Epistemic Status: Braindump, not as well thought out as I’d like.
- Project Hufflepuff
- The Archipelago Model of Community Standards
- The Craft is not the Community
- What is Rationalist Berkeley's Community Culture?
- Dragon Army Retrospective
This is a post about dynamics in the Berkeley rationality community, although it may be relevant to broader domains.
It is highly opinionated about what I think is important.
I tried to optimize this for a clear-cut goal, then realized the clear-cut goal was “I want to make it easier for people to cooperate with me on community-building, and I just want to do a massive braindump to get them up to speed on where I’m coming from, so that when I have a conversation about it we can skip to the harder parts."
If you are serious about rationalist community-building, read this, and then come talk to me afterwards.
When I visited the Bay in 2015, a friend (who used to live in NYC) remarked “you know, when I was in New York, I felt like once a week I went to ‘rationality club’. In Berkeley it feels more like I live in a small rationality village — there’s a couple hundred people, I’m friends with some of them. We bump into each other in the street on the way to the grocery store.”
Eventually I moved here, and yup. That is how it is. Sorta. With important caveats and problems.
There are lots of little subcultures in the Rationalist Bay, some overlapping. But I think there are two primary reasons people come:
- to have a Village – a home, among like-minded people
- to contribute to the Mission – ensuring the flourishing of human values (or something like them)
In the past 10 years, the Mission has acquired serious infrastructure. There’s been much less intentional effort to build a home. Mostly for good reason – the Mission is important, and hard. Competent People are Rare and the World is Big. Building a village is also hard, and if you’re able to do so, you’re probably also able to work on bigger picture Mission stuff.
The Mission provides juuuust enough value as a “home” to satisfice the people involved (which might not actually be sufficient for them, just decent enough that it's not their primary bottleneck).
In the past couple years, we’ve begun to see more serious efforts towards building Village infrastructure. But I think these efforts are often missing important aspects of the big picture.
This post is a high-level overview of how I think about all this. It’s quite long, and doesn’t condense neatly down into five words.
The Mission and the Village need different things.
The Mission ultimately needs to be outward facing. It’s about putting a dent in the universe.
The Village needs to prioritize people’s own needs.
I think these require different mindsets. and are easier optimize separately.
It’s important that the Village exist, on its own terms.
It so happens that the Mission needs to provide its members a home. One might build an explicitly Mission-centered-village. I think this is actually a good idea.
But I think it’s still valuable to have an actual Village, that doesn’t need to justify everything in terms of The Big Picture, universal flourishing, deeply understanding the world, or x-risk. If this is the only lens through which you build a home, your home will be impoverished.
It is important to have people and spaces that are optimizing for the village for its own sake, not as a subtle recruitment-for-the-mission strategy.
This is less important than the Mission (according to me). But still incredibly important. One crucial point of the Mission is that people have access to good villages. Atomic individualism has crippled our capacity for good villages. It is rare and precious that we actually have a shot at building one.
But. The reason this Village is special is that it is entangled with the Mission, in a symbiotic way.
If you are working on the Village, you actually need to understand the Mission. For two reasons:
- On the Village’s own terms, it depends heavily on the Mission’s energy, drive, mythology, and culture. Remove that, and I don’t think the Village actually works.
- Meanwhile, separately, the Village needs resources. It will have access to much more resources if it is Mission aligned. And I think there is room to be Mission-aligned while succeeding on the Village’s terms
The Village is not the Mission, and is not outward facing. But the Village should help you prepare for the Mission, if you want.
The Village still needs fences and standards.
There are lots of ways you can build a village, that don’t depend on any particular mission. But, no matter how you organize your village, it is going to need some kind of standard, some kind of costly signaling that works as a coordination mechanism.
People who end up drawn to the Village instead of the Mission tend to have an egalitarian instinct, and a desire to welcome everyone. I don’t think this works. The Village needs to be more relaxed than the Mission. But it cannot take care of everybody, and will overwhelm itself if it tries.
