Standing Out in a Civilization of Trillions
This episode is brought to you by Brilliant. The future of our civilization may make that old phrase “Go big or go home” take on an entirely different meaning. Something we discuss a lot on this show is the sheer immensity of possible future civilizations, those which might colonize billions of stars each with untold billions of people around them. Indeed we’ve discussed how we might house a billion-billion people in this solar system alone and even trillions right here on Earth.
But something we never have addressed before was how an individual can stand out in such an immense civilization and at first I was actually a bit surprised it did so well as a potential episode topic in one of our recent polls. Upon reflection though, it makes sense. Folks in past Civilizations could more easily lie to themselves about their personal importance.
Frequently there were only a few thousand to maybe a few millions folks in your whole nation, most of whom did not even know what a million was, and for the super-majority of them, their existence was virtually exclusive in a community of maybe a few hundred to a few thousand. Nowadays we’re quite aware our population is nearing 8 billion and by last count over half of them were active internet users. This channel incidentally isn’t even in the top 10,000 on Youtube in terms of views or subscribers.
And while more and more folks in classic media have added YouTube to their means of reaching their audiences, there’s still a big difference between a ‘famous Youtuber’ and pretty much anybody in a movie or TV show or syndicated radio program or a New York Times Best Seller. And yet millions of folks have watched an episode of this show and I would guess at least a million folks recognize my name or fairly characteristic voice and associate it to space or science or robots or aliens and so on. That’s about a thousand times more folks than I’d ever aspired to have recognize me, and I won’t play false that I do not enjoy having so many folks enjoy my work or the respect I get from it. On the other hand I never wanted to be a rock star or athlete or actor growing up, and the sort of adulation bordering on worship many folks in those professions receive is not something I have ever aspired to nor recommend to others. However, we’re not talking about how to be worshipped in civilizations of trillions, apotheosis, elevation to divine status, but rather how to stand out, and that doesn’t strike me as an ignoble goal. That said, just in my own experience, folks who pursue fame for its own sake do not fare as well at that goal as folks who have something they are passionate about and get well known from seeking to share it.
I think some folks might assume ‘standing out’ in civilization is synonymous with ‘making a difference’ or ‘mattering as a person’, and as we’ll see today, in the future, even in realms of trillions of people, it is likely to be even easier to find a way to excel and no one will be forgotten or unknown. Back to the fame angle, this differs from standing out in my opinion because it’s often more like a race for supremacy, being the #1, which is obviously harder in a civilization with vastly more people. Again, in my personal experience seeking fame for that reason tends to be not only a bad motivation for doing things but also bad from a practical approach.
Someone focused on being the best known for something is presumably using a lot of their energy and enthusiasm for that goal, not being the best at that something, but being known for it. Of course that’s anecdotal and there are a lot of folks who sought fame and adulation above all things and got it, for better or worse, by the truckload. And we might as well start with that extreme case, apotheosis, the elevation to divine status. There are a lot of folks even in modern times who not only have a God Complex but convince many others it's true, to one degree or another. Jim Jones, known for being the leader of a cult in Jonestown that famously committed suicide by drinking Kool Aid, styled himself a god-like figure, though also styled himself an atheist and agnostic. Just under a thousand people drank that cyanide-laced drink – which was actually Flavor Aid not Kool Aid but that is where that expression about “Drinking the Kool Aid'' comes from, with the context of folks believing crazy ideas even to the point of self-destruction.
Jim Jones is hardly unique as having gotten a big following of cult-like worship, even including the mass murder-suicide epilogue, but it is probably only fair to point out that we have a lot of such groups around nowadays with no history of violence, and several number their memberships in the tens of thousands or more. Now when discussing things like the Kardashev Scale, where we contemplate a civilization that outnumbers us to such a degree that if each of us were made rulers over an equal portion of them, it would mean being monarch over an entire planetary populace, we contemplate just how extreme scale can get by looking at things which are small in modern terms. In a world of a few trillion people, the Jonestown Massacre proportionally would have been more like a million people. Imagine if you woke up one day, turned on the news, and saw that the entire population of Trinidad or Estonia or Cyprus or Delaware or Maine had just committed suicide. Similarly, the principal figures of worship for most folks these days are Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha in about that order, with a combined 5 billion followers. In a population of a trillion, scaled exactly as now, you’d have 300 Billion Christians, 240 Billion Muslims, 150 Billion Hindus, 70 Billion Buddhists, 30 Billion Sikhs, 20 Billions Jews, and around a dozen others who would scale up to our modern Earth population or those largest modern religions of billions if the human population rose over a trillion.
