The Vulnerable World Hypothesis

“Scientific and technological progress might change people’s capabilities or incentives in ways that would destabilize civilization. For example, advances in DIY biohacking tools might make it easy for anybody with basic training in biology to kill millions; novel military technologies could trigger arms races in which whoever strikes first has a decisive advantage; or some economically advantageous process may be invented that produces disastrous negative global externalities that are hard to regulate. This paper introduces the concept of a ​vulnerable world​: roughly, one in which there is some level of technological development at which civilization almost certainly gets devastated by default, i.e. unless it has exited the “semi-anarchic default condition…

Type-1 vulnerability​: There is some technology which is so destructive and so easy to use that, given the semi-anarchic default condition, the actions of actors in the apocalyptic residual make civilizational devastation extremely likely…

Type-2a vulnerability​: There is some level of technology at which powerful actors have the ability to produce civilization-devastating harms and, in the semi-anarchic default condition, face incentives to use that ability…

Type-2b vulnerability​: There is some level of technology at which, in the semi-anarchic default condition, a great many actors face incentives to take some slightly damaging action such that the combined effect of those actions is civilizational devastation.

Type-0 vulnerability​: There is some technology that carries a hidden risk such that the default outcome when it is discovered is inadvertent civilizational devastation.

-Nick Bostrom, “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis.” NickBostrom.com. 2018.

Kelsey Piper has a nice explainer on Vox.

Amazon & The Cultural Landscape of Books

The small print publisher 404 Ink’s discussion of their finances, particularly the portion on the cost to small press publishers to have their books sold via Amazon, is a bit of an eye-opener. On some level, I was aware that the discounts that Amazon is able to offer on books had to be squeezed from authors and publishers (but apparently not distributors). But, I was not sure of the exact scope.

I’m imagining a publisher like Dorothy selling Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk. On the publisher’s website, it is $16.00. On Amazon, it is being sold for $14.87. If we assume a similar distribution like 404 Ink’s, then:

  • Printing cost (9%): $1.44
  • Royalty to author (12%): $1.60
  • Share to distributor (12%): $1.92
  • Share to publisher (9%): $1.44
  • Share to Amazon (60%): $8.48

So, the $1.13 difference between Amazon and Publisher prices is 7%, which Amazon offers as part of a package with Amazon Prime, free delivery and so forth to create a price sensitive, captive book market that buys primarily through them. But, even with the 7% off they are still making 13%, or $2.08, more on a $16 book than a traditional book seller.

And let’s be real about mom and pop book shops. Books selling have been dominated by the likes of Walden’s, Borders, Books-a-Million and other chain book stores for decades. I don’t really care if Amazon puts them out of business. But, there are still independent shops that are trying to carve out space in the cracks, promoting books that are not in the cultural mainstream. The problem is that there are not many cracks that Amazon isn’t in.

There’s also a large question about our cultural output. If there is no room for an independent publisher or book store to make a living doing that kind of work, and publishing houses like Dorothy are doing vital cultural work in promoting emerging women writers, what happens to those writers? Do they stay at their technical writing jobs, in the corporate cubicle, etc. and never produce any work? Or, do they end up channelling their creative energy to generate page views, followers and what not, hoping there’s a life to be found, like salt sprinkled in a wound?

There’s an argument here, beyond the standard argument about the feudal internet, the Rating Rabbit Hole, and so forth that we should pay the extra $1.13, buy directly from publishers, and consider this a tax to support diversity in our cultural landscape. Because every time we buy from Amazon rather than directly from these small publishing houses, we are voting with our dollars to essentially destroy the very stories we are showing we are willing to buy, just to save a small fraction of the cost. It’s a tragedy.

Of course, you could argue that if there is no money to be made on Amazon, then these small publishers will turn to alternatives, such as print on demand, and they will develop a market outside of Amazon. This is true, and it is happening. But, relegating a large portion of our cultural output to the long tail is also an exercise in diminishment. The diversity of the long tail will be a function of the amount of effort we put into creating it, and the first step is to stop using Amazon to buy books.

Conquering Evil

“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”

Kung Fu (television series), Master Po

The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.

The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.

How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?

The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.

The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.

Civilization is Savage

“In speeches, Glied seemed to urge his audiences to embrace the qualities of empathy and independent-mindedness and to reject a world view that emphasizes superficial differences between people over their shared humanity. This is not always easy, argues Waller, given that humans have evolved to be tribal. Xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and the desire for one’s group to be socially dominant are not merely the characteristics of fascistic ideologies. They are, evolutionary psychologists suggest, latent feelings that evolution has ingrained into humans over many thousands of years during which we competed against each other in groups for limited resources—sometimes to the death. Groups with xenophobic, ethnocentric, and domineering tendencies likely outcompeted—or eradicated—groups whose members were not as xenophobic and ethnocentric.”

—Max Binks-Collier, “What Can One Nazi’s Act of Decency Teach Us about Good and Evil?The Walrus. January 10, 2019.

