Samo Burja on immortal societies and the potential decline of civilization

Samo Burja | LaBossiere Podcast #40

Check out LaBossiere Podcast’s Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • The long-term legacy of your contribution to society is bounded to the fate of the society you are in 
  • Figuring out why societies fail will help humans take measures to mitigate such failures and allow human contributions to compound over generations
  • Even though everyone wants their society to succeed, their individual incentives might encourage them to work against other members of the same society
  • Human history is a stuttering arc of progress where civilizations rise, achieve some sort of peak, and ultimately fail, and then another civilization picks up the remnants and start again
  • Providing a useful information inheritance is the best thing we can do for future generations
  • An immortal society is a boundless society where almost all human effort can compound and accumulate over time 
  • Societies that celebrate their most successful outliers will generate people who are capable of solving their hardest problems
  • The collapse of civilization includes a massive decline in population, material wealth, and human knowledge  
  • Societies that undergo stagnation and forgo growth have a compounding risk of collapse over time  
  • The Great Founder Theory: a small, exceptional group of people are ultimately responsible for the creation of new institutions that drive growth and innovation across a society  
  • A great founder must operate within a social reality so he is not disconnected from society, but also be differentiated enough so that is not just like everyone else
  • On live versus dead players: A live player is a person or well-coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before, whereas a dead player operates off of a script and is incapable of doing new things
  • The ability to successfully jump career tracks is evidence of being a live player
    • Examples include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Elon Musk 
  •  People are not paying enough attention to our aging population; an old population is less capable of dealing with the changes demanded by technology 

Intro 

  • Sam Burja (@SamoBurja) is the founder of Bismark Analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape. He is a Research Fellow at the Long Now Foundation, and also a Senior Research Fellow in Political Science at the Foresight Institute. All of his work and information can be found at SamoBurja.com.
  • In this conversation, Samo Burja and Alex LaBossiere discuss immortal societies, civilization decline, the longevity of information, and academia  
  • Check out these Podcast Notes on lessons learned from past societies 
  • Host – Alex LaBossiere (@adlabossiere

Samo Burja’s Objective 

  • All knowledge lives in human heads 
  • No matter what you think of your intellectual, cultural, or material contribution to society, the long-term legacy of your contribution is bounded to the fate of the society you are in 
  • So far, all human societies have failed; your contributions may not live on in perpetuity
  • The efforts of the vast majority of humans before us do not reach us 
  • Samo Burja’s objective is to figure out why societies fail so that contributions to society can have lasting effects on the human species 

Why Societies Are Not Immortal 

  • The actual needs of a society are not obvious 
  • Humans have a limited perspective on our own place in history 
  • Incentives that humans follow in aggregate may not be conducive to sustainability 
  • Historically, a successful general was a political liability for an emperor, not an asset
    • Emperors are incentivized to make enemies of other competent individuals that may threaten their rule, including powerful generals 
  • Even though everyone wants their society to succeed, their individual incentives might encourage them to work against other members of the same society  

What Makes an Immortal Society Desirable?

  • Some argue that when one civilization takes over another, some form of progress has occurred; Samo believes this argument is largely overstated, and wishful thinking
    • For example, there are only two dozen Mayan books preserved as most of them were destroyed after the Spanish conquest
  • Everyone thinks that Greece and Rome were the primary contributors to our civilization today, but the vast majority of Greek and Roman authors are only known by their names
    • We do not have any writing preserved by the famous Greek and Roman writers
    • We mostly have references for their work 
  • At a minimum, human history is a stuttering arc where civilizations rise, achieve some sort of peak, then fall, and then another civilization picks up the remnants and starts again 

Technology Makes Totalitarianism Easier  

  • Modern technology makes it easier to replicate information, but internet archives can be changed 
  • Mayan books were destroyed because they were viewed as evil, not because the books lacked durability 
  • Samo believes that computers make it easier for totalitarian societies to erase information because all information is accessible on the same network 
  • He acknowledges that information can be held in cold storage, but then that information can no longer be shared in a scalable way 

