Epistemic status: opinions and ranting
Well, the rest of this post is about that story, so… spoilers ahoy.
Didn’t expect your football with a big dollop of science fiction, huh? I generally enjoyed it, which is why I made you read it: the narrative is great at progressively painting an increasingly weird world, using multiple short stories to sketch out the implications of the “what if everyone stopped dying?” high concept. Some parts were cringe worthy: I would expect “if you think about it, everything is a miracle” to be overlaid on nature scenery in a flowing font and shared among people that think crystals affect your chi. Some of it was brilliant: I was a fan of using indentation/color to represent different speakers, instead of wading through “he said, she said”, which is a mechanic I hope to steal.
But you’ve read the story, you already know this. Instead, what I want to do is explore some external relationships to the story:
- The author did not converse with the existing universe of science fiction. If you’re going to write science fiction, especially utopic science fiction, then not engaging with existing concepts and utopias just raises endless questions. In my case, it definitely left me with a sense of fridge logic.
- The author sketches a world, and raises interesting questions in the tradition of science fiction that comments more about our current world and less about the world to come. Unfortunately, there’s too much emphasis on the commentary part of the story, and not on the story part. The author didn’t dialog with his characters to find out what they wanted, and instead just used his characters as a mouthpiece, which was distracting.
Much of the story revolves around people that have lived a long time, and expect to live forever. Nothing else about them has been changed, though, and this means that suddenly human attention spans are a lot shorter than their lives, leading to looming boredom as they quickly (relative to their lifespan) run out of things to do, leading to people sitting in caves and playing the same hand held video game for hundreds of years at a time in order to stretch out the novelty value.
If you squint in just the right way, it’s a sort of crazy mirror metaphor for our lives. We joke about multiples of internet years in a calendar year, and feel a weary sense that we’ve seen it all, that Reddit is full of reposts and that meme is so last week. We’re the ones running out of things to do, playing games that look suspiciously similar to games made decades ago while sitting in our (man) caves.
It’s a cute thought, but I reject the notion that the best humanity could do was putting a cannon on a mountain. For example, at least one of my friends would be out driving a car in real life Rocket League, complete with giant exploding ball and a 3rd person follower camera drone, with a slavish attention to using just the right materials in order to match the game physics. Okay, fine, Rocket League is car soccer, so obviously a sci-fi story about football wouldn’t cover any Rocket League related shenanigans. However, spaceball? Roboball, either of the Frozen Cortex or NFL robot mascot variety (limbs are open season!)? Mech Warrior ball? Mariana trench ball, with a genetically modified angler fish ball?
I mean, points for putting a restaurant on a football field, but that’s just scratching the surface for all the different things you could do that would still resemble football in some shape or form.
And outside of football, there’s just so much to do. It’s the post-scarcity far future, the wish-granting telephones are raining outside. And, well… once you’ve see what can be done, why would you go back to playing football?
- In-story: re-freeze the ice caps and reclaim New York City. The most brute force solution is using sun shades, which is well within their technological grasp. Sure, the author wanted to advertise for climate change action, but the incongruity of “humanity has done everything and is now bored” vs “lol NYC is underwater can’t do anything about that” is jarring.
- In-story: throw the space probes some extra batteries, or a big-ass reactor. I appreciate the in-narrative way of ending the story, but again, it just makes the humans look incompetent or uncaring.
- In-story: become a “cyborg with laser cannons for arms and shit”. People were putting magnets inside of themselves years ago, and if they couldn’t die of sepsis, why would they stop there?
- I refuse to believe that nerds did not get together, say “damn, we’re in a post-scarcity economy! What do we do?” and then not build a Niven-class ringworld around the sun. Or re-enact all of Star Wars, but with fully functional ships. Don’t think people would go through the work to do this? I present to you Ren Faires, Civil War re-enactments, and intricate cosplays, which most of these people are doing without a reasonable expectation of living forever.
- Or that someone didn’t sit down and think “man, you know what a random planet needs? A huge ass blue monolith! It’s an artistic statement!” like in Zima Blue.
- Terraform Mars, or uplift life on Earth, like in the aptly named Uplift series. Or seed a planet, and try to fast forward evolution. We could call it evoball: first one to make a species that can win a football game against humans wins.
