Multiverse Navigation for Universe Denters

The New York Times has a good article this weekend on how The Climate Future is Actually the Climate Present, and it makes an unusually conceptual point for a newspaper, one that's relevant beyond the specific issue of climate change. Thanks to a natural inclination to disbelieve in change, "carry on, nothing to see here" gaslighting by institutions invested in the status quo, and effective design by innovators to minimize the distressing novelty of the new, we anchor so strongly on the present that e_ven when normal shifts, we don't feel it because our sense of normalcy shifts with it_. I called this effect manufactured normalcy in one of my old blog posts.

People who are able to break out of manufactured normalcy become highly sensitized to change and tend to acquire unreasonably massive amounts of agency. Even if free will is an illusion within a deterministic universe, there's no denying that most of us would like a lot more of that particular illusion. I certainly wouldn't mind being more of a master of the universe. I'm no politician and have no strong sense of duty, so I'm not particularly ready or eager to "serve", but I'm certainly willing to boss the universe around a bit more. I would like it to respect my authoritah more. The key to acquiring such authoritah is to systematically work to keep manufactured normalcy at bay, and develop a sense of history as something that can be steered. Here's a mental model for that: your multiverse GPS.

Basic anatomy of the decision-maker's multiverse (left = past)

1/ We usually talk about broad change in a passive, reactive way. You may choose what sweater to wear today, but history at larger scales is something we feel "happens" to us.

2/ To be an agent of change is to be capable of actions that are seen as steering history. If you finesse tricky metaphysics/physics questions, you can usefully ponder this challenge.

3/ Much of what we do does not steer history because we have arranged the human condition to be both highly redundant and highly stable.

4/ Redundancy: you may be a valuable fireman or surgeon. But if you get hit by a bus, chances are, someone will step in for you and the small bump in the timeline will self-heal.

5/ Stability: if you do things that are not already valued and seen as necessary/critical, chances are it won't matter. It won't have consequences that are seen as history-steering.

6/ Actions that enter the Big History books tend to share a few features: they eventually impact ALL of humanity. They were not entirely necessary. They were not entirely inevitable.

7/ A robust action at humanity scale is one that likely would have happened one way or another even if it hadn't happened in the specific way it did happen.

8/ The Wright Brothers inventing the airplane is an example. At that point in history there were several people/teams on the verge of the necessary breakthrough.

9/ The theory of relativity is a weaker example. People like to argue that several people almost had the breakthrough insight, but it seems less inevitable.

10/ An interesting extreme example is Chester Carlson's invention of xerography. As David Owen argues in Copies in Seconds, basically NOBODY else was on that weird, unlikely path.

11/ But the Xerox machine was arguably an invention that powerfully steered history, freeing vast armies of women from typing pools and funneling them into higher value roles.

12/ The median Big History event tends to have a moderately robust narrative feel on the cusp of inevitability/necessity, where individual actions "made a difference."

13/ It has the feel of being somewhere between a hacked steer by a marginal party and a following of "captain's orders" for Spaceship Earth (see my recent post for more on this aspect).

14/ History-steering events are typically somewhere in-between pure blindside "acts of nature" like earthquakes or plagues, and UN authorized "acts of humanity acting together."

15/ These examples illustrate the basic phenomenology of history steering. Let's develop a few slightly more rigorous concepts for them.

16/ First up, we have the timeline, the thick, solid line in the diagram above. If you believe we share the same external reality, that's a single line at least within the Earth's light cone.

17/ This line can be red, green or black. Black is normal. That doesn't mean it's good or bad. It's simply the anchor "manufactured normal" condition of history at that moment.

18/ A red stretch is one that feels abnormally bad. A green stretch is one that feels abnormally good. The anchor reference is usually 1 lifetime. "Normal" is within living memory.

19/ Around the timeline, the thin, ghostly, bundle of grey lines represents the adjacent possible. Histories that are just a small perturbation away from the one we're living through.

