Rationalist Status: Wonky (if you are not interested in the rationalist community or mission, this one is not for you)

Epistemic Status: Continuing the discussion

Response to (read this first): The Craft Is Not The Community (Otium)

Sarah’s post, The Craft Is Not The Community, was explicitly intended to start a discussion. Her central thesis is that the community has proven itself bad at doing outward-facing projects, so members should do their community-focused projects together, and form a community that can fulfill its members emotional needs, but do their outward-facing and world-saving projects in the outside world and play by the outside world’s rules.

I want to focus elsewhere, at least for this post, and accuse Sarah of burying the lead. She does not actually bury it – it’s right up at the top of the post – but she views it as background rather than the thing to be focused on.

We need to focus on it.

Her leading paragraph is super important, and I strongly, violently agree with it:

“Company culture” is not, as I’ve learned, a list of slogans on a poster.  Culture consists of the empirical patterns of what’s rewarded and punished within the company. Do people win promotions and praise by hitting sales targets? By coming up with ideas? By playing nice?  These patterns reveal what the company actually values.

And, so, with community cultures.

Those within a culture quickly learn what that culture truly values, and adopt their behaviors to that culture. Culture is super important. If we are building a physical community, and it seems that we are, we should think carefully about what culture we want that community to have, and work to ensure that we get what we want. Keeping what makes us unique requires constant vigilance in the best of times. We are building the community in 2017, and doing so in Berkeley, California. The pressures are and will be unending. Constant vigilance doesn’t begin to cover it.

Paul Graham once wrote a (recommended) piece called Cities and Ambition. Cities, he observes, have a culture. The great ones push you to work harder, achieve great things. They have a message about what you should be and what is good in life. The city constantly whispers that message in your ear.

He claims that New York, where I live, has the message that you should be richer. Fair enough. He says Boston wants you to be smarter. Again, fair enough. He thinks Silicon Valley’s message is to have impact on the world, and loves it; I see the real message as more like ‘you should excite people (with your ability to excite people about your ability to excite people)’ or ‘you should spend every hour of your life to follow our script for how to do a great start-up’ or something like that, and can’t watch the obvious excellent show Silicon Valley because it causes emotional flashbacks. I can see both arguments. Things were likely more as he describes back in the day. We have different perspectives.

What does he say is the message of Berkeley, in a piece from back in May 2008?

I’d always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It’s probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it’s not humming with ambition.

Not heeding this warning, or perhaps because of it, the Rationalists have concentrated in Berkeley, California.

Sarah then reports, back in the present day:

It seems to me that the increasingly ill-named “Rationalist Community” in Berkeley has, in practice, a core value of “unconditional tolerance of weirdos.”  It is a haven for outcasts and a paradise for bohemians. It is a social community based on warm connections of mutual support and fun between people who don’t fit in with the broader society.

I think it’s good that such a haven exists. More than that, I want to live in one.

I think institutions like sharehouses and alloparenting and homeschooling are more practical and humane than typical American living arrangements; I want to raise children with far more freedom than traditional parenting allows; I believe in community support for the disabled and mentally ill and mutual aid for the destitute.  I think runaways and sexual minorities deserve a safe and welcoming place to go.  And the Berkeley community stands a reasonable chance of achieving those goals!  We’re far from perfect, and we obviously can’t extend to include everyone (esp. since the cost of living in the Bay is nontrivial), but I like our chances. I think we may actually, in the next ten years, succeed at building an accepting and nurturing community for our members.

We’ve built, over the years, a number of sharehouses, a serious plan for a baugruppe, preliminary plans for an unschooling center, and the beginnings of mutual aid organizations and dispute resolution mechanisms.  We’re actually doing this.  It takes time, but there’s visible progress on the ground.

I live on a street with my friends as neighbors. Hardly anybody in my generation gets to say that.

What we’re not doing well at, as a community, is external-facing projects.

And I think it’s time to take a hard look at that, without blame or judgment.

