Re: The Problem with Futurism

Technotranscendence (
Fri, 25 Sep 1998 07:37:50 -0400 (EDT)

At 03:37 PM 9/24/98 -0700, Robin Hanson <> wrote:
>So when talking about the future, people mainly craving media attention
>tend to say more extreme things, and academics tend to only state
>estimates based on evidence they can point to. This tends to bias
>academic estimates toward the future being more like today. Others see
>this bias and try to "balance" it with more extreme estimates. In the
>end savvy citizens and reporters expect visionaries and science fiction
>authors to overestimate change, while academics and others seeking to
>show their technical knowledge underestimate it.
>This situation has terrible costs. Max doesn't get quoted when he says
>moderate things, and I get my papers rejected by academic journals if
>they are about big future changes. The only solution I can see is to
>carve out a new niche, a place with a reputation for having incentives
>rewarding accurate estimates about the future. Idea futures might do
>it were it legal. Till then, I want to help build communities of
>discourse where any futuristic topic is fair game, but which also have
>high standards of care and rigor in arguments presented.

This happened before in history and continues to happen now. The basic thing we are looking at here is how the mainstream views people and groups who think differently. In this case, anyone who predicts the status quo (in politics or medicine or technology) will cease to exist in a few years is going to be seen as a bit of a kook.

And what usually happens, if enough people jump on board with the alleged kook(s) is a movement starts. The movement then creates its own organs (e.g., clubs, publications, conferences) and its own "mainstream." As it grows, it may become more respected by the wider mainstream in which it exists. Typically, the movement begins to cross-pollinate with the wider mainstream -- by conscious infilitration (as with Fabian socialists in England and Objectivists in America) or just by living in the same society (which happens anyway as both the alleged kooks and the mainstream participate in much of the culture).

Others have pointed this out (notably, Bryan Caplan), but I thought it worth bringing up here for two reasons. One, it represents a study of meme flow -- via meme ecology if you will. I'll leave the details of this to others. Two,
we might, by studying previous cultural changes (such as the rise of Fabianism in England or of the New Left in America) discover what methods work best to get our ideas out there and, hopefully, in competition with all the other alternatives.

Have a fine day!

Daniel Ust