On worrying about the future
Berkeley recently started a small program of
"Big Ideas" courses, and it occurs to me
that one appropriate topic might be
The Future: things to be optimistic about and things to worry about.
I claim no professional expertise, but as part of my own Probability in the real world
course I talk about
whether one can estimate probabilities for possible short-term geopolitical or economic
events, or longer-term risks. This is perhaps not wholly unconnected with my
personal interest in SF (science fiction). So over the years I have rather haphazardly
encountered different sources of speculation about the future on the worry side.
The time scale I focus on is "one generation ahead": my 20 year old students may not
be running the world then, but they will be certainly be engaged with it!
The impetus for this essay was reading the responses
(available free online
or in book form here)
to the 2013 annual Edge Question What Should We Be Worried About?
This consists of 155 short (1-3 page) essays by academics (mostly scientists, interpreted broadly)
and would-be public intellectuals and authors.
Before commenting on this, let me mention, for comparison purposes, two other sources
for thinking or worrying about the future.
1. A portion of "serious" SF -- that is,
not Hollywood movies or "young adult" best sellers -- involves the society and technology
of possible futures one or two generations ahead.
The SF editor Gardner Dozois, writing in 2015, remarks that there is currently a SF
"consensus future" which he describes as follows.
A linked-in, hooked-up, continuous surveillance society, profoundly shaped by social media
and the internet, set in a world radically altered by climate change (but one where it hasn't
gone to civilization-destroying lengths), featuring autonomous drones, bioengineering,
cybernetic implants, cyborgs of one degree or another of extremeness, wearable computers,
the manipulation of emotions and memory (sometimes by external means), AIs, renewable energy,
in which 3D printing is being used to produce almost everything.
2. A rather different perspective is provided by
the 2016 version of the annual
World Economic Forum Global Risks Report.
This seeks to estimate likelihood and severity (measured primarily by economic impact) of
about thirty risks (listed at the bottom of ghis page) over the coming 10 years.
So ......... What Should We Be Worried About?
Returning to the 155 Edge Question essays,
they naturally cover a lot of topics (while missing many more),
and naturally have different styles of writing.
A reader content to come away with a handful of new thoughts will surely be quite content.
But I personally was looking out for three categories of essay:
novel interesting worries, or authoritative descriptions of more familiar ones, or
incisive "musings" about the future.
And from this perspective I found most essays rather disappointing.
However let me start with positive comments in each of those categories.
Amongst "novel interesting worries" I only rated one as a standout:
Amongst "authoritative descriptions of more familiar ones" I noted
consecutive essays by Melanie Swan and Stanislas Dehaene on the science and potential consequences
of possible future "reading your brain" technology.
David Berreby analyzed the economic, political and cultural effects of worldwide aging demographics;
Robert Kurzban analyzed likely effects of the skewed sex ratio in China;
Esther Dyson observed that increasing personalized medical knowledge raises the
question whether society should pay for conditions known to be partly
caused by individual choices;
Satyajit Das observed that
"current economic, political and social systems are predicated on endless economic
expansion an related improvement in living standards"
and Laurence C. Smith points out "if everyone alive today were to adopt the
lifestyle of [current Westerners], global
resource consumption would rise elevenfold"
Victoria Stodden laments that a promise of the web -- consistent use of hyperlinks to sources
of asserted facts -- has not materialized;
and Brian Eno commented "We don't do politics. We expect other people to do it
for us, and we grumble when they get it wrong".
Now we are segueing into "musings":
- Dylan Evans' idea that democracy is "a historical cul-de-sac that doesn't lead anywhere better" is
at least unconventional, albeit not convincing to me;
- Steven Pinker was as sharp as ever on "the real risk factors for war";
- George Dyson commented that,
rather than just worrying about the Internet going down (Daniel Dennett),
we should devise a low-bandwidth safe restart;
- Evgeny Morozov musesd about side-effects of "smart" Silicon Valley solutions;
- John Tooby argued
"because intellectuals are densely networked in self-selecting groups whose members' prestige is
linked ...... we incubate endless self-serving elite superstitions":
forcefully put, even though
you and I might disagree about exactly which consensus beliefs are superstitions.
Topics and tone of the Edge essays
On the negative side, I will not critique individual essays,
but rather comment on the more common types of topic and tones of discussion in the collection.
12 of the essays were about worry itself, but provided me with little insight beyond
"a modest level of worry is usually best" (Robert Provine), though
Joel Gold gave a useful reminder of the prevalence of anxiety disorder.
