3 July 2013
Eighth in a Series on Existential Risk:
Every Risk is also an Opportunity
It is a commonplace that every risk is an opportunity, and every opportunity is a risk; risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. This can also be expressed by distinguishing negative risk (what we ordinarily call “risk” simpliciter) and positive risk (what we ordinarily call “opportunity”). What this means in terms of existential thought is that every existential risk is an existential opportunity, and existential opportunity is at the same time an existential risk.
If we understand by risk the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss, then by opportunity we should understand the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain. The relative probability of a loss is offset by the relative probability of a gain, and the relative probability of a gain is offset by the relative probability of a loss; both are calculable; both are, in principle, insurable. Thus these risks and opportunities represent the subset of uncertainties that present actionable mitigation strategies. Where uncertainty exceeds the possibility of actionable mitigation, we pass beyond insurable risk to uncertainty proper.
In existential risk scenarios, our very existence is at stake; in existential opportunity scenarios, again, our very existence is at stake. To formulate this parallel to the above, we can assert that existential risk is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss of earth-originating life and civilization, while existential opportunity is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain for earth-originating life and civilization. In formulating the existential condition of humanity, there is little that is risk sensu stricto, since much of the big picture of the human future is given over to uncertainty that lies beyond presently actionable risk. However, the calculus of risk and reward remains, even if we are not speaking strictly of risk that can be fully calculated and thus fully insured. In other words, the existential uncertainties facing humanity admit of a distinction between positive uncertainties and negative uncertainties. Any valuation of this kind, however, is intrinsically disputable and controversial.
Given that our very existence is at stake in existential opportunity no less than in existential risk, a future defined by the realization of an existential opportunity might be unrecognizable as a human future. Indeed, the realization of an existential opportunity might be every bit as unrecognizable as the realization of an existential threat, which means that the two futures might be indistinguishable, which means in turn that existential opportunity might be mistaken for existential risk, and vice versa.
Faced with a stark choice (i.e., faced with an existential choice), I think few would choose extinction, flawed realization, permanent stagnation, or subsequent ruination over species survival, flawless realization, permanent amelioration, or subsequent escalation. (If, in moments of decision in our life, we make our choice in fear and trembling, how must we fear and tremble in moments of decision for our species?) Any such choice, however, is not likely to be visited upon us in this form.
Much more likely that an explicit choice between an utopian future of astonishing wonders and a dystopian future of dismal oppression is an imperceptibly gradual process whereby a promising future suggests certain day-to-day decisions (seemingly seizing an opportunity) which lead incrementally to a future with unintended consequences that greatly outweigh the promises that prompted the daily decisions that led to the future in question. This is how history generally works: by degrees, and not by intention. (Notwithstanding the Will Durant quote — “The future never just happened, it was created.” — that I mentioned in Predicting the Human Future in Space.)
In so far as industrial-technological civilization continues its exponential growth of technology (growing incrementally and often imperceptibly by degrees, and not always by intention), and therefore also the growth of human agency in shaping our environment, the expanding scope of this civilization will mitigate certain existential risks even as it exposes humanity to new and unprecedented risks. That is to say, industrial-technological civilization itself is at once both a risk and an opportunity. Civilization centered on escalating industrial-technological development exposes us to escalating industrial accidents and unintended consequences of technology, unprecedented pollution from industrial processes, changes in our way of life, and indeed changes to our very being as a result of the technological transformation of humanity (i.e., transhumanism).
At the same time, escalating industrial-technological development offers the unprecedented possibility of a spacefaring civilization, which could establish earth-originating life off the surface of the earth and thereby secure the minimum redundancy necessary to the long-term survival of such life. The transition of the terrestrial economy to an economy fully integrated with the industrialization of space — a process that I have called extraterrestrialization — could not take place without the advent of industrial-technological civilization.
Yet the expansion of business operations and interests into extraterrestrial space is a paradigm of uncertainty — no such effort has been made on a large scale, and so the risks of such an enterprise are unknown and cannot be calculated, fully managed, or insured against. Space operations therefore exemplify uncertainty rather than risk, and for the same reason that such operations are uncertain, their execution is potentially beset with contingencies unknown to us today. This does not make such an enterprise is too risky to contemplate — this is the only imaginable contribution that industrial-technological civilization can make to the long-term survival of earth-originating life — but we must undertake such enterprises without illusions or the subsequent losses endured may become socially unsustainable leading to the end of the enterprise. Subsequent unforeseen losses resulting from the transition to a spacefaring civilization may even be interpreted as a form of subsequent ruination, and thereby conceived by many as an existential threat. How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.
In the larger context of industrial-technological civilization we can identify individual industries and technologies that represent in themselves both risks and opportunities. The most fantastic speculations of transhumanist utopias, like the most dismal speculations on transhumanist dystopias, constitute unprecedented opportunities (or risks) implied by the present trajectories of technology. One of the best examples of risk and opportunity in future technology are the possibilities of nano-scale robots. The development of nano-scale robots could, on the one hand, provide for unprecedented medical technologies — robots that could be injected like an inoculation which would treat medical conditions from the inside out, repairing the body on a microscopic scale and potentially greatly improving health and extending longevity. On the other hand, nano-scale robots loose in the biosphere could potentially cause great harm. if not havoc, perhaps even resulting in a gray goo scenario.
In so far as any proposed existential risk mitigation initiatives prioritize safety over opportunity, any concern for existential risk could itself become an existential risk by lending support for policies that address risk through calculated stagnation instituted as a risk-averse response to existential threats. The question then becomes how humanity can lower its exposure to existential risks without reducing its existential opportunities. The attempt to answer this question, even if it does not issue in clear, unambiguous imperatives, may at least provide a framework in which to conceptualize problematic scenarios for the human future that some may identify as desirable while others would identify the same as a moral horror — such as transhumanism.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity
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9 May 2013
Fifth in a Series on Existential Risk
Thinking about the Epistemology of Risk
A personal anecdote
What is risk? I have considered this question several times, in different contexts, as, for example, in Risk Management: A Personal View and more recently in Moral Imperatives Imposed by Existential Risk, but today although I want to consider some highly general philosophical ideas about risk, and I am going to start with a highly personal anecdote — a human interest story, if you will. Ultimately I need to make the philosophical effort to bring together these many threads of risk into something more general and comprehensive — but first, the personal story.
When my mother retired, she had for a few years been paying into a private retirement annuity. Upon her retirement she was in a position to begin drawing from this annuity, so I spent some time on the telephone with the financial representative. We had some long calls before we settled on an option that would best serve the financial interests of my mother. The amount she had saved up was not large, but it was enough that she was able to arrange for a fixed monthly payment in perpetuity, in return for handing over the lump sum of her annuity to the financial services company into which she had been making contributions to her annuity.
My mother was surprised to find that if she surrendered her capital to the financial institution with which she had the annuity, that they would promise to pay her a certain amount every month for the rest of her life, regardless of how many payments they had to made. I explained that financial institutions hire professionals called actuaries who calculate the likelihood of how long individuals will live and when they are likely to die. The actuaries make their judgments from statistics, not knowing the individual person. I assured by mother than she is far more healthy than the average person of her age, that the actuaries don’t know any details about an individual’s life, how active they are, what foods they eat, how the individual responds to stress, and so forth.
