Details of Taskforces; or, Cooperate Now

by paulfchristiano 7 min read5th Apr 201116 comments

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Recently I've spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly I should be doing with my life. I'm lucky enough to be in an environment where I can occasionally have productive conversations about the question with smart peers, but I suspect I would think much faster if I spent more of my time with a community grappling with the same issues. Moreover, I expect I could be more productive if I spent time with others trying to get similar things done, not to mention the benefits of explicit collaboration.

I would like to organize a nonstandard sort of meetup: regular gatherings with people who are dealing with the question "How do I do the most good in the world?" focused explicitly on answering the question and acting on the answer. If I could find a group with which I am socially compatible, I might spend a large part of my time working with them. I am going to use the term "taskforce" because I don't know of a better one. It is vaguely related to but quite different from the potential taskforces Eliezer discusses.

Starting such a taskforce requires making many decisions.

Size:

I believe that even two people who think through issues together and hold each other accountable are significantly more effective than two people working independently. At the other limit, eventually the addition of individuals doesn't increase the effectiveness of the group and increases coordination costs. Based on a purely intuitive feeling for group dynamics, I would feel most comfortable with a group of 5-6 until I knew of a better scheme for productively organizing large groups of rationalists (at which point I would want to grow as large as that scheme could support). I suspect in practice there will be huge constraints based on interest and commitment; I don't think this is a terminal problem, because there are probably significant gains even for 2-4 people, and I don't think its a permanent one, because I am optimistic about our ability as a community to grow rapidly.

Frequency:

Where I am right now in life, I believe that thinking about this question and gathering relevant evidence is the most important thing for me to be doing. I would be comfortable spending several hours several times a week working with a group I got along with. Due to scheduling issues and interest limitations, I think this means that I would like to invest as much time as schedules and interests allow. I think the best plan is to allow and expect self-modification: make the choice of time-commitment an explicit decision controlled by the group. Meeting once a week seems like a fair default which can be supported by most schedules.

Concreteness:

There are three levels of concreteness I can imagine for the initial goals of a taskforce:

  • The taskforce is created with a particular project or a small collection of possible projects in mind. Although the possibility of abandoning a project is available (like all other changes), having a strong concrete focus may help a great deal with maintaining initial enthusiasm, attracting people, and fostering a sense of having a real effect on the world rather than empty theorizing. The risk is that, while I suspect many of us have many good ideas, deciding what projects are best is really an important part of why I care about interacting with other people. Just starting something may be the quickest way to get a sense of what is most important, but it may also slow progress down significantly.
  • The taskforce is created with the goal of converging to a practical project quickly. The discussion is of the form "How should we be doing the most good right now: what project are we equipped to solve given our current resources?" While not quite as focused as the first possibility, it does at least keep the conversation grounded.
  • The taskforce is created with the most open-ended possible goal. Helping its members decide how to spend their time in the coming years is just as important as coming up with a project to work on next week. A particular project is adopted only if the value of that project exceeds the value of further deliberation, or if working on a project is a good way to gather evidence or develop important skills.

I am inclined towards the most abstract level if it is possible to get enough support, since it is always capable of descending to either of the others. I think the most important question is how much confidence you have in a group of rationalists to understand the effectiveness of their own collective behavior and modify appropriately. I have a great deal, especially when the same group meets repeatedly and individuals have time to think carefully in between meetings.

Metaness:

A group may spend a long time discussing efficient structures for organizing, communicating, gathering information, making decisions, etc. Alternatively, a group may avoid these issues in favor of actually doing things--even if by doing things we only mean discussing the issues the group was created to discuss. Most groups I have been a part of have very much tried to do things instead of refining their own processes.

My best plan is to begin by working on non-meta issues. However, the ability of groups of rationalists to efficiently deliberate is an important one to develop, so it is worth paying a lot of attention to anything that reduces effectiveness. In particular, I would support very long digressions to deal with very minor problems as long as they are actually problems. Our experiences can be shared, any question answered definitively remains answered definitively, and any evidence gathered is there for anyone else who wants to see it. A procedural digression should end when it is no longer the best use of time--not because of a desire to keep getting things done for the sake of getting things done. Improving our rationality as individuals should be treated similarly; I am no longer interested in setting out to improve my rationality for the sake of becoming more rational, but I am interested in looking very carefully for failures of rationality that actually impact my effectiveness.

