Category: <span>Newsletter</span>

Eschatologist #4: Turning the Knob of Safety to 11

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In the previous newsletter we told of how we discovered the Temple of Technology, with wall after wall of knobs that give us control over society. At least that’s what we, in our hubris, assume the knobs of technology will do. 

Mostly that assumption is correct. Though on occasion an overager grad student will sneak out under cover of darkness and turn one knob all the way to the right. And, as there are so many knobs, it can be a long time before we realize what has happened.

But we are not all over-eager graduate students. Mostly we are careful, wise professors, and we soberly consider which knobs should be turned. We have translated many of the symbols, but not all. Still, out of those we have translated one seems very clear. It’s the symbol for “Safety”.

Unlike some of the knobs, everyone agrees that we should turn this knob all the way to the right. Someone interjects that we should turn it up to 11. The younger members of the group laugh. The old, wise professors don’t get the joke, but that’s okay because even if the joke isn’t clear, the consensus is. Everyone agrees that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to choose any setting other than maximum safety. 

The knob is duly “turned up to 11” and things seem to be going well. Society is moving in the right direction. Unsafe products are held accountable for deaths and injuries. Standards are implemented to prevent unsafe things from happening again. Deaths from accidents go down. Industrial deaths plummet. Everyone is pleased with themselves. 

Though as things progress there is some weirdness. The knob doesn’t work quite the way people expect. The effects can be inconsistent.

  • Children are safer than ever, but that’s not what anyone thinks. Parents are increasingly filled with dread. Unaccompanied children become almost extinct. 
  • Car accidents remain persistently high. Numerous additional safety features are implemented, but people engage in risk compensation, meaning that the effect of these features is never as great as expected.
  • Antibiotics are overprescribed, and rather than making us safer from disease they create antibiotic resistant strains which are far more deadly. 

Still despite these unexpected outcomes no one suggests adjusting the safety knob.

Then one day, in the midst of vaccinating the world against a terrible pandemic it’s discovered that some of the vaccines cause blood clots. That out of every million people who receive the vaccine one will die from these clots. Immediately restrictions are placed on the vaccines. In some places they’re paused, in other places they’re discontinued entirely. The wise old professors protest that this will actually cause more people to die from the pandemic then would ever die from the clots, but by this point no one is listening to them. 

In our hubris we thought that turning the knob “up to 11” would result in safe technology. But no technology is completely safe, such a thing is impossible. No, this wasn’t the knob for safety, it was for increasing the importance of our perception of safety.

  • When the government announces that a vaccine can cause blood clots we perceive it as being unsafe. Even though vaccines prevent a far greater danger.
  • We may understand antibiotic resistance, but wouldn’t it be safer for us if we got antibiotics just in case?
  • Nuclear power is perceived as obviously unsafe because it’s the same process that goes into making nuclear weapons. 
  • And is any level of safety too great for our children? 

Safety is obviously good, but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward. While we were protecting our children from the vanishingly small chance that they would be abducted by a stranger the danger of social media crept in virtually undetected. While we agonize over a handful of deaths from the vaccine thousands die because they lack the vaccine. The perception of safety is not safety. Turning the knobs of technology have unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences. Even the knob labelled safety.

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Eschatologist #3: Turning the Knobs of Society

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When I ended my last newsletter, I promised to name the hurricane of change and disruption which is currently sitting just off the coast gathering strength. Indeed “Change” and “Disruption” could both serve as names for this hurricane. But I want to dig deeper. 

This change and disruption haven’t arisen from nowhere, it’s clearly driven by the ever accelerating pace of technology and progress. Which is to say this isn’t a natural hurricane. It’s something new, something we have created.

This is in part why naming it is so difficult. New phenomena require new words, new ways of thinking. 

