Epistemic status: Broad, well-developed speculation.
To my knowledge, this essay contains the most comprehensive list of criticisms of the rationality community to date. Understandably, some people may take this as a rejection of the community as a whole. It is not. In order to fix problems affecting a non-hierarchical group, individuals within the group need to have a shared understanding of them. In order to do this, someone has to look under the hood and report back with their findings.
Most people are aware there is something wrong in a general sense. There is, to some extent, an awareness that things aren’t quite right but little consensus at to whether it's analogous to a vitamin deficiency or more like a malignant neoplasm.
Solutions vary, depending on the type and extent of the problems. As such, if the consensus is that they are relatively trivial, some solutions are going to look like amputating a leg to deal with a discoloured toenail. If however, the problems are more serious, the majority of solutions proposed up to now look a lot like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. This is the crux of it, and I expect most negative responses to this will boil down to disagreement over the size, scope and urgency of addressing the problems.
That also includes disagreements over tone; if you spot an axe murderer prowling the library, you are well within your rights to warn people by screaming at the top of your lungs. Unless you are following an absolute version of Kantian ethics, the value tradeoffs you make should vary based on what you are trying to accomplish. In the above example, alerting potential victims of an axe murderer is of far higher importance than maintaining the decorum of the library. This applies to less extreme problems too, tailored to their size, scope and urgency, while remaining mindful of the long-term consequences of bending the rules "just this once" and the pitfalls of operating in a perpetual state of emergency.
In essence, I’m taking a nuanced view of the maxim "Kind, True, Necessary". I believe every issue not omitted from the finished essay is at least relevant to talk about, every factual claim I make is to my knowledge and best efforts true, but I am not being as kind as I could possibly be. I could be kinder by writing in the abstract, but in practice that often ends up obscuring the point to such an extent that people unaware of the object level example fail to cross the inferential gap. It has often been the case in the past where I have read essays about issues within the community, assumed they were relatively trivial, then when privately informed of the details being shocked at how serious they were.
Politeness, when taken to extremes, can also have serious repercussions. If you are a meetup organizer for the kink community and you avoid telling new members there are known predators at most events, and instead cryptically suggest to "watch where you step" you are, intentionally or otherwise, prioritizing maintaining a civil atmosphere over maintaining civilization itself. Euphemizing a message to the point where those involved aren’t even aware they are being referred to runs a very high risk of missing its intended audience.
As such, this essay prioritises clarity over civility. It does not shout, nor does it speak in the gentle West Coast whisper many of you are accustomed to. Sometimes it is necessary to raise your voice slightly in order to be heard.
It has been nearly a decade since the Craft and the Community was published. Eliezer outlined a plan, hoping that someone would take the reins while he was working on AI alignment. We were told to go forth and create the art yet art creation has been overlooked, like a homeless man we try to avoid eye contact with.
Avoiding eye contact is an understandable and reasonable response for most people, given how little they can do about his situation. However it’s a little harder to justify that here, considering we still have the words "Soup Kitchen" up there in big bold letters.
Every once in awhile some wide-eyed newcomer asks why we aren’t more successful. Responses vary from minor nitpicking to claiming the rationality community is basically a bunch of people who enjoyed Yudkowsky’s blog. To me it is equal parts surreal and horrifying that people who had the reasoning ability to absorb the Sequences, including the repeated reminders that rationality is systemized winning got together with other readers and concluded that the real purpose of rationality was to have really fun conversations at dinner parties. The calm, unmoved responses make it feel like it was all some elaborate prank; that anyone who actually took the Sequences literally was either too autistic or naive to realise that they weren’t in on the joke. An implicit "Oh you sweet summer child, words don’t actually have meanings!"
This wasn’t always the consensus. Over the years there have been several dissenting voices trying to lead us in a better direction. Most of them eventually moved on when their schedules filled up or they got tired of banging their head against a wall.
One such person was Patri Friedman, known here as patrissimo. He wrote an essay on our lack of instrumental rationality and how to fix it shortly before departing. Since leaving LessWrong, his googleable accomplishments have been to get enough traction for Seasteading to sign a deal for a floating autonomous zone in French Polynesia, doing more for libertarianism than any other organization in the past few decades.
This is not a 1:1 causal relationship, but there does seem to be a correlation. To build off Patri’s analogy, there is quite the difference in outcomes between the people who stayed on the couch watching marathons, in the hopes that it would benefit their running technique when they finally got started, and those who put on whatever shoes they had to hand, got up and left the house.
Post-Mortem - What went wrong?
In retrospect, it seems somewhat surprising that a community so full of potential in both talent and values has achieved so little towards their goals when looked at as a group. There have been exceptional individuals, each with their own secret sauce they are unable to articulate the recipe for, but the median person seems to be roughly as successful as they would have been had they not discovered the rationality community. Success is not entirely, and probably not even mostly, genetic. Or in other words, information and cultural memes matter. Given this is the case, the question is why hasn’t this community managed to beat the control group?
This has been an unresolved question of mine for a few years now, and in the last several months, developed into an intense fascination.
I feel I’m starting to develop a coherent model. Like all things involving people, very little is explained by a single cause. Individual factors cluster into general areas with substantial overlaps between them. As such, looking at parts in isolation is like trying to recognise a person sitting in front of you by looking at them through a high-powered telescope. Understanding the causal mechanisms requires examination in an appropriate level of detail, being aware of individual examples and the wider context they exist in.
The following sections are an attempt to categorize them. Cleanly separating them is hard, given how interrelated they are. Yet, as with conjoined twins, you’ve got to make the incision somewhere.
The issues are separated under the broad headings of Demographics, Environment and Culture. Most issues have a cause stemming from another area and have second order effects in yet more areas still. Mapping all of these out fully would lengthen this essay to hundreds of pages, so only the most relevant connections are made.
Problems and causal factors
Demographics - Background selection effects
For various reasons, the Sequences disproportionately attracted the personality types who liked reading, hypothesising and debating. One of the defining characteristics of that personality type is a preference for extensive contemplation before action. Put enough of those people in the same place and social founder effects will exaggerate that to the point where action is rarely taken at all. From The War Of Art:
Often couples or close friends, even entire families, will enter into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges (unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough in which she and all her cronies have become so comfortable. The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.
Disconcerting, if true.
This is far from the only trait we have an overabundance of. Other surveys of the community suggest we have high percentages of depression, anxiety, autism and ADHD. Anecdotal evidence suggests we have a high proportion of socially maladjusted people who are some combination of heavily introverted, awkward, hyper-individualistic, oblivious, overly trusting, previously ostracised and confrontation avoidant. In an achievement sense we have a staggering percentage of people who have the intelligence to enter the higher echelons of society, but instead fell through the gaps due to burnout, untreated ADHD, major depression, defiance of authority figures, and other related causes. In a broad demographic sense, we also draw disproportionately from Blue Tribe and upper middle class backgrounds.
Even when a trait is not possessed by a majority, a tipping point mechanism can cause traits possessed in overabundance by a small minority to have wider cultural effects. It has been suggested that tipping points for opinions can happen when they are held by as little as 10% of a population.. It’s far from unreasonable to worry that a community where traits such as depression have been formally diagnosed at over twice the rate of the general population might create effects downstream.
The effects of these traits can impact our ability to achieve objectives in many cause areas. To unpack what I mean by that, here is a useful diagram borrowed from one of Raemon’s Project Hufflepuff posts:
Achieving objectives is typically thought of belonging mostly in the blue circle, but in reality, all focus areas have objectives. They may not be rooted in the standard concept of "achievement", but a sense of preferring certain outcomes/values over others.
We live in a universe where values are fragile. Where in the vast space of possible outcomes, only an infinitesimal fraction are good, and an even smaller fraction are great. Having a measurable impact is hard. Finding and preserving truth is hard. Creating flourishing communities is hard. Good outcomes do not happen by accident any more often than whirlwinds assemble Boeing 747s when passing through scrapyards.
Even when ideal, low-entropy states are achieved, constant work is required to avoid regressing to the mean. Thinking that the Rationalist community is immune to entropic forces is like thinking a refrigerator with the word cold on it will work without being plugged in.
Here are some of the problems, sorted by category, listing potential causes and secondary consequences.
Problems caused in the Truthseeking/epistemic circle:
Deep theoretical models, particularly psychological and sociological ones, don’t end up modelling reality very accurately
- People with a high degree of social maladjustment confidently sharing faulty foundational models in group settings. Few people are present who are able to correct them, causing the "blind leading the blind" phenomenon. These theories, when uncontested, become popular, causing others to incorporate them into their theoretical models.
- People from a small subsection of society (upper middle, high trust, blue tribe) typical minding their values, motivations and thinking processes onto people different from them.
- A high degree of idealism preventing people from making negative adjustments to their models when the data suggests they do so.
People like Gleb Tsipursky leeching off our epistemically rigorous reputation and organizations linked to us, in order to gain status in the wider world
- Being overly trusting, causing the principle of charity to be overapplied. This allowed the cycle of wrongdoing - accusation - response thanking critic for bringing issues to their attention - no behavioural change to repeat over long stretches of time.
- Obliviousness to how our implicit incentive structures can be exploited for short-term gain. Gleb identified that he could spread misinformation so long as when called out, he followed the symbolic ritual of appearing contrite and agreeable with the critics, as nobody would check to ensure he had changed his behaviour. After all, no ingroup member would be so bold as to behave like it never happened.
- Biases towards non-confrontation, which delayed public outcry once the pattern was identified.
- People’s prior history of ostracisation for unfair reasons makes them reluctant to do something as trivial as unfriend him on Facebook. A solid third of the rationalists I’m connected to on facebook are friends with him. While friendship isn’t endorsement, it is a metric indicating your social network likes and trusts them to some degree, meaning anyone using that metric will trust Gleb more than they otherwise should.
- Insufficient archiving of this incident, due to an underappreciation of the value in doing so. While writing this I had a hard time actually finding things I had previously read. Googling "Gleb Tsipursky lesswrong" doesn’t return any direct accounts of bad behaviour, you have to go digging for it. The right to be forgotten has its merits, but it isn’t meant to be applied when people are still doing the thing that got them in trouble in the first place.
Problems caused in the Impact/instrumental circle:
Inability to recruit underrepresented demographics
- Group isolation has caused us to develop a distinct dialect of english that is unintelligible to people unfamiliar with it. We often try to explain things to outsiders using concepts they are unfamiliar with and circular definitions because it is the simplest way from an internal perspective; forgetting that the actual goal is to increase their understanding. The temptation to reference a concept described in the rationalist blogosphere that neatly encapsulates an idea, or drawing a comparison with something only familiar to people with backgrounds in programming, physics or science fiction is strong, and is the default choice for those who are unable to empathize with minds different from their own. This dynamic, in addition to widespread social awkwardness and a history of rejection by those different to them, creates a community that can only preach to the already converted.
- Even if you manage to absorb the ideas, the community has only been optimized for the preferences of a narrow demographic. It has a steep dropoff in utility the more you differ from it, despite rationality as a concept having value for a much larger demographic.
Projects that aren’t run as businesses struggle
- Cultural individualism and treating dissent as a terminal value mean most projects that run on volunteers end up being lone hero efforts. As a reaction to this, nearly all the credit ends up going to the person in charge of a project, causing contributions from the rank and file to be overlooked by external observers. People notice this and conclude there is very little reward in being part of the rank and file. This eventually bottoms out to the leader getting all of the credit, but doing all of the work minus whatever they can get from other volunteers with strong enough service impulses to override the incentive structure.