Sarah reports that a bunch of people settled in Berkeley, decided they should live better, and have done a bunch of things to help themselves live better but failed at attempts to do more ambitious outward facing things.

In the comments, blacktrance responds:

There are different kinds of community-building, and some of them have more aspects of external projects. At one end of the spectrum, people who happen to live in the same town or neighborhood form a natural community that serves their needs and desires. At the other end, there are clubs formed around specific activities. The “local community”-type doesn’t have many standards beyond living in the area, but the club has them even if they’re not explicit (“If you don’t like reading, don’t join our book club”), and they may even be standards for excellence (“Our chess club is for people with an Elo above X”). A community between the two has to reconcile fulfilling the needs of its existing members with continuing to maintain the goal of being whatever kind of community it is.

I see the rationalist community as somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. It’s not formally about anything like a book or chess club, and there aren’t any necessary or sufficient criteria for belonging, but central nodes in the thingspace cluster include at least general agreement with the Sequences (and other important LW posts), as well as possessing and using a certain conceptual toolbox. It’s also a community that’s tolerant of weird people and contains many of them, but I think to a large degree that’s a consequence of the above, not something independent. If you think about what you really want, take ideas seriously, know and viscerally understand common failure modes, etc, being weird is a likely consequence. And tolerance for weird people isn’t far behind, both because you want to be tolerated and to avoid unknown blind spots (several people willing to be unconventional and compare notes will find more opportunities than one would find alone).
Being that kind of community is a goal – it’s not world-saving, but nor is it purely internally-facing, because it’s not just about serving the needs and desires of community members qua community members.

Sarah then responds, in a sentence that should totally freak you out:

I think that may have been true in 2012 or so, but I don’t think it’s true now.

No one could have predicted this. No one had any idea, as it was happening, that the choice of Berkeley might have been a mistake and not only because of the stratospheric rents.

Many of our best and brightest leave, hollowing out and devastating their local communities, to move to Berkeley, to join what they think of as The Rationalist Community. They feel comfortable ripping apart those other communities because they think the point of those communities was to feed their best people to the ‘real’ community in Berkeley; when not being careful they use the term ‘rationalist community’ interchangeably with ‘rationalists living in Berkeley’. Once there, they have an increasingly good time and develop new ways to have a increasingly good time, forming a real community. But that ‘rationalist community’ is ‘increasingly ill-named.’ Its central cultural theme is not rationality, or becoming stronger, or saving the world; it is, Sarah reports, an unconditional tolerance for weirdos, a paradise for Bohemians, a place built on warm connections of mutual support for those who don’t fit into broader society.

The rationalists took on Berkeley, and Berkeley won.

Berkeley doesn’t work for us. We work for Berkeley.

Huge, if true.

…And That’s Terrible?


This is bad.

This is really bad.

This is unbelievably, world-doomingly bad. It means we’ve lost the mission.

This is taking many of the people most capable of saving the world, and putting them in a culture focused instead on better living. A culture that, rather than enforcing the mission, is encouraging them to lose the mission. A culture that is such a failure in its outward-facing goals that one of its best and brightest is now suggesting that anyone who wants to impact the outside world should do so without the community’s help.

Raemon777 (Raymond Arnold) puts it this way in the comments:

As Quixote said, the reason I’m excited about *this* community is that it feels like it can in fact play a role in having a strong impact in the world. I’m driving across the country to be there right now because despite all the drama I hear about, the fact remains that whenever I visit the Bay there’s a palpable buzz in the air that “of *course* saving the world is the sort of thing you might do, or which you might try to optimize your socially-rewarding-stuff such that it ends up benefiting the world to some degree. This Buzz was what changed my life, and I think having it matters a lot.

I do think this requires more self-awareness, and requires people to be able to reasonably say “I’m working on this thing that is totally not world saving but will make our home nicer” and not receive subtle vibes that they’re doing the wrong thing.

