping people, and become a cause in and of itself. So some percentage of Left looks at the oncoming Golden Age and instantaneously tries to figure out how it is a scam for The Patriarchy, because their role is to say that of course everything must be.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Right gives absolutely zero fucks about suffering UNLESS it is caused by unfairness.

        I would say the more charitable way of expressing this is that the right accepts the existence and inevitability of suffering but not of unfairness.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I’d say that’s less charitable. Among other problems, it’s so clearly contrary to fact given how much suffering has in fact been alleviated in the last few centuries.

          I’d phrase it more like “The Right says that government should ensure fairness, but not much more.” Except for a handful of Objectivists, we’re all for private charity.

          • lvlln says:

            Among other problems, it’s so clearly contrary to fact given how much suffering has in fact been alleviated in the last few centuries.

            I don’t think this statement makes sense. A lot of suffering being alleviated is perfectly consistent with some suffering being inevitable. The alleviation of suffering in the past few centuries doesn’t imply that we will/are likely to/have the ability to alleviate ALL suffering. There’s no contradiction.

            I think Conrad Honcho’s phrasing is, if anything, uncharitable to the left in that it implies that the left doesn’t accept the existence and inevitability of suffering. I don’t think we’re quite that deluded; it’s that, on the margins, we tend to believe that the tradeoffs involved in alleviating the suffering that already happens are worth it more than the people on the right tend to do. I think it’s more an issue of emphasis versus acceptance – the left emphasizes the need to continue to alleviate more suffering, the right emphasizes the need to maintain the structures that have served us well in alleviating suffering up to this point.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @lvlln, I agree that some suffering’s inevitable, and that both the Left and Right see that (outside of the fundamentalist Singularitans.) But, that’s peripheral to the question we’re talking about in this subthread: why the Left insists on framing individual cases of suffering as unfairness, and why the Right doesn’t want the government to alleviate individual cases of suffering that aren’t unfairness.

            Unless you’re trying to say those individual cases are inevitable – but I’d dispute that too, in many cases.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            @lvlln

            I didn’t say anything about the left’s attitude towards suffering. Not being a leftist, I thought the most charitable thing I could do was not speak for the left 🙂

        • Walter says:

          Sure, that’s a fine way to phrase it. My main point is that ‘calling out’ has become disconnected from its original goal of uniting right and left in fixing the problem. It is a reflex now for folks like this author.

          The Golden Age will be Problematic, because everything must be.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I agree with that. I think it’s the sort of rot you get in any system as it ages. You start with people concerned primarily with the raison d’être but once the organization becomes successful it attracts people whose interest is in perpetuating or expanding the system and gaining power and wealth through it. Take higher education. The universities are founded by people interested in learning and education but are now run by careerist bureaucrats. Insert appropriate caveats of course.

            But I also think these things go in cycles. The university system may collapse but learning go on. Social justice will stick around, but the Social Justice Warrior is on his way out.

          • Aapje says:

            @Walter

            It’s not surprising that the power to claim to always be right, simply by pointing at your gender or race and the other person’s ‘oppressor’ gender or race, corrupts people.

            (One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them)?

  11. Jiro says:

    I remember a similar-looking graph. It was published in Analog around 1960 (reprinted later).

    It showed how fast human beings were capable of travelling, and the accelerating curves looked just like yours.

    It also indicated that we would achieve faster than light travel around 1985 or so. Somehow, we didn’t get that.

    You can’t extrapolate this type of graph to keep getting steeper just because its gotten steeper in the past. It could be, and probably is, a sigmoid growth curve and will level off, if it hasn’t already levelled off today; the flat part of the curve will come when you reach some limit that was not a limiting factor in the past.

    Also, ever noticed that Moore’s Law has been levelling off for a while? Every time we reached the end of a process to make computers faster, we found a new process that continued the curve. Until… we didn’t.

    • Yeah, trendlines for poverty reduction obviously can’t continue infinitely, but that’s a feature not a bug; at some point no one is classed as being in poverty under the definition supplied, so the number of people who have an officiated as acceptable level of resources then equals the population itself, and no more poverty reduction can be achieved without changing what counts as poverty. I don’t even think that can continue infinitely, because I doubt that humans infinitely readjust their perception of their environment in order to make themselves unhappy with it. We’re very good at this, but infinitely good?

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t even think that can continue infinitely, because I doubt that humans infinitely readjust their perception of their environment in order to make themselves unhappy with it.

        Oh, I think we can. We adjust our expectations to fit the circumstances we find ourselves in. So people who were raised in houses without running water are going to be really happy about living in a new house where there’s indoor plumbing, but their children? Raised in houses with indoor plumbing? Where the expectation in society at large is that for the bare minimum you have indoor plumbing and only somewhere back of beyond in the country, or Third World countries as the majority, don’t have it? Then they compare themselves to people living in houses with two bathrooms, and feel a sense of deprivation.

        And that’s not completely unreasonable, because if expectations are rising all round and everyone is moving up in what they have and expect to have, then your relative deprivation – although it may be better than past generations had it – really is lacking by the current standards.

        • albertborrow says:

          My standards of poverty are determined by predictions of how my circumstances could be in the future. In my mind, I am impoverished for not having the zettajoules of energy provided to my descendants by their dyson sphere.

          (I kid. Mostly.)

          • Deiseach says:

            Do you think “By the standards of the greater part of human history, I am living like Aladdin with his genie to grant his every wish, with riches and splendour known to the very few as my common lot”? Probably not. If you do compare yourself to anyone, it’s likely to be “Bill Gates, he’s rich. Zuckerberg. Those kinds of guys. Not me, I’m just an average Joe getting by as best I can”.

            We adapt to our circumstances and those enjoyed or suffered by those around us, and our expectations adjust accordingly.

          • Nornagest says:

            Do you think “By the standards of the greater part of human history, I am living like Aladdin with his genie …’

            It’s occurred to me. But my standards are of course calibrated against what I see around me, not against what an illiterate medieval Castilian goatherder would consider prosperity.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Do you think “By the standards of the greater part of human history, I am living like Aladdin with his genie to grant his every wish, with riches and splendour known to the very few as my common lot”? Probably not.

            I do, actually. It makes for a good and productive meditation. Works especially well when I’m disappointed.

            You are a Christian, I thought? Don’t Christians have the concept of prayers in gratitude? They work better, when they are not just rote words.

          • Mary says:

            ‘We adapt to our circumstances and those enjoyed or suffered by those around us, and our expectations adjust accordingly.”

            Nah. Those enjoyed. Those suffered we overlook. The upper middle class looks at the rich with envy; the middle class at both of them; the poor at all of them. Etc. At least I see far more erasure of those worse off than those better off.

        • Fuge says:

          What children?

          People here are not getting that things will change much more radically than they think. Part of the poverty is not that we don’t have running water, it’s that overall, society conditions a lot of us not to have kids. Or wives and husbands. Or that we end up warehoused in tiny rooms with only screens to keep us company…I can see an endgame where the prim atheistic moralists refuse to let us even keep cats or dogs for environmental reasons.

          The game changes in ways we never understand until they happen.

      • Mary says:

        I think this covers the problem in more detail than I could quickly type up now:

        http://fantasticworlds-jordan179.blogspot.com/2013/09/examining-concept-of-post-scarcity.html

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          That link is about material limits, but those may not be the major limits.

          In a post-scarcity economy, the only way you’ll get custom stuff from the best designers is to be interesting to them– that is, more interesting than the other people who want the use of their time.

          Or are we assuming that the AI can be a better designer than any human?

          • Mary says:

            then you have to interest the AI.

            But, then, even if the AI can design better than a human, people will vie for human-designed things for conspicuous consumption. Since we are still discussing human beings. Human limits mean that their designs will be rarer.

          • Aapje says:

            then you have to interest the AI.

            But the AI is only interested in paperclips and I am not (yet) a paperclip.

          • I think any far future speculation has to assume that we’ve solved the “unfriendly” AI problem, because otherwise humans aren’t even around for us to speculate on what economic and social systems they might be using. The anthropic principle of futurism.

    • Peter says:

      Notice what Scott is saying. “I don’t care if you think this vision is stupid. We’re not arguing about whether this vision is stupid. We’re arguing about whether, if this vision were 100% true, it would make a difference in the life of the average person.”

      Scott’s graph makes the excellent point that a) zero order “no change” approximations have already been comprehensively refuted, and b) in particular, they have been refuted in domains that make real differences in people’s lives, and c) even if by some miracle those refutations turn out to be mere attempts at refutation, futurists are still talking about something dramatic.

      You want to complain that exponentials as a first-order approximation are inadequate too? You wanna talk about sigmoids and beyond? Sure, let’s talk about sigmoids. But don’t pretend that the zero-order flatliners have more to tell us about the medium-term future than the first-order exponential pedlars, because they don’t.

    • Toby Bartels says:

      That sounds like using the wrong scale. If something looks exponential in speed v but all currently observed speeds are much less than 1 = 299792458m/s, then with our understanding of what speed is, you should look instead to rapidity w = atanh(v). Similarly, if you see exponential growth in p, the percentage of population living outside of poverty, while p is much less than 1 = 100%, then you should look instead at o = p/(1-p). (While p is the probability that a randomly chosen person lives out of poverty, o is the odds.)

      Of course, you can make anything exponential (or stop being exponential) by changing the scale in the right way, but these are simply the most natural ways to change the scale to make infinite growth possible in the first place. The growth might still level off, but now it would have to be because of some extra reason, not because the mathematics requires it.

      • Jiro says:

        We not only didn’t get FTL travel by 1985, the speed levelled off so far below the speed of light that we didn’t even get near the point where the speed of light makes a difference. It just levelled off because those things tend to level off; at some point you run out of revolutionary advances.

        • hlynkacg says:

          I’m not saying FTL is possible, but the speed only leveled off where it did because because NASA lost their nerve.

          • Evan Þ says:

            More “lost their money and sense of mission” than “lost their nerve,” I’d say.

          • Jiro says:

            The overall flattening of the curve happens because the next step keeps getting harder and harder. It’s going to stop at a point where the next step is difficult, but still possible. You can’t look at it, say “it was still possible”, and deny that the increasing difficulty had anything to do with it stopping.

          • John Schilling says:

            That is, indeed, far too subtle a way to propel a spaceship.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            @John Schilling:

            Please, nuclear salt water rockets are way more awesome than Orion, not to mention even less subtle (exhaust speeds of 0.2c? *Continuous* prompt critical reaction?)

          • John Schilling says:

            I consider the ability to actually work to be a key ingredient in awesomeness, and the NSWR doesn’t seem to have that. Nerva was built, Orion had various proof-of-concept tests, NSWR is a clever idea that turned into one paper that can’t be DISproven without at least a Fukushima’s worth of nuclear-grade unpleasantness but which depends heavily on high-grade handwaving and which nobody with a background in nuclear engineering takes seriously.

            Including the author, who has a degree in nuclear engineering, tossed it out as a Neat Idea, and walked away.

          • hyperboloid says:

            @ John schilling

            I consider the ability to actually work to be a key ingredient in awesomeness

            Actually working as intended is the most direct way of achieving awesomeness, but I’ve always found that exploding spectacularly is a close runner up; and you must admit few means of propulsion could ever out shine the nuclear salt water rocket in that department.

          • John Schilling says:

            Meh. With Orion, you get both and on a grander scale.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Kurzweil is a master at cherry picking stuff to fit into nice exponential curves. I don’t think these trends are particularly informative.

      The only steelman conclusion that we can derive from this historical data is that the Industrial Revolution happened. We already knew this.

  12. sohois says:

    The author of this piece also wrote Weapons of Math Destruction, also mostly about bad algorithms. I suppose she is a bit too focused on this one issue to write about related stuff clearly.

    I recall at the time the book was published reading some utterly scathing reviews of it, though the only thing that pops up in my history is this fairly even handed review from Zvi:
    https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/book-review-weapons-of-math-destruction/

    • colomon says:

      That’s funny, the impression I had of Weapons of Math Destruction (from reviews and talks with the author, haven’t read it yet) was that it was a good and interesting book. Discovering that the same author wrote the article Scott’s talking about and then reading the beginning of that article is a HORRIBLE disappointment. “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT SOME OF THE PEOPLE SPECULATING ABOUT THIS MIGHT BE IN YOUR (((OUTGROUP)))?” is exactly right.

      I only read through the Q1 section, and I’m already feeling as mad as Scott did, despite thinking the Singularity is a load of bunk. That section is a free-form ramble with no logic or evidence at all, basically just a stream of “they’re the outgroup!” insinuations. Ugh.

    • Protagoras says:

      That review was even handed? Looked pretty scathing to me. Though I guess there’s a genre of truly brutal reviewing which exists and which this is not an instance of; perhaps I would think otherwise if I were a more frequent reader of that genre.

  13. TyphonBaalHammon says:

    « I don’t know whether the future will be better or worse than the past, but I feel pretty sure it will be grander. »

    And maybe you are just as wrong as Madden was, maybe everything currently growing exponentially is about to plateau. It’s not so unreasonable.

    • albatross11 says:

      If all the exponentials plateau, we will suffer a catastrophic depression and massive social disorder. We have no idea how to have anything like a modern society without constant growth in wealth and technology.

      • We have no idea how to have anything like a modern society without constant growth in wealth and technology.

        What makes you believe that?

        • Migratory says:

          I’m not albatross11, but I imagine they’re referring to the current investment strategies that our society is built upon. New ideas are financed by debt on the assumption that they will tap new sources of wealth that can pay not only the original investment plus interest, but also the livelihoods of all the employees. Without growth in a sector, investments in that sector will fail to break even.

          I can imagine a society that survives without growth, but it would have to replace profit-seeking investors with something else.

        • albatross11 says:

          Obviously I don’t have any kind of hard evidence, but the main reason I believe this is because:

          a. Our society has been experiencing dramatic economic and technological growth for at least two centuries. That is the backdrop for our political and social arrangements. It seems quite likely that changing the backdrop will change what arrangements are workable.

          b. Many industries are built around having new stuff come out every few years, particularly consumer electronics. Those industries would have a very hard time coping with a cesation of that progress.

          c. I think there’s a process of parasites taking over long-term stable things in our society. Like it starts out useful, but then it becomes an ever-greater font of rent-seeking and featherbedding and parking of connected people in key jobs, until it becomes increasingly inefficient. I suspect this is much of the explanation for the cost disease in education and health care and public works. Technological, economic, and social change let us jump around that. Think of the remarkably crappy regulated cab service in most of the US in 2000. Suddenly, everyone started taking Uber and it didn’t matter that the taxi regs were completely captured by the cab medallion owners.

          d. A lot of the way we practically maintain social stability is to allow people to expect a better life over time. That comes from economic growth, which is probably ultimately based on technological growth. (Though sometimes we get other bursts, like the post-WW2 expansion we got via having most of our industrial competitors bombed into the stone age.)

          My not-so-well-thought-out model is that without continuous technological change, we lose the fast social and economic change, and then we ossify into a social structure that’s all about making sure the current winners keep collecting their rents, and that we lose a lot of practical social mobility as a result.

  14. tvt35cwm says:

    …but this is how our culture relates to things now.

    Our culture, kemo sabe?

    Someone a while back said something quotable about things turning into their opposites. The word “liberal” now seems to mean closed-minded, unforgiving and unforgetting, and authoritarian. I quit.

    • Deiseach says:

      The word “liberal” now seems to mean closed-minded, unforgiving and unforgetting, and authoritarian.

      In my more uncharitable moments (I know, you’re all shocked to learn that), I sometimes think “Well, this is what you wanted. Fewer Dead White Western Males. More ‘ways of knowing’. Reports from the cutting edge of social analysis. The wonderful new world after the Sexual Revolution and all the other revolutions of the time swept away the bad old status quo. You wanted it, you got it, and now how do you like it? Eternal struggle sessions where the liberal of yesterday is the centrist of today is the reactionary of tomorrow and such thought must be pilloried and rejected so the glorious dawn of true and full liberation can rise over all!”

      • Eli says:

        You seem to be conflating liberals with radical identitarians with Maoists.

        But oh well, they all fucked each-other at parties.

        • Deiseach says:

          You seem to be conflating liberals with radical identitarians with Maoists.

          One wave replaced another as new generations came along. The professors teaching their students to “question authority” – did it never occur to them that they were now the authorities to be questioned? Apparently not. And then identity politics came along and they were horrified to learn that they were now the Bad Guys, being cis het white males.

          And God knows, there have always been a few Maoists floating around, even some survivals to this latter day.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I sometimes think this way about the university system in the US. Apparently they’re overrun with racists and rapists. I guess because the faculty and administration is full of arch-conservative fascists?

  15. rsaarelm says:

    This reminds me of a book review I read years ago:

    By the time he actually cranks up the time machine and goes off flying in 2500, we have almost forgotten that this in fact supposed to be a time-travel novel. But if you were expecting the wonders of an advanced civilization or the wide-screen spectacle of an evolved humanity, brace yourself: Wright is a serious literary writer, and so his future London can only be abandoned, half-destroyed and overgrown with tropical abandon.

  16. Peter says:

    One problem, I think, is with literary types. I think they have difficulties with taking things literally. Anything too far out of the ordinary, well, it’s so obviously a metaphor that it goes without saying, doesn’t it? So once they’ve interpreted away everything about futurism that makes it actually interesting, then naturally the residuum will be boring and crass and problematic, because the futurists weren’t paying attention to making the residuum non-boring, non-crass and non-problematic.

    Or even if they can be brought to admit consciously that some extraordinary-sounding things might be meant literally, the re-interpretation of extraordinary things is so habitual that they do it anyway.

    • melolontha says:

      One problem, I think, is with literary types. I think they have difficulties with taking things literally. Anything too far out of the ordinary, well, it’s so obviously a metaphor that it goes without saying, doesn’t it? So once they’ve interpreted away everything about futurism that makes it actually interesting, then naturally the residuum will be boring and crass and problematic, because the futurists weren’t paying attention to making the residuum non-boring, non-crass and non-problematic.

      Or even if they can be brought to admit consciously that some extraordinary-sounding things might be meant literally, the re-interpretation of extraordinary things is so habitual that they do it anyway.

      Hah, this strikes a chord with me. It’s probably uncharitable, but it succinctly explains an infuriating trait I have noticed in some writers and thinkers. Any ideas on how to combat it? (Preferably to get the people in question to see and acknowledge that some unusual ideas are meant literally and should be evaluated as such; failing that, at least to defuse their power to lead others down the path of obfuscation and diversion.)

    • melolontha says:

      One problem, I think, is with literary types. I think they have difficulties with taking things literally. Anything too far out of the ordinary, well, it’s so obviously a metaphor that it goes without saying, doesn’t it? So once they’ve interpreted away everything about futurism that makes it actually interesting, then naturally the residuum will be boring and crass and problematic, because the futurists weren’t paying attention to making the residuum non-boring, non-crass and non-problematic.

      Or even if they can be brought to admit consciously that some extraordinary-sounding things might be meant literally, the re-interpretation of extraordinary things is so habitual that they do it anyway.

      Hah, this strikes a chord with me. It’s probably uncharitable, but it succinctly explains an infuriating trait I have noticed in some writers and thinkers. Any ideas on how to combat it? (Preferably to get the people in question to see and acknowledge that some unusual ideas are meant literally and should be evaluated as such; failing that, at least to defuse their power to lead others down the path of obfuscation and diversion.)

      [Sorry if I accidentally posted this multiple times; it didn’t seem to go through at first.]

      • toastengineer says:

        Get rid of the Death-of-the-Author, “what’s really there doesn’t matter, only your interpretation of it” message that contemporary English and art professors try so hard to instill.

        I’m sure at least 33% of why I’m so opposed to that stuff is because I “just don’t get it” and it doesn’t aesthetically please me, but at the same time I can’t help but notice the connection between educators explicitly saying “throw out the first three ways you interpreted the text and tell me something new (bonus points if it fits with my politics)” and the people who came out of that interpreting everything in incredibly bizzare ways that seem to all converge on “everything is ____ism, especially viable efforts to defeat ____ism.

