Cross-posted from The Metasophist.

A key contributor to stagnation could be a growing reluctance to take risk. All creation involves risk, because when embarking on the journey you rarely know the result. As Paul Graham said, you might fear creating something "lame".

As society develops, it could become less attractive to take risk. For example, if you are musically inclined, learning and performing the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Wagner may deliver more instant rewards then creating your own musical forms. There is a large audience for the renowned, little for the unknown. In addition, someone like J.S. Bach could focus more on writing music, because he didn't have any of those four composers to listen to, and couldn't be paid for performing their works.

Similarly, as wealth grows, more people are employed to manage it. In a society with little wealth, financiers are few as there are fewer assets to trade. The mathematicians and engineers who become quants in our current age would actually have done maths and engineering in a poorer one.

These are two particular instances of a general problem whereby established paths are less risky and therefore more attractive than novel ones.

But without risk, no one will come up with new paradigms of knowledge and organisation. We need people to take risk to ward off stagnation. How can we encourage people to do so?

A potential answer to this question emerged in a conversation between Jim Rutt and Joscha Bach. Rutt cited a psychological experiment (Dutton and Aron, 1974) whereby those who just walked across a dangerous bridge were more likely to arrange a date with a member of the opposite sex immediately afterwards than those who walked over a safer bridge. The implication in the discussion is that doing something risky raises your willingness to take more risk.

In fact, Dutton and Arron state that this behaviour probably arises from what is known as the "Misattribution of Arousal". Essentially, going over a dangerous bridge induces physiological arousal, which the participant mistakes for romantic arousal. According to Allen et al., this effect even holds when someone is aware that the main source of arousal is non-romantic in nature.

Music can also induce physiological arousal: another study finds that women, but not men, were more likely to rate a man as attractive after listening to music. Interestingly, the study notes that "high-arousing, complex music yielded the largest effects". If excitation-transfer theory holds, the same dynamic would probably apply to exercise.

This may be interesting if one wants to raise the number of couples in society. But is there a link to risk-taking in areas such as business, politics and academia? There is some evidence that becoming aware of the neutral nature of arousal can boost confidence, and therefore also risk-taking, at least in the short-term. For example, one study says that arousal is just part of "gearing up" to do a task, and that this feeling is often wrongly attributed to diminished confidence. From the abstract (my emphasis):

"People's confidence that they will do well tends to diminish as the "moment of truth" draws near. We propose that this phenomenon stems in part from individuals using their pre-task arousal as a cue to their level of confidence. Arousal that is part and parcel of "gearing up" to perform a task may be misattributed to diminished confidence... Participants in two experiments who were encouraged to misattribute their arousal to a neutral source ("subliminal noise") expressed greater confidence in their ability than did participants not able to do so"

In this abstract, we have found what we are looking for, and it's slightly better than our starting point as it is much easier to attribute arousal to a normal part of doing a task than it is to find a dangerous bridge to walk across. In practice, this would be useful on a short-term horizon. For example, if you are an entrepreneur about to approach a potential customer or pitch to investors, you should attribute any nervousness to just part of doing a novel task rather than interpreting it as a sign you are about to do the coming task poorly. That could increase your confidence and reduce the probability you will abandon the effort.

Framing nervousness in this way may help people to take risk. But of course, taking a risk does not mean that it will always be successful.


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While there is probably is value in getting the broader population to become more risk-tolerant, I agree with the general gist of your first point.

Regarding your second, something that prevents people from speaking freely is the fear that unorthodox opinions will prevent them rising in hierarchies where selection is performed by those above them. Most people like to be flattered and have unquestioning followers, and will promote those in turn. This could also be the case in non-organisational hierarchies, such as academia.  I try to address this problem in Ch. 6 of my book by designing a different mode of selection: one where those at the top have little or no power to decide who gets positions and resources. 

As for people moving money without restrictions, I haven't really thought about that very much. Is there a particular example you are thinking of?

Of course, the ultimate solution is a fully encrypted platform. Whether or not that is technically achievable is unclear, but if it did exist it would probably kill off speech and financial gatekeeping overnight.

It seems to me the problem is not that about technical achievability but economics. If you have a fully decentral communication service then it's hard to make money with that service. 

Silk Road did just fine to the tune of billions without true anonymity

Silk Road had a design where it's owner had the power to remove individual sellers. It's not structurally different when it comes to the ability to exclude people wanting to sell services that the owners don't like.

If I put a BTC address in this comment you could send me money right now with no financial or government  intermediaries 

We still live in a world where you complain about big tech having the ability to wield power by shutting down money transfer even when a killer was hired on Hydra to go after a law enforcement official. Hydra kicks you off the market when you fail their quality checks and isn't doesn't allow anyone to do anything as well.

If I were to put that address on an anonymous service it would be no different, just harder to track and censor it.

This shows that there's no technical obstacle in the way. The obstacles that do exist are due to big tech being able to provide much more user-friendly software because they can pay for it's development. 

We might have a future where people still develop the software we need for decentral communication but the reason we don't have that now is economics.

The internet isn't perfect but it's resilient enough that billion dollar companies like Elsivier can't bring down sci-hub after years of fighting it. Wikileaks even still has their original URL. 

That's not where the practical problems of implementing alternate infrastructure lie.

Given that Wikileaks is quite capable of publishing without Assange, most of the people running Wikileaks are free. I don't have information about the current size of that team but they seem to be functional without Assange. Both the leak about the investigation into the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack and the Fishrot files are examples that people don't want published. 

Assange isn't free because he thought it was valuable for PR reasons for Wikileaks to have spoke people that aren't anonymous and not because anonymisation technology doesn't work. 

I'm not sure why Alexandra Elbakyan made the decision not to be anonymous but I haven't heared that stories of it being due to anonymisation tech failing. 

Thanks for elaborating.

I agree with the point about utilities, and the fact that for utility-like services (more specifically, those with overwhelming network effects and economies of scale) it should be illegal to prevent access unless the person to whom service is being denied is doing something illegal.

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