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Friday, July 12, 2024

The Curse of the Long Boom

A story in four parts, about predictions and what they’re ultimately good for:

1. Davies’ Law

Dan Davies (whose Substack is an excellent read, by the way) wrote a post last week in which he coined Davies’ Law: “If you don’t make predictions, you’ll never know what to be surprised by.”

This seems like the perfect starting point for our story. I love it. I hope very much to see Davies’ Law become A Thing.

I’ve written around the edges of this topic before. Davies has basically just tapped into my intellectual lodestone here. Making predictions and then paying attention to the things I’m surprised by is approximately the One Weird Trick underlying my entire academic career.

Back in February I posted some reflections on what I’m looking for in the WIRED back catalog. Here’s how I phrased it then: “All of my best thinking comes from getting stuff wrong. That’s the angle from which I approach all social science research questions.” The whole point of making predictions, from this perspective, is to help yourself identify the limits of your own knowledge, leading to harder questions that improve your understanding of the world.

Credit to Dan Davies—his coinage is so much pithier.

He also provides a corollary: “If you don’t make recommendations, you won’t know what to be disappointed by.”

Let me offer a second corollary: “If you retrofit your predictions to insist they were right after all, you’ll never learn a single damn thing.”

I mention this because, as you might imagine, I run into a lot of incorrect predictions as I read through the WIRED archive. Back in the ’90s, WIRED was chock-full of a very particular style of futurism—one that has not aged especially well.

In keeping with Davies’ Law, this presents a lovely opportunity. I’m rereading the entire magazine back catalog to understand how emerging technologies looked, take stock of where people thought the world was headed, and draw lessons from the resulting surprises.

The thing that sets me back on my heels, though, is that a lot of those old WIRED techno-optimists are still out there making predictions today. And to hear them tell it, they were right all along.

Huh?

2. The Long Boom, Spoiled

Jason Kottke had a nice item last week,  about revisiting the long boom:

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It seems like this list surfaces on social media every year or so. People stumble across the “Long Boom” story, notice the “scenario spoilers” sidebar, and break out in fits of nervous laughter. The list is just unbelievably cursed. 

Here’s a goofy little thought experiment: Imagine you are one of the story’s original coauthors (futurists Peter Leyden and Peter Schwartz). In 1997, you wrote an iconic WIRED magazine cover story predicting that the future was going to be remarkably bright and prosperous for everyone, everywhere. You included a sidebar with 10 reasons why it might not work out so well. And then basically all of those reasons (including, y’know, “Russia devolves into a kleptocracy,” and “an uncontrollable plague”) actually happened.

Would you:

(A) Make a joke of it. “Haha, sorry for the curse, everyone. My next prediction can only be spoiled by free ice cream and zero-point energy for all.”

(B) Write a critical retrospective discussing not just the spoiler sidebar, but everything else that was missing from the rose-colored-glasses scenario.

(C) Reinvent yourself as an Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling world traveler, seeking to unearth whatever Old Gods you apparently offended in 1997.

or (D) Write a follow-up essay, describe it as “the long boom squared,” and include another list of 10 spoilers that might ruin the future?!?

Because folks, I have bad news to report: Peter Leyden chose option D.

This time, he’s predicting that 2025-2050 will be a period of unparalleled progress and abundance—unless we run into spoilers like “liberal democracies fail,” “quasi civil war,” “nuclear bomb explodes,” “desperate oil states,” and “China hot war.”

So … yeah …

3. The Long Boom, Taken Seriously

All joking and bad omens aside, it’s worth grappling with the actual argument presented in the original “Long Boom” story. I assign this piece every semester to my History of the Digital Future class as a guiding example of the brash technological optimism that was part of Silicon Valley’s ideological core back then (and arguably still is today). The “scenario spoilers” sidebar barely comes up in the article itself. The authors do not dwell on these potential problems, evaluate their likelihood, or discuss what steps we ought to take in order to avoid them. The spoilers are presented in passing, as one might say “of course it might rain, and then we’ll have to move indoors” in an 11,000-word description of an upcoming picnic.

