[Epistemic status: background is very hand-wavy, but I’d rather post a rough question than no question at all. I’m very confident that the two ingredients—illegible cultural evolution and guesstimation—are real and important things. Though the relation between the two is more uncertain. I’m not that surprised if my question ends up confused and dissolved rather than solved by answers.]
For a large part of human history, our lives were dictated by cultural norms and processes which appeared arbitrary, yet could have fatal consquences if departed from. (C.f. SSC on The Secret of Our Success, which will be assumed background knowledge for this question.)
Today, we live in a world where you can achieve huge gains if you simply “shut up and multiply”. The world seems legible—I can roughly predict how many planes fly every day by multiplying a handful rough numbers. And the world seems editable—people who like to cook often improvise: exchanging, adding and removing ingredients. And this seems fine. It certainly doesn’t kill them. Hugely succesful companies are built around the principle of “just try things until something breaks and then try again and improve”.
I still think there are still large amounts of illegible cultural knowledge encoded in institutions, traditions, norms, etc. But something still seems very different from the horror stories of epistemic learned helplessness Scott shared.
What changed about the world to make this possible? How can guesstimates work?
Some hypotheses (none of which I’d put more than 15% on atm):
Almost all important aspects of our lives our governed by some kind of technology that we built (tables, airplanes, computers, rugs, restaurants, microwaves, legal contracts, clocks, beds, clothes, … and so on and so forth). Technological development outpaced cultural evolution. The modern world is more legible and editable for the same reason that a codebase is more legible and editable than DNA.
Most systems that govern our lives have been optimised way harder since the industrial revolution and the ability to achieve economies-of-scale in a global market. Things are generally closer to optimal equilibria, and equilibria are more legible/predictable than non-quilibria.
The things we really care about today often follow very heavy-tailed distributions. Hence even a very rough guesstimate is like to get the ordering of choices correct. (This can’t be the whole story, because guesstimates also seem to work in pretty Gaussian domains.)
We just have better medical and welfare systems which allow people to take more risks.