Can you eliminate memetic scarcity, instead of fighting?

by Raemon 3 min read25th Nov 201911 comments


tl;dr:  If you notice yourself fighting over how to tradeoff between two principles, check if you can just sidestep the problem by giving everyone tons of whatever is important to them (sometimes in a different form than they originally wanted).

Not a new concept, but easy to forget in the heat of the moment. It may be useful for people to have "easily in reach" in their toolkit for coordinating on culture.


The Parable of the Roommates

I once had a disagreement with a housemate about where to store a water-heater on the kitchen counter. The object was useful to me. It wasn't useful to them, and they preferred free-countertop space. The water-heater wasn't useful to them in part because other roommates didn't remember to refill it with water. 

There was much arguing about the best use of the counter, and frustration with people who didn't refill water heaters.

At some point, we realized that the underlying issue was there wasn't enough free counterspace. Moreover, the counter had a bunch of crap on it that no one was using. We got rid of unused stuff, and then we had a gloriously vacant kitchen-counter. (Meanwhile, an option we've considered for the water-heater is to replace it with a device directly connected to the sink that always maintains boiling water, that nobody ever has to remember to refill)

Thus, an important life-lesson: Instead of solving gnarly disagreements with politics, check if you can dissolve them with abundance. This is a quite valuable lesson. But I'm mostly here to talk about a particular less-obvious application:

Memetic abundance.


Philosophical Disagreements

Oftentimes, I find myself disagreeing with others about how to run an event, or what norms to apply to a community, or what the spirit of a particular organization should be. It feels like a lot's at stake, like we're caught between a Rock and Hard Place. The other person feels like they're Destroying the Thing I care about, and I look that way to them.

Sometimes, this is because of actual irreconcilable differences. 

Sometimes, this is because we don't understand each other's positions, and once we successfully explain things to each other, we both go "Ah, obviously you need both A and B."

But sometimes, A and B are both important, but we disagree on their relative importance due to deep frame differences that are hard to immediately resolve. Or, A seems worrisome because it harms B. But if you had enough B, A would be fine. 

Meanwhile, resources seem precious: It's so hard to get people to agree to do anything at all; stag hunting requires a bunch of coordination; there's only so much time and mindshare to go around; there are only so many events to go to; only so much capacity to found organizations. 

With all of that...'s easy to operate in scarcity mindset. 

When resources are scarce, every scrap of resource is precious and must be defended. This applies to physical scarcity (lack of food, safety, sleep) as well as memetic scarcity (where two ideas seem to be in conflict, and you're worried that one cause is distracting people from another).

But, sometimes it is actually possible to just eliminate scarcity, rather than fight over the scraps. Raise more money. Implement both policies. Found multiple organizations and get some healthy competition going on. Get people to take two different concepts seriously at the same time. The best way to get what you want you want might not be to deny others what they want, but to give them so much of it that they're no longer worried about the Rock (and thus, don't feel the need to fight you over your attempts to spend resources avoiding The Hard Place)

Not always. But sometimes.


Trust and Costly Signals

This may involve a lot of effort. Coordinating around it also requires trust, which may require costly signals of commitment. 

If you and I are arguing over whether to fund ProjectA or CharityB, and we only have enough money to fund one... and I say to you "Let's fund ProjectA, and then we'll raise more money to also fund CharityB", you're right to be suspicious. I may never get around helping you fundraise for CharityB, or that I'll only put in a token effort and CharityB will go bankrupt.

It's basically correct of you to not trust me, until I've given you a credible signal that I'm seriously going to help with CharityB.

It's a lot of hard work to found multiple organizations, or get a community to coordinate on multiple norms. There's a reason scarcity-mindset is common. Scarcity is real. But... in finance as well as memetics... 

Scarcity-mindset sucks.

It's cognitively taxing to be poor – having to check, with each transaction, "can I afford this?" – and that's part of what causes poverty-traps in the first place. The way out often involves longterm investments that take awhile to bear fruit, sometimes don't succeed, and are hard work in the meantime. 

Transferring the metaphor: the act of constantly having to argue over whether Norm A and Norm B are more urgent may add up to a lot of time and effort. And as long as there are people who think Norm A and Norm B are important-and-at-odds, the cost will be paid continuously. So, if you can figure out a way to address the underlying needs that Norm A and B are respectively getting at, and actually fully solve the problems, it may be worthwhile even if it's more initial effort.


Epistemic Status: Untested

Does this work? Depends on the specifics of Norm A and Norm B, or whatever you're arguing over. 

I'm writing this post, in part, because to actually test if this works, I think it helps to have people on the same page about the overall strategy. 

I've seen it work at least sometimes in collaborative art projects, where I had one creative vision and my partners or parts of the audience had another creative vision or desire, and we succeeded, not by compromising, but by doubling down on the important bits of both visions, simultaneously.

My hope is that the principle does work, and that if one successfully did this multiple times, and build social-systems that reliably eliminate scarcity in this way...

...then eventually, maybe, you can have a system people actually have faith in, where they feel comfortable shifting their efforts from "argue about the correct next step" to "work on longterm solutions that thoroughly satisfy the goals".