Apocalypse, corrupted

by Stuart_Armstrong2 min read26th Jun 201913 comments

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Social & Cultural DynamicsFuturismFiction (Topic)
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Epistemic status: don't take it seriously

In a post apocalyptic setting, the world would be run by the socially skilled and the well connected, with corruption and nepotism ruling.

I say that at the start, because I've been trying to analyse the attraction of post-apocalyptic settings: why do we like them so much? Apart from the romanticism of old ruins, four things seem to stand out:

  1. Competence rewarded: the strong and the competent are the ones ruling, or at least making things happen. That must be the case, or else how could humans survive the new situation, where all luxuries are gone?
  2. Clear conflict: all the heroes are in it together, against some clear menace (evil tribe or leader, zombies, or just the apocalypse itself).
  3. Large freedom of action: instead of fitting into narrow jobs and following set bureaucratic procedures, always being careful to be polite, and so on, the heroes can let loose and do anything as long as it helps their goal.
  4. Moral lesson: the apocalypse happened because of some failing of past humans, and everyone agrees what they did wrong. "If only we'd listened to [X]!!"

(Some of these also explain the attraction of past "golden ages".)

And I can feel the draw of all of those things! There a definite purity and attractiveness to them. Unfortunately, in a real post-apocalyptic setting, almost all of them would be false. For most of them, we're much closer to the ideal today than we would be in a post-apocalyptic world.

First of all, nepotism, corruption, and politics. The human brain is essentially designed for tribal politics, above all else. Tracking who's doing well, who's not, what coalition to join, who to repudiate, who to flatter, and so on - that's basically why our brains got so large. Tribal societies are riven with that kind of jostling and politics. We now live in an era where a lot of us have the luxury of ignoring politics at least some of the time. That luxury would be gone after an apocalypse; with no formal bureaucratic structures in place, our survival would depend on who we got along with, and who we pissed off. Competence might get rewarded - or it might get you singled out and ostracised (and ostracised = dead, in most societies). Influential groups and families would rule the roost, and most of the conflict would be internal. Forget redressing any injustice you'd be victim of; if you're not popular, you'll never have a chance.

As for the large freedom of action: that kinda depends on whether we go back to a tribal society, or a more agriculture-empire one. In both cases, we'd have less freedom in most ways than now (see above on the need for constantly playing the game of politics). But tribal societies do sometimes offer a degree of freedom and equality, in some ways beyond what we have today. But, unfortunately, the agriculture-empire groups will crush the tribes, relegating them to the edges and less productive areas (as has happened historically). This will be even more the case than historically; those empires will be the best placed to make use of the remnants of modern technology. And agriculture-empires are very repressive; any criticism of leaders could and would be met with death or torture.

Finally, forget about moral lessons. We're not doing enough today to combat; eg, pandemics. But we are doing a lot more than nothing. So the moral lesson of a mass pandemic would be "do more of what the ancients were already doing, but do it more and better". Same goes for most risks that threaten humanity today; it's not that we fail to address them, it's that we fail to address them enough. Or suppose that it's a nuclear war that gets us; then the moral would be "we did too little against nuclear war, while doing too much for pandemics!"; if the dice fall the other way round, we'd get the opposite lesson.

In fact, there would be little moral lesson from our perspective; the post-apocalyptic people would be focused on their own ideologies and moralities, with the pre-apocalyptic world being mentioned only if it made a point relevant to those.

All in all, a post-apocalyptic world would be awful, and not just for the whole dying and ruin reasons, but just for living in the terrible and unequal societies it would produce.

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Competence might get rewarded - or it might get you singled out and ostracised

That seems incorrect to me. Competence gets more valued as you live close to the edge. People will tolerate the charming incompetent less when eating depends on him getting it right.

I don't think it's that simple. Competence isn't always used to get food. There are a lot of different skills and kinds of competence, and a lot of them might get you singled out.

It's often the smartest kids in the class that become the target of bullies.

Also intelligence often tends to question the social norm, and that's a recipe for getting singled out.

I should also note there's a difference between competence rewarded, and incompetence punished. I suspect the second happens a lot more than the first.

One important difference is that "punish the outlier" is compatible with punishing notable incompetence and not compatible with rewarding the particularly competent. But this is pretty theoretical - there's at least some evidence that primitive societies _DO_ honor as role models those who are expert (as long as they're expert at conventional things).

See anti-social punishment here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/X5RyaEDHNq5qutSHK/anti-social-punishment - cooperators were punished for cooperating!

Charm means the person has allies, and would be dangerous to cross. Competence might mean that they are likely to make a power play (see prestige vs dominance hierarchies).

