A parable of brightspots and blindspots

by Remmelt Ellen2 min read21st Mar 2021No comments

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Cross-posted from Effective Altruism Forum.
For a concise summary of rationality and EA blindspots, read this post instead

I take the liberty to dramatically sketch a metaphor for early pioneers in the landscape. Then, I suggest quick checks for current charity managers in effective altruism.

This post started as a script – a friend said my real-life conference talk had a way bigger impact than reading the story again in his own voice. Listen here to the narrated story.

 

 


Here, take this narrative device. Strap on this head-mounted interface. Peer into virtual reality lenses as I guide you on a quest.

Enter a vivid simulation – of you and of the people around you.

You were a pioneer. You surveyed dark, foggy frontiers with your small community.

Eventually, you settled in a field. You gathered with like-minded comrades close to you. You set up your group’s headquarters, and fenced off your scope.

You waved off outsiders: ‘You no longer need to map here, we’ve got this area covered!’


But you haven’t got it covered. Birds of a feather flock together. So do you.

Together, your ingroup has a style of surveying the territory:

  • You filter observations, as you build up a map of the uncertain and ambiguous environment you’re part of.
  • You frame your map around waypoints relevant to you, of an environment more complex than just you. You may spot what you can gain from this land, yet miss all sorts of dangers lurking in between.
     

There’s so much to map and only so much you can process. 

You point your headlight into the fog. 

Point its bright spot nearby to observe concrete details up close. Or point it far away to observe the general outlines ahead.

But you can’t do both. 

For wherever you focus your brightspot is enveloped by darkness – your blindspot.


This is where it gets tricky. Your group spots a problem. You’re all pumped to solve it, and make a positive impact. Together, you set out a target for solving your problem.

But you are interacting through a vast, informationally-complex landscape.

  • What if before you reach your target... you hit a trap instead?
  • What if you miss some crucial consideration... that was lurking in your blindspot?

You will be shocked to realise you had a massive negative impact or — at least — are now nowhere near where you expected to be.


The lesson is clear: Find a group whose brightspot is in your blindspot.
Talk to the other group, and they will point out hidden traps to avoid along your path. 

Complement them, and they will complement you.
 Not ‘I like you, because you see what we see.’ 
 But ‘I appreciate you, because you see where we are blind.’

 

 

 

 

Questions you could explore if you manage a group:

Scope

  • In brief bullet points, how would you explain to a new partner or user what your organisation is most focused on delivering?
    –> in a real conversation with someone you now have in mind.
  • What does a reader of your website's listed activities think you do that you don't?
  • What does the wider community expect you to oversee, but your staff actually now misses sufficient attention and expertise to take on?


Near vs. Far

In your day-to-day charity role, how near or far do you tend to focus over

  • time (eg. a near-term vs. long-term problem)?
  • alternative scenarios (eg. a civil safety issue vs. far-fetched existential risk)?
  • space (eg. local vs. global poverty)?
  • identified beneficiaries (eg. persons who feel close to you vs. impersonal agents)?

 

Targets vs. Traps

  • What targets does your organisation aim at? What is your theory of change?
  • Which different-minded people could point out obstacles you tend to miss, on your path to positive impact? Or notice where you wouldn't that your actions have a negative impact on persons you care about?
  • What gap here could an informed initiator cover by taking a different angle? 
    How would you get this person up to speed, while pointing out any traps you’re aware of (say beginner’s mistakes you ran into, or often see entrepreneurs making)?


A rough case: 80,000 Hours focused on advising careers in the US and UK to help solve long-term problems. But readers often got the impression 80K covered all EA career advice. As a result, some career aspirants felt alienated, and fell through the cracks. 

80K staff responded by very specifically stating which areas they didn’t do research or give career advice in. They welcomed conversations with entrepreneurs who had spotted gaps in their work, supporting the start of Animal Advocacy Careers, the Local Career Advice Network, and Probably Good.

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