The Rationality Community, and the Village and Mission that I’m most excited by, are the ones at the center of this Venn Diagram:
I think truth, impact and being human can intersect in a way that is exciting, fulfilling, and important. I'm not sure I can justify this claim. But I know that the center-of-that-diagram is the community I’m most excited to build towards, and most excited to collaborate with people on.
If you’re serious, come talk to me.
If you are excited by this and want to put in serious effort into building a Village (either on the Village’s terms, or the Mission’s), I’ll make a good-faith effort to talk to you for at least an hour.
The rest of this post is my background models of how all of this fits together. My actual models are dense and nuanced and situation-specific. I think it’s important that people work on this, but there are a lot of ways to go subtly wrong.
If you’re interested in helping seriously, after reading this post and ironing out any basic confusions in the comments, come chat with me.
Issues with a Single Status Ladder
The Village and the Mission have their own virtues, and pathologies. They share at least one meta-pathology: the status hierarchies are illegible, and there are no fences anywhere to demarcate who is welcome where. When you arrive, instead of a fence, you'll find a swamp. You'll see some flickering campfires in the distance, but some of those campfires are misleading swamp gas.
The most obvious assumption is that there is a single status-ladder that goes all the way from "rando who just showed up who doesn't have any friends or skills" to "people who interface regularly with billionaires while making decisions that will hopefully impact the future light-cone."
- This can feel (and be) quite bad. In the same way that modern poor people are objectively wealthier than ancient kings, but when they compare themselves to modern celebrities they still feel a keen lack of resources... a person who would ordinarily feel socially secure instead feels a pressure to keep-up-with-the-Joneses (and the Joneses know Dustin Moskovitz)
- Even if you don't want to climb the status ladder, many of the people around you do. There is pressure upwards. Everyone is busy. Everyone has options. This makes it harder to build actually good friendships – Good friendships require space to just... chill. And to trust that you can continue to just chill when you need to.
- Many of the people who would be most competent at running the village quickly end up involved with Mission-centric orgs.
A lot of this isn't fixable. The state of the world isn't okay, and it needs Mission oriented people who are willing to dedicate their lives to it. Competent People Are Rare and the World Is Big. If you are capable of contributing to the Mission, I think that's good. It's regrettable if this means that you will not spend as much (or any) time improving the Village. But it would be even more regrettable if you didn't help tilt the arc of human history towards goodness in a scalable fashion.
But, I think there are some local improvements to be made. I think most Mission-aligned people should be at least "paying taxes" to help maintain the Village. I think there are skills people can gain which let them contribute to the Village on the margin. And understanding the situation might help others find additional improvements I haven't thought of.
The simplest change is a shift towards acknowledging at least two status ladders, and it must be possible to be high status within the Village, on the Village's terms.
What is the Mission?
The Mission is to make sure everyone can flourish.
The Mission has many subcomponents. It includes understanding the world. It includes being able to coordinate effectively with people who are already helping. It includes helping directly.
It includes helping people who are suffering.
It includes helping people who are not suffering, but the difference between who they are and who they could be is vast.
It includes fixing systems that are systematically broken.
It includes understanding things deeply for its own sake.
It includes figuring out how to think about people that don't exist yet.
Many elements of the Mission interplay with one way another, in ways that are hard to predict in advance. Other elements aren't related at all, but are nonetheless united in the fact that they steer the future towards something good.
The Mission is not morally obligatory, but is morally commendable.
The purpose of having morals in the first place is to help you make good decisions and coordinate. Some people naively decompartmentalize their moral beliefs and end up depressed and broken. A moral system that reliably does that is a stupid moral system and you should pick a different one.
I think if you demand that people notice bottomless pits of suffering, and dedicate their lives to it, you will incentivize people to not notice bottomless pits of suffering.
The Mission has easier and harder ways to contribute.
Nobody is Perfect, Everything is Commensurable. I don't think it makes sense for everyone to give 10% of their income to effective charity, but I do think that everyone can start saving 10% and donating 1% of post-necessities income, to help build the slack and resources to one day contribute more.
