Month: January 2019

How Do We Win?

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Last week I compared life to a video game. A video game where the number of players continues to increase, meaning that our collective knowledge of how best to play the game should also be increasing, except that at the same time the version of game we’re playing is also changing. As an aside I also mentioned that it’s becoming harder to know if we’re winning. This week I’d like to take that thought and expand upon it. What does it mean to be winning the video game? Or, to go a step further why are we even playing the game?

Coincidently at around the same time as I was thinking about this issue I saw the following on the Slate Star Codex subreddit:

I have been thinking a lot about life lately and reached to some disturbing conclusions. Basically, I can see only 3 good reasons to live:

  • External meaning – worship god, raise your kids help the poor etc…
  • Fun and joy – Just plain hedonism.
  • Fear of death and instinct

I’ve come to the conclusion that for me (And I would guess for many others) the only reason I’m alive is reason number 3. For reason 1: I would say that kids are a reasonably good external meaning, all the rest seems somewhat ridiculous to me, I don’t believe in god or religion – and it seems the end game of it all is heat death of the universe in the super long future or just human replacement by AI or another type of species very far from humans in the near future, and I don’t see the point of bootstrapping it. But I don’t want to have kids because it seems pointless and cruel (See reason 2).

Looking at the second reason: It just seems that life is full of suffering and that suffering is greater than pleasure for most people in most situations throughout history…

This is not a bad list of reasons for playing the game, and by extension ways to win it. And I’ll be returning to it, but first it’s worthwhile to look at why this individual and perhaps others have decided that the game might not even be worth playing. He takes pains to clarify that he’s not depressed, and that his mental health has been confirmed by a professional, he just thinks that on net he and most people are suffering.

One of the more interesting responses is a link to a chart showing the percentage of people in different countries who rate themselves as “very happy” or “rather happy”, vs. their guess for what percentage of their fellow countrymen give that answer. It turns out that most people think they’re happy while thinking that far fewer of their fellow citizens are. Perhaps the most extreme example is South Korea where 90% of people consider themselves “very happy” or “rather happy”, but when asked to guess the percentage for the country as a whole they think it’s only 25%. (If you’re curious the numbers for the US are 90% and 49%.)

Accordingly the individual is probably wrong about how widespread suffering is, but he’s not the first to jump to the conclusion that it is. In a previous post we talked about the antinatalists who are basically arguing the same thing.

Beyond the idea that this despair may not be widespread, or at least not as widespread as the individual imagines, it’s nevertheless real enough for him and presumably many others. Given that one of the major questions from my last post was how behaviors change and how much weight we should give to history it’s interesting to ask if this sort of despair existed historically? My assumption would be that it wasn’t completely unknown, but that it’s far more common now. Maybe not, perhaps the rate hasn’t changed, but given that conditions are generally acknowledged to be much better now than they have been historically, you would expect it to be far rarer, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case. In other words, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s evidence that what should be making us happy isn’t.

It’s interesting to speculate why that might be. Is the relative lack of historical despair due to more intense and widespread religiosity? Was there just not enough time for it? If all of your attention is being directed towards survival, then you may not have the energy for an existential crisis. Or perhaps this brand of despair is something which occurs much more frequently at certain tech levels. Certainly people have been talking about the alienation produced by modern life since at least the time of Hegel, and obviously Marx made much of it. It could be that they had a point.

It is not my intention to delve too deeply into Marx and Hegel, but if winning is becoming more difficult to define even as more people play the game, that does lend support to the idea that the speed at which the game is changing is at least as important as how many people are playing it.

Of course defining what it means to win is exactly the problem this individual is expressing. He doesn’t see any way to win, which leads him to question why he’s even playing the game in the first place. As I said, his list of the various reasons for playing the game represents a reasonably comprehensive summary of the various ideologies, and as we dive into his (and others) specific complaints we might as well start with them.

He starts off by talking about external meaning, mentioning God, children and helping the poor. As I mentioned above it’d be interesting to know how many people used their religion to stave off this sort of despair historically. If we imagine that there was less despair back then how much of that was due to religion? It’s not inconceivable that much of the difference was due to religion. But regardless of whether it was used in that way in the past it doesn’t appear that this individual could use it to that end now. And there’s an increasing number in the same position. Sure, there are certainly people who go from unbeliever to believer even now, but the opposite direction, particularly if you take observance into account, is far more common. If religion was a significant source of historical meaning what do we tell people who feel their life has very little meaning (or is a net negative) and who will never be religious? That’s a good question that I don’t really have an answer for. Several people respond by suggesting the individual take up effective altruism in place of religion, and perhaps that works for some people, but he said he had tried it and it didn’t make him feel any better. The only thing remaining from his list is children, which I’ll get to in a bit.

One thing he didn’t mention in his “external meaning” list was patriotism, or anything related to finding a reason to live in your nation and culture. It’s entirely possible that more so even than religion this has been the reason many people have had for playing the game. Though as Huntington points out in Clash of Civilizations religion may be be inseparable from culture. Which all leads to the thought that if there has been an increase in existential despair (or even if it’s just stayed constant in the face of prosperity and riches) that it might be a mostly Western phenomenon. And reflects both the decline of religion and a decline national identification. Which I suppose, Huntington might argue, marks the decline of the civilization as a whole.

In any case for this individual I’m sure that the idea of finding a reason to live in his nation or culture is even less practical than the idea of finding it in God and religion. Perhaps in recognition of this fact it doesn’t come up in the 121 comments that were left on the post.

But all of this does lead into a discussion of external meaning more broadly. Historically most people have played the game as a team, and that team not only provided external meaning just by existing, but its existence was dedicated to some further external meaning. Religion is the best example of this. People gain external meaning just from being in a group of their co-religionists, but they also receive external meaning from a belief in God and the hereafter when they would be judged by their actions.