This is super important. It is arguable whether we truly need a social life and a warm loving community in order to save the world, but most of us are not going to give up such things to go off on a mission. Unhappiness and burning out are not the way, and the fact that a community of like-minded people is being constructed that will give us sane ways to save on housing costs and educate our children, while putting lots of great minds where they can collaborate with each other, is an amazing and wonderful thing.

If we keep the mission.

If we keep the buzz that says, of *course* saving the world is not only the sort of thing you might do, it is the best thing to do. Another comment mentioned a great old post about Mythic Values versus Folk Values. We don’t need everyone to have the Mythic Rationalist Values, but we do need everyone to at least have the Folk Rationalist Values. We do need to require a basic affinity for The Sequences, and at least a good and expanding chunk of our toolbox of thinking skills, where an active quest to acquire said affinity and toolbox fully counts in your first year or two.

A community needs to have standards. A rationalist community needs to have rationalist standards. Otherwise we are something else, and our well-kept gardens die by pacifism and hopefully great parties.

Not everyone in our community can or should be out saving the world, but they should aspire to that, to helping with the mission, even as they focus on themselves and their own lives. That should be the thing of highest honor. We need to keep The Buzz. We need to remember what we are about. We need the mission.

That does not mean we should not be welcoming of weirdos; weirdos are awesome. Warm connections and mutual support are underrated and undersupplied everywhere. We absolutely should continue to welcome outcasts, sexual minorities and runaways, if they are otherwise part of our culture.

The problem is that if you are not careful, your culture becomes about welcoming such people. Ideally, the culture isn’t about welcoming such people, you just do it. It’s simple. You don’t have to organize your life around being a kind and decent human being you can just be a decent human being. Then get on with everything else.

Otherwise, you lose the mission, and all is lost.

The point of bringing all these amazing people together is so those people can make each other stronger. It’s so those people can work together, think together. It’s so those people can form a culture that makes them their best selves.

It’s so that the projects we start can use the rationalist culture we have created, as their company cultures. It’s so that when the outside world wants to capture our mission, and tells us that if we just stopped worrying so much about being technically accurate, we could do so much more, and start us down the standard incentive gradients that are a lot of why (to a first approximation) no one is able to accomplish anything, we can stand up and say no.

That does not mean that every project that is outward facing, or that tries to impact the world, needs to be purely internal. We are not legion, nor are we the only ones who can do anything. The skills and talents and connections and funds often lie elsewhere. There are even places that play by rules similar to our own; I happen to currently work at one of them.

In Conclusion

There is a ton more to unpack, and a lot more important claims that I disagree with, and a lot more detail to explore, but I want to get at least this out there now. I hope to lay out more posts that go into other details.

I want to reiterate that community and happiness are good things. I applaud the construction of a real community, even as I wince at the chosen location and the implementation details. I am glad people have found happiness.

Our short-term and even medium-term happiness is not enough. We have our values. We have our culture. We have a mission.

If Sarah is to believed (others who live in the area can speak to whether her observations are correct better than I can) then the community’s basic rationalist standards have degraded, and its priorities and cultural heart are starting to lie elsewhere. The community being built is rapidly ceasing to be all that rationalist, and is no longer conducive (and may be subtly but actively hostile) to the missions of saving and improving the world.

Its members might save or improve the world anyway, and I would still have high hopes for that including for MIRI and CFAR, but that would be in spite of the (local physical) community rather than because of it, if the community is discouraging them from doing so and they need to do all their work elsewhere with other people. Those who keep the mission would then depart, leaving those that remain all the more adrift.

I hope she is wrong, but I fear she is right. If she is right, sounding the alarm now has been a hugely valuable service, giving us a chance to save what is valuable.

If this is indeed what is happening, and I see reasonably strong evidence that it is, then we need to course correct before it is not too late. That starts with a commitment to honor our rationalist values and virtues, and to holding each other to high standards.

If it is already too late, the mission, and those who have kept it, need to go on elsewhere.








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