Seeding a productive culture: a working hypothesis

by Benquo3 min read18th Oct 201715 comments


Social & Cultural DynamicsWorld Optimization
Personal Blog

This is a compact account of my current working hypothesis for what's wrong with our culture and what needs to be done.

I'm not trying to explain my reasoning fully here - some of this I've already covered, some I plan to cover later. I expect no one to be persuaded by this post - but I hope it's helpful context. And this is just my current best guess, subject to change as I learn more.

There are many subcultures that seem okay, but the dominant, elite, world-ruling culture is a homogenizing, commodifying force. This culture is ultimately self-defeating - it is currently at war with itself and in the process of destroying its own attention - but it is unfortunately the only culture I know of that has the tools to do life-extension research and space travel.

Because the central regime has lost most of its deliberative capacity, persuading it to change is not an option. We need a sustainable alternative.

There are alternative “sustainable” cultures. Some are even growing. Earthship is an example. But the ones that have avoided triggering society’s immune system are mostly not complete in the relevant sense - they're not the sort of thing that make efficient use of the whole accessible universe, for human flourishing. In particular, they seem targeted for static sustainability, not technical or intellectual progress. “Sustainability” is not quite the right term. A culture that is productive, and trying to live, would be closer.

There have been revolutionaries who tried to seize power and reform the whole system at once. This usually ends in either catastrophic failure, or more of the same, unless it is a conservative revolution like the American one. The problem is that optimizing for seizing power can easily destroy the information you might want to preserve about how to do better.

Instead, we need to construct a seed that will grow into the right thing. This seed needs to be sustainable at all levels, not something that will only pay off at the last stage. This is how you avoid failures like revolutionary Communism. It also needs to grow, without being dependent on growth. If you don’t grow, you don’t replace the empire. If you depend on growth, you may not actually be productive, and may instead collapse when you reach the limit of your range.

We need an alternative that does not depend on permanent growth, but knows how to make and retain intellectual and technological progress.

I’m currently trying to think through the attributes of the seed myself, but I’m not going to be enough. So I’m going to see if I can bootstrap my way up to this. I’m hoping that public discourse about the problems of the modern central system will help me find others with the ability to work out what’s needed. I’d like to identify a small number of people - six seems about right - to live in a house together for six months, build shared models, and work out what to do next.

The participants should have already demonstrated ability to participate in the relevant discourse. Thus, my recruiting funnel is also my recruiting filter.

Living in a house together would help us learn to lean into information-sharing norms, as we share in the work of figuring out how to live well together. Things as simple as keeping the house clean would provide a concrete task where we all care about and experience the outcome. Unfortunately, this excludes people who already have their own families and are rooted in different places. I’m open to alternative proposals.

Here’s what I already think about the seed culture. Since there is no guarantee that this will be the last seed culture we ever need, scholarship is a pragmatically important part of this culture, as it will help us hold onto some steering power. Local production and trade are also important, for two reasons. They will directly help us orient our discourse around fundamentally honest shared-production norms, rather than fundamentally extractive shared-consumption norms. And they will help us resist central cultural programming. I am not sure full autarky is necessary, desirable, or even feasible, but local production of housing, child care, basic medical care, and some aspects of food (at least shared quality control of purchases from outside) seems like it would help us avoid some cost-disease traps, freeing up time for leisure.

This seed culture must be benevolent towards outsiders, and cooperate with slightly-distorted copies of itself, but must also put itself first and defend itself from threats, in order to close the feedback loop and limit the ability of the central system to extract things from it.

Because we are looking for something outside of homogenized modernity, we should look to ancient successes for guidance. The Greeks and Israelites are especially interesting, as are the early Chinese, since they all left lasting positive-seeming legacies. The YHWH Memorial blog is an example of the sort of reading of ancient texts that might be helpful for the project.

In the short run, a religion seems like more the sort of thing than a city, mainly because it’s a less overt challenge to the status quo, though having a physical site seems important eventually. But we probably have to learn from just about every paradigm available, because this is gonna be hard.

If you want in on something like this project, the best way is to try to contribute to the public discourse around the issues I've discussed. If you're afraid of saying things that are politically incorrect publicly, you can email me.

In addition to broadcasting my own signal, I'm searching for others. I'm currently driving across the country, looking for subcultures, intellectual communities, and other intentional communities that seem to be doing something interesting on purpose. Let me know if there's somewhere you think I should maybe go. Or, someone I should read. I'd be quite happy to simply support someone else's project, if there's a credible one out there.

This is not the only project that needs to be pursued right now - it's just the one I perceive myself to have a comparative advantage in.