The actuary as non-constructivist
The actuary engages in classic non-constructivist thought in asserting that a certain number of persons of a certain age will die within a certain period of time, within identifying exactly which individuals are the ones who will die and which individuals are the ones who will live. The actuary sees the big picture (the aerial view of populations, as it were), and from the perspective of investing billions of dollars and insuring the financial security of millions of people, it is the big picture that matters. While life and death is everything to the individual, it is fungible to an institution, and the actuary embodies the institutional point of view.
While it would be possible for an insurance company or a financial institution to pursue a constructivist methodology, in practice this would be unwieldy and inefficient. A constructivist actuary would need to start from the ground up with the facts of the life of each individual, building a detailed profile from verified data. All of this requires time, and time is money. No insurance company or financial institution that pursued this method on a large scale could make a profit, because any gains from the strategy would be offset by the additional costs incurred by information gathering effort.
Actuaries can be extremely accurate on a statistical basis, considering populations on the whole, even while they can be completely wrong in regard to individuals who are members of a given population. Some individuals who are part of a population that dies, on average, at 65, may well live to be 75, 85, or 95 and still not skew the average for the population on the whole. Another individual might die much younger than the average without skewing the average on the whole.
If you know individuals personally, and you know that, for example, someone tends to drive in an erratic and dangerous manner that very well might get them killed, then you have knowledge that the actuary does not have — knowledge, in fact, that the actuary doesn’t even try to address. The actuary might control for age, gender, marital status, geographical location, and all the ordinary information you might put on a questionnaire. Just this much information can be very valuable. With more information, much more can be done, but no financial institution or insurance company could pay to have agents follow investors or policy holders to learn their personal habits, and therefore build a more accurate risk profile for the insured.
The individual possesses knowledge that the institution — financial, insurance, governmental, or whatever else — does not possess, and the individual can leverage this ellipsis of knowledge in order to get a better deal for themselves.
Leveraging knowledge to manage risk
This is an obvious application of the distinction between uncertainty and risk. The more knowledge one has, the less one’s picture of the world is about uncertainty and the more it is about known risks, which are quantities for which one can take preventative or prophylactic measures. To make it personal, if you know someone is an awful driver, you avoid riding with them, and if you know someone becomes aggressive and belligerent when drunk, you avoid going drinking with them, or you take other measures that will protect you from the consequences of beings around a belligerent drunk. If you are especially cunning, you can even turn such known risks to your advantage (transforming a risk into an opportunity), employing calculated risks in a ruse or as a distraction. We all know people like this, and we know that they, too, are a danger to be avoided.
The lesson here is that when you have detailed personal knowledge about a situation, the calculation of risk can change dramatically. Or, to be more precise, matters that are given over to uncertainty in one model become objects of knowledge and therefore in a more epistemically intensive model are transformed from uncertainty into risk, and as risk are amenable to rational calculation. The scope of the calculus of risk expands and contracts, waxing and waning in proportion to knowledge. (Even the actuary, with all that he does not know, knows enough about what matters to his institution that he is dealing with a controlled, calculated risk and not uncertainty.)
Another personal anecdote about investing
Another personal story to illustrate how knowledge bears upon risk: recently in Rationing Financial Services I discussed the different financial services that are available to the working class, of a very basic if not rudimentary character, as compared to the advanced and sophisticated financial services available to the wealthy and the well-connected.
I also mentioned in this post how far my views are from the mainstream, and in my earlier post on Risk Management: A Personal View I mentioned a personal anecdote about how a financial adviser had expressed surprise by the risks that I was taking, when I didn’t believe myself to be taking any risks of particular note. In my most recent consultation with a financial professional, as I was asking questions about various investment products, one banker actually said to the other banker, “I don’t think that these [investments] will be risky enough for him.” I smiled inside. You would think I had been riding a superbike at 90 MPH on a winding mountain road without wearing a helmet. Not quite.
My tolerance for risk is not based on a thrill-seeking personality — I’m not about to take up BASE jumping — but rather upon knowledge. And in so far as I leverage my knowledge to shift the epistemic balance from uncertainty to risk, I am taking a calculated risk, against which I might insure myself (if I felt inclined to do so), but I am not plunging myself into blind uncertainty — in other words, I’m not a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. The more knowledge one has, the less uncertainty one faces, the more one is presented with calculated risks in place of uncertainty.
When it comes to the investment products available to the individual of ordinary means, the options were really Hobson’s choice — i.e., the choice between what is offered and nothing. The process gave the appearance of choice, because there were a great many funds in which one could invest, and reams of information describing these investments, but really what it all came down to is that they were widely distributed funds of funds that would approximately track the market. I said to my banker than buying into these funds is simply the same as placing a bet on the S&P. If it goes up, you do well; if it goes down, you lose. End of story. I didn’t want the appearance of choice, I wanted the reality of choice.
I asked my banker if any of the funds focused on any particular industry, or resource, or were invested in any particular country or region of the world. No. None of the choices had any distinguishing features of this kind. They were all strategies for, one way or another, gaming the domestic US market to try to get a few more percentage points of profit than the next fund. In this case, having detailed knowledge of the world made no difference at all. If one cares to guess at the direction of the S&P, or if one feels that one has studied the domestic US market sufficiently to predict the direction of the S&P, then you have knowledge that is appropriate to this investment climate. Otherwise, your knowledge is useless and can’t be leveraged to your financial benefit. (I could, of course, become a day-trader, but I really don’t think that’s my thing.)
Knowledge and statistical probability
If you have both real knowledge and real options, your investment portfolio can be less at risk than placing a single bet on the direction of the US market, but my attitude in this respect was treated as one of welcoming more risk — because the requisite knowledge was not taken into account. Knowledge is a factor in the calculation of risk. In fact, knowledge constitutes one among “all factors not really indeterminate” which Frank Knight identified as being crucial to the determination of statistical probability (cf. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty).
If you lack knowledge about the structure and functioning of the global economy, then your ability to choose wise investments is not likely to be any better than your ability to guess the direction of the US market average, and this is the presumption of ignorance that is built into the kind of investment options available to most people. Or if you think you know what is going on, but your knowledge is merely illusory, you might be lucky or you might by unlucky in investing, but your chances are no better than an up or down gamble. But if you have the knowledge of many different sectors of the global economy, and of many different industries and of regions of the world, it really isn’t much of a challenge to be able to improve your chances over the 50/50 guesswork involved in a bet on the S&P.
A curious parallel
Our collective situation as a species is in some ways not unlike my individual situation as an investor: being “stuck” on the surface of the earth, we have Hobson’s choice when it comes to existential risk management and mitigation: the earth or nothing. Take it or leave it. That’s not much of a choice, and it is curiously parallel to my own lack of choices in investments. And this lack of choices gives us no opportunity to leverage our growing knowledge of the cosmos from recent gains in space science in order to get the edge of existential risk. Our knowledge of the universe, at present, makes no difference at all in mitigating existential risk.
The more knowledge that we have of the cosmos, and of the human position within a cosmological context, the more knowledge we will have concerning the exact existential risks that we face. That increase in our knowledge will serve to transmute existential uncertainty into existential risk, sensu stricto, and in so doing will possibly present us with clearcut options of “insuring” against the existential risk in question. But our civilization, in its present form, has a presumption of ignorance built into it. There are countless existential risk mitigation and management options that we simply cannot pursue because we are planet-bound.
