Thought experiment #1 – the iPhone experiment

I love thought experiments so much that I am just now making this a blog series. One of my favorites is the so-called iPhone experiment, which was introduced to me by one of the best things the internet has ever given to humanity – the Wait But Why blog.  Its author, Tim Urban, summarizes the instructions as follows:

Imagine this: A powerfully magical, but very dickish witch decides to cast a spell on all of humanity. With a single swoop of her wand, she makes all man-made objects vanish and restores the Earth to its pre-human, 200,000 BC state. What’s left is 7.3 billion naked humans, standing on grassy plains, in forests, in swamps, on tundra, and in deserts in the exact spots where their cities and villages were just a second ago.

The humans themselves are unchanged—each person knows everything they know right now. The only other thing is that in each of their hands is a piece of paper with a note in their language that says, “I’ve cast a spell on all of humanity because why not. Here’s how it works: everything will remain as is until humanity manages to create a fully-featured and perfectly functional iPhone 6S. As soon as that happens, the spell will be reversed and all man-made objects will instantly reappear.” One minute later, the notes all vanish.

So the question is, how would this play out, and what’s your estimate for how long it would take for humanity to create the iPhone and reverse the spell?

The only clarification here is that the iPhone created has to be good enough to pass as a new iPhone 6S sold in an Apple Store today. So humans submit the iPhone to the witch and she time travels back to 2015, right before she cast the spell. She takes it into an Apple Store and says she found this on the table out of its box—the Apple employees inspect it and test it out, and if they decide it’s fully functional and good as new, then the spell is reversed. Anything less than that—if for any reason the Apple employees don’t feel the phone is ready to sell as new, the spell remains.

The way your thinking quickly takes you to something you did not expect at all when you finished reading the instructions is extraordinary. What kind of short-term problems would the humanity face? How many of us would survive the first couple days? What would you do first? I will not try to answer all these questions, since my chances to sum it up better than Tim are minimal.

Tim’s final guess was 300 years. Since I first read the blog post about a year ago, I’ve thought about my best answer for way more time than I am proud of, but I think I finally settled on my own best guess. And it is: never.

Tim’s elaboration somewhat allows for this option in one of its last paragraphs, but I think he implicitly assigns too little probability to it. Just imagine, in the light of today’s inequalities in the world, how many people would prefer if we were all suddenly set back to square one. I think a completely new world order would be set, and by the time we get anywhere close to having a sustainable society, this whole dickish-witch-and-her-iPhone situation would be a long-forgotten story.

The fact that I actually think so is somewhat alarming to me. Rephrasing my final answer, I think humanity as a whole would not be able to work together to get back to the state we have now, because too many people would choose not to cooperate. That’s why I so strongly feel that there currently is so much space for improvement. We need to make significant amounts of people way happier than they are now.

This brings me to another thought experiment which I call the Jubilee experiment. It is based on the biblical Jubilee year and it asks what would happen if the wealth of all people would be periodically reset to perfect equality after a certain amount of years. I will try to sum up my thoughts on this in a future post.

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