20/ Think of this as the bundle of alternate, parallel histories that are not worth naming -- most of the time. They represent distinctions from "normal" without a difference.

21/ An example is the stretch between A and B. It includes such dull parallel universes as the one where everything is exactly the same except I wore a green sweater instead of blue today.

22/ The adjacent possible also represents the canvas of change, both change we think we can steer, and change we consider part of unalterable destiny.

23/ Sure, maybe my sweater decision made the difference between utopia and dystopia, like a butterfly flapping in the multiverse, but I can't know, predict, or intend that consequence.

24/ So that particular fork in the road between utopia and dystopia is for all intents and purposes (for once that cliche is very apt) unalterable destiny. It represents no effective agency.

25/ More to the point, that causal path is inscrutable even with hindsight. So we can't (for example) build a society around punishing/rewarding people for sweater choices.

26/ Maybe in a big data future where the world has an eidetic memory of itself, we'll learn to at least see such multiverse butterfly effects, but for now, we can mostly bundle them with "Fate."

27/ So think of the steerable aspect of history as the part that's projected from the high-dimensional space of ALL change to the lower-dimensional one of (seemingly) steerable change.

28/ To be steerable, a change must be possible to anticipate, represent a distinction-with-a-difference we care about, and present alternative courses of actions to one or more people.

29/ This means alternative changes can be conceived, and we can act in response to how we imagine/simulate the future, and the outcomes have some meaningful correlation to intentions.

30/ This meaningful correlation between intentions and outcomes through deliberate action is what we call learning. We "learn" when outcomes don't seem random in relation to actions.

31/ Strong positive/negative correlations represent agency you can learn to command through trial and error. Non-correlations represent futile paths of action.

32/ How the people who see the possible change coordinate (or not) to act in response (whether through markets, dictatorial decisions, war or whatever) doesn't matter for this discussion.

33/ The takeaway is: steering is possible, some people have steering authority and learn to command it through individual/collective trial and error, and somehow coordinate and choose a path for all of us.

34/ So the adjacent possible represents the canvas of a) steerable changes in history b) unsteerable, but consequential "destiny" changes (nature's moves, so to speak).

35/ Let's explore this canvas a little more.  Where the adjacent possible fans out broadly (regime C) we have an expanding frontier. The adjacent possible become worth naming, narrativizing, and thinking about.

36/ We sense a high degree of serendipity in the air. Most actions are non-futile. Acting in any way starts to seem better than not-acting. History is poised for change.

37 Where the timeline goes through a narrow bottleneck (F) we have an unusually stable, "inevitable" timeline." We sense zemblanity in the air. Most courses of action are futile.

38/ Usually, but not always, C regimes feel good (even if they cause anomie) and represent hope in the future. And F regimes tend to feel bad, representing low hope.

39/ We could even define/measure hope as the the fan-rate of the adjacent possible. Define the fan rate as the angle of divergence/convergence of the adjacent possible you're thinking about.

40/ If the adjacent possible has a fan-rate > 0 (divergent) we feel hope. If it is convergent (<0) we feel hopelessness. Expanding possibilities good, shrinking possibilities bad.

41/ Here's a subtlety though: fan rates are relative. If your possibilities are expanding faster than mine, I'll feel relatively hopeless, like history is choosing you over me.

42/ My actions will feel relatively futile. I will feel relatively deprived of agency. I'll think, what's the point of me steering history if THAT guy has the ability to steer it more powerfully the other way?

43/ Curiously, the greatest ideological conflicts happen during periods where the fan rate is > 0 for everybody, but relative deprivation of agency/futility is also very high. Like today.

44/ Moving on from possible change to actual change. We aren't entirely creatures of anchored cognition. We do take note of change when it is blunt enough to hit us in the face.

45/ "Change" is one of the wispy adjacent-possible grey lines becoming actualized, and all experiencing a sense of the timeline turning and accelerating, causing what I call future nausea.