- Analysis paralysis of individuals gets magnified in a group setting, ending up like an even worse version of this xkcd comic where it combines with short attention spans. People end up doing a less rigorous but equally unproductive version of that sort of analysis for ten minutes, then any progress on the issue is wiped from collective memory when the topic changes.
- Project leaders often hesitate to make decisions, but non-hierarchical projects struggle to make decisions at all without some sort of leadership figure who has managed to get an implicit mandate.
- All projects require some proportion of uninteresting, detail-oriented work. There is a finite supply of interesting/high-leverage work, which is often best done by the person in charge. This is normally solved in the business world by paying someone a share of the revenues to do the grunt work, in the form of a salary. The problem is that projects which aren’t designed to make money can’t afford to pay people for grunt work unless the leader has significant personal capital; nor does it make sense to when success means rewards are mostly distributed to the wider community rather than the leader. This often means grunt work the leader doesn’t have time for doesn’t get done at all. When this happens, the project either fails entirely or is unable to achieve some of its goals.
- Passive volunteers who require direct, literal commands in order to get them to do anything. People for whatever reason either don’t understand, or underrate, the value of being proactive. Worse still, volunteers often don’t communicate how much time they can offer or what tasks they would be willing to do. This unintentionally causes leaders to feel like anything they ask for is draining their social capital. Efforts are often spent finding and then precisely articulating only the most interesting of tasks in the hope that they will be enticing and straightforward enough for volunteers to actually complete.
- The number of volunteers and their enthusiasm is heavily dependant on how shiny a project feels. This means new projects with lofty goals are favoured over more established and realistic ones. Due to this incentive structure, projects must spend scarce resources on publicity that could be spent elsewhere. Projects have to repeatedly bring themselves back into the spotlight in order to replace volunteers lost to attrition. Unfortunately, all but the most pedestrian of goals require multiple years to accomplish, far longer than the average novelty-seeking rationalist takes to lose enthusiasm and move on to the next big thing.
Distrust of outsiders reducing both intake and spread of information
- Many of the prior underachievers feel, perhaps rightly, spurned by "the system". This sometimes leads to not seeking, and often outright rejecting, assistance from groups and individuals who resemble the system that rejected them, even when it is in their interest to do so.
- Distrust of outside experts often leads an overvaluation of skills possessed by insiders, and their expertise status is often judged more on shibboleths and willingness to frame things with insider models than actual substance. A small sample pool often means that in some deficit areas there is such a talent shortage that anyone who has even the most rudimentary level of skill is given guru status.
- Unwillingness to learn from outside experts means we fail to avoid their mistakes. We end up reinventing the wheel, making slower advances because we are using only a narrow set of perspectives.
Lack of focus on instrumental rationality
- Demographically we are much more naturally talented at reading, writing and debating than anything that could be described as practical. Humans generally like to do things that emphasise their strengths rather than remind them of their deficits.
- Eliezer’s grand purpose for developing rationality was AI alignment. Groups tend to imitate their founders as it is. This was exacerbated in this case by a lack of other people pushing towards alternative causes. In the absence of sufficiently enticing competitors, AI alignment eventually sucked all the air out of the room, leaving more pedestrian causes to asphyxiate.
- Many of our more impact-focused individuals have drifted over to the EA side of things, due to its more measurable impact and its comparatively higher status in the outside world. This lead to a productivity brain drain and a general worsening of our demographics.
- People who are interested in individual rationality have either deemed the community a timesuck and left, or are quietly plodding away in a far corner of the blogosphere. These people stay in obscurity, as reading progress logs and life improvement tips is far less shiny than insight porn.
- The underachieving demographic have contributed to the cultural undervaluation of hard work and attention to detail. Lack of success is partially bad genetics, but also bad cultural memes. And those bad memes end up rubbing off on the rest of the group.
Problems caused in the Human/community circle:
Romantic dissatisfaction of straight men
- The gender gap, or more accurately, gender chasm present in the community makes it mathematically impossible for every straight man to be the primary partner of a woman within the community.
- An inability for many straight men to communicate effectively with women not familiar with rationalism leads to them dating exclusively within the community, if at all. A lesser version of this problem exists where they struggle to communicate with women who aren’t programmers/hard science students or following similarly thing-oriented thinking patterns, all of which have similar gender disparities.
- As many men display low levels of social skills, relationship experience, lack of self-confidence, and a vicious cycle of desperation, the few women in the community are averse to dating them. This creates a feedback loop where some men become more and more unable to get their romantic needs met.
- The community environment is, in some aspects, passively hostile to the existence of most women, making it hard to bridge the gender gap. Hold the SJW accusations - this has very little to do with systemic misogyny, or being insufficiently charitable to feminist ideas, and much more to do with not being a place where many intellectually capable women wish to spend their time. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of a bullet point, but are expanded upon later in the essay.
Difficulty forming deeper friendships
- Many people are socially awkward and reclusive. This goes beyond the rightly criticised introvert/extrovert binary. People who appear heavily introverted are often not as undesiring of friendships as they first appear. Towards the extreme ends of introversion, it appears to be more to do with learned helplessness than an inbuilt preference for solitude.
- Many people simply don’t know how to make friends. Some people have a natural instinct for it, but often it’s the case that people are just doing it wrong. Forgive me for the caricature, but it seems as if people think that if they go to a few meetups, act polite, and rehash of the benefits of cryonics for five minutes with a fellow ingroup member, that they will initiate the friendship ritual, and just need to e-mail the written contract over the next morning.
- (Cont.) Mindspace is deep and wide, it would not surprise me to learn someone had success following the above parody to the letter. But when dealing with humans, even ones who claim to be made from semiconductors, it is far from the optimal approach. Making friends requires getting to know a person, not just their topical opinions. It requires you to reveal your vulnerabilities, to spend time in each others presence. If you don’t repeatedly cross paths due to recurring shared activities, you need to be somewhat proactive, arranging to meet each other on a semi-regular basis.
- The best methods for making friends run against the intuitions and cultural backgrounds of most people. Even if you are aware of the points mentioned previously, acting on that information is often hard when the other person lacks the context for your actions, and often ends up unintentionally sabotaging the process through a combination of social maladjustment and unexamined irrational-yet-culturally-accepted behaviours.
Difficulties executing short term plans
- Through a combination of social anxiety, low empathy, poor time management and an inability to anticipate their future selves’ behaviour, people flake on plans they have previously agreed to. Promises are treated as expressions of enthusiasm in the present moment, not in any way binding; to be cast aside the moment they become inconvenient.
- When people are going to be late, a lack of empathy/obliviousness sometimes means the other person isn’t even informed. Seemingly obvious boundaries are transgressed. You shouldn’t have to say "btw, if you happen to be running two hours late you should text me so that I know that."
- A widespread inability to be where people say they are going to be, among other unreliability issues, reduces organiser morale and makes it much harder to plan events. How are you supposed to select a venue and organise logistics if you have no way of knowing whether three or twenty people are going to attend an event due to everyone making "Schrodinger plans"?
Almost complete inability to coordinate on long time horizons
- A similar set of causal factors to the short term ones, with an (admittedly normal) inability to step outside of the short term incentive structure and take a god’s eye view of the landscape, prevents individuals from being able to coordinate on things that require a long term alignment of priorities that override short term expediency.
- People are often taking life one day at a time, or are so enamoured with the glorious transhumanist future that if you asked what their plans are one to five years from now you will get a shrug in response. A lack of well-laid plans means people are defenceless against external economic and cultural forces. You can’t coordinate plans if you have no plans. If you go with the flow, you will go wherever the tide wishes to take you.
- People from a Blue Tribe, individualistic middle class background have always struggled to coordinate. Tipping point effects drag the remaining minority along with them.
- Cultural memes that make coordination easier are implicitly discouraged because they don’t match the sensibilities of the main demographic. Values like loyalty are seen as Red Tribe/outgroup traits. As such, they are usually met with some form of derision.
Lacking a sense that more is possible
- A lot of people have not been in environments that prioritize community; as such, they have never seen glimpses of what a great community could actually look like. If all you’ve ever known is internet chatrooms and the nerd table in the school cafeteria, the current day rationalist community could easily be mistaken for peak civilization.
- Related to that, modern atomized society is deeply flawed. Even if you agree with this premise, articulating the problems and tangible solutions is very hard. Imagining what it could look like on the outside is difficult when you have lived your entire life within its walls. Even if fish could talk, they’d have trouble articulating a life on land without the constraints imposed by life underwater.
People feel the need to sell themselves (signalling smartness/interestingness/value)
- High rates of turnover mean you get very few chances to make a connection with any specific individual. If you want to get someone’s attention, you have to do so in a very short space of time. As timelines shorten, first impressions go from being pretty important to being the only thing that matters. This is further exacerbated by preference for novelty seeking - if you don’t immediately sparkle, you will be overlooked for the people that do.
- This dynamic leads to some people selling themselves as hard as possible in whatever light, given their strengths and weaknesses, they think will make people pay attention. If a person’s area of relative expertise is math, conversations involving that person often end up being optimized to demonstrate expertise in math.
- An arms race sometimes develops when people, previously content to let their positive qualities be discovered naturally, find they are getting overlooked for less impressive self-promoters. This is a negative-sum game, as people make conversations more about style than substance, and optimize in favour of legibility over value creation in order to compete for a fixed amount of personal attention.
- People who refuse to self-promote, or pursue hufflepuff-like goals that aren’t valued highly by the community, can end up feeling like losers in a game they never agreed to play.
- This behaviour is often subconscious, and doesn’t get turned off once you get to know them. It is often the case that group conversations involving such people mysteriously circle back to the narrow set of topics that allow them to demonstrate their intelligence. Conversation quality suffers when one participant is treating it like a job interview rehearsal.
I don’t expect everyone will agree with all of these bullet points. This list is extensive, not comprehensive. Most issues vary significantly in severity and occurrence depending on what part of the community you reside in. At worst, this is substantial food for thought.
This isn’t the part of the essay where I drill down into specific solutions, but since these problems are particularly salient at this point, it would be prudent to spare a few words for some general ones.
There are, to my knowledge, only three routes to solving these demographic issues on a wider basis:
- Throw everything we have at drastically altering our demographic makeup
If the tech industry is anything to go by, this is almost certain to fail. Even if it did succeed, there is a good chance the community would cease to be a place where most of us would want to stay.
- Attempt to start afresh, severing ties with the existing community
This might be a possibility for some, and would require a hell of a lot of work to rebuild our intellectual foundations from scratch, but still technically doable. However, unless you have well-justified reasons for believing that you won’t just end up with the original demographic balance you started with, you’d be better off spending your time doing something else.
- Shifting the culture in an attempt to compensate for our weaknesses
This is far from a guaranteed success. There have been quite a few people who tried and failed at this, for various reasons. Yet, at least compared to the other two options, it appears by far the most promising. There have been recent efforts in this general direction, from Project Hufflepuff to LessWrong 2.0. Perhaps there is enough momentum to capitalize on it?