There are hunter gatherers who punish those of low status who give away too much meat. Because these people are obviously trying to wow people and make a play at raising their status.

How sure are you that hunter-gatherers are much closer to the edge than the typical person in our society?

A better comparison might be people in cold / food-scarce vs warm / food-abundant areas.

How sure are you that hunter-gatherers are much closer to the edge than the typical person in our society?

Very sure; compare death rates.

A better comparison might be people in cold / food-scarce vs warm / food-abundant areas.

Surely abundance of food is relative to population size?

Maybe we could try and estimate how objectively hard it is for certain groups to survive, and then try and work back to reward for competence from that?

In a post apocalyptic setting, the world would be run by the socially skilled and the well connected, with corruption and nepotism ruling.

Wait, isn't that a common description of the pre-apocalyptic setting?

IMO, the big draw of a post-apocalyptic (and distant past) fantasy setting is that there are simply fewer people to interact with, and less interdependence among them. Life and decisions are just plain simpler, which can (at this distance) overwhelm the details of the downsides. Also, plot armor - the hero in any fantasy has a HUGE advantage over any reality, as in the fantasy, God (the author/creator/narrator) actually cares about them.

In reality, the inequality (aka diversity of experience) of any two human lives in any world is trivial compared to the inequality of living vs not living. And in reality, most post-apocalyptic world-states contain zero humans.

Relatedly, is there any work being done to come up with distance measures for agent states (including any of momentary experiences, life-sums, or values)? We talk a lot about marginal and absolute value of lives and make comparisons of experiences (motes vs torture) - what, if anything, has been done to start quantifying?

Relatedly, is there any work being done to come up with distance measures for agent states (including any of momentary experiences, life-sums, or values)? We talk a lot about marginal and absolute value of lives and make comparisons of experiences (motes vs torture) - what, if anything, has been done to start quantifying?

It turns out that measuring the distance between possible worlds is...complicated.

I'm wondering why you think corruption is the natural outcome. The reason I am asking was having seen one of the Nat Geo (or similar) shows about a pride of lion in a less than optimal location for lions. What was observed was that this pride of lions actually cooperated more (in sharing food rather than all fighting over it per some status/badness ranking) than was observe in prides in more suitable territories.

It might have been in this forum, not sure, where someone pointed to some literature about the possibly counter intuitive outcome that hardship of groups actually promoted the cooperative behaviors -- suggesting corruption might be more likely in the pre-apocalyptic setting.

Contrary to what we see in movies, is it possible that the post-apocalyptic setting might actually produce a more merit driven social setting that one of corruption and nepotism?

Disasters do promote more pro-social behaviours, and more personal, non-bureaucratic interactions between people (it also promotes more people "acting cooperatively", but actual cooperation seems much more efficient with laws and markets than with good will). But it's precisely that that also promotes corruption and nepotism. Running more informal organisation is almost all about personal politics. And cooperation within the tribe often goes along with antagonism towards the outside.

I should also note there's a difference between competence rewarded, and incompetence punished. I suspect the second happens a lot more than the first.

I suspect that is true but wonder if that works the best or not. This may apply in a lot of cases -- and may be wrong but I don't think so. The culture where I work is very much about reinforcing the positives and ignoring the flaws (within limits). The rule might be stated as reward the desired behaviors and ignore the bad behaviors (again within some limits as accountability is also expected -- just seems to be more about trying to get everyone to be accountable themselves rather than walking around with the stick).

That seems like it might apply in a number of settings. The company is a successful, global corporation and is seen as a top performer and preferred place of employment in the market (will not disclose though) so it seems like it is not a terrible approach.

I think this might apply to raising children as well. Children will see the attention of their parents. If the parent tends to focus on the errors and mistakes then the child is likely to act up to get more mommy or daddy time -- even when it's not pleasant. That then leads to forming similar relationships later in life.

Not sure how well that might apply to larger settings like legal punishments. I think there might be something there -- forget the saying but basically prison creates hardened criminals out of normal people many times. Still in that setting the few are really seeing the approval of any authority figures so might not apply as well -- even ignoring the fact that most cases will be outside the limits of the use the honey not vinegar rule.

Of course this is something of a could/should versus is setting I think -- you are simply suggesting the empirical state not suggesting what might be an improvement. Still, the dynamics seem rather more complicated then would be needed to make the the assumption you seem to start with.

I did just have a thought -- may or may not be interesting here -- regarding the intra-group and inter-group relationships suggested. If we accept that the intra-group relationships under stress might be more cooperative (for survival incentives), then characterizing the post- apocalyptic setting as "defect" or a Hobbesean state of nature seems to suggest that most of the interactions will be inter-group rather than intra-group. That seems questionable to me but I might be thinking wrong on that.