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The End Of Change?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Silent Lion, Jul 26, 2017.

  1. Silent Lion

    Silent Lion Rawr.

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    (subtitle: SL Thinks He's A Prophet)

    Despite being probably the only animal that can project into the future, our intuitive projections have the habit of being very simplistic and wracked with bias and an overactive sense for patterns. With that in mind, perhaps we should unpack some of our assumptions about the future of our species and our planet. The main thrust of my view is that change will not accelerate forever - in fact it will begin to slow.

    The most common way in which our projections can be simplistic is in extrapolation. A stunning example of this is population growth. We're all familiar with this pattern:
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3a/Human_population_growth_from_1800_to_2000.png

    And of course, we panic. Before long humans will cover the planet, all green space will be lost and we'll eat our babies. Thankfully, perpetual population explosion is a myth. In about 2011/12 the world reached peak child.
    That means that the number of children in the world today (about 2 billion) is about the most there is likely to be. As societies develop around the world, child mortality and family size tend to fall together. The average children per woman has been falling for some time and is approaching two. Two children per woman means no population growth. (UN stats estimate that, while children will not increase, the population will increase to about 11 billion. That's because the thinner elderly population will be replaced by the larger young population, add a billion for longer life expectancy for children born today to get 11 billion).

    It's a similar story with climate change. Emissions have indeed been increasing somewhat exponentially and the most prosperous countries (those which generally started earliest on the emissions road) are the biggest emitters. However, the emissions are stable. The countries who emit the most per capita are no longer increasing their emissions. Time will tell whether the number will start to go down - given the steady march of technology I'd call it probable. In the meantime, countries with developing industries (China, India) are still going up the 'exponential' part of the emissions climb, so the future looks questionable globally on that front.

    Coming back to how we over-extrapolate, whenever we appear to be on the Oh Shit side of an exponential curve, it turns out that we were instead half way through an S curve.

    All the above isn't much good for a debate. Population and emissions slow-down in the first world is brute fact based on solid statistical data. So I'll do my best to get carried away.

    I believe this s-curve thing applies to cultural change too, and it's something I believe I am witnessing in my own culture. It seems an eternal fact that older people moan about the breakdown of society and that we'll soon be having orgies in the streets. Except, for many of us, the ideological gap between the 40-year-old and the 20-year-old is noticeably smaller than between 40 and 60 year old. Gender equality, sexual liberalism (if not for ourselves then for others), the emergence of casuality (the proper word is casualness, but that sucks) as a virtue and stiff formality as a vice, these are things that cannot be exponential forever. For example, there is a conceptual limit to how equal the genders can be, isn't there? I'm not saying we're all now enlightened neo-hippy-oids. But there has been a clear shift, most rapidly since the second world war, and most people now believe or feel these things, even if we are at different places in terms of execution or acceptance. That certainly couldn't be said a century ago.

    To some extent, I even see the development of language and music homogenizing. Call me crazy. But people are still making music in genres and using slang from when I was a teen as if it was still cool. Since when has that ever been normal? Maybe we're getting off the rails now, as music particularly is a broad and multi-faceted discussion. But in terms of culture (and by extension language), I do want to point out that internet media could drive such a slow-down. Media of the past is instantly recognizable by the format on which it is recorded. Is the movie black and white? Grainy? Dull sepia colour? The slightly inebriated crispness of 90s television at the end of the analogue era? The pixelated impromptu journalism of a 2001 mobile phone? But that is less the case now. A video on Youtube from 2010 looks remarkably similar in quality and style to one today. Unless you consciously check the date, you could passively wander into language and opinions from a decade ago in seamless transition from something published yesterday. It is becoming harder to separate yourself from the content of yesterday, psychologically and physically.

    So there we are.
     
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2017
  2. Kaynil

    Kaynil Well-Known Member
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    It is quite an interesting observation the S curve. I think the panic with the climate change is just bow extreme they can be, if the ice age serves of any indication.

    As for the generations. I feel being in contact with slang and gentes from 20 years ago is common even for the older generations. The resurgence of our teenager slang and media today is mostly the business milking nostalgia and in a few years they will move to the next decade. The music itself, for better or for worse, has evolved. Think of the icon todays vetsus the ones from before. The terms on today music is different and new genres are still coming up or breaking the barrier of language and location.

    Technology wise, I think there was a "law" explaining that after taking certain point the progress would exponentially slow down.

    It is interesting to think we ate teaching that point where things are starting to slow down. I think globalisation and the Internet has changed a lot. The differences in culture and mentality makes you question and reshape your own beliefs and it is harder to just assume any old rumour you knew of people of a different nationality is true.
     
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  3. 'zilla

    'zilla Blarf

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    Population: I agree, we are starting to come to terms, as a species, with the limits for our growth that the planet imposes upon us. Fortunately. However, we might always come upon further hacks that extend our food supply, and the trends of today can turn back up as we push back the limits further. But I find that unlikely.