Shifting the culture is not as simple as raising awareness. For changes to last longer than a news cycle, it will require consistent deliberate effort. It will require a conscious choice to pay attention to negative feedback and boring details, things that are far less pleasurably stimulating than whatever highbrow clickbait Venkatesh Rao will be posting in the meantime.
Alex jones is right, There is a war on for your mind.
To transition back to the structure of the post, demographic factors are not the only area where Molochean forces conspire to destroy everything we hold dear.
Environment - Picking the wrong location
People are, to some degree, products of their environment. This is true in both a cultural sense, in that people who live in Mexico are overwhelmingly more likely to be Catholic than people in Iran, and an economic sense, in that an Ethiopian is far more likely to lack the basic necessities than an Australian. The question is not if, but to what percentage environment is responsible for outcomes.
If we are to believe the account of Zvi Mowshowitz, centering the community in Berkeley is quite possibly the worst strategic mistake we have ever made. A quote:
No one could have predicted this. No one had any idea, as it was happening, that the choice of Berkeley might have been a mistake and not only because of the stratospheric rents. Many of our best and brightest leave, hollowing out and devastating their local communities, to move to Berkeley, to join what they think of as The Rationalist Community. They feel comfortable ripping apart those other communities because they think the point of those communities was to feed their best people to the ‘real’ community in Berkeley; when not being careful they use the term ‘rationalist community’ interchangeably with ‘rationalists living in Berkeley’. Once there, they have an increasingly good time and develop new ways to have an increasingly good time, forming a real community. But that ‘rationalist community’ is ‘increasingly ill-named.’ Its central cultural theme is not rationality, or becoming stronger, or saving the world; it is, Sarah reports, an unconditional tolerance for weirdos, a paradise for Bohemians, a place built on warm connections of mutual support for those who don’t fit into broader society.
This is not good news, for any of us.
For those on the inside, it means what you thought was a hard but ultimately worthwhile decision to leave your local community and move to Berkeley has, in light of new evidence, become a very large sunk cost that you won’t want to re-evaluate.
For those of us on the outside, we are now dealing with the fact that our local communities were hollowed for nothing. That the mission, the instrumental craft could have been years further along by now had Berkeley not redirected people’s talents towards other aims.
I won’t deny there is important work being done in Berkeley, and I’d even go as far to say there are some organizations such as MIRI that belong there. My claim, similar to Zvi’s, is that most individuals and rationalist-aligned organizations do not benefit from that location choice.
The reasons for this are not immediately apparent. From the outside, people full of energy and enthusiasm make the pilgrimage to Berkeley, go quiet on social media, and when you finally hear from them six months later they don’t seem like the person you once knew. Something is happening to them, although it isn’t particularly clear what.
I don’t claim to have found an exact sequence of events responsible for this. Doing so would require me to enter the belly of the beast, presenting the risk I may not come back with my findings. Instead, I’ve been maintaining a heightened awareness for any discussion of the topic. Passing comments embedded in the discourse were singled out for analysis, and reconciled with other data in an attempt to isolate common factors.
The broad, overarching effects can be categorized as cultural and economic.
(note: I occasionally use Berkeley as a catch-all term that includes SF and the wider Bay Area; this is to avoid pedantic clarification that interferes with the sentence structure)
The background cultural environment
Berkeley, as an entity, contains many elements that undermine our values. Elements which corrode our community bonds, our epistemic processes and our instrumental capabilities.
To start with, Berkeley is, if forum polls and protests against Milo Yiannopoulos are anything to go by, possibly the most politically correct city in America. Basing a community that values free speech and open minded discussion in a place famous for social justice witch hunts is a really bad idea. Even if that community managed to insulate itself from the outside environment (which it didn’t) it would still need the air conditioner to work much harder than otherwise necessary to maintain a cool, level-headed atmosphere within its walls.
In addition to negative cultural traits being introduced from the background, the population of Berkeley and the wider Bay Area have similar demographic and cultural traits to the rationalist community. Putting those people together creates further feedback loops, on top of the original ones.
If we had founder effects before, now we have founder effects squared.
Negative traits that were present in a minority of our demographic can become so prevalent that they can achieve cultural fixation. Social maladjustment is relative, and mostly depends on the norms of the wider population. This means if a negative trait becomes normal, it can become accepted as the proper way to behave. Those without the negative trait are seen as abnormal, and those who oppose the negative trait become pariahs.
If you want a general example of this, think about how the wider world treats honesty.
Now what happens if that trait is, let's say, flakiness? What sort of effects might this have on the cultural valuation of reliability?
A quote from Zvi’s blogpost, On Dragon Army
I also strongly endorse that the default level of reliability needs to be much, much higher than the standard default level of reliability, especially in The Bay. Things there are really bad. When I make a plan with a friend in The Bay, I never assume the plan will actually happen. There is actual no one there I feel I can count on to be on time and not flake. I would come to visit more often if plans could actually be made. Instead, suggestions can be made, and half the time things go more or less the way you planned them. This is a terrible, very bad, no good equilibrium. Are there people I want to see badly enough to put up with a 50% reliability rate? Yes, but there are not many, and I get much less than half the utility out of those friendships than I would otherwise get. When I reach what would otherwise be an agreement with someone in The Bay, I have learned that this is not an agreement, but rather a statement of momentary intent. The other person feels good about the intention of doing the thing, and if the emotions and vibe surrounding things continue to be supportive, and it is still in their interest to follow through, they might actually follow through. What they will absolutely not do is treat their word as their bond and follow through even if they made what turns out to be a bad deal or it seems weird or they could gain status by throwing you under the bus. People do not cooperate in this way. That is not a thing. When you notice it is not a thing, and that people will actively lower your status for treating it as a thing rather than rewarding you, it is almost impossible to keep treating this as a thing.
This isn’t quite the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it still seems more reminiscent of an example referenced in Meditations on Moloch, where everyone shocks themselves eight hours per day so everyone else doesn’t kill them, than a desired feature of a thriving community.
These background effects not only magnify the original problems caused by existing demographic tendencies, but actively put up barriers to addressing them. When a negative attribute present in some individuals becomes woven into the cultural fabric, it becomes much more difficult to unravel. Even if it makes the community worse off on the whole, individuals can benefit in ways analogous to special interest groups. People with the trait that was previously frowned upon now get accommodations around it, ranging from a free pass to continue the behaviour, to resources being spent in order to limit its repercussions. People who can leverage the new incentive structure for their own benefit find their way into the community. These special interests like the new status quo, and will often resist any efforts to take away those advantages. After all, it is in their interest to do so.
Squared founder effects are present in other areas too, and cultural blindspots often mean people aren’t even aware of their repercussions. For example:
Social turnover has increased to the point where it has major effects on incentives
This section requires some introduction, given the heading is semantically empty without some background familiarity. To maximise understanding, I’m taking it right back to fundamentals, and working up from there:
Turnover, in a general sense, is the rate that something is replaced by something else.
- In an inventory sense, that something is existing stock getting sold and replaced by new stock.
- In an employment sense, turnover is the rate at which employees who are fired, promoted or voluntarily leaving get replaced by new hires.
- In communities, turnover can be thought of as the replacement rate of both people and cultural values.
Communities, especially culturally individualistic ones, generally have a neutral attitude to turnover. People coming and going is seen as the inherent state of things. Values naturally shift as existing members age or drift out, and fresh recruits have new ideas and priorities. Resisting cultural change is seen as futile at best, and stodgy conservatism at worst. Trying to keep people within a community is the sort of thing cults do.
The business world, however, has a much greater awareness of turnover’s direct costs and wider consequences. Well-functioning organisations develop strategies designed to reduce both its rate and impact. They realise turnover can greatly inhibit an organisation’s ability to function.
The causes of community turnover, and why some places and time periods have more of it than others, are perhaps best left to another essay. For now, here are some of turnover’s effects in the business world:
Loss of insider knowledge
Any information, be it strategies, heuristics, existing problems or operating procedures that don’t get written down are wiped from the collective memory of the organisation when a key employee leaves. This knowledge must be independently rediscovered each time this happens, incurring large opportunity costs for the organization.
Ramp up time for new recruits
It takes a while for new people to both absorb the domain specific information needed to make productive contributions, and become accustomed to the cultural norms of the organisation. This reduces average productive output as those new hires are working at a reduced capacity until they get up to speed.
Reduced coordination between individuals
The longer you know someone, the more detailed your mental model of them becomes. As you understand their idiosyncrasies and motives they become easier to communicate with. You are more likely to draw the right semantic conclusions from their words; the gap between what they mean and what you think they mean decreases. As you observe them cooperate with you on tasks, you can get a sense of their abilities and their trustworthiness. This is a mutual process that builds social capital, and that capital generates returns in the form of higher group productivity.
This process takes time, partially because it relies on deeper social instincts, but also because it requires the gathering of illegible information. Creating accurate information that could be transmitted to new employees is completely unfeasible. You can’t articulate how to adapt to someone’s idiosyncrasies for someone who isn’t you, and even if you could, most people couldn’t learn the same by reading about it. You can’t put "The CMO gives fake deadlines to the engineering team to make them work faster" in the induction handbook. As such, when an employee leaves, any social capital they have built is wiped from the balance sheet.
These effects also apply to communities in similar ways, with many similar consequences. In addition, there is a particularly damaging one that applies to all human social structures:
Significant turnover incentivises defection
If you are playing a million rounds of prisoner’s dilemma against an agent running the tit for tat strategy, it would be irrational to defect against them. If however, your game partner changes every round, you are incentivised to defect at every opportunity.
This is a pretty black and white scenario; most situations in the real world aren’t so binary.
Instead, this can be thought of as the extreme ends of a continuous spectrum:
On the right, where you are playing a million games, you have a strong incentive to build up a reputation for prosocial behaviour. On the left, where you are only playing a single game in isolation, timelines are so short that reputation capital has a 100% discount rate. Defecting in the present is rational if your future reputation is literally worthless.
As turnover increases, the mean amount of time an individual stays within a group decreases. The number of interactions (games) you can expect to have with each person drops. This moves the incentive structure leftward and brings along many of its consequences.
You could also add to the graph "maximum civilizational complexity at a given level of technology". The longer your timeline, the more social, institutional and financial investment you can make for the future. If you expect your great grandchildren to live on a plot of land, you can spend a year digging foundations for a castle. If you only expect to be there a week, you’d be better off booking an Airbnb.
This can go a long way towards explaining why many people hark back to the 1950s as a golden era - it’s the last time in living cultural memory we had low turnover. Technology has partially mitigated its effects, but is yet to fully substitute for the long term coordination abilities we had back then.
Maybe this is what Moldbug meant by "Cthulhu always swims left"?
Probably not, but it’s kinda fun to think about. If you’d prefer something a bit more plausible, consider how the turnover hypothesis can explain quite a wide variety of phenomena:
False economies - Decreasing quality of consumer goods
As the value of reputation decreases, the incentives to prioritize product features that can’t be listed on the packaging weaken. Quality is sacrificed for sales gimmicks and lower sticker prices. Businesses produce goods that are just good enough to sell, and pass through the legal warranty period, if applicable. Brands that had a longstanding reputation for quality saw less value being attributed to that and responded rationally by cannibalizing excess brand reputation in order to become more competitive.
Result: Businesses have to spend more on manipulative advertising to acquire new customers as they can no longer rely on quality design and engineering to keep old ones coming back. Rational customers have to constantly compare individual products rather than assume a brand’s entire product line is of good quality. Products have a lower ticket price but higher yearly cost of ownership due to requiring frequent replacement. The only group better off is landfill owners.
