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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Understanding "longtermism": Why this suddenly influential philosophy is so toxic

Émile P. Torres
Originally posted 20 AUG 22

Here is an excerpt:

But what is longtermism? I have tried to answer that in other articles, and will continue to do so in future ones. A brief description here will have to suffice: Longtermism is a quasi-religious worldview, influenced by transhumanism and utilitarian ethics, which asserts that there could be so many digital people living in vast computer simulations millions or billions of years in the future that one of our most important moral obligations today is to take actions that ensure as many of these digital people come into existence as possible.

In practical terms, that means we must do whatever it takes to survive long enough to colonize space, convert planets into giant computer simulations and create unfathomable numbers of simulated beings. How many simulated beings could there be? According to Nick Bostrom —the Father of longtermism and director of the Future of Humanity Institute — there could be at least 1058 digital people in the future, or a 1 followed by 58 zeros. Others have put forward similar estimates, although as Bostrom wrote in 2003, "what matters … is not the exact numbers but the fact that they are huge."

In this article, however, I don't want to focus on how bizarre and dangerous this ideology is and could be. Instead, I think it would be useful to take a look at the community out of which longtermism emerged, focusing on the ideas of several individuals who helped shape the worldview that MacAskill and others are now vigorously promoting. The most obvious place to start is with Bostrom, whose publications in the early 2000s — such as his paper "Astronomical Waste," which was recently retweeted by Musk — planted the seeds that have grown into the kudzu vine crawling over the tech sector, world governments and major media outlets like the New York Times and TIME.

Nick Bostrom is, first of all, one of the most prominent transhumanists of the 21st century so far. Transhumanism is an ideology that sees humanity as a work in progress, as something that we can and should actively reengineer, using advanced technologies like brain implants, which could connect our brains to the Internet, and genetic engineering, which could enable us to create super-smart designer babies. We might also gain immortality through life-extension technologies, and indeed many transhumanists have signed up with Alcor to have their bodies (or just their heads and necks, which is cheaper) frozen after they die so that they can be revived later on, in a hypothetical future where that's possible. Bostrom himself wears a metal buckle around his ankle with instructions for Alcor to "take custody of his body and maintain it in a giant steel bottle flooded with liquid nitrogen" after he dies.