Existential risk mitigation aspects of space-based science and industry
When, in the future development of earth-originating extraterrestrial civilization, we begin to construct large-scale scientific instruments off the surface of the earth — say, a large radio-telescope array on the far side of the moon, sheltered from the EM spectrum noise generated by our busy earth — our ability to see deep into the cosmos (farther and more clearly in terms of distance, and therefore also in terms of time) our knowledge of astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics will increase by an order of magnitude beyond the kind of observations that are possible from the surface of the earth.
Thus large space-based scientific installations will have a two-fold value in the mitigation of existential risk:
1) such facilities would be a function of space-based industry, which in turn would be a function of space-based human presence, and it would be a sustainable human presence in space that would be the first step in overcoming the manifest vulnerability of a species confined to a single planetary body, and …
2) the knowledge yielded by such facilities would significantly increase our knowledge of the universe, and hence of our place in the universe, which knowledge, as we have seen above, is crucial in transforming unactionable uncertainty into actionable risk
In fact, these two existential risk mitigation aspects of space-based science and industry are integral with each other: the space-based position allows us to exploit opportunities not available on the surface of the earth, and the knowledge gained from this enterprise will raise our awareness of opportunities now only dimly perceived.
To adequately assess our existential uncertainty and transform it into existential risk that might be mitigated and managed, we need to acquire existential knowledge — that is to say, knowledge of the existential milieu of human beings, a cosmological equivalent of situational awareness. What situational awareness is to the individual facing existential threats, knowledge of existential risk is to the species facing existential threats.
The more existential knowledge that we have, the better we can calculate our existential risk, and the better we can manage and mitigate that risk.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
5. Risk and Knowledge
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23 April 2013
In my post Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty I cited Frank Knight’s distinction between risk and certainty and attempted to apply this to the idea of existential risk. I suggested that discussions of existential risk ought to distinguish between existential risk (sensu stricto) and existential uncertainty.
In Knight’s now-classic work Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Frank Knight actually made a threefold distinction in the kinds of probabilities that face the entrepreneur:
1. A priori probability. Absolutely homogeneous classification of instances completely identical except for really indeterminate factors. This judgment of probability is on the same logical plane as the propositions of mathematics (which also may be viewed, and are viewed by the writer, as “ultimately” inductions from experience).
2. Statistical probability. Empirical evaluation of the frequency of association between predicates, not analyzable into varying combinations of equally probable alternatives. It must be emphasized that any high degree of confidence that the proportions found in the past will hold in the future is still based on an a priori judgment of indeterminateness. Two complications are to be kept separate: first, the impossibility of eliminating all factors not really indeterminate; and, second, the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved and determining their mode of combination so as to evaluate the probability by a priori calculation. The main distinguishing characteristic of this type is that it rests on an empirical classification of instances.
3. Estimates. The distinction here is that there is no valid basis of any kind for classifying instances. This form of probability is involved in the greatest logical difficulties of all, and no very satisfactory discussion of it can be given, but its distinction from the other types must be emphasized and some of its complicated relations indicated.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII
At the end of the chapter Knight finally made his point fully explicit:
It is this third type of probability or uncertainty which has been neglected in economic theory, and which we propose to put in its rightful place. As we have repeatedly pointed out, an uncertainty which can by any method be reduced to an objective, quantitatively determinate probability, can be reduced to complete certainty by grouping cases. The business world has evolved several organization devices for effectuating this consolidation, with the result that when the technique of business organization is fairly developed, measurable uncertainties do not introduce into business any uncertainty whatever. Later in our study we shall glance hurriedly at some of these organization expedients, which are the only economic effect of uncertainty in the probability sense; but the present and more important task is to follow out the consequences of that higher form of uncertainty not susceptible to measurement and hence to elimination. It is this true uncertainty which by preventing the theoretically perfect outworking of the tendencies of competition gives the characteristic form of “enterprise” to economic organization as a whole and accounts for the peculiar income of the entrepreneur.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII
Knight’s distinction between risk and uncertainty — between probabilities that can be calculated, managed, and insured against and probabilities that cannot be calculated and therefore cannot be managed or insured against — continues to be taught in business and economics today. (It is a distinction closely parallel to Rumsfeld’s distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, though worked out in considerably greater detail and sophistication.) Knight’s slightly more subtle threefold distinction among probabilities might be characterized as a tripartite distinction between certainty, risk, and uncertainty.
Knight acknowledges, in his account of statistical probability, i.e., risk, that there are at least two complications:
1. that of eliminating all truly indeterminate features, and…
2. the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved
Knight’s hedged account of risk obliquely acknowledges the gray area that lies between risk and uncertainty — a gray area that can be enlarged in favor of risk as our knowledge improves, or which can be enlarged in favor of uncertainty as additional complicating favors enter into our calculation of risk and render our knowledge less effective and our uncertainty all the greater. That is to say, the line between risk and uncertainty is unclear, and it can move, which makes it doubly ambiguous.
These hedges are important qualifications to make, because we all know from real-life experience that additional complicating factors always enter into actual risks. We may try to insure ourselves, and therefore to secure our interests against risk, but fine print in the insurance contract may deny us a settlement, or we may have forgotten to pay our premiums, or a thousand other things might go wrong between our careful planning and the actual events of life that so often preempt our planning and force us to deal with the unexpected with insufficient preparation. As Bobby Burns put it, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”
Such consideration span the entire universe from field mice to galaxies. A coldly rational assessment of risk can be made, and resources can be expended to mitigate risk to the extent calculated, but not only are the limits to our knowledge, but we don’t know where the limits to our knowledge lie. Indeterminate features can creep into our calculation and equally probable alternatives could be in play without our even being aware of the fact.
Some events that pose existential risks or global catastrophic risks can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, and some cannot. Even about those risks that seem predictable to a high degree of accuracy — say, the life of the sun, which can be predicted on the basis of our knowledge of cosmology, and which thereby would seem to give us some knowledge of how long a time we have on earth to lay our schemes — admit of indeterminate elements and equally probably scenarios. The end of the earth seems a long way off, if the earth lasts almost as long as the sun, and putting our existential risk far in the future seems to diminish the threat.
There is a famous quote from Frank Ramsey (who died tragically young in a mountain climbing accident, as might happen to anyone, anytime) that is relevant here, both economically and philosophically:
My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as three-penny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing.
From a paper read to the Apostles, a Cambridge discussion society (1925). In ‘The Foundations of Mathematics’ (1925), collected in Frank Plumpton Ramsey and D. H. Mellor (ed.), Philosophical Papers (1990), Epilogue, 249
Despite Ramsey having referred (in another context) to the “Bolshevik menace” of Brouwer and Weyl, it has been said that Ramsey became a constructivist not long before he died. This conversion should not surprise us, given Ramsey’s Protagorean profession in his passage.
Protagoras famously said that Man is the measure of all things, of those things that are, that they are, and of those things that are not, that they are not. (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.) Protagoras may be counted as the earliest of proto-constructivists, of which company Kant and Poincaré may be considered the most famous.
