W-Risk and the Technological Wavefront (Nell Watson)

by Aaron Gertler11th Nov 20181 comment


Civilizational Collapse & RecoveryExistential risk

This is a linkpost for Nell Watson's "The Technological Wavefront".

Brief summary:

  • Many ancient peoples made impressive discoveries (in some cases, better than what we have now) long before they discovered modern science.
  • Society generally becomes more advanced and complex over time as long as resources allow for this growth; this is the "technological wavefront".
  • However, if we hit a resource bottleneck, the wave will break, and we will be forced to step back down the complexity ladder, losing access to some of our present technology.
  • "It is our momentum as a species that keeps the light of enlightenment burning steadily." If we lose momentum and "step down", we may never recover the technology we lose, since much of our present knowledge exists either in memory or on media we won't be able to access. This risk of permanent loss is W-risk ("wavefront risk").
  • "The greatest existential risk to the meaningfulness and excellence of the future of humanity may be something surprisingly benign, not to be experienced as a bang, but rather as a long drawn-out whimper."
  • W-risk seems more likely to the author than X-risk, so she recommends guarding against it by stockpiling documentation from multiple generations of tech and finding ways to rebuild our energy supply without much fossil fuel.

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It's an interesting question to ask how likely it is to recover from civilizational collapse, and talking about 'stepping down in complexity' might be useful. I've previously only seen it discussed as whether we lose agriculture, science, or industry (see e.g. Baum et al., 2018). It seems the author is implicitly referring to the Energy-Complexity Spiral by Joseph Tainter, a fascinating concept:

The common view of history assumes that complexity and resource consumption have emerged through innovation facilitated by surplus energy. This view leads to the supposition that complexity and consumption are voluntary, and that we can therefore achieve a sustainable future through conservation. Such an assumption is substantially incorrect. History suggests that complexity most commonly increases to solve problems, and compels increase in resource use. This process is illustrated by the history of the Roman Empire and its collapse. Problems are inevitable, requiring increasing complexity, and conservation is therefore insufficient to produce sustainability.

It seems most x-risk scholars believe the probability of recovery is really high (>90%) as long as something like the scientific method is preserved (last few people problem). I think this is likely to be correct, and that the failed recoveries are either by extinction (70% of failed recoveries) or by loss of the scientific method (30% of failed recoveries). Permanent loss of technology seems unlikely to me, as technological development offers many advantages and is observed in most cultures.