The Unlikely New Generation of Unabomber Acolytes

“What is bad about an article like the one I expect you to write is that it may help make the anti-tech movement into another part of the spectacle (along with Trump, the ‘metoo movement,’ neo-Nazis, antifa, etc.) that keeps people entertained and therefore thoughtless.”

—Ted Kaczynski quoted in John H. Richardson, “Children of Ted.” New York Magazine. December 11, 2018.

I’ve read Ted Kaczynski’s collected writings, Technological Slavery. His analysis, particularly around genetic technologies like CRISPR, is insightful. His central idea is that technology cannot abide a limit. If it is possible, it will eventually be done, whether it is genetically designed humans, tactical nuclear weapons, or what have you. Even absent extreme scenarios, technology is already fundamentally undermining human freedom, and it will only get worse.

But, what is to be done? Kaczynski believes in a model based on communism and vanguardism. According to this view, if pressure is applied in the right places by an activist minority at the right moment, there will be a general system collapse, a rough period of die-off of most of the human population, followed by a return to nature. And, you could point to Castro or Lenin to show how a small group has successfully led a change when faced with impossible odds.

Except, this view is more akin to Marx’s ideas that the state would fall away after these revolutions, when the state was no longer necessary. There’s never been a general revolution of the sort Marx envisioned, only regional and local collapsing of states.

When the state fails, it fragments power into the hands of regional and local warlords. Without the modern state to support the technological apparatus, technological capability becomes significantly reduced. But, it is not a return to nature and bands of hunter/gatherer tribes of people.

Further, Lenin leads to Putin. Revolution brings new unwritten rules to replace the formal codified rules of the past. It will be in the interests of individuals and groups within a society to harness technology to project power for their faction. And in the end, reconstituted technological institutions and applications will be the outcome of any “revolution,” even one that occurs in a fundamentally world-changing scenario, such as a 200 meter rise in sea level.

The anti-tech “movement” will always be a spectacle because you cannot form a community or a way of life around a negative. Being Amish is a lifestyle. In it, the impact of technology on individuals and communities is the litmus test of whether to adopt it or not. What life can be built around being against any kind of technology? The real issue is having a heuristic for choosing technologies and coming up with a regime of imposing limits beyond hoping that the capability will simply disappear.

Civilization brings material comforts and domination. But, the dream of civilization, like the American dream, is a dream to escape the grinding gears of social domination and at least riding along on the tractor, if you cannot be the one driving it. Wishing that people would prefer to maintain their and other people’s freedom rather than prefer convenience and comfort is to wish people to be other than how they are. It’s utopian foolishness.

The Great Filter: Civilization’s Lifetime

“Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer, they suggested, is that the natural life span of a civilization may be only several thousand years, and the life span of an industrial civilization perhaps only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.”

—David Wallace Wells. “The Uninhabitable Earth.” New York Magazine. July 9, 2017.

After Atlas, Malthus Shrugged

“In 2014 I was visiting a university in Alaska, and happened to sit in on a lecture by the Norwegian policy expert Willy Ostreng about the new geopolitics of the Arctic. After talking about climate change in the Arctic and the increased accessibility to oil and gas, he embarked on a detailed elucidation of the various stakeholders, rivalries, potential for conflict, and developments for exploration. The hall was filled with political science majors, obediently writing down everything, and I kept waiting for some bright-eyed undergraduate to ask how it was possible that the forces that had caused the destabilization of the Arctic were now considering destabilizing it further. But the questions were only about the political and economic details of the situation. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, I raised my hand. Citing the increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and the dire predictions of climate scientists, I asked how it was even possible that nations and corporations were considering the commercialization of the Arctic Ocean. Surely our energies would be better spent actively resisting such policies. The audience looked at me as though I had three heads. Ostreng was silent for a moment, then he said: “We will regret it. We will regret it, but this is reality.”

These are some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard, rivaled only by the obedient silence of the students. One problem with our collective silence on the subject of climate change is that while we pretend life is going to go on as usual, there are others who are deliberately planning for control of a climate-changed world. Imagine a highly militarized, totalitarian, automation-based, habitat-destroying, water-starved future of perpetual war within and among nations, with captive populations ground down by scarcity and failing infrastructure, held in thrall by contrived loyalties and addictions peddled by mass media, where mass extinctions and the deaths of millions of refugees are barely noted except with a Malthusian shrug of the shoulders—while the super-rich live in fortified, climate-protected luxury bunkers or occupy a greening Antarctica and fly to the corporate-owned moon for vacation. It sounds like a bad science fictional dystopia. But some of the steps along that path have already been taken.”

—Vandana Singh, “The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement.” Strange Horizons. September 11, 2017.

Quite possibly the best book review I’ve ever read.

The Oldest Treasures From 12 Great Libraries – Atlas Obscura

In the history of writing, bound books as we know them today arrive fairly late, so there are no actual “books” on this list. Instead, this is a wondrous collection of illuminated manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, and clay tablets. Some of these items you can even see in person, if you pay a visit.

—Sarah Laskow. “The Oldest Treasures From 12 Great Libraries.” AtlasObscura.com. October 26, 2017.