Even if all you ever do is give 1% of post-necessities income, that's fine by me. And even if you don't do any of this and just focus on flourishing, yourself, that's fine by me too – your flourishing is part of of the project of Human Flourishing.
And if you do donate 10%, as far as I'm concerned you've joined the ranks of the Mission. If you start to stress about whether you're "doing enough", yes, you are doing enough.
There are harder things you can do, many of which involve risk. I can't promise that they'll work, or that you'll come out okay. I can't explain what those things are because I don't know. One of the biggest elements of The Mission is figuring out what The Mission is.
The Mission is Network Constrained, and many of the best things you can do is move into a social situation where you automatically make connections that will help you learn, think and grow. Figure out what to do. Do it.
You are not obligated to undertake the hardest aspects of the Mission. You should not do things that aren't sustainable for you.
But it would be dishonest to pretend the Mission doesn’t need all the help it can get.
The Mission requires standards.
The Mission requires being able to say "Sorry, you are not yet good enough to do this job."
The Mission requires being able to say, sometimes "Hey, when we first started this project, we were small and scrappy and had to make do. We are now at a point where we need to raise our standards, and you will have to raise yours as well if you want to continue on this project."
The Mission requires sometimes saying "Your project has turned out to be net-negative, and is gumming up the works preventing other projects from succeeding, and you either need to radically change, or gain skills, or stop."
The Mission involves asking hard questions, over and over, and having the answers often be uncomfortable, painful, or horrifying.
The Mission cannot offer psychological safety.
This is quite bad for the execution of the Mission, since psychological safety is kind of important to actually get stuff done.
Also, the whole point of the Mission is for flourishing. At the very least, if the Mission destroys your ability to flourish, that's sad.
What is the Village?
The Village is for making sure that we can flourish.
We're all at different points in our lives, and need different things. The Village must account for that.
The Village is not the Mission. The Village must succeed on it's own terms – taking care of its people. But one of the reasons this village is special is that it helps you prepare for the Mission if you want to.
(Another thing that makes this village special is that it's build on aspirations of truthseeking. I’m not sure if all villages need to orient around truth, but I know that this one does.)
What is a good village?
A good village takes care of its members, and helps them meet their social needs.
A good village provides people with opportunities to bump into each other sporadically, in low-stakes settings, so that people can eventually develop deep friendships.
A good village helps people to raise children.
A good village provides avenues for people to grow – ideally it provides multiple arenas in which people can develop emotional skills, physical skills, marketable skills, intellectual skills.
A good village has escalating asks and rewards. Participating in village life involves at least some effort to pitch in occasionally and follow norms. You will get more out of village life the more you put into it (and villages are healthiest and strongest if, over time, they ask more of their members).
A good village has a way of dealing with bad actors.
A good village was a way of rewarding good actors.
A good village lets you be your whole self without compartmentalization.
A good village needs the slack to occasionally rescue villagers who are in bad situations.
An ideal village feels like home, and feels safe.
(Yes, this is somewhat in tension with the Village asking things of you. I think the solution is for the baseline asks to be something that a person can meet, even if they are sick or depressed for an extended period of time, but for putting in more effort to organically result in higher payoff).
A good village has fences, of some sort. Because the Village has the obligation to take care of its members, and because resources are limited... it necessarily follows that the Village cannot take care of everybody. Some villages have explicit barriers to entry. Others have vague social networks to navigate to get in.
If you have no fences, you most likely don't have a very good village.
A village is not (just) a community
A village accomplishes all of this at a scale that a "small community" does not. A village is a level of organization above community, which facilitates the create of small communities. A small community is in turn a larger organizing unit than "group of friends." Each level of scale provides different things.
A small community aims at many of the same goals listed above. A village helps generate communities that precisely match your needs. And a village grants access to a certain qualia that is somewhat different from a community, (which is turn a different qualia from "a group of friends.")
Alas, I can't really explain that qualia. If you don't have an intuitive sense of why it matters, I am not arguing that you should care. I can say, it's something like "being a part of something bigger than yourself" and something like "feeling like there's something powerful that has your back."