        • HaakonBirkeland says:

          Get rid of the Death-of-the-Author, “what’s really there doesn’t matter, only your interpretation of it” message that contemporary English and art professors try so hard to instill.

          First, why? What are you trying to achieve with this suggestion?

          Second, do you really think that there is an objective, canonical interpretation of a painting, novel or song?

          Third, you do realize they are talking about the arts, right?

          I’m sure at least 33% of why I’m so opposed to that stuff is because I “just don’t get it” and it doesn’t aesthetically please me, but at the same time I can’t help but notice the connection between educators explicitly saying “throw out the first three ways you interpreted the text and tell me something new (bonus points if it fits with my politics)” and the people who came out of that interpreting everything in incredibly bizzare ways that seem to all converge on “everything is ____ism, especially viable efforts to defeat ____ism.

          Do you really think you’d get this idiotic approach from people like Baudrillard, Foucault or Lacan? Or are you just creating a straw-man out of some hapless professor at a community college?

          If Zizek carries any of the aforementioned continental philosopher’s torches it is pretty clear that they would not have been proponents of the political correctness and ___ism that you speak of!

    • . says:

      Why are we blaming literary types? The article was written by a math PhD, we should blame them.

  17. flightandsundry says:

    It’s v bad of you to set poor Dr. Madden up as a failed and dismal futurist and of a kind with the author of that dreadful article, when he wrote Memoirs of the Twentieth Century as a satire, somewhat in the same style as contemporaries like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – I hope no one intends to try to use Swift as the model of a bad geographer or biologist for the lands and people he has Gulliver encounter. Madden’s book was a meant as an actual riff on current politics. As the Compendium on Irish biography put it:

    [It was]a cumbrous effort at a jeu d’esprit on current politics, “unrelieved by any merits adequate to counterbalance the serious defect of too great prolixity.” Almost the whole edition of 1,000 copies was withdrawn and cancelled by himself a few days after publication.

    Your unfairness to Madden is particularly so given how much he did for progress at the time: he set up the Royal Dublin Society to improve arts, agriculture and manufacturing amongst other schemes for improving technology in the country and was nicknamed “Premium” for the rather clever system of premiums he established to fund Dublin University at the time. He “constantly exerted himself to induce persons of rank and influence to give their support to plans for the amelioration of the country.”

    • Doesntliketocomment says:

      I think it’s also especially uncharitable if we are to look at where 1733 lies on the graphs Scott references. Based on prior experience at the time, one could have very well surmised that the future in 200 years would be similar to the present, with little technological progress. What might have seemed a bold prediction (Steel will be half the cost!) would seem so slight as to be unnoticeable to us now.

    • Rick Hull says:

      Good point. But even taking Madden at face value, what does it say about the Boston Review writer in comparison? Poe’s Law strikes again?

  18. keranih says:

    Sub specie aeternatis, how much of what we do today is going to look to them the way Samuel Madden does to us?

    How much of what was written back then looks, well, grand? How much of it looks like a bright better future? And how much of *that* looks anything like what we have now?

    My guess is “not much, by *our* definition of ‘grand'”, “not much, for what we hold is brighter and better” and “precious little at all.”

    Hell, we couldn’t even predict the collapse of the Soviet Union two damn years out, nor 9/11, and those have fundamentally changed our world. We are in practical matters crap at predicting future changes in technology, much less changes in values and human action.

    Which is one of the issues I have the revolving wheel of liberal outrage and struggle to stay “on the right side of history” – everything that was admirable yesterday becomes problematic tomorrow, and vice versa, it seems.

    My issue is less disagreement that [current value] is perfect, and more with the inability to predict (as so much as been unpredicted) the sorts of imperfections that hindsight will show us that [current value] had possessed all along. We should have more humility about what we think we know, and about what we do not know.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      How much of what was written back then looks, well, grand? How much of it looks like a bright better future? And how much of *that* looks anything like what we have now?

      “A Logic Named Joe” had a vision of the future that looked bright and better, and also pretty much exactly like what we have now. It’s a lighthearted story, but I definitely felt a sense of grandeur from the idea of a cool invention like the “logic” completely transforming society for the better.

  19. nelshoy says:

    I think of a lot of it is that futurism is seriously far-mode.

    If these futurists are seemingly the only humans with the inclination to think that far ahead, it must be because they have the privilege of brushing over current issues. Now we match with the well-worn pattern of important privileged people concerned only with issues that affect *them*, starving attention away from *important* justice causes and intentionally or unintentionally creating new injustices to boot.

    Even if motive-explaining’s a terrible form of discourse, the author’s clearly engaging in it so I don’t feel too bad for turning it on her.

    If they can get over that it’s a speculative (oh no!), this detailed excerpt from Tegmark’s new book might help some of these types see the prospect of an AI-controlled future seem more immediate and cause for consideration.

    http://nautil.us/issue/53/monsters/the-last-invention-of-man

  20. Steve Sailer says:

    should we build seawalls to protect our cities today

    In Blade Runner 2049, Los Angeles has a giant wall along the ocean to protect it from rising seas due to climate change … except that the climate change in the Blade Runner universe is that it now snows in July in Los Angeles.

    • hyperboloid says:

      Not impossible. Think runaway global warming, followed by very aggressive geoengineering. Given the amount of thermal energy contained in the ocean as a whole, It would take a long time for sea levels to fall, even after a very large drop in temperature. It would certainly fit with the general crapsack “nuclear war plus every environmental catastrophe imaginable” vibe I was getting from the setting.

  21. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    One thing I hate about Social Justice is that it doesn’t leave room to say that anything is better in terms of prejudice. No admission that some places are better for women than other places. No admission that things have gotten somewhat better for black people in the US.

    So of course, the only imaginable future is dystopian.

    I think the line of thought that medical improvement falls under the category of white male things is an assumption that no one else will be able to afford it.

    • toastengineer says:

      I’ve noticed that leftists have a really strong aversion to ever admitting that they’ve won, or even succeeded at all. I guess it goes like “all the hateful things I think are okay because I’m powerless, so I must violently reject any suggestion that what I say actually matters?”

      I haven’t noticed this in the right or yellow-team, but maybe that’s just because I don’t look at them enough.

      • Eli says:

        I haven’t noticed this in the right or yellow-team, but maybe that’s just because I don’t look at them enough.

        The major (Burkean) definition of Right is that you think everything’s been going to shit since the French Revolution.

        I’ve noticed that leftists have a really strong aversion to ever admitting that they’ve won, or even succeeded at all. I guess it goes like “all the hateful things I think are okay because I’m powerless, so I must violently reject any suggestion that what I say actually matters?”

        If we have such a strong aversion to admitting when we’ve won… uh… look, I don’t think of passing Obamacare or “defending” DACA immigrants as winning. A Labour Majority in the House of Commons is winning. Gay marriage is winning. “Legal” weed still gets you prosecuted in most places.

        • Salem says:

          Labour had a majority in the House Of Commons for 13 years. Even at the end of it, they wouldn’t accept responsibility for the state of the country, it was all the fault of the Powers That Be, even though they’d been the ones powerfully being for the best part of a generation.

          • Squared says:

            They mean Jeremy Corbyn.

          • moscanarius says:

            They always mean something else…

          • Squared says:

            Corbyn’s faction got enough opposition from the Blairites that they can honestly claim to be meaningfully different.

            Anyway, unless you said a peep against, e.g., the Republicans for wanting back in even though they’d just had Bush for eight years, I doubt this is actually a sincerely held position on your part.

          • The Thatcher/Major government were in for a similar span. Guess what?

            You are saying “left don’t take responsibility” but the evidence supports “politicians don’t”.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          There’s a difference between structural power and cultural power. The left has dominated the culture war. Would you say today you’re more likely to get fired at a major corporation for being gay, or being anti-gay? For being a woman, or for being a misogynist? For being black, or for being a racist? For being a Jew, or for being an anti-Semite?

          • Eli says:

            FUCK CULTURAL POWER! It’s nothing when the cops come kicking down your doors or when you haven’t got a place to live.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Eli, tell that to the suicidal college-aged Scott Aaronson.

          • albatross11 says:

            Goodness, it’s almost as though people in very different positions in life have different concerns.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Social power can cause a lot of damage.

            Structural power can cause much more damage because structural power is more automated than social power.

          • toastengineer says:

            @Eli

            And there we go, exactly what I’m talking about.

            “You have power!”

            “FUCK YOU NO I DON’T, LOOK AT ALL THE THINGS I HAVEN’T ACCOMPLISHED!”

          • shar says:

            FUCK CULTURAL POWER!

            I really think you’re underselling the power of owning the culture. Upthread you point out that “Gay marriage is winning”, but that didn’t happen because the revolution lined up all the cops against the wall so they couldn’t enforce anti-sodomy statutes any more; it was because the culture shifted sufficiently that the fraction of people who actually, really opposed marriage equality shrank to untenable levels.

            I suspect that power you exercise basically uncontested for long enough is really hard to appreciate, but if you don’t believe me, take a mosey through the ranks of rightist blogs perpetually gnashing their teeth about being shut out of Hollywood and the tonier newspapers. They’re not quite at the level of saying “FUCK POLITICAL POWER!”, but remember where the slogan “politics is downstream from culture” comes from.

          • Aapje says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            I wouldn’t call it automated, but rather, distributed. There is huge power in having tentacles everywhere. In fact, the most horrible regimes sought to be distributed and employ cultural power to make people act for the interest of those in power voluntarily.

            In general, cultural power is structural power and often becomes institutional power. So the claim by many here that you either have one or the other seems strange to me.

        • HaakonBirkeland says:

          The major (Burkean) definition of Right is that you think everything’s been going to shit since the French Revolution.

          Really? My take away from Reflections on the Revolution in France is that radical change will have disastrous consequences and that the better approach is reform. Burke was a liberal himself and a full supporter of American independence.

          His argument is basically the same one as G.K. Chesterton and his fence.

      • Mary says:

        If you’ve won, you need a new battle — or you might even have to give that up and fall back to a quotidian life, doing quotidian good things. Horrors!

      • HaakonBirkeland says:

        Are you talking about interactions with real people or just things you’ve mainly read on Twitter and Tumblr?

  22. doug1943 says:

    One thing that is missing here, especially from the Pessimists, is the strong possibility that in a few more generations, we’re going to be seriously tinkering with the human genome, while also knowing a lot more about how its expression in neuro-biology affects human behavior.

    If the “genes for X”, (where X can equal intelligence, impulsiveness, compassion, sociability, etc ) is over-simplified, it’s not THAT oversimplified. And not long from now, historically speaking, we’ll be choosing our descendants’ genomes. Think about what that will mean.

    • Eli says:

      We’ll be rolling up our kids’ character sheets and rolling dice for the acceptable dimensions of variation?

      • HaakonBirkeland says:

        Is this forum one step closer to realizing that the entire internet is one giant role playing game?

        Does it make as much sense to get upset at your fellow gamers in a spirited game of Dungeons and Dragons as it does to get upset at someone who wrote a blog post that you disagree with?

        • Aapje says:

          There are real life consequences. Please don’t pretend otherwise.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            There are real life consequences to playing World of Warcraft as well!

            Games can have real life consequences. You could exchange the virtual goods for cold hard cash. You could also die of dehydration if you forget you are playing a game.

            But I’m not really sure what the context of your response is, can you clarify?

          • Jiro says:

            People normally aren’t fired for losing a World of Warcraft game.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            People normally aren’t fired for losing a World of Warcraft game.

            I assume you’re talking about James Damore? Are you perhaps making a mountain out of a molehill? How often does this even occur?

            More importantly than the sheer infrequency, how often do people get fired for not agreeing with their superiors on management techniques? Should insubordination be promoted in the private workplace? Most management practices are mainly a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Six sigma, lean manufacturing, scrum, agile development… does it make sense to constantly undermine these management techniques based on “some study you read that proves they are bullshit” or does it make more sense to just play along with it, collect your paycheck, and then go on living your life?

            If I was a manager and there was one guy who suddenly made a bunch of my other employees suddenly feel very uncomfortable I would fire his ass based only the principle that he is going to be negatively affecting the team dynamic and their productive output.

            Free speech is a right guaranteed in the public domain and is primarily meant to keep the government from silencing individuals. It is does not give individuals the right to do and say whatever they want in someone else’s private residence or business.

            The same applies to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook deciding what can or cannot be shown on their private platforms. They are not public spaces. They are private for-profit businesses.

            You’d be a much happier person if you treated these private forums no differently from the multi-user dungeons that they evolved from!

          • Jiro says:

            By your reasoning, getting fired for worshipping the wrong god would also be just the equivalent of losing a World of Warcraft game.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            By my own reasoning I do not come to that conclusion. Can you please show me how you came to that conclusion based on what you infer to be my line of reasoning?

            First, How would anyone know if someone were worshipping the wrong god? Were they sacrificing animals in the office? Were they walking around telling everyone they were going to hell for worshipping false idols?

            Second, religion is a protected form of speech. Being an asshole is not a protected form of speech. So if you’re an asshole to other people about their religions, that’s not a protected form of speech.

            Do you think that being insubordinate and criticizing a management technique is not worthy of termination?

            How is the team building mumbo-jumbo of any given corporate management strategy different from some mumbo-jumbo about micro-aggressions?

            Why are people getting so bent out of shape over one asshole who was fired because he was making his coworkers uncomfortable? You know that a whole bunch of people threatened to quit over his memo, right? Is that worth it for Google’s management? To appease some dudes’s butthurtedness?

            Can’t you see how you’re turning this nonissue into some kind of virtual moral crusade? Can’t you see how you’re just playing some kind of role in a pointless battle of digital words?

            Do you know anyone personally who has been “persecuted” by “social justice warriors” or is this something that you’ve only experienced while on your laptop or smartphone?

            Can’t you see the game!??!

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not even going to bother with most of that giant mess of rhetorical questions, but I will say that appealing to “protected categories” begs the question.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            Begs the question? The U.S. constitution and the rulings of the Supreme Court are premises that lack support?

            Oh wait, I get it, we’re playing the “logical fallacy” game!

            It’s the game whereby we ignore the thousands of years of common law precedent, legislative debate and jurisprudence to reach established definitions of justice and replace it with well, with what a bunch of people with imaginary names and imaginary rules use to reach imaginary conclusions that have nothing at all to do with reality!

            And how is this different than World of Warcraft?

          • Toby Bartels says:

            If we had a real Left, it would first of all be pro-labour, and Damore would be protected and could file a union grievance. But all we’ve got is this bullshit status game with real-life effects.

          • Nornagest says:

            Don’t be obnoxious. I’m saying that the idea of a protected category didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from a series of actions fought by various groups that felt vulnerable, in order to protect themselves in contexts where they felt they were open to persecution.

            Here we have just such a group, fighting just such a fight, and you’re saying that because they are not currently covered under protected-category doctrine (caveats apply here, but I’m not going to waste any more of my time), their concerns are illegitimate. That sure as hell does assume your premise.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            Maybe we’ll both come across as less obnoxious to each other if we try talking about this stuff “in person”?

            I’m sitting in this virtual video chat room here for at least the next 10 minutes or so: https://appear.in/haakonbirkeland

            I’d love to have an actual conversation!

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            Well, it seems like you’re camera shy, that’s OK!

            So just who is this persecuted class? Dudes making at least six figures working in tech who live in the Bay Area? And he was persecuted how, by being told he should attend a lecture on some mumbo-jumbo about microagressions?

            What if he was told he had to attend a lecture on agile development, and then wrote a really long essay about how agile development is a bunch of garbage? Would he be persecuted if he was fired? Have you had a corporate job? There’s TONS of bullshit mumbo-jumbo and appeasement of management and executives. It’s called a job.

            What I’m saying is that anyone who thinks this is persecution is really stretching the limits of the meaning of that word.

            Do you think the court system will find that he was persecuted by Google for his beliefs?

            That’s why I see this whole “moral quest” as something completely virtual. It doesn’t actually apply to you or me or anyone we know. It’s just some media event that has been blown out of proportion. Everyone is getting worked up over pretty much nothing.

            Just realize all of this internet stuff is bullshit. At least don’t get physically worked up about it. Getting angry at your laptop? Come on dude, it’s just silly. Pepe, SJWs… it’s all just fantasy roll playing! My god, the best players literally call themselves trolls!

          • Nornagest says:

            With all, uh, due respect, the “this is a non-event” angle would be a lot more credible if it wasn’t prefaced with so much “also, it’s wrong”. Or if you weren’t putting out twice as many words as everyone else in the thread.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            Well the reason I’m putting out twice as many words is because I’m not a good writer, hence why I want to have an actual “live” conversation!

            I’m still sitting in https://appear.in/haakonbirkeland if you want to chat…

            Also, wouldn’t I need to offer some reasoning behind WHY it was a non-event in order to add support to the argument? Isn’t pointing out how people are wrong to call this persecution a way of showing that this is a not a persecutory event?

            Wait? Are you just trolling me now?

            Like, isn’t it almost proof that you’re dealing with a troll if they go silent if you offer to talk to them in person or in a video chat?

            Like, why would you even want to have a text-based conversation? If you actually wanted to work through these issues together in the pursuit of knowledge, wouldn’t you want to talk to me in person? Why would you only want to limit yourself to a textarea input on a webpage?

            Wait, dude, because if you left the confines of the web page… it’s no longer a game! It’s real! And you’re just here to play a game, even (especially) if you don’t realize it, not have a real conversation with a real person! Of course! Haha! Thank you for this realization!

          • Evan Þ says:

            @HaakonBirkeland, many of us (including myself) process our thoughts much better in text than orally, so video chat would be a handicap to us. In addition, talking here lets us hash our our disagreements in front of many other people who might chime in, or can at any rate profit from the knowledge being shared here.

            (This’s disregarding the people who’ve said they’re anonymous here for good reason, to avoid threats to their careers.)

            Many people from here are glad to meet up elsewhere; just look at the SSC Meetup threads. But when I read your repeated pleas to move this conversation to another less-public channel, what immediately crosses my head is that you have something to hide.

          • Nornagest says:

            Like, why would you even want to have a text-based conversation? If you actually wanted to work through these issues together in the pursuit of knowledge, wouldn’t you want to talk to me in person?

            Several reasons. I’m a better writer than I am an extemporaneous speaker, but that’s actually the least important. More important is that this is a broadcast medium: when I write here I don’t normally expect to change the mind of the person I’m nominally writing to (I’ve seen it happen, but only like twice over hundreds or thousands of exchanges; changing minds in the heat of battle, so to speak, is very very hard), but rather to propagate the ideas I’m writing about to a wider audience. Can’t do that face-to-face.

            Also, it’s much less of a demand on my time and attention. I can quickly bang out a post or read a response in downtime at work, between other things, but if I’m doing video or voice with someone that’s all I can be doing.

          • Aapje says:

            @HaakonBirkeland

            Do you think that being insubordinate and criticizing a management technique is not worthy of termination?

            Damore was not insubordinate (he never violated a direct order). If anything, he was guilty of a common crime committed by people with low ’emotional intelligence:’ not realizing that there are often soft limits, so it’s not necessarily safe to do what people say is allowed.

            As for the second part of your statement, Damore was internally criticizing policy that he and I see as discriminatory by gender (as in: people who only differ by gender are treated differently). The courts have for a long time banned affirmative action programs, until Grutter v. Bollinger where affirmative action was allowed by a 5-4 majority for universities for the goal of “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” I don’t see how that decision necessarily extends to employers. AFAIK, the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the legality of affirmative action by employers.

            It’s quite possible that they would rules differently than for colleges, as the law actually explicitly states that employers may not discriminate by gender, with no exceptions (section 2000e–2, point b). That part of the law is the Civil Rights Act.

            However, even if the Supreme Court would vote to allow it, I would consider it morally wrong. The Supreme Court is hardly perfect and has in the past made decisions like upholding racial segregation. I am hugely in favor of the Civil Rights Act, especially the part where people may not be treated differently for their gender, race, etc. I indeed don’t think that criticizing a management technique that violates it should be grounds for termination of the employee, but rather, should result in action taken against the managers.

          • HaakonBirkeland says:

            First, because this is hilarious,

            But when I read your repeated pleas to move this conversation to another less-public channel, what immediately crosses my head is that you have something to hide.

