The future is a long time

A conversation I meant to blog about a couple months ago, but forgot about until now:

A friend an I are discussing politics. He asks, “you think they’ll ever abolish the Electoral College?” I reply: “The future is a long time.”

This got a good laugh, but it’s a really important point. Questions about whether such-and-such will ever happen often sound sensible, but when you look at them closely they often seem to ignore what an incredibly long period of time “the future” is. Not that I know the Electoral College will be formally abolished, exactly–after all, we might all be wiped out by an asteroid strike first–but we need to appreciate that even if you don’t expect changes to be especially rapid, we should expect some kind of huge changes eventually, because of how long “eventually” is.

The way people ask the “will such-and-such ever happen?” questions suggests they aren’t really thinking on a time frame of “ever.” They’re thinking on a time frame of their own life time. For older people, maybe they’re thinking on the time frame of their children’s lifetime, or maybe even their grandchildren’s lifetime, but I suspect that’s the absolute limit of most people’s ability to think about the future.

Not only could this lead people to underestimate the amount of change that will happen in the future, it may lead them to fail to appreciate what’s at stake when we worry about threats to humanity’s future. It’s not just our lives, our children’s lives, our grand children’s lives… but the lives of “great-greats” further out than we can really comprehend. Nick Bostrom did a really good job of driving home this point in a talk he gave once (from about the 3:20 mark):

  • Locaha

    >>> we worry about threats to humanity’s future

    I don’t understand how supposedly rational people justify worrying about things that will happen after their death.

    • Slow Learner

      For the same reason that I care about what happens to people I will never meet in outer Mongolia (or Syria, or even a different neighbourhood of my home town) – they are people like me, and they deserve equal rights to me, as well as equal consideration in balancing utilities.
      Plus of course if you care about your legacy, “led to the destruction of the entire species” is a fairly poor one.

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