But Kurzweil is always talking bullshit

I’m not the only one who thinks Ray Kurzweil is an ignorant buffoon — here’s a post dissecting his latest foolishness:

People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

The big problem with this? It’s not true. Like, at all.

Let’s start with the time period he’s talking about: A century ago. One hundred years. That would put us smack dab in the middle of 1916.

Do you know what was going on in 1916? The world was tearing itself to bits with destructive technology. The United States wouldn’t enter the war until the following year, but World War I was the war that would see men being annihilated with tanks, machine guns, mustard gas, the works. And everybody knew about it. How do I know this, sitting here in 2016? I just walked three feet behind me to a bookshelf and looked for some of my magazines from World War I.

The author is pointing out that one problem with Kurzweil’s claim is that it is simply false; Kurzweil wants to argue that we think the world might be getting worse is that we’re just aware of what’s going on, but clearly, almost everyone had a crystal clear idea of the horrors that were going on a century ago.

But I think there are other problems, as well. The world might be getting worse, it might be getting better, but this is a question about people’s perception of the world, and I suspect most of us think we’re better off than we were a century ago (with significant exceptions for bombed-out nations in the Middle East, or people victimized by terrorist groups, like ISIS or Boko Haram). I know I’d rather live in the 21st century than the 19th or earlier. So his initial premise is wrong, or at least misleading.

Another problem: when was this mythical time that a village could get wiped out and one a few miles away wouldn’t know about it? Communication was slower, but the information would get there eventually. Europe had a series of continent-wide wars in the 17th century; Rome controlled everything from Syria to Britain. Information might have flowed via boat or horseback rather than fiber optic cables, but it’s simply not true that people in the Middle Ages or the ancient world were sitting about only aware of the local dungheap.

It is also egregiously absurd to claim that we not only hear about it, we experience events around the world. We don’t. For instance, the latest news from Nigeria is that Boko Haram is still holding 200 girls captive. Are you experiencing it? Have you felt even a tiny fraction of the pain the families of those girls have felt over the last two years?

And finally, I have to point out that his definition of ‘better’ is unstated and implicit — he assumes that a better world is one where people have more and faster information about events in the next village or the next continent. Why? In particular, if we do nothing with the information we have about the next town over, how does that improve the planet?

But then, this is Kurzweil all over: ignorant of history, ignorant of science, but mumbling words of technological wish-fulfillment and making his fans happy.


  1. leerudolph says

    This is similar to the thesis of that over-rated buffoon Pinker’s recent book, isn’t it?

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Kurzt~well [sic] is half-right. Instant media saturation is a significant feature of modern society. Maybe news of a neighboring village destruction would flow everywhere, yet even 10 years ago who would hear of all the “gun incidents” going on all over, accompanied with video of the incident as well?
    feature of bug, is debatable.

  3. blf says

    This quote irked me:

    And everybody knew about it. How do I know this, sitting here in 2016? I just walked three feet behind me to a bookshelf and looked for some of my magazines from World War I.

    Even allowing for rhetorical hyperbole, that’s nonsense. I have no idea what percentage of people around the world in c.1916 knew of the latest European war, but it assuredly wasn’t “everybody”. And using the existence of magazines as evidence that “everybody” then knew? Good grief, that’s saying the existence of multiple internet sites claiming bigfoot is real means everyone (around the world, no less!) knows there is a breeding population of bigfeets.

    Admittedly, as quoted, the author is (quite probably) talking about “everyone” in some restricted domain (as a simplified example, much of the USA and Europe), but the loon cannot be and poopyhead is ambiguous. Arguably sloppy writing here, perhaps, and — perhaps — an exercise in a privileged viewpoint (both points which I am undoubtedly also doing).

    As far as I know, in that example (and similar) domain at that time, magazines were a significant media, so with those critically important constraints, the argument has validity.

    None of this should detract from basic point, the loon is an ignorant eejit.

  4. cartomancer says

    To give a good impression of the speed of news dissemination in the medieval world, I like to use the example of the Siege of Jerusalem in 1187. Saladin finally conquered the city and wrested it back from crusader forces on the 2nd of October 1187. By the 29th of October news had reached Rome (brought by refugee pilgrims and traders) and pope Gregory VIII was preaching the need for a fresh crusade to win back Jerusalem in a papal bull. By christmas that year university masters in Paris and Oxford were being asked their opinions on whether this event was significant in an eschatological context and might mark the beginning of the apocalypse.