Historically, I would argue, not only were more people on teams, but team cohesion was higher. I just finished listening to an episode of the Hardcore History podcast about the Japanese during World War II. And if you ever doubt the existence of cohesive cultures all working towards a specific end, then World War II in general and Japan in particular should disabuse you of that doubt. But in our specific example, how much of the existential despair being experienced in the reddit post comes from not being on a team? And what place to teams have in the latest version of the game and how does it relate to the greater number of people playing the game?

You might assume that a greater number of people would mean more teams, or larger teams, but the opposite seems to be happening. All the way back in 2000 Robert Putnam came out with the book Bowling Alone, which documented the decline of social capital and civic engagement. His major theory was that technology was individualizing people’s leisure time, and if anything, since 2000, individualization appears to be getting worse. A search on the exact phrase “epidemic of loneliness” brings up 100,000 articles. As far as I can tell the majority written after Bowling Alone.

Tying all of this together it would appear that external meaning definitely can work as a motivation to play the game. And that, historically, many people even felt that it provided a good way of winning the game. Despite all this something about the latest version has made it more difficult to find meaning externally. In part this is because of a decline in religion and patriotism, and in part because, despite there being more people in total playing the game, there’s less playing as a team, one of the major tools for generating external meaning.

His next point was finding external meaning through hedonism. Given that I am mostly approaching things from a historical perspective it’s worth looking at the history of hedonism. It would of course be inaccurate to say that the philosophy of hedonism is of recent vintage. One of the very earliest philosophies we’re aware of. Epicureanism, was based around hedonism. But if you look into it you’ll find that it was less The Wolf of Wall Street and more Little House on the Prairie. From Wikipedia:

Epicurus believed that what he called “pleasure” (ἡδονή) was the greatest good, but that the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one’s desires. This would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear as well as an absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states constitutes happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from “hedonism” as colloquially understood.

Indeed I don’t think anyone, even now, is really advocating for “‘hedonism’ as colloquially understood.” So what sort of hedonism are they advocating? I think the most common form of hedonist philosophy currently, might be called Pinkerian Hedonism (though I’m sure Steven Pinker is not the first to notice it and I’d be happy to change the label if someone points me to someone earlier than him.) Pinkerian Hedonism, which I discussed at length in several previous posts, claims that everything is much better objectively than it ever has been, and that we basically just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Well we have at least one example of this not being a persuasive argument, and I’m sure many thousands more beyond that. And If your argument is that this is meaningless besides the billions of people it is working for then that’s a pretty good argument.

All that said, what’s interesting is that despite the quality of the argument, and the disparity in numbers, that’s not the argument most people make when they respond. Sure, as I already mentioned people point out that he’s wrong to claim that the majority of people are unhappy. But I think I saw only one individual who was attempting to convert him to happiness. If anything most people appeared to be trying to convert him to suffering. Allow me to explain what I mean.

You can easily imagine someone trying to convert him to Christianity, “Well your problem is that you just haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” You can imagine someone trying to talk him into having kids, or just surviving (which we’re about to get to) because survival has value, but the one attempt to convert him to happiness was more a story of overcoming depression (which the original individual claimed not to suffer from) and involved no references to Pinkerian Hedonism. On the other hand, as I mentioned, lots of people said, “Of course you’re suffering. Suffering is the whole point and that’s where you need to find meaning.”

What I think everything but happiness has in common is that they all have standards attached. If you belong to a religion there’s a standard attached to that religion, and you can measure how well you’re doing against that standard. Same with kids, either you have them or you don’t, and they’re either doing well or they’re not. Surviving has the easiest standard to measure of all.

As far as measuring suffering it has some similarities to happiness, in that it’s subjective, but because of the way we’re wired if we expect suffering and we get it then everything’s going according to plan, but if we expect suffering and don’t get it then that’s fine too. Also, unlike happiness suffering is easy to create, whereas, for most people, including the individual from reddit, you’re either happy or you’re not, and if you’re not, making a Pinkerian argument of, “Well you should be, you’ve got a great car, a huge TV, and a low chance of dying!” Has no effect whatsoever and may in fact make the problem worse.

Of course this being the Slate Star Codex reddit, people inevitably mention that once the singularity happens this won’t be a problem and we will be able to create happiness, so the person should lash his external meaning to hastening that.

I think we’re ready to turn to his last point. He calls it “Fear of death and instinct”. I think I’ll label it a just “survival”. We play the game because that’s what we’re supposed to do, that it is in fact what we’ve been programmed to do (which makes the game metaphor suddenly a little weird.) As I’ve mentioned I’m becoming increasingly convinced that many if not most of the fundamental ideological battles of modernity come down to a difference of core values, with one side valuing happiness/pleasure/hedonic utility and the other side valuing survival. And here again we see the same dichotomy, this individual is essentially valuing pleasure, and since he feels that he’s suffering, on net, then there’s no point in playing the game.

It should also be noted here that while he separates things into three points that the first point is largely about survival as well. Certainly historically most sources of external meaning gave meaning because they related directly or indirectly to survival. Children being the most obvious example of this, but group membership (tribe/religion/culture) being a very big one as well.

In the battle between pleasure and survival, I obviously think the core value should be survival, and for a detailed examination of why you should read my past posts on the topic, though in short if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else. Which means that the reason to play the game and the win condition are both very simple. We play the game to keep it from ending and the win condition is to have children. Or as I saw it phrased in a book I just read (The Righteous Mind by Haidt).. The point of the game is to “turn resources into offspring”. Now there is an argument to be made that humanity has too many offspring, which I’ve also covered in the past. But in that post I also pointed out the wisdom of Tommy Boy, “You’re either growing or you’re dying there ain’t no third direction.” And if that’s the case we appear to be dying.