The current Berkeley community often does not have people's back, but it aspires to.
Who is "we"?
Good question. I have an opinionated answer for the Berkeley community in particular:
The Village is the people who organically came to live around a particular subset of the Mission – the part that noticed "Hmm, humanity is hurtling towards existential risk, and nobody is doing anything about AI, and people seem remarkably bad a thinking about all this," and then began clustering in Berkeley to make progress on that.
Now, since then, that organic growth has led to a wide variety of people, some of whom aren't here for the Mission – they're here because they have friends here, or they like rationally minded people but don't make a big deal about it.
There are people who care about the Mission, but not x-risk specifically.
There are people who care, but nonetheless find themselves more drawn to village life than a mission campaign. This is not only okay but good – if no one wanted to make the village their primary focus, the Village would not have the strength to succeed (either on it's own terms or the Mission's terms).
But it's important to recognize that this Village derives much of its energy from the Mission kernel that it formed around. That kernel was oddly specific, and it makes the village oddly specific.
Helping the Village to thrive requires understanding that.
Why must the Village relate to the Mission at all?
In the Old Days, villages were united by shared geography, family, history, and economic activity. But those things no longer bind together a village automatically. And the village needs something around which to cohere.
I have seen multiple villages, in particular created by the post-atheist-crowd, which failed.
They failed because, in an increasingly atomized world, they didn't offer anything that was special. They didn't filter for any particular subset of people, so the people didn't especially get along. They didn't have a shared mythology that inspired people towards the same aspirations. They didn't even have particularly interesting activities everyone liked.
People couldn't grow up together, so they grew apart.
It is not a coincidence that the Berkeley community is an honest to goodness village, whereas most social clubs are just vague networks that are barely any different from the alienating, atomized society around them.
The Berkeley village has a shared mythology, and a (reasonably) shared ethos. It has a clearer and more compelling vision of how to fit into the universe than any of the groups of atheists I met who awkwardly said to themselves "well, there's no reason we can't have a church, let's make one", but then didn't know the first thing about how to make a church, and didn't agree on enough principles to bind themselves together.
(For what it's worth, the other villages I'm most excited by are the Filk community, the Connection/Authentic-Relating community, and some dance or other activity-based communities)
Can't the Village at least move somewhere affordable?
A small community could leave Berkeley together. And if they just want each other's friendship, and neither care overmuch about the Mission or the Village, than I'd even recommend that. The are some pathologies in Berkeley that are actively bad, or good to get away from for awhile.
But you can't transplant the 300 people here somewhere else. It won’t work.
Why are cities more expensive than rural outbacks? Because the cities have stuff, and the rural outbacks don't. Cities have jobs. Cities have enough critical mass that no matter your special interest, you can find people also interested in that thing.
If you don't need the Stuff cities offer, you can live somewhere cheap. But empirically many people prefer paying extra for the stuff – that's why cities are expensive. The Most Important Stuff is the network effects. And yes there's some weird dystopian shit that go along with the network effects... but that doesn't mean the network effects don't matter.
A lot of the mythos and ethos of the Village depends on the Mission actually being real. This means trying for real, which means making tradeoffs for real, which means actually living near silicon valley billionaires and having good relationships with them – not only to get money from them, but to maintain high levels of trust and alignment.
The Big Orgs need to be near the billionaires and many existing ecosystems that surround them. The small orgs need to interface with the Big Orgs. The people who are interested in working for the small orgs, or Big Orgs, or founding new projects that might one day interface with the system, need to be nearby.
The villagers who are just here to feed of their energy are drawn here and not to random other places because of that energy, and critical mass.
There might be other places that could sustain a Mission Oriented Village, and you might be able to build a Totally-Not-Mission-Oriented-Village, but either case requires actual strategizing and not just picking a someplace random and cheap. (I think the EA Hotel has a decent shot at creating an affordable hub, but importantly, it involved thousands of dollars and years of free energy injected into the system)
(Note that insofar as you think the Mission is fake or in danger of becoming fake, yes, I think that means the Village is correspondingly weaker)
Does the Mission need a Village that’s separate from the Mission?
