The Time Of Your Life

People say they wouldn’t want to live in the past because there was less stuff then and no anaesthetic. I’m not so sure.

Pretty obviously if you went back to the Middle Ages with a modern sensibility you would find a lot of things not to like. But who is to say how you would feel if you had a medieval sensibility? So here’s two thought experiments:

You go back to 1019 and you invite people to join you in the future. They ask what to expect. You say: “It’s really great. We stare at pieces of glass all day. Everybody argues about everything. And there is no God.” How many takers do you think you would get?

Now, imagine visitors from 2219 showing up in 2019 and inviting us to join them in the future. We ask what to expect. They say: “It’s really great. We live as brains in vats, fed on hormones and psychedelics that keep us incredibly happy for ever.” Would you go?

Which is to say only that what appears as progress to you may look different to people accustomed to other times. Probably you wouldn’t choose to live in 2219 with your brain in a vat; and probably people in 1019 would be similarly hesitant about living as we do.

In Praise Of Fewer People

If true, this Foreign Affairs essay about an abrupt reversal in the world population trend, from boom to bust, is one of the most significant things I have read this year, even this decade; and it seems to me to justify far more optimism than the writer allows himself.

I don’t see any fundamental problems with a shrinking population, nor with a shrinking and ageing population.

True, older people produce less, but — to the extent this matters at all — they can easily be induced to consume correspondingly less across most categories of goods, if they do not already do so, because they have less attachment to novelty. And, in any case, the share of human energy in the production of goods is diminishing. Workers will age out of jobs instead being automated out of jobs.

If real scarcity is an essential feature of capitalism, as the writer implies, and which I do not accept, then we can count on supply and demand, greed and ingenuity, to maintain appropriate levels of scarcity, but concentrated in different parts of the economy, primarily in status goods and in service industries. Capitalism is nothing if not adaptive.

Another upside of an ageing population is that older people are generally less aggressive and more law-abiding, at least in their day-to-day lives. Societies will have fewer criminals, fewer prisoners, fewer guards. These are very large considerations with many positive externalities.

I score population bust as a win for the wisdom of crowds. Confronted with the ruin of the planet, and the disappearance of jobs, humanity elects to downsize.

We had generally thought until now that Malthus was wrong because he failed to foresee how technology would increase the supply of essential goods; now we can conjecture that Malthus was also wrong because he (and we) failed to foresee that people are instinctively wise enough not to populate to the point of extinction.

The Opposite Of Language

A verbatim quote from Verizon’s Chief Media Officer (not Shingy, though I begin to see how Shingy got away with it). There is much more at the link. Can a person also think in language like this, which appears designed to evade meaning, or is this a language reserved for speech? Is the listener expected to solve for meaning, or is this an unhappy performative utterance?

With regards to brand safety, as the landscape challenges unique identifiers from a privacy standpoint, insert your identifier here going away, I think that thinking about context in new ways. We’re in a very unique position to build it because we have unique signals nobody else has, but in other ways I would think of smaller companies that are innovating in that space.

The Limits Of Statistics

Statisticians are claiming too much for their discipline, much as economists were claiming too much for theirs prior to the crisis of 2007-2008.

They claim too much, because:

(i) All statistics are founded on, and bounded by, human knowledge and judgement; human fallibility regulates what we see and what we do not see, what we know and what we do not know, what we imagine to be relevant and what we imagine to be irrelevant.

(ii) Statistics can only describe the past, often with the aim of predicting the future. The past is a treacherous guide to the future, even if we happen to be right about the past, which we never are, entirely.

(iii) Statistical descriptions of the material world do not capture the political and moral dimensions of whatever they describe — and there are always political and moral dimensions, even in the tossing of a coin. (Is it your coin? Is somebody for forcing you to toss it? Is anything contingent on the outcome of the toss?)