Drawing Toward Power

by hiblick 2 min read13th Jan 20202 comments


At the Bay Area pre-solstice unconference, I gave a talk which started as a discussion of how rationalists could build tools to enable better organization and conversation online. I'm a largely improvisational speaker though, and it quickly turned into a discussion of the future of the movement.

I'm pretty old now, and I've seen a number of groups of people move from relative obscurity, to positions of power or, at least, to being subjects of general curiosity. The most relevant, I think, for rationalists are the early (pre-2002) Googlers.

If a social group gets projected onto the broader canvas of mass attention, or their interests get magnified through access to the levers of power, you get criticism and praise in varied amounts (Paul Graham has just written a piece about this). But just as visibly, the tiniest omissions and imperfections of the analysis and attitudes of the founders are also magnified.

I gave a talk in, I think, 2009, about this at a Foo Camp. I warned in an environment that was ready to hear it, but not capable of changing matters much, that geeks were about to become dangerous: that we had a set of Tragic Flaws, that we were already seeing magnified in the wider world.

I don't remember all of the characteristics of geekdom I gave then that would lead to its downfall, but a couple of them stuck with me: that we were bending the workplace into our own vision of a pleasant place to be (unbounded by the 9-5, contract-driven, full of interest and unboring, self-driven, university-like), and that meant that we were work-focused, and pushing others to be (even when their lives could not be bent that way). We experienced burn-out as a part of our lives, and now we were driving others into burn-out. We viewed efficiency as a life goal for ourselves, individually, and that was how we were encouraging others to live. We were strongly influenced by our alienation from others as young people, and that meant (paradoxically) that when we did assume power, we would not recognise it, and instead continued to use the habits and attitudes of outsiders with no power. (I called this "Stalinism": Stalin's paranoia and cruelty may have come from being the weak, minority group experiencing cruelty from the more powerful. I'm not sure if that is truly the case, but perhaps we could give as a better example Bill Gates, who for years assumed that Microsoft had to act as a scrappy competitor, because it was weak, and could easily be destroyed by IBM -- even when it reached the point of dominating the PC market.

I see the same dynamic playing out among rationalists now. Dominic Cummings will not be the last powerbroker who will see the rationalist point-of-view as providing an edge that can be swiftly adopted. At my talk at the Solstice unconference, I described this opportunity as emerging from rationalists appearance as being similar to the existing powerful groups (well-educated, mildly secular, polite, verbal) -- but also seemingly "harmless".

This is important, because some groups who seek to transform society are quickly beaten down with baseball bats, because of either their unfamiliarity, or being all too easily pattern-matched as "dangerous" radicals.(I may have noted that everyone at the Unconference looked like the radical unitarians from Unsong, whose very existence in the book was to play up the joke of how un-dangerous they seemed.)

What this means is that rationalist ideas, even as they are disparaged as weird by the first waves of media, will be far more quickly adopted by enclaves of the powerful than one might expect. Or might be healthy for anyone involved. If Bill Gates, or Googlers (or Stalin!) go from being unforeseen upstarts to being able to affect world events in a decade or two, that means that those minor flaws turn into tragedies without being addressed or corrected.

Rationalists have an advantage of their own internal warning system. You have, as they say, noticed the skulls. So what are the heroic flaws, the blindspots, the monocultural assumptions that will lead to the movement's downfall?