To put it plainly, if survival is the point of the game, technology and modernity seems to have made us a lot worse at it. At least at the individual level. The individual who made the original post is a great example of this. He has thousands of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce, and yet despite all of the accumulated genes and experience, he has decided not to. I’m not holding it against him. I’m not saying it makes him objectively a worse person. Certainly it doesn’t seem malicious, in fact he claims he’s doing it for altruistic reasons because he thinks his children will, on net, suffer. But somehow after thousands of individuals being driven to reproduce this person has decided it ends with him.

This is obviously only one data point, but insofar as having children, and upstream of that, sexual activity, are proxies for survival, the society-wide view is not great either. Just in the last couple of weeks new numbers were released for the US birthrate and only Utah and South Dakota are at above replacement rates. On top of this we have articles asking “Why are young people having so little sex?” Which might be welcome news if this predilection suddenly reversed itself somewhere in the 20s but it appears to continue into adulthood. (See “epidemic of loneliness” above.) If there’s no third direction, then we appear to be dying.

This post was designed as a continuation of last week’s post. And to put it back in those terms, my argument is that the point of the game is and always has been survival, but that something in the latest version of the game makes us think that a different way to win has been introduced, and I don’t think that’s true. I think we may have hacked the game to make it more pleasurable, and convinced ourselves that’s “winning!” but we’ve only changed how the game plays, not its ultimate goal.

In addition to the metaphor of the video game I also talked about same sex marriage (SSM) in last week’s post. After which a long discussion ensued in the comments over whether SSM might be a bad thing. Many interesting arguments were made on both sides, but I’m not sure that anyone really captured the argument I’m trying to make: That SSM whatever it’s other benefits and downsides is clearly playing the game to make it more pleasurable, not in order to “turn resources into offspring”. It is true that modern technology has finally introduced a way for same sex couples to eat their cake and have it. Passing on their genes without having to do anything heterosexual, but how many of them take advantage of that really? And is it more than the number of people who used to do it while remaining closeted? And given the larger trends mentioned above is this number going up or down? Finally how does it affect the game-playing strategy of everyone else?

It’s entirely possible that SSM is just a symptom of the larger underlying problem of prioritizing pleasure over survival. That it carries with it no inherent harm. I might even go so far as to say that this is my prefered explanation. But it is an explanation which makes the problem harder not easier. One can conceive of the Supreme Court eventually reversing Obergefell v. Hodges (though I’m on record as predicting they won’t). It’s much more difficult to imagine, short of some giant catastrophe, a wholesale rejection of happiness/pleasure in favor of survival.

As is so often the case, I hope I’m wrong. I hope that humans are just as concerned with survival as they always have been. Or that if they’re not it won’t require some giant catastrophe to change things. Or that our prowess has grown to the point where we don’t need to worry about survival, that that problem has been solved once and for all. That we can survive without having to prioritize survival. But, if I didn’t think the evidence was against all of these hopes I wouldn’t have written this post.

To reiterate I think we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re playing a new game with different rules, but that’s not the case. The game is the same as it’s always been, and the only way to win is to keep playing.


I’ve convinced myself that the only way to win is to keep writing. If you’d like to help with that, and you don’t mind backing an underdog, consider donating.


The Data of History (Years vs. HEYs)

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Frequently, in this space, I will talk about some aspect of modernity which has only been a feature of the world for the last few decades, and then contrast it with the way things were done for thousands of years prior to that. Making, what I feel to be the obvious point, that thousands of years of doing things one way should make us doubt whether we have suddenly stumbled on the correct way of doing things in just the last 20-30 years, particularly if the new way is the exact opposite of historical norms. I don’t think I have ever argued that it absolutely proved that modern ideology was wrong, more that it was a piece of evidence which people give insufficient weight to, as in no weight at all, when it probably should be one of our weightiest considerations.

Recently Boonton, a frequent commenter on the blog sent me an email and pointed out a different way of looking at it. One which deserves to be considered. With his permission, here’s a quote from that email:

Check out The funnel of human experience.   So in terms of human experience 1/2 of all human experience happened after 1309.  This is a consequence of our large population. Leave our population closer to 10B for a while and this date will advance much faster than time.  If you imagine a future where we are spread out among the solar system with, say, a few hundred billion in population and the experience funnel will get even closer to the present moment very fast.

How does this fly with the ideology of conservatism?  Conservatism privileges human experience (Burke I think called it Democracy for the dead) but that only works well if population growth remained roughly linear.  With exponential growth experience becomes newer. It will be the norm eventually that not only will most present living humans live most of their lives connected to global social media, but most of human experience was lived that way rather than not.  What trumps what then? Does a hundred billion human-lives (say of 75 years) living in information rich media count as much as a paltry few million human-lives lived under, say, ancient Greek conditions? Consider the time will come when the majority of humanity will have lived it’s life with SSM as a norm.  Will you deflate present experience and inflate past experience to counter that? Say tell ten billion people living in Asian cities that their experience-years are equal to 1/1000th of the experience years of ancient Egyptians? Or will experience be democratic, making conservatives the least historically oriented of all ideologies?

I had previously seen the article he referenced, but I don’t know if I just skimmed it or if I had read it but not quite recognized the implications. But after Boonton’s explanation I realized that it was a very interesting and also very valid point. A potentially better way of looking at things in the same way that looking at GDP per capita is a better than looking at a countries total GDP if you want to talk about how well off someone is in a particular country. (See for example Nigeria and Norway, similar GDPs, vastly different on a per capita basis.)

To restate what I think Boonton and the original article are getting at, if we want to define what’s normal or what works for human societies, we shouldn’t just look at the length of those societies we should also multiply it by the number of humans in those societies. Thus despite modern humans being around for 50,000 years, half of all human experience, as Boonton says, has happened since 1309. And if we go all the way back to the original article, it claims that “15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.” Because “50,000 years is a long time, but 8,000,000,000 people is a lot of people.”

