Elderblog Sutra: 9

This entry is part 9 of 13 in the series Elderblog Sutra

A friend recently remarked that I seem to have become concerned with my “legacy” lately (in both past and future senses of the terms). It struck me as an understandable gloss on some of my current interests, but fundamentally off somehow. To think of this blog as my “legacy” seems not just laughably self-important, but a category error of sorts. The word legacy seems like a non sequitur in the context of my interest in my personal history/baggage/madeline-indexed memories. So I decided to probe the idea a bit, starting from the dumbest, most literal-minded angle I could think of: raw time accounting.

Apparently, the number of people who have ever lived is about 108 billion (so about 7% of all who have ever lived are alive today). At an average lifespan of say 40, that’s about 4 trillion years of homo sapiens years in the species historical memory bank. If you live to an average lifespan of say 70 years, your personal story will, in raw data terms, constitute about 16 trillionths of all subjectively experienced/enacted history. If you prefer objective, chronological time comparisons, your 70 years is about 5 trillionths of all time, the universe being about 13.2 trillion years old.

These two measures are the personal temporal equivalents of the pale blue dot, but much worse.

If you were to visualize this, a 16 trillionth is like 1 pixel in a 250,000×250,000 image. At a high-end print resolution of 300 pixels per inch, this would be a dot on a square page 70 feet by 70 feet. This is the clear, simple, and wrong answer to the question “what is legacy?” — a pinprick on the carpet in a pretty large conference room. But it points the way to the right answer.

Come at it another way. A nice, fat, Big History book, covering all human history, is perhaps 100,000 words. To merit a one-sentence footnote of say 10 words, the raw significance of your appearance in the story would have to be about 1/10,000.

A ten-thousandth is about 6.25 million times bigger than a a 16-trillionth. So to enter the history books, your life will have to have had about 6 million times the significance of the average forgettable schmuck. Or put another way, you’d have to do something that 16 million schmucks imitate after you in the future. You’d be one pixel in a 100×100 image, created by compressing that 250,000×250,000 image (much of which is forgettable, gray background pixels) 6 million-fold. That’s much better.

This is the sort of interesting silliness you get to if start with Paul Graham’s definition of history: that it is merely all the data we have so far. In We Are All Architects Now, I flipped that definition and argued that history is a technology of forgetting (specifically a forgetting via compression), and a baseline criterion for having appeared in history at all is that you weren’t part of the systematic forgetting of boring rerun bits.

But a better definition is Kurt Vonnegut’s: “history is merely a list of surprises; it can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” In Blockchains Never Forget, I suggested combining the two definitions to arrive at a third which reconciles the past and future oriented senses of legacy: history is a list of everything that has been forgiven so far. The logic here is as follows:

  1. Almost everything that happens is an forgettable approximate rerun of something that has happened before; a weight update on a timeless pattern.
  2. What’s worth remembering is surprises, but they have to be surprises people care about enough that the consequences become self-perpetuating as new patterns. Consequential, infinite-game surprises.
  3. Consequential surprises likely have good and bad effects, indefinitely extended, and they are only fully integrated into the story of humanity when the latter are forgiven, and some descendant of the original pattern can be fruitfully repeated without incident. The result is harmony between legacy past and legacy future.

Combining that conceptual definition with the silly calculation in this post, we arrive at a quantitative-qualitative definition of Minimum Viable Legacy: you must do something surprising enough that you end up responsible for a ten-thousandth of everything that has been forgiven so far. One element on a stack-ranked list of forgiven surprises numbering 10,000. Preferably modeled as one verified transaction on a blockchain.

A way to interpret this is in DNA terms. You have a legacy if you’re 1/10,000 the history of mutations of the human memetic heritage. A surprise-forgiveness pair is a mutation-integration pair: a meme. The mutation is the transgression. The integration is the forgiveness.

By this definition, to produce a legacy is to produce a historic meme, one that doesn’t just spread today, but persists into tomorrow, next week, and next century, and at some point becomes part of how all humans think. This is a tall order (my best candidate is “mediocrity is good”).

So while this blogchain might occasionally come across as exploring a concern with legacy. It isn’t doing that. Even the Minimum Viable Legacy standard is far too high to unironically strive for. I’m perfectly fine being part of the vast, ongoing forgetting that carves out history.