46/ Actual change is typically narrativized in one of four ways: existential threat avoidance (E), "interesting times" (D), leap of progress (B), and collapse (A).

47/ A, B and D are self-explanatory (though there are subtleties I'll let you work out as homework or perhaps explore in future newsletter issues), but D is an interesting one.

48/ "Interesting times" are where history does not actually get steered much, net, but we feel it is under the grip of powerful forces pulling towards better/worse conditions.

49/ The timeline feels like it is being torn apart like a rope. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" regimes. It's a time when competing consensus narratives of change diverge. 

50/ It's like driving on a straight highway while being buffeted by strong winds. You're steering to stay in control and on the road, rather than to change direction.

51/ Finally, let's talk about parallel universes. When change happens, even though the human experience of history remains a continuous strand, it feels like we've shifted tracks: revised history and reoriented around the new history.

52/ The dotted lines in the diagram above all represent parallel universes. The are temporal idealizations of history created by extrapolating a present to the past/future without steering.

53/ In other words, each dotted line represents a notionally naturally stable equilibrium condition of the universe, whether utopian or dystopian. No-steering allowed or possible.

54/ Future extrapolation is the narrative of "arriving" at a condition, switching to autopilot, and living happily or miserably ever after in a universe that stops changing ("maneuvering to a new trim trajectory")

55/ Past extrapolation is harder. It's the idea that once change has taken root, you can no longer imagine a time when things subjectively were experienced differently.

56/ Change is like life getting translated into a new language. The past turns into a story written in a new language that you can only remember and read in the new way now.

57/ Dotted lines into the past represent what postmodernists like to call an always-already condition. It's a false, simulated memory, but a useful one for our sanity.

58/ Why useful? Without translating past and future into the language of the manufactured-normal present, we cannot make sense of time at all.

59/ It would be like reading a novel where the story is beautifully coherent but the language changes every sentence.

60/ So that's your basic navigation model for the multiverse. This is where you throw your punches at the Big History books, hoping to make a dent in the universe.

61/ You steer history if you see a possibility emerging, take action, and the universe follows what everybody acknowledges is a changed course, with at least some parts intended by you.

62/ On this basic folk metaphysics of the Arendtian action multiverse, a lot of our thinking, both everyday, and formal, rests. You do it all the time, even if you are not aware of it.

63/ At the everyday level, we are constantly trading what-ifs. You could even argue that ALL narrative is counterfactual. All stories are stories of potential, actual, and completed change. Parallel universe stories.

64/ Or more strongly (and strangely) that there can be no language without this multiverse of possibilities underlying our cognition. We simulate therefore we are. Or at least, we simulate, therefore we speak.

65/ At a more formal level, philosophers talk of possible world semantics and modal logics. Futurists both good and bad talk of scenario planning, design fictions, narrative fragments.

66/ Where it is possible to usefully "close off" a subset of the multiverse from too many unknown unknowns, we can do statistics based decision sciences.

67/ This involves assigning probabilities to various parts of the adjacent possible, modeling the past through assessments of inevitability and robustness, computing "priors" etc.

68/ In a way this broad topic has been the one constant of interest in my own life for two decades. It is possible to view this as a purely pragmatic "tool" for thinking, but I think it's far deeper.

69/ Navigating the multiverse of possible futures is central to human consciousness, cognition, and life itself. It's not a specialized topic for decision scientists of various sorts.

70/ 15 years ago I was writing simulations that produced formal decision-support multiverse diagrams like the cartoon above. Today I spitball about psychohistory and write time-travel stories.

71/ I may have a particular monomania for the subject and consciously spend a lot of time on it, but if you look back on your own thinking over the years, I'll guarantee a lot of it is on this canvas.

72/ Stewart Brand once famously noted, "we are as gods, and we might as well get good at it." A good definition of "god" is "history-steering universe denter."

73/ So if you're spending so much of your time thinking on this canvas anyway, you might as well get bolder, better, and more imaginative on it.

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