Let’s say we make this switch from years to “human experience years” (HEYs) when considering how much weight to give something. How does that change the point I’m constantly making about historical deference? Well I think on certain things it actually makes the point stronger. Boonton mentions same sex marriage (SSM), so let’s start there.

This may have been a bad place for him to plant his flag. Yes SSM is now legal/normal in a lot of places, particularly if you include things like civil unions which aren’t quite marriage, but are close enough. It’s legal in most of Europe, most of South and Central America, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. That’s an impressive list, but when you consider that it’s not legal in China, India, almost all of Southeast Asia, or Africa outside of the one country, and further consider the population of all those countries, then switching from years to HEYs doesn’t strengthen the argument for SSM and may in fact weaken it.

At this point, I think it’d actually be interesting to run some numbers. Let’s be as liberal as possible on the number of people who are experiencing SSM as the norm, and say it’s all of Europe, and the entirety of the Americas. Using this liberal standard we have the following populations:

  • North America: 579 million
  • South America: 423 million
  • Europe: 739 million
  • South Africa: 57 million
  • Australia: 25 million
  • New Zealand: 5 million
  • Total: 1.828 billion

The total population of the world is 7.7 billion meaning that there’s just shy of 6 billion people who live in countries where it’s illegal and 1.8 billion who live where it is legal. Which means that currently every year that passes the weight of HEYs where SSM is not normal increases. Now perhaps in the next decade or so that will switch. India just decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, which is an obvious first step towards SSM, but there’s still a long way to go, and while that’s happening the disparity continues to widen, not shrink. Also it should be pointed out that the population growth in the countries where it’s not legal is projected to be greater than in those countries where it is. Meaning we could actually see this gap widen at an even faster rate in the future.

One could argue that putting all the people where it’s legal on one side of things and all the people where it’s still illegal on the other side of things is far too crude, since there are certainly people in India and China who view it as normal, just as there are people in America who still think it’s not normal. Perhaps, but breaking it down further would be difficult. And it’s very unlikely that SSM supporters form a majority in any of the countries where it’s still illegal, recall that as recently as 2008 they weren’t even a majority in California.

Now, of course, when people, particularly educated Westerners, imagine the future, they never imagine that in the great and limitless destiny which awaits us that SSM would still be illegal anywhere. For example, it’s hard to imagine a modern science fiction author writing a book where the illegality of SSM is a “feature” of future. They would only include it if they were imagining a dystopia. And thus most people, like Boonton, imagine that despite HEYs being currently against normalization and despite the weight of this steadily getting greater, that when we eventually spread out through the solar system, and perhaps beyond, the weight of HEYs will be in favor of normalization, thus they’re willing to start backing HEYs over normal years now.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. I understand that if you believe in the inevitability of progress and further believe that the normalization of SSM is an example of that progress, why it may seem inevitable. (Though I have questioned this inevitability repeatedly.) I further understand that on top of this there are many other arguments for the eventual universal normalization of SSM, and I’m not trying to speak to all of them, I am only saying that, thus far, and for the foreseeable future, using HEYs in place of years still points in the other direction.

But can HEYs always be directly substituted for years? In some cases I’m sure they can, and that it’s beneficial to do so, but I think there are also fairly significant differences between HEYs and years which need to be acknowledged. To understand these differences we need to dive into this idea of normality. What does it mean for something to be normal as opposed to abnormal? I can think of four ways to define normality in this context.

First, normality could be descriptive. If we’re saying that it’s “normal” for humans to do X, we could just be describing the fact that a certain percentage of people do X, and that this percentage is above some commonly agreed upon threshold for whether something is common enough to be considered normal, a percentage far less than a majority, maybe even as low as 1%. We don’t think it’s normal for people to stick pencils up their noses because while some people do it, the percentage isn’t high enough or the occurrence often enough for it to pass our normality threshold. But this definition of normality doesn’t help us much in determining whether something which wasn’t normal should be made normal, or whether something which was normal should be made abnormal. It can only give us a normality snapshot, taken at a specific time. Also it leads to questions of whether something like stealing is “normal”, certainly lots of people do it, enough to for it to be above our normality threshold, and yet it’s still illegal. Which brings us to our next way of viewing normality.

Second, normality could describe what works. However high the percentage of thieves is in our community, we don’t consider it normal because if we did, society would break down at least in the realm of property rights. This is the conservative position, we don’t change things because if you do they will stop working. For example every so often people question whether property rights are important, and from that, they try to establish a new definition of normal, which could be less about stealing and more about eliminating the concept of ownership all together. And yes, it all sounds good, but millions of deaths later, it turns out that property rights and ownership were important after all. I know that there are probably a few people who feel that nothing should ever change. But of course some things are going to change. In the dawn of time it probably wasn’t obvious that property rights make things run more smoothly. But that changed. The question is how fast should things change? And also how do we know when a given change will be better? Which all leads to the next definition of normality.

Third, what’s normal at any given time changes through experimentation. Similar to the second definition, normality is our current best guess at what works, but this adds the idea that there’s probably something that works better out there, and eventually we’ll find it and switch. Normality is never static, it changes from one generation to the next, as humans constantly try out new things. As you can see this definition of normality leads naturally to prioritizing HEYs over normal years. The more people there are experiencing “life” the more experiments are being run and the more likely you are to come up with something different which works better. We’ll get back to a discussion of experimentation in a second, but first we need to consider one final way of defining normality.

Fourth, “normal” is what we’ve evolved to accept as normal. If we were bees we would consider it normal that every winter all the males die off, and the rest of the bees stand around and use their wings to create warmth for the queen while occasionally suicide squads of fellow bees are sent off to fetch some stored honey. If we were a male emperor penguin our normal winter would consist of huddling in a circle while we protected an egg and drained down our fat reserves. Instead as a human I consider it normal to light a fire (or its modern equivalent) and stay inside a shelter while I eat stored food (okay the stored food is a stretch, but everything’s close enough that no “abnormal” flags are raised). The question we have to address is does evolution drive normality or is it the other way around? I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around, as external normality changes an organism has to adapt/evolve to survive the new conditions (presumably this involves some shift to experiencing it as normal) or they die. Which takes us back to the idea of experimentation.