B. There were a surprising prevalence of different worries about baleful consequences of the
internet, social media etc. At the individual level:
At the societal level:
- the internet gives only superficial knowledge (Gavin Schmidt, Tania Lombrozo);
- the end of hardship or focus or patience in learning (Adam Alter, Nicholas Humphrey, Nicholas Carr);
- social media replacing physical interaction (Marcel Kinsbourne) and degrading literacy (David Gelernter);
- loss of physical skills (Susan Blackmore, Christine Finn) or powers of "close observation" (Ursula Martin);
- augmented reality (William Poundstone) or virtual reality games (Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi)
and disconnection from the natural world (Scott Sampson);
- and that online personal material will never go away (Juan Enriquez, with the nice
"digital tats" metaphor).
I found these surprising because these worries are commonplace and surely already familiar to
Edge readers. And easily satirized by references to analogous worries through recorded history
While future speculation is necessarily mostly evidence-free,
a refreshing antidote was Jonathan Gottschall's more evidence-based argument that we
worry too much about fictional violence.
Rather that analyzing which specific worries turned out well-founded, I suspect that
future historians will comment on the fact that we have implicitly conducted an unplanned
uncontrolled worldwide experiment
on the effect of e-devices on mental development of young children and teenagers
without any prior knowledge of or research into the likely effects
(Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Sherry Turkle).
A more specific observation is that, if we accept the results of a (search engines) search for,
say, "dictators of the world"
as definitive, then we are handing over the judgment of "what is a dictator" to an algorithm (W. Daniel Hikkis).
- internet politics has created "a bottom-up culture with a dumbing-down effect"
on politics (Bruce Parker);
- with Balkanized groups -- "internet silos" -- of like-minded people (Larry Sanger);
- technology-induced inequality (David Bodanis);
- governmental/corporate control of the internet (Bruce Schneier).
There were many worries about science itself.
Some were external: worrying about
this accompanied by a rather anachronistic essay
asserting that the complex of poverty-large families-religiosity-poor education will
lower IQ in future generations and increase anti-science sentiment (Douglas T. Kendrick).
- a general anti-science climate amongst parts of the public and
parts of the political or socio-economic elite
(Tim O'Reilly, Timothy Taylor, Matt Ridley, Helena Cronin, Frank Wilczek, Leo M. Chalupa);
- not recognizing science as contributing to welfare (Neil Gershenfeld);
- irrational anti-vaccine campaigns (J. Craig Venter);
- the failure of media to communicate science effectively (Barbara Starch, Michael I. Norton);
- data illiteracy (David Rowan) or poor understanding of uncertainty (Aubrey de Grey);
- that the public "will become irrationally impatient with science" for not meeting
all expectations quickly (Stuart Fierstein);
Moving to worries more internal to science, we find
- science being identified with high-tech and business (Colin Tudge, Nicholas A. Cristakis);
- that pressure to publish and obtain funding inhibits non-standard or
non-immediate-impact research (Gino Segre, Bruce Hood);
- the "demise of the scholar" via replacement by MOOCS (Daniel L. Everett);
- that academic science journals do not value replication of experiments (Marco Iacoboni);
- and continued discussion of "the two cultures" (Anton Zeilinger, Simon Baron-Cohen)
with the Druid/Engineer divide (Paul Saffo) as a cute analogous divergence of world-view.
In contrast to the topics above, there was a curious lack of worries about consequences of
specific other aspects of science and technology;
indeed the only ones firmly in that category regarding what science is doing concerned
There were however several worries about what science is not doing:
- synthetic biology (Seirian Sumner);
- "genomic instability" (Eric J. Topol);
- new illegal drugs (Thomas Metzinger).
It is intriguing that no essay focused on climate change, though it did appear as background --- perhaps
on a "preaching to the choir" principle?
- little progress on tackling cancer (Xeni Jardin, Azra Raza);
- "the failure of genomics for mental disorders" (Terrence J. Sejnowski);
- missing to opportunity to "tip viruses over the error catastrophe threshold" (William McEwan);
- that the science of psychology studies why some people are "bad" but does not ask why
other people are "good"
(Karl Sabbath: though theoretical evolutionary biology discusses this at great length);
- not putting more
money into "curing aging" (Antony Garrett Lisi, partly countered by Kate Jeffery).
There were several essays on the general topic of fragility of modern interconnected
systems of different kinds
(Randolph Nesse, Steven Strogatz, Scott Atran, Peter Schwartz); these
struck me as both over-vague and over-familiar, and sometimes based on
absurdly superficial analogies with physics or biology (Seth Lloyd, Stuart Kauffman, Kirsten Bomblies.).
