Taxonomy of change

by paulfchristiano

I suspect that the events of each year are morally neutral, when taken altogether. This is not because I know anything about the future. It’s because I think the world of tomorrow is as valuable in expectation as the world of today nearly as a tautology. I wouldn’t pay any money to transform the world of today into the world of tomorrow—I’d rather just wait a year. Unfortunately, in light of concerns about replaceability, many of our actions may (essentially) have the effect of accelerating progress in one domain or another. If that’s the case, it behooves us to have an understanding of which changes in the world we like and which are negative.

The observation that the total of all changes is neutral, may help us pin down the impact of some kinds of change. For example, suppose A, B, and C are all changing. If we have no good arguments about whether A and B are changing in a good way, but we can tell that C is changing in a negative way, we can conclude that A and B together are changing in a positive way (and the default presumption should be that each of them is positive).

I am particularly curious about whether economic and technological progress are good, and how good they are. But in order to attack that question, I first have to ask: how good are the other events taking place over the same time? Should we be happy that faster technological change leaves less time for other developments, or should we be concerned? Here I’ll give a more elaborate taxonomy than I have in the past, and in future posts I’ll flesh out some of these categories further.

This is not an exhaustive taxonomy, but I’ve tried to include the categories that seem most significant to me:

  1. Events in the rest of the universe
    • Entropy is being created (stars dying, things getting colder, etc.)
    • Galaxies spread out and eventually become inaccessible.
    • If they exist, aliens are doing their own thing.
    • There are unknown changes. 100 years ago we wouldn’t have realized that galaxies will receding, 500 years ago we wouldn’t have realized the stars were burning down. Opportunities we haven’t even considered may be constantly disappearing.
  2. Disasters
    • Each year there is some risk of natural disaster, or of a shock or destabilizing event that will have big negative impacts on civilization. (The compensating chance of windfalls seems very minor.)
  3. Consumption of natural resources
  4. Social change
    • Social attitudes are constantly shifting, according to some sociological process I understand poorly.
    • Institutions gradually change according to another process I understand poorly, directed in part by individuals’ values. Proposed innovations are slowly adopted.
    • Governments, corporations, etc., adjust to changing technological and social climate. Regulatory regimes tighten, and people and groups become better prepared to deal with contemporary contingencies.
  5. Political change
    • Political conditions are changing, again according to a process I don’t understand. On historical time-scales conditions seem to be increasingly conducive to peace and stability, but I don’t know how much of that change is driven by technology. At the moment conditions seem quite good, suggesting that changes are likely to be negative by regression to the mean.
  6. Changes in individuals
    • Attitudes and beliefs change when people feel time passing without them getting richer.
    • The population is growing.
    • Because the population is growing unevenly, demographics are shifting.
  7. Calendar time passes
    • If we have intrinsic discount rates, we would be concerned with the very fact that time has passed. I tend to be highly skeptical of intrinsic discount rates, but given normative uncertainty I’m inclined to care a tiny bit about the passage of time itself.
  8. Technological progress
    • Our understanding of basic science improves.
    • Our ability to build things, manufacture things, design things, etc., is constantly improving (partly catching up with basic scientific understanding, but hardly proceeding independently)
  9. Stuff falls apart
    • Everything we have built gets older and more broken.
    • We use resources on keeping us alive, and deplete our stocks of consumable goods.
  10. Economic progress
    • We are constantly building new infrastructure and applying improvements to the infrastructure we have.
    • We are training people, building on-the-job experience, and generally investing in improvements in human capital.
    • Other forms of capital and development are also constant. We are building new machines, new gizmos, etc.
    • Individuals and organizations are getting richer.
  11. ETA: Philosophical progress
    • We are constantly (though extremely slowly) improving our understanding of abstract questions unrelated to technological development.
    • As time passes we identify additional crucial considerations, improve methodologies, and so on.
    • (Suggested by Wei Dai, this category mostly reveals more significant weaknesses in the provided breakdown.)

ETA: I don’t think this is the most useful way of dividing up changes, but it was useful for me to organize my thoughts and may hopefully be similarly useful to the reader.