Cross posted from the EA Forum.
Epistemic Status: all numbers are made up and/or sketchily sourced. Post errs on the side of simplistic poetry – take seriously but not literally.
If you want to coordinate with one person on a thing about something nuanced, you can spend as much time as you want talking to them – answering questions in realtime, addressing confusions as you notice them. You can trust them to go off and attempt complex tasks without as much oversight, and you can decide to change your collective plans quickly and nimbly.
You probably speak at around 100 words per minute. That's 6,000 words per hour. If you talk for 3 hours a day, every workday for a year, you can communicate 4.3 million words worth of nuance.
You can have a real conversation with up to 4 people.
(Last year the small organization I work at considered hiring a 5th person. It turned out to be very costly and we decided to wait, and I think the reasons were related to this phenomenon)
If you want to coordinate on something nuanced with, say, 10 people, you realistically can ask them to read a couple books worth of words. A book is maybe 50,000 words, so you have maybe 200,000 words worth of nuance.
Alternately, you can monologue at people, scaling a conversation past the point where people realistically can ask questions. Either way, you need to hope that your books or your monologues happen to address the particular confusions your 10 teammates have.
If you want to coordinate with 100 people, you can ask them to read a few books, but chances are they won't. They might all read a few books worth of stuff, but they won't all have read the same books. The information that they can be coordinated around is more like "several blogposts." If you're trying to coordinate nerds, maybe those blogposts add up to one book because nerds like to read.
If you want to coordinate 1,000 people... you realistically get one blogpost, or maybe one blogpost worth of jargon that's hopefully self-explanatory enough to be useful.
If you want to coordinate thousands of people...
You have about five words.
This has ramifications on how complicated a coordinated effort you can attempt.
What if you need all that nuance and to coordinate thousands of people? What would it look like if the world was filled with complicated problems that required lots of people to solve?
I guess it'd look like this one.
You're massively underestimating the upper bound.
I've interacted a bunch recently with members of a group of about 2 million people who recite a 245-word creed twice daily, and assemble weekly to read from an 80,000 word text such that the whole text gets read annually. This is nowhere near a complete accounting of engagement with verbal canon within the group. Each of these practices is preceded and followed by an additional standardized text of substantial length, and many people study full-time a much larger canonical text claiming to interpret the core text.
They also engage in behavior patterns that, while they don't necessarily reflect detailed engagement by each person with the content of the core text, do reflect a lot of fine-grained responsiveness to the larger interpretive canon.
You might be closer for what can be done very quickly (within a single generation) under current conditions. But a political movement plenty of people are newly worried about which likely has thousands of members has a 14-word creed.
Nod. Social pressure and/or organizational efforts to read a particular thing together (esp. in public where everyone can see that everyone else is reading) does seem like a thing that would work.
It comes with drawbacks such as "if it turns out you need to change the 80,000 word text because you picked the wrong text or need to amend it, I expect there to be a lot of political drama surrounding that, and the process by which people building momentum towards changing it probably would be subject to the bandwidth limits I'm pointing to [edit: unless the organization has specifically built in tools to alleviate that]"
(Reminder that I specifically said "all numbers are made up and/or sketchily sourced". I'm pointing to order of magnitude. I did consider naming this blogpost "you have about five words" or "you have less than seven words". I think it was a somewhat ironic failure of mine that I went with "you have four words" since it degrades less gracefully than "you have about five words.")
Walmart coordinates 2.2 million people directly and millions more indirectly.
Even the boy scouts coordinates 2.7 million.
Religions coordinate, to a greater or lesser extent, far more.
The key to coordination is to not consider yourself as an individual measuring out a ration of words you can force x number of people to read. Most people never read the bible.
These are good examples that drive the point home.
They don't coordinate based on the nuanced information in it, either. Mostly they coordinate on a few very short statements, like:
Say you are Christian.
Go to church.
A much smaller group of people coordinates on a few more:
Give money to the church.
Run a food drive OR help build houses OR staff a soup kitchen OR ...