Human capital coordination problems - Massive college graduate underemployment.
Universities don’t teach you the skills needed in the business world. What’s forgotten is that they never did, it’s only just recently that there have been consequences for that.
New employees require training before they become productive, and this requires expenditure in both wages during training and opportunity costs of other employees needing to teach them.
Back in the good ol’ days, it didn’t matter if students graduated with no relevant skills. Companies didn’t expect it, they didn’t need them to. If a new employee was going to be there for the long haul, it didn’t matter if it took them a while to become productive. Net losses were totally fine for a few years when an employee would be contributing to the bottom line for decades.
It’s only recently, where business models have become less reliable, and skills become obsolete every five years, that employers demand recruits who can hit the ground running. On short time horizons, you need people who can solve your current problems and you need them to do it now. Even if you have giant cash reserves just sitting there, using it to train new recruits in presently-needed skills is a waste of money if you can’t anticipate your future demands for them.
Result: businesses which can’t plan for the future, a qualifications arms race, tulip subsidies, the quarter life crisis epidemic, deadweight losses from an underutilized workforce, locusts, darkness, death of firstborn sons.
Weakened social bonds - Most people have very few close friends
As people enter adulthood in modern life, they find it very difficult to make new friends.
It becomes hard enough that intelligent adults often seek expert advice on how to go about doing something that was so natural to them in childhood.
Have they somehow lost their friend making talents along the way?
No, the thing they lost was the conditions allowing friendships to form.
Up until graduation, you had been in a shared environment where you naturally interacted with the same group of people on a regular basis. There were large amounts of free time for you to talk to people, and you were in an environment where your peers were, to some extent, on the same team, and you shared most of the day to day joys and frustrations of that social environment. This convenient proximity, shared context and alignment of interests was a fertile breeding ground for friendship.
As you enter adulthood in today’s world, you will find that the tables are turned. Making friends used to be easy. Now it requires significant effort and planning just to keep the ones you have.
To start with, your 3+ year shared social environment where everyone is basically in the same boat is now gone. School has been replaced by the office, an environment where friendship-making is much more treacherous. There are hierarchies, co-workers look out for their own self-interest, staff transfer to different companies and departments regularly. The environment where you spend most of your waking hours actively discourages sincere friendships from forming.
Assuming you didn’t take a hosepipe to the web of strong connections you spent twenty years making in order to take a promising job offer in another state like cosmopolitan culture told you to, you still need to maintain your existing friendships. If you want to keep those bonds strong, you need to put it on your to do list. Another responsibility of adult life, that needs attending to when you get home after a long day at work and you’d really prefer to sit in front of a screen and vegetate.
Even if you have the spare willpower, and got the message from waitbutwhy while you were still young enough to do something about it, you are still up against strong cultural forces determined to rip your friendships apart.
A friend gets offered a job in another state? It doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time. It’s not like you are cutting off contact. But as time goes on, and you see each other less and less, your friendship enters LDR mode and System 1 enthusiasms wither in a gradual war of attrition. He probably won’t figure out what he’s lost until it’s too late.
On the other side of the cultural war? Too bad, even if you don’t hate them, they now lowkey hate you and everything you stand for.
Gets married? Even if they don’t move away, the cultural default is to prioritize the partner over maintaining a social life. Your friendship slides down the list of priorities until it ceases to be a priority at all.
Has a baby? With work and other life obligations, not to mention the child-hostile-by-default nature of most social gatherings, good luck scheduling a suitable time to see them.
Just find yourself drifting apart over time? Interests and values naturally diverge at a rapid rate compared to the pre-internet era where people shared a large informational context. Good luck getting back on the same wavelength.
You want to take conscious steps to preserve friendships as a large source of happiness in your life? If they don’t think you are weird or desperate for wanting to do such a thing, you’ll still be putting in a larger and larger share of the organizational effort as time goes on, leaving you wondering how much they really care.
Suddenly you’re 35 and you have no idea how you became so isolated.
If you are reading this site, you are lucky. Not just because you have access to some of the best insights on the planet, but because you have been exposed to a shared context strong enough to form deeper friendships out of*. Most interests don’t have enough of the right ingredients to form subcultures. Despite the popularity of Herman Miller office chairs, there aren’t many houseshares formed around a love of the Aeron. For an interest to form a subculture, it needs to be broad and distinct enough to stand out from universal values.
Many people take for granted how special rationalism is in this regard. The usual outcome when you divide people down to atoms is not individuals using their new-found mobility to sort into groups most suited to their idiosyncrasies, but a fragmented society of individuals, unable to really sync up with anyone.
Result: Vast swaths of people living lives of quiet desperation and a Beatles song unsure of their origins.
*I’m not against the sentiment that "maybe the real rationalism is the friends we made along the way". In fact, I’d like to preserve it. But the only way to preserve rationalism’s ability to do this in the long term is by keeping the mission, preventing our values from being diluted until they are no longer distinct from the default cosmopolitan culture. If you lose the mission, it isn’t long before a lack of differentiation means you lose the community as well.
Customer service - Loss of personal touch
Japanese society is, by modern western standards, very low turnover. It has many elements that clash with what could be called "liberal enlightenment values". However, there are elements caused by low turnover incentive structures that produce undeniably good outcomes.
Here’s an excerpt from the article Doing Business in Japan which recounts the writer’s experiences of customer service there:
Doing business with Japanese companies frequently resembles It’s A Wonderful Life. “Customer relationships” are not an empty phrase — many business relationships where one is approximately equivalent to a row in the database in the United States are, instead, expected to be relationships between two actual people.
This is occasionally exasperating, as a software person who doesn’t want to have to take someone drinking to sell a single SaaS account, but it is occasionally quite charming. Moving to Japan, particularly small-town Japan, was like visiting an old America that I had heard stories about but had never gotten the opportunity to experience.
For example, when I first came to Japan, I had no computer. I also had no money, because the plane ticket and setting up my household ate all of my savings. In America, this isn’t a barrier to getting a computer, because Dell will do a quick FICO score on you and then happily extend you $2,000 of trade credit.
Dell Japan, on the other hand, set me up with two phone calls with actual human underwriters at two Japanese financial institutions. Both had me fill out rather extensive forms (100+ questions — seriously). The first said “In view of your length of tenure at your employer and length of residence at your apartment, we don’t feel that your situation is stable enough to extend you credit.” The second said “Look, umm, officially, I am supposed to just tell you that we decline your business and wish you luck. Unofficially, the bank doesn’t extend foreigners credit, as a matter of policy. You’ll find that is quite common in Japan. I know, it is lamentable, but I figure that you’d be able to save yourself some time if you knew.”
So I gave up for a while, but mentioned to a coworker later that week that I really wanted a computer to be able to Skype home. He said “Come with me” and we left, in the middle of the work day, to visit a bank. It is a smaller regional bank in Gifu. I’ll elide naming it to avoid the following story being personally identifiable, but suffice it to say it is a very conservative institution.
My coworker got a credit card application and asked me to fill it in. I did so, but told him “Look, two Tokyo banks, which are presumably about as cosmopolitan as Japanese financial institutions get, just shot me down. One of them explicitly did so because I’m a foreigner. The chance of this middle-of-nowhere bank accepting a credit application is zero.”
“Don’t worry, I know the manager. Hey, Taro!”
Taro and my coworker had gone to school together.
“Patrick here just started working with us. He wants to buy a computer to call his parents, diligent son that he is, and needs a credit card to do it. Here’s his application. Make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, OK?”
Some weeks passed, and I assumed that I had been denied. Then there was a knock on my door early one Saturday morning.
It was bank manager Taro and an older gentleman who introduced himself as the Vice President for Risk Management of the bank. He promptly took over the conversation.
“You have to understand that we’re not one of those banks. We’re not some magical pot of money. Every yen we have is a farmer depositing against a bad harvest or a retiree’s pension, carefully husbanded over a lifetime. That is a sacred trust. We cannot lose their money. The bank has to be appropriately careful about who we lend that money to. Taro here tells me your trustworthy, so that is good. Even trustworthy young men sometimes make poor decisions. I need to know you won’t, so before I give this credit card, I have three questions for you.”
“Will you ever use this credit card to gamble?”
“Good. Will you ever use this credit card to buy alcohol?”
“Good. Will you ever give this credit card to a woman who is not your wife?”
“Good. Think darn hard before giving it to your wife, too. OK, you pass muster. Sign here.”
That was the first of a dozen stories which you wouldn’t believe actually happened about that bank. Taro correctly intuited when I started dating a young lady, and when we broke up, solely based on on my spending habits. He considered that part and parcel with looking out for my financial interests.
Taro stopped me from doing a wire transfer back to Bank of America to pay my student loans during the Lehman shock because Wachovia had gone into FDIC receivership that morning. I told Taro that I didn’t have an account at Wachovia. Taro said that he was aware of that, but that I used Lloyds’ remittance service to send wires, and Lloyds’ intermediary bank in the US was Wachovia, which might or might not be safe to have money in at the moment. I asked Taro how in God’s name does a banker in Ogaki, Japan happen to know what intermediary banks Lloyds uses in North America off the top of his head, and Taro said, and I quote, “There exists a customer of the bank who habitually makes USD wire transfers using Lloyds and, accordingly, it is my business to know this.”
Taro called me on March 12th, the day after the Touhoku earthquake, to say that he was concerned about my balance in the circumstances (I had cleared out my account to pay a tax assessment minutes before the quake) and, if I needed it, to come down to the bank and, quote, we’ll take care of you and worry about the numbers some other time, endquote.
Taro eventually retired from his position, and as part of making his rounds, gave me a warm introduction to the new bank manager. He made it a point to invite me out for coffee, so that he’d be able to put a face to Taro’s copious handwritten notes about my character. Some years after that, a new manager transferred in. I popped by with a congratulations-on-the-new-job gift, mildly surprising the staff, but it felt appropriate.
When I moved to Tokyo, I went to the regional bank’s sole Tokyo office, which exists to serve their large megacorp customers. They were quite shocked that I had an account with the bank (“Mister! Citibank is down the street! If you use our ATMs you’ll get charged extra!”), and even more shocked when I told them that I run a multinational software company through it. “Wouldn’t you get better services with Citibank or Mitsubishi?” The thought of switching never crossed my mind. Indeed, I can’t imagine anything that would convince me to switch. They don’t make numbers big enough to compensate for how much I trust my bank.
Was I a particularly large account to the bank? Nope. It’s the same passbook savings account a 17 year old gets to deposit their first wages into. For 8+ of my ten years in Japan, my balance there was below $2,000.
The bank is one anecdote, but I could tell you about the hair stylist who drops me a handwritten postcard after every appointment, the restaurant that I went to weekly that tried to cater my wedding for free, the glasses shop which invited me to come back for a (free) frame re-bending and cup of coffee any time I was in the neighborhood, etc etc.
Japanese customers, in both B2C and B2B relationships, expect a level of personalized, attentive service which is qualitatively different than that in the United States. Anomalously good sales reps in the US are frequently operating at table stakes or below in Japan.