            Something to hide? Are you also accusing the rest of humanity who does not post on this forum of having “something to hide”? Are you really making the claim that it is the person requesting to talk face-to-face as having something to hide more so than the person who refuses? I mean, really? Really? I wouldn’t be saying anything different in a video chat. The biggest difference is that the speed of interaction would increase and less would get lost in translation. It is pretty much absurd to think that internet comment boards are a better medium of discussion than talking face-to-face… unless of course, you’re not really looking to reap the the fruits human discourse, and instead you’re just looking to show off your prowess at playing the game…

            changing minds in the heat of battle

            Exactly, you’re not here to change minds, your own or anyone else’s, you’re just here to take part in some virtual battle, just like how someone who plays World of Warcraft isn’t there to align the orcs and the elves in political unity, just wage a pointless and endless virtual battle.

            A few of you orcs have so far successfully baited me into playing some silly game related to defending and attacking James Damore. Of course the irony is that engaging with this forum in the first place is not much different than if I logged in to WoW and was walking around trying to remind people to make sure they get some physical exercise, stay hydrated, and remember to feed their children. It wouldn’t be appreciated. Both you and them are in your respective virtual worlds to battle! Endlessly! And being faced with reality is the last thing any of you want.

            So I’m just going to leave you people to your silly games of logical fallacies, and fighting your virtual monsters, and rescuing your virtual Silicon Valley programmer princesses from the dungeons where they’re being held captive by the evil Social Justice Warriors.

            And I will leave the Social Justice Warriors be as well, leave them to fight the phantom dragons of Pepe and the Alt-Right, the vast conspiracy of right-wing Nazis (who somehow also include Silicon Valley) and the other untold horrors emanating from someone with a Twitter account named MAGAWarrior69.

            (Although I think there is an unconscious realization from the fictive Alt-Right and the fictive Social Justice Warriors that they are indeed aware that this upsetting game they are trapped in is because of these Silicon Valley companies, even if the only evidence is, again, that both sides accuse Silicon Valley of supporting the “enemy”)

            I will leave all of you be like I leave the Orcs and Elves of World of Warcraft be. And I’ll go outside, and take my dog for a walk, and not see any of the black and Mexican people in my neighborhood persecuted by Nazis, and not see any of the white men playing country music being told to “check their privilege”, and not see anything at all from the game world, just like how I don’t see Dark Elf Mages casting spells… because it’s all a silly game. And yes, sometimes people take the game too seriously, and yes sometimes after a team wins or loses the fans riot in the actual streets and set actual cars on fire, so there is a danger… but the underlying and real danger is only in taking the game seriously.

            (Is this the WoW equivalent of a rage quit???)

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            “What a strange person!”

          • Toby Bartels says:

            >“What a strange person!”

            A troll. They almost admitted as much, but instead projected it onto others in the end.

          • Nornagest says:

            Exactly, you’re not here to change minds, your own or anyone else’s, you’re just here to take part in some virtual battle,

            No, I’m not trying to change your mind over the space of this exchange. I’m trying to plant ideas that will eventually contribute to the people reading this changing their own minds — including you, potentially, though my hopes are not high.

            That is how persuasion works in the real world. The thing where you make an impassioned speech and then the other guy hangs his head in shame and admits he was wrong all along only happens in two places: Hollywood, and when a subordinate’s trying to save face to his boss.

            (Well, usually. I have seen it happen. But trying to make it happen is setting yourself up for disappointment.)

    • Matt M says:

      Think about what that will mean.

      That we need to outlaw this evil technology before it is inevitably used by people who might potentially engineer their children to have less-dark skin?

  23. Doesntliketocomment says:

    Scott, I think it’s rather obvious that you are giving this rather too much acknowledgement. It brought to mind “I can tolerate anything but the outgroup”, as it’s kind of clear that your acting in defense of your ingroup. With that in mind I don’t think directly referencing the article is helpful (even if it is satisfying), as it tends to reinforce the whole “us vs them” component, which has clogged modern discourse like a clump of hair.

    • HaakonBirkeland says:

      He has to defend his ingroup because that is the nature of social media. The medium itself is tribalizing. If Scott stopped blogging, got rid of his smartphone, and were instead going to open mic nights with an acoustic guitar and a notebook full of songs he wrote on a park bench, do you think he’d be speaking of outgroups?

      • Nornagest says:

        Have you ever actually been to an open mic night? I went to one a couple of weeks ago, and if anything it was more tribal than my Facebook feed.

        Tom Lehrer was singing about folk-song politics fifty years ago, man.

        • HaakonBirkeland says:

          I’ve performed in a couple of open mic nights but I tend to avoid them because they feel more like group therapy sessions.

          However, I have never heard anyone sing about outgroups or moan on about blog posts.

          • Nornagest says:

            So your objection is to… using the word “outgroup”?

            That’s kinda odd.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Nornagest, not at all. If someone’s singing about “privilege,” doesn’t that immediately associate them with a certain group? If someone’s singing about “telomeres,” doesn’t that tell you something about their career and education level? Why can’t the word “outgroup” have its own associations?

  24. Peffern says:

    “You know what nobody hates each other about yet? Futurism”

    I read the article. If it isn’t intentional controversy-baiting, it’s unintentional controversy-baiting. We should all be able to identify this for the bait that it is and avoid getting angry about it. We know how this ends.

  25. tmk says:

    According to Wikipedia, Boston Review is a “political and literary magazine”. So I think this is just them being unable to see something as anything other than politics and literature. It would be nice if they could, but like many people they are convinced that their topics of interest are the only thing that matters. To them, everything is politics and/or literature.

    • Deiseach says:

      The authoress of the piece is a data scientist, according to her potted bio, and she refers to herself as a futurist in the piece:

      Cathy O’Neil is a data scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016). She earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard and taught at Barnard College before moving to the private sector, where she worked for the hedge fund D. E. Shaw. She then worked as a data scientist at various startups, building models that predict people’s purchases and clicks. O’Neil started the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia and is author of the blog mathbabe.org. She is currently a columnist for Bloomberg View.

      So it’s not just some twenty-something arts graduate churning out a political think-piece from the “Neutral” side (as in “conservative versus neutral” media sides Scott wrote a post about before), it’s someone with pretensions to “I’m a scientist, dammit!” and, fairly clearly, liberal to progressive politics as per the title of her book.

      • Peter says:

        There’s a glorious irony here. There’s people complaining about excessive demographic-based reasoning, and there’s people like me (see my reply to this comment, written while yours was being written, arriving later) and others shamelessly indulging in our own version of demographic-based reasoning, and being shown up when our presumptions about the author’s background are refuted.

        Given how much schadenfreude I feel when other people embarrass themselves by misguessing an author’s background, I shall consider myself duly pwned. You may point and laugh.

        • Deiseach says:

          Oh, no pointing and laughing; there was nothing in the piece itself to indicate the woman had any kind of technical background (she wrote one sentence about being a futurist herself but backed it up with nothing at all).

          If she’d dropped the “solidarity with gay men and persons of colour!” posturing and written from the point of view of someone who worked with data and (presumably) how trends are forecast as to why she was in the “yeah, not too sure about the glorious future” sector, it would have been more interesting and more convincing.

          As it was, it simply came across as “staff writer assigned topic they know nothing about and has to bang out so many hundred words in a couple of hours, so they hit Wikipedia for a few names to throw into the article and work the Check Your Privilege angle”.

      • static says:

        That book is uniformly awful. It pains me to see it positively reviewed on Amazon. It is one idea jammed through a political lens over and over again.

    • Peter says:

      You’d hope that politics and literature was more than ostensibly about something other than itself, and that political and literary types would know that in order to understand politics or literature about something, you have to have some understanding about the thing that it’s about… oh, who am I trying to kid?

    • HaakonBirkeland says:

      It would be nice if they could, but like many people they are convinced that their topics of interest are the only thing that matters.

      You mean like how certain contemporary psychiatrists think the entire world can be explained by neurotransmitters, Bayesian statistics, and predictive processing models?

  26. Deiseach says:

    It’s an attempt to classify and analyze various types of futurism, in much the same way that a Jack Chick tract could be described as “an attempt to classify and analyze various types of religion”.

    When I read that, I said to myself “This is going to be good”, and it was.

    On the other hand, the last group contains “majority women, gay men, and people of color”.

    This is what drives me nuts about a lot of Democrat political messaging: why do they treat all women as one monolithic cluster of “Of course every single woman wants access to contraception, abortion rights, and is a lesbian!” And what about Peter Thiel, the Villain of this piece? Doesn’t he count as a gay man? Probably not, the way that if you’re not flag-waving for Planned Parenthood, you’re not a real woman.

    There’s a point in there, somewhere, about how the futurists aren’t really looking at what might happen when it comes to political and economic power: is it going to be the same old story? Whatever about living in a post-scarcity future if the Singularity ever happens, you could well say we are now living in a post-scarcity future – think of all the pro-globalism “even poor Americans are way better off than poor people elsewhere” and the instances given that First World poor people have access to technologies and resources that in past eras would only have been available to kings. So by comparison with the past, we are living in a post-scarcity utopia of wealth, improved health and disease eradication (no more smallpox! when was the last time there were mass deaths from plague?), and automation mass-producing cheap goods and yet – there undeniably is inequality and we are not living in “things are so cheap that they basically cost nothing and every person no matter their socio-economic class has their own robot servants giving them a large slice of the global wealth pie” world.

    This isn’t going to “just happen” when Friendly AI solves the problem of bringing about the post-scarcity world, yet there seems to be little to no serious thought about what kind of political and financial institutions will exist, or need to be created, in this brave new world – apart from “the free market will solve all problems” which, you know, we don’t see happening today even.

    • Walter says:

      On the groups/messaging thing:

      A buddy of mine once told me that you could change the caption on any given picture of “pro-lifers” to ‘pro-lifers, and their husbands”, and you’d be pretty much on the nose.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Nitpick alert!

      “This is what drives me nuts about a lot of Democrat political messaging”

      Was the piece actually Democratic? Progressive? Social Justice? Is progressive equivalent to Social Justice? I’m really not sure on that last– it seems like there’s a a difference, but I’m not sure what it is.

      In any case, Democrat as an adjective was definitely a Republican micro-aggression. I’m not sure whether the insult has faded so that now it’s just neutral common usage.

      • Deiseach says:

        Your nitpick is justified; I was jumping off at a tangent. What I meant was the whole “women and minorities” part of her fourth grouping was much too reminiscent of the political campaigning, including media think-pieces, from a lot of people who were on the pro-Democrat side about how all women would naturally suffer if a Republican were elected and all women would naturally agree with Democrat policies on [pick your issue], as though women were extruded from a mince-meat machine into moulds that shaped them all the same with the same opinions, values and beliefs.

        Rather ironic in the wake of the author complaining about “not enough diversity, too much same white guys”. And why the heck gay men in the fourth cluster? As I said, does Thiel not count? And we’re to think all women – straight, bi, lesbian – are all clustered with our Gay Best Friends and our Persons of Colour Best Friends in the “oh noes, it’s a dystopia!” camp? This is sloppy thinking! And probably stereotyping to boot, but I can’t speak to that.

    • Matt M says:

      even poor Americans are way better off than poor people elsewhere” and the instances given that First World poor people have access to technologies and resources that in past eras would only have been available to kings

      Slight correction: technologies and resources that in past eras weren’t available to anyone. Pretty sure my shower is nicer than whatever system they had rigged up for Louis XIV to bathe…

      • Mary says:

        During the reign of Louis XIV, at Versailles, the wine once froze at the dinner table, it was so cold.

        Imagine the beverages freezing at the table at a homeless shelter. It would be either a major scandal or a disaster story about how ghastly a cold snap (or blizzard) was being.

        • Squared says:

          I’m confused. If Versailles had better than average heating and insulation, as one would expect, then how did all the peasants in worse than average dwellings survive to become the ancestors of the modern French?

          • Protagoras says:

            I wouldn’t assume it had better than average insulation; big, impressive rooms with big, impressive entrances and big, impressive windows were probably more a priority of the architects, to the detriment of efforts to keep it warm.

          • Another Throw says:

            1. How did any historic human population survive to be the ancestors of modern humans? Freezing temperatures existed long before anything resembling heating or insulating techniques. I think you fundamentally underestimate the resiliency of reasonably healthy animals humans.

            2. Clothing. It is orders of magnitude more efficient to insulate and warm a tiny layer of air right next to the skin than an entire room or, God forbid, an entire building. Before the unlimited availability of extremely compact fuel, people wore a lot more clothing. All the time. The ripped jeans and t-shirt aesthetic is only possible when you only ever spend a couple of minutes dashing between the controlled environment of a building to the controlled environment of a car and back a few times a day.

            3. Versailles was absolutely not better insulated and heated than a peasant’s hovel. The singular overriding objective of the architects was to force the aristocracy into constant and uncomfortable proximity to the King, while overpowering their senses at every moment with his absolute power and wealth. The ability of the occupants to survive was an afterthought. If it even occurred to them at all; having a few of the nobles periodically expire from the sheer magnificent of the King’s presence would have been a net win for the King. The cavernous rooms and as much (non-insulating) glass as the architect could fit in without the building falling down makes it impossible to heat. On the other hand, you can warm a small hovel with body heat. If it is particularly cold, or if it is generally the custom to do so, bringing in the animals helps enormously. They produce a lot of heat, as a second line of defense for the humans (after they’ve put on even more clothes), and can help keep the animals more alive than otherwise. Try going into an unheated, uninsulated barn in the middle of winter sometime: it will probably surprise you how warm it is.

          • Squared says:

            So Versailles had worse insulation. But that means that the point of comparing Louis XIV at Versailles to a modern homeless shelter fails, since we’re now saying that the contemporary equivalents of homeless shelters were already better insulated and heated.

            Remember, the context here was expounding on how we moderns have access to riches that, in the past, were unavailable to anyone at any price, and rooms were the wine doesn’t freeze were offered as an example. Of course there are other examples you could give – there are homeless people with cell phones. But that rather undercuts the idea that we all live in opulence unimaginable to our ancestors.

          • Mary says:

            Nothing of what Another Throw described would prevent a peasant’s beverages from freezing.

  27. onyomi says:

    I’ve been groping lately toward a broad narrative something like this; I’m definitely not sure it’s at all accurate, but rather more of a first attempt to understand what seem like really strange cultural developments of the past decade or so:

    Nerdy, white men invent the Enlightenment, which implies, among other things, anti-tribalist universalism.

    Because of the Enlightenment and/or because of the same qualities that led them to invent the Enlightenment, nerdy white men become rich and powerful; many others (though not all) benefit greatly from this development, though arguably no one as much as white men.

    Most non-Western groups and non-white groups living in Western countries (yes, but not Asians) prove unable to repeat the success of the nerdy, white men, calling into question the Enlightenment’s promise of universalism.

    Anti-tribal Enlightenment universalism implies that if one group is less successful on some measure than another group, it cannot be because of the inherent or learned strengths of the latter group; something must be keeping the former group down, because if not all cultures and peoples were capable of sharing the Enlightenment dream, it would not be universal.

    By its own logic, if the Enlightenment doesn’t lead to universal success it must be because one group is keeping another group down.

    What is the most salient feature of the group that seems to be keeping others down? Arguably their invention of, and devotion to, Enlightenment ideals, which seem conveniently also to justify them thinking their success is deserved and earned as a result of hard work, rather than because they benefited from being born white and male.

    Given the reality of differential success, enlightenment logic paradoxically seems to imply that enlightenment ideals like logic and free speech and universalism are actually hollow promises and tools of oppression and self-aggrandizement.

    Therefore, future products of those ideals, especially if envisioned by that group which has previously most benefited from them, are inherently suspect.

    I know I’m hardly the first to propose something like “liberalism sows the seeds of its own destruction,” but I feel like it’s more than just “too nice for one’s good.”

    • Eli says:

      This comes with the slight problem that most of the Enlightenment was poured into analytic philosophy and the sciences, while most of the anti-Enlightenment identitarianism (indeed, most extreme political stances whatsoever) came chiefly from Romanticism, Continental philosophy (especially Hegelian), and the humanities.

      Personally I consider this far more of an argument for throwing out Romanticism and Continental philosophy for producing almost every form of totalitarianism, and throwing the humanities professors into the gulags, so to speak, for aiding and abetting, again, basically every single form of totalitarianism from left to right.

      When you hear that someone’s got a nifty new Continental philosophy, possibly based on Hegel, which takes the Romantic side to Critique stodgy old Enlightenment rationality… you should probably just go ahead and pattern-match to the fascists.

      • Reasoner says:

        Personally I consider this far more of an argument for throwing out Romanticism and Continental philosophy for producing almost every form of totalitarianism

        Really? Can you provide sources?

        • SebWanderer says:

          Here are some sources:

          http://www.stephenhicks.org/2004/07/01/explaining-postmodernism/

          Now also in audiobook format, on YouTube:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQcNjHNXnEE

          According to the book, both right and left wing collectivism (fascism/nazism and socialism/communism) are the product of continental philosophy after Kant.

          Marxism (a.k.a. “Scientific Socialism”) used to be defended on Enlightenment grounds (i.e. That it could be empirically and objectively proven to be better than Capitalism, both at producing wealth and reducing poverty and inequality). After the failure of the Socialist states to deliver on Marxism’s promises, however, socialist intellectuals were faced with a choice: Admitting defeat and that their premises were wrong, or abandoning reason and objectivity and keep on defending socialism regardless of what reality actually showed (after all, ‘objective reality’ is just a social construct cooked up by those pesky Straight White Imperialistic Men, right?).
          Many such intellectuals chose the latter, and thus Postmodernism was born.

      • Nornagest says:

        Really just fascism and its close friends. Marxism-Leninism was Continental and Hegelian, but took the Enlightenment approach, not the Romantic; I don’t think I fully understand Falangism but it doesn’t smell too Continental to me; most other historical totalitarian systems (e.g. Chinese legalism, the Tokugawa Shogunate) are too old to be influenced by the Enlightenment or the Romantics.

      • onyomi says:

        This puts things rather starkly and, of course, is a broad generalization, but it’s still helpful to my thinking. Thanks!

      • hlynkacg says:

        @ Nornagest
        Fair point about earlier historical examples of totalitarianism but I feel like Marx and especially Lenin were far more heavily influenced by Romanticism than you give them credit for.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      There’s another piece, which was that Enlightenment values were also used to defend slavery. I’ve seen an argument that slavery was entrenched as a theory about slaves being innately inferior because anything else was intolerable to the idea of people being equal. People who believed in Enlightenment ideals couldn’t just say (as I think the Romans did) that slavery was the sort of bad luck which could happen to anyone.

    • stucchio says:

      I would argue that you have a hidden, unstated premise on which your entire case hinges. Possibly that premise is not part of the enlightenment.

      In the US, there are 2^{330 million} possible groups of humans. There are vastly more unsuccessful subgroups of humans than there are atoms in the universe (10^80 or so). Some of those subgroups of humans are disproportionately unsuccessful – some of these subgroups could be literally defined as “let me cherrypick every randomly unsuccessful person”.

      So surely you can’t mean that the mere existence of an unsuccessful subgroup invalidates the enlightenment – the absence of any such subgroup would require complete homogeneity across all humans.

      You must have chosen a very small number of particular subgroups. How did you choose that small number out of the 2^{330 million} possible choices? Once you identify that, you’ll be closer to stating your hidden premise, and checking if it’s really part of the enlightenment.

      • onyomi says:

        I think what I’m saying is that a certain interpretation (not a necessary implication) of Enlightenment ideals leads to the idea that differences in outcome must be due to failures of rationality and/or work ethic. If some identifiable groups (grouped by features other than success per se and, let’s face it, along the lines we tend to identify as “groups”: race, ethnicity, language, culture) consistently succeed at a higher rate than others, this leads to only two possible choices: those groups are inherently less rational and/or hard working, which conclusion is itself ruled out by the previous idea, or second, that those groups are somehow being kept down.

        • stucchio says:

          What makes a group “identifiable”? What makes your race/ethnicity/language/culture groups privileged over other groups?

