“Optimists always win!” is the biggest survivorship bias

post by Yunfan Ye (yunfan-ye) · 2023-11-20T08:53:08.398Z · LW · GW · None comments


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I was born an optimist.

So far in human history, optimists always win. It is so lucky being an optimist.

Optimists are extremely important in advancing the technology and the human society. Optimists have brought radical abundance that were unthinkable even 100 years ago.

On the other hand, there were always countless doomers and naysayers:

Technology takes our jobs, reduces our wages, increases inequality, threatens our health, ruins the environment, degrades our society, corrupts our children, impairs our humanity, threatens our future, and is ever on the verge of ruining everything.

None of them were right and they seem so laughable in the rearview mirror.

Every time people talked about the devastating impact of a new technology, I would recall the famous technology rules from Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

If we were to learn anything from history, it is that we should always embrace the new technology.

However, we must realize that history was written by survivors. If there were dinosaurian naysayers or Mesopotamian naysayers, they would have been absolutely right about their doomed fate. The only problem is: that they didn’t survive to write their history.

The Fermi paradox has showed that humans are at least miraculously lucky to have reached the current stage of civilization. Since luck was in play, we cannot definitely say the past doomers and naysayer were all laughable, as history could have gone the other way and they just didn’t get to write the history.

I sincerely hope all the Great Filters are behind us but it is unlikely that nothing stands in between our civilization and the multiplanetary civilization. The stake is so high that anyone should be cautious even if there is only a slight chance the technology would destroy the humanity.

Let’s face it: “optimists always win!” has been reinforced again and again in human history, yet no one gets to reflect on it if it ever fails.

In the not-so-long-ago past, Nazi Germany and the US were both rushing to invent the first atomic bomb. Nothing fundamental stopped Nazi Germany getting to the finish line first. If Nazi Germany were to invent the first atomic bomb or, maybe worse, if Nazi Germany and the US were able to invent atomic bombs in quick succession, how many atomic bombs would have been dropped on the Earth? The results are unimaginable.

Later in the Cold War, some accidents could have triggered a nuclear war between the two then superpowers. Humans are so lucky that it didn’t happen.

I still believe it is important to be an optimist, as the technology advances regardless how many pessimists are there. But being an optimist doesn’t mean blindly embracing and accelerating any technology we build. Being an optimist is preparing for the “lucky” outcome, where the technology safely lands, and driving society towards that outcome.

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