[extropy-chat] Futures Past

Greg Burch gregburch at gregburch.net
Sun Oct 9 21:04:46 UTC 2005

... lots of good discussion here, which I was hoping for.  I've had that timeline sitting on the shelf for seven years and looked forward to the day when it could be "uncorked" here ...

Looking back, a lot of the specific predictions for c. 2005 do seem to me to have been wildly overoptimistic in hindsight and I have often wondered in the last couple of years how I came to have made them.  Harvey points to one factor:

> From: Harvey Newstrom
> Sent: Sunday, October 09, 2005 3:25 PM
> And for those who doubt these predictions:  There really were 
> predictions of singularities, space colonies, robot presidents,  
> nanotech by the year 2000 made by people on this extropians list.  And 
> it still goes on today.  People on the SIAI lists really talk about an 
> AI singularity within a decade.  People on the ImmInst forums really 
> talk about immortality within a decade.  People on the nano discussion 
> lists really talk about Drexler-style nanotech within a decade.  People 
> on the space groups really talk about space colonies within a decade.  
> These predictions always have been and always will be just around the 
> corner.  But I don't believe any of them.  All of these major timelines 
> have been greatly delayed from earlier versions, and they will continue 
> to be delays as we discover more and more difficulties with these 
> projects.  It is not that technology isn't progressing exponentially 
> faster.  It is just that the problems are harder than we think, and the 
> amount of technology needed is much greater than expected.  We are so 
> impatient, that we feel the need to accelerate our predictions every 
> year, even though our prior years' predictions still haven't come true 
> yet.

Pointing at the projections made on these special-interest lists makes me think back to projections about space development made by space technologists in the 1960s.  I think there's a phenomenon that comes from a confluence of two factors: 1) what I call "breathing your own fumes" and 2) a little (or even a lot of) success in the special-interest group's area of expertise. Looking back on what I used to see space technologists project during the 1960s, I see the result of people of like mind and similar enthusiasms talking to each other about what COULD be as a matter of engineering or scientific possibility, reinforced by insularity in the discussion.  Thus a bunch of aerospace engineers in 1968 or so talking to each other about a significant moon colony by 2000 are comunicating in a regime that knows what has already been done and the rate of progress they have sustained with deep finanial support by the government over a 20 year period.  They probably aren't talking about factors completely outside their areas of expertise and enthusiasm, like politics or social science or economics or business.  So when those factors inject effects that sharply curtail their budgets, they end up looking like Wiley Coyote when he walks out into thin air at the edge of the cliff, confidently striding on until he looks down and realizes there's no longer any ground beneath his feet.  We all know what happens then ...

Which leads me to my own personal experience in the 1990s.  I had been an avid reader of science fiction since I was a young boy, but never a "fan" in the sense that I had never had the slightest connection to any organized group of people who were readers of science fiction.  Then, in the 1990s I began to be active in two mainly West Coast groups that contained a LOT of people who were also science fiction enthusiasts, namely Foresight and ExI.  These groups had both of the factors I list above.  How the first factor worked in these groups seems self-evident.  The second had much to do with the PC and Internet "revolutions."  So many people who were involved in these groups had personal experience of the swift, accelerating progress of the PC and Internet industries and R&D communities.  Thus it seemed realistic to make hyper-optimistic projections of expected progress.

In many ways, I was the odd man out in these groups -- someone who had come from an academic background in history and language and law.  I admit that sometimes I had the gnawing feeling that some of the talk seemed unrealistic, especially when it came to the social, political, legal and commercial factors that bore on many of the projections that were commonplace in the transhumanist sphere c. 10 years ago.  But, in hindsight, I can see how some of the skepticism I should have felt was assuaged by the raw enthusiasm and admitted success of so many of the people in these groups.  

One of the key assumptions that underlay many of the projections that were commonlplace in transhumanist circles in the 1990s was the divorce of technological development from social context.  In his "Dreams of Autarchy" essay, Robin Hanson discussed the brittleness of the idea that one person or a small group of people could perform technological miracles.  In hindsight, it seems to me that this concept played a crucial role in the more hallucinatory projections of a decade ago, because it allowed dreams to develop without the need to consider the unpredictable complexity of social systems.

Greg Burch

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