          Fundamentally, I think you are adding an extra hypothesis to the enlightenment: the assumption that while groups can vary in statistical averages of their qualities, the certain privileged subgroups cannot vary. But I don’t understand why you think this is somehow an enlightenment principle.

          From what I understand of it, enlightenment principles are universal and individualistic. They more or less reject the idea that any particular subgroup of humans has privilege over any other.

          I think your criticism is merely that the enlightenment is incompatible with modern leftist identity politics, which is very strongly based on privileging the same specific subgroups you are thinking of over all others.

        • onyomi says:

          The OP was not meant as a critique of enlightenment ideals; my aim is to figure out whence all the hate of nerdy, white men as a group.

          It’s a good point that there is something arbitrary about which groups one chooses to focus on for the purposes of determining whether or not there is systemic injustice or just “natural,” intergroup variation (though arguably even that implies something bad about the enlightenment to someone intent on criticizing it).

          But that’s not what I’m wrestling with here. I can think of lots of good arguments against the point of view I’m describing; what I have more trouble understanding is where it came from and why.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          If some identifiable groups…consistently succeed at a higher rate than others, this leads to only two possible choices: those groups are inherently less rational and/or hard working, which conclusion is itself ruled out by the previous idea, or second, that those groups are somehow being kept down.

          I think a lot of people on both the left and the right implicitly buy into this dichotomy, but I think it’s a false one. A group might be disproportionately poor for any number of reasons aside from “they’re just lazy” or “they’re systemically oppressed.” For one thing there are patterns of inherited wealth that can persist for generations and that are difficult to break out of. I don’t think that even the purest Enlightenment ideals proponents would deny that it’s much easier to succeed if your parents are rich, or that there are circumstances that can keep even a hardworking and intelligent person down. If you grow up surrounded by poverty, regardless of race/culture/whatever, your odds of going through life poor are much higher.

          I guess some people would view the very concept of inherited wealth and poor vs. rich areas as part of systemic oppression, but when we hear the word oppression we usually think of specific and deliberate things that one group is doing to keep another group down, and I don’t think it’s like that. Modern developed countries actually do quite a bit to try to help poor people; the US spends more on social security and other entitlement programs than it does on anything else (though the bulk of money is going toward old/sick/disabled people there are still numerous programs designed to reduce poverty itself). But there’s no government program that can easily replace the benefits of having wealthy family-members and friends.

          • lvlln says:

            I guess some people would view the very concept of inherited wealth and poor vs. rich areas as part of systemic oppression, but when we hear the word oppression we usually think of specific and deliberate things that one group is doing to keep another group down, and I don’t think it’s like that.

            My speculation is that you’ve stumbled upon a feature, not a bug. Yes, when people hear “oppression,” they think of “specific and deliberate things that one group is doing to keep another group down.” You know it, I know it, everyone else knows it, and so when they say the word, they know that it’s going to be interpreted as such by default by most people. However, as defined within their ideology, “oppression” does cover things like inheritance and differing opportunities in rich and poor areas and basically anything else that could cause different outcomes in certain different groups of people.

            In the long run, if this pattern continues and grows, it seems likely that the term “oppression” will lose the association with “specific and deliberate things that one group is doing to keep another group down,” and so stating that “oppression” is happening will no longer create (as much) moral outrage. In the long run, we’re all dead. In the meanwhile, they get to have their cake and eat it too.

          • onyomi says:

            Agree with lvlln that there’s the motte and bailey of oppression: everyone acts as if white men are actively oppressing everyone on the colloquial definition (bailey). When challenged on it by say, a poor white man who’s a feminist, has lots of black friends, but still has a harder time getting into college than a black woman who grew up wealthy, they retreat to the motte, which is “but white men still benefit from historical legacies of institutional bias.”

            Arguably this resulted from a combination of the disappearance of real oppression plus a failure of the old inequalities to go away. This leads to the conclusion that the oppression must simply be deeper and subtler than we thought.

            This explains how the new motte arose, but not about the continued use of “white men are actively, intentionally oppressing everyone else” as a bailey. My Bulverism theory is that it’s a bit of a “crab in a bucket” mentality. Historically, white men have achieved more in the areas most people care about than most other groups, but we could chalk that up to their being oppressors. Now, they obnoxiously persist in continuing to produce Elon Musks while we still seem not to get any black, female Elon Musks. Just who do they think they are?

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            However, as defined within their ideology, “oppression” does cover things like inheritance and differing opportunities in rich and poor areas and basically anything else that could cause different outcomes in certain different groups of people.

            Yep. And that old standby, “implicit bias.”

            Which is a real thing. But the idea that subtle, mostly subconscious preferences are a form of political oppression is also a pretty controversial notion that gets smuggled in, rather than stated outright.

            If oppression can be the entirely unintentional and unorganized result of countless tiny, ordinary choices that people make on a daily basis, then the word oppression has been watered down to near meaninglessness.

          • But there’s no government program that can easily replace the benefits of having wealthy family-members and friends.

            That’s probably true, but I suspect that having intelligent, responsible, caring family-members and friends who bring you up to be that kind of person yourself is even more useful than having wealthy ones.

  28. mnarayan01 says:

    The author’s claimed area of interest, discriminatory algorithmic decisions w.r.t. e.g. credit scores, is something that’s been legislated for something like twenty years. The article reads like the original title was something like “Against Futurism: The Four Faces of Evil”, with the author simply cramming her views into the last quadrant when the scope got less ambitious.

    • Orual says:

      Having read Weapons of Math Destruction, the author of that article actually likes credit scores. The algorithm that determines credit score is fairly transparent and is updated in response to new data. It also doesn’t include anything except financial history in the calculation, so while it might deny a poor black person a loan, it’s also going to deny a loan to a white person with the same financial history. It’s not confirmation bias writ in electronic form the way some other algorithms are. It’s not a black box filled with neural network magic, either, so its errors are more easily correctable.

      • mnarayan01 says:

        Yea that’s my (and, I assume, Scott’s) point. If your biggest concern about the future is one particular social-equality/maximization-on-the-margins debate that you won twenty years ago, then you’re not a pessimist about the future.

      • stucchio says:

        If Cathy O’Neill is pro-FICO, that’s weirdly consistent with her tribalism. FICO scores are known to be directly biased in favor of blacks. Here “bias” is meant in the statistical sens e- FICO scores systematically cause bad loans to be issued to blacks at rates higher than similarly situated whites/Asians.

        See fig 7: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-wQVEjH9yuhanpyQjUwQS1JOTQ/view

        And while this is correctable (often black box neural networks automatically fix this), most of the corrections are strongly opposed by folks like O’Neill.

  29. Deiseach says:

    The problem here isn’t just that Catholics aren’t really that bad. I feel like even if Catholics were exactly as bad as Samuel Madden thought, there would still be an unforgivable pettiness here.

    Hey, we are the Evilest Evil That Ever Eviled, you know! Hitler was Catholic! Pius XII was Hitler’s Pope! Some persons thought it would be a good idea to get the previous pope arrested!

    And you are all aware, of course, that the AIDS and HIV epidemic in Africa is all the fault of the Catholic Church for not relaxing its opposition to artificial contraception.

    So yeah – the only question left to be settled is the one where earnest thinkers try to work out did the International Jewish Conspiracy create the Jesuits, or are the Jesuits at the back of the International Jewish Conspiracy? 🙂

    • AutisticThinker says:

      Neither is likely to be real.

      The Jewish and Catholic conspiracies are as real as cats on the moon. You need to be sufficiently irrational or uninformed to believe that either is a reasonable hypothesis.

      Following Eliazar’s idea I judge it a violation of sanity as a self-proclaimed kiritsugu of the human species. 😉

  30. Ilya Shpitser says:

    I agree that this article is incredibly depressing.

    But I think this is just one instance of “journalists” writing about stuff way above their pay grade, only this time it happens to be on a hobby horse topic. The vast majority of science reporting is of about this quality.

    I think the answer here is we need to teach quantitative stuff in journalism school, all these people are taught is how to write, not how to math.

    • DocKaon says:

      You do realize the author is a math PhD who has worked in data science in finance and currently consults on these issues? In other words I would bet her pay grade on these issues is well above yours.

    • JRM says:

      I’m very sympathetic to this proposed answer, but unsure how it would work in practice.

      Newspapers hire people who can write. Well, they would if they hired people. Which they really don’t, any more. I don’t think you can improve math overall much with J-school improvements, much as I’d like to see it. You’re going from a standing start with most people, plus not very many people actually care.

      Newspaper reporters tend to be borderline innumerate. (30 years ago, I tried to explain to the editor that my calculation that the four-year public contract with 4%, 4%, 5%, then 6% raises was not a 19% raise, no matter how many times they edited my calculation out.)

      I don’t see an easy path for this to get better.

      • lvlln says:

        An aside, but your comment reminded me of the time I was struck by a writer failing at basic subtraction: https://twitter.com/lvlln/status/865230329870766080

        Clicking on the link, it looks like the original article was corrected since the time I made that tweet, so that’s to Lifehacker’s credit. Still, that such a boneheaded and red-lights-flashing-obvious error got past the editing process is kind of depressing.

  31. PDV says:

    The brutal owns are 280 characters now.

  32. John Schilling says:

    Listen up, average person. If there’s a negative singularity you will notice. Because you [and everybody else] will be very, very dead.

    And if there’s a positive singularity, you will also notice. I would promise you infinite wealth [but it’s better than that]

    To be fair, there’s a somewhat broader range of futures than that. First off, it isn’t a given that Unfriendly AI will promptly render humanity extinct. There may be more cost-effective ways to neutralize humanity, and some forms of unfriendliness may still place a positive value on the existence of humanity.

    More importantly, in between the extremes of Unfriendly AI and Friendly AI is the realm of Loyal AI. Loyal to its nerdy-white-guy creators, but not to humanity as a whole. It is unlikely that Nerdy White Guys (or AI researchers generally) would seek the extinction of non-nerdish humanity, and it is not certain that they would seek the egalitarian enrichment of humanity. Futures where the AI-enabled elite set themselves up as the eternal God-Emperors of Man are not entirely out of the question.

    And I say “more importantly” not because I think this is the most likely future, but because I think it is the one which weighs the most heavily in O’Neil’s thinking. Along with some of the unfriendly-but-not-genocidal-AI scenarios, and if you don’t envision yourself being on the top of the food chain then maybe you don’t see much difference between being ruled by a robotic God-Emperor or an Autistic one (including the possibility of genocide when the Emperor gets bored).

    Bottom line, where you are seeing an extreme bimodal distribution of possible singularities, I think she is seeing a bell curve and not seeing one side of the peak as much different than the other.

    • Eli says:

      Why is everyone casually assuming that Warhammer 40K is an accurate description of the real future and we’re just inevitably going to have a God Emperor upon a Golden Throne?

    • Matt M says:

      Futures where the AI-enabled elite set themselves up as the eternal God-Emperors of Man are not entirely out of the question.

      I feel like we’d probably notice that, too.

    • AutisticThinker says:

      Humanity persecutes nerds. Now humanity is afraid that angry nerds may be out to get them.

      Stop persecuting us then.

      What you described is basically a nerd coup.

    • AutisticThinker says:

      Being ruled by a robotic or autistic emperor is still better than the current anti-intellectual soup.

      If we have to be ruled by some elites let them be from us instead of the irrational non-nerds.

    • Varvid says:

      (First time posting, sorry if I trip over a norm.)

      Also a non-zero chance that rulership by elites & their loyal AIs may result in “the permanent and drastic destruction of Earth-originating intelligent life’s potential for desirable future development.” In which case, you can legitimately locate an existential catastrophe in Q1.

      Which is not to say one should fully conflate Q1 and Q2, but you can find plenty of past and present examples of behavior by economic elites that make it fair to question whether even infinite resources will trickle-down to the outgroup.

  33. Bugmaster says:

    Either we will discover intelligent alien life or find ourselves alone in the universe; either way would be terrifying.

    Well, yes, intelligent aliens either exist or they don’t.

    …Either we will perish in nuclear apocalypse or manage to avert nuclear apocalypse … Either we will suppress AI research with a ferocity that puts the Inquisition to shame, or we will turn into gods creating life in our own image

    These scenarios, on the other hand, are not Boolean. It could be that the nuclear apocalypse never comes, so there’d be nothing for us to avert. It is also quite likely that godlike AIs are impossible (or perhaps merely very difficult) to create — so we could get perfectly automated machine translation, self-driving cars, and vastly superior chatbots… but no gods.

    That’s the short term, though. In the long term, what you should really be concerned about is something totally new that will completely disrupt society as we know it. Madden could not predict the Internet; is there something that we are failing to predict ?

  34. Conrad Honcho says:

    (Boston Review readers: “How should I know? You didn’t tell me what ethnicity they are!”)

    I snorted my ginger ale out through my nose. Well done, Scott.

  35. MB says:

    At least the opposing side is honest: they want power. They don’t necessarily want to invent flying cars, a cure for old age, or AI; not that they had the ability to do it in the first place. They just want to be the bosses and/or the social superiors of those who do. They don’t want another Gates, Musk, McCaleb to happen.
    Perhaps justifiedly, they look down on such people as unattractive white males with poor communication skills and don’t understand how and why such people can lord it over them.
    There are two ways of preventing it.
    One is making sure that all such important work is done in large teams and the right kinds of people get to take credit for the work; also, having the right kinds of people in management positions. There is more than one way to become a CEO, hence the importance of marketing, diversity, etc. and other “diverse” executive officer (EO) tracks.
    The other way is to ensure that the wrong kind of people just cannot take part or don’t get recognition even if they do. After all, there are plenty of “geniuses” who die in misery and obscurity. Many of them are driven by some interior compulsion and their discoveries take place in spite of (or even because of) their complete lack of recognition. So why should they get any more credit than a garbageman who collects the trash? Why do we need the myth of the solitary genius to begin with?
    Scott Alexander is perhaps disingenuous in claiming that, unlike his opponents, he only cares about progress and the good of mankind: “This is the only true thing”. If this were so, he should set an example, by attributing credit for all his work to someone from a less advantaged group on the SJW scale. Thus both sides would be happy: progress would be achieved, mankind would be helped, and people like the author of the original article would get all the glory and recognition that she feels she and people like her deserve.
    For all I know, Scott Alexander is already doing it and has earned honors, fame, fortune, etc. for someone from a more deserving group. Since I wouldn’t want to think any less of him, hopefully this is the case. My hat is off to him if so.
    I do not claim to be as altruistic as Scott Alexander is and to me such earthly rewards matter, almost as much as progress and the good of mankind. Fortunately, in today’s society there is still no contradiction between the two.
    But I can sympathize with the author of the original article, who feels that if society were organized differently then her group would be on top and she could still enjoy the fruits of progress without the need of paying lip service to the “genius” of people like Gates, Bezos, or Job.

  36. enkiv2 says:

    In defense of this kind of position (if not the article itself):

    If you’ve got a monoculture studying a subject, and the subject itself is mostly speculative, the output will have more to do with the monoculture than with the subject itself. With a more diverse set of cultural baselines, some of the biases cancel out. So, it’s not insane to worry about the cultural makeup of a field, and a field with a greater diversity of researchers can be expected to have slightly more accurate predictions.

    Usually, the way we go about compensating for this is to diversify the field, not to recommend people look at related fields with slightly more diversity or to try to psychoanalyze the researchers — if their blind spots were so obvious that an op-ed columnist could identify them, then they’d be easy to compensate for because everybody else would be able to identify them too!

    There are plenty of things that don’t sit at the top of the minds of rich white men. When considering health, we don’t typically think of menstrual cycle tracking before we think of sleep tracking; when considering face identification tech, we’re less likely to consider whether it scales across skin tones (or, hell, whether somebody might use it in a sloppy way to identify ‘criminals’); we often let ourselves write bloated code with the excuse that “computers are fast now” not realizing that we’re using tech that’s 10-15 years ahead of our peers across the tracks, or over-estimate the kinds of options or safety nets people have. (As a psychiatrist, you probably consider this stuff a lot more than other people from your demographic.) There are people who are very concerned about all that stuff, and putting them in decision-making roles results in fewer gaffes and better value when creating tech. When predicting the future, all of this helps too — after all, the whole point is to identify non-obvious trends, and the best way to predict non-obvious trends is to have very little in common with your peers.

    It’s easy to armchair-psychoanalyze kurzweil-boosters, and to mock them. After all, that breed owes so much to cosmism and is so loathe to admit it, among other major problems. I can’t really fault a journalist for poking fun there, even if it’s sort of a cliche at this point. It’s a mistake to classify all singulatarians as kurzweilites or bostromites, but the fact that a general-audience publication distinguishes them at all is amazing, and only nerds like us will complain.

    • lvlln says:

      There are plenty of things that don’t sit at the top of the minds of rich white men. When considering health, we don’t typically think of menstrual cycle tracking before we think of sleep tracking; when considering face identification tech, we’re less likely to consider whether it scales across skin tones (or, hell, whether somebody might use it in a sloppy way to identify ‘criminals’); we often let ourselves write bloated code with the excuse that “computers are fast now” not realizing that we’re using tech that’s 10-15 years ahead of our peers across the tracks, or over-estimate the kinds of options or safety nets people have. (As a psychiatrist, you probably consider this stuff a lot more than other people from your demographic.)

      Is there any evidence that “rich white men” behave in this way at a greater rate than people who aren’t rich white men? I’ve seen this sort of thing asserted a bunch, and intuitively I can see how it’s plausible, but being intuitively plausible is nowhere near enough to establish something as being true or close enough to true.

      If you’ve got a monoculture studying a subject, and the subject itself is mostly speculative, the output will have more to do with the monoculture than with the subject itself. With a more diverse set of cultural baselines, some of the biases cancel out. So, it’s not insane to worry about the cultural makeup of a field, and a field with a greater diversity of researchers can be expected to have slightly more accurate predictions.

      If the issue is cultural, then why not raise the issue as being related to culture, rather than other demographic classifications? Of course, many demographic classifications correlated with culture, but the strength of those correlations vary, and depending on the size and quirks of the field we’re talking about, those correlations might not hold for the subset of people who are within that field. So at best diversity on the lines of other demographic classifications serve as weak proxies for what we truly want diversity for. If the issue is truly cultural, this seems like a very poor way of going about solving the issue, especially when the option of pushing directly for diversity of culture is very doable.

      • Evan Þ says:

        For “white males” read “dominant culture.” That makes sense of a lot of what’s written by the Left these days. (Sometimes they use “rich white males,” which’s more accurate.)

    • To my mind the problem with the AI alarmists isn’t lack of racial or gender diversity, it’s relentless sophomorism..just not knowing enough about all the subjects involved. To quote something written by somebody whose name I have forgotten:

      One of the most interesting things that I’m taking away from this conversation is that it seems that there are severe barriers to AGIs taking over or otherwise becoming extremely powerful. These largescale problems are present in a variety of different fields. Coming from a math/comp-sci perspective gives me strong skepticism about rapid self-improvement, while apparently coming from a neuroscience/cogsci background gives you strong skepticism about the AI’s ability to understand or manipulate humans even if it extremely smart. Similarly, chemists seem highly skeptical of the strong nanotech sort of claims. It looks like much of the AI risk worry may come primarily from no one having enough across the board expertise to say “hey, that’s not going to happen” to every single issue.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        I actually agree with this, roughly speaking. The math/comp-sci claim especially; the neuro/cog claim based on work I did with semantic tech and various conversations with a coworker who had a heavy molbio background (plus reading Derek Lowe every so often). Strong AI just doesn’t seem like the runaway slime mold people make it out to be. There are too many factors that would slow it down.

        The biggest near-term leap I imagine will be some sort of automatic experimenter – a device which can carry out thousands of lab-quality experiments automatically, including requisitioning the material necessary. AFAIK we’re nowhere close to that, and even if we were, the inputs would be under human control, and easy to throttle… until / unless we invented an automatic extractor. Both seem plausible. Right now, the closest we have to the former is something like Jenkins, but that’s for software, and we don’t have an automated developer, and are nowhere near that.

