Long Now, and Culture vs Artifacts

by Raemon6 min read3rd Feb 20202 comments

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LongtermismCultural knowledgeSocial & Cultural DynamicsWorld Optimization
Personal Blog

I've recently gotten re-interested in The Long Now Foundation, and had a conversation about it that seemed worth writing down

Longtermism vs Pivotal Generationism

I love the Long Now's aesthetic. I'm super looking forward to one day taking the pilgrimage to the Giant Forever Clock In the Mountain that they're building. But I've felt sort of frustrated by them not seeming to 'get x-risk' or things like that. 

A recent conversation reframed that slightly: their actions might make more sense if you assume that they are Longtermist, without being Pivotal Generation-ist.

(Separately, I think they don't think the future will get "So Weird As To Invalidate Everything", i.e. converting the world to computronium. Although they might just not think that's tractable to plan for.)

Culture is Medium Term, Artifacts are Long Term.

The conversation explored Longtermism vs Pivotal Generationism a bit. But, the most interesting takeaway for me was: If you are acting on 10,000 year timescales, and you don't think your generation is particularly special, culture is not a very effective way to steer the future. Cultures usually last hundreds of years. Physical artifacts are much more reliable ways to affect people 10,000 years from now. 

I had been thinking of "shaping culture" as a way to interact with the longterm future. But, at least historically (setting aside for now Very Weird Futures), cultures tend to act on the medium term, a few hundred years at most.

The Long Now foundation does also do cultural work (in addition to their meetups and Ted Talk-esque presentations, they push Long Bets and Predictions which seem pretty valuable to me). So I don't know that the "culture is medium term" hypothesis is that salient to them. But, it still was an interesting update for me. 

When is culture enduring?

Some cultures last for thousands of years. Others do not. Can you predict ahead of time which is which? If your goal is affecting things 1,000 or 10,000 years from now, is culture a viable way of doing that? Or is endurance just selection effect?

Lots of cultures aim to be "generally enduring" but still seem to have changed radically. 

My impression is that Christianity succeeded somewhat intentionally, but it wasn't doing things that were strategically novel (beyond what many religions/cultures/civilizations do re: indoctrination and institution-building). My off-the-cuff guess is "they were quite competent, but they endured where other competent cultures fizzled mostly due to luck".

My impression is that Judaism and Confucianism both succeeded more intentionally and predictably at enduring thousands of years. (I haven't done anything like an unbiased survey of cultures, but they both stand out among cultures I've heard about)

Judaism

Judaism seems to have a scholastic culture is a cleverly constructed trap: smart people are encouraged to argue and doubt, but in a way that still ultimately circles back towards believing and identifying with the culture. So the sort of people who are most likely to think of ways to change the system instead have a framework that keeps any innovations within the context of the system.

See also this slatestarscratchpad (note: requires tumblr login).

Confucianism

My understanding of Confucianism comes from Legal Systems Different From Our Own, and this review of the book Little Soldiers.  

In his review of Little Soldiers, Dormin notes:

Due to some combination of climate, food availability, culture, and maybe governance, China has historically been able to push its population closer to the Malthusian limit than any other region on earth. This has led to China always having massive populations and wealth, but also being prone to population collapses. It's known for dynastic cycles where ruling families united most or all of China for extended periods of growth, then fell into stagnation and collapsed during cataclysmic eras of contraction. 

This reality has encouraged Chinese culture to favor stability as a primary aim.

Confucius was a 6th century BC bureaucrat whose teachings stand as an explicit codification of how Chinese society should order itself to encourage stability. Essentially, Confucius envisioned all of society as an integrated family unit. At each level, the parents protect, foster, and teach children. To reciprocate, children honor and respect their parents. Once parents are too old to provide, they become dependents to be taken care of by their children. The multitude of obligations within this network is known as familial piety.

Purely on the family-level, Confucius’s model is not too different from what we might find anywhere else in the world. But he introduces two major innovations to the formula.

First, there is an extraordinarily strong assumption of obligation in the family. Families are the fundamental societal unit in China, not individuals. All (normal) individuals are ultimately loyal to their parents above all else, including their children and siblings, and especially over their spouses. From the moment an individual is born, until the moment his last parent dies, he is expected to be in their service.

Even in the modern-day, strong familial piety is the norm in China. Most parents have direct control over all important aspects of their children’s lives. This control will lessen once a child is married, but will still remain strong until the parents die. From my personal observations, these controlled categories will include where a child goes to college, what he studies, where he works, who his friends are, who he marries, and where he lives (with his parents until marriage).

