Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]

Originally published 14 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.

What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

Continue reading “Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]”

The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.
(This post was originally published in February but died in the great server mistake of 2017, so I’m republishing it here.)

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

Continue reading “The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]”