Chapter 12. Visions and Challenges – Priorities for Professionals

Elitism Bias

Elitism bias emerges when any future thinker has an inflated expectation that John Q. and Jane R. Public will identify with and sanction their particular forecasts, views, policies, or timetables for social or economic change. This bias stems from a self-belief that the forecaster’s views are particularly privileged — they are a member of the foresight “elite.” Moguls and polymaths are both often guilty of this bias, they think they operate on a higher plane, and can dictate to the public the future that will be.

The speed of social change is almost always slower than the elitist futurist thinks it’s going to be. Their views are generally different from what the average voter wants as well. When they forget that, they’re guilty of elitism bias. Elitists often thin, that the general public will just cowtow to their views, because they are so obviously “better.” In reality, people need to process change and new opportunities at their own speed. They take time to internalize it, and they always change the future options that are offered to them in the process of accommodation.

We discussed fundamentalist resurgence in Chapter 7. This invariably emerges from too-fast globalization or technological change. It goes by various names: social blowback, technological whiplash, etc. People who fail to factor that in are always overestimating the speed of various categories of STEEPS change.

Some of my good friends in the transhumanist community have regularly been guilty of this over the years. A friend on the left has been convinced we’ll see a world government in his lifetime. From where I sit, this is a naive and utopian expectation. Biological humans will never get that interconnected. We don’t want such a future. We’re too suspicious of powerful actors for it to happen that fast. We have good historical reasons to be suspicious as well.

Another friend on the left is convinced we’ll increasingly engineer away human suffering in coming generations, because “that’s what people really want.” He doesn’t accept that many people think a certain amount of suffering is intrinsic to competition, and without it, we wouldn’t progress. A friend on the right is sure that a world of technological abundance will also deliver a libertarian, self-sufficiency paradise. I believe this as another naive fantasy, stemming from elitist thinking. An upwinger friend of mine is convinced that we’ll see general artificial intelligence in the 2040s, because everyone will soon see how valuable it is, and act to accelerate it. I believe she has mild form of elitism bias. She sees how beneficial it would be, so she expects the majority of folks who have a say in these matters will as well. I think she is extrapolating her own preferences to those of our political leaders, and the voting majority. We shall see.

Elitism arises when a future-thinker has convinced themselves that they see what’s right for the world, better than anyone else, and that the larger society is increasingly going to understand and accept their views, policies, and timetables, with little pushback. In most cases, this is just a delusion.

Even artificial intelligence, the most plausible of all these stories, is going to emerge slower than most transhumanists think, because people will slow it down, not speed it up, as it starts to reach scary, near-human levels of ability. Society will act to slow it down, make it safer and more moral, and regulate its spread, long before it reaches self-sufficiency, simply because the average person doesn’t think like you or I about these issues. That’s a good thing, too. That diversity of perspective in our values and future views creates a barrier, requiring the technology to work harder, improve more, and go slower than its boosters realize before it finally jumps the hurdle into mass adoption.

Watch out for elitism bias. You may think you see a better future, and are in a better place to tell others what is coming than they are. But they almost always won’t see it that way, especially in the early years. Seeing what’s coming doesn’t make you an elite, it just makes you a pioneer, first into the new territory. As we said in Chapter 1, pioneers get arrows in their backs unless they are careful. Being too early to see what’s next is usually not a good thing.

So be humble, not an elitist, and always factor in the social resistance to even the best of your ideas that will surely arise once they are more widely understood.