On August 23rd I’ll be giving a talk organized by the Foresight Institute.
Our civilization is made up of countless individuals and pieces of material technology, which come together to form institutions and interdependent systems of logistics, development and production. These institutions and systems then store the knowledge required for their own renewal and growth.
We pin the hopes of our common human project on this renewal and growth of the whole civilization. Whether this project is going well is a challenging but vital question to answer.
History shows us we are not safe from institutional collapse. Advances in technology mitigate some aspects, but produce their own risks. Agile institutions that make use of both social and technical knowledge not only mitigate such risks, but promise unprecedented human flourishing.
Join us as we investigate this landscape, evaluate our odds, and try to plot a better course.
See the Facebook event for further details.
There is a limited number of spots and there has been a bunch of interest, still I’d love rationalists to attend so try to nab tickets at eventbrite. Feel free to introduce yourself and chat me up after the talk, would be happy to meet rationalists thinking about civilization and sociology :)
The government agencies and corporations that dominate our society are many decades, if not centuries, old. It is also clear they are in need of renewal.
Why did they reach such a state of misalignment? I believe that across society we had a notable failure of succession.
These things were created by people, and then they took on a life of their own, in an almost automated fashion, rather than continuing human oversight. As a result we are in a society that is more fragile, less cooperative and less coordinated than it could be.
Mostly yes. Some bureaucratic growth is driven by actively piloted centralizing drives, but in those cases the task at hand is increasing central power, with the nominal work being pretext.
One never returns “borrowed” power
Not quite correct, it is possible for example to rescind delegation. Nothing in the world can be undone as we seem to live in a universe of rising entropy. But since sustained vs. temporary access is an important distinction both for rational planning as well as having an excellent negotiating position, the ability to rescind access amounts to an important ability to have power returned to you.
One of my favorite things about resouce-based power is that it’s ablative—if you spend money to excercise your will (as opposed to investing to maximize returns), you have less money afterward. Self-limiting power is awesome. Other types of power (social, governmental) gets stronger when used, as it trains people to obey.
Self-limiting power can be argued to be a useful feature for society. For the common good some wills should be contested rather than let loose. Some desires and goals should not be realized.
But for an individual ablative power does not seem as desirable as durable power. The individual presumably aspires to agency in the world and therefore wishes to actualize their will and values in the world. It would be strange to imagine a person that does not, however many psychological epicycles they might add on top.
It is true that sometimes self-distrust can be the right course of action, because of an outside view that suggests inside view irrationality. Self-distrust implies trust in something else. When you willingly tie yourself to the mast like Odysseus, someone else is steering the ship, hopefully your loyal crew and friends. An unsteered ship however meets an unsightly end either by Scylla or Charbydis.
Particularly with mistakes that cannot be survived unsteered outcomes are not desirable. Navigating existential risk requires steering.
Distinguishing what kinds of power are durable goods and which are not, produces the best long term results. We are always at the mercy of chance of course. Work on fundamentals doesn’t necessarily actualize the most power, it is merely the only thing that can raise the ceiling of achievable power.
This is an excellent analysis of a particular aspect. Firstly I do want to emphasize that this mindset is already very rare, few people reason from the existence of traditions of sound knowledge and begin thinking how to access them. The exercise for most remains, pardon the pun, academic.
The only thing I would add is less of an emphasis of universities and more on particular institutions such as branches of government or particular companies. This represents a kind of institution that, assuming a sound career or skill-set, those in middle age are better positioned to understand and make use of. Particular social circles can fulfill this function as well. Further those in middle age can and do easily gain access to postgraduate education of high quality but seem to do so less frequently. As a very practical example I could cite Robin Hansons reorientation towards the social sciences after a successful stem career.
Great example! Talking to him made it clear he was one of the clearer social thinkers around. His project certainly deserves more attention.
You correctly describe these incentives. Assuming both incentives and distribution of information are such, the obvious next research step becomes clear.
A key problem is conveying the reality of such trade secrets and the value of finding them to those without practical or scholarly experience in the area. Only having found such information can one then try to aim to achieve particular outcomes, trying to do so without appropriate knowledge results in wasted or misdirected efforts.
Indeed, he was one of the major influences on my views of society, epistemology and knowledge.
Mortimer Adler uses the same argument in How to Read a Book to argue for reading original texts, because they are known to have allowed for the transmission of relevant knowledge, textbooks sometimes succeed and sometimes fail at this.