What We Owe the Future

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten: If the point of publishing a book is to have a public relations campaign, Will MacAskill is the greatest English writer since Shakespeare. He and his book What We Owe The Future have recently been featured in the New YorkerNew York TimesVoxNPRBBCThe AtlanticWired, and Boston Review. He’s been interviewed by Sam HarrisEzra KleinTim FerrissDwarkesh Patel, and Tyler Cowen. Tweeted about by Elon MuskAndrew Yang, and Matt Yglesias. The publicity spike is no mystery: the effective altruist movement is well-funded and well-organized, they decided to burn “long-termism” into the collective consciousness, and they sure succeeded.

But what is “long-termism”? I’m unusually well-placed to answer that, because a few days ago a copy of What We Owe The Future showed up on my doorstep. I was briefly puzzled before remembering that some PR strategies hinge on a book having lots of pre-orders, so effective altruist leadership asked everyone to pre-order the book back in March, so I did. Like the book as a whole, my physical copy was a byproduct of the marketing campaign. Still, I had a perverse urge to check if it really was just lorem ipsum text, one thing led to another, and I ended up reading it. I am pleased to say that it is actual words and sentences and not just filler (aside from pages 15 through 19, which are just a glyph of a human figure copy-pasted nine hundred fifty four times)…

So fine. At the risk of joining on an already-overcrowded bandwagon, let’s see what we owe the future….

…But the future (hopefully) has more people than the present. MacAskill frames this as: if humanity stays at the same population, but exists for another 500 million years, the future will contain about 50,000,000,000,000,000 (50 quadrillion) people. For some reason he stops there, but we don’t have to: if humanity colonizes the whole Virgo Supercluster and lasts a billion years, there could be as many as 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (100 nonillion) people.

(All those pages full of person glyphs were a half-assed attempt to put these numbers in perspective – half-assed because MacAskill uses each glyph to represent 10 billion people, and cuts it off after five pages despite admitting it would take 20,000 pages to do accurately. Coward.)


Stalin said that one death was a tragedy but a million was a statistic, but he was joking. We usually accept that a disaster which kills a million people is worse than one that kills a thousand. A disaster that killed a billion people would be utterly awful. But the future is 20,000 pages worth of glyphs representing 10 billion people each. Are we morally entangled with all of those people, just as we would have an obligation to pick up a glass bottle that might injure them?

…But how do you get a 1% chance of affecting the far future? MacAskill suggests three potential methods: progress, survival, and trajectory change…

More here.

Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Ajaz Ahmed, Ammar Jafri, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, G. R. Baloch, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Nayeem, Syed Hamza Gilani

1 thought on “What We Owe the Future

  1. Interesting review and analysis. I have seen this book but never red it. I think this time, I’ll read it.

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