Re: Question from Wired magazine

Robin Hanson (
Wed, 23 Jun 1999 16:02:53 -0700

At 11:05 PM 6/22/99 -0700, you wrote:
>Greetings, Extropians, this is Alex Heard ... I'm an editor at Wired
>magazine. We're planning an issue on futurism for later this year. The
>basic idea is to look at various future-y things we all want but don't have
>yet -- life extension, citizens-in-space, better computers, personal flying
>machines, teleporting, head transplants* -- and unapologetically ask: Why
>don't we have them and when the heck are we getting them?
>We're trying to combine a sense of fun with serious reporting about these
>topics. If you have a chance, please email me here or at
>to discuss things you'd like to see in the issue, suggest ideas, sources,
>other people we should talk to, etc. Our hope is not to redo the same old
>ideas, but come up with things that will seem fresh and interesting to
>people like you, who think about these issues more intelligently than most

Hi. I have a lot of original perspectives on the future. Most of them are probably not appropriate for your issue however. [Btw, I authored a Wired article: ]

One perspective that I would like to see elaborated, however, is the idea that world *is* in fact rather different, but doesn't look radically different exactly because most people don't *want* it to look much different. This contrasts with the goal of SF authors/readers to portray a shockingly different future, and explains why the real future looks more familiar than the old SF future.

That is, the world economy doubles every fifteen years, so it is now about four times larger than in 1969. Such growth just doesn't happen by making three more copies of the same old economy; it happens by reinventing most everything to be more efficient, etc. And we have in truth seen great change all over the place, if you look beneath the surface.

We mostly don't want the world to change, however. That is, each of us has made massive investments in learning how to deal with the world, and while we don't mind if things change behind the scenes, we are pissed when those changes affect how we interact with the world. Change the car engine anyway you want, but don't replace my steering wheel with a joystick unless it'll help me drive lots better. So the world tries its durndest to minimize how much we must adapt, searching hard for ways to make the new seem like small and manageable variations on the old.

Science fiction and "sunday supplement futurism", in contrast, sell shock value, which is an elemental form of entertainment. So SF authors seek marginally plausible changes and then frame them in a way to make them seem maximally alien. This helps us see the range of possibilities of new technology, and to explore our humanity by imagining how we might respond to really radical change.

A century ago, it seems, the future was stranger than it is today. Part of this is that we were then dealing with some really radical new techs, like electricity, phones, refrigerators, etc. But part of it is also that we have learned better to keep changes behind the scenes, and to frame them so as to make them seem familiar.

So to address you question, shockingly different futurisms won't come for a long time, if ever, unless they have real strong advantages, or until folks find ways to make them not look so shocking. For example, lots of people living in space may not happen for another whole century, because living in space is hard to hide from people, and the economic benefits just aren't that strong.

I do think, however, we have reason to expect some big changes which we won't be able to hide behind the scenes:

Very fast economic growth: 
Loss of physical privacy: 
"uploaded" humans: 
For these changes, I'm guessing the economic pressures will be strong enough to overcome aversion to visible change.

Robin Hanson   
RWJF Health Policy Scholar             FAX: 510-643-8614 
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 510-643-1884 after 8/99: Assist. Prof. Economics, George Mason Univ.