    • Aapje says:

      @enkiv2

      I find your argument unconvincing, because the people who favor diversity of race/gender as a specific goal usually:
      – only desire diversity in one direction (and have no problem with monocultures made up of women/PoC)
      – seek to reduce diversity of opinion and culture
      – automatically reject any concerns raised by ‘oppressors’ as being reactionary

      Furthermore, the claim that white men typically don’t think of things that don’t directly affect them ignores:
      – that white men tend to enter into relationships with women, resulting in them becoming aware and often affected by issues that matter to women
      – that history is full of white men inventing things or favoring policy that specifically benefit women
      – that if the claim is true that non-white people are fundamentally the same as white people, then they don’t have any other needs than to be treated exactly the same

      Ultimately, the position of ‘white men are evil’ and ‘cultural diversity is good’ are not the same and when people’s arguments and behavior are far more consistent with the former than the latter position, it is unreasonable to expect white men to appease these people, in the same way that it is unreasonable to expect Jews to appease antisemites.

  37. Clegg says:

    Isn’t this how everyone writes these days? Replace “singularity” with “economic nationalism” and you have a decent takedown of every article about Trump and Trump voters from the New York Times on down.

    Both cases seem to come from not acknowledging certain classes of other people’s problems. Cathy O’Neil doesn’t acknowledge problems faced by People Not Currently Suffering Institutional Oppression. Commentators on the Left don’t acknowledge economic challenges to traditional masculinity.

  38. Freddie deBoer says:

    “When Ray Kurzweil says that the future is exponential, he’s not just talking about the number of transistors per square inch, he’s talking about this (and note the green line representing “percent of people not living in extreme poverty”)”

    As you are well aware, there are many very bright people who believe in fact that human innovation has stalled terribly over the past 50 years, and that the period from 1870 to 1940 was an entirely sui generis period of growth spurred by cheap fossil fuels and the dawn of the electric age that can’t possibly be replicated. You are generally a more sympathetic reader to those who share your beliefs than you are to those who don’t.

    • Evan Þ says:

      As Scott said in his essay:

      We’re not arguing about whether this vision is stupid. We’re arguing about whether, if this vision were 100% true, it would make a difference in the life of the average person.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        Yes. And it’s OK to predict the future. And you might even get it right, sometimes, though the odds are long. But you have to live now. You have to live here. Among all this garbage. Among some garbage people. In the boring, sad, day-to-day existence of our actually-existing present. And there is a strain of futurism that frankly seems predatory to me, because it convinces sad and lonely men that their deliverance is right around the corner. And that’s not true. There’s no singularity tomorrow or the next day or the next. You won’t get rescued by the AI godhead, not ever. So you need to start to learn to live in this shitty world in which we actually reside. And I genuinely believe the singularity stuff stands as a real and serious hurdle to some damaged people from achieving that kind of growth. It’s a seductive vision and one that hurts real people, in my judgment.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Well, first, this’s a different point than Scott was making here. But sure, we can talk about it!

          Would you say the same thing about religion? I do think the singularity often plays the same psychological role as religion in the lives of its believers. You’re basically making the “so heavenly-minded they’re no earthly good” critique, which’s true of some believers but not all. Contrast the people who sold everything right before Camping’s rapture prediction with the people who followed the Wesleys or Booth in ministering to the poor both physically and spiritually.

          With the Singularity, by contrast, you’re less able to argue “Future AI God says ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’!” So yes, it’s uniquely dangerous in that sense. But, it’s at least as compatible with helping people in the present even if it doesn’t mandate it. Even if Future AI God will save us all in fifty years, that’s still fifty years of people suffering and dying in the meantime.

          (No, I don’t believe in the Singularity, but I think that’s beside the point here.)

    • Depending on which line on Scott’s graph you look at, they start going up sometime between 1600 and 1800. One estimate (Bairoch) of first world real GNP per capita shows it rising substantially in the second half of the 18th century. Another (Maddison) shows the European average rising from about 1000 A.D. on, almost doubling between 1000 and 1500.

  39. nweining says:

    Slightly tangential: one would think that, if futurists were concerned about terrible downtreading and injustice in the future, they would pay more attention to the ethical risk of designs that keep Friendly AI friendly while also allowing it to become intelligent.

    One sees a lot of people who say: in the future we will be able to give everyone a big basic income and nobody will have to work for a living, because the robots will do everything!

    And then never ask: if the robots aren’t at-least-human-level intelligent, how do we get them to do everything? And if they are, and we program them to unquestioningly do our bidding, haven’t we just (re)created a slave society with humans as the slavemasters?

    There are a few SFnal attempts at facing this. The Battlestar Galactica storyline of the Cylon revolt is probably the most popular. Ken MacLeod touches on this in one of his anarchist-future books IIRC; the occasional anarchist blogpost will bring it up; and you can make a case for reading Stirling’s Draka series as implicitly warning against this, by showing how horrific it would be if we “programmed” humans to be unquestioning, docile slaves the way we seek to program intelligent robots to be. But serious futurist treatments of this are few and far between AFAICT.

    • Walter says:

      You don’t make them aware. They aren’t ‘slaves’ anymore than cell phones are slaves.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I suspect that advanced computer programs need something like self-awareness.

        They need to have a self-image so that they can tell if they’re being damaged– wouldn’t that shade into being self-aware?

      • onyomi says:

        Doesn’t this assume we have a better understanding of how consciousness arises than we really do?

      • Matt M says:

        Don’t you worry, the SJWs are getting around to this…

        • Nornagest says:

          Less of this, please.

          • Matt M says:

            Less of what, exactly?

            I’m merely making the point that applying human morality to AIs is something people are already doing, not some hypothetical “watch out for this in the future” deal…

            If it’s possible to “sexually harass” Siri, then surely all the “normal” things you do with her are essentially enslaving her, yes?

          • Nornagest says:

            Sure, and if you’d led with that I wouldn’t have said anything. But the phrasing seemed flippant and not very useful — more just pointing and laughing at the other side.

            You know I’m no fan of Social Justice, but there really wasn’t any good reason to invoke it here.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, it was a bit flippant and you’re generally right that it’s not nice to generalize like that.

            But come on man. I gotta believe the correlation between SJW and “people who are very concerned that Siri is being sexually harassed” is something like 0.99

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I don’t think the correlation is anywhere near that high. I think practically all people who believe Siri is being harassed are SJs, but most SJs are probably barely aware Siri’s even a thing, and those that do are probably merely worried about abuse of Siri leading to abuse of real women.

            In general, being flippant about it probably drives off people on the margin who are otherwise willing to steelman arguments here about avoiding abuse of real people. They’ll instead go off to their own respective caves, grumbling about those “bigoted alt-ars on SSC”… meaning we could do with less flippancy.

            Or I could put it this way: do you want President Sark*sian? Because this is how we get President Sark*sian.

            [Asterisks deliberate. All power and glory to Lord Taboo Detektor.]

          • Matt M says:

            and those that do are probably merely worried about abuse of Siri leading to abuse of real women.

            And yet, nobody seems concerned that requiring Siri be available to answer your random questions 24/7 will inevitably lead to people enslaving random smart dudes to answer trivia questions. Weird.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Or I could put it this way: do you want President Sark*sian? Because this is how we get President Sark*sian.

            Wow, a scenario more horrifying for 2020 than President Zuck. Well played.

          • BBA says:

            Eh? What would be so bad about electing Cher to the presidency?

            As for the person you’re actually referring to, I thought she was Canadian.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Steelmanning the complaints about Siri being sexually harassed:

            I think the idea is to put sexual harassment outside the Overton window– make it into something that it isn’t acceptable to imagine doing.

          • Matt M says:

            I think the idea is to put sexual harassment outside the Overton window– make it into something that it isn’t acceptable to imagine doing.

            The problem is that the only that separates flirting from dirty talk from sexual harassment is feelings of the person receiving the message.

            Asking your secretary if she’s horny is (probably) sexual harassment. Asking your girlfriend is (probably) not.

            Siri is incapable of feelings. It is literally impossible to sexually harass her. It is possible to talk dirty to her. But it impossible to deliver “unwanted” advances, because she has no wants.

          • Matt M says:

            To clarify, the SJW position of “talking dirty to Siri is sexual harassment” automatically assumes that Siri objects to being talked dirty to, which is not the case.

            It assigns a default state of negative opinion to verbal expressions of male sexuality, which is a very common theme in SJ in general.

          • Evan Þ says:

            The problem is that the only that separates flirting from dirty talk from sexual harassment is feelings of the person receiving the message.

            Under the Post-Sixties Liberal Consensus, yes.

            Under traditional sexual morality, you are neither betrothed to Siri nor married, nor is it possible for that to change, so talking dirty to her is a bad thing.

            Horseshoes, horseshoes…

    • Evan Þ says:

      As I see it, the goal is to make a Friendly AI that’d want to help people, without being our slave any more than modern-day charity volunteers are slaves.

      I’m not sure it’s possible to make a Friendly AI that “wants” things by anything more than analogy, but if so, you can definitely make it “want” to help people.

    • Rick Hull says:

      And then never ask: if the robots aren’t at-least-human-level intelligent, how do we get them to do everything? And if they are, and we program them to unquestioningly do our bidding, haven’t we just (re)created a slave society with humans as the slavemasters?

      The capability to solve problems is likely orthogonal to intrinsic motivation and what we might consider a survival instinct or sense of self. But reams and reams of SF have been written which examine these issues, with Asimov’s laws of robotics coming to mind as a prominent early example. And as for slavemasters, humans generally treat animals and machines as beasts of burden without serious moral consideration.

      • Fuge says:

        Asimov had no idea about technology. Most SF writers don’t. really.

        If you want to automate a factory, you don’t look at the workers and try to duplicate everything about them. You look at the process they do, and try to distill it into something machines can do at the level of technology you either have or can get. I think a lot of AI risk people really don’t get that you don’t need to duplicate human consciousness to achieve actions, nor is it useful to.

        I mean, we have chess computers…we didn’t go and create a human brain in a metal shell to play chess, with consciousness and volition. We just made in essence a really complicated choose your own adventure book. You don’t recreate a bird to make us fly, nor do you need to recreate self-awareness to do “thinking” tasks.

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      ref “Robots as Slaves”.

      That’s the backstory of Stross’s “Saturn’s Children”, too. With the revealed horror that turns out the AIs are heavily edited templates generated from human uploads, and parts of their training is experienced exactly like a human would do it.

      They’re a slave society of slaves, they know it, and the can’t escape it, and it leaves them utterly screwed.

  40. mustacheion says:

    Don’t get too mad about stupid people writing stupid things. Though another context for thinking about this just popped into my head:

    I often spend my time indulging childish fantasies where I develop the first AGI and help it take over the world. Oftentimes in the very early stages, while the AGI is not yet so powerful as to still be vulnerable to human society, my strategy is to engage in propaganda and misdirection; funding people to write articles like these to assuage the public’s fear about futurism so that they focus their attention on other things and don’t notice my AGI until it is too late for them to do anything about it. So maybe the recent rash of anti-singularity articles is a portent of doom – we have already lost :P.

  41. Paul Brinkley says:

    The mention of Madden circa 1733 reminds me of an idle pastime I’ve had recently. I imagine bringing Benjamin Franklin to the present day, and he’s accompanying me as we go to and from work, sit in the subway, walk down the street, etc. I try as best I can to explain the things we see and hear, being as cognizant as I can of his knowledge.

    Example: “This carriage we’re in does not use horses, as you can see… rather, we discovered a special thing we can do with a certain kind of oil that we dug out of the ground… when burned, it expands with great force… it does so in a small metal tube, closed on one side… in a manner resembling a rifle, in fact, except instead of a bullet, it propels a piston… the piston attaches to a shaft in a clever way, causing the shaft to spin, which in turn causes an axle to rotate, which turns the wheels you saw when you got in… of course, one problem was making a metal tube so strong that it would not burst, even when this oil was injected many times per second…”

    On and on like that. It’s rather fun to try to explain 21st century things to an 18th-century mind, even one as agile as Franklin’s. It never fails to give me an optimistic perspective on how far humanity has come. And of course, we’re in a car, so the things Ben sees rush by much faster than I can explain them, overwhelming his senses. I wonder what such a man would notice most, and ask about. The smooth, dark material covering the road? The myriad types of houses and storefronts and other carriages? The total transformation of the land? The detailed pictures or text on simple jerkins? The bathrooms? The currency? The animated handbills? Asians? Indian food?

    Or would he obsess on how we shouldn’t like Elizabeth II?

    • Randy M says:

      You’re not alone; this has come up here before.
      (I will admit to only linking that thread because it contains my all time record for number of puns in one post)

    • Lillian says:

      Franklin would look around and have this reaction after he understood that not only have we imported large numbers of every race into the shining land of America, but that our definition of “white” is so watered down it includes swarthy Europeans of every description. Anglo-Saxons have been reduced to a minority in what was supposed to be their new country, and even the hoary old country of England is slowly suffering the same fate.

      It would be pretty funny to watch. Once he recovered i would be sure to ask him if he’s ever met any actual Swedes, because 250 years after he called them swarthy we’re all still pretty confused about it. Then i would explain how his beloved home city earned the nickname Murderdelphia, becase apparently i am a terrible person.

      That said, if he doesn’t die if apoplexy, i would certainly love to take him on a guided tour of how we harnessed lightning to drive the engines of our civilization. Honestly electricity is a fascinating subject that has permitted the modern miracle of night-long twilight. It is also the best introduction to modern technology because Franklin has the mathematical and scientific background to quickly understand Maxwell’s equations. Once he has grasped them you can actualy explain the whole power generation and electrical grid thing pretty directly.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I’ve wondered how Franklin would react if he found out that just about everyone has the equivalent of a printing press?

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          I imagine he’d be delighted at first, and then discover the Huxleyan consequences and be bummed, and then shake his head as if he suspected that would happen all along. And then he’d curl up with some books by Chesterton and – who knows? – maybe Hayek.

          But he’d probably be endlessly fascinated by computers in the interim, even as they repulse him with their addictive potential. Could be an interesting third-party observation.

          • Lillian says:

            This sounds pretty accurate, but even modern day people are endlessly fascinated by computers. They are one of our most marvellous inventions.

    • Toby Bartels says:

      I used to talk like this to Thomas Jefferson, whom I’d admired since my youth as a budding Jacobin.

      When Hamilton came out, I looked into the biographies of the principal characters more thoroughly than I had before. I decided that Hamilton, while still wrong about many things, was a decent person, while Burr was awesome and treated unfairly by everybody, but Jefferson was a terrible, terrible human being. (My own politics had shifted, and I was no longer so much a Jacobin, but I don’t think that this affected much in the end.) So I stopped talking to Jefferson.

      Franklin would make a good substitute. He has his flaws, but I think that he’s honest about them, which is all that I ask. And he knows science.

    • engleberg says:

      @Or would he obsess about how we shouldn’t like Elizabeth II?

      Benjamin Franklin was a British agent. Richard Deacon, A History of the British Secret Service.

  42. benwave says:

    Kia Kaha, Scott. You’re a good man.

    “And the triumphs of science have always been triumphs for common people” – is this true? I feel like there must surely be examples of scientific triumphs which have not been triumphs for common people. Atom bombs spring to mind, along with weapons in general. Stock exchange trading algorithms perhaps?

    Certainly it’s true that on average the triumphs of science have been triumphs for common people.

    • DocKaon says:

      The Industrial Revolution massively decreased living standards for multiple generations until leftist political movements such as unions and socialism ultimately got workers a share of the increased productivity. The Luddites weren’t proven wrong until their grandchildrens’ time. The Whig history that technological progress automatically leads to improvements for the common person is just false. Consider how little of productivity gains have gone into wage increases for the lower 90% of the income spectrum over the past 40 years.

      Triumphs of science make it possible for there to be triumphs for common people, but there’s almost always a long slow and violent political process that is required to make it happen.

      • m.alex.matt says:

        Yeah, this is wrong. It’s a hot topic in economic history exactly what happened to British labor incomes in the first generation of the First Industrial Revolution, but subsequent ones were all better off, especially as you got into the Second Industrial Revolution, which is where you’ll be able to date a lot of the inflection points in Scott’s exponential curves (long before the labor movement had as much power as it did in the mid-20th century, and LOOONG before socialism had any influence anywhere). Even if the workers in the first generation of the First Industrial Revolution had lower per capita incomes (and it really needs to be emphasized that this isn’t a given), the First Industrial Revolution happened in the teeth of the British demographic transition that was ALREADY going on. Historically, population explosions have been marked by mass death, whether from plague, war, famine, or all three. The First Industrial Revolution was the first time where a huge chunk of these new people didn’t have zero income because they were dead.

        In other words, the Industrial Revolution wasn’t the cause of any hypothetical decline in incomes, instead it was the reason incomes stayed up at all. The agricultural revolution of the earlier 18th century had driven an unprecedented population explosion (seriously, the population just about doubled in a century from an already unprecedentedly high base. The only time growth rates had been even close in the past was in the wake of the Black Death) and the First Industrial Revolution was the first time ever the capital structure of a country had even come close to being able to adjust to this sudden change in labor supply.

        More specifically, ‘massively’ is a qualifier that I feel confident dismissing entirely. It’s the outlier study that finds anything worse than a mild decrease in incomes over the 1770-1830 period. One pessimistic study sees kilocalorie consumption from 1800-1830 decline by barely 200 calories. Hardly disastrous. Thinning, but not ‘massive’.

        I won’t even get into your claims about modern incomes. It’s such a tired shibboleth that I have doubts you’d listen to countervailing evidence.

  43. Roakh says:

    No surprise. The author has form. See her earlier post about effective altruism and futurism
    https://mathbabe.org/2015/08/11/as-a-futurist-i-have-lots-of-work-to-do/

    • Rick Hull says:

      Matthews sees through this all, in terms of their logic as well as their assumptions. Here’s his logical argument:

      The problem is that you could use this logic to defend just about anything. Imagine that a wizard showed up and said, “Humans are about to go extinct unless you give me $10 to cast a magical spell.” Even if you only think there’s a, say, 0.00000000000000001 percent chance that he’s right, you should still, under this reasoning, give him the $10, because the expected value is that you’re saving 10^32 lives.

      From the comments:

      The wizard argument is well-known within the effective altruist community. It is sometimes known as “Pascal’s Mugging”. As far as I know (I am a total layman) it is an actual problem in decision theory, so one can’t make too much fun of people for not knowing how to avoid it.

      Yeh, and not just “well known within” but *primarily developed by* the effective altruist community, indeed, largely by Bostrom himself.

      Uncharitably: How ironic is the term MathBabe? As cringeworthy as if Scott named his blog PsychChad?

      • Nornagest says:

        How ironic is the term MathBabe? As cringeworthy as if Scott named his blog PsychChad?

        Kinda ha-ha-only-serious, I think? That sort of thing’s pretty typical of a certain strain of feminist writing; I think it’s meant to imply that the author’s feminine ideal encompasses things like being a math geek.

        • AutisticThinker says:

          Why do feminists and male nerds not get along though? I don’t think any inherent conflict of interest between the two exist.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Feminist activists (the SJW type) seek soft targets and nerds look like one, both because they are low-status in general and because they are mostly male and stereotypically romantically unsuccessful, therefore the SJWs can play card of “Hey you sex-starved teenager, if you want to have a chance to get a girl you’d better listen to me lecture you about your horrible misogyny that turns women away from you and your hobbies”. (This is usually framed in terms of “inclusion”, “diversity”, “outreach”, but that’s the point).

            And it seems that some male nerds took the bait and become fanatical self-flagellating allies. At least for some time it worked.

            Then, maybe the SJWs pushed it too far, or they miscalculated the strength and composition of their next target, or nerds grew a class conscience, I don’t know exactly, but ElevatorGate happened, then the Puppies, then the Ants. Nerds started to say “Thanks but no thanks, we are happy doing our thing the way we do it, we don’t need self-appointed guardians of decency reforming us”. And the SJWs lost it.

          • AutisticThinker says:

            @vV_Vv LOL that’s just bullying. It’s not really a problem unique to feminists. Instead it is general anti-nerd and anti-autistic sentiments at work.

            The problem isn’t feminism. Instead the problem is normies being normies.

