poly: Rapture of the Future

From: Tim May <tcmay@got.net>
Date: Wed Dec 31 1997 - 17:49:50 PST

Some comments about what I see as the dangers of thinking so much about the
far distant future. Probably I'll piss off a few of you.

But first a comment on the Baxter book which Anders apparently also
mentioned, and why SF writers do a generally more complete job of
"exploratory extrapolation":

At 6:36 PM -0700 12/31/97, Anders Sandberg wrote:
>Tim May <tcmay@got.net> writes:
>> A readable fictional treatment of this is in a recent Stephen Baxter novel,
>> "Ring," apparently the final chapter in his future history series.
>Yes, I mentioned it briefly in my post. I have a copy here, let's see

Sorry, I missed your reference...and was already planning to mention the
Baxter book after your first paragraph, about various ideas to burn out

>> (Personally, I think more about what is happening now and will likely
>> happen in the next few decades, so concerns about the Omega Point 10^10^642
>> years from now is not my cup of tea.)
>An useful sentiment. It is simpler to speculate about the remote
>future, since it is constrained by the laws of physics, than deal with
>the here-and-now which is just constrained by culture.

I think SF writers generally do a better job of thinking about the future
than "we" do. Mainly because they are:

a. Motivated by greed (or whatever PC term one wishes) to construct a
plausible, consistent world. World-building, where world=future.

b. By immersion in this world for months or even years of intense thinking,
even dreaming. Most of us are willing to only commit a few hours of thought
to some of these scenarios, not nearly enough time.

(I'm speaking mostly for myself, but also based on the comments I've seen
on these various threads. Certainly I'm not criticizing anyone. It's just
that it's very hard to commit several weeks of intensive thinking and
writing about such a subject when there is no payoff. The professional
speculator, e.g., SF writer, can better afford to contact the experts, as
most SF writers do, build a plausible world, find out where its limits are,
etc. We've seen this countless times. There are counterexamples, of course
(Drexler for one).)

This brings up something I saw when I was on the Extropians list, in
1992-4. I wrote a somewhat humorous--but also quite serious--piece called
"Rapture of the Future." I think it got reprinted in the "Extro 1"
proceedings...and I may have a copy someplace in my off-line archive
disks. If there's interest I can try to dig it up.

The idea being that some of the cutting edge ideas, of the Singularity, of
immortality, of "c minus epsilon" expansion, of uploading, and of whizzy
stuff a thousand or more years off can be so _intoxicating_ that the effect
is to make the current world seem *mundane* and *boring*.

I used to see this at some of the excellent seminars Ted Kaehler ran in
Palo Alto, the "Assembler Multitudes." Some of the nanotechnology
discussions were so exciting to some folks that it was a positive let-down
for them to work on "obsolete" technologies like chips and CAD and other
mundane, boring, archaic things. One of them, who shall mercifully remain
unnamed here, even assured me that the nanotechnology revolution would
"sweep away" all the industries out there in Silicon Valley and that I'd do
well to unload my Intel and other such stocks before this happened. Right.

And on the Extropians list the talk was of such far-off things that almost
nothing short-term was very interesting. Not to sound patronizing to any of
those colleagues of mine on the list, but a significant number of them were
grossly underemployed, or not employed at all. Some worked in bookstores
(like the stereotypical Liberal Arts major...). And so on.

While the discussions of Jupiter-sized brains and the Omega Point were
raging, thousands of technologists became millionaires off the Web and
related technologies.

There is nothing wrong with speculating about the distant future, or
contemplating the Oneness of the All, or buying Upload Insurance, I
suppose, but there is the very real danger that "nitrogen narcosis" of a
sort will take hold and make short-term, money-making, and world-changing
activities seem just too boring to be taken seriously.

Or so it seems to me. I don't mean to offend anyone.

As for me, I made my money at Intel in the 1970s and 80s, and had enough to
retire in 1986. And the stock price has gone up at least a factor of 10
since then.... I'm just glad the Net, and the Web, and Extropians, and
Polymath, and Cypherpunks, and the Hackers Conference, and so on didn't
exist back then!

Footnote: I fear that this "Polymath" list is headed in this direction.
There's such a strong motivation to stake out the "furthest out ground"
that most posts have been about truly far off, Olaf Stapleton/Stephen
Baxter/Vernor Vinge sorts of topics. The few "down to earth" posts by
various folks have mostly been met with yawns.

Just keep this in mind. Everyone on this list is indeed the brightest of
the bright (though I think the invite list is dangerously skewed toward
Extropians or former Extropians). But the topics being discussed are in a
very narrow range, mostly about replicators expanding, deconstructing stars
to build artifacts, super-intelligences, and the Omega Point. Odd.

--Tim May

The Feds have shown their hand: they want a ban on domestic cryptography
Timothy C. May | Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money,
ComSec 3DES: 408-728-0152 | anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero
W.A.S.T.E.: Corralitos, CA | knowledge, reputations, information markets,
Higher Power: 2^2,976,221 | black markets, collapse of governments.
"National borders aren't even speed bumps on the information superhighway."
Received on Thu Jan 1 02:36:08 1998

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