Honoring Petrov Day on LessWrong, in 2020

by Ben Pace2 min read26th Sep 2020100 comments


Petrov DaySite MetaCommunityWorld Optimization
The Petrov Day Red Button.

Just after midnight last night, 270 LessWrong users received the following email.

Subject Line: Honoring Petrov Day: I am trusting you with the launch codes

Hello {username},

On Petrov Day, we celebrate and practice not destroying the world.

It's difficult to know who can be trusted, but today I have selected a group of (270) LessWrong users who I think I can rely on in this way. You've all been given the opportunity to not destroy LessWrong.

This Petrov Day, if you, {username}, enter the launch codes below on LessWrong, the Frontpage will go down for 24 hours, removing a resource thousands of people view every day. Each entrusted user has personalised launch codes, so that it will be clear who nuked the site. 

Your personalised codes are: {codes}

I hope to see you in the dawn of tomorrow, with our honor still intact.

–Ben Pace & the LessWrong Team

P.S. Here is the on-site announcement.

Not Destroying the World

Stanislav Petrov once chose not to destroy the world.

As a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Army, Petrov manned the system built to detect whether the US government had fired nuclear weapons on Russia. On September 26th, 1983, the system reported five incoming missiles. Petrov’s job was to report this as an attack to his superiors, who would launch a retaliative nuclear response. But instead, contrary to the evidence the systems were giving him, he called it in as a false alarm, for he did not wish to instigate nuclear armageddon. (He later turned out to be correct.)

During the Cold War, many other people had the ability to end the world – presidents, generals, commanders of nuclear subs from many countries, and so on. Fortunately, none of them did. As humanity progresses, the number of people with the ability to end the world increases, and so too does the standard to which we must hold ourselves. We lived up to our responsibilities in the cold war, but barely. (The Global Catastrophic Risks Institute has compiled this list of 60 close calls.)

In 2007, Eliezer named September 26th Petrov Day, and the rationality community has celebrated the holiday ever since. We celebrate Petrov's decision, and we ourselves practice not destroying things, even if it is pleasantly simple to do so.

The Big Red Button

Raymond Arnold has suggested many ways of observing Petrov Day. 

You can discuss it with your friends.

You can hold a quiet, dignified ceremony with candles and the beautiful booklets Jim Babcock created.

And you can also play on hard mode: "During said ceremony, unveil a large red button. If anybody presses the button, the ceremony is over. Go home. Do not speak."

This has been a common practice at Petrov Day celebrations in Oxford, Boston, Berkeley, New York, and in other rationalist communities. It is often done with pairs of celebrations, each whose red button (when pressed) brings an end to the partner celebration.

So for the second year, at midnight, I emailed personalized launch codes to 270 LessWrong users. This is over twice the number of users I sent codes to last year (which was 125), and includes a lot more users who use a pseudonym and who I've never met. If any users do submit a set of launch codes, then (once the site is back up) we'll publish their username, and whose unique launch codes they were. 

During Saturday 26th September (midnight to midnight Pacific Time), we will practice the skill of sitting together and not pressing harmful buttons.

Relating to the End of Humanity

Humanity could have gone extinct many times. 

Petrov Day is a celebration of the world not ending. It's a day where we come together to think about how one man in particular saved the world. We reflect on the ways in which our civilization is fragile and could have ended already, we feel grateful that it has not, and we ask ourselves how we could also save the world.

If you would like to participate in the tradition of Petrov Day on LessWrong this year, and if you feel up to talking directly about it, then you're invited to write a comment and share your own feelings about humanity, extinction, and how you relate to it. There's a few prompts below to help you figure out what to say. Note that not all people are in a position in their lives to focus on preventing an existential catastrophe.

  1. What's at stake for you? What are the things you're grateful for, and that you look forward to? What are the things you'd mourn if humanity perished?
  2. How do you relate to the extinction of humanity? What’s your story of coming to engage with the fragility of a world beyond the reach of god, and how do you connect to it emotionally?
  3. Are you taking actions to protect it? What are you taking responsibility for in the world, and in what ways are you taking responsibility for the future?

Finally, if you’d like to participate in a Petrov Day Ceremony today, check out Ray’s Petrov event roundup, especially the online New York mega-meetup.

To all, I wish you a safe and stable Petrov Day.