The piece argues that we (circa 1997) have reached an inflection point in world history. The Cold War is finally over, and the neoliberal economic order is ascendent. The authors insist that breakthroughs in science and technology are about to cure cancer and end poverty and world hunger. A new economics of abundance will improve life everywhere, engendering goodwill amidst our suddenly truly global civilization. (They also figure we’ll land on Mars by 2020, NBD.)

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A few of these social predictions are particularly tough to read today:

“Fossil fuels will continue to be a primary source of power into the middle of the 21st century—but they will be clean fossil fuels.”“after almost two decades of wide-open Mafia-style capitalism, Russia emerges in about 2005 with the basic underpinnings of a solid economy. Enough people are invested in the new system, and enough of the population has absorbed the new work ethic, that the economy can function quite well—with few reasons to fear a retrenchment.”“The path for the rest of the world seems clear. Openness and restructuring. Restructuring and openness. Individually, nations begin adopting the formula of deregulating, privatizing, opening up to foreign investment, and cutting government deficits. Collectively, they sign onto international agreements that accelerate the process of global integration—and fuel the long boom.”“… everyone benefits, particularly the underdeveloped economies.”“By about 2000, the United States economy is doing so well that the tax coffers begin to swell. This not only solves the deficit problem but gives the government ample resources to embark on new initiatives. No longer forced to nitpick over which government programs to cut, political leaders emerge with new initiatives to help solve seemingly intractable social problems.”“A spirit of generosity returns. The vast majority of Americans who see their prospects rising with the expanding economy are genuinely sympathetic to the plight of those left behind. This kinder, gentler humanitarian urge is bolstered by a cold, hard fact. The bigger the network, the better. The more people in the network, the better for everyone.”“By the late 1990s, immigrants are seen as valuable contributors who keep the economy humming—more able hands and brains. By the first decade of the century, government policy actively encourages immigration of knowledge workers.”Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

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The world they are invoking is one where (1) neoliberalism spread everywhere and works great, (2) its benefits are widely distributed, (3) scientific and technological breakthroughs become easier and faster with time, and (4) none of those scientific or technological breakthroughs are, on balance, used for harm.

This is … not the world we inhabit today. The neoliberal economic order has not lived up to its billing. Many of our primary political divisions today are either caused or exacerbated by the failings of the neoliberal order. America is not defined by a “new spirit of generosity,” nor have we welcomed increased immigration with open arms.

And while we have had plenty of technological advances in the past 25 years, we have also been constantly reminded of Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” The social world has proven both more complicated and more fragile than the authors predicted.

I somehow imagined that if we could transport the 1997 versions of Peters Leyden and Schwartz to the present-day United States, they would be awestruck reading Twitter on an iPhone and then appalled by the news items they encountered.

It thus came as something of a shock to me when, last year, I read Peter Leyden’s essay “The Great Progression,” in which he reflects on their old WIRED story before offering predictions for 2025-2050.

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Most people read those 10 spoilers and say “haha, so cursed. All of these happened. No wonder the world is such a mess.” Peter Leyden looks back at his 25-year-old predictions, spoilers and all, and declares [paraphrasing] “Yup. Nailed it. The spoilers didn’t even matter. Nothing could stop the long boom.”

And now he’s back, with another set of optimistic projections.

Let me say this again: If you retrofit your predictions to insist they were right after all, you will never learn a single damn thing.

4. The Blind Spots of Ideological Optimism

Leyden and Schwartz are devout optimists. Optimism is part of their fundamental worldview and intellectual mission. In the same way that my One Weird Trick is “lean into the stuff you got wrong last time,” their One Weird Trick is “look at emerging trends and craft a positive scenario.”

They explain this in the opening passages of the 1997 piece. The whole point was to present “a radically optimistic meme” about the trajectory of society. (This was back in the days when “meme” was a fancy way of saying “sticky idea” while signaling that you are the rare type of person who does not find Richard Dawkins off-putting.) Today, Leyden instead refers to the project as an act of “speculative journalism” that offers a “positive reframe.”

This ideological commitment to optimism means the authors don’t begin from the data and trends and then arrive at optimistic conclusions. Instead, they begin with the rose-colored glasses and develop a “scenario” for how everything is poised to turn out great. (Scenarios like this are really just predictions with built-in plausible deniability, a prediction clad in fake mustache and jaunty hat.)

