Michael Anissimov is understandably exasperated:
“It’s sad how the people who invented the nuclear bomb and spent their careers dealing with the threat of it are now screaming about the risk of terrorist nuclear weapons, and no one under the age of 40 is listening. Few people over 40 are listening either, but the numbers seem better there. (Obama, most notably.) Perhaps it will take a nuke going off in one of our major cities before people wake up. There’s this thing called a boat that lets you bring a payload right up to the coast without too much trouble.
My generation is too interested in webcomics, MMOs, perpetual left-right political warfare, and gosh-wow technologies to care about the real risks right in front of us.”
I’m afraid I must plead guilty as charged. When I wrote the post ‘what questions really matter‘ I put existential and catastrophic risk reduction first on the list for these reasons, but since then have had nothing original to say on the topic. I am probably not the only person who feels like they should do more about existential risk but never gets around to it. Whatever ails me may go some way to describing the incredible dearth of research on the topic, and the lack of responses to existential risk posts by Roko Mijik and Michael Anissimov.
Maybe I am a victim of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Many people have strong views on tribal political topics like unions and immigration, so it’s much easier to strike up a conversation about that than it is a complex issue like existential risk that most people have never heard about and do not understand. For a combative writer like me it’s hard to get passionate writing about even very important things so long as other people don’t care to argue about them. Dissecting the bad ideas of other people I know contributes little to the progress of humanity but is nonetheless an inviting way to spend the evening compared to coming up useful ideas nobody cares about. Ultimately, existential risk analysis just doesn’t provide me with many opportunities to prove my intelligence and confidence to other people, especially women. If it were a good way to signal that, my subconscious would probably drive me to write about it much more often.
In the near-far psychological divide, existential risk is naturally as ‘far’ an ideal as you can get. Existential risk doesn’t feel like something that threatens me right now; rather it feels very much like a concern for strange beings I know little about who might exist far away in space and time who would be denied the opportunity to exist hundreds of years in the future. To motivate myself to work on reducing existential risk, I need to make it a near concern more than a far value. An analytical project with a short term pay-off would help. For example, Katja’s analysis of anthropics and existential risk attracted a big response because it allowed people to sink their teeth into a specific analytical question in anthropics rather than asking them to dwell on the fate of far off future generations. The sorts of ‘far values’ political and religious movements which attract a lot of people provide people with good opportunities to show off their good features and network with a useful group. They also provide simple goals, regular positive feedback, a sense of urgency and tap into as many human moral instincts they can – not just concern about pleasant outcomes but also about fairness, sanctity, authority and group loyalty.
So here are some things that would help me and others focus:
- A more narrowly defined analytical problem in existential risk to make progress on.
- Smart readers who understand existential risk and care to argue about it.
- Female (or male) groupies who are impressed by analysis of existential risk.
- The chance to network with impressive and high status people who also care about existential risk.
- Regular positive feedback and people around me often who care about the same cause.
- A belief that existential risk is a threat right now rather than one in the far future.