Technology is rapidly changing our environment. In the past when change was more gradual we might have been able to rely on evolution to create a new experience of normal to match the new environmental normal. Which is not to say there weren’t sudden changes historically, just that when those happened most of the evolution happened through massive death. I think we’re hoping to avoid that with the current sudden changes. The key point being that things are moving too fast for evolution to provide the answer. All of our experimentation has to be cultural rather than genetic.

This is very important when debating whether to pay more attention to years or HEYs. Seven billion people undergoing all manner of selective pressure is much better than a million individuals in a very narrow environment if you’re hoping to maximize beneficial adaptive mutations. Accordingly, if this is what we’re aiming for then HEYs are superior. Importantly, evolution can operate at the level of an individual (or more accurately at the level of a gene.) So having more individuals (genes) is better. The problem is, I don’t think the same thing can be said of culture. We aren’t seven billion cultures all experimenting with what works best, we’re not even millions of small tribes experimenting with what works best. If anything technology is leading to fewer cultures, not more.

As an aside you may feel that this contradicts my frequent assertion that tiny political niches are proliferating, since what are those tiny niches but small cultures. The problem I see there is that these niches aren’t (yet?) in true competition. There’s no nation of Bernie Sanders supporters competing with a nation of neo-cons which is in further competition with a nation of libertarians. Perhaps there should be. Perhaps there will be. Certainly I could see it as something which fans of HEYs over years might support.

Returning to the idea of there being only a few cultures, let’s once again look at SSM. The very speed of its adoption and how quickly opposition for it went from expected, even for Obama, to a good way to lose your job speaks to the unity of Western culture. This is not what it looks like when one set of behaviors out-competes another set of behaviors, this is what it looks like when an idea reaches a critical mass within a significantly monolithic culture. And if that’s the case then HEYs have not brought us greater knowledge or effectiveness because the “experiments” aren’t sufficiently independent. The years each human experience are essentially identical. Even if you think this claim is overbroad you still have to ask at what level are experiments being performed, at the level of a culture or at the level of an individual? And how do we determine the success of these experiments? To put it another way the triumph of an idea is more likely the beginning of the experiment than its end.

Of course now that we’re firmly in the realm of discussing behavior as experiments we have lots of tools for deciding whether any given experiment is a good one. To begin with a good experiment needs a control. This is exceptionally difficult when you’re talking about reality. As people frequently mention you can’t create a clone of America where everything’s the same except there’s no social media. And it’s even hard to compare one time period to another. As an example the Economist just did a special report on children, and opened by mentioning that 30 years ago children would engage in unstructured play for hours on end, spent most of that time outdoors, largely unsupervised, and there was almost no time in front of computers. But for children today all of that is basically the exact opposite. Now say we are confronted with some distressing (or beneficial) new trend among children, which of the above is causing it? Or are none of them? Or maybe it’s all of them. It’s extremely difficult to tell.

Also note that part of why it’s difficult to tell is that this wasn’t a shift by some children, allowing us to collect data on current children whose upbringing didn’t change, and still behave exactly as they did 30 years ago and compare. The entire culture shifted. What this means is we’re not running a lot of experiments we’re running one and if we’re lucky increasing the N. Which, to be clear, is not entirely without value, but it’s less valuable than people imagine. Of course there are probably some children out there who live as children did 30 or more years ago, but generally for that to be the case there’s something else going on, meaning that their value as a control is limited by all sorts of confounders, they’re probably religious, almost certainly rural, and my guess would be the education level would skew low as well.

Beyond the lack of a good control for these experiments with reality there is a lack of replication, and here is where I take the most issue with privileging HEYs over years, and specifically privileging modern experience over historical experience, because historically conditions changed much less quickly. Back then, if my grandfather “ran an experiment” and my father “ran an experiment” and I “ran an experiment” we’re probably all doing it under relatively the same conditions. Extend that out to 100 generations and we call the experiments which have replicated “tradition”. But these days I can run an “experiment” vastly different from anything my grandfather would have tried and only superficially similar to something my father might have tried.

To put everything in terms of a metaphor, imagine life is like a video game. For a long time you’re playing the same video game over and over again. Sure things change, but new rules for this video game are introduced very slowly. Mostly it’s the same game and you play it hundreds of times. It’s not that crazy of an assumption to imagine that you’d end up with some pretty good optimizations. You’d be as close to winning the game as it was possible to be. (Though remember this video game is crazy difficult.) Now imagine that changes start happening with greater and greater rapidity, until people start to question whether it even deserves to be called the same game. Given this, what’s the best strategy?

That’s hard to say, but it’s not crazy to argue that a good strategy would incorporate skills from previous versions, even if the game is on version 119 and version 120 is going to be released tomorrow. And it’s also not crazy to argue that it’s a bad strategy to ditch all the skills picked up in previous versions and focus entirely on trying out the crazy powers made available in version 119, particularly if it’s about to be replaced with version 120. Yes it’s somewhat helpful that a lot more people are playing these later versions, but as I mentioned there’s less variety to their strategies than one might expect. Also what does it mean to play and win the latest versions of the game? The win condition used to be producing offspring, but people seem to think that’s less important in the latest version of the game. All of which is to say it’s hard to know if something was a winning strategy in version 119 if no one manages to finish it before version 120 is released.

To close, I’d like to provide a concrete example of what I mean. I recently listened to an episode of Planet Money that was about synthetic drugs. You could say that they’re a new feature of the latest version of the game. Perhaps they require a new strategy. Fortunately if you’re looking at HEYs, then all of this should be okay, depending on how you count we’ve got millions if not billions of people playing the latest version. Someone is definitely going to experiment with synthetic drugs, and we’re all going to be provided with the results. Everyone will play the game better, and all of this will be accomplished more effectively because there are so many of us.