Confucius’s second big innovation is that the family construct is abstracted to all of society. The government is parent to the citizen-children. Companies are parents to employee-children. And of course, schools are parents to student-children. At every level of society, there is a system of mutual obligation based on an exchange of nurturing protection for subservience.

To Confucius, this structure was the only way to keep Chinese society stable at the high end of the Malthusian trap. If children were free to disobey their parents, citizens free to disobey their governments, apprentices free to disobey their masters, etc, then Chinese society would be pulled apart and chaos would reign. Only strict social norms enforced by authoritarian measures could keep China strong.

How do you enforce this? One way is a long history of a particular kind of standardized testing. Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own notes:

In the early part of the final dynasty, there were about half a million licentiates out of a population of several hundred million, only about 18,000 people who had reached the next level. The provincial exam that separated the two groups had a pass rate of about one percent. It was offered every three years and could be, and often was, taken multiple times. 

The metropolitan exam produced 200 to 300 degrees from as many as 8000 candidates each time it was given. While a few unusually talented candidates made it through before they were twenty-five, a majority were in their thirties, some older. The exams did not test administrative ability, knowledge of the law, expertise in solving crimes or other skills with any obvious connection to the job of district magistrate or most of the other jobs for which the exams provided a qualification. 

> “The content of the provincial examinations presented an exacting challenge, especially to the novitiate. Its syllabus called for compositions on themes from the four core texts of the Neo-Confucian canon and a further five or more classics, extended dissertations on the classics, history, and contemporary subjects, verse composition, and at various times the ability to write formal administrative statements and dispatches. To be at all hopeful of success, the candidate should have read widely in the extensive historical literature, thoroughly digested the classics, developed a fluent calligraphy, and mastered several poetic styles. Above all he should have mastered the essay style, known as the ‘eight-legged’ essay from its eight-section format, which was the peculiar product of the examination system.” (Watt 1972, 24-25) 

This raises an obvious question: Why? Why require the ablest men in the society to spend an extended period of time, often decades, studying to pass the exams instead of applying their skills to running the empire? Why test a set of skills with little obvious connection to the jobs those men were expected to do?

One possible explanation is that the exams were the equivalent of IQ tests, designed to select the most intellectually able (and hardworking) members of the population for government service. But it is hard to believe that there was no less costly way of doing so or no approach along similar lines that would have tested more relevant abilities. 

A more interesting explanation focuses on the content of what they were studying—Confucian literature and philosophy. There are two characteristics one would like officials to have. One is the ability to do a good job. The other is the desire to do a good job—instead of lining their pockets with bribes or neglecting public duties in favor of private pleasures. One might interpret the examination system as a massive exercise in indoctrination, training people in a set of beliefs that implied that the job of government officials was to take good care of the people they were set over while being suitably obedient to the people set over them. Those who had fully internalized that way of thinking would be better able to display it in the high-pressure context of the exams.

Indoctrination isn't a novel concept. Indoctrination that emphasizes stability/tradition also isn't a novel concept. But there is something particularly clever about weaving a giant tempting trap for your best and brightest, where the act of participating changes the structure of how they think, in a way that reinforces the trap.

This does put some limits on what kinds of cultures you can build to influence the world 10,000 years from now (i.e. you have to focus on stability and self-preservation in order for it to work at all)

Granted, once you re-introduce potentially Very Weird Futures into the mix, more possibilities open up with AIs or Uploads that are carefully constructed to be self-modifiable in some particular ways but not others.

Unfolding Memeplexes

My previous thinking on cultural longtermism accepted that there were limits to how self-preserved culture could be. The hope wasn't that (things like Solstice, or the rationality community) would survive unscathed into the future. But that they're start snowball effects. They'd accumulate a lot of cruft, but hopefully shift trajectories a bit, and preserve some kernels. 

Possible followup questions

  • When you introduce potentially Very Weird Futures back into the mix, what cultural forces seem promising?
    • What kinds of artifacts seem promising? (I do kinda think the 10,000 Year Clock will probably be converted to computronium ten millennia from now, unless Earth-in-particular is preserved)
  • Are there counterexamples of cultures that prioritized creativity and didn't disintegrate or get subsumed?
    • Science has lasted a couple hundred years at least, fairly intentionally. It's generally hard to evaluate newer stuff.

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