The Walmart example seems a little different, because it isn't as though working at Walmart is that different from any other kind of hourly employment. Mostly all employers try to get people to coordinate on a few crucial things:
Show up on time.
Count the money correctly.
Stock the shelves.
Sweep the floor.
And it seems to me there is never a shortage of preachers or employers complaining about people's inability to do even these basic things.
It looks to me like successful coordination on the scale of millions largely amounts to iterating four-word actions.
Agree, and I'd roll in the incentives more closely. It feels more like:
you have at most space for a few feedback loops
you can improve this by making one of the feedback loops a checklist that makes calls out to other feedback loops
the tighter and more directly incentivized the feedback loop, the more you can pack in
every employer/organization is trying to hire/recruit people who can hold more feedback loops at once and do some unsupervised load balancing between them
you can make some of people's feedback loops managing another person's feedback loops
Now jump to this post https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/09/ars-longa-vita-brevis/
another frame is that instead of thinking about how many bits you can successfully transmit, think about whether the behaviors implied by the bits you transmit can run in loops, whether the loops are supervised or unsupervised and what range of noise they remain stable under.
Heh, "read the sequences" clocks in at 3 words.
The point is not "rationing out your words" is the correct way to coordinate people. The point is that you need to attend, as part of your coordination strategy, to the fact that most people won't read most of your words. Insofar as your coordination strategy relies on lots of people hearing an idea, the idea needs to degrade gracefully as it loses bandwidth.
Walmart I expect to do most of it's coordination via oral tradition. (At the supermarket I worked at, I got one set of cultural onboarding from the store manager, who gave a big speech... which began an ended with a reminder that "the four virtues of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea company are integrity, respect, teamwork and responsibility." Then, I learned most of the minutia of how to run a cash register, do janitorial duties or be a baker via on-the-job training, by someone who spent several weeks telling me what to do and giving me corrective feedback)
(Several years later, I have some leftover kinesthetic knowledge of how to run a cash register, and the dangling words "integrity, respect, teamwork, responsibility" in my head, although also I probably only have that because I thought the virtues were sort of funny and wrote a song about it)
I think this post, as promised in the epistemic status, errs on the side of simplistic poetry. I see its core contribution as saying that the more people you want to communicate to, the less you can communicate to them, because the marginal people aren't willing to put in work to understand you, and because it's harder to talk to marginal people who are far away and can't ask clarifying questions or see your facial expressions or hear your tone of voice. The numbers attached (e.g. 'five' and 'thousands of people') seem to not be super precise.
That being said: the numbers are the easiest thing to take away from this post. The title includes the words 'about five' but not the words 'simplifed poetry'. And I'm just not sure about the numbers. The best part of the post is the initial part, which does a calculation and links to a paper to support an order-of-magnitude calculation on how many words you can communicate to people. But as the paragraphs go on, the justifications get less airtight, until it's basically an assertion. I think I understand stylistically why this was done, but at the end of the day that's the trade-off that was made.
So a reader of this post has to ask themselves... (read more)
The aspiring-rigorous-next-post I hope to write someday is called "The Working Memory Hypothesis", laying out more concretely that at some maximum scale, your coordination-complexity is bottlenecked on a single working-memory-cluster, which (AFAICT based on experience and working memory research) amounts to 3-7 chunks of concepts that people already are familiar with.
So, I am fairly confident that in the limit it is actually about 5 words +/- 2, because Working Memory Science and some observations about what slogans propagate. (But, am much less sure about how fast the limit approaches and what happens along the way)
I use this concept often, including explicitly thinking about what (about) five words I want to be the takeaway or that would deliver the payload, or that I expect to be the takeaway from something. I also think I've linked to it quite a few times.
I've also used it to remind people that what they are doing won't work because they're trying to communicate too much content through a medium that does not allow it.
A central problem is how to create building blocks that have a lot more than five words, but where the five words in each block can do a reasonable substitute job when needed.
Here are some attempted takeaways for things I've written, some of which were explicit at the time, some of which were implicit:
Covid-19: "Outside, social distance, wear mask."