A set of essays by theoretical physicists (Lisa Randall, Peter Woit, Amanda Gefter, Steve Giddings,
Mario Livio, Leo Smolin, Lawrence M. Krauss) betrayed a
bizarrely Sheldon Cooper-like self-absorption -- essentially they are all worried only
by the fact that they don't completely understand all the laws of physics ( FYI, we never thought you did).
Worrying that theoretical physicists have drifted into fantasy (Carlo Rovelli) is perhaps
now more understandable.
There was a refreshingly small amount of implausible SF.
Worries about the
singularity were articulated by Max Tegmark, but countered by Bruce Sterling and Andy Clark.
David Dalrymple wrote about posthumanism, and
Gregory Benford expressed retro enthusiasm for interplanetary engineering, while
Ed Regis pointed out that interstellar human travel is not remotely feasible, and
Seth Shostak told us not to worry about aliens hearing us.
Perhaps the only substantial point here is that
"we are in denial about catastrophic risks" to humanity (Martin Rees, Gary Marcus).
H. Moving away from scientific topics, the essays become
harder for me to categorize. There was curiously little about politics:
Haim Harari explicitly worried "technology may endanger democracy", a worry implicit in
some earlier essays;
Eduardo Salcedo-Aldeban worried about
failed states due to criminality;
Daniel Haun worried about lack of
international cooperation in general, and Giulio Boccaletti analyzed the
global water crisis, pointing out the difficulties in international
and inter-stakeholder cooperation.
There was also curiously little about economics.
In addition to the essays by Satyajit Das and Laurence C. Smith
mentioned before, essays pointed out the
"social limits to growth" idea that material progress makes positional
(status-seeking) goods more out of reach (Rolf Dobelli) and is only part of a
"good life" (David Christian);
and the more specific political-economic issue of regulatory capture (Charles Seife).
But the general tone of the science essays resembled
bad SF in the sense of ignoring or only superficially engaging economic issues,
aside from self-interested complaints about funding and some
general distaste for profit-seeking.
Some of the worries might be described as concerning the individual in relation to society:
Eric R. Weinstein provided a counterpoint to the "the best is the enemy of the good" saying
by arguing in rather overblown prose that "excellence is the enemy of genius", and
Michael Vassar argues that identifying "smart" with "learns quickly" leads to a
population submissive to authority.
- stress (Arianna Huffington);
- hubristic pride and dishonesty (Jessica L. Tracy);
- that the prison system is an example of bad incentives (Sam Harris);
- that too many children do not have a stable nurturing varied childhood (Alison Gopnik).
The remaining essays, perhaps a quarter of the total,
strike me as off-topic (e.g. musings on free will)
or overly specialized,
or overly vague,
or boring rants,
or just too hard to summarize.
Do I have a bottom line?
Well, not really.
As said earlier, let me use the "SF consensus future" above and the Global Risks Report (GRR) below
The fact there is little overlap between the Edge topics and the GRR topics is in one sense
The GRR topics are intended as plausible rather than speculative risks --
an analysis of comparative risks mostly familiar to readers interested in the future
Edge authors likely deliberately choose topics that they regard as less familiar.
As noted before, the GRR topics are explicitly those with economic impact, whereas many of
the Edge essays pay too attention to real world economics.
Turning to the SF topics, it was surprising that Edge essays were not much concerned with
technology beyond internet-related issues.
Writing this review several years after the Edge essays were written
allows one to see some overlooked risks which materialized:
state surveillance, Islamic State-like entities, massive refugee movements,
and populist demagoguery in Western countries, for a start.
Risks in the Global Risks Report
Asset bubble in a major economy
Deflation in a major economy
Failure of a major financial mechanism or institution
Failure/shortfall of critical infrastructure
Fiscal crises in key economies
High structural unemployment or underemployment
Illicit trade (e.g. illicit financial flow, tax evasion, human trafficking, organized crime, etc.)
Severe energy price shock (increase or decrease)
Extreme weather events (e.g. floods, storms, etc.)
Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation
Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse (land or ocean)
Major natural catastrophes (e.g. earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, geomagnetic storms)
Man-made environmental catastrophes (e.g. oil spill, radioactive contamination, etc.)
Failure of national governance (e.g. failure of rule of law, corruption, political deadlock, etc.)
Interstate conflict with regional consequences
Large-scale terrorist attacks
State collapse or crisis (e.g. civil conflict, military coup, failed states, etc.)
Weapons of mass destruction
Failure of urban planning
Large-scale involuntary migration
Profound social instability
Rapid and massive spread of infectious diseases
Adverse consequences of technological advances
Breakdown of critical information infrastructure and networks
Massive incident of data fraud/theft