Robin Hanson: This is the Dream Time
In the distant future, our descendants will probably have spread out across space, and redesigned their minds and bodies to explode Cambrian-style into a vast space of possible creatures. If they are free enough to choose where to go and what to become, our distant descendants will fragment into diverse local economies and cultures.
Given a similar freedom of fertility, most of our distant descendants will also live near a subsistence level. Per-capita wealth has only been rising lately because income has grown faster than population. But if income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 10^3000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 10^70 atoms of our galaxy available by then. Yes we have seen a remarkable demographic transition, wherein richer nations have fewer kids, but we already see contrarian subgroups like Hutterites, Hmongs, or Mormons that grow much faster. So unless strong central controls prevent it, over the long run such groups will easily grow faster than the economy, making per person income drop to near subsistence levels. Even so, they will be basically happy in such a world.
When our distant descendants think about our era, however, differences will loom larger. Yes they will see that we were more like them in knowing more things, and in having less contact with a wild nature. But our brief period of very rapid growth and discovery and our globally integrated economy and culture will be quite foreign to them. Yet even these differences will pale relative to one huge difference: our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and nonadaptive values that matter. While our descendants may explore delusion-dominated virtual realities, they will well understand that such things cannot be real, and don’t much influence history. In contrast, we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions drove history. Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialled to the max.
These factors combine to make our era the most consistently and consequentially deluded and unadaptive of any era ever. When they remember us, our distant descendants will be shake their heads at the demographic transition, where we each took far less than full advantage of the reproductive opportunities our wealth offered. They will note how we instead spent our wealth to buy products we saw in ads that talked mostly about the sort of folks who buy them. They will lament our obsession with super-stimili that highjacked our evolved heuristics to give us taste without nutrition. They will note we spent vast sums on things that didn’t actually help on the margin, such as on medicine that didn’t make us healthier, or education that didn’t make us more productive.
Perhaps most important, our descendants may remember how history hung by a precarious thread on a few crucial coordination choices that our highly integrated rapidly changing world did or might have allowed us to achieve, and the strange delusions that influenced such choices. These choices might have been about global warming, rampaging robots, nuclear weapons, bioterror, etc. Our delusions may have led us to do something quite wonderful, or quite horrible, that permanently changed the options available to our descendants. This would be the most lasting legacy of this, our explosively growing dream time, when what was once adaptive behavior with mostly harmless delusions become strange and dreamy unadaptive behavior, before adaptation again reasserted a clear-headed relation between behavior and reality.
Our dreamtime will be a time of legend, a favorite setting for grand fiction, when low-delusion heroes and the strange rich clowns around them could most plausibly have changed the course of history. Perhaps most dramatic will be tragedies about dreamtime advocates who could foresee and were horrified by the coming slow stable adaptive eons, and tried passionately, but unsuccessfully, to prevent them.