Perhaps a metaphor would help. I want you to imagine that we’re explorers, that we’re somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, or in a remote Siberian valley. In the course of our exploration we come across an ancient temple, barely recognizable after the passage of the centuries. As we clear away the vegetation we uncover some symbols. They are related to a language we know, but are otherwise very ancient. We can’t be entirely sure, but after consulting the experts in our group we think the symbols identify it as a place where one can control the weather. This seems unbelievable, but when we finally clear enough of the vegetation and rubble away to enter the building, we discover a wall covered in simple knobs. Each of these knobs can be turned to the right or the left, and each is labeled with another set of faded symbols.

An overeager graduate student sees the symbol for “rain” above one of the knobs. He runs over and turns it slightly to the right. Almost immediately, through the still open portal, you see rain drops begin to fall. The grad student turns it back to the left, and the rain stops. He then turns it as far as he can to the right, and suddenly water pours from the sky and thunder crashes in the distance.

Technology and progress are like finding that abandoned temple with its wall full of knobs, but instead of allowing us to control the weather, the temple of progress and technology seems to contain knobs for nearly anything we can imagine. It allows us to control the weather of civilization. But just like our imaginary explorers the symbols are unclear. Sometimes we have an idea, sometimes we just have to turn the knob and see what happens.

One of the first knobs we found was labeled with the symbol for energy. Or at least that was our hope. We immediately turned it to the right, and we’ve been turning it to the right ever since. As we did so, coal was mined, and oil gushed out of the ground. It was only later we realized that the knob also spewed CO2 into the air, and pollution into the skies. 

More recently we’ve translated the symbol for social connectivity. Mark Zuckerberg and other overeager graduate students turned that knob all the way to the right, giving us a worldwide community, but also echo chambers of misinformation and anger. 

As time goes on, we interpret more symbols, and uncover more knobs. And if the knob seems good we always start by turning it all the way to the right. And if the knob seems bad we always turn it all the way to the left. Why wouldn’t we want to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad? But very few things are either all good or all bad, and perhaps the knobs were set in the position we found them in for a reason.

One thing is clear, no one has the patience to wait until we completely understand the function of the knobs and the meaning of the mysterious symbols, least of all overeager grad students.

Both civilization and weather are complicated and chaotic things. It has been said that a butterfly flapping its wings in Indonesia might cause a hurricane in the Atlantic. If that’s what a butterfly can do, what do you think the effect of turning hundreds of knobs in a weather control temple will be?

Essentially that’s what we’ve done. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve generated a hurricane. And perhaps the simplest name for this hurricane is hubris.

It might surprise you to find out that extended metaphors aren’t cheap. Sure they may seem essentially free, but there’s a lot of hidden costs, not the least of which is the ongoing pension to the widows left behind by those who go too deep into a metaphor and never return. If you’d like to help support those left behind by these tragedies consider donating.

Eschatologist #2 – Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988?

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We can’t talk about things ending without wandering into the domain of prediction. Even if we deem something “very unlikely”, we’re still making a prediction. We’re predicting that it’s possible, or perhaps more importantly, not impossible.

Eschatology encompasses a lot of things, but if we’re making it simple it’s just the study of how big, important things end. This immediately presents a difficulty—big, important things rarely end. 

Things don’t get to be big and important if they’re ephemeral. But rare is not the same as never, and when big, important things do end, the impact, either for good or ill, is huge. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, these endings are difficult to prepare for. Though I know that the pandemic feels more like a big, important thing beginning. I think most of the difficulties arise from what it ended: normality. 

Normality may not seem like much, but it’s one of the biggest and most important things of all. It would be nice if we could have had some warning, but the whole point is that predicting when big, important things are going to end is basically impossible.

How then should we prepare for these rare, impactful events? Should we just prepare for the worst? Is the lesson of the pandemic that we should all have a bunker with guns and canned goods? Or at least a six month supply of toilet paper? Perhaps. Certainly it is costly to prepare for the worst, but historically there are always situations where such preparation is more than worth it.

For example, imagine if you were a Jew in Poland in 1937. However inconvenient it might have been to take your family to America, it would have been far better than any outcome which involved staying in Poland. Yes, you may not have spoken the language. Yes, immigration might have been costly and difficult. Yes, you may have left friends and family and your home. But anything would have been better than what did happen.