I can see how this approach might be dangerous; but it has the great advantage of being able to rescue itself from failure, by correctly noticing that entertaining procedural digressions is counter-productive. In some sense this is universally true: a system which does not limit self-examination can at least in principle recover from arbitrary failures. Moreover, it offers the prospect of refining the rationality of the group, which in turn improves the group's ability to select and implement efficient structures, which closes a feedback loop whose limit may be an unusually effective group.

Homogeneity:

A homogeneous taskforce is composed of members who face similar questions in their own lives, and who are more likely to agree about which issues require discussion and which projects they could work profitably on. An inhomogeneous taskforce is composed of members with a greater variety of perspectives, who are more likely to be able have complementary information and to avoid failures. In general, I believe that working for the common good involves enough questions of general importance (ie, of importance to people in very different positions) that the benefits of inhomogeneity seem greater than the costs. 

In practice, this issue is probably forced for now. Whoever is interested enough to participate will participate (and should be encouraged to participate), until there is enough interest that groups can form selectively.

Atmosphere:

In principle the atmosphere of a community is difficult to control. But the content of discussion and structure of expectations prior to the first meeting have a significant effect on the atmosphere. Intuitively, I expect there is a significant risk of a group falling apart immediately for a variety of reasons: social incompatibility, apparent uselessness, inability to maintain initial enthusiasm based on unrealistic expectations, etc. Forcing even a tiny commmunity into existence is hard (though I suspect not impossible).

I think the most important part of the atmosphere of a community is its support for criticism, and willingness to submit beliefs to criticism. There is a sense (articulated by Orson Scott Card somewhere at some point) that you maintain status by never showing your full hand; by never admitting "That's it. That's all I have. Now you can help me decide whether I am right or wrong." This attitude is very dangerous coupled with normal status-seeking, because its not clear to me that it is possible to recover from it. I don't believe that having rational members is enough to avoid this failure.

I don't have any other observations, except that factors controlling atmosphere should be noted when trying to understand the effectiveness of particular efforts to start communities of any sort, even though such factors are difficult to measure or describe.

Finding People:

The internet is a good place to find people, but there is only a weak sense of personal responsibility throughout much of it, and committing to dealing with people you don't know well is hard/unwise. The real world is a much harder place to find people, but conversations in person quickly establish a sense of personal responsibility and can be used to easily estimate social compatibility. Most people are strangers, and the set of people who could possibly be convinced to work with a taskforce is extremely sparse. On the other hand, your chances of convincing an acquaintance to engage in an involved project with you seem to be way higher.

My hope is that LW is large enough, and unusual enough, that it may be possible to start something just by exchanging cheap talk here. At least, I think this is possible and therefore worth acting on, since alternative states of the world will require more time to get something like this rolling. Another approach is to use the internet to orchestrate low-key meetings, and then bootstrap up from modest personal engagement to something more involved. Another is to try and use the internet to develop a community which can better support/encourage the desired behavior. Of course there are approaches that don't go through the internet, but those approaches will be much more difficult and I would like to explore easy possibilities first.

Recovery from Failure:

I can basically guarantee that if anything comes of my desire, it will include at least one failure. The real cost of failure is extremely small. My fear, based on experience, is that every time an effort at social organization fails it significantly decreases enthusiasm for similar efforts in the future. My only response to this fear is: don't be too optimistic, and don't be too pessimistic. Don't stake too much of your hope on the next try, but don't assume the next try will fail just because the last one did. In short: be rational.


Conclusion:

There are more logistical issues, many reasons a taskforce might fail, and many reasons it might not be worth the effort. But I believe I can do much more good in the future than I have done in the past, and that part of that will involve more effectively exploiting the fact that I am not alone as a rationalist. Even if the only conclusion of a taskforce is to disband itself, I would like to give it a shot.

As groups succeed or fail, different answers to these questions can be tested. My initial impulse in favor of starting abstractly and self-modifying towards concreteness can be replaced by emulating the success of other groups. Of course, this is an optimistic vision: for now, I am focused on getting one group to work once.

I welcome thoughts on other high-level issues, criticism of my beliefs,  or (optimistically) discussions/prioritization of particular logistical issues. But right now I would mostly like to gauge interest. What arguments could convince you that such a taskforce would be useful / what uncertainties would have to be resolved? What arguments could convince you to participate? Under what conditions would you be likely to participate? Where do you live?

I am in Cambridge, am willing to travel anywhere in the Boston area, need no additional arguments to convince me that such a taskforce would be useful, and would participate in any group I thought had a reasonable chance of moderate success.

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