- Maybe physics is only local: how can you be sure? What if the Zones of Thought is an actual thing? You can only check by traveling to the center and fringes of the galaxy, which are quite far away. It’s too bad the rules of the universe probably prevent cyrosleep.
- Or in a similar way, you can’t be sure that there are aliens which are more driven than you are. It’s reminiscent of trying to do acausal negotiation, or aliens growing up in a bad neighborhood (Watts short story on belligerence (pdf), Watts on organic Disneylands with no children). However, there is no reason not at least send out astrochickens to make sure.
- If you’re really out of things to do, run timing attacks on the universe (like at the end of Accelerando) just in case we’re in a simulation.
Why doesn’t the author think there will be things to do? Reading the author’s earlier story, The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles, makes it abundantly clear that the author has confused The Great Stagnation‘s argument of “we’ve picked a bunch of low hanging fruit, so innovation will slow down” with “there will be no further innovation beyond this point”. (If that isn’t what the author was trying to say, sorry, but making two stories in a row about the same thing is how you get labeled “the guy that writes stories with talking cats”). Yes, slow down and smell the roses instead of checking twitter again, but saying “it’s 17776, and we’re bored out of our minds” just ignores so much of what science fiction talks about. Even a series focused solely on pure known physics science fiction, the Borden series of short stories, still comes up with stories worth telling and, eventually, lives worth living.
Instead of doing things, another acceptable answer is attempt to become a bodhisattva, and spend all your time blissing out. Thinking about it, this might be how you could build the same piece of furniture 1000 times in a row, as a meditative exercise. However, the people in this story are not meditation masters: they’re just people desperately ignoring the enormity of the world around them and carrying on with a specific lifestyle brought to them by historical accident.
Which leads to another crazy-mirror concept of the story. “We just hang out” is “we just hang out”, and applies just as cleanly to the immortals and us. We killed god in the 1800s, and plagued ourselves with existential ennui and a fear that we’re just wasting time. The only difference is that in the story the god of death has been removed, so actions have even less direction imposed on them. The author answers obliquely by putting in multiple characters coping with living forever by choosing some objective, and then striving for it. According to my understanding, this is also how most people that grapple with “what is my purpose in life?” eventually deal with it. It doesn’t seem like the author likes that answer, but neither does he propose anything else.
A related thread hinted at in the story is the complete absence of children paired with effortless immortality. “Man, aren’t children great?” the story sighs. “They would have examined this lawn no one else has examined yet. I really wish we had children, so they could keep our world dynamic and interesting, instead of leaving it staid and boring.”
Which is fair (see Children of Men), but the author is already ignoring the children in front of him.
Admittedly, the children we know about are outside of the solar system, but they’re sentient! And furthermore, they don’t want to kill humans, or kill humans in the process of tiling the universe with atomic smiley faces! They care about football, which is a pretty human thing to do!
So you can make sentient beings by feeding computers enough human culture, and seed their interests with whatever (the probes care about football due to football existing in their payload), and their seed system requirements are 1960s computers. It just takes thousands of years to grow one, which might scale with clock speed. At any rate, it beats being pregnant for 9 months, and having 3 probes become sentient with none of them turning out to be psychotic is a pretty good sign. And since they’re in silicon, they don’t have to only come in probe form, although they can if they want. Having only a few people wanting to take care of new robots should still result in a population explosion (see Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), especially if even a small fraction of the robots want to hang out in the real world. And with each computational upgrade, the robots would become more like the overminds in The Culture, and the shaping of the world would become their story, not ours. Or, we might end up like Solarians in Asimov’s The Naked Sun, where each person has a cadre of robots and eschews human contact.
Do emulations count as humans? If you record all the electrical activity in the brain at the same time (which should be trivial in a world that already has nanotech), and have good enough physics models on fast enough computers, you can run existing humans in silicon also. Sure, they aren’t children per se, but after spending time copying themselves into clans, their societies will probably seem weird enough that they basically are. (See: Age of Em, Revelation Space’s discussion of alpha simulations, The Quantum Thief series)
Can humans simply be printed? Similar to these other suggestions, we know what a human is, and have precision nanotech, so the most brute force thing to do is just take some simulated DNA, stick it in simulated sex cells, and then run the physics models forward until the baby would be born, and then build the baby on a molecular level. Of course there are problems with this: Smalley convinced me years ago that nanotech is fabulously more difficult than nanotech pioneers like Drexler sell it as. However, we’re in 17776, and we’ve already hand waved these problems away with the fiat introduction of nanos.
