[extropy-chat] Writing for the Future

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Fri Nov 19 19:16:39 UTC 2004

One thing we should keep in mind when writing here or in any online forum
is that we are writing not only for the present, but for the future.
Our words may well be read many times, even far into the future.
They are recorded in public and private archives and will be available
indefinitely.  Given the likely increase in future levels of intelligence
and attention, it may even turn out that more eyes see our writings in
the far future than in the near present.

I grew up loving books and loving to read, but in our house we didn't have
many books.  My parents mostly read housekeeping and sports magazines.
My mom's mother had been a school librarian and we did have some old
books from her time, and my mom's father was an amateur magician and I
loved to read his old magic books.  But mostly I spent hours each week
at the library reading on a variety of topics.

I particularly liked project books with things to build and do; but I
always had difficulty because most of the books I was reading were old.
They often referred to materials that were no longer in common use or
went by different names.  I remember one of the magic books described
the creation of a "magical explosive" which could produce a small puff
of smoke to add to an effect.  This was ammonium triiodide, a low power
explosive for which instructions are widely available today on the net.
But the book I had described taking "a few flakes of ordinary iodine"
and putting them into ammonia.  My only exposure to iodine was as the
astringent liquid used for disinfection.  Asking at the drugstore for
"iodine flakes" didn't help.  If iodine ever came in flake form, it
was no longer the case.  (Eventually I learned that I could purchase
iodine crystals and managed to produce small quantities of the explosive

As I would read these old books I gradually realized that their authors
seemed to share a common misconception, which was that their readers were
contemporaneous.  The authors would make casual references to current
issues, popular music or shows which were completely opaque to me.
None of the authors seemed to anticipate their books sitting for decades
on library shelves, being found and devoured by curious young readers
years later.  They didn't realize that they were writing for the future.

This is understandable, for practical reasons.  Commercially, these
authors were writing books that would sell, and most copies would be
bought in the months immediately after the book was released.  And it's
probably true that even though a book may last for 100 years and be read
many times over that period, most readings of any given book do occur
within a short time of its publication.  A book may sell thousands of
copies, but only a small percentage will end up on library shelves where
they may be read a few times a year.  All those future readers probably
don't add up to more than ten percent or so of the total readers of
the book.

Nevertheless I often found myself wishing that the authors would at least
give some indication that they recognized readers like me.  They should
have known that they were writing, to some extent, for the ages; and that
while their future readers might not equal the numbers of the present-day
ones, they would amount to a not insignificant percentage over time.

Today, when we write online, I see the issue as arising even more
strongely.  Books are written on a physical medium.  When the last copy
is destroyed, the book is essentially lost.  But our words have at least
the potential to live on as long as humanity and its offspring survive.
The physical media may wear out but the data can be copied and replicated
indefinitely.  (In fact, I suspect that most books which survive another
couple of decades will attain this form of immortality as well.)

This means that rather than my off-the-cuff estimate of 10% of readership
as far-future readers, things written today may have a much higher
percentage.  These words may be read by some hundreds of people today.
But they will go into the archives and be available for decades.  If only
a few people per year read them, then even without great changes, by
a hundred years from now the future readers will have outnumbered the
present ones.

And if, as with most Extropians, we anticipate great increases in
human and machine intelligence levels, it is likely that the amount
of attention and analysis given to our writings today will be greatly
exceeded in the future world.

In that sense, we really are writing for the future, even more than for
the present.  That's where most of our readers are.  Those who read our
words today are almost incidental by comparison.

I am admittedly being inconsistent about this, because I have not said
much in this message to future readers.  For them, everything I have said
about the nature of the audience is glaringly obvious and superfluous,
just as it would have been for me as a kid reading those old books.

To my future readers, then, I will offer greetings, and note that my
life, combined with that of the books which influenced me, spans most
of the 20th century.  I don't write about personal matters very often,
but when I do, as I have done in this message, hopefully it will offer
most of my readers a better picture of life not only today but over the
past century as well.


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