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11 February 2014 @ 06:38 pm
It's hard to keep my utopianism in the face of research  
I've been reading books and listening to podcasts about cognitive biases and psychology (examples: Thinking Fast and Slow or the You Are Not So Smart podcast), and while a lot of it just covers the kind of things I already knew, it's still destroying what little faith I had left in the human race, which wasn't much to begin with.

Not too long ago, though, I read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which is all about how willpower is a limited resource, works like a muscle in that it can get tired and not be there when you need it and be strengthened by exercise, and also that there's one kind of willpower that isn't subdivided by type of activity, so having to resist eating chocolate makes you more likely to rage when someone cuts you off in traffic.

The real name for that is ego depletion, for the curious.

Where this meshes with utopianism is that I have what I call a cynically utopian view of the best possible future, in that I think human minds are so flawed that the only way we'll get a government and society that's more than "great for a few, adequate for some, horrible for the majority" would be turning all important functions over to AIs, much like Iain M Banks' Culture.

The problem comes in when it turns out that self-control and resilience, or what's lately been called grit, are the personality traits that consistently predict success better than any other traits (not counting stuff like parental income here). And while we aren't sure where grit comes from and why some people have more and some less, I think it's not an unreasonable assumption that it develops through adversity and exercising it, because that's how willpower can be strengthened as well. That gets in the way of the ideal future being a crystal spires and togas civilization where robots do all the work and humans are free to devote themselves to the life of the mind, since it'd probably just end up with people watching holovision all the time and slowly falling into barbarism while a small percentage of the population keeps the flame of knowledge alive through the Long Night that follows.

What's more, apparently our grandparents' advice is correct and one of the best ways to resist temptation is simply never to be exposed to it in the first place. The best way to avoid eating chocolate is to not keep any chocolate in the house, and the best way to avoid civilization from descending into a decadent orgy of bloodsport and barbarism is to make sure that...okay, that's not the best analogy, both because individual brain activity can't really be broadly applied to society that way and also because it's trivially easy for civilization to descend into a decadent orgy of bloodsport and barbarism no matter what the technology level is. It's really easy for humans for decide to be terrible to each other for no reason.

Then again, if we can get to the point where we can make superintelligent AIs to rule us, maybe we can hack our brains to remove these problems, so maybe there's still hope. And this does rely on a supposition on grit, though if it turns out to be unalterable then that rapidly heads into Gattica-style dystopia. So at least I can maintain my cynicism unchallenged, and use confirmation bias to reserve my mental energy for other tasks!
 
 
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Current Music: Disparition - The Ballad of Fiedler and Mundt