Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Set Theory for Futurists

“Permitted in principle by the laws of physics” is a larger set of propositions than “stuff that can be plausibly engineered” is a larger set of propositions than “stuff people actually want” is a larger set of propositions than “stuff people are willing to pay for” is a larger set of propositions than “things people still want in the longer-term that they wanted enough to pay for in the shorter-term.”

Glib futurist types are of course notoriously quick to pronounce outcomes “immanent” and “inevitable” (genetically-engineered immortality! nanotech abundance! uploading consciousness! superintelligent AI! bigger penises!), just because a survey of science implies to them that an outcome they especially desire or dread is “permitted in principle by the laws of physics.” But nested within that set like concentric rings on a tree-trunk are ever more restricted and more plausible sets, of which the target set at the center is the set of things people tend to still want enough over the longer-term that they are satisfied to pay (or have paid) for them.

I think it is a good exercise, and sometimes a good penance, for futurists to take special care around their use of the word "inevitable" to describe outcomes that are radically different from states of affairs that obtain today. My suspicion is that this is a word technophiles actually use more to signal the attitude, "okay, I'm not interested in arguing with you anymore if you don't accept the plausibility of the whatever wild-eyed future outcome I find especially appealing or appalling myself." Too often, “inevitable” is a word that signals an inability to chart an intelligible sequence of developmental stages that could plausibly delineate a path from where we are to whatever superlative state is imagined to be likely and attractive. And by plausible, I mean both technically and politically plausible.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Okay, I think this post makes a very good point. Focusing too much on "its allowed by the laws of physics!" is probably a bad way to phrase arguments for the arrival of radically new physical structures in the relatively near future. The concentric ring visualization is a good one.

But it is worth noting that the range of physical structures a single unaided human or small group of humans can manufacture has steadily been increasing throughout history - nanofactories will allow the synthesis of any chemically stable structure, as long as we possess a sequence of instructions for the creation of that structure. Since nanofactories would use raw materials as feedstock, the "stuff people are willing to pay for" circle would push up against the "what people actually want circle", and due to the flexibility of mechanosynthesis, the "stuff that can be plausibly engineered" circle will expand to fill a healthy percentage of the "permitted in principle by the laws of physics" circle.

-Michael Anissimov