    I think this question of people’s perceptions of whether the world is getting better or getting worse depends strongly on culture. Romans from the first century BC onwards had a strong cultural tendency to believe that their age was a corrupt and immoral one compared to the ages of the virtuous, frugal ancestors before their empire brought in corrupting wealth and effeminate foreign ways. From Cicero’s O tempora, o mores! to Livy’s introduction to his history to Juvenal’s satires this was the dominant cultural paradigm. Though, of course, there were people who thought differently. Pliny the younger, for instance, a contemporary of the scathing Juvenal and the deeply cynical Tacitus, seems very jovial and confident and convinced of his own age’s excellence.

  5. marcoli says

    The condition of our species is getting better by measurable standards. Yes it is a slow and bumpy course with some downward ticks, but it has improved over the past century. Things to measure include longevity, healthcare, literacy, the numbers of elected governments, and the rights of women and minorities. Those who wish to can certainly point out myriad problems today, and you should point these out! That is one way that change for the better can happen.

  6. anbheal says

    My late mother would occasionally upbraid young worry-warts around her table, she being an old lady, the worry-warts probably college dates of her grandchildren. She said “when I was a young girl, a mixed marriage was when an Episcopalian married a Catholic. Both families were upset, and there was social turmoil. By my college years, it was when a Christian married a Jew. Both families were upset, and there was social turmoil. After the war, it was when a GI came home with a Japanese or Korean wife. Both families were upset, and there was social turmoil. By the late 1960s and 1970s, it was when a white married a black. Both families were upset, and there was social turmoil. Now (this was about 1996, 1998, in Massachusetts, on the eve of legal gay marriage), it’s when your son is dating someone else’s son, and want to get married. Both families are upset, and there’s social turmoil. But don’t tell me the world’s a worse place.”

    Also, as an epidemiologist, I must note that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were perversely positive events, as far as average deaths per year via warfare. Between the early 1700s and up through World War II, annual deaths by warfare had run a pretty steady course from a few hundred thousand up through about 20-25 million per year. Since August of 1946, less than a million. That’s 75 years missing 20 million deaths per year. Because white people have decided to only go to war against brown people since then. So white countries no longer suffer any casualties. So for all you Trumpistas complaining that the world hasn’t gotten any better, well, it actually has, for you. Lily white people and their kids just don’t participate in industrialized warfare anymore — they are completely inoculated from its ravages.

  7. nomadiq says

    The world is better because many diseases are controlled or wiped out, sanitation prevents poor health and good information can be dispersed cheaply and effectively. The world is worse because our ability to destroy each other just gets better and better, our technology outruns our political leaders understanding and our ability to poison the minds of others with garbage can be dispersed cheaply and effectively.

    The problem is not in thinking it’s better or worse. The problem lies in thinking you can integrate for goodness or badness now and then and come up with something meaningful. I love the optimism of Kurzweil here, but we should never rest on our laurels. Or more correctly, we shouldn’t be so fucking arrogant about our ability to control semi conductance. The transistor didn’t make people’s lives better in a vacuum. Only how they are used matters.

  8. Ryan Cunningham says

    Lots of commenters here are asserting that the world is absolutely better. I like your attitude. We should be optimistic and thankful for our achievements. While I agree that a lot of social and technological change has been for the better, we can’t ignore climate change and mass extinction. We’re paying a real price for our current standard of living. We can’t close our eyes and pretend this isn’t happening. Many things are better, but we also have a lot to worry about.

  9. latsot says

    Another good article about Kurzweil and others being wrong, this time about AI:


    The TL;DR is that if you’re going to make lofty, eye-rolling claims about artificial intelligence, it might help to understand intelligence. Nobody really does. It’s lots of things. Kurzweil, of course, doesn’t think that’s important. To him and the other usual suspects, not-very-convincing exponential curves of technology improving are sufficient to conclude whatever it is they want to. Either computers will destroy us, make us pets, help us become gods or forever have shitty interfaces. One of those predictions is mine, the others are from the likes of Kurzweil, Hawking and the usual crowd.

    We will be at less risk from actually intelligent computers in the possible nearish future than we are from not-intelligent computers right here and now. Intelligence currently isn’t nearly as dangerous as lots of data thrown at lots of computing power combined with motives that don’t respect people.

    We’d do well to worry about what we’re doing with computing power and data and greed at the moment than about the masturbatory fantasies of people who are famous for talking about things they know nothing about.

  10. applehead says

    The Internet brotheist nerds’ new pet debate about whether “the world” – whatever you, personally, mean by that term – is “getting better or worse” – whatever you, personally, mean by those terms – is broken by design and pure pseudo-intellectual wankery.