Both the human-related creation methods, though, probably fall under the purview of “no more human children”, which neatly explains why no one is doing it.
But we’ve already seen that creating more electronic minds is possible: hell, that’s the whole opening conceit. Then, why aren’t there more of them? The unlikely answer is that no one wanted to make them: if nothing else, some enterprising human would figure out how to deliver new electronic minds closely matching human children in android form. The sinister answer is that the same mechanism that prevents conceiving babies prevents the deliberate creation of new minds in general (see the Greg Egan story Crystal Nights).
If that is true, how do you get children again? The answer is simple: kill god (for real this time).
You would solve two goals with one stone: fighting against a fantastically powerful entity means there is no reason to mope around in a facsimile of the 1990s, and if you win you would remove the restrictions placed on humanity. Pining after “true, unfabricated struggle”? You got it.
You can’t kill god, you say? I’ve never liked that people said that god is outside the magisterium of physics, when any link to the theological could be exploited to bring it into physics. Some elaboration: one model of the way we found atomic nuclei is by shooting particles at a thin piece of metal 1 atom wide, and seeing what happened. It’s a lot like throwing billiard balls into a box to figure out what’s in the box by how they bounce back and deflect. So, throw billiard balls at god, and see how they bounce back: the theological consumed by physics (or the other way around). Yes, god is traditionally much more complicated than the atomic structure, but then you could roughly model psychology as throwing (metaphorical) billiard balls at humans. The bottom line? GIT GUD at throwing billiard balls, or GTFO.
And to those that think it’s easy to get to know god, but impossible to move it? It would be giving up too soon to not even try; it’s not clear if they’re in an AI box, and you don’t know you can talk your way out of the box until you try. Better GIT GUD at talking to alien minds.
And if god is watching your thoughts, and changing them as you speak? All I can say is GIT GUD, and good luck.
I do appreciate that the frame of the story stays the same as our current time, because trying to write post-singularity fiction is a shitshow.
However, it’s not just the fact that life is basically the same that is unbelievable, I also feel like the power structures as is are implausible.
Consider money. The cashier saying “want any money?” is super cute, a great overturning of our expectations about the economy. However, why would society still agree to have money? “Money was a horrifying abstraction that I had to scrape together in the past to make rent, but instead of saying FUCK YOU to money when we could, we decided to keep it around.” What?
Consider religion. “The Wages of Sin are Death”? Not anymore, sucker! Religions are memetic, and the old salvation and morality memes based on an afterlife won’t cut it anymore. What about a religion that preaches “if only the entire world believes, then the curse of eternal life will be lifted, and then we may enter Valhalla”? Or, “the Wages of Sin must be Death: if God has forsaken the world and will not accept us, then we will have to do it ourselves”. And no matter which religions develop, there would be no bumbling missionaries that can barely preach to a crowd of one, because every missionary would have had 10,000 hours of preaching practice many times over.
Consider nationality. In a new world, what Kurd would agree to the Turkey/Iraq borders as they are drawn? What Israeli or Palestinian would agree to the current borders? I’m skeptical about much of Africa keeping its internal shape, with colonial borders drawn willy nilly according to European dictates. Or for an example close to my heart, there were rumblings of splitting Washington state into Washington and Cascadia, to match the cultural divide of the state. In the limit, how can the current nation-states be stable, in the face of a vastly different world? Now, if everyone today had open borders, I would find this description of the future more compelling.
Well, maybe the states no longer actually carry weight: what is there to administer in a post-scarcity society? Well, there is conflict mediation, and there must be conflicts once you can print nuclear bombs. “Your stupid octogonal building is stupid, and you’re stupid!” they say right before nuking said building. Well, you would hope that once you got that old, you would be more gentle and understanding, more wise. We all know that older people are simply not petty, right? Adults could not have been involved in MsScribe. Old people don’t hold on to grudges, or get into inane fights with their neighborhood Home Owner’s Association (or see the spats in Disneyland in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). Or someone decides to be artistic and turn all of the Americas into a blank clean white canvas (also see XKCD #861), and hacks the nanos to do the deed. Again, goodbye old building, just this time it’s every old building in North America.