Simulacra (for different posts/models): "Truth, lies, signals, strategic moves" or "level manipulates/dominates level below" or "abstractions dominate, then system collapses"
Mazes: "Modern large organizations are toxic" or "middle management destroys your soul"
Asymmetric Justice: "Unintentional harms count, benefits don't" or "Counting only harms destroys action" or similar.
Or one can notice that we are abstracting out a conclusion from someone else's thing, or think about what we hope another will take away. Often but not always it's the title. Constantly look to improve. Pain not unit of effort. Interacting with system creates blameworthiness. Default AI destroys all value. Claim bailey, retreat to motte. Society stuck in bad equilibrium. Etc.
Hierarchies (which provide information-cheap mechanisms for coordination) and associative processes (which get people with shared information closer, so less information exchange is necessary) both would seem to expand the numbers greatly from those you suggest.
There are examples of fairly complicated cooperation across many millions. For example, all the expectations behind credit card usage take many pages of contracts, which implicitly depend on many volumes of law, which implicitly depend on uncountable bits of history and social norms.
So, I think I optimized this piece a bit too much as poetry at the expense of clarity. (I was trying to keep it brief overall, and have the sections sort of correspond in length to how much reading you could expect people to read at that scale).
Obviously people in the real world do successfully coordinate on things, and this piece doesn't address the various ways you might try to do so. The core claim here is just that if you haven't taken some kind of special effort to ensure your nuanced message will scale, it will probably not scale.
Hierarchies are a way to address the problem. Oral tradition that embeds itself in people's socializing process is a way to address the problem. Smaller groups is a way to address the problem. Social pressure to read a specific thing is a way to address the problem. But each of these address it only in particular ways and come with particular tradeoffs.
Partial Self Review:
There's an obvious set of followup work to be done here, which is to ask "Okay, this post was vague poetry meant to roughly illustrate a point. But, how many words do you actually precisely have?" What are the in-depth models that let you predict precisely how much nuance you have to work with?
Less obvious to me is whether this post should become a longer, more rigorous post, or whether it should stay it's short, poetic self, and have those questions get explored in a different post with different goals.
Also less obvious to me is how the LessWrong Review should relate to short, poetic posts. I think it's quite important that this post be clearly labeled as poetry, and also, that we consider the work "unfinished" until there is a some kind of post that delves more deeply into these questions. But, for example, I think Babble last year was more like poetry than like a clear model, and it was nonetheless valuable and good to be part of the Best Of book.
So, I'm thinking about this post from two lenses.
... (read more)
- What are simple net-improvements I can make to this post, without sacrificing it's overall aim of being short/accessible/poetic?
- Sketch out the research/the
A productive thing to do here would be to try to reconcile the claim that a large number of people can't reasonably be expected to read more than a few words, and the claim that something like EA or Rationalism is possible at anything like the current scale. These are in obvious tension.
Another claim to reconcile with yours would be a claim that there's anything like law going on, or really anything other than gang warfare.
My claim is "a large number of people can't reasonably be expected to read more than a few words in common", which I think is subtly different (in addition to the thing where this post wasn't about ways to address the problem, it was about the default state of the problem in the absence of an explicit coordination mechanism)
If your book-length-treatise reaches 1000 people, probably 10-50 of those people read the book and paid careful attention, 100 people read the book, a couple hundred people skimmed the book, and the rest just absorbed a few key points secondhand.
I think it is in fact a failure of law that that the law has grown to the point where a single person can't possibly know it all, and only specialists can know most of it (because this creates an environment where most people don't know what laws they're breaking which enables certain kinds of abuse)
I think the way EA and LessWrong work is that there's a large body of work people are vaguely expected to read (In the case of LessWrong, I think the core sequences are around [edit: a million words, I initially was using my cached pageCount rather than wordCount] not sure how big the ... (read more)
I think this post is excellent, and judging by the comments I diverge from other readers in what I liked about it.