In the passage quoted above, Ramsey is essentially saying in a modern idiom that man is the measure of all things, even of time and space — that man is the measure of the farthest reaches of time and space, and in so far as these distant prospects of human experience are inaccessible, they are irrelevant. Ramsey is important in his respect because of his consciously chosen anthropocentrism. In a post-Copernican age, this is significant. We are all, of course, familiar with the advocates of the anthropic cosmological principle, and their implicit anthropocentrism, but Ramsey gives us a slightly different perspective on anthropocentrism. Ramsey essentially brings constructivism to our moral life, and in so doing suggests that the moral imperatives posed by existential risk can be safely ignored for the time being.
What Ramsey is saying here is that we can make a definite calculation of the lives of the stars — and also the expected life of our sun — and that we can insure against this risk, but that the risk lies so far in the future that its present value is practically nil. In other words, the eventual burning out of the sun is a risk and not an uncertainty. On the contrary, it is not an uncertainty at all, but a certainty. Just as the finite amount of oil on Earth must eventually come to an end, the finite sun must also come to an end.
What our growing knowledge of cosmology is teaching us is that we are not isolated from the wider universe. Events on a cosmic scale have influenced the development of life on earth, and may well be responsible for our development as a species. If the earth had not been hit by an asteroid or comet about 65 million years ago, mammals may never have developed as they did, and we would not exist. And if our solar system did not bob up and down through the galactic plane of the Milky Way, resulting in geophysical rhythms from the the gravitational interaction with the rest of the galaxy, a distant asteroid of comet might not have been dislodged from its stable orbit and sent careening toward earth.
Given our connection with the wider universe, and our vulnerability to its convulsions, what we know about our local risks (which is not nearly enough, as recent unpredicted episodes have shown us) is not enough to make a calculation of our vulnerability. What appears superficially to be a calculable risk has uncertainty injected back into it by the cosmological context in which all astronomical events take place.
If the death of the sun were the only existential risk against which we needed to insure ourselves, we would not need to be in any hurry about existential risk mitigation, because we would have literally millions of years to build a spacefaring civilization and thus to insure ourselves against that predictable catastrophe. But in our violent universe (as Nigel Calder called it) scarcely a million years goes by without some cosmic catastrophe occurring, and we don’t know when then next one will arrive.
Carl Sagan rightly pointed out that an event that is unlikely to happen in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred millions years:
The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. Even we humans have achieved the dubious technical distinction of being able to make our own disasters, both intentional and inadvertent. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter IV, “Heaven and Hell”
Perhaps in one of his most quoted lines, Sagan said that we are “star stuff,” and certainly this is true. However, the corollary of this inspiring thought is that our star stuff is subject to the natural forces that shape the destinies of stars, and in shaping the destiny of stars, shape the destiny of men who live on planets orbiting stars.
Understanding ourselves as “star stuff” entails understanding ourselves as living in a dangerous universe replete with devouring black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, and other cataclysms almost beyond the capacity of human beings to conceive.
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17 March 2013
Since posting Automation and the Human Future a few days ago, a reader has directed by attention to Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation at All Systems Need A Little Disorder by Ashwin Parameswaran. I have previously mentioned Ashwin Parameswaran’s blog, Macroeconomic Resilience, in my post Self-Dissimilarity.
While my last post credited the fear of technogenic unemployment primarily to recession-induced pessimism, Parameswaran takes technogenic unemployment very seriously, and anticipates “Transitioning To The Near-Automated Economy,” even considering the changes that must come about in education as this transition is made. What Parameswaran writes is so wonderfully sane and reasonable, and I agree with so much of it (indeed, it warmed my heart to see him refer to our economy today as “neo-feudal” as this is a point that I have made many times), that I hesitate to differ with him, and I don’t need to differ with Parameswaran too much if we adjust our expectations to la longue durée and make it clear that we are not talking about what is going to happen within 25 years or so.
I am certainly not beyond speculating on the possibility of very different employement structures. In my post Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, I suggested the possibility of an industrial revolution of a different sort — an industrial revolution resulting in a society in which the supply and the demand for labor were not nearly so close to being in equilibrium as they are today. For despite the problems of unemployment that plague advanced industrialized societies, the astonishing thing about it is not that there is unemployment, but rather that supply and demand of labor are so nearly identical. In a different kind of society, a different kind of industrial civilization, this approximation of employment demand to employment supply might not obtain.
As long as we take a sufficiently long time-horizon I am willing to agree that we will be eventually transitioning to a near-automated economy. In a comment made on the Los Angeles Times article L.A. 2013 — about an article from 03 April 1988 (from the Los Angeles Times Magazine), seeking to predict a quarter century into the future to 2013, Yves Rubin wrote…
“In general, such futuristic articles should multiply time spans by at least 10. Downtown Los Angeles “may” look like in this article’s cover photo in 250 years!”
I largely agree with this. In 25 years we see little change, but in 250 years we are likely to see significant change. Think back to the world 250 years before the present — the world of 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Seven Years’ War — and if we compare that world, without electricity, without the internal combustion engine, before the industrial revolution, and before the United States existed, with our world today, we can see how radical the changes to the familiar world can be in a future an order of magnitude beyond the modest 25 years of the 1988 article about LA.
I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date. If the near-automated economy becomes a reality in 250 years — a scenario that I will not dispute — I don’t think that this will be much of a problem, because we will need machines producing the goods we need to expand the human presence in the Milky Way. Seven billion people is a lot on the surface of the Earth — and there will be even more people by that time — but when spread out in the galaxy, seven billion human beings isn’t even enough to scratch the surface, as it were.
The transition to a near-automated economy (contemplated in isolation from parallel synchronous changes) would require adjustments so radical that it would be an open question, once these changes were in place and the near-automated economy is up and running, whether we would still be living in the same old industrial-technological civilization we have come to know and love, or whether this historical discontinuity was sufficient to cause a rupture that results in the constitution an an entirely new civilization — perhaps even constituting a preemption event that ends industrial-technological civilization by replacing it with whatever comes next. Over time, these adjustments will happen more or less naturally, but contemplated in one fell swoop the necessary adjustments seem incomprehensibly radical.
In the article Real Robot Talk in The Economist that I quoted in my last post, Automation and the Human Future, the author wrote that, “modern economies continue to use wages as the primary means by which purchasing power is distributed.” What mechanism other than wages can be employed as a means for the distribution of purchasing power? How could goods and services be allocated within an economy without the quantification that wages effect? (The problem is similar to that of allocating capital and resources within a socialist economy: how is capital to be allocated to enterprises without a pricing mechanism?)
This is another example of thinking in conventional terms about a time in the future when conventional assumptions will no longer hold. By the time the automated economy will seriously alter social relationships, so many other things will have happened, and will be happening, that terms like “labor” and “capital” and “goods” and “services” will have come to take on such different meanings that to formulate things in the old way would be nothing but an anachronism.
It is to be expected that measures will be taken in the attempt to preserve the present structure of civilization as long as possible (and in so doing to preserve the familiar meanings of familiar terms), and some of these measures may seem quite drastic in their attempts to preserve certain institutions. For example, we may see mass mobility of labor across nation-state boundaries allowing technogenically superfluous labor to seek opportunities for work in regions of the world not yet transformed by the technologies of automated production. As entrenched as the nation-state is in our contemporary thought, it is not as entrenched as our idea of civilization, and we would sooner compromise the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state than we would allow our civilization to lapse.
