Roseites and Bostromites

Epistemic status: Speculation. Grasping at a distinction that might or might not be useful. Playing around with dichotomy to see what happens.

 

The venture capitalist David Rose once told a group of students (I was there: I don’t think the speech was published) to think about things that “will have to happen” as technology develops, and to create businesses that will enable those things.

For example: If the Internet allows a store to have a near-infinite selection, someone will have to found Amazon.

I recently realized that Rose’s way of thinking parallels the way philosopher Nick Bostrom thinks about the future. As an expert on global catastrophic risk, he asks people to figure out which things will have to not happen in order for humanity to develop, and to create organizations that will prevent those things from happening.

For example: If nuclear war would wipe out civilization, someone (or many someones) will have to ensure that no two nuclear-armed groups ever engage in all-out war.

 

If you were to divide people into two groups — the followers of David Rose, and those of Nick Bostrom — you’d get what I call “Roseites” and “Bostromites”.

Roseites try to make new things exist, to grow the economy, and to enhance civilization.

Bostromites¬†try to study the impact of new things, to prevent the economy’s collapse, and to preserve civilization.

Anyone who wants a certain kind of future could fit into these categories: The difference lies in whether you see yourself adding elements to that future, or preventing the addition of elements that shouldn’t exist in that future.

Each ideology can exist in any profession, but some professions are heavily weighted in one direction: Entrepreneurs and engineers lean Roseite, while federal judges and medical ethicists lean Bostromite.

(There’s one other major category of future-shifting: Removing elements that already exist in the present from a future that shouldn’t have them. Curing a disease, say, or toppling a government, or changing the tax structure. This category deserves a term for itself, but I don’t have space to add one right now.)

 

Society rewards the exemplars of each group. Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg (Roseites) are billionaires; Norman Borlaug and Al Gore (Bostromites) won the Nobel Peace Prize.

On the other hand, the rewards for a moderately successful Roseite — millions of dollars after a Google acquisition — seem to far outweigh the rewards for a moderately successful Bostomite, who might spend an entire career writing articles or scientific papers, hoping the right people read them, and wondering whether they’ve made a difference. (It’s often very hard to know you’ve stopped a disaster, especially when you were one person among hundreds working toward that goal.)

 

Does this mean we have too many Roseites and not enough Bostromites? I really don’t know.

On the one hand, a single successful Roseite can fund the work of a dozen top-tier Bostromites, which implies that any given individual might have more impact by becoming a Roseite. (Plus, enough successful Roseites in the same place might create a civilization with a natural resistance to certain catastrophic risks.)

On the other hand, there are certain problems only Bostromites have any hope of solving: you can’t buy your way out of a nuclear exchange, or a dictatorship forming in your country.

This all gets complicated quickly: Some wealthy Roseites donate to Bostromite researchers, some wealthy Bostromites fund the ventures of Roseites, and some Bostromites pursue their goals through Roseite means (e.g. Elon Musk). There’s no bright line dividing the groups.

But someone in the process of choosing a profession — especially if they’re doing so with the goal of “influencing the future” — might still benefit from considering which outlook suits them best.

 

 

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