Humans need places

by Benquo3 min read19th Apr 20186 comments


Personal Blog

If, when you try to improve the world, you think about people but not about communities, you will tend to favor unsustainable net outflows of resources from your community. I wrote about this in Why I am not a Quaker. Effective Altruist (EA) and Rationalist communities such as the one in the San Francisco Bay Area suffer from this problem. Occasionally individuals - more often than not women, more often than not uncompensated and publicly unacknowledged - do something constructive about this problem. I’m now aware of one such effort where the person involved (Sarah Spikes) is publicly willing to accept support: The Berkeley REACH. The fundraiser page is here.

In case it doesn’t go without saying, the opinions in this post are mine and not necessarily hers.

The basic problem The Berkeley REACH is meant to solve is that people who are in community need a place to be together. If EA or Rationality were a religion, there would be a church or temple of some kind to go to. If it were a school or academic discipline, there would usually be a campus. If a town, perhaps a library or Y. In past years the Center For Applied Rationality's office informally served this purpose, but CFAR is increasingly focusing its efforts in ways that seem right and proper but leave the community center role unfilled. In areas with a lower cost of housing, informal communities may have some slack in the form of surplus personal living space; not so in the SF Bay Area.

When I first heard about The Berkeley REACH, I was under the impression that it was going to receive a CEA community-building grant. It was apparently rejected on the basis of insufficient impact. When an impact narrative is required in advance for resource usage, this creates two problems.

First, anyone asking people to support a project that is speculative at all is forced to choose between deliberately selling a narrative they know will not be implemented in order to build momentum, and sticking to a bad plan on purpose in order to keep their word.

Second, illegibly prosocial activities - ones the predominant metrics are not well-suited to counting - will not be supported. This is imposes an unfair burden on the people well-suited to such work, which ultimately dooms us to a world in which that work gets done poorly or not at all.

But that only happens if we don’t do anything about the problem. And Sarah has taken the initiative to make it easy to do something. She has done the work, and we can pay her for it.

Not every organization has to do every thing. A balanced portfolio of strategies includes both purpose-built narrow organizations that can demand performance on explicit metrics, and more inclusive communities that need only have standards sufficient to avoid preventing work from happening. If CEA wishes to specialize in the former, then it is on others to step up and support the latter.

I am not arguing that it would merely be a nice thing for Bay Arean EAs and Rationalists to support projects like this; I am arguing that if you have supported recruiting more people into your community, it is morally obligatory to offer a corresponding level of support for taking care of them once you are in community with them. If you can’t afford to help take care of people, you can’t afford to recruit them.

If you don’t have enough for yourself, take care of that first. But if you have more than enough to take care of your private needs, and you are thinking of allocating your surplus to some combination of (a) people far away in space or time, and (b) recruiting others to do the same, I implore you, please first assess - even approximately - the correct share of resources devoted to direct impact, recruiting more people into your community, and taking care of the community’s needs, and give accordingly.

What is the correct level of funding for a project like this? Sarah advanced the money for the initial months of The Berkeley REACH, in the hope that funding would be forthcoming. This suggests that she is entitled to something like a return on investment, including the financial risk she took on and the time she put in. She has a track record now, of taking initiative to do things to take care of the community. She’s interested in doing so, and clearly competent to pull off projects. Her minimum Patreon funding target is a level that would simply pay for the space. But I don’t think the project is adequately funded until it pays Sarah enough that she can easily afford to do more work like this.

The Berkeley EA / Rationalist community stands between two alternatives:

  1. Pull people in, use them up, and burn them out.
  2. Building the local infrastructure to support its global ambitions, enabling sustainable commitments that replenish and improve the capacity of the people making them.

If I see more ways to help move towards the second option, I'll let you know.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.
- Deuteronomy 30:19

Related: Melting Gold, Slack, The Craft Is Not The Community, Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be), Sabbath hard and go home


6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:55 AM
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I want to give a shout-out to the awesome Eric Rogstad, Elizabeth Garrett and (more recently) Claire Wang who have also created a large amount of slack in the Berkeley community by (amongst other things) maintaining the Event Horizon Rationalist House, where people are able to visit and stay. Sarah is making to steps to make more public the space previously maintained by Eric+Elizabeth+Claire, where I’ve been able to work on LW and put on community events.

Through this they’ve been a big help in making LW2 happen.

I was in the middle of writing a similar essay, approaching the issue from a somewhat different perspective. But I basically endorse everything Ben said here.

In the context of this post, most of what I'd add I already wrote in Melting Gold.

Looking forward to seeing your perspective :) Added a link to Melting Gold.

What's the difference between the 'Bay Area' and 'Berkeley' communities. My impression is something like the Bay Area is big enough there are distinct but overlapping social/geographic clusters, e.g., in Berkeley and the South Bay, and the superset of these is the 'Bay Area community'.

I think there are meaningful differences between Berkeley, San Francisco, and South Bay. I think the Berkeley REACH center is very specifically going to be most relevant to people living in Berkeley (or who expect to visit, since it provides a low-cost rooms to crash in).

Part of the reason it is good is that it marks a return to something like an actual-factual-community where a critical mass of people are in walking distance of the community center, which is valuable for a) vastly reducing cost to wander by and see who's hanging out, b) can actually be useful for emergencies. (See Sabbath Hard and Go Home for some context there)

I agree that community space is something very important.

When it comes to running events having a good space in which to run the events is very valuable. Even through I live in Berlin with much lower costs of space, how to get a good space to run an event has often be a constraining factor.

When it comes to recruiting new people, the best way to get new people into a community is to make the community be valuable. Providing value is the most sustainable way to build a community.

When it comes to using existing models, I think Yoga ashrams are a one that might be better than a church or a temple. Ashrams are places where people live in a similar way to how Event horizon is a place where people live.

Given the frequency of people in this community using reference class forecasting, I think it's even more important to make this attempt succeed because other people might be discouraged with the project of building larger spaces.