On the plus side, after you’ve actually won the business and demonstrated capability to serve customers to these standards, Japanese customers are very loyal. This is true both qualitatively and quantitatively. I’m aware of a Japanese SaaS app which, despite being sold at low price points on a low-touch month-to-month model (all predictive of relatively high churn rates) has a churn rate which would be considered exemplary for an enterprise SaaS app sold with high-touch sales on an annual contract.
Result: The subtext between us and our bank managers is far less homoerotic.
Conclusion and further examples
Turnover is a specific example of the concept Change (for the sake of change) Is Bad, consider this a public service reminder.
Now that turnover has been solidified in the abstract, I’ll introduce a few examples of where this has interacted with our community:
From one of Zvi’s comments:
The Berkeley/SF community has engaged in a systematic recruitment war to convince as many people as possible to leave their communities and move. They have done this claiming not only that it would be more fun but that it was the right thing to do, they have dangled promises and missions in front of them, then they have used the people who already moved to recruit their friends, and so on. For years I have watched my best friends, one by one, leave and then be the reason my other friends are considering leaving, as the rest of us struggled to hold together our lives and rebuild, worried that anything good we did create would just be ripped apart again. I have had pressure put upon me to move, as well, pressure that has made my life substantially worse.
A reply to it along the same lines:
I have lost motivation to put any effort into preserving the local community – my friends have moved away and left me behind – new members are about a decade younger than myself, and I have no desire to be a ‘den mother’ to nubes who will just move to Berkley if they actually develop agency… I worry that I have wasted the last decade of my life putting emotional effort into relationships that I have been unable to keep and I would have been better off finding other communities that are not so prone to having its members disappear.
Aside from luring people to Berkeley under false premises being bad for individuals, this also has effects on the people who remain in their local communities. As I mentioned earlier, the more uncertain the future is, the less investment you can make for it. Whatever the goals of the Berkeley community are, they should not include forcing others to build theirs above a rapidly eroding cliff edge.
Excerpt from a comment on the original Project Hufflepuff post, noticing that people have figured out how to exploit conditions caused by (and further exacerbating) turnover:
There are, by my count, at least 3 such parasites in the Bay community; and specifically they position themselves as the broken stair step right at onboarding, making the community feel "impenetrable and unwelcoming". The way how this happens operationally, is when I admit to some level of operational surplus (language skills, software development, business building), from these specific persons I get immediately asks of "Would you like to do free translation for me?" / "Would you like to build $website-idea$ for me?" / "Would you like to donate to $my-cause$?". I also notice that they don't do it this overtly to long-term members.
Note, the problem here isn't the ask. We do asks in entrepreneur-topia all the time. The problem is the lack of dealcraft: the asks are asymmetrically favouring the asker, and only offer vague lipservice-waving-towards-nice-things as return.
Presence of these parasites, and lack of dealcraft by these people reached equilibrium at having 'a strong culture of "make sure your own needs are met", that specifically pushes back against broader societal norms that pressure people to conform, because people who have been valuepumped hard enough can not sustain themselves in the Bay.
Raemon, Notes from the Hufflepuff Unconference (Part 1) showing an example of the high discount rate people have on prior reputation:,
I've seen several group houses where, when people decide it no longer makes sense to live in the house, they... just kinda leave. Even if they've literally signed a lease. And everyone involved (the person leaving and those remain), instinctively act as if it's the remaining people's job to fill the leaver's spot, to make rent.
The last two examples are particularly striking. They not only show effects which could not exist in low turnover conditions, but a failure of any kind of system to deal with them.
This leads onto the next section.
Reduced ability to mitigate problems
The environment of Berkeley exacerbates the aversion to confrontation. This is partially through squared founder effects, but also due to the background cultural norms.
This makes it a hell of a lot harder to address negative externalities being produced if doing so might cause some bad vibes.
As a collective, y’all need to grow a pair. But any individual who gains the resolve in spite of prevailing norms faces an uphill battle convincing anyone to rock the boat.
Until this changes, problems that require this method are only going to keep piling up.
If you want to have rental agreements, and to benefit from the ability to make such agreements, then you need to enforce them when they are violated. Not doing so sends a signal that they don’t actually mean anything; that people will not have to pay for costs they impose on others.
This is basically the iterated prisoner’s dilemma scenario where you keep accepting "oops, I didn’t mean to press the defect button!" as a reason not to give the punishment you’ve pre-committed to making. The game theory incentives don’t cease to apply just because someone is an Ingroup Member™.
If that happened in my grouphouse, and the person was not suffering financial hardship and instead decided to "...just kinda leave", then they would be paying the full cost stipulated on their contract. If they refused to do so, they would be prosecuted through the courts and listed on a publicly visible wall of shame for a five year period.
Sadly, I do not have the mandate to take those actions against the people in the example.
There are other problems with non-confrontation, too. Some quotes from Sarah’s In Defense of Individualist Culture:
College-educated Western adults in the contemporary world mostly live in what I’d call individualist environments. The salient feature of an individualist environment is that nobody directly tries to make you do anything.
If you slack off at work, in a typical office-job environment, you don’t get berated. And you don’t have people watching you constantly to see if you’re working. You can get bad performance reviews, you can get fired, but the actual bad news will usually be presented politely. In the most autonomous workplaces, you can have a lot of control over when and how you work, and you’ll be judged by the results. If you have a character flaw, or a behavior that bothers people, your friends might point it out to you respectfully, but if you don’t want to change, they won’t nag, cajole, or bully you about it. They’ll just either learn to accept you, or avoid you.
There are downsides to these individualist cultures or environments. It’s easy to wind up jobless or friendless, and you don’t get a lot of help getting out of bad situations that you’re presumed to have brought upon yourself. If you have counterproductive habits, nobody will guide or train you into fixing them.
Even if individualist culture comes out on top overall as Sarah claims, the last line I quoted has brutal consequences for anyone who didn’t subconsciously absorb how to behave in a social setting.
Instead of granting permission for people to tell them harsh but constructive things about their behaviours, they must either tolerate them forever, or discretely ostracise them.
What once could have been mostly addressed with a few months of uncomfortable mentoring now becomes, if they can’t solve the problem independently, a near incurable social leprosy that confines them to the outskirts of any functional community they wish to be a part of.
Even when solving a problem doesn’t require violating social norms, all problems require a nonzero amount of time and energy to fix. The amount of things an individual can solve varies based on their free time, work obligations and spare cognitive resources.
Now what effects might the economic realities of Berkeley have on that?
Economics - Time, Money, Spoons and future plans
Not to put too fine a point on it, but basing a community that’s not focused on maximising gross income in the most expensive city in North America doesn’t strike me as particularly rational.
Aside from the obvious fact that living in Berkeley is really expensive and people would prefer it if things were not so expensive, it’s the second order effects that are of greater concern.
Effects on time
Consider this hypothetical scenario:
A talented software engineer from Ohio, who writes blog posts and data analyses as a hobby, catches the attention of the Berkeley community. He has read all of the Sequences and has a willingness to Shut up and Multiply. He takes the claims of Berkeley’s superiority seriously, and after a short period of consideration, bites the bullet and decides to move.
Due to his impressive talents and phone interview performance, he manages to line up a job at Facebook’s Headquarters in Menlo Park. He dutifully hands in his notice at his low stress job in Ohio. They’re sad to see him go but they understand his decision; they can’t compete with the six figure salaries offered on the west coast.
He packs up his car with his most valued possessions and drives cross country to the supposed land of milk and honey. There is a room in a Berkeley grouphouse waiting for him.
There is a temporary decrease in his online presence, given the upheaval of moving. But everything will eventually return to normal, probably.
After the dust has settled, and months pass with nary a blog update, he recalls why he came to Berkeley: he came to to play his part in making the world a better place. Yet somehow, he now spends his creative energies implementing software features designed to get users to spend as much time as possible on Facebook in order to increase ad revenue. He lives in Berkeley. Facebook HQ is a 34 mile and 90 minute commute. Fifteen whole hours a week are spent in traffic.
Of the 112 conscious hours in every week, very few are his own.
50 hours are spent in the office
15 hours driving
7 hours in transition time between trying to fall asleep and getting in the car the next morning
5 hours of work emails
10 hours doing food shopping, cleaning, laundry and general yak shaving
7 hours cooking and eating evening meals
That leaves 18 hours with which to do everything else. 18 hours to socialise with housemates, exercise, go to events and stay up to date with his RSS feed. No wonder his blog is neglected.
Effect on spoons/ability to do anything else
In addition to having so little spare time, those eighteen hours are hours of cognitively drained, borderline exhaustion. There is talk that Berkeley has lost the mission, but under those constraints I’d find it remarkable if anyone could remember the mission.
With so little spare resources, it’s not a question of resisting Moloch. It’s how many months before you stumble, fall and get incorporated into his flesh.
In these conditions, you are severely lacking Slack:
Slack permits planning for the long term. You can invest.
Slack enables doing the right thing. Stand by your friends. Reward the worthy. Punish the wicked. You can have a code.
Slack presents things as they are without concern for how things look or what others think. You can be honest.
Only with slack can one be a righteous dude.
If you and everyone else in the community is exhausted, you don’t have the time or energy to resist outside pressures. The community will move in whatever direction the social winds decide to take it, without regard for the eventual outcome. Even if people wanted to push the mission forward, without slack they do not have the spare resources to do so.
Advancing rationality requires righteous dudes.
If we take as a given that sporadic efforts to advance the craft aren’t enough, and that it is an important goal to pursue, then people should donate money to support people working on it full-time.
Unfortunately, supporting individuals located in Berkeley is rather expensive.
(I’d give you hard numbers for this, but nobody responded to my request for data*.)
In addition, for-profit rationality projects based in Berkeley are under much greater pressures to produce something that people can charge for. Any project started on savings has a much shorter runway with which to produce results. Under these conditions, there is much greater pressure to produce something, and quickly.
This could go some way to explaining why CFAR, prior to its AI pivot, never really managed to produce much applied rationality. Doing so would have required going back to the drawing board and completely overhauling the curriculum, figuring out how to teach writing instead of literary criticism. It would require throwing out a proven business model, laying off the staff with mostly meta-level skills (judging by the roster that’s almost all of them) and taking the massive reputation hit of admitting failure of that magnitude. It would have probably gone bankrupt before it managed to live up to its acronym.
I don’t have sufficient inside information to say with any certainty that this was a reason for the pivot, but if it is, you can hardly point fingers. They are no more worthy of blame for this than people living under the Siege of Leningrad were for eating their pet cats.
*Perhaps they had too little slack to respond to data requests?
Future plans/life goals
Living in grouphouses with your friends is fun, but not everyone wishes to do so in perpetuity. There may come a time when you develop other, more traditional goals.
What if you want to want to get married, buy a house and raise a family?
Assuming you are a straight male, you first have to find someone you want to get married to. This isn’t an easy task at the best of times, and the tech industry’s effect on the gender ratio hardly helps matters.
Even once you have found someone, the only way to own a house in Berkeley is to inherit one or sell your startup to Google.
I’m only half joking. According a quick glance of Zillow most three bed houses are priced around one million dollars. In addition to needing a $200k deposit, you’d need a combined income of that just to qualify for the mortgage.
Even at today’s historically anomalous interest rates, you’d be shelling out around $48,000 after tax every year just on the loan, without accounting for maintenance, insurance or municipal taxes.
If like many rationalists you want to homeschool your children, one of you needs to be making around $200k per year just to live at a normal middle class standard of living.