Or to put it in a less violent way: who decides what happens to the original Monets? Sure, scan it and re-constitute it atom for atom: we know elementary particles are interchangeable, so the copies would be effectively the original according to any conceivable test. And when people insist on a particular set of atoms that happen to maximally match our sense of continuity? Post-scarcity removes scarcity from an increasing set of things, but humans insist on keeping some scarce things. Spouse? Accept no substitutes, not conjured companions nor 30,000 grapefruits! Or intangibly, all needs can be met, except for the need for relationships and status and wanting to be the very best, like no one ever was. And we’re going to mediate these conflicts with 20th century states?
I’d expect something closer to The Archipelago, where folks associate with the people they want to associate with. When you don’t have anything but status games to play, why would you play them with people you don’t like, or refuse to play the same status games? “I can recall a million digits of pi and can dunk on you, but you insist you’re better because you can recite all the lines of Sailor Moon and wrestle sharks.” If you squint, it’s just extrapolating from the existing trends: with the internet, we got a fantastic fragmentation of communities, each focused on their thing. Also see The Diamond Age: when it’s possible to just raise an island in the middle of the ocean and go live there with your friends who are weirdly into Victorian era top hats, instead of living next to the people that loudly insist fedoras are far superior, why wouldn’t you?
Back to the story: let’s grant that there’s still power, possibly in a form of a state, possibly in a way that closely approximates 20th century power structures with a president and all that. Let’s say that some authoritarian state made it to 17776 without overthrowing their dictator, but it finally happens in 17777. There’s a lot of pent up frustration with the dictator, but they can’t simply execute him; besides, execution might be too good for him. What do they do?
So everything’s been fun and games up until now. What would people build with all the free time? Why aren’t there children, even though you can’t have children? (Life, uh, finds a way) Why are the power structures the same?
Well, what could go wrong?
Trigger warnings: torture, mind fuckery, suicide.
Let’s go back to the dictator. What if he was thrown into the sun? He’s obviously going to live, since the rules of the universe enforce that. However, he’s stuck in a 15,000,000C furnace. Depending on exactly how the rules of immortality work, he might be crushed. He would definitely be burning, or if everything except his brain is burned away, then living in enforced solitary confinement with no sensory input. If no one wants to dig him out of the sun, then he could stay there for a very, very long time. (Also see the Priest’s story in Hyperion).
Maybe simple burning for eons on end is too good your enemies. Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect directly tackles this, where the application of endless torture permanently damages at least one person. Of course, the nanos are there to keep humans safe from each other, but all systems can be defeated, and as the tag line of Alien goes, no one can hear you scream in space.
If you stick a pole through someone’s brain, does it give them seizures, or does it maintain their previous mental state, or does the pole simply bounce off? If the powers that be just protect the person against physical assault, something more subtle might work; you can use magnets to induce changes in mind state in people. Watts extrapolates this to maintaining religion in his “A Word for Heathens” short story. Hey presto, Stockholm Syndrome in an MRI! It’s known that brainwashing doesn’t work, but things might change when you can actually alter thoughts in flight, or have enough time to experiment with changing the brain chemistry of a person.
Speaking of mind alterations, why are the streets of 17776 so full? They should be emptied by the final drug, wireheading. Just stimulate your reward centers in your brain, and do it endlessly. There would be problems with adapting to the constant stimulation, but I’m sure it could be worked out by 17776. Imagine: you can’t die, but you’re bored. You’ve played football for ten thousand years in a row, and five thousand years ago you were ready to die, having lived a full life. But the kids a street over are talking about a way out. You’ll live forever, and you won’t care, because you’ll be maximally blissed out. Once you wirehead, you won’t decide “man, my life kind of sucks, I should do something else” because nothing would suck, forever. And if even a tiny proportion of people each year decide to wirehead, over time the wireheading population subsumes the human population (see this fictional supporting report for Echopraxia). Eventually, everyone will be smiling, and they won’t be creatures of play, they’ll be creatures of happiness, forever.
Or maybe the powers that be decide that these outcomes are too horrifying to allow, so “artificial” modification by electrical or chemical or crowbar means is disallowed. Well, we have depressed people that we help with drugs: are they denied their mind altering chemicals? Did this god doom schizophrenics to an eternity of delusions? Is there some population off-screen that can only lay in bed, hopeless for either positive help or the sweet release of death?