According to Leyden and Schwartz, an intentionally optimistic outlook is inherently good because we create the world around us: “People tend to get short-sighted and mean-spirited, looking out only for themselves. A positive scenario can inspire us through what will inevitably be traumatic times ahead.”

In the final paragraph of “The Long Boom,” they return to this theme:

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There’s something particularly striking about statements like “we’ll need hefty doses of indefatigable optimism.” It has the same tone as George W. Bush, five years later, asking Americans to contribute to the fight against terrorism by going shopping.

I’ve written about techno-optimism a few times previously. My main critique focuses on what the perspective obscures. “Look on the bright side” might be a fine piece of personal life advice, but it also diverts attention from hard pragmatic choices. It’s an outlook that tends to comfort and reassure the comfortable.

As an example, consider income inequality. The libertarian techno-optimists of 1997 insisted that we were about to generate so much wealth that everyone would inevitably prosper. They also tended to argue against increasing taxes on the wealthy, since this would be bad for venture capitalists and slow the pace of innovation. But, mostly, they invited us to ignore tax policy and focus instead on the awesome economic gains that would inevitably be unlocked by nanotechnology.

It turns out that thinking happy thoughts is a great way to distract ourselves while a handful of monopolists acquire all the wealth gains.

In “The Great Progression,” it seems to me that Leyden repeats every one of these errors of analysis. Again, he begins from an assumption of optimism, insisting that “The time has come for a positive reframe of what’s really going on in America and the world right now, and what’s actually going to happen in the near future.” This time, he argues that we are on the cusp of world-historic transformations in energy tech, biotech, and infotech: “We’re heading into a triple-whammy tech boom—not just another Long Boom, but a Long Boom Squared.”

As with the older piece, the technologies he describes all seem plausible. Some will certainly work out over the next couple of decades, others will run into unexpected hurdles.

But just as with the original, his projection really goes off the rails when he starts discussing social behavior. When I reached the passage where he asserts that the Reagan-Trump era ended in 2020, to be inevitably replaced by a new era of electoral progressivism (“American politics has tipped [toward progressivism]. That’s the most dispassionate and realistic analysis of American politics right now to my mind”), I had to take a walk and calm myself down. Again, this was written prior to the 2022 election. Leyden looked at the 2022 political landscape and basically decided [again, paraphrasing]“Mmm hmm, this here is a system that has turned the page on Trumpism. The authoritarian threat is over and done with.”

It calls to mind a great line from Bojack Horseman: “When you look at some[thing] through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like … flags.”

The Great Progression didn’t make nearly the splash that “The Long Boom” did. I filled a Word doc with notes when I initially read it but ultimately decided it didn’t merit a full dissection.

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I dug those notes out last week, though, because Leyden has a new project (and an adjacent Substack) on “The Many, Many Positive Possibilities of Generative AI.”

Again, he is arguing for a “positive reframe”—this time aimed at “What's really going on with the arrival of Generative AI and the opening up of a new age of Artificial Intelligence.”

Again, he is convening meetings of Silicon Valley partisans to spin up works of “speculative journalism,” about all the ways their technologies are poised to usher in a new era of abundance, in which everyone benefits—as long as we think happy thoughts and don’t demonize our tech overlords.

Again, I think, this “positive reframe” functions as a convenient distraction. I’m not worried about the AI apocalypse. But I am worried that a few big companies are going to scoop all the money out of journalism while turning the internet into an even bigger trash fire than it already is. I still think Ted Chiang got it right when he asked whether AI would be the new McKinsey. What we need right now isn’t optimism or pessimism. It’s new institutions and regulatory frameworks.

So all I can say about Leyden’s effort to influence the trajectory of AI through the power of positive thinking is this:

I don’t question that his intentions are sincere.

I don’t doubt that he has assembled smart, well-intentioned people.

I don’t think optimism is inherently a bad thing.

But I do wish he would pause to consider Davies’ Law.

The whole point of making predictions is to know what you ought to be surprised by.

If your main takeaway from the past 25+ years is “Well, this is basically just like the ‘Long Boom,’” then you’re not really making predictions anymore. You’re just recycling the same old, tired schtick.

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