But it also means something like Raelinism would have perhaps 12 million followers, the population of Belgium, similar for Scientology, and the Church of the Jedi. Though it's often hard to accurately determine numbers from those groups, it does mean we’d generally be discussing a number of followers parallel to the populations available to many a great ancient empire. We also currently have around a quarter of million Youtube channels with over a hundred thousand subscribers, which would also scale up to Populations equal to or larger than Belgium or Illinois or my own home state of Ohio. Scaled up, I’d presumably have just under 100 million subscribers, about what PewDiePie has, and he’d have nearly 14 billion, almost twice the current world population. So a lot of today’s discussion depends a bit on what we mean by ‘Stand Out”, because the flip side to that is you could be ruler of a nation larger than modern nations like Germany or England, with as many folks in your land as the greatest Roman Emperor or some of the most famous kings, khans, and caliphs, and yet be ‘standing out’ no more than mayor of mid-sized city of tens of thousands. And honestly most folks either do not know their mayor’s name or know it but little else and care not.
Few would be recognized on sight by the typical person a couple town’s over, only mayors of famous cities like NYC or London tend to be internationally known. Heck my wife has been an elected state official for around a decade and represents our district in the legislature, had her face on a hundred big signs and all over media ads for the elections, and we rarely get recognized walking through stores in the area, let alone outside the district. And I shouldn’t say ‘we’, I’m virtually unknown and that’s not really unusual.
Until modern times with cheap photography it would be fairly unusual people would recognize any person of note outside that noteworthy person’s immediate friends or minions, the king might have some statues, coins, or paintings of himself but even that is rare. Only Hollywood and Primetime TV have traditionally – for less than a century – allowed virtually anyone to be known to everybody else on sight. Even governors of states or the senators from them are rarely recognized outside their own state and honestly only in them from having spent millions of dollars plastering their face all over the media.
Now however, we have a paradigm shift. There are still places where no one owns a camera but those are increasingly rare, and where they are common, everybody has tons of photos of themselves. That’s recent too, photographic cameras have been around for 2 centuries now, but didn’t become common household items till the last 60 or 70 years. Around a decade later photo IDs on Driver’s License started getting common, though photos on passports had been around even longer and of course newspapers had been running photos for the better part of a century by then. Nonetheless there’s actually not that many photos of folks from then, and I’d say a lot of folks have more photographs taken of them in any given month now than the average person got in a decade prior to advancements like polaroid photos, disposable cameras, digital cameras, and of course the smartphones and selfie. Now though, with smartphones and selfies and social media, we’ve got more visuals and text from most people out there on the net than would fit in the typical Wikipedia entry on all but the most famous folks.
That’s not going anywhere either. Computer Memory has been plateauing a bit in recent years but it's been decades since every bit of text a person might ever have written would fit on a harddrive with room to spare, and these days a terabyte of harddrive costs about as much as dinner at a modest restaurant. We do more photos, and at higher resolution, and videos too, but the reality is that we could compress an individual persons whole life down to a gigabyte of text and images and still known them better in word and deed, visually and by text description, than any human who lived before the invention of the camera.
If we assumed someone made a decent AI or bot that crawled the web gathering and compressing someone’s life down to a gigabyte, all their text, a few photos from each year, some very compressed audio and video, then even at modern costs of about $25 a terabyte, and even if we assumed backups and replacements made that $100 dollars a decade to maintain that terabyte, that means storing someone’s one gigabyte compressed life history would cost a dollar per century. And that was with some extreme redundancy in there and an assumption harddrives would get no better or cheaper in terms of storage per dollar. Every single episode I’ve done, in full 1080 HD, takes up around a terabyte, and I’d imagine most folks who’ve watched those all know me better than all but my closest friends and family in spite of them not being videos about myself.