Why Some Information Persists and Other Information is Lost 

  • Information must be understood before it can be passed down 
  • Information must be useful for it to be passed down 
  • It must also be easy to replicate 
  • Written information tends to have an easier time being passed down than implicit, tacit knowledge 
  • Traditions of practice tend to be richer forms of information 
  • Knowledge that is tied to socioeconomic niches tends to travel through time well, especially if those niches transmit well  

Knowledge We Cannot Access 

  • We do not have a map of what has been explored, only samples of what has been exploited 
  • We cannot intellectually know what of the dark matter is still with us and what is gone

What Generations Owe Each Other 

  • We owe it to ourselves to allow our contributions to make it through generations
  • People want to be impactful; they want to do meaningful things 
  • People do not want to be nihilistic, which is why we are attracted to “feel good” stories of individuals making an impact 
  • The vast majority of people who will live have not been born 
  • The best thing we can do for future people is giving them a useful information about inheritance 
  • Sometimes the best way to contribute to the distant future is to tend to your own garden today 

What an Immortal Society Looks Like 

  • An immortal society is a boundless society where almost all human effort can compound and accumulate over time 
  • An immortal society is a dynamic organism 
  • It would be an exciting place to live where certain kinds of futility have been completely overcome 
  • Humans have a hard time imagining a world where the cycle of rebirth is disrupted 
  • Knowing that your actions today could matter a thousand years from now would fundamentally change how humans feel and interact with one another 

What Underpins an Immortal Society 

  • There is not a single ideal that underpins an immortal society 
  • Societies that set an unattainable goal and collectively work to achieve it tend to do well 
  • Unattainable goals can lead to the pursuit of perfection 
  • There is a significant difference between the values that we endorse and the values that we practice 
    • The Romans claim to have conquered the Mediterranean out of self-defense, which is a dubious claim from the outside looking in 
  • People tend to rationalize their actions  
  • The values that are practiced have a greater impact on society than the values that are endorsed 
  • Values that Samo Burja thinks would positively contribute to any society:
    • The appreciation of human excellence
    • The encouragement of successful outliers 
  • Societies that celebrate their most successful outliers will generate people who are capable of solving their hardest problems 
  • It is important to encourage cultural and technological innovation so that stagnant conditions can be overcome 
  • Societies must deeply care about making and educating the next generation
  • A small percentage of people are direct descendants of Rome, but almost 20% of people speak a language that is a derivative of Latin  
  • The desire to pass along what you have is needed to create an immortal society 
  • Storytelling is crucial; there must be a reason why a civilization is collectively pursuing something greater than the individual 
  • Legitimizing a society’s existence and purpose through storytelling is beneficial 

How to Define the Collapse of Society 

  • According to Samo, the collapse of civilization includes:
    • Massive decline in human population
    • Massive decline in material wealth  
    • The regression of human knowledge 
  • The best example of a “proper” collapse is the Bronze Age Collapse, which happened around 1000 B.C.
  • Devastating collapses include losing literacy, which happened in the Greek Dark Ages
    • Some Greek writings are still indecipherable to this day 
  • Transformations can still occur following collapses, but the emerging society has lost inheritance from the one that came before it 
  • Having only faint echoes of the prior civilization suggests a collapse may have occurred 

Why Societal Decline Happens

  • “Collapse could best be compared to a forest fire, where it is an underlying fragility of the system that has a compounding risk of collapse.” – Samo Burja 
    • The collapse might not happen in any given year, but years of compounding can result in an intense climax
  • A gentle decline leaves ample room to preserve information 
    • The history of the Catholic Church has been well preserved because the decline of the Roman Empire was gradual 
  • Societies that undergo stagnation and forgo growth have a compounding risk of collapse over time  
  • Sooner or later, some type of shock hits the system, just like a spark eventually hits the forest and starts the fire 
  • A spark is just a spark in a forest with many competent individuals and functioning institutions that are equipped to handle it, but in other forests, the same spark could devastate it 
  • European Empires had fragile and complex supply chains to create bronze, which required tin and copper to be sourced from areas far apart
    • Samo equates this example to a hypothetical nuclear war taking out Taiwan, which would cripple the global semiconductor industry 
  • It might take the modern world 5, 10, or 20 years to build really good CPUs again in the alternate universe where Taiwan gets destroyed  
  • It may take even longer for civilization to recover if the U.S. or China were destroyed, given their manufacturing capacities that the world relies on 
  • Societies are susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies where everyone believes that some event is inevitable, so their subsequent actions increase the likelihood of the event coming to fruition 

