Two years ago today, I wrote about having been in hardcore lockdown for an entire year. At the time, I wrote that vaccination seemed like an impossible dream. Now, it's lockdown that feels like a fever dream. I still occasionally turn to a friend and say "Can you fucking believe that that happened?". Much of the content that was produced during the pandemic is still online — all the Zoom collaborations and interviews, all the Discord messages and AO3 comments and authors' notes making reference to being in lockdown — and it's utterly bizarre that you can just go and watch it now, like peeking into an alternate reality.

I clearly remember (confirmed by things I wrote at the time) that even as late as early 2021, I could go for an hour-long walk in my neighborhood after dark and not see a single other person. I remember purposely walking along the busier streets just so I could see headlights and know there was someone behind them, and I remember pacing in front of the high school for fifteen minutes and not seeing a single person up and down that entire four block stretch, save maybe one bicyclist many blocks away from me. Now when I walk the exact same streets at the same time of year and time of night, I can see at least one person at any given time, and sometimes a dozen at a time on the busier streets.

Metaphorically, that leads me to this: Something that I think many people don't know and the rest of us have all but forgotten is that the Berkeley rationalist community died, and stayed dead for more than a year. Three quarters of the pre-pandemic group houses closed in 2020 and never reopened. REACH stopped existing. My group house, which has eight rooms and had far more demand than supply both pre- and post-pandemic, had only three residents for a time, and we considered throwing in the towel more than once. 

We (well, mostly the LessWrong team) decided to stick it out for the sake of rebuilding the community, even though at the time, there was really no certainty that the community would recohere. Everyone who worked at MIRI had left Berkeley, CFAR had all but stopped existing, and lots of individuals had decided to move back home or to the middle of nowhere or wherever took their fancy. Of the hundreds of rationalists who lived in Berkeley before the pandemic, probably less than 25% stayed around during lockdown.

So, the Berkeley rationalist community died, and the rationalist community that exists in Berkeley now is something that was deliberately built anew from its ashes. The current community was built around an almost entirely different set of locations, institutions, and central figures than the old community was. The older, founding members of the community have taken on (even more of) a mythical quality. Sometimes when I'm around the newer generation, the way I feel inside is "Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it."

It's so strange how quickly, and seemingly entirely, we've forgotten how empty the streets were. Someone close to me noted that the pandemic barely shows up in any fiction, and in the months that I've been paying attention to that, it seems right: most stories gloss over the pandemic, at most mentioning it obliquely as a fact of life or to make a political statement, but often just pretending it didn't happen. It makes sense, in a way; I for one have alarmingly few memories of that year, and wished to put it behind me as soon as I could. But the world we're living in is a product of the pandemic — not just at a technological and geopolitical level, but in all of our relationships with one another, everything about our social milieu and, at least in my case, about ourselves.

I think it's hard to hold two realities in your head. It's hard to walk down the street in front of the high school, bustling with students on their way home from sports, young adults out to see their friends, parents doing grocery shopping, people coming home from work, and old people out for a walk, and remember that that street used to be completely empty. It feels fake, like I must surely be misremembering. It's like how on days when you're sick or depressed, you think that life is always like this, and you can't remember what it's like to feel happy or healthy, and then a week later when you're happy and healthy, it feels like you've always been that way. Maybe there's a rationality lesson there.

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Makes me more understand the memory-holing that goes on after horrible disasters, especially if oneself is one of the perpetrators.

It's like how on days when you're sick or depressed, you think that life is always like this, and you can't remember what it's like to feel happy or healthy, and then a week later when you're happy and healthy, it feels like you've always been that way.

Can confirm. I call it the "Valley of Fog" effect - either you're in the valley (sickness, pandemic) among the sharp rocks and rough terrain and you can't see the sun (happiness, wellness, bustling streets), or you're above the valley and can't see the sharp rocks through all the fog. You remember that things used to be bad but you forget the feelings attached to it.

Even more sobering for me is how a lot of people in my circle of friends had pretty strong opinions on various issues at the height of the pandemic, from masks and lockdowns over vaccines to the origins of the virus and so on, but today, when I (gently) probe them on how those views have held up, what caused them to change their opinion on, say, whether closing down schools and making young children wear masks was really such a good idea, they act like they have always believed what's common sense now.

And these aren't people who generally 'go with the flow' of public opinion, they usually have a model of how their opinions evolve over time. But with this a lot of people don't seem to be willing to acknowledge to themselves what kinds of positions they argued even two years ago.

Conversely, I’ve noticed some people who had the correct opinions before, but have since changed their opinions to conform with what is now (erroneously) seen as “common sense”.

Oh, for sure. My point is more that the incredibly strong social pressure that characterized the dialogue around all questions concerning COVID completely overrode individual reflective capacity to the point where people don't even have a self-image of how their positions shifted over time and based on what new information/circumstances.

Can you provide an example (without naming people)?

Sure—what I had in mind was mostly stuff like “lockdowns / mask mandates / etc. are good/necessary” -> “lockdowns / mask mandates / etc. are bad/harmful/etc.”. People have drawn entirely the wrong conclusions about these things from observations of the last two years. (Robyn Dawes, in Rational Choice in an Uncertain World, writes about this mistake, wherein people learn from experience when they really shouldn’t; this seems like a good real-life example.)

Was it worth it? 

What, lockdown? Absolutely not. Sticking around in Berkeley? I don't know, probably