My weekly audio journals are probably more informative and much smaller and I don’t compress those, they’re wav files, because memory is so cheap. Most biographical Wikipedia entries don’t even have a photo in them, mine doesn’t, just a couple pages of text tops which is still more than most great kings had written about them in their time, and that level of recording, at modern storage costs, would let us store the whole current human population at similar detail for maybe a hundred bucks a century. And who seriously believes we’ve maxed out harddrive technology? So yeah, you’re around forever. Oh, maybe not forever, forever is a very long time, but even without huge improvements in storage tech, it would probably need to be longer than human civilization had been around before anyone started feeling like your data needed to be compressed down to the kilobyte region. So where ‘standing out’ really means being remembered, almost everybody alive today is covered and if you’re watching this, then you’re in that number. Standing out in terms of being noteworthy or respected, that is harder, or appears to be at first glance.
However, consider the trend we have seen in recent times. It’s a bit sappy to say that everybody excels at something but generally speaking almost everyone has at least a few skills, hobbies, interests, trivia, etc that they are really into and good at. Where this is not true, often the reason is something correctable, with more technology, for instance a person suffering a severe mental handicap is probably not on the internet a lot meeting the 300 people on this planet who share their obscure interest in photographing dragonflies but this is probably a temporary problem. Where intelligence is dependent on hardware, which is to say your meat-brain, we will probably be able to correct any deficiencies or shortcomings this century, long before we get to a trillion people. That doesn’t imply everyone would be as smart as everyone else, but I suspect we won’t need massive genetic or cybernetic technology improvements to get to the point that every living human has an IQ of 130+.
If you’re in that zone, than you can pretty much do anything you want in life that’s intellect and skill focused if you want to enough. We have this whole civilization paradigm of physical or mental excellence that assumes you get born with those – neither is really true but that initial genetic package definitely matters and honestly I doubt it will by the end of next century at the latest. Your intelligence or height or so on, in genetic terms, is an accident of birth, not the product of scientific mastery. Do not assume that will be true for anyone born a century from now, or that they’d be stuck to their initial genetics, natural or tailored. That would also make it seem even harder to excel if everybody can be smart or tall or strong or pretty, but it does mean that when we say you can do anything you set your mind to, that it won’t be quite as hyperbolic of a statement. Being motivated and driven is the most critical part of succeeding at something or being well-known for it, that’s not a feel-good formula either, it's thoroughly researched that being driven or obsessed is the most common shared trait of the powerful and successful.
Nonetheless that initial genetic package or some injury of youth or the good or bad fortune of your early childhood education and development just really impose some tough hurdles. Now often those hurdles are exactly what bring someone to a state of excellence, but I think most of us would agree life has plenty enough challenges in it that if someone loses an arm, or is born without it, we probably shouldn’t be holding off on offering them a prosthetic or cloned replacement limb so they can ‘rise to the challenge’ of living without it. It is easy to stand out if you were born to grow to 2 meters tall in a world where most folks only get to 1.7, or 5’7”, and it probably makes it much easier to excel at basketball, but you’ll still work your butt off if you want to get in the NBA.
If anyone can be born to grow to any height their parents want, or have themselves modified as an adult to the height of their choosing, this is no longer an edge, though I’d be curious if folks opted to keep getting taller and taller or all be the same height or if some other equilibrium came in. Whichever the case, our general goal is to try to give people the tools they need to pursue their dreams, and even stuff like motivation and drive or attention span are subject to teaching or stimulation or treatment, so I suspect a future of trillions of folks won’t see folks unable to shine for the reasons that tend to limit us now, or at least the bar would be raised a lot. Incidentally, it might seem like I’m handwaving some technology in here but keep in mind the topic is standing out in a civilization of trillions, and for us to go from just under 8 billion souls to just a single trillion would require our population double 7 times. It’s been half a century since the population was half its current size, and it doubled twice in the 20th century. Most forecasts show population growth slowing, though population forecasts beyond a decade out have a track record of accuracy parallel to reading tea leaves.