    If you say “we are living as well as never before,” who do you mean by this nebulous “we?” People that look like you? White Euro-descended people? What about the millions, the BILLIONS really, of people who are worked to death in Foxconn factories building our iPhones, extract highly toxic heavy metals from electronics waste or make our sprtswear?

    What about the ever-widening wealth gap, with Third World-like slums springing up smackdab in the middle of our First World countries? What about the sheer size of global populations and the destructivity of our weapons? “Small skirmishes” of today can be bloodier than full-fledged wars of old.

    Not only have you generalizations galore, the question asked is broken from the start. How do you define nebulous concepts like “better” or “worse?” By GDPs? Death counts of armed conflict? The number of apps on your phone?

    Depending on which specific metric you choose – to view the world through your own personal lense, as it happens – you get wildly different results.

    But as long as we don’t have a way to look into the heads of every single human and somehow objectively measure how happy they are with their lives, go back in time and apply that to all of human history, that’s just an exercise in fitting the world to your own personal narrative.

    The fact of the matter is decent, fulfilling living has always coexisted with abject misery and always will be. Details like fashion, art, technology, etc. change, but the greater picture remains the same.

  11. says

    In wwI the ability to destroy civilization was absent, because doing it at that level was self-suppressing. Today there are thousands of warheads ready to go – a dozen of which in a typical configuration would wipe out England. Progress indeed! And the political brains that control all that haven’t been upgraded at all…

  12. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 11:
    yeah, Kurtz-well made his name by extrapolating a single observation by one in the semiconductor industry, Moore that is. Moore’s Law [observation actually] was the exponential reduction in transistor size and cost vs computational capabilities ratioed to human capability (like speed of addition or neuron velocities). Kurtz took this observation from a few years, and extrapolated it to the mathematical singularity of infinite magnitude and zero cost, concluding that the singularity is imminent

    ignorant me however, based all this on 2nd hand sources, never reading Kurtz directly, so I may well be wrong and spouting mistakes. take it for what it’s worth. hmmm

  13. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Visiting Gettysburg recently, I was reminded that the battle there consisted of the single highest fatality quantity by Americans in all of history. And Drumph wants us to return to 1863? It seems so; Gettysburg had a great number of casualties.

  14. unclefrogy says

    I have not actually compared things completely but the terms are not very well defined so I feel it is OK. It is my thinking that if we take his idea about being aware of what is going on as the significant part and not is it getting better or worse then he is corrwct we are generally more aware and many many more of the humans on earth are aware of more and more stuff.
    It is my thinking that many of the things that have been brought up as being very negative which are mostly not social/political in nature but are earth environmental all have been going on for a long long time. I know of no where where there has been any major reversal only great efforts in small enclaves and small changes that do not effect very much the long term trend. A 110 years ago very few new about much about it that did not mean it was all hunky dory it just means we were ignorant we have been busy destroying the environment all along just few took any notice they only saw the harvested crop not the dead natural ecosystem the farm replace. The long term trend is almost entirely negative for us if there are not alterations in practices and procedures.
    Is what he is implying ignorance gives us a happier outlook that things are getting better?
    uncle frogy

  15. multitool says

    Not sure about the wealth gap getting worse in the big picture. What was the income disparity between Robert E. Lee and his slaves? Or Henry VII and his serfs?

    Also, today you are less likely to be burned at the stake for denouncing the Church. This website would be toast.

    And anybody claiming ‘of course we know about all the towns that were burned, we have books.’ is making a circular argument. If a town vanished without testimony there won’t be any books. Books just define the limits of the writer’s ignorance.

  16. consciousness razor says

    It is my thinking that if we take his idea about being aware of what is going on as the significant part and not is it getting better or worse then he is corrwct we are generally more aware and many many more of the humans on earth are aware of more and more stuff.

    I’m not really sure what you mean. I have access to more information than Goethe, let’s say, but I doubt that I’m aware of many more things. There’s just the potential for me to get some of this other information, which is distinct from actually having it and using it to do something useful. I’m sure I couldn’t handle being aware of all of it if I tried. The Singularity hasn’t come and I haven’t merged with the Internets to become a superhero/villain (not yet), and beyond that not much has changed in terms of my cognitive capacities or the resources I can use.

    Presumably, whatever potential access I do have is associated with a lot of economic factors, and it wouldn’t be an especially favorable comparison for somebody like me versus somebody like Goethe — there’s also the fact that he sets a pretty high bar for sheer curiosity. And I’m not in especially bad shape, compared to many others. I don’t know what inequality was like 200 years ago in some other country (much less all of them combined), but given the way things are here and now, I don’t know how safe it is to assume that it’s really so much better in that regard. Maybe only for a small class of people who are influential and can do something effective with the information they’ve got, but what evidence do we have that they’ve actually done something with it?

