Monday, July 25, 2016

Trending out the big picture

Economist Tyler Cowen recently gave an excellent short talk that synthesizes and expands upon some of the core themes he's been commenting on recently. The talk is about 25 minutes, and starts at 3:15. Other speakers at the symposium weren't too remarkable.

The topic is so broad and loosely defined that it shouldn't really be understood as social science in any rigorous sense. But listing a bunch of speculative Big Theories is fun and interesting, and I think there's a lot of truth in many of his points.

I'd add another one that fits alongside several of the trends he identifies: the lack of an empty frontier.

The type of high-risk, high-reward strategies than many men have historically sought out are increasingly costly to initiate and maintain… and are filled with more paperwork. Labor markets are bigger and more competitive, and hiring is more efficient. Decreasing religiosity and wider adoption of individualistic, human-rights, and happiness-oriented moralities are not at all geared towards mass questing and exploration. Seeking glory within one's small, local domain is less and less satisfying and meaningful in an age where global winners are visible everywhere and always on the internet.

These issues might not be relevant for much (or even most) of the global population, which is still conquering its own local frontier by rapidly climbing out of poverty. Indeed, even for many rich-world groups, living a life of personal enrichment and happiness and modest service to others is the greatest goal.

But for those more consumed with questions of meaning and the need to 'make a difference', we see increasing confusion, nihilism and depression.

Outside of some relatively small disciplines in science and technology (and supportive businesses/institutions), people's ability to directly connect to the greater project of human material advancement--to live on the global frontier--is increasingly limited.

Call it 'alienation', 'post-materialist values', 'the great stagnation', 'science-is-hard-and-getting-harder'; whatever. The result is that many educated, rich-world people gravitate to art, culture, social justice and policy advocacy. That's fine: those are all worthy and important areas, and certainly progress there does typically make people better-off (sometimes massively).

But welfare-oriented social, cultural and political progress is quite different from the righteous expansion of human territory and technological capacity, the former of which is closed off to us now.


There's a trivial meme on the internet that says,

Born too late to explore the earth
Born too early to explore the galaxy
Born just in time to browse dank memes

It's obviously a throwaway joke, but in a deep sense it rings true. Our current age is one of interior improvement and refinement. That is not sustainable. If a new unexplored continent suddenly arose from the sea, there is no doubt in my mind that the psychic release and resultant land-rush would attract huge numbers of disaffected brutes searching for adventure and glory, willing to sacrifice everything. That says something beautiful about the human spirit, but it's also a little scary.

As more and more people reach post-material existence yet are unable to contribute to the story of hard technological progress in a significant way, it seems absolutely essential to manufacture a new frontier that people can feel involved in. No amount of happiness or justice or cultural creativity will fill that void.

Especially given what we now know about existential risk and the absolute moral imperative of colonizing space, more funding for NASA and basic research, as well as discussing space more often in the public arena is recommended.

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