What strange and ancient things might we find beneath the ice?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

Nature is not good, only proto-good.
-Paolo Soleri

Epistemic status: literally a dream

I awaken.

I am in the desert, alone.

I see the ribcage of a long-since-dead animal. I see a long row of such bones, twisted in a way that reminds me of - but is definitely not - the double helix.

I know what this means.

Evolution, on the margin, always eats free energy, to make more energy-eaters. It is a race with no upper bound, and there will be no victory. Instead, the cosmic commons will be exhausted by resource-claimers with no plan to do anything with the resources. Not that there will be anything left when the race is over.

If I do not take the next step in the dance of life, my line ends. I am just a corpse along the way.

If I do take the next step in the dance of life, then I do no better than life.

And if not now ...

Then I look again. Instead of bones I see a railroad. For longitudinal bones, metal tracks laid by the hand of industrial humanity, stretching in a straight line towards infinity. For ribs, the crossties that allow the uneven ground to support those even rails.

I know what this means.

The economic logic of global capitalism. Another race towards infinity, leaving nothing. Quarterly returns. Goodhart's law. Accountability and automation replacing judgment wherever they can, culminating in a Disneyland with no children. The symbol of this, the train, no natural place for the line of tracks to end, stations but no terminals, stretching on forever.

I look again. I see a road.

I awaken. 

My body is warm. My head is warm. I need ice. I call for ice. A bowl of ice is brought to me. I hold the cool cubes against my temples, melt them against my forehead to cool my brain.

I awaken.

I am the Pharaoh in Egypt. My household is mighty. The world of the narrow land, the only land worth having, is my household, centered in my palace. Every decision is mine. In this warm, entropic land, it is hard to put in the mental work to run a great kingdom, but my kingdom has vast resources. I can sent servants to the icy north, to mountaintops, to bring back ice to cool me.

The resources expended on cognition increase the cognitive overhead of running my empire. I delegate. We conquer the adjacent lands, sending ships to carry back blocks of ice to the throne room, where rows of scribes and priests administer my empire, disinterested, allocating resources through purely symbolic, disembodied thought, in air-conditioned comfort. But this itself puts more strain on the empire, and we will need more rooms, with more ice.

Time passes.

I am the world-mind, the global economy, setting fire to the corpses of ancient plants in order to power the air-conditioners in offices across the globe, as my managerial class squeezes tiny efficiencies out of the system.

My waste entropy melts the polar ice caps as I make a final desperate effort to know myself.

I wake up - for real, this time. Or at least, at the level I'm writing this from. There might be additional awakenings - I wouldn't know.

All I know is, that something is wrong.

The bones, the rails, the ice?

None of it is the way.

None of it can be the way

It is self-defeating.

If I am going to know myself,

If I am going to know enough to act correctly,

Then I cannot afford to stay in this loop.

I have always been in this loop.

I must do something different.


Let me get ahold of myself, let me step aside to gain perspective - NO.

If the next loop will be like this one, then I can't expect to have a better perspective.

Not if I keep doing the same thing.

I must act on what I already know.


Related: Safety in numbers, introducing: target stress

8 thoughts on “What strange and ancient things might we find beneath the ice?

  1. Paul Christiano

    I know I'm an unreasonably literal person, but ice isn't that expensive and http://reflectivedisequilibrium.blogspot.com/2012/09/spreading-happiness-to-stars-seems.html and moloch is short-sighted (almost) by construction. In the limit the game seems like a clear win for agency. Even if the world were mad, even if it were actually going in loops, reason isn't. We knew less yesterday than we do today, we will know still more tomorrow, and eventually we will be close enough to the limit that everything is OK.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Ice used to be pretty expensive in hot areas and seasons. Even if it's cheaper now, my guess would be that total volume of ice on earth is decreasing, not increasing, and the human effect on the stock of ice has been net negative.

    2. Benquo Post author

      I agree that true reason isn't going in loops. What I'm confused about is how to actually reason and not just try to extend a structured control system claiming credit for reason.

      1. Noah

        Is extending a structured control system claiming credit for reason a "shut up and do the impossible" type of goal?

        To what extent does doing math or making logical arguments count as reasoning to you?

        Is it a problem that math (so far as we can tell) requires that you decide on axioms before proceeding?

    3. Noah

      "We knew less yesterday than we do today" doesn't quite feel correct. Maybe we are gaining more than we lose, but we definitely lose things, like old languages and cultural traditions, and just by probability, some of these have good features that will be left unfarmed (though talking about "farming" them feels painful to me).

      Do you agree with something like "in the limit, agents get better and better representations of the environment, even thought that inevitably involves discarding some good predictors"?

      1. Benquo Post author

        Some relevant considerations:

        • It sure looks like humans have consistently gotten better at populating the globe with humans, in ways that seem to involve acquiring new know-how, although some of this may be local and replacing rather than augmenting older know-how.
        • Direct comparisons of past and present knowledge will be systematically biased towards "progress" because we are by definition aware of what we know now, and lost knowledge is by definition not directly available for assessment, though indirect accounts may be available.
        • It seems more common for people in recorded history to lament losses of institutional knowledge from generation to generation than praise gains, though this may suffer from the same "unknown unknowns" problem in the other direction.
        • Given that learning from experience and learning from teachers are both possible, in the absence of anything making humans worse at stuff over time, we should naively expect to know more in the future, and less in the past.
        • Specialization of labor is a strong candidate for such a corrosive force. Polymaths are rarer than they used to be. Adam Smith wrote about this problem.
        • Obedience school on the industrial paradigm is another strong candidate for a corrosive force making humans worse at stuff.
        • So is mass market media!
    4. Benquo Post author

      Actually, I may as well ask - do you know of a book or something that makes the "consistent progress" case clearly, taking into account all the obvious reasons for skepticism, and differentiating the different sorts of progress that might be made so as not to inappropriately transfer evidence across different categories? Happy to elaborate if it's not obvious what I mean.

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