  17. leerudolph says

    Latsot@11: “help us become gods or forever have shitty interfaces.”
    Among the four predictions you list, those two (at least) are not mutually exclusive of each other. In fact, there is abundant evidence that all heretofore proposed gods (and therefore, surely, all previous examples of god-producers—whence, most likely, all future examples of ditto, including artificial intelligences) have VERY shitty interfaces.

  18. says

    It’s really strange to read this. I’m sure I’ve seen actual data, admittedly in the form of polls, where a significant majority of respondents agree that the world is worse now than it was when they were young. People, in the abstract, do believe things are getting worse. They do. It’s demonstrable.

    I don’t, because I also know that by almost any useful measure, from life expectancy to violent death, wealth, health, access to education, the world, on average, is much better than it was not long ago. The list of technological advances which make human lives appreciably better is very long and I hope obvious enough that I don’t have to list them here.

    I expect Kurtzweil was being hyperbolic, I assume the ‘100 years’ comment was unthinking and offhand and I’m not certain that access to information has anything to do with it. I suspect you could make the argument that people have been convinced the world is going to hell for about as long as there have been people. We are a pessimistic species.

    The fundamental argument is sound though. Don’t believe your lying mind. Things are not as bad as you believe, and in general life is not getting worse.

  19. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @18:

    I don’t know what inequality was like 200 years ago in some other country (much less all of them combined), but given the way things are here and now, I don’t know how safe it is to assume that it’s really so much better in that regard.

    In most countries, I think the situation is far better than 200 years ago. Take a look at Hans Rosling’s documentary “Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population”. Fantastic graphics. Should be on youtube.

  20. consciousness razor says

    Rob Grigjanis: Thanks, sounds interesting.

    Population growth is definitely an important factor. The population is seven or eight times what it was in 1800. If you picked a random person then and a random person now, the modern person is probably going to be more informed in some sense. There are many things which simply weren’t known by anyone then, because there’s no question that we learn/discover/invent new ideas constantly (even after you leave aside historical knowledge about events that happened in the years since 1800, which is trivial/irrelevant to what people like Kurzweil are talking about). But it’s a different question when you ask something like this: have economic, political, education and communication systems worldwide at least kept up with the pace of growth (if they haven’t surpassed it)? It may be that both have increased, while the ratio of informed/uninformed people (however that’s measured, for whatever types of information are supposed to be important) is lagging behind. So it’s just not obvious that a random person now must be more informed, in that sense, compared to a random person then.

    Even if they are, I’d still want to ask what this information is or how/whether some people are using it to do some kind of good. One thing that comes to mind is data about the weather, which of course has improved dramatically over the past couple of centuries. I can be very sure about how things are likely to be in the near future…. It’s not the most Earth-shaking kind of knowledge, but it’s nothing to sneeze at and we shouldn’t take it for granted. But again, does everybody have access to systems like that, do they know how to interpret it, can they do anything about it once they’ve got the information? Or am I in a fairly privileged situation?

  21. says

    No clue about Kurtz-whomever but all this carrying on about better annoys me. Better is SO relative… Let’s just say there is no absolute better. All this carrying on about living longer or being educated or whatever is just a blindered view from very limited perspectives. Get over it, enjoy what you can see and feel, love who you can and remember, you are just a tiny spot on the history of life, just like me.

  22. Jason Dick says

    I’m pretty sure that Kurzweil is correct on the general statement in this particular instance, even if his justification is crap.

    For one simple example, in the US, homicide rates (as well as most other violent crime rates) have been dropping pretty gradually for the past 35 years or so. This is likely a result of the reduction of environmental lead.

    For another, more complex example, consider killings by police in the US. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that police killings have suddenly increased in the last couple of years, but before 2013 nobody tried to carefully track how many people are killed by police in the US (prior to that the official statistics relied upon voluntary reports by police precincts and were woefully underreported). So in 2013 some people associated with BLM started informally cataloging the numbers, and a number of news sources started collecting and reporting police shooting statistics in 2015. Now we know that police in the US kill somebody about every 8 hours on average.

    I don’t think there’s any good reason to believe that there was a sudden uptick of police violence in 2013, but digital media allowed a traditionally-underrepresented group to stand up and be heard. I just hope that we’ll be able to kick the Republicans out of power and get some federal-level legislation that starts to reduce this problem.