Even if you do plan to send your children into the Prussian institution, up until that age, unless you can afford for one of you to stay at home, you are paying around $22,800 yearly per child to put them in daycare.
Surely this insanity will stop when planning departments see reason and approve more housing? Sadly, no.
The housing crisis is politically unsolvable
Contrary to perceptions, high paid tech workers make up quite a small percentage of the population in the Bay Area.
How small? Surely it can’t be less than a third?
It’s around twelve percent.
The rest are some combination of welfare recipients in rent-controlled apartments and locals who bought their houses way before google became a verb in the dictionary. In addition, there are people who bought in when houses were only $750k and have debt obligations resting on the premise that their tent made from two by fours and vinyl cladding is worth that sum.
These voters have a hell of a lot to lose if the current red tape is repealed. No petition can change that fact.
The coalition of established interests can outvote and outspend any effort put forth by housing reformists. So long as each homeowner stands to lose six figure sums from their net worth if they let the petitions go through unopposed, there will be a permanent deadlock on the status quo.
The rationalists took on Berkeley, and Berkeley won.
Berkeley doesn’t work for us. We work for Berkeley.
The economic and cultural realities of Berkeley cannot be changed, those realities can only change you.
Culture - Not taking the Sequences seriously
A surprising amount of issues raised previously were warned about in the Sequences.
Yudkowsky had the wisdom to document these pitfalls and attempt countermeasures, but going back they read more like foreboding than problems we managed to avert. As a collective, it seems we went "Sure dad, I won’t take the cheese off the platform", and the minute he looked away we were already flailing limbs around the room, trying to get the mousetrap off our finger.
Numerous examples come to mind, examples of things even prominent community members didn’t seem to really absorb. Eliezer, someone who is dedicating their life to AI safety, warned about the danger of the AI meme sucking the life out of other causes in 2009. Way before CFAR sidelined applied rationality Way before EA started to shift focus towards Xrisk, before the term "Effective Altruism" was even proposed. If nothing else, just warning this might happen demonstrated a remarkable amount of foresight for 2009; like saying Bitcoin will someday be worth thousands of dollars.
Lest you think he got lucky, or that I’m generalising from too few examples, what about the warning that communities often die because they won’t enforce standards? Or that to actually advance the craft of rationality you have to give a shit about something besides intellectual masturbation? Or that you can’t just stay in the comfort of the meta level, and that to produce real results you need to create object level craft that is relevant in the near future? Or the timeless observation that those who can’t do, teach?
You probably get the point.
The accusation in the title might be a little hard to believe, given how prominently the Sequences are displayed on this website.
Surely LessWrong would be the place where people took them seriously?
Not really. The Sequences might be front and center, but most people read parts of them when they joined, and felt they had done their duty. I suppose it’s like expecting Evangelical culture to be dictated by the book put behind every church pew.
Ignoring literal interpretations of dusty old texts in favour of the subcultural zeitgeist is the default path of all groups. Perhaps it was a little naive to expect us to be different...
Okay, we’ve covered quite a lot of ground here. Many detours have been taken to provide enough context to answer "what went wrong?" that it’s hard to remember where we’ve been.
Here is a summary of the central concepts.
We lost the mission because:
- Demographic factors formed feedback loops in multiple areas that reduced our ability to operate effectively.
- We chose to centralise in Berkeley which further exacerbated demographic feedback loops and added toxic cultural elements of its own.
- Those living in Berkeley were drained of ability to advance the craft or even uphold existing standards because its insane cost of living meant it allocated almost all of people’s time and brainpower toward their jobs.
- We decided to ignore the timeless lessons contained in the Sequences that would guard against our pre-existing negative tendencies, and instead paid attention to whatever bits of insight porn were doing the rounds on a moment-to-moment basis.
- These factors combined with each other much like the example from Elliot’s In support of Yak Shaving:
It’s the kind of scenario when you try to work out why the handyman fell off your roof and died, and you notice that:
1. he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
2. He wasn’t tied on safely.
3. His ladder wasn’t tied down.
4. It was a windy day.
5. His harness was old and worn out.
6. He was on his phone while on the roof…
And you realise that any five of those things could have gone wrong and not caused much of a problem. But you put all six of those mistakes together and line the wind up in just the right way, everything comes tumbling down.
Except that we weren’t trying to do something routine, so we probably didn’t need five out of six. Two or three would have been enough for us to fall.
What can we do about this?
To be honest, I don’t know what to tell the people of Berkeley.
You’re fighting an uphill battle in terms of demographics. The overlap between the demographic-related problems of the rationalist community and the area’s software industry is large. Vast quantities of resources have been thrown towards the goal of making programming more accessible to different demographics, with little in the way of progress.
In terms of environment, the economic and cultural realities present in Berkeley cannot be changed. You cannot vote to solve the housing problem. You can’t insulate yourself from epistemic threats. You are outnumbered and outgunned by established interests who don’t have any sympathy for our cause. Living there also means that a large proportion of your energy has to be spent staying alive, leaving you with weakened ability to address any issues you encounter.
In terms of culture; shall I tell you to go read the Sequences again? Half of you didn’t even read them in the first place. I mean, maybe if everyone went away and did that then things might improve slightly, but the real value is in implementing them. Aside from AI related things, Eliezer failed to inspire people to create the art the first time around. He signposted many potential pitfalls. We still ended up falling in most of them. You didnt listen to Yudkowsky’s repeated pleas to think of rationalism as systematized winning rather than talking like Spock. You sure as hell aren’t going to listen to mine.
If it’s any consolation, Berkeley’s economic and social problems are present in most other rationalist hubs too, just to a slightly lesser extent. What’s true of Berkeley is mostly true of Seattle, Boston and London.
Furthermore, any attempt to address these problems over the internet is futile. If it was possible to fix things with a few blog posts, someone would have already managed it. It’s pretty much a running joke at this point to say "I’ve outlined some vague details on how to solve the problem, someone should really get around to solving this".
So I’m not going to.
Instead, I’ve been creating an alternative solution elsewhere. I’ve been creating, not "I’m going to create". Too many projects ride the early wave of publicity and fall apart before ever making it to shore*. Far too many initiatives are announced, hoping that someone out there will finally take the initiative.
I am personally taking initiative. I’ve been doing so for the entirety of 2017. This essay was not written as a eulogy, but a reconnaissance mission. Sun Tzu once said "Know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles". Even if you have no interest in assisting my efforts, hopefully the information presented will be some assistance to yours.
If you personally intend to fix things in Berkeley, maybe I could give you some general advice. I could, but I don’t plan to. Aside from it adding two more cents to a pile big enough to put a kid through Harvard, if you need me to tell you what to do, you're not yet up to the task.
The rest of the essay is mainly focused on my project-specific solutions. If you’re curious about joining me, or are working on something similar and wish to steal my ideas, read on.
*The initial team has already moved to the alternate location.
The Craft and the Community - Resurrection
To have the best chance of success, you need to put as many factors on your side as possible. If you are attempting to climb a mountain, it would be unwise to fill your backpack with lead weights. Getting up there is hard enough. You don’t get any points for masochism.
To do better than Berkeley, we need to improve our Demographics. We need to be in a Location that allows us substantial slack with which to resist external incentives, and doesn’t constantly work to undermine our values. We need to create a strong Culture that upholds rationalist principles, that can stand strong in the face of entropic forces. A culture where implicit values don’t diverge from stated principles, where the ideology and the movement march in lockstep. A culture where incentive structures are intentionally designed to produce good outcomes, one that rewards beneficial actions and punishes harmful ones. A community where you don’t have to choose between doing the right thing and acting in your own self interest.
These are lofty aspirations. I’m not naive enough to think we will ever reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The thing is, we don’t have to. Each step towards that ideal is an incremental improvement upon which further steps can be taken. Even if we never arrive at the summit of Everest, Base Camp is still five thousand metres above the waterline.
As in the previous section, my strategies are outlined under the same broad headings.
Demographics - Getting a broad range of talents
This project doesn’t have a HR department. Doing tickbox diversity is not our goal.
Often underrepresented demographics have good reasons to be absent. Recruiting more violent criminals to reach parity with the general population is not a worthwhile endeavour.
The goal is to recruit not just underrepresented demographics, but undervalued ones. The rationalist community overlooks many of the strengths and perspectives not present in its core demographic, which limits its potential when it encounters an obstacle that requires talents besides logical analysis or writing code.
Related to that, there is a strong focus on narrowing the gender gap. Balancing the ratio will bring valuable strengths* and perspectives as well as allowing the full set of human needs to be met within the community. In addittion to allowing more people to get their romantic needs fulfilled, it lessens the diversion of attention and resources away from collectively shared goals. If potential partners are scarce then individuals will spend a large amount of resources competing for them in whatever way possible. This scarcity mindset exacerbates status competitions that corrupt rationalist values and weaken community cohesion. Even if you were one of the chosen few who are getting your romantic needs met, you woud still have to live in an environment where such competitions take place.
So how would you go about doing this?
*No, really. There’s a reason why women earn more than men in their 20’s. Women as a group are more conscientious and have better coordination skills, which are more valuable in large organizations. These are also skills which our community seriously lack.
Focus on in-person recruitment
Assuming you pick a location that has a wide variety of non-tech employment sectors, it will have a more balanced demographic to recruit from than Berkeley or the internet.
In addition, introducing someone to the concepts of rationality is far easier when you have an existing offline connection. Plenty of people operate using the heuristic that "If someone on the internet claims to have a grand overarching philosophy that solves everything, they are a lunatic". Given the track record of these claims, this is a pretty reasonable one. You can have much better success proposing unconventional ideas by being face-to-face and appearing competent, sane and likeable. If they find you trustworthy, people are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, remaining open minded long enough to understand ideas they would have otherwise dismissed.
People you attract from the local area will also encounter less friction when joining your community - if they want to take part, they won’t need to buy a plane ticket. People who haven’t just moved cities can often refer other people from their existing social network, in addition to having high value contacts that would be otherwise inaccessible, given their typically busy schedules.
The people who go to in-person meetups also have a higher proportion of traits underrepresented in the more internet-based demographic. As a collective, people who attend events are more extroverted, more enthusiastic, less anxious, more action-focused. They also have a more even gender balance. Traits, as a community, we could do with more of.
You shouldn’t just restrict yourself to the people who attend your meetups. There are other environments where you are likely to bump into people interested in your community. These vary by location, and are often hard to find when you are explicitly looking for them. Instead, being cognizant as you go about your day-to-day activities of places that contain a high proportion of people compatible with your values.
Create better introductory materials
Needing to read the Sequences is a bottleneck preventing far too many people from being part of our community*. Having to work your way through over two thousand pages of cognitively demanding text to evaluate if rationality is worthwhile or not is a pretty poor sales pitch, so it is unsurprising that few people take up the offer. Initially enthusiastic people who would otherwise become valuable community members fail to see any returns on their initial efforts, so give up early. Any demographic who reads to acquire information, rather than just for entertainment, struggles to get early returns from rationality.
If a Rationality 101 can be created that’s under a hundred pages in length** - an introductory guide that distills only the most valuable concepts and can quickly demonstrate concrete personal benefits whenever its concepts are applied - the bottleneck will be removed.
Rationality really is a common interest of many causes. The failure is communication, not a lack of practical benefit. The Sequences are tailored to the demographic that sees themselves as logical and analytical, enjoys science fiction, and is at the very least undeterred by reddit style atheism. Writing for a more general audience will help.