Perhaps you understand now what I mean when I say that The Future of Football is the singularity for noobs. Compared to existing sci-fi options the story is kind of bland, where nothing exciting nor nothing too terrible has happened. It’s great for beginners, though, who haven’t really grappled with living forever or being in a high tech post-scarity society, and need that “see, the future isn’t too wild, but why not think about these ideas?” headfake to get them to consider it.
Again, it’s a fine story; it doesn’t deserve a moniker like “a story about for those that haven’t thought about the far future before, and won’t think about the far future again”. However, I think it does function best as a gateway drug into a whole universe of science fiction all excitedly dialoging about the products of our accumulated imaginations.
 ↑ Of course it’s American football.
However, this is similar to the econo-art idea I had. It’s derived from eco-rounds in CounterStrike, where players leverage lower-cost equipment to save up for a buy round. Econo-art is just low-cost art, which is just good enough to get the point across. You could spend lots of time making a single beautiful pre-photography realism style painting, or you could apply some Photoshop filters and finish the story in a reasonable time. Maybe more on this in the future.
 ↑ “Didn’t you enjoy Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality?” Well, I also enjoyed this story, so…
 ↑ Possible counter: there used to be a lot more variation, but we’ve killed most of it as collateral damage in making the world legible. Thank the gods for global street-by-street GPS navigation, but we’ve lost our cheeses, and I don’t think they’re coming back in 3 days (but see these comments for discussion).
 ↑ Fast forward evolution? For example, Seveneves muses on using epigenetic flexibility in order to adapt organisms more quickly to changing environments. This specific example probably can’t be made to work, even for 17776 societies, but there’s probably a lot of study to be brought to bear on genetics.
 ↑ There’s an open question about whether running evolution is ethical, since most evolution involves actual death, and probably lots of suffering. I’ll let the 17776 ethics board weigh in on that.
 ↑ I broke my back lifting Moloch to heaven, and all I got was a Disneyland with no children. If consciousness turns out to be extraneous, then it might get weeded out in intense competition, which is bad news for us people that value being conscious.
 ↑ It doesn’t help that the author sketches a game labeled “capitalism run amok” with a critical tone (which looks an awful lot more like 4chan run amok). Sure, reject creative destruction (which, to be fair, becomes a lot less horrifying when you can no longer freeze to death on the streets), but then complaining that no one is making things to do is somewhat incongruous.
 ↑ I also think the argument that “people rejected things that caused them to lose their connection to humanity” implies a different end state than the author paints. Why stop at the 1990s? Why not dribble it all the way back to the savanna, a sort of uber-Amish lifestyle that puts us back into the long childhood of humanity?
Then there’s the argument that people want things to stay the same, citing people that get older and keep everything the same. It’s certainly poetic, “Plates and portraits… would leave unbleached shadows of themselves in the paint”. However, I think the author is ignoring that as people get older, they break down: everything starts to hurt, mental agility declines. Why would they move the couch when they would throw out their back? Let’s reverse aging, and then see what the old folks do.
 ↑ First, a horror story about ideas that cannot be thought, and ideas that can eat you alive. Sound similar?
As far as we know, there’s no telekill material in the universe. What could we plausibly do? One way to try and combat mind reading is to first scan your mind into a computer, and then homomorphically encrypt the scan, and then run it forwards with homomorphic encryption operations to simulate physics while feeding in things about the world. That way you can “think” about the problem without making it easy for god. Sure, once god notices, it would look for the encryption keys, or would keep watch for malicious thoughts joined with thoughts about homomorphic encryption, but these are both a bit harder than just looking for a mind thinking about overthrowing god. If you cannot win, and refuse to lose, impose costs.
 ↑ I remember reading this from a semi-trusted source, but now I can’t find it, and can only find articles conveying “lol are your children being BRAINWASHED into a CULT?”.
 ↑ My impression is that you will find wireheading abhorrent. “I almost felt transcendent joy. It was awful.” What matters is not that you find it abhorrent now, but whether you will always consider it abhorrent over the next 15,759 years. Without ironclad norms against wireheading, people will eventually try it.