Except that’s not what happened. Despite, according to Planet Money, the first overdose being “national news” it keeps happening. (Planet Money includes a further six examples.) And, spoiler, this is just synthetic cannabinoids we’re talking about. If we move on to synthetic opioids (also just made available in the latest version of the game) then the harm goes through the roof. Also, the idea that someone might not know about the danger becomes much harder to argue. This is not because there weren’t a lot of HEYs being dedicated to trying out new ways to play the game. We tried all sorts of experiments including, most notably, OxyContin, where we experimented with making opioids time release. We also experimented with having the government pay for it if you were poor. These experiments didn’t lead to a better way of playing the game they lead to a lot of overdose deaths. But as I pointed out in a previous post, while these new strategies didn’t work, a strategy dating from the very earliest versions of the game still works pretty well, just avoid drugs all together.

In the end it appears that we have two things that are both increasing: the number of people who are experiencing life (players) and the number of things it’s possible to experience (the version of the game) and given that because of a commonality of culture, many people can end up acting like only a few people, but, because of the power of technology, a few people can end up changing things for many people. I’m not at all sure that our ability to play the game is getting any better, and it may, in fact, be getting a lot worse.


I’ll tell you one other thing that’s new in version 119, asking for donations for one’s blog. But fortunately I’m running a different experiment every week. Maybe this is the one that will work, if so donate here.


2019 Predictions and Trends

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It’s the beginning of a new year and this is normally the post when I revisit my long-term predictions. Though “normally” may be overstating things since I made the predictions two years ago and have only revisited them once. That’s not much of a trend. But my sense is that last year not much changed one way or the other, and so while I’ll spend some time reviewing things, I’m going to spend the rest of it looking at potential long term trends, longer in any case than my trend of doing a beginning of the year post about my predictions.

To begin with you can find the initial predictions here, and last years post where I reviewed them here. For those disinclined to go back and review them, I can sum things up for you very simply, I’m a pessimist.

My first set of predictions covered my pessimism about artificial intelligence, and despite the recent news about AlphaZero dominating Stockfish in chess, and more interestingly doing it using the same algorithm it uses to play Go and Shogi. I don’t think much changed on that front over the last year. Even if you wanted to argue that we have developed a general AI for playing games, which is already a stretch (how does it do with Poker? Or more importantly Starcraft II?) it still fails at the venerable “A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing” standard.

From there I have a pessimistic prediction about the difficulties of brain emulation, as championed, most notably, by Robin Hanson. Last year I promised that this would be the year that I read Age of Em and I kept that promise. (Can we call that a successful prediction?) You can find the post I wrote about it here. As I said at the time, it was an interesting book, but in the race between general AI and brain emulation, My bet was that we’re going to get rained out before the race finishes. Nothing that has happened this last year inclines me to change that bet.

My next predictions concern transhumanism, particularly the various ways in which life might be extended. Here the news looks even better for my pessimism, though I suppose worse for humanity in general. We are in the third year of declining US life expectancy. Our quest for immortality appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Also this year like last year I continue to be baffled that there are so few people who have signed up for cryonics. As near as I can tell the number is still less than 10,000 and maybe a lot less. If that’s any reflection at all of the strength of the transhumanist movement in general, then I don’t know that I would be looking to them for the salvation of humanity anytime soon. It sure looks like, despite at least a couple of decades of attention, that people are more interested in reading about transhumanism than actually being transhumanists.

As long as we’re on the subject of life expectancy, I recently came across an article about Jeanne Calment, the current record holder for that, which made the strong case that the person who we thought was Jeanne Calment was actually her daughter. Who had taken her place many decades before hand in order to avoid a fairly punishing inheritance tax which was in place at the time. It was very interesting, but my point in bringing it up here is that if it’s true it’s yet more bad news for those hoping for immortality. Not only is the average person getting farther away from it, but we might have to throw out one of our best data points for what’s possible.

My next section of predictions gets into my pessimism about space exploration and colonization. Here there was a smattering of interesting news:

As of this writing China has a craft orbiting the moon readying to land on the lunar farside (the first such “soft” landing ever) once that side turns toward sun in early January. After this it does appear that China has further ambitious lunar plans. Earlier this year they announced their intention of building a scientific research station on the moon though with no actual date attached. We’ll see how that plays out, and despite my pessimism I’d be as excited as anyone if this happened.

Closer to home Elon Musk and SpaceX’s dreams of Mars continue to chug along I suppose. And just the other day I saw an article arguing that the SpaceX Starlink satellites could end up providing all the money Musk and SpaceX needs for their Mars plans. That said, I don’t think anyone would argue that this was a great year for Musk, I haven’t seen any indication that Musk’s Tesla troubles have bled over to SpaceX, but they might.

In any event we still have a long way to go before I have to worry about being wrong on my prediction of no extraterrestrial colonies of greater than 35,000 people. My other prediction concerns the resolution of Fermi’s Paradox, and I think I’ve revisited that recently enough that there’s nothing more to add at this point.

The next section of predictions concerns war, and I’ll repeat what I said the last two years. As always, I hope that my pessimism is entirely misplaced.  Though I don’t think any of the events of this year have done much to calm that pessimism. Relations between Russia and the US are widely described as being as bad as they’ve ever been (at least since the end of the Cold War). Iran is testing ballistic missiles. Despite Trump’s claims, North Korea’s nuclear program appears to still be going strong. And, of course, the Middle East is as chaotic as ever.

