The importance of 'existential hope' and grand futures

The Long-termist's Field Guide: 1,000 Ideas For The Next 1,000 Years

Imagine that one day you jumped in your time-travelling machine, and went back millions of years for a conversation with a pre-human hominin.

You: Hello there, pre-human!

Hominin: Hello.

You: Wow, you can talk! I didn’t know you had language.

Hominin: This is a thought experiment. And you can time travel.

You: Good point.

Hominin: What can I do for you?

You: Gosh, I have so many questions… but today I’ll ask just this: what do you expect in the far future? When you evolve into Homo sapiens, what do you imagine the lives of your descendants will be like?

Hominin: You’re asking what they can look forward to? Well, I guess they’d have a life of unlimited bananas! Wouldn’t that be grand?

You: ….wait… bananas? But there’s so much more to humanity’s fut…

Hominin: No, that’s what I want for my children. Now if you don’t mind, I have lunch to forage.

This scene of the time-traveller and the hominin was originally imagined by the academic Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford. I first came across it at the end of this New Yorker profile a few years ago, and more recently in this thought-provoking post about utopias by Joe Carlsmith, a research analyst at Open Philanthropy.

In context, I think Bostrom was talking about transhumanism and the challenge of trying to imagine what comes after Homo sapiens. But it also provides a more general insight: that presentism can dampen the imagination, and prevent us from dreaming about the futures that could be.

In the 21st Century, unlimited bananas could be ours for the taking if we really wanted. But there is so much more to the human condition, which the hominin, influenced by its short-term needs, could not see. Bostrom’s point was that we could be similarly blind to the potential flourishing, achievements and well-being that humanity could, maybe, experience in the future.

As Carlsmith writes in his post about utopias:

“Life in the future could be profoundly good. Many people accept something like this in principle. But I think it often goes underestimated in practice, especially once we imagine society’s most glaring problems fixed, and ask where we might go from there. The difference in quality of life between a fixed-up version of our current world and the best possible future is, I think, less like the difference between a mediocre job and a beach vacation, and more like the difference between being asleep and being awake; between blindness and seeing; a droplet and an ocean; a cave and an open sky.”

In psychology, there’s an effect called the “end of history” illusion. It describes how people struggle to imagine how they might change later in their lives. While people accept they have changed significantly since childhood, they assume that their present self is how they will always be.

The illusion can describe societies too. We’ve progressed a long way, but we are far from finished.

For a while, my interest in cultivating a longer view has been shaped by the importance of avoiding future risks, and the fact that short-termism prevents us from seeing dangers ahead. Plenty of the researchers, philosophers and organisations working in this area take this approach too: motivated by the need to avoid extinction, catastrophe or collapse. This is still true and has never been more necessary – we live in a “time of perils” and to ignore it would be folly. The world also faces near-term problems of enormous scale: the awful toll of human life lost during this pandemic, climate change, inequality and more.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about how long-termism can and should help us unlock positive trajectories too. After all, if we want to chart a path to a better world – steering our fate rather than stumbling into the future – we need a compass direction.

Short-termism obscures risks, but it obscures possibilities too.

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Megascale engineering

Embracing that more optimistic spirit, an article I enjoyed editing this month for BBC Future was this piece by Oxford University’s Anders Sandberg about “the megascale structures that humanity could one day build”. It’s always a pleasure to work with Anders – he brings a sense of fun and curiosity to his research and writing that makes you think the future can be better.

His piece is about some of history’s boldest visions for what could be engineered in the future – planet lifters, space cannons, dyson spheres and more:

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such "megascale engineering"  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

The future needn’t always be dark; it can also be mind-expanding.

This month’s “long-terminology”

Grand Futures
The visions and limits of what intelligent life can hope to achieve, which Anders Sandberg is exploring in an upcoming (and epic) book. Better than simply a “good” future, in a grand future “humanity finds ways of achieving extreme states of bliss or other positive emotions… abolishing suffering… developing cognitive abilities able to pursue intellectual pursuits far beyond what we can conceive of in science, philosophy, culture, spirituality... and playing creatively with the universe, making new things and changing the world for its own sake.”

Existential Hope
If reducing existential risk is about avoiding something catastrophically bad in the future, then fostering existential hope is about encouraging something extremely good.

If this better world was triggered by a single event after a period of suffering, it would be an “existential eucatastrophe”. As Owen Cotton-Barratt and Toby Ord write: “The word ‘eucatastrophe’ is made of the Greek root ‘eu-’ meaning ‘good’ and the word ‘catastrophe’ in its classical sense of a sudden turn. It was coined by Tolkien to refer to the sudden and unexpected turn for the better frequently found at the end of fairy tales.”

Cathedrals and vaccines

I was pleased to read this week about how Salisbury Cathedral has adapted to become a Covid-19 vaccination centre (with accompanying peaceful organ music). What better venue for the multi-generational effort and outcome of vaccine science than a cathedral that took a century to build?

Salisbury is also home to one of the first-ever mechanical clocks – cutting edge tech in the 1300s. It's still there.

Thanks very much for reading. Please do share this newsletter if you liked it, or subscribe below if you’re reading it online.

And if you’re thinking about the long view yourself, do get in touch. A number of you already have, and it’s been great to hear your perspectives.

best wishes,

Richard

(Thanks to Matthijs Maas for the many reading recommendations this month, James Janson Young for the ‘end of history’ tip, and Anders Sandberg for the far future inspiration.)

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