In the first, I endorse the seriously-but-not-literally standard for posting concepts. The community - rightly in my view - is under continuous pressure to provide high quality posts, but when the standard gets too high we start to lose introduction of ideas and instead they just languish in the drafts folder, sometimes for years. In order to preserve the start of the intellectual pipeline, posts of this level must continue to be produced.
In th... (read more)
I think the actual final limit is something like:
Coordinated actions can't take up more bandwidth than someone's working memory (which is something like 7 chunks, and if you're using all 7 chunks then they don't have any spare chunks to handle weird edge cases).
A lot of coordination (and communication) is about reducing the chunk-size of actions. This is why jargon is useful, habits and training are useful (as well as checklists and forms and bureaucracy), since that can condense an otherwise unworkably long instruction into something p... (read more)
This puts me in mind of the mandatory reading of a narrative memo they use at Amazon, which appears to conform to the 'several blog posts' level of coordination. It is hierarchically enforced, and the people who use it are the senior leadership which has, I assume, a capability distribution heavily weighted towards the top of the scale.
Also relevant is the Things I Learned From Working With a Marketing Advisor post.
Relevant twitter thread.
This is a retroactively obvious concept that I'd never seen so clearly stated before, which makes it a fantastic contribution to our repertoire of ideas. I've even used it to sanity-check my statements on social media. Well, I've tried.
I see where Raemon is going with this, and for a simplified model, where number of words is the only factor, this is at least plausible. Super-simplified models can be useful not only insofar as they make accurate predictions, but because they suggest what a slightly more complex model might look like.
In this case, what other factors play into the number of people you can coordinate with about X words?
Motivation (payment, commitment to a cause, social ties, status) Repetition, word choice, presentation Intelligence of the audience Concreteness and familiar... (read more)
I like this direction of thought, and I suspect it is true as a general rule, but ignores the incentive people have for correctly receiving the information, and the structure through which the information is disseminated. Both factors (and probably others I haven't thought of) would increase or decrease how much information could be transferred.
Okay, whenever I read this post, I don't get it.
There's some fermi-estimation happening, but the fermi is obviously wrong. As Benquo points out, certain religions have EVERYONE read their book, memorize it, chant it, discuss it every Sunday (or Saturday).
I feel like the post is saying "there are lots of bandwidth problems. the solution to all of them is '5'." and I don't get why 5.
So I read Ray's comment on Daniel Filan's review, where he says:... (read more)
I've found this valuable to keep in mind.
This immediately got me thinking about politics.
How many voters could tell you what Obama's platform was in 2008? But 70,000,000 of them agreed on "Hope and Change". How many could do the same for Trump? But they agreed on "Make America Great Again". McCain, Romney, and Hillary didn't have a four-words-or-less memorable slogan, and so...
So, an action coordination website should be able to phrase actions in four words?
This idea seems interesting, i'd love to see it somehow more formulated.
Do shorter kickstarter descriptions get funded more?
Do protest events on Facebook which have a shorter description get more attendees?
It probably also depends on personality - if you want to coordinate people who are high in contentiousness, you may need more words. for low contentiousness, less words. and if you want both, than you need to give a clear 4-word heading, and a bunch of nuance below.
Might LLMs help with this? You could have a 4.3 million word conversation with an LLM (with longer context windows than what's currently available) which could then, in parallel, have similarly long conversations with arbitrarily many members of the organization, adequately addressing specific confusions individually, and perhaps escalating novel confusions to you for clarification. In practice, until the LLMs become entertaining enough, members of the organization may not engage for long enough, but perhaps this lack of seductiveness is temporary.
Seems like today the size of the phone screen defines how much of the text one is willing to read (an unselected someone). It's still unclear what people do with it later and how much they retain. But reading in itself seems not so tightly limited; five-words-at-most is what I expect from billboards. But I also expect them to be more like roadsigns/reminders, not original messages (and really I would be surprised if someone treated the words as something beyond advertisement.)
Also, repeated exposure is a thing, which is often the case when one coordinates many people. And the ability of factions to work together although their "core texts" are very different.