I think this adds a useful clarity to elder-blogging (and any sort of elder-gaming) as a project. It’s not about legacy in any interesting sense for most of us, so the question then becomes: what is elder-gaming about, if it’s not about legacy?

Series Navigation<< Elderblog Sutra: 8Elderblog Sutra: 10 >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think it is about contributing in a loving way and being enthusiastic with what you have to work with.

  2. Your minimum viable legacy seems like a high bar that excludes a large class of “somewhat satisfying legacies”. (Mediocre legacies?) I’d hazard that the mean and median history book, especially if you include textbooks, have more than 100k words. And any 100k word history book is terribly focused. 100k words seems a small space to tell the whole history of humanity. If I were to write such a work I might try to avoid mentioning any individuals’ names at all and to just talk about religions, movements, countries. (I might not be able to avoid Jesus of Nazareth and Siddhartha Gautama and a few others).

    I think a composition of legacy from the opposite direction is more useful. How much is having 1000x-5000x the impact of the mean or median life worth to a person? (Maybe you get a paragraph in a very specific/focused 120k word pop history book).

    I think it is rational to desire a multiplier greater than 1x but less than MVL, as “rational” as many other human urges, at least.

  3. I agree with Vonnegut.
    I have a friend who is fond of saying. ‘Life is a series of mistaken assumptions.’ My (possibly mistaken assumption is that the best way of ensuring that you leave the future a positive legacy is not to leave it in debt.

  4. This is a pretty solid gloss of your early midlife crisis writing that defines making a dent in the universe informationally (unique keys irreversibly unlocking unique locks etc) but I wonder if it integrates your new multitemporality ideas that project a future without a single, meaningfully privileged history book.

    “I like being mediocre” can be sour grapes if it comes from deciding to start measuring oneself only against distributions where one is average. Maybe the losers have a point with their “everyone’s a precious snowflake” aspiration?

    Being mostly normal is great, but calling your intellectual contribution “not a legacy in any interesting sense” seems dismissive. You aren’t trying to copy others’ success and failing, or trying to be unique and failing. You are looking at normal things from an unusual perspective. It may or may not be truly unique, but it certainly causes irreversible deviations from what would have happened if you didn’t write.

    • For you if not “the universe”.

    • I agree! As someone hoping to make a dent (but still early in the process), I can attest that your writing has made an impact on my thinking (particularly around finite/infinite games, but in a lot of other domains as well)!

    • We have to think levels – taxonomic. In one context he is repeating the ongoing machinations of history. On a more granular level he is completely a creative original. At what level do you have to blast through to leave a dint in history? Self-prognosis is is the impact of the writing is nowhere close. I tend to think though there is no threshold. Whether or not your name makes some abstract history book is inconsequential to the people you may influence. Does the grand sum of all the people you inspire count – or is this only for individuals?

      • Plus that chestnut, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” Somebody must have said it first, but who cares? I imagine it applies especially to NDA consultant types.

  5. Aprés moi, le deluge?

    The old cemetery in Munich. It is much like a memorial of Munichs societty of the 19th century. Many of the people buried here gave name to streets and places; they founded hotels and hospitals, they were researchers and artists, like Fraunhofer and Klenze who are woven into the fabric of the city, if not the country. Most of them are now forgotten and just share the community of the more famous dead. They were probably not “surprising” enough to be remembered in person but I’m sure they will still last longer then most blockchains that have been created and which will be disposed when they are not needed any more, just like all other unused digital memory.

  6. An obvious bad incentive in legacy building is the incentive to do things. What about not doing things? A Pangloss world would give credit for good things done, and also give credit for bad things not done. Like, every day a leader doesn’t bring down the company with a bad call or even just waste her people’s time, is a success. But we go to war with the army we’ve got. I doubt this asymmetry is a splattable bug in the social program, but we’ll know it’s happened when Stanislav Petrov occupies a few more not forgotten pixels. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

  7. >By this definition, to produce a legacy is to produce a historic meme, one that doesn’t just spread today, but persists into tomorrow, next week, and next century, and at some point becomes part of how all humans think. This is a tall order (my best candidate is “mediocrity is good”).

    In light of this I would define a monument as an attempt at sheaving together a bunch of stuff to make it competitive with a single small granular meme. In a bad light this could be viewed as tryhard or low density, in a good light it could be viewed as an attempt to oppose memetic erosion and kitschification.

    I’ve always hated the idea of monuments but this makes me understand them more.