Yet, in the fullness of time, not only will our nation-states lapse, but our distinctive form of civilization will lapse also, and it will be replaced by another form of civilization, as yet unknown to us.
It is one of the distinctive features of civilization that the problems intrinsic to a given form of civilization emerge simultaneously with the civilization and disappear with the disappearance of that civilization; that is to say, for the most past, the problems of a particular form of civilization are not passed along to new forms of civilization, which have their own problems. I take this to be one of the most fascinating features of civilization, and I don’t think that it receives sufficient attention in the study of civilization. What it implies is that, like an artist’s work, a civilization’s problems are never resolved, only abandoned.
The problem of royal legitimacy, for example, scarcely exists today, and in so far as it exists at all it only exists as a holdover from an earlier form of civilization that no longer exists, as is the case with the constitutional monarchies of Europe. But the intense debates over the divine right of kings simply don’t exist any more. The problem was never “solved” but was intrinsic to the form of civilization in which royal authority was central, and once royal authority was no longer the central organizing principle of civilization, the “problem” of royal authority, its source and its legitimacy, simply disappears.
Of course, one of the ways in which one kind of civilization succeeds another is through a radical innovation that “solves” (in a sense) the problems of the earlier civilization, but in so “solving” the problem another kind of civilization is created, and so the solution does not obtain within the previous civilizational paradigm; it defines a new civilizational paradigm, within its own problems (to become manifest in the fullness of time) awaiting a solution that will initiate another civilizational paradigm.
Automated production issuing in maximized abundance and the demise of employment as we know it today would constitute a transition to a distinct form of civilization from the industrial-technological civilization that we know today, and the emergence of a future industrial-technological civilization in which maximized abundance becomes an established fact and human labor superfluous to the maximized abundance would also constitute a changed socioeconomic context that would interact will all other synchronous historical events transpiring in parallel and therefore in mutual relations of influence.
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14 March 2013
During the early years of the industrial revolution, people (including young children) worked the kind of hours in factories that they have been accustomed to working on farms during agrarian civilization. That meant a lot of 14 and 16 hour days. After the initial misery of the “factory system,” things got sorted out and the hours of the work day fell precipitously. Eventually, the work week fell to a standard 40 hours, though in the most productive economies in the world today many if not most people routinely put in overtime hours.
Futurists, however, instead of seeing this declining workweek in historical context as a one-time transition from one kind of social organization to another, forecast that the work week would go on shrinking, from 40 hours to 30 hours, from 30 hours to 20 hours, and eventually automation would make human labor unnecessary. Given this forecast, one of the great social problems that industrial civilization would have to face would be that of what everyone would do in a society of maximized abundance and scarce employment.
It was widely thought by “progressive” thinkers that Europe was on the cutting edge of this revolution in labor and employment, as many European countries statutorily limited the work week to a certain number of hours. In far more recent predictions it was suggested that the vast common market created by the European Union would come to dominate the world economy. (Up until the recent financial crisis, Parag Khanna was predicting ascendancy of Europe as a global force.) Yet European economies proved stagnant, and not a vibrant source of innovation and growth, whether economic or technological.
The optimistic futurism of the 1970s is especially easy to ridicule (though it is often no more wide of the mark than more recent futurist predictions), and I think that this is due to the fact that the early Space Age of the 1960s significantly raised hopes and expectations, when these hopes and expectations were not swiftly gratified with jetpacks, flying cars, and vacations to the moon, the whole enterprise of technological futurism fell into disrepute.
Many supposedly “failed” predictions of futurism — supposedly falsified by history like the political triumph of a given economic system and secularization — may yet come true but on a time scale that lies beyond the brief attention spans of the mass media. Given the fact that big ideas move very slowly through history, like the passage of large prey through the gut of a snake, and given the tendency of the mass media to build up the idea of the moment into a kind of hysteria, only to see interest in that idea collapse soon after, it is nearly inevitable that the same ideas will come up time and again as they continue their passage through contemporary history, going through periods of being considered prescient alternating with periods of being believed to have been “disproved” by history.
Recently the once-discredited futurist idea of widespread automation leading to maximized material abundance issuing in sharply increased and persistent unemployment has been making a significant comeback in the popular press. Let’s make a quick review of how the idea appeared in mid-twentieth century futurism.
In a book intended to be a non-hyped, non-flashy exercise in futurism, Stuart Chase made the case for automation and posed the problem of persistent unemployment for a mass society:
“Computers and automatic mechanism have already taken over a great deal of routine work, such as bank bookkeeping, and they are expected to take over a great deal more. Not only large plants and offices will be computerized, but also small organizations, as the hardware becomes less costly. What then will happen to people? …If people have no jobs, how can they buy the products made by the workers who remain? If, on the other hand, it is possible to subsidize the jobless as consumers, what happens to their nervous systems, self-confidence, and character? Most of us would rather be occupied than not… but in what form?”
Stuart Chase, The Most Probable World, 1968, Chapter 10, “Is man a working animal?,” p. 136
The idea of automation even plays a central role in Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto, where the benefits of automation are accepted uncritically:
“There is no human reason for money or for anyone to work more than two or three hours a week at the very most. All non-creative jobs (practically all jobs now being done) could have been automated long ago, and in a moneyless society everyone can have as much of the best of everything as she wants. But there are non-human, male reasons for wanting to maintain the money system…”
Others saw further and thought more critically. Only a year after Stuart Chase’s book, Victor C. Ferkiss had a much more grounded understanding of what technology would mean in the workplace, and his account gives a sense of technological dystopia à la Metropolis, in contradistinction to the wide-eyed technological utopianism that mostly prevailed when he wrote the following:
“Automation has seemingly done little to reduce the drudgery of work. Where the assembly line exists, it is still irksome… Where the old centralized rigid processes have been automated with machines taking over routine tasks, working conditions, especially psychological one, have not improved. Such evidence as exists indicates that the watchers of dials — the checkers and maintainers — are likely to be lonely, bored, and alienated, often feeling less the machine’s master than its servant. Dealing with computers can be as frustrating for the worker as for the client-consumer, with data on a print-out even more difficult to check and rectify than that in human accounts or reports.”
Victor C. Ferkiss, Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality, 1969 (Signet Mentor 1970), Chapter 6, “Technological Change and Economic Inertia,” pp. 122-123
Such quotes and observations could be multiplied at will; I took my quotes from books that I happened to have on hand, but, as I wrote above, it was a prominent feature in mid-twentieth century futurism to ask what would become of the working masses once automation deprived them of labor, and therefore — presumably for the privileged few writing about the problem — the content and meaning of working class lives.
Now the problem of job loss due to automation is being posed again, and almost in precisely the same terms, notwithstanding the computing and telecommunications revolution that has occurred in the meantime. I cannot help but speculate that these elite worries over restive, unemployed masses are almost entirely due to the stagnant if not depressed condition of the global economy since the financial crisis that started unrolling with the sub-prime mortgage debacle in the US, and subsequently moved on to other unemployment-inducing crises around the world.