    Climate change: for this case I would quote you out of context: "the future looks questionable globally". Our emissions will peak, yes, but constant emissions will still mean a continuing accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. We need a complete reversal of the emissions growth, through an absolute elimination of emissions, into a net negative emissions scenario, for decades, starting in just 20 years - just to reach a stability in the carbon concentration! That is batshit crazy stuff. The only thing that a stabilization in population brings is a stabilization in emissions, and only with technological advances since even a stable population will expect a growing economy and consumption. Unfortunately, a stable population as civilization exists today is not compatible with a stable climate. The two are at odds and we will need much more effort to justify our long-term presence in the biosphere.

    Which brings me into the theme of overarching patterns. The S-curve and the likes may describe a singular change over a limited period of time, but the story never starts or ends there. Products take a long time to come into being, they are based on other products and other technology, they arise out of a setting. Then their success may feature an S-curve. And eventually, the products will be obsolete, broken, forgotten, and new products take over. The end is exactly that – the end. But the world does not end, it keeps being dynamic, it keeps changing, and that ever-present driving force will kill that which stagnates.

    The stagnation of culture can be theorized to be a symptom of impending decline. This is an ancient theory. Maybe we really are going to see a death of cycles, a triumph of linear theories? But I find also this unlikely. Socio-political changes are obvious in today's global world, and these power shifts tend to send nations and regions into new cycles, some of decline, some of growth, and sometimes we see drastic changes in-between. Stagnating regions will have trouble in these times and are more likely to burn fiercer when the time comes. I am worried for the continuation of the stability that we have known in the western world for so long. I believe these regions are in a stagnant phase and in a hundred years or so, things could be very very very different. I only hope it won't happen through widespread conflict, but rather through short periods of destructive change that we will rebound from and regain enough plasticity to adapt to the changing world.

    If only we had a well-developed framework of Psychohistory!

    EDIT: Also, technology. Significant breakthroughs in AI, quantum computing and other known and unknown technologies could be potent enough to change the rules of the game, upsetting any current S-curve trend or other trends.
     
  4. Silent Lion

    Silent Lion Rawr.

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    I find AI to be very scary, even more so that climate change. Climate change is a drastic problem indeed, not to detract from that. In the UK it will be illegal to sell new fossil-fueled vehicles after 2040. But that's too little too late - many will still be driving polluting cars for many years after. We can only hope that companies and investors will see which way the wind is blowing and consider it more profitable in the long-term to shift to renewable technologies as quickly as possible (which it will be). But AI is in a whole other league. At least it's conceivable that we could reverse climate change, if we became sufficiently motivated. It's difficult to see given our recent political and economic history, but it is conceivable. If AI goes wrong, I can't even conceive of humans re-liberating themselves, unless machines develop a sense of altruism. Perhaps that's another discussion.

    As a minor point, I would argue that the stabilisation of the population is not due to the planet's limitations but an increase in wellbeing. People with the most food are having the least children. Therefore it seems unlikely that an increase in food availability will result in increased population. Families in developed countries with a high quality of life simply don't want more than 2 children on average, regardless of their ability to support them.

    Your point about cultural stagnation leads me to think about the Fermi paradox. As we watch cultures around the world progress, it seems that the pattern of progression is not arbitrary or random, but goes through identifiable phases. It may be our culture in the west has stagnated because there has been relatively less change, and when AI comes out or other game-changing, uh, changes, it will inspire a cultural reaction.

    As for the Fermi paradox, is there a logical endgame for cultural and social progression? Not necessarily the end of its existence (although we can't rule that out), but a point of equilibrium, where our level of control over our environment and ourselves reaches such a point that we cease to expand? You could call this a straight, unchanging line, or it could be more like a series of repeating, predictable cycles, some lasting a few years, some lasting a century - but all of the cycles will have been accounted for and their effects controlled. Is this a reasonable conclusion from witnessing the pattern of history? If this is so, it would explain the Fermi paradox - it might not be that aliens are non-existent or incapable of making themselves evident, but that all advanced civilisations, if they survive, ultimately turn themselves into a perfectly balanced self-contained equilibrium.
    --- Double Post Merged, Sep 22, 2017 at 4:17 AM, Original Post Date: Sep 20, 2017 at 6:15 AM ---
    A correction: someone pointed out to me that an equilibrium was a state of perfect entropy, meaning that it would be difficult/unlikely for the civilisation to contain all the evidence of its existence. But still, the march of civilisation (and the evolution of life in general, for that matter) is in many ways a counter-current to entropy. Increasing conglomerations of energy-demanding order, through to the technologies we continue to develop. But difficult for us conceptually doesn't mean difficult or unadvantageous for them - I can imagine a future where our control over our environment is so complete that happiness and order is achieved with the maximum of efficiency and energy re-use, such that the only traces to leave the system are indistinguishable to us from normal cosmic signals. As a species progresses, perhaps it either hits a 'death gate' and vanishes or retracts many steps, or achieves a state of cyclic order.

    On a related note, as the radio and microwave signals we emit from earth expand in a sphere and become more diffuse, is there a point where the information is lost? Would an alien living at Proxima Centauri be able to tune into Fox News one day, even in principle? If not, that would also explain the Fermi paradox...
     

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