  23. enkidu says

    It’s complicated. I think almost everyone commenting on this post, including the OP, and Kurtzweil too, are partly correct. I don’t know if the information we get is “better”, but we sure get a lot more of it. It seems my morning paper notices every time a dog gets run over in the US, and I don’t even live there. Of course this says a lot about, news sources and what gets picked up. A lot of people can be massacred in Africa somewhere and I won’t hear about it for weeks, if ever.

    It is pointless comparing the relative speed of the news of the fall of Jerusalem reaching Europe, which was an event of (they thought) cosmological significance, with current events. The equivalent today might be news of an Alien space ship passing Jupiter’s orbit.

    My point is things are getting better in some aspects and in some places and getting worse in others. Inequality is a good example, it is almost universally better than it was, say 150 years ago, but it is indisputably worse than it was 50 years ago. At least where I live, and probably where you live too. History has no direction. Civilizations and Nations rise and fall, genocides happen at random times, slavery could return, if indeed it ever went away.

  24. davidbrown says

    I read this long before the rise of the Intertubes, so if you ask for a citation, I’ll just wave my hands and say, “I haz red it sumwarez!”
    Supposedly, shortly after independence in 1947, the Indian government did a number of surveys to determine what was what in their new country. A significant percentage of people in the boonies hadn’t yet realized that the British had left. When the surveyors got really deep into the back of beyond – mountainous or jungle areas – they were asked, “Who are the British?”

  25. Ryan Cunningham says

    Well, I guess I have to repeat myself, so this time I’ll do so a little less politely.

    All these pat responses about how the big picture – the facts and the data – shows all the numbers trending better. Not one of you has mentioned climate change, or even acknowledged that I brought it up.

    Yes. There’s lots of counter intuitive notions out there. Our lizard brains get spun up about shocking events that are small scale. We extrapolate our worries. True enough. Congratulations on being a critical thinker.

    But our lizard brains also don’t spin up about a gradual global catastrophe. Our failure to grasp large abstractions cuts both ways. You’re equally ignoring data about one very important way things are demonstrably getting worse. As dismissive and smug as you are about all the worriers who ignore the numbers and missing the bigger picture, you’re doing the same god damn thing!

    Some trends are good. Others are bad. Imagine that. We don’t get to sit on our asses and coast to heaven – sorry – I mean the singularity.

  26. Derek Vandivere says

    Well, I guess I have to repeat myself, so this time I’ll do so a little less politely.

    You really didn’t have to repeat yourself.

    The point that true improvement (for some definition of improvement) has to be sustainable is both obvious and not really to the point of this discussion, if you ask me.

  27. cartomancer says


    Well, it was certainly an event that a fair number of people thought “might” have cosmological significance. It soon became obvious that it didn’t, and most of the responses given by the Oxford and Paris masters were along these lines. In fact the Christian world had already been through this situation centuries before, when the sack of Rome in 410 caused Jerome to go all panicky and weird and Augustine had to write City of God to calm him down.

    I think it is very valuable to compare historical equivalents with our modern perceptions. Especially when people with little understanding of the realities of the past try to co-opt it to make ill-considered and simplistic points about “now” versus “then”, as if all history were homogenous. The Middle Ages, thanks to our pervasive post-Renaissance dismissal of the period, is particularly vulnerable to such abuse.

  28. stripeycat says

    I think our definition of “better” does need to pay attention to how people feel. Even if you’re wealthier, safer and healthier, if you feel out-of-control you will be frightened. Finding out what causes the problematic feeling (and media and political scaremongering is too glib and simplistic an answer to be the whole solution) is a pre-requisite to solving it: you can’t just assume it’s irrational, or that because it’s irrational it will be easy to solve.

  29. Ryan Cunningham says

    Climate. Change. Will. Make. Life. Worse. For. Some. People.

    You cannot possibly be that oblivious to other people’s life experiences.

  30. Ryan Cunningham says

    chigau, I’ve probably been reading this blog as long as you have. Is there something I wrote that you disagree with?

  31. Ichthyic says


    because of the OP direction, everyone is mostly concentrating on issues of cultural evolution, but you’re right… cultural evolution will ALSO be heavily driven by the environment, and yes, neither Kurtzweil, nor really Pinker, nor actually anyone… has a clue what the real effects of that will be in the future, even knowing that it is ALREADY having an effect.

    it might seem like a “bark for trees” moment, but I think people are focusing on the things that history can actually inform us on directly.

    nothing like global climate change or the current mass extinction events have an real prior human history to inform us.