Why is the Future So Absurd?

Followup to: Stranger than History, Absurdity Heuristic /​ Absurdity Bias

Why is the future more absurd than people seem to expect? (That is: Why, historically, has the future so often turned out to be more “absurd” than people seem to have expected?)

One obvious reason is hindsight bias. Hindsight does not just cause people to severely underestimate how much they would have been surprised. Hindsight also leads people to overestimate how much attention they would have paid to the key factors, the factors that turned out to be important. As R. H. Tawney put it:

“Historians give an appearance of inevitability to an existing order by dragging into prominence the forces which have triumphed and thrusting into the background those which they have swallowed up.”

When people look at historical changes and think “I could have predicted X” or “You could have predicted X if you looked at factors 1, 2, and 3″; then they forget that people did not, in fact, predict X, perhaps because they were distracted by factors 4 through 117. People read history books, see coherent narratives, and think that’s how Time works. Underestimating the surprise of the present, they overestimate the predictability of the future.

I suspect that a major factor contributing to absurdity bias is that, when we look over history, we see changes away from absurd conditions such as everyone being a peasant farmer and women not having the vote, toward normal conditions like a majority middle class and equal rights. When people look at history, they see a series of normalizations. They learn the rule, “The future grows ever less absurd over time.”

Perhaps one way to comprehend the bizarreness of the future would be to try and imagine historical changes occurring in reverse—how absurd would it be if all your electrical appliances suddenly disappeared, or you were transformed into a peasant farmer? Even if the future is nicer than the past, it will feel at least that absurd.

The correspondence bias of social psychology may also play a role in how we fail to learn from history—or so my own experience suggests. When we read about the strange behaviors of people in other eras, we may see them as people with a disposition to that strange behavior, rather than properly comprehending the strangeness of the times. In the 16th century, one popular entertainment was setting a cat on fire. If you think to yourself “What horrible people they must be!” then you have, to the same extent, diminished your appreciation of what horrible times they lived in.

We see at least some social and technological changes during our own lifetime. We do have some experience of genuine future shock. Why wouldn’t this be enough to extrapolate forward?

According to Ray Kurzweil’s thesis of accelerating change, our intuitions about the future are linear—we expect around as much change as occurred in the past—but technological change feeds on itself, and therefore has a positive second derivative. We should expect more technological change in the future than we have seen in the past, and insofar as technology drives cultural change, we should expect more cultural change too.

Or that, in my opinion, is the strongest version of Kurzweil’s theory that can be put forward. Kurzweil dwells on Moore’s Law and smoothly predictable exponential curves, but this seems to me both iffy and unnecessary. A curve does not need to be smooth or exponential to have a positive second derivative. And our cultural sensitivity to, say, computing power, is probably logarithmic anyway, obeying Weber’s Law - a 20% increase in computing power probably feels the same whether it’s from 1MHz to 1.2MHz, or 2GHz to 2.4GHz. In which case, people extrapolating the future “linearly” should get it pretty much correct.

But if you pull back and view the last few millennia, not just the last few decades, the strength of the core idea becomes obvious—technology change does feed on itself and therefore does speed up.

I would actually question Kurzweil’s assertion that people extrapolate the past linearly into the future. Kurzweil may be too optimistic here. As discussed earlier, dwellers on flood plains do not extrapolate from small floods to large floods; instead, small floods set a perceived upper bound on risk. I suspect that when people try to visualize the strangeness of the future, they focus on a single possible change, of no greater magnitude than the largest single change they remember in their own lifetime.

The real future is not composed of single developments, but many developments together. Even if one change can pass the futurism filter, to suppose three absurdities simultaneously—never mind twenty—would entirely overload the absurdity meter. This may also explain why future projections get wronger and wronger as they go further out. People seem to imagine futures that are minimally counterintuitive, with one or two interesting changes to make a good story, rather than a realistic number of changes that would overload their extrapolation abilities.

What other biases could lead us to underestimate the absurdity of the future?