An article in The Economist, Real robot talk (from 01 March 2013), revisits the theme of technologically-induced (we might even say technogenic) unemployment from automation and robotics. The article finishes with these wise observations:
“Technological progress sufficient to cause these kinds of dislocations should also generate overall economic gains large enough to make everyone better off. But just because everyone could be made better off by progress doesn’t mean that everyone will be made better off. There must be an institutional framework in place to ensure that the gains from growth are shared.”
However, the rest of the article is not nearly so enlightening. The Economist article offers three possible responses to technogenic unemployment:
1. more education for less skilled workers
2. protecting less skilled jobs through regulation
3. direct wealth transfers
I am struck by the utter lack of imagination in these three proposals. If this is all than an elite publication like The Economist has to offer, clearly we are in serious trouble. The whole idea of trying to educate everyone to the level that the elites believe themselves to have attained begs so many questions that it is difficult to know where to start. Therefore I will limit myself only to the comment that many if not most entrepreneurs are drop outs, and the highly educated work for the entrepreneurs who create companies, and so create jobs and opportunities and increase productivity. As for protecting low skilled jobs, this is perhaps the worst possible suggestion, since it would directly impact the increase in productivity that could potentially free those in wage-slave drudgery from their mechanizable tasks. And direct wealth transfers have been tried, almost always with disastrous results.
A similar recent article that is a sign of the times is The Rise of the Robots by Robert Skidelsky. (I won’t quote Skidelsky, since his website says, “Reprinting material from this Web site without written consent from Project Syndicate is a violation of international copyright law.”) A Manichean contrast between optimists and pessimists runs through Skidelsky’s piece, as though the parties to the argument had nothing on their side except temperamental inclinations.
This isn’t about optimists or pessimists, except in so far as present-day commentators are pessimistic because their banker and journalist friends are feeling the pinch, too. That’s what happens when a persistent recession takes a chunk out of contemporary economic history. When the present downturn has passed — it hasn’t passed yet, and by the time it’s over I suspect many will come to speak of a global “lost decade” — I predict that talk of technogenic unemployment will also pass until the next crisis.
In the longer term of industrial-technological civilization, abundance may yet become a problem, and meaningful work a privilege, but we are a very long way from this being the case. The industrial revolution is only now transforming Asia, and it has yet to transform Africa. The problem of global technogenic unemployment cannot be a persistent economic blight until the global economy entire has been technologically transformed by industrialization — incidentally, the same conditions that must obtain for the experimentum crucis of Marxism (another supposedly disconfirmed idea from history).
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6 March 2013
Frank Knight on risk and uncertainty
Early Chicago school economist Frank Knight was known for his work on risk, and especially for the distinction between risk and uncertainty, which is still taught in economics and business courses. Like Schumpeter, Knight was interested in the function of the entrepreneur in the modern commercial economy, and he employed his distinction between risk and uncertainty in order to illuminate the function of the entrepreneur.
Although it is easy to conflate risk and uncertainty, and to speak as though facing a risk were the same thing as facing uncertain or unknown circumstances, Knight doesn’t see it like this at all. A risk can be quantified and calculated, and because risks can be quantified and calculated, they can be controlled. This is the function of insurance: to quantify and price risk. If you have correctly factored risk into your calculation, it is no longer an uncertainty. You might not know the exact date or magnitude of losses, but you know statistically that there will be a certain number of losses of a certain magnitude. It is the job of actuaries to calculate this, and one buys insurance to control the risk to which one is exposed.
The ordinary business of life, and of business, according to Knight, involves risk management, but the unique function of the entrepreneur is to accept uncertainty that cannot be quantified, priced, or insured. The entrepreneur makes his profit not in spite of uncertainty, but because of uncertainty. No insurance can be bought for uncertainty, so that in taking on an uncertain situation the entrepreneur enters into a realm in which it is recognized that there are factors beyond control. If he is not destroyed financially by these uncontrollable factors, he may profit from them, and this profit is likely to exceed the profit made in ordinary business operations exposed to risk but not to uncertainty.
Here is how Knight formulated his distinction between risk and uncertainty:
To preserve the distinction which has been drawn in the last chapter between the measurable uncertainty and an unmeasurable one we may use the term “risk” to designate the former and the term “uncertainty” for the latter. The word “risk” is ordinarily used in a loose way to refer to any sort of uncertainty viewed from the standpoint of the unfavorable contingency and the term “uncertainty” similarly with reference to the favorable outcome; we speak of the “risk” of a loss, the “uncertainty” of a gain. But if our reasoning so far is at an correct, there is a fatal ambiguity in these terms which must be gotten rid of and the use of the term “risk” in connection with the measurable uncertainties or probabilities of insurance gives some justification for specializing the terms as just indicated. We can also employ the terms “objective” and “subjective” probability to designate the risk and uncertainty respectively, as these expressions are already in general use with a signification akin to that proposed.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, CHAPTER VIII, STRUCTURES AND METHODS FOR MEETING UNCERTAINTY
Knight went on to add…
The practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true, the reason being in general that it is impossible to form a group of instances, because the situation dealt with is in a high degree unique.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, CHAPTER VIII, STRUCTURES AND METHODS FOR MEETING UNCERTAINTY
The growth of knowledge and experience can transform uncertainty into risk if it contextualizes a formerly unique situation in such a way as to demonstrate that it is not unique but belongs to a group of instances. Of the tremendous gains made in the space sciences during the last forty years, during our selective space age stagnation, it could be said that the function of this considerable gain in knowledge has been to transform uncertainty into risk. But this goes only so far.
Even if the boundary between risk and uncertainty can be pushed outward by the growth of knowledge, the same growth of civilization that attends the growth of knowledge and technology means that the boundaries of civilization itself will also be pushed further out, with the result being that we are likely to always encounter further uncertainties even as old uncertainties are transformed by knowledge into risk.
The evolution of the existential risk concept
In many recent posts I have been discussing the idea of existential risk. These posts include, but are not limited to, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Research Questions on Existential Risk, and Six Theses on Existential Risk. The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrom. (I first heard about this at the first 100YSS symposium in Orlando in 2011, when I was talking to Christian Weidemann.)
Nick Bostrom defined existential risk as follows:
Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.
An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.
“Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Nick Bostrom, Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University, Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002)
In his papers on existential risk and the book on Global Catastrophic Risks, Bostrom steadily expanded and refined the parameters of disasters that have (or would have) major adverse consequences for human beings and their civilization.
The table from an early existential risk paper above divides qualitative risks into six categories. the table below from the book Global Catastrophic Risks includes twelve qualitative risk categories and implies another eight; the table further below from a more recent paper includes fifteen qualitative risk categories and implies another nine. From a philosophical point of view, these further distinctions represent in advance in clarity, contextualizing both existential risks and global catastrophic risks in a matrix of related horrors.
The specific possible events that Bostrom describes range from the imperceptible loss of one hair to human extinction. Recently in Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk I tried to point out how further distinctions can be made within the variety of human extinction scenarios, and that some distinct outcomes might be morally preferable over other outcomes. For example, even if human beings were to become extinct, we might want some of our legacy to remain to potentially be discovered by alien species visiting our solar system. Given the presence of space probes throughout our solar system, it seems highly likely that these would survive any human extinction scenario, so that we have left some kind of mark on the cosmos — a cosmic equivalent of “Kilroy was here.”
