I've been thinking of maybe writing a book about effective altruism. I've been blogging about these ideas for a long time, but a book would offer the opportunity to go into more depth and to be more thoughtful about some concepts I originally wrote up quickly and casually. Many of these ideas are also worth revisiting; I've learned a lot in the years since!

Looking back over my EA writing I've touched on many aspects, but the bit I've covered the most and would be most excited to expand on is integrating EA ideas into your life:

  • How should you decide whether to donate? Change careers? Volunteer? Go vegan? Live more frugally? Not have kids? Avoid flying? Which options are basically never worth it, and which are dependent on what you value? Some sacrifices people commonly consider are shockingly poor tradeoffs. You'll usually have the largest impact if you focus your altruistic efforts, but our culture generally encourages a people to take on a wide range of smaller things without considering their tradeoffs.

  • How does our family put these ideas into practice? Where does our time, money, and attention go? How did we handle the intense pull to do unsustainable amounts, and how has this changed over the years with getting older, having kids, and lifestyle creep? How much does EA influence what we do outside work?

I'd also include a short introduction to EA, key ideas from my other posts (ex: The Privilege of Earning to Give, Responsible Transparency Consumption, Milk EA, Casu Marzu EA), and concepts from related EA blog posts (ex: Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, Cheerfully). I would want to stick to the "nonfiction" genre and not "memoir", with the focus on EA and only using our family's experience to the extent necessary to illustrate the application of these ideas. I could also see chapters on how some specific other EAs have applied these ideas, interviewing them and writing it up as prose?

There are already several books aiming to introducing EA to a general audience, and if I thought that everything I wanted to say had already been said I wouldn't be very interested in this project. Looking over these books, however, I do think there's a place for what I want to write. The main EA books (Doing Good Better, The Precipice, What We Owe The Future) are primarily moral arguments. While they do get into the more practical side (ex: chapter 10 of WWOTF) I think there's a lot to expand on, especially by connecting EA concepts to specific decisions EAs have needed to make. There's also Strangers Drowning, which does consider how altruists have put their beliefs into practice, but only two of the chapters are about EAs and it covers a time when no one had been an EA for very long yet.

Existing EA writing is also generally aimed at an elite audience. I see why some people have decided to take that approach, but I also think it's really important to have a presentation of these ideas grounded in common sense. If we ignore the general public we leave EA's popular conception to be defined by people who don't understand our ideas very well.

One question is whether I'm the best person to write this. Advantages include that I've been thinking about this for a long time, understand EA ideas well, have a lot of relevant personal experience, have lots of practice at being public about things, and expect to be relatable to many readers (mid-career parent, etc). Disadvantages are that I don't have relevant credentials (not a philosopher or social scientist), am demographically similar to authors of other EA books, and have written enough publicly that almost anyone could find something to dislike. Overall, I think EA would benefit from a less centralized public representation, and adding someone writing from a non-academic perspective would be good.

Co-writing with Julia would be better, but I suspect it wouldn't go well. While we do have compatible views, we have very different writing styles, and I understand taking on projects like this is often hard on relationships. I could see co-writing with someone else? Let me know if you'd be interested!

There's also the question of opportunity cost: what would writing trade off against? A lot of this depends on how I approach it: is this something I should work on after the kids go to bed, when I typically write blog posts? Or should I consider trying to go part-time at work, take leave, or quit? I haven't yet talked to people at work about this, but I would lean towards taking leave or going part time: if this is worth doing it's probably worth focusing on. That I think what I'm currently doing is valuable, though, means that there's a higher bar than just "does this seem like a good book to exist."

Is this a book you'd be interested to see? Advice on the nonfiction industry? General feedback?

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If you wrote a book about many different ways to feel about being a parent in a world of x-risk, I think that would get a lot of bites. Write about what it's like for everything to seem normal and boring and safe, but being a parent means you have to live your life while knowing that it isn't. "I changed my career because it's more important to me that my kids are alive in 20 years than inherit a lot of money in 40 years" or something like that.

Writing about life as a parent in a world of x-risk would get a ton of interest, easily, and you could easily pull it off. Gently touching on society's moral confusion is harder, especially mixing that in with being a parent in a world of x-risk, because people would be picking up in the first place to read about being a parent in a world of x-risk. You might be able to pull it off by writing about being a parent in a world where society is generally confused, including morally confused, with the existence of x-risk being the first big point that demonstrates that the world is confused (e.g. "being a parent in an insane world, where another pandemic could be thousands of times worse"). The Viliam-Valentine debate describes how today's math education is utterly deranged, and ~5 pages on that would be the perfect amount, parents would feel very grateful to have read that. Tons of parents are already anxious about the world going bad by the time their kids get married, both the left and the right thing that totalitarianist elements are at large domestically (blaming eachother of course, but the fear is real), vague lab leak claims, climate change etc, and talking about a second pandemic within 20 years would be the perfect hook into the obviously realer world of x-risk and thinking about winning strategies/results. Many of them have children who are teens or in college or early career, and replacing their anxiety with a crystalline, logically coherent/consistent understanding of the risks would be an interesting conversation topic with the kids at thanksgiving/winter break and also with other parents who have vague anxiety. Just describing life as a parent would make couples feel like having kids, and describing life as a parent in a world of x-risk would make couples feel like not having kids, so if backers/funders are concerned about the book making more people have kids, then let them decide on a balance that they find suitable.