*I’m not contradicting what I said earlier. The Sequences are valuable, and should be read by longstanding members at least twice. I’m merely taking issue with it being an initial, albeit poorly enforced, requirement. A community familiar with trivial inconveniences should have no problem seeing why I think this.
**This is not the same as trying to take the 2400 page AI to Zombies, that relies on advanced concepts familiar mostly to 3SD autodidacts, and trying to compact and simplify it into 10 cracked.com articles. All previous attempts to do things like this have struggled massively. A different approach would be something more like taking all the visible parts that rationalists use on a regular basis, and teaching just those things. Perhaps a barebones curriculum would be something like:
- Why it’s important to update on evidence and how to actually change your mind
- How to notice when you might be wrong
- Stated preferences vs revealed preferences/signalling/almost nobody is doing what they say they are doing including you
- How to describe your internal experiences productively (sys1 vs sys2, possibly others)
- How to notice your own fake excuses
- Useful mental models that have passed consensus (MBTI yes, Kegan levels no)
- Practical general advice that has been vetted by the community for accuracy
Discovering the reasons that cause people to leave
Most startups obsessively track customer retention. They track quantitative metrics like new users, average rating and click through rate. They also pay attention to user feedback. What made them use the app? What features would they like to see? Are there issues impacting the customer’s experience?
The benefits of this practice don’t cease to apply just because you’re building a community rather than a web app. The "customer experience" of a community is just as important, it just has a different name and a different set of priorities.
While there is no need to chase metrics as aggressively as a startup, you need to know what things have an impact on your retention rate. This applies on both the micro and macro scale. If someone leaves your project, you need to find out why. You also need to find out what causes people to leave the wider community, especially those who belong to underrepresented demographics.
As such, here are some examples I could find:
- Group conversations being dominated by inaccessible topics (e.g. math, programming) or topics that fascinate the archetypal demographic (e.g. cryonics, AI, meal replacement solutions).
- At least one problem person present at every social event, either being creepy, loudly talking over everyone, aggressively hitting on women or just extremely socially inept.
Both of the above points would require a shift in the culture to allow someone to confront them. Until then, people who are fully on board with the concept of rationalism, but are unwilling to tolerate those issues, will continue leaving.
Champion existing members displaying the traits you want to see more of
To make newcomers from rare demographics feel welcome, often all it takes is for them to see one person similar to them being valued in spite of their differences. It’s certainly the case for me.
I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the rationalist community, despite being here for several years. If I attend a solstice, I’ll most likely be the only person in the room with a distinctive regional accent. Despite being superficially similar in appearance to most attendees, it’s unlikely I’ll end up in conversation with someone who shares my intuitions or background.
I’ve always found writing quite hard*. I struggle to write in the style that comes so naturally to many of you. I cannot think in lines of academic dispassion, only translate after the fact. This puts me at quite the disadvantage in any scenario where communication is implicitly expected to conform to that standard.
Despite liking rationalism, I find the cultural defaults of most rationalists quite alien.
A side effect of that is that this project has become a bit of a beacon for those types of people. Without revealing any specific details, the first 75% of the initial movers unknowingly shared a trait with an estimated occurrence in the community of less than 2%. Spooky.
Like attracts like; I’ve attracted a disproportionate percentage of people like me to this project by leading it. It seems possible that those effects could be replicated to some extent by encouraging people with other underrepresented traits to take on prominent roles in the project.**
*Believe it or not, it was my worst subject in school. And not because I was absolutely stellar at everything else, we’re talking bad as in 35th percentile of the population bad. Getting to where I am today required a lot of practice and purpose to motivate my efforts.
**Care needs to be taken not to create roles purely for the sake of inclusivity. We don’t want to end up the equivalent of a school nativity play with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, three crocodiles, two ostriches and a dancing banana.
Create a community those people would want to be a part of
It’s one thing to realise what those people offer us. It’s entirely another to question what we offer them.
If you scratch your head, or come up with answers like "community" or “interesting conversations” you are lacking a good value proposition. If that’s all you have to offer, why would they choose to join your particular community when there are hundreds of others offering the same thing?
To save this essay from getting even longer, I’m going to focus on two specific demographic groups: Feminine/people oriented women and Already successful people
Feminine/people oriented women
To establish background context, I’d suggest reading Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due To Offensive Attitudes and then watching (sorry, no transcript available) this 2006 Google TechTalk On Girls, Boys, and IT Careers made prior to the Overton window shift.
It may occur to you that for a community with such a large gender gap, we have a remarkable number of people-oriented elements. It strikes me as plausible that in today’s atomized world, there are several strategies that could be implemented to become a significantly more competitive option for this demographic:
More emphasis on norms that promote community
- Valuing things like loyalty, fairness and care for others. Remaining mindful of potential conflicts between those values and epistemic standards. Plenty of beneficial trades are possible when you start asking questions like "how can we use loyalty instincts to increase epistemic standards, rather than degrade into tribalism?"
- Tolerating elements of Benevolent Paternalism - this is not suited to everyone, but there are lot of people who live and work better in these kind of symbiotic relationships. There is a fair bit of value in having prominent figures who take responsibility, make difficult judgements and are trustworthy enough that you feel they have your best interests at heart. In addition to being able to solve coordination problems and stay mindful of the bigger picture, people who have the personality traits that allow them to deal with problem people swiftly but fairly. People who won’t buckle under social pressure to do what’s convenient in the short term. Not everyone can do this, it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will take responsibility and remain steadfast in high pressure situations. Paternalism has its failure modes, and when done wrong it is hard to distinguish from plain ol' authoritarianism, but if checks and balances can be implemented we should be able to improve on the democratic consensus model.
Not undervaluing female coded values, interests and skillsets
- In addition to community values, having a greater focus on the skills of empathy and general people awareness. For example, being able to notice when a conversation is prioritizing the interests of some people over others. You could do a top-down version of this by instituting rules on when topics like programming and AI talk can be discussed, but this will have side-effects and won't necessarily acheive the goal of making sure that conversations fulfill the preferences of all participants. Solivng this rather than just kludging it will be hard, given the widespread apathy towards non thing-oriented topics. A pragmatic and well implemented solution to this will probably involve some degree of assortative social groupings.
- (Cont.) The set of topics prohibited in mainstream contemporary society are valuable to discuss, but people launching into tirades at any opportunity the conversation strays in that direction because they can't stand the thought police is far from an ideal state.
- As a more general point on values and skillsets, critically evaluating whether a thing isn’t valued because it lacks utility or simply because it’s coded female. I understand this is harder than it appears because in order to not fall into the trap of symbolic appreciation you have to actually know why you as an individual would want to value it higher for non-political reasons. This is an underlying point that seems to underpin much of project Hufflepuff; skills like morale building have value, especially when we are dealing with such a shortage. (For a personal example of this, see the point earlier about women in their 20’s out-earning men for a reason)
- A greater value placed on Teamwork. Doing this will require the current feedback loop that bottoms out at "lone heroes do all the work but are fairly compensated with all the credit" to be interrupted in some way. Exactly how to break the cycle when most attempts to give credit to others looks like modesty signalling is not something I have an answer for yet.
Better onboarding and recruitment - Communicating our benefits
- Reducing inessential weirdness visible to new members - hard decisions will need to be made here. An awareness of the main causes of friction is the first step. Somewhere along the line, there will be people who can’t stop behaviours that are causing friction, and competing access need tradeoffs will have to be made. The least painful solution in the long term is to admit upfront that the probable solution will look something like what’s implemented in the business world, where engineering and sales are separate departments.
- Developing a marketing message that appeals to more people-oriented individuals. Emphasising things like how they can use rationalism to help others; how the information we produce is developed without a goal of making money, so it is free of ulterior motives. One of the dislikes mentioned in the TechTalk by the "femme" group was how the IT industry workplace segregates home and work life, so the way rationalist communities live in quite a “holistic” way where work, friends and relationships substantially overlap is a strong selling point when marketing towards people-oriented women.
- Another point from that talk was that women often got into an IT career because someone asked them a favour, and when they could see the results of their work they felt valued. This can be generalised into making sure non-typical members are given opportunities and will be valued for their contributions.
If you’ll forgive me for the crudeness, there is a danger this goal gets simplified to "say whatever things will get our dicks wet".
This is the wrong mindset, it’s probably not even the right one if that’s your terminal goal. If you want good outcomes in the long run, you need to focus on providing long term value, not generating short term interest by whatever means possible. If women who are incompatible with our values find their way into our community, they should be swiftly ejected, without regard for its effects on the yearly census data.
We don’t benefit from symbolic diversity, so it makes little sense to encourage it.
Already successful people
Successful people are almost always busy with something, and as such they place a high value on their time. They don’t suffer fools gladly, and have many competing opportunities not available to you or I. To get a feel for the dynamics at play here, read the sequence post Competent Elites assuming you haven’t already done so.
Attracting these people isn’t an easy task at the best of times, given everyone else is also competing for their attention. However, I have a few speculative guesses on how you can tip the scales in your favour:
- Quickly being able to demonstrate a clear value proposition - If you want their time, you need to demonstrate you aren’t going to waste it.
- Not resenting the disparity between what you or the community has and what they have. Sure, you might like to switch places, but they will likely walk if they detect jealous undercurrents. If your community is in a regional european city, this is a strong point in your favour. Regional hubs that haven't fully absorbed neoliberal cosmopolitanism can still be prone to tall poppy syndrome.
- Recognising not being jealous isn’t the same as not treating them different. Interacting with people at a higher stratum affects the incentive structure. Attempting to deny this fact is pointless. They know it, you know it, they know you know it. Instead, you should acknowledge it and leverage this common knowledge to mitigate the negative effects it may have on their community experience.
- (Cont.) this operationalises into things like not pestering them with requests for venture funding or employment opportunities for you and your cronies, and only making requests that will have mutual benefit. Remembering that they likely have an army of bootlickers and yes-men, so you offer no value to them by agreeing with everything they say. Knowing that very few people are immune to anti-inductive flattery, and if you can pull it off, they could grow to appreciate you a fair bit.
- Creating a community that is more than just the social group of last resort for the intelligent underachievers, depressives and socially clueless.
That last point is important, especially for us. Building a community that supports success in any area requires it to be more than a community for philosophy nerds. If we want to preserve the cultural capability and value of achievement, we need to prevent brain drain effects by building a community where members who become successful don’t want to leave. An environment where people can grow without worrying they they’ll grow out of us. Somewhere so satisfying that newly available opportunities still can’t compete with the place you’ve come to call home.
Environment - Manchester works for us, we don’t work for Manchester
If you have any kind of bohemian streak, the knee-jerk response to the inadequacies of modern civilization is to run as far away from it as you possibly can.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really anywhere for you to run to. You can’t return to the jungle. Even if you find an area unclaimed by civilization, your pasty-ass complexion* will need more than a loincloth to survive the equatorial sun.
Nor are you better off going back to the land. Ask anyone who has tried to grow their own food; self-sufficiency is far more difficult than it appears. People who are accustomed to the efficiency of modern supply chains greatly underestimate how much time and money is needed to survive without the grocery store.
The only way around civilization is through it.
