The funnel of human experience

Link post

[EDIT: Pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this post had a ma­jor er­ror. Thanks for jeff8765 for pin­point­ing the er­ror and es­rogs in the Eukary­ote Writes Blog com­ments for bring­ing it to my at­ten­tion as well. This has been fixed. Also, I wrote FHI when I meant FLI.]

The graph of the hu­man pop­u­la­tion over time is also a map of hu­man ex­pe­rience. Think of each year as be­ing “amount of hu­man lived ex­pe­rience that hap­pened this year.” On the left, we see the ap­prox­i­mate dawn of the mod­ern hu­man species in 50,000 BC. On the right, the pop­u­la­tion ex­plod­ing in the pre­sent day.

It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of hu­man ex­pe­rience has hap­pened af­ter 1309 AD. 15% of all ex­pe­rience has been ex­pe­rienced by peo­ple who are al­ive right now.

I call this “the fun­nel of hu­man ex­pe­rience”—the fact that be­cause of a tiny ini­tial pop­u­la­tion blos­som­ing out into a huge mod­ern pop­u­la­tion, more of hu­man ex­pe­rience has hap­pened re­cently than time would sug­gest.

50,000 years is a long time, but 8,000,000,000 peo­ple is a lot of peo­ple.


If you want to ex­pand on this, you can start do­ing some Fermi es­ti­mates. We as a species have spent...

  • 1,650,000,000,000 to­tal “hu­man ex­pe­rience years”

    • See my dataset linked at the bot­tom of this post.

  • 7,450,000,000 hu­man years spent hav­ing sex

    • Hu­mans spend 0.45% of our lives hav­ing sex. 0.45% * [to­tal hu­man ex­pe­rience years] = 7E9 years

  • 52,000,000,000 years spent drink­ing coffee

    • 500 billion cups of coffee drunk this year x 15 min­utes to drink each cup x 100 years* = 5E10 years

      • *Coffee con­sump­tion has likely been much higher re­cently than his­tor­i­cally, but it does have a long his­tory. I’m es­ti­mat­ing about a hun­dred years of cur­rent con­sump­tion for to­tal global con­sump­tion ever.

  • 1,000,000,000 years spent in labor

    • 110,000,000,000 billion hu­mans ever x ½ women x 12 preg­nan­cies* x 15 hours apiece = 1.1E9 years

      • *In­fant mor­tal­ity, yo. H/​t Ellie and Shaw for this es­ti­mate.

  • 417,000,000 years spent wor­ship­ping the Greek gods

    • 1000 years* x 10,000,000 peo­ple** x 365 days a year x 1 hour a day*** = 4E8 years

      • *Some googling sug­gested that peo­ple wor­shipped the Greek/​Ro­man Gods in some ca­pac­ity from roughly 500 BC to 500 AD.

      • **There were about 10 mil­lion peo­ple in An­cient Greece. This prob­a­bly ta­pered a lot to the be­gin­ning and end of that pe­riod, but on the other hand wor­ship must have been more wide­spread than just Greece, and there have been pa­gans and Hel­lenists wor­shiping since then.

      • ***Wor­shiping gen­er­ally took about an hour a day on av­er­age, figur­ing in priests and fes­ti­vals? Sure.

  • 30,000,000 years spent watch­ing Netflix

    • 14,000,000 hours/​day* x 365 days x 5 years** = 2.92E7 years

      • * Net­flix users watched an av­er­age of 14 mil­lion hours of con­tent a day in 2017.

      • **Net­flix the com­pany has been around for 10 years, but has got­ten big­ger re­cently.

  • 50,000 years spent drink­ing coffee in Waf­fle House

So hu­man­ity in ag­gre­gate has spent about ten times as long wor­shiping the Greek gods as we’ve spent watch­ing Net­flix.

We’ve spent an­other ten times as long hav­ing sex as we’ve spent wor­ship­ping the Greek gods.

And we’ve spent ten times as long drink­ing coffee as we’ve spent hav­ing sex.


I’m not sure what this im­plies. Here are a few things I gath­ered from this:

1) I used to be an­noyed at my high school world his­tory classes for spend­ing so much time on me­dieval his­tory and af­ter, when there was, you know, all of his­tory be­fore that too. Ob­vi­ously there are other rea­sons for this—Euro­cen­trism, the fact that more re­cent events have clearer ram­ifi­ca­tions to­day—but to some de­gree this is in fact ac­cu­rately re­flect­ing how much his­tory there is.

On the other hand, I spent a bunch of time in school learn­ing about the Greek Gods, a tiny chunk of time learn­ing about la­bor, and vir­tu­ally no time learn­ing about coffee. This is an­other dis­ap­point­ing trend in the way his­tory is ap­proached and taught, fo­cus­ing on a se­ries of ma­jor events rather than the day-to-day life of peo­ple.

2) The Fun­nel gets more stark the closer you move to the pre­sent day. Look at sci­ence. FLI re­ports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are al­ive right now. That means most of all sci­en­tific thought is hap­pen­ing in par­allel rather than se­quen­tially.

3) You can’t use the Fun­nel to rea­son about ev­ery­thing. For in­stance, you can’t use it to rea­son about ex­tended evolu­tion­ary pro­cesses. Evolu­tion is nec­es­sar­ily cu­mu­la­tive. It works on the unit of gen­er­a­tions, not in­di­vi­d­u­als. (You can make some in­fer­ences about evolu­tion—for in­stance, the like­li­hood of any par­tic­u­lar mu­ta­tion oc­cur­ring in­creases when there are more in­di­vi­d­u­als to mu­tate—but evolu­tion still has the same num­ber of gen­er­a­tions to work with, no mat­ter how large each gen­er­a­tion is.)

4) This made me think about the phrase “liv­ing mem­ory”. The world’s old­est liv­ing per­son is Kane Tanaka, who was born in 1903. 28% of the en­tirety of hu­man ex­pe­rience has hap­pened since her birth. As men­tioned above, 15% has been di­rectly ex­pe­rienced by liv­ing peo­ple. We have writ­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and mem­ory, so we have a flawed chan­nel by which to in­herit in­for­ma­tion, and ex­pe­riences in a sense. But hu­mans as a species can only di­rectly re­mem­ber as far back as 1903.


Here’s my dataset. The pop­u­la­tion data comes from the Pop­u­la­tion Re­view Bureau and their re­port on how many hu­mans ever lived, and from Our World In Data. Let me know if you get any­thing from this.

Fun fact: The av­er­age liv­ing hu­man is 30.4 years old.

Wait But Why’s ex­pla­na­tion of the real rev­olu­tion of ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence is rele­vant and worth read­ing. See also Luke Muehlhauser’s con­clu­sions on the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion: Part One and Part Two.