Some people will argue that while all of this is obvious in hindsight, could you really expect the Polish Jews to foresee all that was coming in 1937? Well certainly some of the signs were there. Hitler had already been in power for four years. And if you had waited to be sure you would have waited too long. We can never be sure what the future holds. Our hypothetical Jew could have fled Poland in 1937 only to have Hitler assassinated in November of 1939 by Johann Georg Elser, setting history on an entirely different, and possibly better path.

In other words, it could have very easily ended up being a bad idea to make huge sacrifices in order to flee Poland. As an actual example of this, two brothers crafted a daring plan to rescue their remaining brother from East Berlin in May of 1989, risking possible death, when all they had to do was wait six months for the wall to come down.

In many respects this is the question we’re all faced with. Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988? Are the bad times about to end or are they just beginning? Will normality ever return? These are difficult questions, but their difficulty is precisely what makes them important.

After reading the title, I’m sure most of you are expecting an answer. Is 2021 more like 1937 or 1988? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But there are always signs. This newsletter is about identifying and interpreting those signs—of pointing out which way the wind is blowing.

So which way is the wind blowing? Well I’m forecasting a hurricane, but naming that hurricane will have to wait till next month.

If that sounds interesting…

Then check back in March—same time, same place. Or subscribe to the newsletter. There’s a link at the top of the page.

The Eschatologist #1: Two Paths Forward

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It’s the end of the month, so it’s once again time to talk about the end of the world…

When I was a boy I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the year 2000. I’m not sure how much of it was due to the perceived importance of a new millennium, how much of it was due to the difficulties of extrapolation, and how much of it was due to my religious upbringing. (Let’s get that out of the way up front. I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or what most people call Mormons.) 

I think, even had I been able to imagine something past the year 2000, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. It seems not enough has changed. The common complaint is, “Where’s my flying car?” Because instead, we’ve ended up with something very different, as this observation I came across on Reddit illustrates:

I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.

I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

People still talk about the wondrous technology that awaits us, things like artificial superintelligence, fusion reactors, and an end to aging—any one of which would dramatically change the world. But none of that is the stuff we did get. Instead, we got things like social media, which has gone a long way towards enabling those “arguments with strangers”. 

Technology has always had the capability of causing huge harms as well as bringing huge benefits. But in the past these harms were obvious, things like nuclear weapons or pollution, but increasingly the harms are more subtle. People talk seriously of a second civil war, and if such a calamity comes to pass social media will have played a large role. This is not the role people expected social media to play when it first entered the scene. Most expected it would be a way to connect the world and bring us all together—not tear us apart.

From all of this we can draw three conclusions:

  1. Certain technologies, like fusion power or immortality are so great that when they arrive we will pass into “The Future”—the end of the old world and the beginning of the new.
  2. Other technologies like nuclear weapons or fossil fuel extraction could be so bad that we also pass into “The Future”, but rather than a utopia it’s an apocalypse.
  3. It may not be obvious which category a technology falls into until significant time has passed, enough time that it may be difficult to undo the harmful effects.

I mentioned my religious background and in religion they have a whole discipline around discussing the end of the world. It’s called eschatology, and I’ve decided to be an eschatologist. But rather than view things through strictly a religious lens, I intend to engage with the entire universe of potential endings, some good, most bad, many subtle—with a focus on the subtle, bad ones.

Technology allows us to move with greater and greater speed, but it’s not always clear where we’re headed in such a hurry, and the road ahead is treacherous. When I first started writing on this topic, back in 2016, I was inspired by a verse in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

My hope is that none of those three things are true. My worry is that all of them are.

This is part of a new project I’m doing, a short monthly newsletter. I hope it will be the means of bringing my content to a broader audience. If you liked it consider signing up for the newsletter or sharing it with someone. As number of subscribers is something of a success metric these days, it would be nice if you did.