The next set of predictions were my miscellaneous predictions. Once again not much has changed, though given that one of my predictions is that the US national debt will cause a major global meltdown, it’s useful to look at how much it increased in 2018. At the end of 2017 debt stood at $20.49 trillion and as I write this the debt stands at $21.87 trillion, so it went up by $1.38 trillion. And while that’s a lot of money (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) A better measure is the debt to GDP ratio. Which stands around 104% and has been basically flat for the last couple of years. Once again 104% is not great but the question is where does it go from there?

Some people will point out that it was 119% in 1946 at the end of World War 2 and the world didn’t end (in fact it helped keep the world from ending). Also within 10 years it had halved. If the current debt and deficit was all attributable to a single cause that had some chance of ending, then that comparison might make sense. But I don’t see anything like that. All I see on the horizon are the Trump tax cuts, an aging population and the possibility of a recession starting any day now.

My final prediction is that five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form. And here the news mostly matches my pessimism, particularly the news out of Europe. The Brexit morass continues to ooze along. Angela Merkel, after serving as prime minister for 18 years has agreed that she will not seek another term in 2021. And then there’s France, always on the bleeding edge when it comes to social discontent, with their yellow vests movement which started back in November and appears set to continue well into 2019. Layer that on top of a 26% approval rate for Marcon and it doesn’t look like his government can hang on to power for very long.

Of course none of the things I just mentioned would count as a fulfillment of my prediction, but it does provide a nice segue into the area I do want to spend the bulk of the post on. Current trends. What’s going on in Europe? What are the trends at work here?

Of course the European trend most people have heard about is the trend of nationalism. And that’s definitely at play with Brexit and to a lesser extent Merkel, but when it comes to the yellow vests that’s a bit less clear, and maybe more interesting, so we’ll return to them in a bit.

At this point every country has a nationalist party and one easy, if somewhat crude way of tracking this particular trend is to look at their level of support over the past few years. I think it’s safe to say that it’s been on the rise, though it has definitely played out differently in different nations, but I suppose that’s exactly what you’d expect from nationalist movements. That nations act differently

Somewhat paradoxically, the nation which is experiencing the largest tangible consequence of nationalism, the UK, also has the weakest of all the nationalist parties: UKIP. In fact they seem to have cratered precisely at the point where they had achieved their greatest victory. That’s a phenomenon that may be worth keeping an eye on, particularly given that it appears to be happening to Trumpism as well. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a trend yet, nor do I think anyone is likely to adopt it as a strategy, i.e. letting the nationalists win on the assumption that their support craters afterwards. I don’t imagine any anti-trumpers think the brightest possible future is on the timeline where Trump actually got elected.

Moving on, if we’re looking back at 2018, Italy actually had an election. Italian politics is always messy, and I’m no expert, but everyone seems to be able to agree on one thing. The nationalists did really well. Out of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic Five Star Movement picked up a net 119 seats for a total of 227 and the right-wing nationalists (Motto: Italians First) picked up 109 seats for a total of 125. While the center left party which had been in power up until the election, lost 180 seats dropping them to 112, and in fact the left-wing coalition as a whole lost 223 seats. If we combine the two nationalist parties and assume they represent Republicans and assume the left-wing coalition is the Democrats it would as if the Republicans had picked up 179 seats in the last house election.

Turning to Germany, as I already mentioned Merkel has agreed not to run for reelection. (Though she has given herself until 2021, and a lot could happen in the next couple of years.) And the reason she’s not running has a lot to do with the nationalists. To begin with, one of the key components of nationalism is being anti-immigration. And most people feel that the beginning of the end for Merkel was when she invited in a million refugees back in 2015. Beyond that her own party has been losing ground to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which now polls second in terms of popularity.

Thus far I’ve mostly been using the term nationalist, though there is a strong overlap between nationalism and populism. Which is what finally takes us back to France and the yellow vests movement. Which is definitely populist without being especially nationalist. It would be convenient if it slotted neatly into the same basic space as the Italian election and Merkel’s promised departure, but instead it forces us to consider whether the big trend isn’t anti-immigrant nationalism, but populism more broadly. Whereas everything we’ve spoken about thus far has at least leaned right-wing, as far as I can tell if you were forced to label the yellow vest movement as either left or right, you’d almost certainly label it a leftist movement. But that definitely doesn’t capture the entirety or even most of what’s going on. In fact I think the movement is a great example of the increasing complexity of political ideology, as even the smallest niche is able to use social media and the internet to gather hundreds if not thousands of people together.

This is not to say that the yellow vests are a niche movement, but I think it is comprised of a lot of niches each of which shares a dissatisfaction with the status quo. What this further means is that you can find nearly any form of politics within the movement. There’s people pushing for the very leftists ideas of wealth taxes and increase to the minimum wage. But, on the other hand, the movement actually started as a rejection of increased gas taxes which included a carbon tax designed to fight global warming. And above everything else, there appears to be a definite rejection of the Marcon government, who’s basically just to the left of center, but also definitely a globalist.

Beyond all this is how suddenly the yellow vest movement emerged, at least as far as I can tell. Everyone knew that Marcon was extremely unpopular, but did anyone predict that huge demonstrations were just around the corner? Let alone the worst demonstrations since 1968? It seemed to go from nothing to 300,000 people. I certainly haven’t been able to find anything talking about it before the first protest on November 17th and articles written in the days immediately following speak of it coming “out of the blue”.

Having covered all of this it’s easy to see that Europe is kind of a mess. (Though the current mess still pales in comparison to previous European messes.) But what direction is this mess headed in? What trends can we extract from all of this?

The biggest trend would appear to be the decline of Western globalism, and in fact it may be dead already. Certainly if it can’t be kept alive in America and Europe, it’s not going to be sustained outside of there by countries like Russia and China.

There’s also bad news for people who feel that global warming is the big issue for our times. If you can’t enact a carbon tax in a place like France where can you enact it? This would represent more a continuation of the current trend of inaction. But for those who continually hope for a trend of action it’s obviously disappointing.