If we keep doubling every 50 years though, that would mean it would take us 350 years to hit a trillion people, around the year 2371. 350 years ago the population was around half a billion, and took more than a century to double to a billion and was half that size half a millennia earlier. So growth rates are not steady and not easy to predict. For instance a technological advancement in birth control can see a population growth drop while one in extending healthy fertility ages can make it rise, and if someone invents true radical life extension, full health, vigor, and fertility for centuries, population growth might easily beat out doubling every half a century.
So if it takes us 3 or 4 centuries, or longer, to get to a trillion humans then we should assume a lot of technological progress, especially given all the extra scientists a population that size has and their extended careers. Such being the case I don’t think it is much of a stretch to assume folks born to that era would enjoy vastly better overall health and resources, better technology and techniques for learning and living, much as we do now compared to ancient days. If that life extension comes into play, as it probably will, then you might see folks alive today, maybe even watching this video, sitting around with their ten-times-great grandchildren who might easily number several thousand in total.
That is one way to stand out, be patriarch or matriarch to a clan of descendants so large they could people a world. And possibly a motivation for space colonization. We can support a trillion folks on Earth with certain technologies on the horizon, see that episode for details, but we would like to see a day when most folks do not live on or around Earth.
Whether it's terraforming planets or building artificial worlds, one way to stand out is to go to some new and small place and help forge it and grow it. That’s the critical component though – not space colonization in and of itself, but the forging of tons of new communities. We could be talking about seasteading artificial islands on our own oceans or orbiting O’Neill Cylinders home to ten thousand folks or some asteroid mining colony of a few thousand or some virtual world folks spend much of their free time in or even effectively immigrated to. We already see this in motion, groups developing in social media focused on very small things. Our show has a couple facebook forums, one has 25,000 members.
My wife and I took up beekeeping when we moved this spring and she joined a facebook group called women in beekeeping which I noticed had tens of thousands of members, bigger than our own facebook group. But there’s another smaller group of the same name and I also spotted forums for beekeepers of Australia, Botswana, Kenya, and Ohio, each with thousands of members. Many a space or science discussion forum I’ve joined over the years has broken up over ideological reasons, driving out members who don’t agree if Mars or the Moon should be first, or if Space should be vegan, or if one political party is clearly better than another.
That incidentally is part of why we restrict political and ideological posting in the SFIA forums, I’ve seen way too many space and science forums break in half, and often in half again, or turn into echo chambers, from that. However in a population of trillions, a group as specialized as the Ohio Beekepers Facebook Group, 7000 Members, would have several million members, and presumably break into even smaller groups with even bigger specializations, like the Beekeepers of Megadome 1 of Shackleton Crater on the Moon, who focus on genetic improvements to bees for maximum low gravity yield, not to be confused with the other group of the same name, whose members believe in the use of robotic bees, and are themselves a break away of the Lunar Lavatube Pollination Cohort, whose 100,000 members have a lobbying group with the Lunar Congress. Incidentally next week's episode is the Future of Farming and Agriculture. Among that group of 1000 people who share a passionate love of building houses of cards in low-gravity environments, you’re the one known for most innovative designs. The topic does not matter, I think folks will gravitate to group sizes as focused as the membership size permits them without being too small.
What do we mean by too small? Or the reverse, too big a group? Well this is probably tied to something like Dunbar’s Number, usually given at about 150-160 people, a concept from sociology that is the estimated maximum number of close relationships a person can have at a time. We suspect this maximum number of close relations is probably a factor in when tribes or communities divide or new sub-groups tend to form, and may be critical to successful interstellar space colonies. But that’s probably not a rigid number, and I tend to suspect that one of the most important but least discussed types of Mind Augmentation we will see in the future are those that allow us to have a higher Dunbar’s Number or retain passion for activities or personal relationships more easily and longer. Or get bored less.
