Population, technology and growth

I have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about the costs and benefits of population changes and Tyler Cowen’s examination into the effect of population on technology is an interesting one. I like his immediate focus on the impact on growth rather than technology and ideas ┬ájust for their own sake (largely useless in the grand scheme of things).

One variable that seems oddly left out is the effect of availability and efficient allocation of capital. The data and theory behind investment and growth are pretty solid. And what kinds of things make investment and efficient allocation of capital possible? Population is largely a prerequisite, since it allows for specialization of labor and increases efficiency to the point where we can stop chasing animals around all day and instead plant crops (that was the first step). But it’s not sufficient. We also need a sufficiently liberal governing body to protect the physical and intellectual interests of the people without excessive interference into the allocation of capital. This seems to explain relatively cleanly why some states experience more growth than others.

Long term impact of technology

Bookstaber is on point as usual in his post about the impact of technology on our lives. His conclusion is obvious to most technologists and futurists, I would bet, and its refreshing to see a policy maker having this in mind. He is far from the first person to note the massive collapse in lifestyle difference between the extremely rich, merely well off and even the middle class. We spend most of our time with the same cheap gadgets and electronic toys (well, most people do). Wealth doesn’t buy you the enormous conveniences and life improvements that it did 100 or even 40 years ago.

As simulation and brain stimulation technology improves exponentially over the next 20-40 years, we will have the ability to cheaply simulate any stimulus we like directly into our brains; the sci-fi dream machine. This is wireheading in a pretty pure form, and most people will eat it up. Just as Africa jumped from lack of electricity directly to cell phones, the emerging middle classes will likely be able to skip Playstations and cocaine directly to total immersion pleasure machines.

The real thing will take a long time to flesh out and come down in price enough for the masses, but here’s an example of where we’re headed in the interim. Not much different in practice.

Self

I definitely agree with Justin on sense of self. There is no real self. We think and act as a function of our past experiences and current real-time stimulus. We are constantly in a state of change, and present a different side of ourselves in different environments (with friends, acquaintances, strangers).

A life strategy of self-improvement (which is essentially just changing our ‘self’ to correspond to something we aspire to) appears to be highly correlated with happiness and even health. While the ideal situation seems to be to become content with what we currently have and who we are (to disassociate from a sense of self altogether), the human brain is very easily pleased — and perhaps thats the problem, it’s easy but a short term fix — with incremental improvements and successes. So, if you’re not willing to invest time in meditation and aren’t willing to hone your abilities in self control, you should find parts of yourself that you want to change, enter a strict regimen of incremental improvement, and enjoy the thrills of the small successes.