There's a ton of other things related to community building that I suspect you're uniquely capable of writing some really great stuff about, but it would require galaxy-brain thinking to find safe ways to fit them into the book, such that the info benefits EA more than harms. But x-risk parenting, on the other hand, is a simple, consistent, solid foundation that you can build a lot of thinking on top of.

I'm writing a book. Here's how I think about it and fit it into my life:

  • I decided to write the book because I felt like a book was the best way to convey some important insights about epistemology. Why a book?
    • higher prestige than blog posts
    • forces me to explain things without relying on links
    • more likely to be able to reach a wider audience
    • more likely to create a focal point to convey a few key memes that may spawn follow up work by others exploring similar ideas
    • posterity
  • I'm writing about my topic at all because I think it's relevant to building aligned AI. I think AI safety research would go better if more relevant AI folks understood the key ideas at the core of the book.
    • there's very little new in the book, other than linking the ideas together to tell a particular story about why these ideas matter
    • I see most of the value in creating a compelling presentation and putting the ideas together in a single place so people don't have to go searching so hard for the same ideas I had
    • I don't worry too much if others have written similar things; I trust that because I had a hard time figuring out how the puzzle I see fit together, others likely have the same trouble and will benefit from the book
  • I work on the book in place of writing blog posts or pursuing other hobbies.
    • this is not exclusive, just a tradeoff on the margin
  • I have a rough goal of finishing the first draft of the book in 2 years
    • outlined at 9 chapters
    • that's roughly 1 chapter a quarter
    • I'm slightly ahead of schedule with 5 chapters done at the 13 month mark
  • My goal is to be to publication in ~3 years from start, figuring I'll need about 1 year for initial revisions, finding a publisher, then doing additional revisions based on publisher editing.
    • I realize that due to delays in publication cycles I may end up seeing it on shelves as late as 4 years in
    • I'm also not worrying about publication too early, since worst case I can self publish
      • I'm focused on writing the book I want to see in the world first, writing a book that can get published second
      • this only works because I don't really care much about getting paid (any money I make will just go into marketing & distribution to get the book read by more people)

Maybe this is because of my vantage point (as your friend and someone who has deliberately distanced themself somewhat from EA as a whole), but I tend to think of you and Julia as relatively central figures in EA.  Like, I’m not sure if you’re among the very most centrally-connected circles of that community, but I’d also guess that you’re not really more than about one rung out from there.  In that case, I’m unsure how much you as an author would contribute to “de-centralizing” author representation?

That said, I do think that EA would absolutely benefit from raising some more approachable / less academic voices to a higher public profile.  I’d certainly enjoy reading a book from you about the topics you describe, even though that book would be unlikely to shift my personal skepticism about the wisdom of EA as a movement.  Your other listed advantages as an author do make sense to me, and I think that your “relevant credentials” disadvantage isn’t meaningful given the desire to focus on a less philosophical lens and to diversify the types of centrally-public EA voices.

I’m unsure how much you as an author would contribute to “de-centralizing” author representation?

Sorry, I primarily meant 'decentralizing' as in just more individuals. Right now EA's author representation is mostly one person (Will McAskill) or maybe two (Peter Singer) and while I like both of them I'd rather see a world where there were, say, ten authors with a range of perspectives, approaches, and audiences.

Do it! You've always been a better spokesman for EA than any of the people with the big audiences and big platforms. I think your book would, correspondingly, be a better book than any of the ones we've seen published so far. Less prestigious, probably, but higher quality.

And hopefully it might push EA back toward an equilibrium of having individuals who are dedicated and well-spoken but basically ordinary in-the-trenches EAs being the face it presents to the world, rather than people who make it their job to be spokespeople. That was better for EA internally, and given the whole FTX debacle and PR-focused mistakes, probably better for the world as well.

A lot of this depends on how I approach it: is this something I should work on after the kids go to bed, when I typically write blog posts? Or should I consider trying to go part-time at work, take leave, or quit? I haven't yet talked to people at work about this, but I would lean towards taking leave or going part time: if this is worth doing it's probably worth focusing on. That I think what I'm currently doing is valuable, though, means that there's a higher bar than just "does this seem like a good book to exist."

 

I wonder if it would make sense to write it as a series of blog posts (like the sequences, HPMOR, and "Wait But Why Year One: We finally figured out how to put a blog onto an e-reader"), at least for the first few chapters.

It seems it could provide the usual advantages of agile development, and get you some quick (self-)feedback in a lower-stakes environment (even though as you mention this has many downsides).

As someone who's trying a bit of community building, I would love more books, and the topics you are suggesting are super interesting in terms of helping many people do more good.