Does the Mission need the Village, or does the Village only need the Mission?
The Mission definitely needs to make sure the social needs of its members are met. This includes making sure they can make friends and can be psychologically healthy.
There are multiple strategies the Mission could employ for this, and I think most of them look something like building Mission-centric social spaces. Habryka has some thoughts on this (different from mine), that make more sense to call a “university” than a village.
But I think the Mission still benefits from having a nearby Village where people get to explore the Mission, over a timescale of years. And for that to really work, it needs to be a live option to say “okay, it turned out the Mission was not for me”, without meaning that the years you invested were wasted. (And, importantly, without pressure to deceive yourself about whether the Mission is for you)
I don’t really care about the Village. Should I?
Eh, probably not.
To me, the Village and the Mission are both deeply important, and obviously so. If you’re a Mission oriented person who doesn’t feel like they’re lacking anything, or if this entire essay feels pointless to you, I don’t think there’s a secret point I understand that you don’t that’ll change your mind.
You either feel that there’s some kind of village-shaped hole that you want to fill, or don't.
I don't live in Berkeley. Should I move there?
Maybe. But probably not for the sake of the Village.
For years, the Village was neglected. Over the past couple years, people have taken a stab at building real Village Institutions. But we have a huge amount of social-technology-debt that we have yet to repay. The Village still struggles to take care of its own people.
I think it makes most sense to move to Berkeley if you already have a strong sense of who you would live with. It also makes sense if you already have a Mission-related-job lined up, since the Mission actually has more infrastructure built. And it makes sense if you're willing to put a lot of effort into building the Village (or Mission) around you as you go.
A thing that works for some people is "visit there for a few months, and see what it is like, and whether you can successfully find a home."
If you do move to the Berkeley, try to replace yourself first.
Ask not what your Village can do for you.
Lately, I've been very Mission focused. I will continue to be Mission focused.
But I want a good home. I want a good village to support me during the times when I need help, and I want (counterfactually, behind the veil of ignorance) to have had better opportunities in Village-related-domains.
In my own immediate future, I want better opportunity to strengthen friendships in repeated low-stakes interactions. Right now I'm able to do so, in part, because of people who put time and effort into Village-esque activities. One of my worries is that those people will burn out, or eventually transition into more Mission-esque domains that consume more of their time, or simply move away. And there are not enough people to replace them, let alone strengthen the foundations.
If you are similar to me, you probably want to spend at least a bit of your resources helping build the Village.
What does the Village need? I think there are basically two lenses to look at this question.
"Low" Effort Things
What things can you do periodically that will help the village, without costing you much, if you don't expect to be able to commit to building village institutions longterm?
Examples, escalatingly difficult, include:
- First, maintain 30% slack, as a general rule. Don’t overexert yourself. Make sure you have the spare resources to handle emergencies, otherwise instead of helping you'll end up needing help.
- Keep your commitments, whatever they are. (This may mean making fewer commitments, or being clearer about how reliable you expect to be. You can be a Prophet or a King)
- Help pay money for things. (This can scale up and down pretty easily). Don't overdo it if you don't have at least $10k in the bank to make switching jobs and apartments easier.
- Generally be a good citizen
- If you're at an event, notice what things the organizer could use help with. Take out the trash. Greet people you haven't met. Introduce them to people you think they'd like and who'd like them.
- Or, better – help people around you be good citizens. Embody Hufflepuff Leadership.
- Be a co-organizer – formally agree to help out someone running an event.
- Run a one-off party or meetup. Be deliberate about who you invite – make sure to invite people who'll have fun together, but also try to invite some people you don't know as well. Add surface area that lets people bump into each other and becoming friends. The world depends on you throwing a party.
- (You can turn one-off-parties into repeated institutions, although I recommend starting out just with the goal of trying a new thing without committing to the long haul).