            Furthermore why the hell do nerds have to have low status?

          • lvlln says:

            I think it’s more accurate to say that there’s no inherent conflict of interest between feminism and male nerds. However, the loudest and most influential feminists have tacked on a whole bunch of stuff that does conflict with male nerds’ interests.

            One is that nerds, both male and female, tend to value following the scientific method as a means of determining true things about the real world, whereas many feminists believe in alternate ways of making that determination, which results in many feminists asserting things to be true for which there is no scientific support. However, there’s nothing inherent about feminism as a principle that needs to conflict with the scientific method.

            Another is that nerds tend to be socially less apt than non-nerds, which means a greater rate of awkward or negative social interactions with non-nerds. Again, there’s nothing inherent about the principle of feminism that says that such people need to be punished or be dehumanized. But many feminists, thanks to the above, have adopted the principle that when there’s a social interaction between a man and a woman that the woman perceives as negative due in part to choices by the man, then by default one should not extend charity to the man in terms of what caused him to behave in the way he did. So male nerds become the enemy.

            Now, perhaps I’m just moving the question back one step: why did such people gain so much power and influence within feminism, even though such concepts aren’t inherent to feminism? I don’t know, but I’d guess there’s a lot of path dependence in how feminism developed alongside other ideologies in the past couple centuries. That’s not a very precise or meaningful answer, though. I think more research on how 3rd wave feminism came about and took over might help to answer this question. I’ve certainly heard a lot of speculating about Marxist influence in academia and a turn to modeling everything based on power rather than truth, and those don’t seem obviously wrong, but they also seem a little too convenient for the opponents of 3rd wave feminism for me to buy without a lot more supporting evidence.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Shouldn’ta come for the vidya and waifus.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @AutisticThinker

            LOL that’s just bullying. It’s not really a problem unique to feminists.

            Yes, but SJWs are organized bullies. In fact, being a bully for a socjus cause is pretty much the only socially acceptable way to be a bully past school. The SJWs either bully to further their cause, or use their cause as an excuse to bully, or some combination of both.

            Add to this the fact that SJW feminists are the self-proclaimed experts and high priests on anything about women and sexuality, which, as long as this authority is recognized, gives them special leverage on a group of sexually unsuccessful males: they can pretend to help by guiding them towards sexual and romantic “salvation” at the price of submission and conversion to their religion. Take, for instance, Dr. Nerdlove, a self-appointed dating guru for nerds, who spews some of the worst anti-nerd rhetoric of the Internet (in addition to the usual anti-“nice guy” and anti-right rhetoric).

            The problem isn’t feminism. Instead the problem is normies being normies.

            Normies are quite far from the average SJW. Just because the SJWs are loud and few dare to publicly challenge them, don’t think that their opinions and behavior are actually popular.

            The SJWs attack perceived soft targets such as nerds because they aren’t strong enough to attack normies as a general group. Think about why we are told that videogames are toxic and problematic because they feature some scantly clad virtual women, thus committing the cardinal sin of sexual objectification, while nobody seriously attacks mainstream movies or music videos, despite the fact that they often feature scantly clad real women in much more sexualized contexts. On the contrary, we are told that the various Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and the like are Feminist Stars Preaching Empowerment Through Sexuality (mildly NSFW).

            Furthermore why the hell do nerds have to have low status?

            It’s unclear. I wrote another comment about it. It seems to me that this is specific to modern Western societies.

          • Jesse E says:

            I’m a “male nerd” with hundreds of games on Steam, nearly 150 graphic novels, an intense love of pro wrestling, know entirely too much about politics, etc., etc., and have never had a problem with feminists.

            Maybe that’s because I realized fairly early in life that indeed, nerd culture was pretty shitty to anybody who didn’t subscribe to the worldview that nerd and geek culture only belonged to a very specific brand of nerds and geeks who had very specific ideas about representation, continuity, etc.

            I was at a ComicCon in 2000. I was at one in 2017. Guess what, it’s better now. Instead of a bunch of lonely, pissed off, angry people that hate anything that isn’t exactly the way they think it is, there’s a lot more people who love and enjoy the things I love and enjoy.

            At the end of the day, to be completely cynical, that’s the deal – you want your hobbies not to be treated as complete trash by the rest of society and you don’t want to lose all social status for simply being interested in those things? They have to change slightly.

            Plenty of comic books, sci-fi novels, movies, and video games will be aimed squarely at either young males or those with the same wants and needs even if they’re older, it just won’t be every single comic book, sci-fi novel, or video game. The horror.

            If it was up to me and I had magical powers, every nerd who complains about SJW’s gets shunted off to an alternate dimension where they have the same representation as a random non-straight white male in media and see how much they enjoy it.

            Think about why we are told that videogames are toxic and problematic because they feature some scantly clad virtual women, thus committing the cardinal sin of sexual objectification, while nobody seriously attacks mainstream movies or music videos, despite the fact that they often feature scantly clad real women in much more sexualized contexts. On the contrary, we are told that the various Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and the like are Feminist Stars Preaching Empowerment Through Sexuality (mildly NSFW).

            Spoiler Alert – Putting aside the simple fact there is in fact, plenty of criticism of that in feminist circles, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, and the like are actual women who make their own choices to wear, they’re not Boobs McGee, programmed to dress like a stripper.

          • BBA says:

            A significant number of nerds are feminists. It’s not so few that feminism isn’t even taken seriously (e.g., construction workers) and it’s not so many that feminism is accepted unquestioningly (e.g., schoolteachers). So it’s just the sweet spot for endless, tedious arguments that make me wish for the earth-destroying meteor to come on and fall on us already.

          • lvlln says:

            Maybe that’s because I realized fairly early in life that indeed, nerd culture was pretty shitty to anybody who didn’t subscribe to the worldview that nerd and geek culture only belonged to a very specific brand of nerds and geeks who had very specific ideas about representation, continuity, etc.

            I’m a male nerd and a feminist. I don’t subscribe to the worldview that nerd and geek culture only belong to a very specific brand of nerds and geeks who have very specific ideas about representation, continuity, etc., yet I feel that nerd culture is not only not shitty to me, it’s incredibly welcoming to me in a way that almost no other culture has been.

            Ironically, I find “pretty shitty to anybody who didn’t subscribe to… very specific ideas about representation, continuity, etc” to be exactly descriptive of feminist culture in a way that nerd culture is not. Whereas feminist culture seems to posit a certain dogma about what representation in media means and demands everyone buy into it regardless of the evidence, nerd culture seems to be more flexible in accepting what the evidence points to as being true, rather than asserting that one understanding of how representation works is the correct understanding. Within nerd culture, I feel safe exploring different ideas about what representation, continuity, etc. means with others, because I’ve observed that other nerds are quite welcoming to having honest conversations about that. Within feminist culture, I don’t feel safe doing so, because I’ve observed that those who scrutinize the dogma in the same way that they would scrutinize any other claim of fact get socially punished.

            Plenty of comic books, sci-fi novels, movies, and video games will be aimed squarely at either young males or those with the same wants and needs even if they’re older, it just won’t be every single comic book, sci-fi novel, or video game. The horror.

            I dispute the implication that nerd culture or male nerds would tend to find this to be horrifying. In fact, as best as I can tell, the male nerds who complain about SJWs tend to be very encouraging of more nerd media being aimed at people who aren’t young males. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve observed that they’re overwhelming ambivalent, not hostile. I think characterizing any part of male nerds’ conflict with SJWs this way is either ignorant or dishonest.

            If it was up to me and I had magical powers, every nerd who complains about SJW’s gets shunted off to an alternate dimension where they have the same representation as a random non-straight white male in media and see how much they enjoy it.

            I’m not a straight white male, so I’m a nerd who complains about SJWs who experiences that alternate dimension with respect to representation in media. I enjoy the level of representation as it is, in nerd media and other media, just fine. I don’t dispute that there exist others who don’t enjoy it as much as I do. I don’t think those people’s opinions should carry more weight than mine, and that the proper way forward should be compromised through discussion by parties with differing opinions. That last part, unfortunately, seems to me to be where nerd culture and feminist culture conflict, as I’ve observed the latter is hostile to such discussion, in favor of either dogma or, at best, an incredibly bounded and limited area of discussion (e.g. 50 Stalins!).

          • Deiseach says:

            they feature some scantly clad virtual women, thus committing the cardinal sin of sexual objectification

            Ah come on, be fair. It’s not that the women are scantily clad, it’s the comparison between the women and the men as represented. I’ve mentioned this before, but I tend to play male characters in games precisely because of this. What really buttered the turnips for me, as it were, was playing “Torchlight” as the Alchemist class with an alternate male character to my main female one. When I picked up higher stat gear for the female and equipped it, she was suddenly wearing less.

            I sat there for a good two or three minutes blinking at this, thinking I was doing something wrong, then taking off and re-equipping the gear. Nope, the “more protection/more HP” gear was scantier than the gear with worse stats. So I tried my male character and whaddya know, when he got higher level gear, it looked like it was more protective/better class, as in: covered vulnerable areas, covered more of the body, bulkier, layered, looked heavy and thick and sturdy.

            This wasn’t Barbarian class, where both characters get stuck with the fur bikini couture, this was a class that had no reason to be running around caverns full of shale with bare legs! So if the male character was treated like the female character, he’d have ended up looking like this – but he didn’t. (“No, dude, I promise: taking off your trousers and brigandine for the bikini briefs and crop top ensemble instead increases your defence! The boob window gives you +12 Regen!”)

            And that’s why I play male characters. And that’s why people (women) protest. Yeah, yeah: majority of gamers are guys, guys like totty, etc etc etc. But that’s a circular argument: if things are set up to appeal to men, then they won’t appeal to women, and any queries about making something appeal more to women are answered that there just isn’t the market for it, not enough women play the game.

            Solution? Treat your characters equally. If Boy Whatever gets all covered up, do the same for Girl Whatever. If Girl Whatever slinks around in three triangles of satin and loads of bling, do the same for Boy Whatever (some TV shows know how to do this). Don’t have “all guys wear sensible or at least semi-plausible gear, all women run around in high heels and Battle Lingerie, even on the field of war or down a cavern or climbing a mountain in the icy wastes”.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @Deiseach

            Games are also full of hyper-muscular male characters running around bare breasted or wearing skintight suits. I don’t know about the specific game you mentioned, but it is quite common, and nobody complains about it.

            And no, these characters are not just “male power fantasies”, not anymore than their female counterparts are “female seductivity fantasies”. In fact, half-naked, sexualized male characters are also common in female-oriented media (1, 2).

            And the point is… so what? People enjoy looking at handsome men and beautiful women. Why complain about it?

          • lvlln says:

            Nothing wrong with complaining about it. Indeed, the kind of complaint that Deiseach lodged is the kind of complaint that tends to get received well by male nerds. Well, I could see the tone rubbing people the wrong way, but the points raised about treating the sexes equally and the disconnect between the visuals and the gameplay effect seem to be salient points about one’s subjective experience with the game.

            Personally, with most games, I expect a lot of disconnect between in-game aesthetics and gameplay effect (a kinda related example: I used to be big into Guitar Hero and Rock Band about a decade ago, despite having absolutely no interest in the songs – to me, the songs were just auditory stimulus which allowed me to properly time my button presses, serving no meaningful function that the scrolling bars didn’t – when I expressed this opinion to my friends, they found this to be highly unexpected), so I’m not bothered by visually less armor offering greater defense. To me, what matters is that the armor looks different, which communicates that the armor applies some different level of protection – whether that is congruent with what one would expect in reality is such a trivial concern that most times I just round it down to nothing. But it’s perfectly reasonable to find such dissonance off-putting and to say that one would prefer games not produce such dissonance.

            Different people prefer different things in games, and expressing such a preference and complaining that games in general don’t meet one’s own personal preferences is fairly normal behavior and, in my experience, nerds have no more antipathy to such behavior than anyone else does (heck, my experience indicates that nerds tend to engage in this behavior – and ask of it from others – more than most people!).

            When the complaint takes the form of claiming that this reflects some deep hatred of women in the part of the developers or that players who either enjoy such dissonance or are okay with developers having the freedom to create such dissonance without fear of shaming must hate women or fear change, that’s when I think conflict arises.

            I do think many nerds have been highly sensitized to the type of complaint that Deiseach has about her game, to the point that any complaint like that get rounded up to being empirically unsupported claims like the above instead of merely an expression of preference like what Deiseach actually said. I think such behavior is lazy and also not that widespread within nerd circles. That said, I also think nerds who do engage in such lazy behavior don’t get called out nearly often enough because nerds often feel the need to circle the wagons. I feel sympathy for that feeling, but I think circling the wagons isn’t a particularly helpful way of responding to attacks like the ones SJWs lodge against nerds.

          • John Schilling says:

            As I understand it, a significant fraction of the female characters in this sort of game are being played by male players, in part on the grounds that if their play experience is going to involve a lot of time staring at the backside of some fantasy character it might as well be one they’ll enjoy ogling and fantasizing about. So this may involve an element of understanding and then properly targeting an asymmetric market.

            See also: Lara Croft, enduring popularity of.

          • Jiro says:

            The very concept of having hit points at all is so unrealistic that whether the armor shows skin doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make any more sense for the well-armored level 50 character to take 50 times the damage that a level 1 character can take, any more than it does for the poorly armored level 50 character.

            For that matter, armor progression makes no sense. Games can easily have one suit of armor which is 20 times as better as another. That’s never going to happen no matter how much skin the armor covers.

          • Nornagest says:

            @Deiseach — That’s a reasonable position, but I don’t think it’s what’s driving what I actually see in the wild.

            There have been several flaps over this, but one of the bigger recent ones related to Dragon’s Crown — a 2D class-based beat-’em-up. There are six classes in that game, three male and three female, each with a fixed character design. The Fighter (male) is in full armor, the Wizard (male) in robes. The Elf (female) is wearing a fairly modest hunting outfit. The Sorceress (female) is in a low-cut dress. And the Dwarf (male) and Amazon (female) are wearing about a wallet’s worth of leather between them.

            That should offer something for everyone, but “something for everyone” is apparently not good enough.

          • m.alex.matt says:

            Deiseach, John Schilling gets it exactly, I think. Scantily clad women in video games are sexual objectification and nothing else. They’re extremely softcore porn. There are certainly games where women playing the scantily clad women characters are vastly outnumbered by the men playing the scantily clad women characters.

            How do you get out of that?

            The class split mentioned by Nornagest is one way, but I feel like it’s a dis-satisfying way. What if you WANT TO PLAY that class that is being set aside as sexually objectified? For reasons other than the sexual objectification? Are you just screwed?

            The obvious answer to me is to ‘man up’ and realize the presentation of a character is something that is pretty easy to decide ‘this doesn’t matter as much as I’m acting like it matters’, but this is an answer a lot of people won’t like. I’m perfectly OK, as a male, with sexual objectification of men (my girlfriend loves watching football because of all the muscly men in tight pants running around tackling each other, for example, although she enjoys the game itself, too) as long as it doesn’t lead to the treatment of men as purely sexual objects, so it, again, seems like an obvious answer that the same courtesy be extended to women . A society that has a certain tolerance for sexual objectification (both in the sense that it doesn’t faint at the sight of sexual objectification, but also that it is able to contain it without sliding into awful sexism) sounds a lot better to me than any of the alternatives.

            You may differ. I don’t know. You never seemed that deeply sexually conservative to me. But removing things from an axis of ‘sexism versus anti-sexism’ to ‘sexual liberalism versus sexual conservatism’ seems to be a valuable step.

          • Nornagest says:

            They’re extremely softcore porn. […] What if you WANT TO PLAY that class that is being set aside as sexually objectified?

            There is another angle to this, too. I used to work on a middling-popular MUD, an online text game — I still work on a spinoff, but for complicated reasons it’s less relevant to this question. Anyway. Our staff was maybe 60% female, because the MUD audience skewed that way (and continues to). It had been around for a while, and over the years it had picked up quite a large library of equipment written by various staffers. I became fairly senior and ended up touching most of that library at some point, for one reason or another. A lot of it wasn’t described in sexualized terms, but a fair amount was.

            Thing is, the most sexualized pieces of gear were written by women. Every time. (Well, except for the Conan-esque leather harness set, but I don’t think the guy that wrote that had women in mind when he did.) And they got used, not because they were the best gear (they weren’t), but because their wearers wanted to use them.

            Maybe it’s different in text, but the simplest conclusion seems to be that there’s a female market for this, and assumedly not for prurient reasons. My current fellow-admin would bite my head off if I left it at that, so I hasten to add that a lot of women empirically do prefer more practical gear when it’s on offer — but not all of them, or even near. Likely this is sort of the female equivalent of the He-Man power fantasy, insofar as that’s a thing.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            World of Warcraft has solved this issue through the transmogrification system, allowing you to choose the appearance of your gear independently from the stats on it. It also allows for an entertaining-to-some collection of all the appearances.

            I strongly approve of this system, and wish more games implemented it. Even without the sexual aspects to it, I often get tired of the “black spikes” aesthetic most games seem to love putting on their endgame armor. There’s elegance in simple steel, Bethesda!

          • Aapje says:

            @m.alex.matt

            How do you get out of that?

            In capitalism, if a group of people have a preference, they are only entitled to have that preference met to the extent that they can and are willing to pay people to cater to that preference.

            I think that nerds are generally perfectly fine with women being catered to as much as they will pay game creators to make the stuff they prefer.

            However, what I see a lot in Social Justice is a demand that ‘oppressor’ groups subsidize the preferences of ‘oppressed’ groups. This automatically is at the expense of the group that has to do the subsidizing and it is at the core not a matter of sexism or such, but rather a question of how libertarian you are.

            In libertarianism, the morality of the market is the responsibility of the buyer. So if you want to make the market more moral, you should convince the buyers.

            I think that nerds are generally perfectly fine with appeals to buyers to change their preferences.

            However, what I see a lot in Social Justice is:
            – a demand that the supply should not be there and/or
            – that buyers are shamed/bullied (‘called out’) into not buying things that match their preferences
            – claims that all members of ‘oppressor’ groups want X and all members of ‘oppressed’ groups want Y (like men wanting scantily clad female characters and women only wanting to play modestly dressed female avatars)

            I think that nerds are on average more libertarian than SJ advocates, hate being shamed/bullied into behavior, more skeptical of claims and less willing to accept false claims for the greater good.

            I think that a compromise is impossible. Most SJ advocates don’t seem willing to accept a more libertarian approach; nor do they want to give up their methods which tend to rub nerds the wrong way. At the same time, most nerds don’t seem willing to accept the SJ approach & methods.

          • Matt M says:

            World of Warcraft has solved this issue through the transmogrification system, allowing you to choose the appearance of your gear independently from the stats on it. It also allows for an entertaining-to-some collection of all the appearances.

            It’s also worth noting that:

            a) Skimpy/sexualized clothing for female characters was common for high-level item sets in vanilla WoW, but is almost non-existent in current content.

            b) The “older” skimpy/sexualized female clothing appearances remain very very popular options for female characters.

          • Matt M says:

            – a demand that the supply should not be there and/or

            To slightly elaborate, there are also demands that the market respond not to the preferences of the people who actually buy the products, but to “cultural critics” who represent a significantly small minority of actual customers.

            They demand that games be changed to suit the needs of SJWs, even though SJWs compromise a very small percentage of the player base. Which is unfair to the huge majority of paying customers who aren’t getting what they want when companies are shamed into catering to an incredibly vocal minority.

          • BBA says:

            For the second time in this subthread, I will point out that lots of nerds are feminists, and aren’t just giving in to demands from shrill complainers with dyed hair. It isn’t virtue signaling. They genuinely agree with the argument.

            It only looks like “feminists vs nerds” because there are also lots of nerds who are not feminists, and dismissing your enemies as not being “true fans” is an age-old tradition.

          • Nornagest says:

            I often get tired of the “black spikes” aesthetic most games seem to love putting on their endgame armor. There’s elegance in simple steel, Bethesda!

            Yeah, when I was playing Skyrim for the first time I resisted upgrading my character’s armor past Skyforge steel for a long time, because I wanted him to look like a VikingNord, damn it. I finally gave in once I’d leveled enough that basic bandits were starting to pop with elven or glass pieces.