Further distinction can be made, however, and the distinction that I would like to urge today is that of distinguishing existential risks from existential uncertainties.
The need to explicitly formulate existential uncertainty
Once the distinction is made between existential risks and existential uncertainties, we recognize that existential risks can be quantified and calculated. Ultimately, existential risks can also be insured. The industrial and financial infrastructure is not now in place to do this, although we can clearly see how to do this. And this much is obvious, because much of the discussion of existential risk focuses on potential mitigation efforts. Existential risk mitigation is insurance against extinction.
We can clearly understand that we can guard against the existential risks posed by massive asteroid impacts by a system of observation of objects in space likely to cross the path of the Earth, and building spacecraft that could deflect or otherwise render harmless such threatening asteroids. It was once thought that the appearance of comets or “new stars” (novae) in the sky heralded the death of kings of the end of empires. No longer. This is the perfect example of a former uncertainty that has been transformed into a risk by the growth of knowledge (or, at very least, is in the process of being transformed from an uncertainty into a risk).
We can also clearly see that we could back up the Earth’s biosphere about a truly catastrophic global disaster by transplanting Earth-originating life elsewhere. Far in the future we can even understand the risk of the sun swelling into a red giant and consuming the Earth in its fires — unless by that time we have moved the Earth to an orbit where it remains safe, or perhaps even transported it to another star. All of these are existential risks where “risk” is used sensu stricto.
There are a great many existential risks and global catastrophic risks that have been proposed. When it comes to geological events — like massive vulcanization — or cosmological events — the death of our sun — the sciences of geology and cosmology are likely to mature to the point where these risks are quantifiable, and if industrial-technological civilization continues its path of exponential development, we should also someday have the technology to adequately “insure” against these existential risks.
The vagaries of history and civilization
When it comes to scenarios that involve events and processes not of the variety that contemporary natural science can formulate, we are clearly pushing the envelope of existential risks and verging on existential uncertainties. Such scenarios would include those predicated upon the development of human history and civilization. For example, scenarios of wars of an order of magnitude that far exceed the magnitude of the global wars of the twentieth century are on the outer edges of risk and, as they become more speculative in their formulation, verge onto uncertainty. Similarly, scenarios that involve the intervention of alien species in human history and human civilization — alien invasion, alien enslavement, alien visitation, etc. — verge onto being existential uncertainties.
The anthropogenic existential risks that are of primary concern to Nick Bostrom, Martin Rees, and others — risks from artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, unintended consequences of advanced technologies, and the “gray goo” problem potentially posed by nanotechnology — are similarly problematic as risks, and many must be accounted as uncertainties. In regard to the anthropogenic dimension of many existential uncertainties I am reminded of a passage from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:
“Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know it in exquisite detail. There is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases. The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, CHAPTER II, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
This strikes me as one of the most powerful and important passages in Cosmos. When Sagan writes that, “[t]here is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history,” while leaving open the possibility of a future predictive science of biology and history — he wrote as yet — he squarely recognized that neither biology nor human history (much of which derives more or less directly from biology) can be predicted or quantified or measured in a scientific way. If we had a science of history, such as Marx thought we had discovered, then the potential disasters of human history could be quantified, and we could insure against them.
Well, we can insure against some eventualities of history, though certainly not against all. This is a point that Machiavelli makes:
It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.
I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.
Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, CHAPTER XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her”
What remains beyond the predictable storms of floods of history are the true uncertainties, the unknown unknowns, and these pose a danger we cannot predict, quantify, or insure. They are not, then, risks in the strict sense. They are existential uncertainties.
It could be argued that our inability to take specific, concrete, effective measures to mitigate the obvious uncertainties of life has resulted in religious responses to uncertainty that systematically avoid falsifiability and thereby secure the immunity of hopes to exterior circumstances. Whether or not this has been true in the past, merely the recognition of existential uncertainty is the first step toward rationally assessing them.
Existential risk suggests a clear course of mitigating action; existential uncertainty cannot, on the contrary, be the object of planning and preparation. The most that one can do to address existential uncertainty is to keep oneself open and flexible, ready to roll with the punches, and responsive to any challenge that might arise, meeting it at the height of one’s powers; any attempt to prepare specific measures will be fruitless, and quite possibly counter-productive because of the wasted effort.
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28 November 2012
Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.
Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).
In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.
It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.
To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.
Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.
I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.
The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?
So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).
Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.
Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.
What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.
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3 September 2012
A Reflection for Labor Day
Foucault is perhaps most remembered for his early books, written in a very dense and at times elusive style, which constitute what have been called “critiques of historical reason.” Foucault takes up the ideas of madness, the clinic, prisons, philology, biology, political economy, and eventually (later on) sexuality, providing a staggering wealth of documentation from original source materials, even while one understands that these details are only there to serve a grand plan that is never made quite explicit. I have previously quoted the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who characterized Foucault’s style as, “sweeping summary with eccentric detail” (cf. Foucault’s Formalism). Foucault’s effort owes much to Nietzsche’s earlier efforts to formulate what he called a genealogy of morals. Foucault said that, “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary,” but for Nietzsche it was colorful, inventive, and exciting, and I think these are also qualities that made Foucault’s intellectual genealogies so interesting.
Since Foucault’s fascinating genealogies have appeared, others have taken up the task and gone on to write genealogies of all manner of historical phenomena that had, until recently, been regarded as largely unproblematic. Foucault was the next great “master of suspicion” after Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud (as identified by Paul Ricoeur), and Foucault’s influence has spawned suspicion enough to call into question every received institution of Western civilization. From this perspective, Foucault can be seen as part of a reaction against progressive Whiggish history more than as a continental embodiment of the largely Anglo-American history of ideas, to which genealogy is related, but only distantly.
I wonder if any of Foucault’s followers has written a genealogy of labor — certainly it would be a rich field of study. Foucault discussed labor in his The Order of Things, and even called one chapter of this “Labor, Life, Language,” but Foucault takes up labor from the stand point of the discourse of political economy and not from the stand point of the labor movement. I started thinking of this today when I was writing a post on my other blog about the labor movement in recognition of Labor Day, A Celebration of the American Laborer. A genealogy of labor that brought sweeping summary with eccentric detail to the gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary work of a critique of the historical reason as it underlies the labor movement would be a real achievement, and something that someone ought to take up if they haven’t already done so.
In that post I discussed my discomfiture with labor slogans and the labor movement generally speaking. I did not do justice to my chosen topic because there is so much more to say, but while I was struggling with setting limits to how far I would go in attempting to understand the social semiotics that characterize labor today, which is to say labor in industrial-technological civilization, I realized how easily this topic would play into a Foucauldian critique.
Foucault’s constant drumbeat throughout his critiques of historical reason is that the institutions of contemporary society that we have become accustomed to seeing as expressions of an emerging and growing humanitarianism are rather methodologies of control, and the professionalized discourses in which they are formulated — whether psychiatry or economics or penology — are in fact discourses of power that serve to channel privilege within a society. Although Foucault distinguished himself among philosophers of his generation by sedulously maintaining his distance from Marxism, it would be difficult to imagine a more thorough-going Marxist critique of the oppression of the masses than that formulated by Foucault.
