Oct 10, 2018
[EDIT: Previous version of this post had a major error. Thanks for jeff8765 for pinpointing the error and esrogs in the Eukaryote Writes Blog comments for bringing it to my attention as well. This has been fixed. Also, I wrote FHI when I meant FLI.]
The graph of the human population over time is also a map of human experience. Think of each year as being "amount of human lived experience that happened this year." On the left, we see the approximate dawn of the modern human species in 50,000 BC. On the right, the population exploding in the present day.
It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.
I call this "the funnel of human experience" - the fact that because of a tiny initial population blossoming out into a huge modern population, more of human experience has happened recently than time would suggest.
50,000 years is a long time, but 8,000,000,000 people is a lot of people.
If you want to expand on this, you can start doing some Fermi estimates. We as a species have spent...
So humanity in aggregate has spent about ten times as long worshiping the Greek gods as we've spent watching Netflix.
We've spent another ten times as long having sex as we've spent worshipping the Greek gods.
And we've spent ten times as long drinking coffee as we've spent having sex.
I'm not sure what this implies. Here are a few things I gathered from this:
1) I used to be annoyed at my high school world history classes for spending so much time on medieval history and after, when there was, you know, all of history before that too. Obviously there are other reasons for this - Eurocentrism, the fact that more recent events have clearer ramifications today - but to some degree this is in fact accurately reflecting how much history there is.
On the other hand, I spent a bunch of time in school learning about the Greek Gods, a tiny chunk of time learning about labor, and virtually no time learning about coffee. This is another disappointing trend in the way history is approached and taught, focusing on a series of major events rather than the day-to-day life of people.
2) The Funnel gets more stark the closer you move to the present day. Look at science. FLI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now. That means most of all scientific thought is happening in parallel rather than sequentially.
3) You can't use the Funnel to reason about everything. For instance, you can't use it to reason about extended evolutionary processes. Evolution is necessarily cumulative. It works on the unit of generations, not individuals. (You can make some inferences about evolution - for instance, the likelihood of any particular mutation occurring increases when there are more individuals to mutate - but evolution still has the same number of generations to work with, no matter how large each generation is.)
4) This made me think about the phrase “living memory”. The world’s oldest living person is Kane Tanaka, who was born in 1903. 28% of the entirety of human experience has happened since her birth. As mentioned above, 15% has been directly experienced by living people. We have writing and communication and memory, so we have a flawed channel by which to inherit information, and experiences in a sense. But humans as a species can only directly remember as far back as 1903.
Fun fact: The average living human is 30.4 years old.
Wait But Why's explanation of the real revolution of artificial intelligence is relevant and worth reading. See also Luke Muehlhauser's conclusions on the Industrial Revolution: Part One and Part Two.