We live in an age of live, real-time culture. Broadcasts, spontaneous tweets, on-site feeds, rapid response analysis, war rooms, clubhouses, vlogging. We have to interact with the here and now, feel that thrill of the action. It is a constraint: we are fascinated by the dangers which terrorize whole swathes of the planet.
Last month we saw Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and the East Coast, with some of the strongest winds in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Katrina. In Kabul, daily videos and feeds show up-to-the-minute horrors near a country in chaos. The dangers are everywhere. Cross these amygdala impulses with the penchant for live coverage, and alchemy is our modern medium.
Yet watching live events is not living, and it cannot replace introspection both into our own condition and the health of the world around us. The dangers that span across today’s headlines and chyrons are often not the dangers we should be spending our time thinking about. This divergence between real-time risks and real risks have widened over time – and humanity has arguably never been so close to the precipice of a real disaster, even as we are subsumed by disasters that will barely last a screen scroll across our phones.
Toby Ord, in his prophetic book The Precipice, argues that we fail to see the existential risks that can realistically extinguish human life and fulfillment. So he provided a rigorous guide and compass to help irrational humans understand what risks really matter – and which we need to accept and move on.
Ord’s web is cosmic, dating from the birth of the universe to tens of billions of years in the future. Humanity is only the smallest leap in the universal chronology, and the extreme wealth and advancement of our civilization dates only a few decades of contemporary life. Yet what progress have we made so quickly, and what progress are we on track to continue in the millennia to come!
All this potential could however be destroyed if certain risks are not taken into account and improved today. The same human progress that has brought so much beauty and improvement has also democratized the tools of immense destruction, including destructiveness that could wipe out humanity or “simply” lead to the collapse of civilization. Some of Ord’s main concerns include climate change, nuclear winter, designer pandemics, general artificial intelligence, and more.
There are many books on existential risk. What makes The Precipice unique is that it is forged in the fiery rationality of the effective altruism movement, of which Ord is one of its many leaders. This is not a superlative dystopian analysis of all that can go wrong in the centuries to come, but rather a coldly calculated comparison of risks and where society should invest its limited resources. Asteroids are horrible but at this point well studied and deeply improbable. Widespread AI is much more open to terrifying results, especially when we stretch our analysis across decades and centuries.
As the book reviews various types of risk, from natural hazards to man-made to hypothetical futures, Ord’s main goal is to take humanity back and think about how we can. incorporating the lives of billions – perhaps even billions – of future beings into our risk calculations. The decisions we make today affect not only ourselves or our children, but also potentially thousands of generations of our descendants, not to mention other beings who have made their home on Earth. In short, it asks the reader for a daring leap to see the world in geological and astronomical time, rather than real time.
It’s a stunning mission, daring, wacky and unnerving sometimes, and sometimes all at the same time. Ord knows objections will come from almost every corner, and half the volume of the book consists of appendices and footnotes to deflect the arrows of criticism while deepening the understanding of the curious reader or scholar. If you let yourself be overwhelmed by the rigorous philosophy and mental architecture required to think long-term and existential risks, The Precipice can really lead to an awareness of how precarious most of our lives are and how the past is. and future that we are.
Humanity is on the precipice, but so are individuals. Each of us is on the verge of understanding, but can we take the leap? And should we?
Here, the rigor and tenacity of the argument prove a little more elusive. There is not much transition available from our everyday philosophy based on reality to one based on the perception of existential risk in all the work we do. Either you observe existential risks and try to mitigate them, or you don’t (or worse, you see them and give up on protecting the fate of humanity). As Ord points out, that doesn’t always mean sacrifice – some technologies can reduce our existential risk, which means we need to accelerate their development as quickly as possible.
Yet in a complicated world filled with everyday crises and trauma from people whose painful faces are etched on the screens of our smartphones, it’s hard to put aside this emotional input for the deductive and reductive frames featured here. In this, the criticism is not so much of the book as it is of the wider field of effective altruism, which attempts to rationalize assistance even as it often erases the greater compulsion for humans to help each other: the emotional connection they feel to each other. being. The Precipice provides a logical ethical framework for those already converted, but offers only modest advice in persuading anyone outside of the tribe to join its impetus.
This is a shame, for the message of the book is indeed prophetic. Posted on March 24, 2020, it discusses pandemics, gain-of-function research, and the risks of modern virology – issues that have migrated from obscure academic journals to the front pages. There really are existential risks, and we really have to face them.
As shown last year, however, even well-known and dangerous risks like pandemics are difficult for governments to build management capacity. Few humans can spend their entire lives tied to a phenomenon that occurs once every 100,000 years, and few security cultures can remain resilient to the slow degradation of vigilance that accompanies any defense that is never used. .
The Precipice provides an important and deeply stimulating framework for thinking about the risks to our future. Yet it is the lack of engagement with social media that will have little influence on how to appease our obsession with the risks right in front of us. The long haul is tough, and TikTok is always at hand.
The precipice: existential risk and the future of humanity by Toby Ord
Hatchet, 2020, 480 pages