The path around the circumference is littered with numerous skulls, intentional communities that tried to deny economic realities ended up much the same as governments who dealt with their budget shortfalls by printing another zero on the currency.
Given this state of affairs, how do you make the most of the situation?
By recognising that you don’t need to live in teepees to be as content as the Comanche Indians. Just like you don’t need to believe in Jesus to help the poor, you often don’t need the superfluous trappings associated with an outcome in order to achieve it.
In a more actionable sense, you figure out the constraints and time horizons you are working with, and you find the environment most likely to offer your community the best outcomes for its goals.
For us, the constraints are mostly financial, the time horizon is decades, and the goals can be approximated by the phrase "human flourishing".
*Sorry Alison, acknowledging your extra melanin would interfere with the narrative flow.
Prior to settling here, I wrote a fifteen page google document laying out my research quite roughly but in substantial detail. I have no intentions of rewriting that anytime soon, but I will elaborate on the selection criteria mentioned in the previous section.
To deal with our financial constraints i.e. that most of us need to work in order to survive, we prioritized places that had:
A low cost of living
Advancing the craft of rationality requires slack, so picking a location where living costs are relatively low gives us more freedom to pursue things that won’t earn money or will not do so in the near future.
An underappreciated portion of the budget for Americans is the cost of reasonable quality healthcare. Even the cheapest locations in the US have monthly insurance premiums that are almost as much as rent, even after subsidies. Healthcare in the UK is free for EU citizens. Non-EU citizens pay ~£60/month for insurance on >6 month stays, £200/year on temporary work visas and zero if they reside in the UK permanently.
Something else that deserves consideration is the tax rate at various levels of income. We want to be viable for people at both ends of the income spectrum, which means prioritizing places with little taxation of low incomes and reasonable rates across the board. In the UK people earning less than £1000 ($1300) gross income are paying less than 5% tax and people earning $100k (£76k) a year only pay 32% overall.
I am yet to complete a precise breakdown of living costs between Manchester and other locations like London or Berkeley, but as a rough figure, my total expenses, that include every bit of non-business spending, come in at slightly under £500/month ($660) when amoratized.
Decent hourly wages, and good job opportunities in our chosen fields
If not everyone is working remotely, you need to take wages into account when comparing purchasing power. It doesn’t matter if living costs are $200 a month if the local jobs only pay $1 an hour. You also need to pick a country where members will be legally permitted to work. These considerations ruled out most locations outside Europe for us.
Given the type of jobs our existing members do, we have to be in a place where there are good local opportunities to do them. This necessitated being in a large urban area.
On a timeline of decades, other factors come into play:
Stability of institutions and rule of law - You can’t accurately predict the future, but you can familiarize yourself with base rates. The last revolution in the UK was in 1688. The last time Oxford university had to suspend teaching was during the St Scholastica Day riot in 1355. Order and stability are heavily embedded values in the British culture.
Visa uncertainty over Brexit - Most of the key members hold UK passports. The risk that would have been generated had we based the project somewhere on the continent would have outweighed any marginal gains from doing so.
Housing supply - even after a decade of reurbanization, there is still enough housing stock available in Manchester, furthermore, the local government is greenlighting a substantial amount of development and has plans to continue doing so. House prices are below the UK average and are expected to stay that way. This is not the case for Berlin where low prices are caused by a glut of Soviet-built apartment blocks that are rapidly being occupied.
Future economic prosperity - being in a place where currently good circumstances aren’t a temporary alignment of the stars is needed if you want people to risk putting down roots. They need to know they are putting them in good soil. That what we are building isn’t doomed from the start by looming economic trends.
For the goal of human flourishing
Priority was placed on locations with a diverse range of industries, as they bring talented people with a wide range of interests and skillsets to an area. This also keeps a good gender balance. There was also a strong preference for an english speaking majority. Aside from being able to get menial jobs to pay the bills, rationality is hard enough for people to understand as it is, you don’t need to add a language barrier on top of that.
Not too atomized - Atomization is closely linked with turnover. This generally ruled out capital cities as they usually have a large proportion of people who moved there to pursue career goals. Human flourishing requires community, so it is unwise to try to create a community where norms that promote it are culturally discouraged.
A good public transport system
For a variety of reasons, car dependence is one of the factors that drive atomization and contribute to an increased rate of social turnover. Being cheaper than driving also helps.
A place with aesthetic beauty
Somewhere with a long architectural tradition and numerous old buildings increases its appeal to the creative class, helping to tip the scales in our favour. It’s one of the things Paul Graham recommends for trying to compete with silicon valley.
Culture - More productivity, less philosophy
If you want to beat the control group, you need to create a culture optimized for it. You can’t create human flourishing from the lowest common denominator present in our background demographics.
What does that even mean? How does someone go about creating a culture?
Just like intentional communities aren’t ones that formed by accident in some geographic location, an intentional culture is similar.
The purpose of an intentional culture is to stop values being dictated by happenstance.
At this point, the more socially adept readers are probably about ten seconds from posting this xkcd in the comment box.
They’re right, to a degree. You can’t just declare by fiat that from now on we are going to spend less time reading insight porn and more time doing useful work. Well, in a literal sense you can, but what will happen is most people will agree "Yes! This is a obviously useful rule that will make everyone better off" and then behave exactly as they did before.
This presents a dichotomy. On the one hand we have "everyone is doomed because people are slaves to their baser instincts" and on the other “if you post a manifesto on the internet then groups in verbal agreement will spontaneously reorganise to follow not only the letter but the spirit of the rules”. As with almost everything in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
As the xkcd points out, people are complicated. If you want to go about creating an intentional culture that actually fulfills its intentions, you need to have a decent grasp on how people and groups actually work. To pull something like this off, you need to be at least partly what I’d call a Ribbonfarm Sociopath.
This choice to label it sociopathy isn’t entirely mine, or Rao’s for that matter. This is the semantic hammer most people reach for when they get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain.
The reality is that civilization, as it exists today, relies heavily on the man behind the curtain in order to function.
I make no moral judgement on this, nor should you. It is a merely a description of current societal incentive structures.
I’m pretty sure that running civilization entirely on closed-source software is not the optimal end state, but right now, all effective leaders are still forced to rely on parts of it. The 2017 rationalist community in this regard is a lot like the state of open-source in the early 90s. There were promising moves in the right direction, but if you wanted to run an organization in that era, you still had to rely on tools made by Microsoft.
In a sense, the Sequences was for knowledge what the GNU project was for software.
It felt appropriate to name my project Kernel.
But that doesn’t make me Linus Torvalds, nor should it. An operating system that works on humans differs greatly than one designed for hardware.
I’m sure if you kidnapped 1993 Linus and tried to make him tell you how he was going to take open source from where it was then to where it was in 2003, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Even if you somehow got him to write 5000 pages of information and advice, you wouldn’t be able to follow the same trajectory. At best, he could give you some pointers in the right direction.
As such, here are some components. Some assembly required:
Insights about rules, meta-rules and designing monkey-resistant social structures.
If you want a set of ideals to be followed, you need to create an incentive system that supports those ideals. You also need to be especially careful to reward the thing, only the thing and not the symbolic representation of the thing. If you do the latter, you will only ever get the symbolic version due to its lower cost of production.
Subcultures are, by approximation, personality cults of their most prominent member.
A quick, label-heavy description of yours truly:
- AnCap in the sheets, Prudent Pragmatist in the streets
- Leads by example, judges people on ~60% outcomes/30% motives/10% style
- Guthix alignment, If a group leans too much in one direction I do the opposite to restore order to the universe
- Gryffindor primary, begged not to be put in Slytherin
- Wouldn’t have been too out of place in the Paypal Mafia, I’ll say no more
- Queering the people/thing binary
- Unpretentious enough to make the bourgeoisie uncomfortable
- Generalist skillset, Tsuyoku Naritai motives
It doesn’t fit into the bullet point structure, but I feel it is also worth saying that this project isn’t some discardable stepping stone to bigger and better things, I’m fully intend to watch my grandkids grow up here.
You need to have a strategy in place for dealing with MOPs before you are overrun.
Our current plan is to formalise varying tiers of commitment, and design it so people can get out what they are willing to put in. There is the concern that people will think this is elitist or undemocratic. It is, and they will have to make peace with that fact unless they provide a viable alternative.
With very few notable exceptions, if you want to get anything done in the world more complex than disrupting Shia LaBeouf’s Trump protest, you need some form of centralised leadership. Without it you will get stuck on coordination problems and are unable to benefit from hard to vocalise intuitions, long term vision or any action which requires information in the category of things you cannot say.
Maybe Hanson’s Futarchy will someday be developed enough to make BDFLs obsolete.
Until then, this is basically a Chesterton’s fence that any rationalist project leader with enlightenment ideals sees, tries to think of why it might be a bad idea to tear it down, finds some reasonable objections to do so but finds them unconvincing, tears it down, then a few months later orchestrates a restoration and petitions the federal government to register this particular Chesterton’s fence as a national historic landmark.
The Sequences were an excellent piece of writing, and I found it quite useful to reread them again to assist with my efforts, but it’s worth saying that the Sequences are not enough. They describe the qualities of a basketball player in intricate detail, but you actually have to go out and practice, operationalize the advice to the neuromuscular level, in order to win any games.
I tried fruitlessly to work some of Ben Hoffman’s essays into memorable anecdotes, but his writing is particularly hard to take small quotes from without losing context, so all I can do is recommend you read the full articles. Some particularly relevant ones are The Quaker and the Parselmouth, Sabbath hard and go home and Why I am not a Quaker.
Recognize you don't always have the convenience of operating in abundance
It would be great if I could afford an editor*, and get someone with more verbal talents to explain the ideas and write them up. It would be great if I could give this another month, work in a few important afterthoughts, and provide enough clarification to anticipate all pedantry. It would be great if I could test this on focus groups, and remove any sticking points that cause people to dismiss my ideas out of hand before baring my soul to the world.
I don’t have those things. I can only hope that my passion somewhat makes up for my lack of polish.
This generalises. Sometimes in the course of achieving a goal you have to take actions you’d rather not take. You often have to operate with too little time, money and manpower. You can’t afford to spend a month weighing up the pros and cons of a decision due in the coming week.
*it seems this point was particularly inspiring/guilt-inducing and a swarm of friends stepped in to help, although pasting into the beta editor produced a whole load of extra errors, which have now been fixed, mostly. Particular credit is due to Greg C, Corwin D, Alex D and John W for this, thanks guys.
This is the longest essay I’ve ever written.
No matter where Rationalism decides to call home, it will be up against vast social and economic forces trying to push it back into equilibrium. Any individual or group which dares to stand up to Moloch will be engaged in a constant struggle for survival. They need all the help they can get.
If I were to include research, producing this ~20,000 word essay has taken over a thousand hours of my time. I didn’t write this simply to provide conversation fodder for a Berkeleyan social gathering.
I wrote this in an attempt to find kindred spirits. People who, despite the prevailing social incentives, refuse to stop believing in the mission.
If you want to work with me toward this goal, please send me a message. You can do so through a private message here, on Facebook or by leaving a comment below stating your intentions. All questions are welcome, and I will respond to as many as I can.
If you skimmed the part where I introduced the project, its name is Kernel. It has a Facebook group you can join, an upcoming meetup in Manchester you can attend (Recurring the first Monday of each month, same time, same place) and extra group house capacity becoming available sometime in 2018.