This is an interesting note as well, one thing commonly suggested to folks who worry about not being remembered or significant in life is that everyone is equal in the eyes of their Creator who knows all they’ve done as well and better than even they do. I can’t speak to that, but it is very likely that a Superintelligence, such as a post-human or Strong AI, really would be capable of maintaining millions or even billions or trillions of interpersonal relationships and tracking all those little personal details we often don’t know about even our closest friends and family, like what their parent’s birthdays were or their child’s middle name or their favorite type of sandwich lunch meat. One way to make everyone stand out more is just to make it easier for us to know more people and see how they shine.
Expanding and strengthening that network allows a broader and stronger fabric of relationships to be woven. That might be even better than letting everyone shine brighter, after all the Sun is far brighter than any light humans have ever made, but it's just one of hundred billion suns in a galaxy that itself is but one of countless billions. In such an immensity, even an empire of a trillion worlds is but a flyspeck, and really, in all that vast space in the sky, who would even notice if a star like ours just flickered out one day? Let alone care if one tiny person living in one tiny town on one tiny world around that sun disappeared? Of course the answer to that is that a lot of folks would notice if you disappeared and as we grow in numbers and technology, toward a trillion and even beyond, that will only increase not decrease. If you’re alive, hearing this now, then in my opinion you’ve a better than 50/50 chance of having your name remembered and recorded until long after this bright star we live around burns out, and all you need to do to stand out is find something you love and pursue it, and in the future this will only be easier.
And even though our star is but one in countless trillions in a vast empty sea of the night, that doesn’t mean it shines any less bright. So we’ve a couple of announcements to get to along with our upcoming schedule, but first, I was talking today about how in the future we would probably have gotten far better at educating people by having learned more about what’s critical to learning, but one eternal truth about education is that hands-on interactive learning is almost always vastly better than trying to learn things by rote memorization of dull facts or assertions. This is something I keep in mind when writing episodes and it's something our friends over at Brilliant understand too, and is why they are constantly seeking to improve the interactivity of their content.
They are already the hands down best website and app for learning math, science, and computer science, but they’ve once again upped their platform to a new level, with even more interactivity on topics like their Geometry Fundamentals and Calculus in a Nutshell courses. They join the recently-updated courses Pre-Algebra, Mathematical Fundamentals, Algorithm Fundamentals, and Scientific Thinking. On Brilliant, it's not about memorizing or regurgitating facts for a test — you can just pick a course you’re interested in and get started.
Feeling stuck or made a mistake? You can read the explanations to find out more and learn at your own pace. If you'd like to try out Brilliant for free and get 20% off a year of STEM learning, click the link in the description down below or visit: brilliant.org/IsaacArthur. Also on today’s topic of Stranding Out in a giant civilization, let me give a shout out to my friend Brian Keating, on his new book “Think Like a Nobel Prize Winner” where he distills his interviews with several noble prize winners. Brian’s also one of the best Astrophysicists out there, and he runs a Youtube channel that delves into that topic and others with a fascinating and informative style.
I will link that channel, it and his books are definitely worth checking out. Speaking of things worth checking out, a common problem humanity has often faced is how to feed itself, and we’ll check out that topic next week and explore what advances are emerging in the field of agriculture, as we look at the future of farming. Then We’ll have our October Sci-Fi Sunday Episode, Sentient Planets & World Consciousnesses, on October 17th to discuss the popular scifi idea of living and thinking worlds, and if they might occur naturally or be created by high-tech civilizations. Then we’ll take a look at the concept of Convergent Evolution, aliens who look or act like us, and then at artificial intelligence who might also act like some of us, the misbehaving ones, with a look at Criminal AI.
Now if you want to make sure you get notified when those episodes come out, make sure subscribe to the channel, and click the notifications bell, and if you enjoyed the episode, don’t forget to hit the like button and share it with others. If you’d like to help support future episodes, you can donate to us on Patreon, or our website, IsaacArthur.net, and patreon and our website are linked in the episode description below, along with all of our various social media forums where you can get updates and chat with others about the concepts in the episodes and many other futuristic ideas. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!