There’s also various social media trends in there. Italy’s Five Star Movement wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-internet era. (It’s led by a blogger.) And then there’s the yellow vest movement which sprang up out of nowhere after being entirely organized on Facebook.

Outside of Italy and Eastern Europe the populists haven’t really taken power. Are trends moving in such a way that eventually every European country will be run by nationalists/populists? This seems less likely, but also I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen in at least one or two other countries. Particularly when you toss in left-wing populism. Which would include the UK Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

After going through all of this one question jumps out at me: is the US ahead of Europe or behind them? Perhaps given the specifically national nature of the various disruptions, the question is meaningless. Perhaps, having already elected our populist, we’re ahead of Europe. On the other hand, I would say we’ve yet to have our own yellow vest moment, so perhaps we’re actually behind them.

As I’ve mentioned I have an aversion to making short-term predictions. But I’m going to go ahead and make one now. There will be a US recession before the next election. Given that the yellow vest movement seems primarily economic in nature, and happened despite the economy of France doing okay (thought not spectacular) what happens both here and there if the economy tanks? Perhaps more importantly, what happens if it all comes together in the run up to an election?

I see this trend of populism combined with a generous helping of nationalism as being one of the dominant trends in the West for the foreseeable future. I would add in the additional and related trend of the conflict between nationalism and globalism, but as I said, the latter may already be dead. It seems more likely that going forward the principal area of political conflict will be between different flavors of populism, perhaps national populism and economic populism. Though there can be a fair bit of the latter in the former. But this is in the West. What’s going to be happening elsewhere?

Outside of the West the two countries that get the most attention are Russia and China and in both we see the continued entrenchment of authoritarian regimes that bear little resemblance to the ideals of western liberal democracy. Which is unsurprising given both the nature of the two countries and the perceived decrease in stability offered by the liberal democratic framework. Of more worry is how the competition between authoritarianism and democracy plays out in the rest of the world.

But returning to Russia and China. Russia had an election this year. As expected Putin easily won reelection with nearly 77% of the vote. This takes him through to 2024 when in theory he’s term-limited by the Russian Constitution. Before you start laughing at the idea of Putin voluntarily stepping down, he has in fact said that’s what he plans to do. China went the opposite way this year when, in March, the Chinese Constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits, meaning that Xi Jinping could theoretically rule China until his death (he’s 65, a year younger than Putin). Perhaps the same thing will happen in Russia, Putin still has plenty of time to change his mind. Of course, the longer a country goes with the same leader the more disruptive it is when that leader finally steps down, or dies. But overall I think we’re seeing another trend towards leaders being less likely to relinquish power. Though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this is a return to a very old trend.

I would include in this trend Recep Erdoğan of Turkey (he’s 64). Who also won an election this year. Though of possibly more significance were the constitutional reforms he pushed through in 2017. Reforms which made this year’s election far more significant because they made the office Erdoğan was elected to in 2018 far more powerful. Beyond that this also ties into another trend I think I’ve noticed, a trend towards increasing state-level conflict in the Middle East. We have the war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, and then, or course, there’s the ongoing Syrian Civil War which Trump just announced we were withdrawing from, on top of that there’s the continual wildcard that is Iran. And adding spice to all of this is the recent scandal over the murder of Khashoggi.  

From where I stand this all seems to be part of the decline of US military hegemony, a trend that has been going on for awhile and is likely to continue. While Syria marks the first time since Vietnam where we’ve completely withdrawn from a conflict (also recall that we still have troops in Korea, Japan and Germany) the US has been signaling a reluctance to go “all in” for quite a while. This creates potential opportunities for the regional powers which include the Saudi’s, Turks and Iranians, who are all now jockeying for position, and that jockeying might include war. Russia and Israel should also be included in the list, though Russia isn’t exactly regional (though it’s not that far away) and Israel is probably more interested in surviving than in assuming regional leadership.

You might think that based on this I’m opposed to Trump withdrawing from Syria. But the situation is complicated. I understand that all of what I just said argues for a more robust US military engagement, and that additionally and perhaps unforgivably, we appear to be once again abandoning the Kurds, but if the alternative is a low level war that never ends, like in Afghanistan, than Trump’s call may be the right one. To put it another way if we were really serious about removing Assad we could do it, but we obviously aren’t and if that’s the case why are we sticking around? What is our ultimate objective? If it’s just to stick around wasting money and lives until the locals outlast us, then it’s better to leave now, but that also doesn’t mean that doing so makes everything better.

As a whole this post didn’t end up being as tightly constructed as I would like, so to help with that here’s the summary of things:

  • All of my long-standing predictions continue to hold up, with some getting a little more likely and some a little less, but none in serious danger. (Oh, also China did land their rover.)
  • Populism will be the dominant force in the West for the foreseeable future. Globalism is on the decline if not effectively dead already.
  • Carbon taxes are going to be difficult to implement, and will not see widespread adoption.
  • Social media will continue to change politics rapidly and in unforeseen ways.
  • There will be a US recession before the next election. It will make things worse.
  • Authoritarianism is on the rise elsewhere, particularly in Russia and China.
  • The jockeying for regional power in the Middle East will intensify.

I didn’t get a chance to talk about India, but here at the end let me just toss in Tyler Cowen’s argument in Bloomberg that not only is “Hindu nationalism on the rise, [but] India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicity of directions, few of them familiar to most Americans.” A point which ties in well to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Cowen also talks in the same article about an increase low-level authoritarianism in China.

Finally, did you see that story out of Arizona recently about people attacking self-driving cars? I had kind of hoped it represented some kind of neo-luddite riot, but apparently the cars are just incredibly annoying to have around. I guess they have a long way to go before they’re ready for primetime. Which is to say, despite, or perhaps because of everything I already said above, remember that the future is always farther away than you think.


One future that I hope is not so far away is the future where you donate to this blog. (Is it just me or did that come out sounding like a bad pickup line?)