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How will the future change your politics?

Your politics are determined by your values, your opinions about the facts of the world, and, let’s be honest, just a little bit of tribalism. But the future is approaching, as it often does, and great transformations may be in the cards. Transformations that could dramatically affect the facts of the world. So whatever your values are, there is a chance that you may soon be arguing for the opposite of your usual policies. For instance, what if the future were necessarily…

Communist: one of the easiest ones to conceive of. Here it turns out that as barriers to trade are removed and transaction costs go to zero, the natural state of the economy is one of perpetual crashes. Celebrity and fame feed upon themselves: everyone demands the best, and the definition of the best is shared widely: niche markets don’t exist. Incomes follow such a sharp power law that only a few percent of the population have any wealth at all. Automation means that most people can’t earn enough to sustain themselves: their income drops below the costs of keeping them alive. Hence a large, bloated, over-regulating government becomes a matter of survival.

Ultra-capitalist: as barriers to trade are removed and transaction costs go to zero, the whole market segments into small niches. Everyone can find some buyer for their work, as new demands and new suppliers spring up immediately, connected by new technologies. Technology solves known externalities (like global warming), so there is little need for a centralised controlling authority. Change happens so rapidly that any governmental intervention is counterproductive: by the time the change is implemented, the benefits and costs the government was trying to influence are things of the past. The efficient market, the only thing fast enough to keep up with itself, flows like a river around any blundering governmental efforts, rendering them moot.

Void of free speech: Spam and advertising become ubiquitous, leaving no escape to anyone. Marketing stops being an airy art and becomes an engineering science: companies (and political parties) really can force people to buy or vote just through the force of their targeted advertising. The human mind is hackable: the experiences of every moment of every day are akin to hypnosis and brainwashing. Any society that doesn’t protect itself with draconian regulations is unlivable. But the profits to circumventing the regulations are so huge that organisations are willing to pay a fortune to have individuals carry their message: there ceases to be any moral difference between private and corporate speech. At the same time, technology makes the assembly of devastating weapons extremely easy: the only protection is suppressing the information. Extreme censorship becomes essential to sanity and survival.

Bereft of science: another easy one to conceive of. The technological tools derived from science become so dangerous – the weapons too powerful, the never-anticipated side-effects too devastating – that the only way to continue is to ban them entirely. Some experience with dangerous tools developed by social science convince everyone that there is no safe area of scientific inquiry. Some discoveries may be harmless, but we can never know which ones in advance. The human race agrees that it isn’t worth the risk: science comes to a halt. There are things man was not meant to know.

BNP-ish:  Highly infectious new diseases cleave humanity into small enclaves whose mutual suspicions are fully justified. Or maybe artificial evolution and enhancements divide humans into sub-species so distinct they no long have any shared values allowing them to relate. Distrusting the outsider is rational, mixing with them is dangerous.

The point is not that any one of these scenarios is very likely. The point is that it’s not unreasonable to suppose that they are possible – and nothing we know now can rule them out. They depend on deep trends in technology and society that we have little understanding of and little control over (or, more frighteningly, it may just be luck where we end up). All we know about “how the world really works” are firmly rooted in the past, and it may not take much technological change to obsolete it completely. Take the arguments presented by your least favourite political movements, and imagine what changes to technology and society would make these arguments reasonable. Are you sure those changes could never happen?

So keep a firm hand on your values, always ready to jump ship on your politics.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Anders Sandberg

    While values might be more reliable than traditional political alignments as a guide to actual politics (consider for example Virginia Postrels analysis of how left/right have been replaced by pro-change/anti-change, leading to new alliances) your examples also seem to suggest that we might need to jump ship on values. If I hold personal freedom as a sacred value, then in the dangerous science scenarios that would actually be an irrational value: to allow freedom of inquiry would easily lead to personal or species-wide disaster. If I believe loyalty to the old traditions to be a proper value, in one of the ultra-change scenarios this would mean loyalty to systems that are obsolete and likely quickly cease to exist. And in the mind control scenario of course values are not selected by us but by evolutionary processes in the institutional ecosystem.

    I don’t think values are any more stable than politics in the face of sufficient change.

    1. Stuart Armstrong

      Preserve “core values” maybe? We all tend to have a hierarchy, with some values ranking higher than others.

  2. It would seem that the best course of the most stable version of our political societies would absolutely depend upon on both the staving of these scenarios and implicit threat they would seem to impose. The slippery slope is dangerous enough without our willingness to see just how slippery it can be. And so stoic desperation becomes our status quo.

  3. Ashleigh Marshema

    The question is rather, ‘How will my politics change the future?’
    And the relevant factor you have ignored is media manipulation of our apparent options. Also you might want to read up on communism…

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