- Arrange your housing situation such that you can offer people a place to crash for a week. (This is part of a general strategy advocated by Kelsey Piper about making sure your community has the slack to absorb random emergencies, help people when they lose their job, get them out of abusive situations, etc)
- Notice when you are in a group with fences, enough such that it's worth investing in coordination to make that group better. (Group houses are a good natural fit for this)
- Run the occasional event that requires and/or builds a skill (rationality skills or otherwise). These are harder than a generic party, but they are the easily-forgotten core of the village's soul. I've seen people come to Berkeley and be disappointed that most of the events felt like glorified speed-dating. They came for the rationality and didn't find any. There is pent-up demand for serious growth (without the pressure that comes from working on it professionally.)
High Effort, Long Commitment Things
Are you a competent person who cares enough about the Village to stick around, and actually build Village Institutions that scale? Can you do so in a way that doesn't burn you out?
Some things are only actually worth doing if you're going to stick with them.
The problem where Competent People Are Rare and the World Is Big doesn't just apply to the Mission, it applies to the Village too. One of the reasons I think REACH is valuable is it provides scalable village goods – it's existence lowers the barrier to entry for holding new events, and getting situation.
I think we could use more things in this reference class (which I think would plausibly be worth serious fundraising for)
- I suspect REACH could use more people that dedicate serious longterm effort towards making it run smoothly, and I think there is demand in the community for at least 1-2 additional copies of REACH-esque organizations that run on different aesthetics, operate in different neighborhoods, and target different people.
- Group Housing – more/better tools to help coordinate this.
- Solving Bureaucracy for people. There could use to be someone who knows all the doctors and therapists and housing situations in the area, who can help people navigate them.
- Think hard about burnout and figure out how to help people systematically with it.
- Build longterm programs that help people train skills.
Meanwhile, a meta-skill that should be running in the background is to always be working to replace yourself in whatever capacity people rely on you.
This is particularly true if you have the skill of “figure out what needs doing and do it.” That skill is super rare. But if you can figure out what to do, then train someone else to do it, and move on, you’re in a position to add a lot of value.
Integrity and Accountability
Right now, the Village is fairly anarchic. This seems fine – most of the ways to make it non-anarchic seem more likely to turn it into a cumbersome bureaucracy than to actually help.
This means, though, that the current mechanism for someone doing a major project is “Pick up a flag, and start running forward yelling excitedly, and hope that villagers and funders run after you.”
This has a few issues. The dynamic between Village leaders and funders is stressful for both.
Funders don’t commit enough to seriously helping with Village endeavors for Village Organizers to trust in the system. Village Organizers don’t have much choice other than picking up a flag and run forward without looking back. If they waited for funders, nothing would ever get done.
But running forward with a flag doesn’t have any kind of accountability built into the system. Since there’s so few Village projects, funders sometimes feel vague pressure to support whatever *has* gotten started, without really checking if it’s good – and then later, they have to either cut funding for something that people have come to rely on (which sucks), or… keep funding something subpar, potentially net negative (which also sucks).
Oliver Habryka recently crystallized some thoughts about integrity and accountability that I think are relevant here. Think hard about who you want to be accountable to.
A common mistake is to make yourself accountable to “the public”, which means you can’t defend decisions with concepts more complex than about five words.
Another mistake is not be accountable to anyone, or to only be accountable to people very similar to you. You need a wide enough variety of people to be accountable to that you have a decent chance of getting called out on your mistakes. You also need enough stakeholders that you can build a large enough coalition to get the resources you need.
So my suggestion is to be pro-active about seeking out accountability. Find people you trust, who you will actually listen to, from a few different perspectives, who can give you important feedback about how your projects fit into the broader ecosystem. Be ready to change (or if necessary, abort) your project given their feedback.
If you’re in the Village for the long haul, or want to build village-like spaces for the Mission, chat with me.
I think the Village is quite important, but there are a lot of nuances to get right when trying to build something for it.
I’m fairly busy these days, and can’t meet with everyone. But if you’re interested in serious longterm Village work (say, putting at least 2 years into it, especially if you’ve been pretty reliably showing up and helping out in smaller ways), then I’m interested in having a fairly serious talk with you and helping to get you started.