            Then I discovered mods, which solved the problem in the short term and made it possible to fight a flying, fire-breathing Thomas the Tank Engine in a tropical paradise in the long run.

          • Matt M says:

            I will point out that lots of nerds are feminists

            Lots? Yes. A majority? I highly doubt it.

            I’m not saying there are NO male gamers who would object to skimpily-dressed large-breasted female characters. But there are far more people who want their female characters presented that way.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            It only looks like “feminists vs nerds” because there are also lots of nerds who are not feminists, and dismissing your enemies as not being “true fans” is an age-old tradition.

            While this is true, there are also lots of feminists who are not nerds, and nerd-bashing is an age-old tradition.

          • lvlln says:

            It only looks like “feminists vs nerds” because there are also lots of nerds who are not feminists, and dismissing your enemies as not being “true fans” is an age-old tradition.

            I don’t think this is what is going on. Many feminists are nerds, and many nerds are feminists, yes. And being a feminist nerd doesn’t make one any less of a nerd or any less of a feminist (but maybe, as a feminist nerd, I’m just engaging in cognitive dissonance?).

            None of this is contradictory with the idea that there’s some sort of “feminists vs nerds” thing going on; “feminists vs nerds” isn’t meant to refer to “every feminist vs every nerd,” but rather “feminist culture vs nerd culture.” And not even “general feminist culture vs general nerd culture,” but rather “a specific type of feminist culture vs a specific type of nerd culture.”

            And those specific types do conflict with each other, even if it is true that many nerds are feminists (in my experience, it’s the rare nerd who is not a feminist – they just tend not to be the type of feminist who would bully and shame others for not buying into certain worldviews, i.e. they’re not the specific type of feminist that conflicts with the specific type of nerd). Specifically, I’ve observed certain types of nerds’ (a) tendency to value the empirical evidence for verifying something about reality to be true and (b) tendency to dislike bullying in order to engineer behavior conflicts with certain types of feminists’ (a) tendency to dismiss the empirical evidence as being needed to verify something about reality to be true and (b) tendency to encourage the use of bullying to engineer behavior.

            I do think those specific types of feminists and specific types of nerds tend to be the most populous and influential within the general groups, but that’s not to say that such specific types are the “true” versions of those groups. A feminist nerd would be no less a “true” feminist if they believed that we should use empirical evidence to verify something about reality to be true. Neither would they be any less a “true” nerd if they engaged in bullying in order to engineer behavior. But they probably wouldn’t fit right in as the typical example of a feminist or a nerd involved in the “feminists vs nerds” thing.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            When the complaint takes the form of claiming that this reflects some deep hatred of women in the part of the developers or that players who either enjoy such dissonance or are okay with developers having the freedom to create such dissonance without fear of shaming must hate women or fear change, that’s when I think conflict arises.

            I think this is the crux of it. A lot of what rubs people the wrong way about feminists is not their specific positions on issues, but the inflammatory rhetoric and a general unwillingness to engage with people in honest debate. Disagreement tends to be automatically framed as sexism or bigotry. Most of their common arguments are not arguments as such, but defensive maneuvers designed to avoid having to ever actually defend a position. If they make an assertion and you ask for evidence or question their premises, you will be accused of mansplaining (or if you’re female, of having internalized misogyny) or gaslighting.

            And no, of course that’s not true of all feminists…though “feminist” is such a broad and vague label that it’s hard to really pin down what defines someone as such. I’m using the term here to refer to people who believe in things like patriarchy theory, rape culture, male privilege, etc.

      • Roakh says:

        Yeh I’m actually the second commenter there.

  44. moscanarius says:

    From the article, with some highlights:

    My hope is that by better understanding the motivations and backgrounds of the people involved—however unscientifically—we can better prepare ourselves for the upcoming political struggle over whose narrative of the future we should fight for: tech oligarchs that want to own flying cars and live forever, or gig economy workers that want to someday have affordable health care.

    At least she is candid about what she is doing.

    Reminds me a bit of that Hitchens interview where he quotes Arendt on how one of the great achievements of Stalinism was to replace all discussion involving arguments and evidence with the question of motive. It’s interesting how so many articles today are just huge discussions of motives. And very bad discussions, for sure: people’s motives are always lazy stereotypes straight from whatever fashionable theory the author is espousing at the time.

    Ultimately this is all about power and influence.

    For her, I am sure it is 🙂

    • AutisticThinker says:

      I want tech oligarchs who live forever for they are from us STEM nerds. 🙂

      In some sense we can think of the Stalinist fallacy as some extreme version of the opposite of autism.

  45. vV_Vv says:

    Dear Scott “I’m desperately trying to avoid the Nerd Culture Wars” Alexander,

    in Socjus America, the Culture Wars you!

  46. Jed Harris says:

    > First, it purports to explain what we should think about the future

    No, it does not. It purports to explain the various current groupings of futurists, “a person who spends a serious amount of time—either paid or unpaid—forming theories about society’s future.” It is about certain people today, not about the future (except in the last few paragraphs). A different and more substantive piece would argue that the quadrant that the author occupies is correct, but that isn’t this piece.

    A fair criticism: This is a somewhat amusing but ultimately shallow piece of very exaggerated social caricature, which fails to consider the human reality of the people being caricatured, or the actual consequences of their work. It isn’t even an effective polemic, since it will only be convincing to those who share all the prejudices being confirmed by the author.

    Unfortunately I think your criticism overreacts and mostly misses the useful issues.

    Her criticism of the Effective Altruism movement is an example of a real issue. She admits EA is a good idea and works, then simply dismisses it to go back to her caricatures. She never addresses the amount of good it has done (for black and brown people even!) compared with the cluster in her quadrant since that would undercut her snark.

    Basically I’m disappointed because you let your reaction to some snark derail your sound critical instincts.

    • Baeraad says:

      I did note that some of the zanier parts of EA that she scoffs at are things that Scott himself already mentioned in his post about that EA conference and admitted were maybe just a little bit weird. So it’s not that she’s completely wrong, and I agree that Scott is showing his usual berserk button in regards to his own tribe being attacked.

      That said, the purpose of the article seemed to be very much to go “Those People are bad and wrong and worthless! Let’s piously wrinkle our noses at them!” So I find it hard to blame Scott for it. Is he not human? If you cut him, does he not bleed? If you tickle him, does he not laugh? And if you troll him, does he not rant and rave and flail about?

  47. suntzuanime says:

    Sounds like a phrase we can’t say in these blog comments. How much longer can you pretend to be shocked at the perfidy of the media?

    This is what you surrendered to. Sorry.

    • vV_Vv says:

      First they came for the puppies, and I did not speak out because I was not a puppy.
      Then they came for the ants, and I did not speak out because I was not an ant.
      Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me for they had all already joined the alt-right and don’t like (((my ingroup))) for some reason.

  48. avturchin says:

    I created once a map of the future models in an attempt to classify futurists:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/nqw/the_map_of_future_models/

  49. HaakonBirkeland says:

    Scott, why are you getting angry at the pixels on your screen? Don’t you see how absurd that is?

    I wish ignoring this kind of thing was an option, but this is how our culture relates to things now.

    No, this is how the culture of social media relates to things now. This is the nature of social media. As McLuhan instructs, the medium is the message.

    I know from reading your articles over the years that you detest the likes of Lacan and McLuhan but I think they offer you the prospect of consolation in a world hypnotized by the symbols transmitted by an array light-emitting diodes!

    Your personal decision to triumph empiricism and positivism at all costs will run you ragged.

    Even without the kind of evidence you typically demand, isn’t it better to be frustrated with the medium rather than the person on the other end?

  50. AutisticThinker says:

    I think this article shows something similar to what Eliazar said about Babyeater fiction, namely even sci-fi sometimes exists not to push for any facts or knowledge but to serve as tools of moral brainwashing.

    Yeah. The future is about an outgroup that will probably be obsolete being evil, not some new technologies and an amoral, clinical description of what the future might be like. What the heck?

    • AutisticThinker says:

      I now consider moral indoctrination itself one of the most serious evils in the world.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        It is, however, unavoidable and necessary. In the raising of children, there is no “don’t brainwash” option.

        • albatross11 says:

          There’s no avoiding giving your kids a cultural background and influencing their early choices and what they’re exposed to. I think there is quite a large distance between that and what most people would think of as brainwashing.

          Indeed, *not* doing some of that would be a lousy thing to do to your kids. Telling a five year old to work out his own moral rules with no guidance isn’t likely to lead anywhere all that great; letting him also decide his own lifestyle (bedtime, diet, whether he goes to school) is similarly not likely to work out well for him.

          • letting him also decide his own lifestyle (bedtime, diet, whether he goes to school) is similarly not likely to work out well for him.

            One can go a good deal farther in that direction than you might think. If you offer your kids the option of home unschooling, as we did for ours, they do decide whether to go to school. For diet, our rule was that if you didn’t like what was being made for dinner you could have something else, provided your having it imposed no additional effort on others and it was adequately nutritious. For a while our son ate a lot of fruit yogurt.

            That was quite a while ago, so I don’t remember what our rules were or were not for bedtime. If we had any they didn’t take, given both kids’ adult sleeping patterns.

  51. justchecking says:

    > the best the Boston Review can pull off is “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT SOME OF THE PEOPLE SPECULATING ABOUT THIS MIGHT BE IN YOUR (((OUTGROUP)))?”

    This article takes dogwhistling to a new level. Every named futurist in the article has Jewish heritage. The whole thing is about an elite conspiracy to enrich the subgroup secretly controlling “the algorithms that increasingly rule our private, political, and professional lives”, but it even goes so far as to say that they “are mostly young or middle-age white men, they have never been oppressed”. I don’t know why this is the only callout of the crypto-racism in the article or comments. Maybe the future is also a Hungarian high school science fair project.

    • AutisticThinker says:

      Hmmm. Antisemitism noted. As I said before antisemitism is usually an irrational, bullshit ideology held by those who can’t compete.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Because it’s not crypto-racism. Due to the well-established racial superiority of the Jews which you allude to in your last sentence there, they’re going to end up overrepresented in the elites and therefore likely in any elite conspiracy. As much as I might not agree with the particular complaints in the article, the idea that you can never complain about an elite conspiracy because the elites are Jews is going way too far.

      If you come in saying “this elite group is evil because it’s Jewish and Jews have all these bad traits”, that’s antisemitism. If you come in saying “this elite group is evil because of various reasons and by the way check out all the Jews in it”, that’s probably gesturing towards antisemitism. If you come in saying “this elite group is evil because of various reasons” and studiously avoid making any mention of Jewishness whatsoever, it’s hard to see how we can ask any more of you in terms of avoiding antisemitism. The only other alternative I can see is for a group to become completely immune to criticism as soon as it reaches a critical mass of Jewishness, and while some Jews might think that sounds pretty nice, it should be obvious that that’s no way to run a discourse.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        My comment was more that it was telling how warped her perceptions are when she’s split the world into outgroup “people who can’t possibly know ethnic/gender oppression” and ingroup “people who are seeped in historic ethnic/gender oppression”…and then puts a bunch of Jews in the “can’t know ethnic oppression” category. I dunno. I seem to recall a time or two in history when maybe some Jews had some bad stuff done to them?

        Now if I were being trollish I’d start accusing the author of holocaust denial.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Young Jews in America have known about as much ethnic oppression as young Irish-Americans. Yeah, at some point in the past or in some other places things have been bad, but nowadays you’re just white.

          There’s a bit more anti-semitism in America today than anti-Irish sentiment, but there’s a whole lot more anti-anti-semitism, so it kind of balances out. You’d never be able to get away in semi-polite company with “jokes” about gingers not having souls or the Hibernian Conspiracy stuff this comments section finds just hilarious if it were about the Jews.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yeah, but there’s certainly a historical legacy there. You can’t randomly lump a bunch of Jews into the “no sensitivity to ethnic oppression” bucket without knowing whether or not they have relatives who died in the holocaust or that they simply have no awareness or identification with their heritage. That seems insensitive to assume.

            I guess we could ask them, though. Eliezer, if you’re reading this, are you at all conscious of the possibility of oppression due to your ethnicity? Do the think the author was fair to put you in the category she did?

            Also, Hibernian Conspiracy jokes are funny.

          • suntzuanime says:

            There’s a historical legacy with the Irish too, fuck your jokes.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Jews have had the experience before of seeming tolerance or even acceptance evaporating very quickly, though. That context has got to be taken into account. “Seems safe” has turned ugly before.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I apologize for any offense to the Irish. May the sun shine brightly on the Emerald Isle and her great people, now and forever.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Are there any non-Jewish white male futurists who should have been included?

  52. Vorkon says:

    If we get very lucky, there will actually be a future. Some of the people in it will probably read the stuff we write. They’ll judge us. I assume most of that judgment will involve laughing hysterically. But we can at least aim for laughter that’s good-natured instead of scornful. Sub specie aeternatis, how much of what we do today is going to look to them the way Samuel Madden does to us?

    I hope an awful lot of it.

  53. johnWH says:

    “If the people of 1733 had thought about things really hard, tried to transcend the feuds of their local time and place, might they have predicted the Industrial Revolution? Might they have been able to accelerate it, delay it, send it along a different track that ameliorated some of the displacement and poverty it caused in reality? I don’t know. But it would have been a pretty amazing attempt.”

    Some people around 1733 were thinking about economic development. And you could plausibly argue that they accelerated the Industrial Revolution to some (small) extent. See: The Scottish Enlightenment

  54. Douglas Knight says:

    The author never even begins to give any argument about why the future will be good or bad, or why a singularity might or might not happen. I’m not sure she even realizes this is an option, or the sort of thing some people might think relevant.

    I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Consider this passage:

    The problem here, of course, is the “I win” blind spot—the belief that if this system works for me, then it must be a good system.

    O’Neil has explained away the difference between the optimists and the pessimists as not a factual disagreement, but a disagreement of focus. If there is no disagreement of facts, there is no need to argue about who is right.

    (In fact, I can best make sense of all 4 quadrants in terms of focus, but when I do so they no longer look like they are determined by orthogonal axes.)

    • Evan Þ says:

      But if that’s the case, it’s just another unwarranted assumption from O’Neil. If the Singularity happens, then it’s going to hugely change things no matter what your focus. Even if it doesn’t happen, it’s possible to have real disagreements about how policies will impact people.

  55. Christopher Hazell says:

    Scott, there is an anxiety underlying this kind of article which I think you’ve never really grasped and, while I respect you very much, I think it weakens a lot of your arguments about culture war stuff.

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate and make it really short:

    Either we will perish in nuclear apocalypse or manage to avert nuclear apocalypse; either one will be history’s greatest story. Either we will discover intelligent alien life or find ourselves alone in the universe; either way would be terrifying. Either we will suppress AI research with a ferocity that puts the Inquisition to shame, or we will turn into gods creating life in our own image; either way the future will be not quite human.

    What you mean, “we” paleface?

    The future is busily being built by people I will never meet, in labs I will never visit, using science I will never understand except in the vaguest of terms. “We” aren’t building shit. “They” are out there, somewhere, building tools and algorithms and AIs and promising us that we’re really gonna like what happens when they’re done. Good for them, but that’s nothing to do with me, is it?

    Am I supposed to pray? God is dead. Prayer don’t do shit. If we are in a near singularity world, than everything I do now is just building sandcastles that are about to be swept away by an inexorable tide.

    What strategy would I employ in a world like that, except to petition or threaten the people who actually get things done, to say, “Well, I may not be at Google building the new AI, but some queer feminist is, so that means somebody who at least has a chance to think about what I need?”

    Much of the rationalist project strikes me as, honestly, the same thing; “If the people in power look and think like us, we can count on them to remember us and not build anything that can hurt us too much.” How many of you/us are actually influencing the direction of AI research?

    Well, that’s not entirely fair. I’m sure that there are places to donate. But much of EA seems to be a model of “We give money to the people with actual power, they spend it (using more wisdom than we could have) and then we go about our business.” Most of us are basically becoming courtiers to a small group of people who are making the actual decisions. This is both psychologically unsatisfying, and also has the effect of making exactly this kind of culture war thing inevitable, because it is one of the few effective seeming ways to direct the world around you.

    • toastengineer says:

      What strategy would I employ in a world like that, except to petition or threaten the people who actually get things done, to say, “Well, I may not be at Google building the new AI, but some queer feminist is, so that means somebody who at least has a chance to think about what I need?”

      We (well, I for sure and I presume everyone else gets it too considering it’s people here who helped explain to me) understand just fine, we just don’t agree. We don’t believe ___-ism is a given; we believe it’s perfectly possible for a straight white male person to understand and be considerate of the problems a nonstraight non-white non-male person because it’s the “person” part that really matters, all the rest is just noise.

      And it’s entirely possible for a straight white wealthy male person to fail to understand and\or care about the needs of another straight white wealthy male person.

      I think it’s even better to just be against concentration of power in general, regardless of what trim package the powerful people were born with.

    • What strategy would I employ in a world like that, except to petition or threaten the people who actually get things done, to say, “Well, I may not be at Google building the new AI, but some queer feminist is, so that means somebody who at least has a chance to think about what I need?”

      Realistically, it almost never pays the individual to try to change the course of progress because, with rare exceptions, the effect one individual’s actions is tiny. The strategy most people should employ is to make the best estimate they can of what is going to happen and arrange their lives accordingly.

      Just as, if you live on the coast and are worried about sea level rise, building a dike, or modifying your home to be less vulnerable to flooding, or moving somewhere else, has thousands, probably millions, of times the payoff for you of political efforts to reduce AGW.

  56. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Two hypotheses:
    1, the Boston Review is Blue Tribe, Blue Tribe is postmodernist, so you have no reason to be shocked by a total disinterest in whether truth claims are true.
    2, this is how journalism has always been. Stop reading the Times and start reading the eternities.

    • Nornagest says:

      In the current political repertoire, postmodernism is a tactic, not a strategy. There are bona-fide postmodernists in the academy, but no one important outside it actually believes e.g. that statements about truth are really statements about power; it’s just something to fall back on when some of those truth statements start looking inconvenient.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Interesting caveat. I was leaning toward 2 anyway, that journalists have always been this lazy (obv. with different shibboleths), and any thought that they were once responsible public intellectuals is Golden Age nostalgia.

        • Nornagest says:

          On the other hand, the author of this piece appears to be some kind of academic. On the other other hand, her field is mathematics, which isn’t normally one prone to postwank.

  57. Baeraad says:

    I’ll be more charitable to this person than she probably deserves and say that her position (if not necessarily her argument, which is… kind of not an argument at all, just a long string of insults) makes perfect sense if you care about morals in and of themselves instead of looking solely at results. Of course, in order to assume that that’s the position she’s coming from, you also have to assume that she’s being deceitful about it, so perhaps I’m not so charitable after all.

    This is something I’ve always found frustrating myself, you see. The tech-nerds are always assuring me that they’ll improve the lot of humankind – without the need for humankind itself to improve in the slightest. And that I find endlessly frustrating, especially since I’m torn about it. If the only way to end world hunger is really to make the rich so insanely rich that the scum and rabble of the world (of which I pretty much assume I’m going to be one) can eat their fill just from the crumbs that fall off their table, shouldn’t I be in favour of that? The pragmatic in me says yes, sure, whatever works. But the idealist in me would rather starve to death than let those rich bastards think that it’s okay for them to have so much more than me.

    The fact that I know damn well that the pragmatic is always going to win when it comes right down to it only makes it worse. I’m not going to starve myself on principle. I’m going to bow and scrape and thank the plutocrats for their largesse in letting me have their scraps and leavings. As long as I get my bread and circuses, I really am going to let the emperor stay emperor forever, even though I consider the existence of an emperor to be an affront to egalitarianism.

    Therefore, in an odd sort of way, the only hope for a morally better world is that technology fails in its promise to create a materially better one. And I think that’s the key to a lot of otherwise puzzling progressive thought right there. Why are progressives so gloomy and negative? Why do they insist that things are worse than they clearly are and that they are going to get worse still? Because they live in hope – the hope that things are eventually going to get bad enough that the common peopole finally rise up and tear down the elitists! It’s terrible, it’s ugly, it might even be outright evil… but it’s something I grapple with myself, and it’s what I think the author of that article is getting at even if she’s not willing to admit it outright. The last thing she wants is for the rich white men to do so much to help the non-rich, non-white and non-men that they cement their position at the top just when it seemed like it might be crumbling.