15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:15 AM
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In terms of community modification/formation, I wonder whether people in our cluster are too eager to form new communities from scratch and too reticent to modify existing communities. If this view is correct, it might be best to optimize for finding a community that scores well according to non-malleable characteristics (e.g. the average intelligences of its members) while also being malleable on characteristics of interest. I hypothesize that most communities are lead by whoever in the community is least apathetic, so all that's necessary to mold a community along the dimensions of interest is to (a) make them like you (b) be the least apathetic person in terms of creating public goods etc.

It's a voice-vs-exit thing. If you don't believe you can persuade, negotiate, or otherwise change others' behavior unless they have no strong influences besides yourself or are already highly aligned with you, then you won't try voice-based strategies like trying to modify existing communities.

Well you will also need to use your voice if you are founding a new community from scratch, right? (In order to persuade people to join.)

I guess one way to think about it is that communities are defined by which people are considered high status, so breaking away to form your own community represents a step towards a different metric for judging status?

"Voice vs exit" schema distinguishes dialoguing specifically with the institution you're unsatisfied with from leaving it. The terms are just simple handles; "voice" is not meant to include literally all communication with anyone AFAIK.

I suppose you could think of this as exit via using voice with respect to a different institution (humanity). But technically any sort of "exit" that involves transactions with other agents (e.g. buying a train ticket out of town) is a sort of communication. I still think it's worth distinguishing from trying to contribute information to your local system from the inside.

I cannot live in the house myself in the short-to-medium term no matter its location because family, but would be willing to devote substantial time to in-person interaction with the project if it happened in NYC (or close enough that its people could travel here on weekends), and potentially provide some economic/logistical assistance to help justify a choice of location that made such interaction possible.

I appreciate the disclaimer that this is meant to give context and highlight options, rather than persuade the reader of the correctness of those options.

Can you explain why the American revolution was a conservative revolution?

in the process of destroying its own attention

Do people have thoughts on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing? I wrote some software that seems to have solved this problem for me, and I'd be interested to know if people think I should polish & release it. (I'm more skeptical than the average EA that we can easily determine the sign of EA interventions. If you can spend a few minutes brainstorming reasons why an intervention like this could backfire, and post the results as a reply to this comment, I would appreciate that. I've already thought of a reason that seems quite plausible to me.)

I'm currently driving across the country, looking for subcultures, intellectual communities, and other intentional communities that seem to be doing something interesting on purpose. Let me know if there's somewhere you think I should maybe go.

Can you be more specific about what you are looking for? Would the Church of Satan qualify? Stoicon? BIL? Stuff on this list? Individuals like Shinzen Young who have developed a following? (Background: I'm a compulsive list-maker and one of my lists is a list of subcultures that seem interesting to me. But I'm not sure which would be interesting to you.)

Thanks for the offer!

I tried to be a bit more specific about what I am and am not looking for in Why I Am Not a Quaker (LessWrong link here). Church of Satan seems like basically watered-down Quakerism or liberalism but I might be pleasantly surprised. Almost definitionally, since I don't already know of a group doing The Thing, and I haven't been living under a rock any group doing The Thing must be at least somewhat hidden or eschew marketing towards people like me. (If they're just not good at marketing despite trying, that's a bad sign, though not fatal.)

Some monasteries might score well on this criterion. Vipassana Center does OK. Doesn't need to be a formally incorporated institution. Shinzen Young is just a person & I'm looking for institutions, but if he's part of an interesting lineage (i.e. if he learned from teachers who also had an interesting following, and his students themselves go and do interesting things) then he might be interesting, even if there's no Shinzen Young Institute.

Recently I visited Arcosanti, Earthships, and the Santa Fe Institute. Currently in Chicago to visit the Committee on Social Thought.

Your lesswrong link is not a lesswrong link

American revolution was to defend Americans' traditional British rights and liberties against perceived central-state aggression.

Unfortunately, this excludes people who already have their own families and are rooted in different places. I’m open to alternative proposals.

Isn't this already a failure mode? The seed needs to be open to information integration but it can only gather informations from a small geographical area?

Obviously at some point these things need to be integrated. But if it has to be totally fractal then any strategy started by a single human is doomed anyway, because no individual human is all sexes, all relevant family types, all types of expertise, etc. My hope is that several people with deep shared models can go out and gather info and sync up periodically, much more easily than several people who haven't had a few months of deep conversation and inquiry together. Part of the reason my plan doesn't involve baked-in hierarchical command-and-control - even though that would make some things go a lot faster initially - is that the whole project may end when we notice that a very different structure is needed.

I'd be interested if I didn't already have a family. I think I lean more heavily on the autarky-seeking side of things than you. Because most forces seem to be pushing against it currently and some counter-veiling force seems to be needed to maintain even the status quo.

The Catholic Worker movement probably has a lot of what you're looking for.

Here's an example of one of their houses. I have spent a bit of time helping these guys fix up their buildings.

Just came across this collective humanist corporation thought you might be interested