The labor movement has been dominated, intellectually speaking, by those on the left coming from a Marxist perspective (even if, in the US, they could not for obvious socio-political reasons make their Marxism explicit), and as such one ought to expect the labor movement to be part of the critique of power relations in the industrialized world, but the labor movement has itself become a part of that industrial-technological establishment and now would rightly be subject itself to a critique for its professionalized discourse of labor relations and worker protections. The AFL-CIO campaign Work Connects Us All, which I just mentioned on my other blog, is a perfect example of this.
While the labor movement is part of the Marxist tradition as I mentioned above, it is also part of the humanist tradition. In so far as the labor movement is part of that broad social movement that seeks to humanize the institutions of industrialized society, it is vulnerable to the same critique that Foucault leveled against “humane” psychiatry, mental institutions, clinics, and prisons. Just as utopian dreams usually issue in dystopian nightmares, so too humanitarian good intentions more often than not issue in dehumanizing, depersonalizing policies. The “humane” workplace is more and more coming to resemble those other institutions, what Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” that interested Foucault.
In the attempt to make people feel involved, connected, and important by way of their labor, the labor movement must inevitably treat human beings as laborers, and it may well be that, even though the working class spends the greater part of its time engaged in alienated labor, and that this engagement necessarily has a formative influence on life and personality, workers might not want to be identified with their work or reduced to their labor. Some may even feel that this identification with a task they perform in exchange for financial compensation is an insult and slight in view of their other talents and abilities. Certainly not all, but some.
The contemporary workplace has become a regime of observation and documentation and regimentation far more encompassing than Bentham’s panoptican, which latter drew Foucault’s attention and has been a consistent point of reference for Foucault’s followers ever since (I wrote about the panopticon in A Flock of Drones). The panopticon only observed individuals at a particular moment; the regime of workplace surveillance now encompasses the life of the individual entire, from cradle to grave, and in so doing eliminates the personal life. An individual’s history before being employed may be investigated, their pictures and statements on social media examined, they will likely be tested for drugs that have nothing whatsoever to do with their performance on the job, their e-mail, web browsing, and phone calls while working may be monitored, and so long as they are employed they will continued to be monitored on the job and off the job, to whatever invasive extent sanctioned by the professionalized legal discourses constructed as a means to relieve individuals of the responsibility for their own lives. (I’m sure Freud would have had something interesting to say about the professional classes monitoring the urination of the working classes.) Of course, all of these things are done in the name of safety and order and the well-being of all — but aren’t they always?
What has the labor movement done about this unprecedented invasion of privacy? Nothing. What has the labor movement done about the extirpation of the private life? It has contributed to it, by identifying the private life with work, job, career, and professional status. The labor movement has only served to facilitate the institutionalized regimentation of worker’s lives, acting as agents for the powers that be, because they obtain their living by the same means as the owners and the managers they affect to confront.
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15 August 2012
The phrase “creative destruction” is indissolubly linked to Joseph Schumpeter, who coined it. Schumpeter devotes a chapter of his masterpiece, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, to “The Process of Creative Destruction.” It has been observed that Schumpeter’s work was neglected for decades until in the late twentieth century the role of the entrepreneur in economic growth began to be appreciated.
I would argue that half of Schumpeter’s famous phrase continues to be neglected today, since the focus on entrepreneurial activity has primarily taken the form of singing the praises of innovation and the virtues of start ups, without an equal appreciation of the importance of business failure, bankruptcy, and economic collapse, despite the very prominent role that all of these phenomena have in the world today. It has been said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity with Hell, and this comparison is telling, more telling than I think most people realize, because the doctrine of Hell is about as unpopular as the idea of bankruptcy.
What events in recent world history have been more important than, for example, the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the dot com crash, the bankruptcy of Enron, or the bankruptcies of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns? There have been many events of roughly equal importance to these massive examples of the “destructive” phase of “creative destruction,” creative examples among these, but it would be difficult to name obviously more important events that these for shaping the world in which we live.
I think it is probably a little exhilarating for business types and economists to talk about the virtues of innovation, but the exclusive focus on innovation creates a kind of conceptual vacuum around its opposite number, but we are in as much need to innovative forms of business dissolution as for business innovation. The recent financial crisis and the consequent “great recession” (as it is now being called) focused a lot of attention on enterprises that were perceived to be “too big to fail.” That is to say, if very large institutions were allowed to fail catastrophically, the damage throughout the economy could be greater than that of keeping a failing business afloat. “Too big to fail” talk was also a constant accompaniment of many national crises, like that in Greece now, or the Argentine debt default more than ten years ago. I can easily imagine, in this spirit, someone arguing that the Soviet Union was “too big to fail.” In fact, I am certain that there are those who are argued that an engineered “soft landing” for the Soviet Union might have come at a lower human cost than that more or less catastrophic failure that the Soviet Union did indeed experience.
It is just as important for us to rid ourselves of what we no longer need as to innovate new products that are suddenly the thing that everyone needs. In my discussion of technological succession I emphasized that apparently exponential technological growth is often the result of several overlapping technologies succeeding each other in quick succession. This has certainly been the case with personal computers, as one generation of technology has rapidly succeeded another, and people have thrown out one computer after another as technology advances so quickly that the old computers are not merely inconvenient, but essentially useless.
There have been many news stories about computer waste, so if an individual wants to be informed about the process, the information is there for the taking. I recommend, rather than reading some news stories, watching the film Manufactured Landscapes, about the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, in which you can see the painstaking work in a Chinese village of breaking up old computer parts, as well as the much larger scale but essentially parallel task of the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh.
It isn’t just individual objects like computers and ships that must be destroyed, or simply abandoned and allowed to sink into the landscape. In my post on Failed Cities I suggested that the process applies to entire cities as well:
“…industrial succession is part of the Industrial Revolution, and that the civilization that has emerged from industrialized societies is a civilization that must reckon with the industrial succession that comes with the Industrial Revolution. The rational approach to this would be to plan for cities to emerge around particular technologies, and for these same cities to be abandoned gradually as that same technology inevitably becomes obsolete.”
Ideally, the rational approach to obviously temporary supply chains would to build the facilities with the intention that they will be taken down and taken apart when this particular industrial process is succeeded by another industrial process. Unfortunately, civilization has not yet reached the point at which this level of planning and foresight can be integrated into large scale business operations.
In another sense, however, cities do in fact embody this idea — cities actually embody creative destruction — in the way that the build environment on the whole is always in flux. The same film I mentioned above in connection with computer waste disposal, Manufactured Landscapes, also features the ever-changing urban landscape of Shanghai.
Cities that have been continuously inhabited for long periods of time are inevitably built up and built over, sometimes intentionally destroyed no longer useful structures, and sometimes having existing structures destroyed by war or natural disasters. This is what makes cities so fascinating to archaeologists, since anywhere you dig is likely to reveal the history of the site in the layers below ground.
The city, then, considered from the perspective of the big picture and la longue durée, are or ought to be the model for the economy overall, which suggests that cities are the macroscopic model of rebuilding that needs to be realized on a microscopic level throughout the economy. We need an urbanism of objects to take control of our economic innovation and dissolution. Perhaps most macro-economic planning has been a failure in part due to the fact that it has not been conceived in this way.
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