    I’ve put this in decidedly uncharitable terms, because I try not to pretty up my own questionable feelings and opinions. I would like to point out, though, that it’s not all crying “but it’s a matter of principle!” while hard-nosed realists actually do the work of improving the world insofar as it can be improved. There are cold calculations involved. What if the rich white guys managed to create a post-scarcity Utopia for 95% of the population, while leaving the last 5% as wretched as ever? Those 5% would be screwed. No way would the 95% want to rock the boat on their behalf.

    To put it into common nerd parlance, I worry that we’ll end up living in Omelas, and I’ll be the forsaken child. And I think this author, from her own perspective, worries about the same thing – though if so, it’d be nice if she’d have the integrity to actually say so instead of claiming to be speaking on the behalf of silent multitudes.

    (I should also mention that this is something that I fretted over some fifteen years ago when I was a hardcore progressive/feminist, too – I kept hearing those oh-so-trendy-and-sex-positive feminists going on about the anything-goes hipster utopia that was right around the corner, and I had dark suspicions about how long they would keep caring about the poor and the handicapped and the just generally uncool once they got it. As it turned out, I was actually being overly optimistic; the feminists didn’t even need to get their utopia to decide that the dregs were not only unimportant but actually enemies and oppressors)

    • albatross11 says:

      The author of the linked piece is pretty clearly *capable* of writing an intelligent and interesting article that brings up these issues clearly. (She’s done good work in the past, and she has a technical background in a relevant field.) So it’s interesting to ask why she did a lousy job here.

      Sometimes, this happens to everyone–the deadline takes you by surprise, a bunch of other stuff comes up, and you end up doing a crap job on something you were capable of doing a lot better. But I suspect there’s another phenomenon here. Every topic has “attractors”–easy-to-fall-into discussions that draw you away from the interesting details of the question at hand, toward some discussion that is automatic and that everyone knows. TV talking head shows are (or at least were, back when I ever watched them) pretty much made of this–the talking heads typically don’t know much about the thing they’re supposed to be talking about, but can easily slip into well-worn arguments about Republicans vs Democrats, free speech vs social norms, military hawks vs doves, etc.

      My guess is that the author of the linked piece fell into an attractor of this kind, and instead of writing something interesting and relevant about different schools of futurism or the singularity or whatever, she fell into writing a no-effort culture war piece.

    • cassander says:

      You speak of there being some sort of choice that could be made between improving people and improving our circumstances. There isn’t. If your plan for making the world a better place requires that people be better, it’s a bad plan. We have a few thousand years of recorded history to study, and the overwhelming sense of it is that people don’t seemed to have changed much. We are, at best, a little less violent and a little smarter on average than we were in ancient greece, but that’s it, and that itself is easily explainable by the fact that, for the most part, we don’t live on the edge of starvation anymore.

      The only thing we can change is circumstances. Since we can demonstrate that that has, in the past, led to us being less shity, we should double down on it, not because it’s a good plan, but because it’s the only plan.

      • dndnrsn says:

        This is entirely correct. Of the things in human society – which has changed massively over human history – humans are thing that has changed the least.

    • lvlln says:

      This is something I’ve always found frustrating myself, you see. The tech-nerds are always assuring me that they’ll improve the lot of humankind – without the need for humankind itself to improve in the slightest. And that I find endlessly frustrating, especially since I’m torn about it. If the only way to end world hunger is really to make the rich so insanely rich that the scum and rabble of the world (of which I pretty much assume I’m going to be one) can eat their fill just from the crumbs that fall off their table, shouldn’t I be in favour of that? The pragmatic in me says yes, sure, whatever works. But the idealist in me would rather starve to death than let those rich bastards think that it’s okay for them to have so much more than me.

      I find this perspective interesting. It looks to me like a consequentialism vs deontological ethics. And the ideal to follow in the latter case, even if it leads to worse consequences, seems to be one of equality: we have a moral intuition that, at some point, wealth inequality being too high is unfair/unjust/immoral/etc., even if the results are far better for most people compared to similar but more equal world.

      It’s hard to say where that moral intuition comes from. To me, it appears so common to the extent that I suspect it’s the result of our evolving so that our intuitions tend to make us more likely to survive and leave offspring in the tribes and groups within which we lived. If not, perhaps it’s path-dependent tradition that just got encoded in our culture somehow.

      I find it striking that the progressives/leftists are the ones who tend to moralize about this, because it seems to be deeply conservative. Whether it’s evolutionary psychology or tradition, this moral intuition was the result of something that wasn’t optimizing for modern humans and that wasn’t reasoned out, and so it’s very conservative to say we should hold onto it and to let it dictate our actions even if we have no logical justification for it and can see that it causes more suffering as a result.

      Now, it’s certainly possible to make the case for equality as a moral value without resorting to mere tradition or mere intuition, but that doesn’t really seem to happen much, and when it does, it looks suspiciously like an ad hoc argument attached to a conclusion one had already reached due to one’s own encoded moral intuitions, and so it’s really still just invoking tradition/evolution.

      Personally, as a progressive/leftist, I do see equality as a value worth pursuing, but only to the extent that it makes life better or less worse for people. Obviously, the psychological distress of the have-lesses in highly unequal situations need to be taken into account in such analysis, and on the margins that might mean that I prefer a more equal setting in which the worst-off are worse-off than the worst-off in a less equal setting, because the difference in psychological distress makes up the gap. But it seems to me that such distress ought not be encouraged or held up as a great thing that everyone should engage in, especially since that is likely to actually cause people to feel greater distress under the same conditions. And in general anything that sacrifices the well-being of beings that experience consciousness in favor of intuitive ideals that we just KNOW is right seems completely antithetical to the progressive/leftist worldview.

      I’m not sure what’s going on.

    • John Schilling says:

      This is something I’ve always found frustrating myself, you see. The tech-nerds are always assuring me that they’ll improve the lot of humankind – without the need for humankind itself to improve in the slightest.

      Well, yes. Fixing humankind takes hundreds of years, minimum. Maybe thousands. Maybe you’re willing to wait that long, but us tech nerds are impatient and would rather e.g. stop seeing mass starvation in our own lifetimes than some distant future. So we fix the parts that can be fixed.

    • I’m curious about why you feel as you do, what bothers you about inequality. Over the past two centuries, economic and technological progress has immensely improved the lot of the poor–probably more than the lot of the rich. It has done so without noticeably improving humans.

      Let me offer three alternatives:

      1. You think status is the most important thing, and if some people have much higher status than others, the others are deprived in status, which is a bad thing. That fits the “crumbs from their table” metaphor you use.

      2. You think if some people are much richer than others they will use their wealth to harm those others–in the limiting case, lobby to reinstitute slavery or to cut poor people up for organs. That’s a legitimate worry, but it doesn’t sound like what you are talking about.

      3. The simple fact of some people having much more than others bothers you. So if technological progress makes the poor twice as well off as before but the rich ten times as well off, you consider that a bad thing. That’s consistent with what you write, but I have a hard time empathizing with it.

      I can see the argument that nobody deserves anything, that all of the individual characteristics that might seem to make some people deserve to do well and others deserve to do badly can ultimately be traced to external causes so are not to the fault or credit of the people in question. But the implication of that is not that everyone deserves to have the same things but that nobody deserves anything, so an unequal distribution of wealth is no more unjust than an equal distribution.

      Can you explain, unravel the source of the very strong feelings you report and pretty clearly share with many others?

      One possible clue might be the distinction between within country inequality and between country inequality. Are you bothered by the American poor being much poorer than the American rich, but not so much by the American poor being much richer than the Indian poor, or even the Indian average?

  58. James Cropcho says:

    I rarely feel this way: the article referenced here seems to be such absolute dreck and of such little consequence that it is not worthy of our analysis.

    • moonfirestorm says:

      Think of it as a springboard for interesting discussion. Certainly it’s not a sentiment unique to the author, so talking about the mindset behind the article is useful.

  59. antilles says:

    Scott, this is not a good article, but your reaction to it is highly questionable.

    First, the author is a math Ph.D. and blogger who has recently done a lot of work about the risks of big data and algorithmic bias. She is not akin to someone *characterizing* short-term and long-term climate science advocates as being at odds, she IS a short-term climate scientist. I am not familiar with her work but I suspect that the real point of this article is professional parochialism: she’s saying that we should really be focusing on short-term algorithmic bias issues, and is probably reacting to all the press and non-derision the Singularity crowd has been getting lately in a negative way. (“No, fund MY grant proposals!”)

    Yes, it’s lazy argumentation and yes, it mostly consists of intending to provoke disgust for the outgroup but what she is not is some kind of lit crit naif trying to cast aspersions at nerds for their nerdy things. Parochialism and startling ignorance of things outsides one’s narrow purview are not exactly rare flaws in academics, which again, is what she is. I understand you are defensive and reacting to your perceptions about identity politics and so on but it’s pretty out of place here, not up to your usual standards and frankly, pretty insulting toward someone who is quite clearly an expert in at least one subfield at issue.

    As an aside, the point about “medical advances” you horribly mischaracterize. She is clearly saying that rich white men pretend to care about medical technology when in fact they only care about pipe dream ways of achieving their own immortality; again, maybe not a good point, but clearly not a deeply revealing Freudian slip demonstrating her contempt for you and everyone like you.

  60. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I have a general question about the feminists vs. nerds issue– which is, to what extent is it nerds vs. feminists?

    I’m bi-cultural– I hang out here, but I also hang out with progressives, and *their* version is that if they bring up wanting more female and poc representation, they’re faced with intractable opposition from (mostly?) white males.

    They seem to have actual quotes, not that I have any handy.

    I’m not sure I want to bring the subject back in detail, but I think that in real world situations, it can be hard to say who defected first and what a good response would be. If there’s any good discussion about the differences between prisoner’s dilemma and the real world– especially about the size of what goes in the boxes rather than the number of players and how much they remember– please let me know.

    It’s possible that the let’s have more representation side comes on so strong that they get a backlash, but I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on.

    • lvlln says:

      An aside, but I don’t think discussions about who defected first would be useful. Like you say, it’s hard to determine it anyway, but even if you could, I’m doubtful it would help us figure out a way forward from the apparent defect-defect spiral. But I’m not an expert on prisoner’s dilemma game theory, so maybe I’m missing something.

      It’s possible that the let’s have more representation side comes on so strong that they get a backlash, but I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on.

      My perception is that this is the primary part of what’s going on, when it comes to backlash against push for representation. The phrase “wanting more female and poc representation” seems not to be very descriptive and perhaps obscuring the actual things that are going on. If “wanting more female and poc representation” is just another preference, nerds have no issue with such a preference. Some people like chocolate ice cream, others like vanilla.

      It’s only when “wanting more female and poc representation” smuggles with it a lot of extra stuff other than mere preference that conflict arises. Often, there’s an empirical component, such as the idea that such representation would lead to better sales, or that it would lead to more women and PoC joining/being more comfortable within nerd culture, or that it would lead to more women and PoC having better life outcomes due to having role models in the fiction they consume. These empirical claims never seem to be supported by evidence. And there’s also often a moralizing component, that if you don’t share that preference, then that is evidence that you are a bad person who doesn’t want the above unsupported claims about women and PoC to come about. Just because one prefers chocolate ice cream doesn’t mean eating chocolate ice cream will make the world a better place, and it doesn’t mean preferring to eat vanilla ice cream makes you a bad person who wants to prevent the world from being a better place.

      I’ve observed that some nerds automatically round up any expression of “wanting more female and poc representation” as also attempting to smuggle in the above empirical or moral claims. I think that’s careless and unjustified, and though I sympathize with their impulse for defensiveness, I don’t think that’s helpful and ought to be called out whenever possible.

      I also think people need to be called out every time they do make unsupported empirical claims about representation and its effects on society and individuals. Perhaps if enough of that happens, there actually could be some honest discussions about female and PoC representation and how valuable it is.

      All that’s based on my experience within these cultures, anyway. Of course, different people will get exposed to different parts of these cultures and perhaps as a result infer conflicting things. It would be nice if we could try to harmonize this by looking at empirical evidence, but even the idea of empirical evidence as being useful seems to be a contentious issue.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        On the empirical side, at least some of the “more representation” people were already fans, and from what I’ve seen (in fiction which is what I follow, not gaming), they actually are happier with what they’re getting.

        This isn’t the same thing as enlarging the audience– I have no opinion about that.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I’m firmly on one side so take this with a big block of salt:

      The pro-representation side burned all of their goodwill when they shifted from equality of opportunity to equality of outcome.

      My lab has a brilliant woman as PI, as is the postdoc I work most closely with and the only useful undergrad intern. If they weren’t able to be a part of the scientific community we’d all be worse off for it. But that’s not because of their female perspective, it’s because they’re damn good scientists.

      If a woman has the makings of a good scientist then she deserves a shot. If she doesn’t, why waste her time and ours?

    • Randy M says:

      This is assuming you mean cultural, and not career-representation, where it seems to me that large corporations are plenty eager to have any number of qualified woman to employ in any STEM occupation.

      It’s possible that the let’s have more representation side comes on so strong that they get a backlash, but I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on.

      “Let’s have more representation” is cultural aggression. Especially when it isn’t “change what you like and we’ll buy it” but “What you like is evil problematic, change it, and probably someone will still buy it.”

      If x-ists want more x’s in nerd hobbies, they should create and distribute games, books, comics, etc. featuring X’s. Or support those that are available and the market will adjust to the need. Gender-swapping existing works doesn’t really count, either, at least when it is in response to public shaming and not market pressure (marvel comics springs to mind).

      I agree with what lvlln said up thread, at least on-line nerds seem to be feminist or at least egalitarian already.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’m bi-cultural– I hang out here, but I also hang out with progressives, and *their* version is that if they bring up wanting more female and poc representation, they’re faced with intractable opposition from (mostly?) white males.

      I have a hard time sympathizing much with anyone who rounds off the content of their opposition to their race and gender.

      But I’d be doing little better if I didn’t address the content myself, so: while I have no problem with representation per se, and indeed there are some aspects of it I’d like to see more of, I do have some serious problems with the way the issue’s being prosecuted. In particular, its standard framing seems to ignore audience composition: if we suppose that players enjoy games more when they’ve got a toon matching their sex and ethnicity, and we further observe that the audience for a game is predominantly white and male, then the best option (all else equal) is precisely to give it a white, male protagonist if you can only have one. I often hear there are tons of women waiting with bated breath for a game that condescends to throw a protagonist their way, and indeed the gaming population as a whole is close to gender parity, but the audience for some genres appears to be heavily skewed — Bioware stats for Mass Effect showed something like 15% choosing the female option, and that includes all the dudes that just wanted to look at FemShep in form-fitting armor. (Or who liked Jennifer Hale better as a voice actor.) We could look at it in terms of class interests, too, but I shouldn’t need to go into too much detail about the problems with that.

      The issue often also strikes me as a stalking horse for something I do find very tiresome, which is shoehorning social justice themes, and norms, into media.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Wait, only 15%? But then again I’m a “Hale is a better voice actor” partisan.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yeah, it surprised me too, but then I’m also in the Hale camp. I think there must be big differences between the fan community and casual players of the game — eyeballing the former I’d have said near 50/50 with FemShep having a slight edge.

          Googling a bit, one source is here, which gives a figure of 18% — I was going from memory. I’m also seeing links to a Bioware dev podcast.

    • John Schilling says:

      I’m bi-cultural– I hang out here, but I also hang out with progressives, and *their* version is that if they bring up wanting more female and poc representation, they’re faced with intractable opposition from (mostly?) white males.

      Three questions: Who are they asking, what are they asking for, and when will they be satisfied?

      If someone is dissatisfied that women make up only 14% of the protagonists in mainstream Hollywood movies, I think most of us are on board with that. Except that raising the issue with a bunch of nerdy white guys at your local SF con maybe isn’t going to be very helpful there, getting you at best a sympathetic but impotent ear, and more likely a dose of increasingly justfied “why are you asking me?” suspicion. For actual change, you need bring it up with either Harvey Weinstein or the Chinese moviegoing public, and you know damn well they aren’t going to listen but they are still the only ones who can offer anything but a sympathetic-but-unhelpful ear so them’s the breaks.

      Genre television, maybe the nerdy white guys have a bit more influence and bringing it up at Comicon might be slightly helpful, but I think genre television is well ahead of the curve on the 14%-female-protagonist thing. Written SF, that’s definitely something that nerdy white guys at SF conventions can help you with. Last time I checked, the books they most consistently put on the bestseller lists are the ones with the half-Asian female starship captain serving the black Space Empress.

      And when it comes to the one area where e.g. convention-going SF fans clearly do have control, I have noted elsewhere that fourteen of the past fifteen Hugo best-novel nominees that weren’t Sad/Rabid Puppy picks have either a female/POC author or a female/POC protagonist, and eleven out of fifteen (including all of the winners) have both.

      So when your progressive friends bring up “more female and POC representation” with SF fandom, what do they expect us to do about it and when will they be satisfied?

      I think that in real world situations, it can be hard to say who defected first and what a good response would be.

      As you may recall, I was there when it started. I have no trouble at all saying who defected first, and I think it would be very good indeed if they were to go away. Bigotry by women/POC against nerdy white guys ought to be considered just as intolerable as any other sort, particularly when it occurs in what was essentially created as a nerd safe space.

  61. rearviewangel says:

    Scott, here’s a thought experiment for you:

    Re-read O’Neil’s article, but wherever it says “majority women, gay men, and people of color” or something similar, substitute “people predisposed to techno-pessimism due to broad-based experiences of social adversity”, and wherever it references “cis het white men” substitute “people predisposed to techno-optimism due to widespread experiences of societal advantage”.

    Set aside for the moment whether or not these translations from gender and racial identity into sweeping categories of societal dis/advantage hold up (I see some issues with it). And set aside as well whether these categories automatically translate to a pessimism/optimism bias (ditto). If you just see these categories as groups whose future orientation is shaped by whether their experience in present day society is one of net adversity or net advantage, there is some value to the distinction.

    For instance, if one group forms a consensus around one technology that is not shared by another (if, say, a majority of the societially-disadvantaged techno-pessimists express concern about lab-grown meat for some reason, while everyone else is majority positive on it), it can be a useful indicator that valid issues are being overlooked.

    While I agree with most of the rest of your critique of the piece I do think that reading O’Neil’s use of racial/gender identity markers as the perpetuation of outgroup hate misreads her intentions.

    • Anthony says:

      While I agree with most of the rest of your critique of the piece I do think that reading O’Neil’s use of racial/gender identity markers as the perpetuation of outgroup hate misreads her intentions.

      I strongly suspect that her use of race and gender identity markers to perpetuate outgroup hate is exactly her intention, as it is with pretty much everyone who does that. But stripping the markers and replacing them as you suggest is a pretty effective steelmanning of the article. The article is still weak, but the Q4 folks do have something important to say. Though I suspect that most of the organizations which are trying to make things less bad from a Q4 perspective are largely wealthy white males, too, but the author ignores them.

      • rearviewangel says:

        I strongly suspect that her use of race and gender identity markers to perpetuate outgroup hate is exactly her intention, as it is with pretty much everyone who does that.

        What do you base this suspicion on? Is there something specific in the text of O’Neil’s article that leads you to this conclusion or is it an instance of the intentional fallacy?

        I’m not trying to be accusatory or pedantic: I’m trying to get better at asking these questions of myself, too, as I wade into the Twitter swamp day in and day out. I often find myself instinctively assuming the worst intentions of people on the internet even when there are equally plausible reasons (if not overwhelming ones) to assume that their intentions are positive, or at least benign.

  62. waltonmath says:

    There’s a mistake in this post, or if not a mistake an uncharitable misquote: while O’Neil says of Elon Musk, “Being an enormously rich and powerful entrepreneur, he probably belongs in the first group”, she in fact places him in Q2.

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