The Great Founder Theory 

  • The Great Founder Theory: a small, exceptional group of people are ultimately responsible for the creation of new institutions that drive growth and innovation across a society 
    • It is not just the individual accomplishments of the people, the Great Founder Theory factors in the origins of institutions and social norms that have formed as a result of the small group’s actions 
    • Great Founder Theory is not the same as Great Man History 
  • Great Founder Theory suggests that innovations, technologies, and institutions emerge far too rapidly for them to be the result of slow, gradual cultural evolution 
    • Rather, the new social technologies that emerge are intentional creations 
  • Institutions that worked very well tend to have had rapid origins 

Traits of a Great Founder

  • A great founder must have a social imagination that is unbound by the social rules that they understand 
  • However, while being unbound from social rules, a great founder must understand how their current society operates on a practical level 
  • A great founder must operate within a social reality so he is not disconnected from society, but also be differentiated enough so that is not just like everyone else
  • Great founders are great organizers who know how to inspire others 
  • Great founders are interested in teaching and training their own successors 
  • Without training the next generation, the progress is more likely to go away following their death   

Live Versus Dead Players

  • A dead player operates off of a script; it might be a high-quality script, but it’s still a script
  • A live player is a person or well-coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before 
  • A live player has adaptability, a fluidity, and the ability to improvise 
  • Live players learn how to learn, but they also have the freedom to act on what they learn
    • Example: a mathematician applying mathematics to a new domain 
  • Live players fluidly accept information from the world and find their own ways to navigate that information 
  • Live players don’t forgo all conventional methods; they just have the capability to forge new things  
  • Live players have more than the ability to learn, which is oftentimes just imitation; live players have the ability to extend, theorize, experiment, and create new things 
  • Dead players can also experience success 

Examples of Live Players

  • It is obvious when someone is a live player 
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great example of a live player:
    • A soldier sneaks out of his barracks to compete in a bodybuilding competition
    • He wins the competition, and upon return to the barracks, convinces his supervisor that he should not be punished for sneaking out, but rewarded
    • Arnold is granted permission to travel to a completely different country to continue competing and creates a new life and career there
    • A bodybuilding documentary is made about him, and then he pivots into acting and becomes a movie star
    • Then, he pivots into politics and becomes Governor of California 
    • It is likely that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a fourth or fifth stage of his life ahead of him 
  • The ability to successfully jump career tracks is evidence of being a live player
  • Elon Musk is another prime example of a live players
    • He is a serial entrepreneur that has multiple wins under his belt 
  • Samo Burja believes that we are currently lacking live players in the intellectual field 

Can You Learn to Become a Live Player? 

  • Every human has the potential to be a live player, but that doesn’t mean they will become a successful live player 
  • A live player can still lose
  • There are biological and psychological influences that may influence a person to become more “alive” or less alive throughout their life
    • Some people are more drawn to safe pursuits and stability while others are drawn to adventure 
  • All of us have sparks of being a live player,  it’s just a question of whether or not the mountain ranges beneath the surface, i.e. potential, eventually rise above the surface and become islands 
  • Live players and dead players are not two types of people; the subset of live players have their aliveness visible for all to see, whereas the potential of the dead players remains below the surface  

What People are Not Paying Enough Attention To 

  • “Overall, people are not paying enough attention to the question of why the world is getting so much older.” – Samo Burja
  • The world’s population was always increasing in the 1970s, but that’s no longer the case
  • The global population is still increasing but to a lesser degree 
  • Fertility rates are dropping, especially in poorer countries
  • India’s total fertility rate (TFR) is below 2.1, which means there are 2.1 children born per woman
  • Many countries are below the estimated replacement rate of 2.3 
  • Samo is not concerned about slowing population growth for the sake of the number not becoming larger; he is concerned about having an old population
  • Old players are more likely to become dead players with age
  • A society dominated by old players is less capable of dealing with the changes demanded by technology 
  • If Japan is the future, then we may have a world where the average age of a person on earth is 50 or 60 years old  

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Notes By Stan Rizzo

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