Why We Likely Underappreciate The Pace of Technological Progress

Epistemic status: 70% sure the general argument makes sense. If it does make sense, this seems pretty important.

Note: the focus of the post is our psychology – I’m not discussing the absolute speed of progress but only our perception of it.


electronics prices keep falling to the point where people whine endlessly online if a top-end VR headset or smartphone costs less in real terms than a Nintendo NES did in 1983

Gwern (a)

I thought that, “Well, if the company’s succeeding, then clearly, it’s going to be – not necessarily fun but at least it’ll feel good day to day,” whereas the actual reality is that you’re always necessarily operating at the outer edge of what you can handle because if you have spare capacity, you just take on more. And so you’re therefore, inevitably always on the cusp of feeling like you’re going to fall over.

Patrick Collison (a)

Progress is good. This seems self-evident. But why is it good?

I’m re-reading Brothers Karamazov at the moment and I’m taken aback at the unhappiness of people in late 19th century Russia. Russia’s per capita income then was around $1,000 (1 (a), 2 (a)); child mortality rate – about 25% (a); life expectancy – barely above 30 years (a).

I tried reading The Iliad recently and I had to drop it because I couldn’t stop sobbing at the the destitute and the misery of everyone involved – I can’t imagine how people ever lived without electricity, antibiotics, cheap flights, the internet…

The previous sentence reads like a bad satire. But why should it? It seems evident that there has been an amazing amount of scientific and technological progress in the last 2,000 years. And since progress made our life much better, yet on average we’re still not very happy or satisfied with our lives (evidence: I spent 2 weeks out of the last 4 being totally depressed and not doing almost anything), it seems natural to conclude that in the absence of progress, life would be totally miserable.

What we actually see when we learn about the lives of people in the past, they were essentially the same as our. Yes, they didn’t have antibiotics. But has penicillin made you happier? Has electricity made you more satisfied with your life? Has your computer made you more virtuous? Has your VR headset made you more passionate about life? I would argue that no, no, no, and no.

If technological progress is so great, and these are some of the most important discoveries and inventions - should we not feel better?

But no, belief in afterlife, crazy communal rituals, and hallucinogens still make life that is more meaningful and happy than anything we could achieve in the modern world.

Expectations and hedonic adaption

My model of all this is that

Finally, naively, we expect that technological progress will not only make us materially better, but will also make us feel better. However, when we look back 10 years, we notice that we have the same number of things we worry about today as we worried about then. Thus, we conclude that our life is just as good as it was then and therefore something’s wrong with progress. This will hold true, regardless of progress’s actual pace.

And if I ask you whether how you feel today is affected more by the entirety of scientific and technological progress in the last 2,000 years or by a slight intonation you caught when talking to a girl or a boy you have a crush on, I know you won’t think about the answer for a second.


Thanks to Brian Timar, Gleb Posobin, and Anastasia Kuptsova for reading the drafts of this post.

Appendix

A technological progress skeptic guide

Expectations and well-being in prison

Notes on Teaching in Prison (a) by JS Denain:

How much should hedonic treadmill effects be taken into account when considering inmate welfare? I feel like there is a very real sense in which convicts who did not expect to ever go to prison tend to be traumatised and extremely depressed whereas convicts who grew up in an environment where prison was ’normal’, or at least not unheard of tend to be better equipped to deal with the situation.

More things that seem interesting but that didn't make it into the main body of the text


Scott Alexander writes (a):

Some people, having completed the traditional forms of empty speculation – “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “If you could bang any celebrity who would it be?” – turn to “What will you say as your last words?”

Sounds like a valid question. You can go out with a wisecrack, like Oscar Wilde (“Either this wallpaper goes or I do”). Or with piety and humility, like Jesus (“Into thy hands, o Father, I commend my spirit.”) Or burning with defiance, like Karl Marx (“Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”)

Well, this is an atheist/skeptic blog, so let me do my job of puncturing all your pleasant dreams. You’ll probably never become an astronaut. You’re not going to bang Emma Watson. And your last words will probably be something like “mmmrrrgggg graaaaaaaaaaaHAAACK!”

So is it better to die in hospital at 80 having Alzheimer’s, not remembering your family, disoriented, and believing that you were abducted by aliens or on a battle field fighting for your brothers?


“if you had to deal with getting treated for the same major illness once every 15 years, maybe improvements would be more salient. But if it’s a one-time event, you don’t realize what’s changed.”


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