[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien


Civilization & Cooperation

Wiki Contributions


It inspired me to add a line near the end, which I think should've been there in the original (so thank you):

There were two full chapters on slavery and conscription and indentured servitude, castes and patriarchy and institutional bigotry—all the various ways in which societies incorporate people into their machinery without respecting their dealbreakers, keeping them captive in roles they would not freely choose.

Er, I'm not sure why I would need a stronger statement, since the essay is describing civilization, which includes very coercive systems.

(There's an interesting sort of rhyme here with, like.  It seems to me that your first comment implies a goal of entertainingness, when the essay was not written to be entertaining (so much as informative/hopefully enlightening; entertainment helps to achieve that but isn't the primary thing to optimize for). And similarly, these later comments seem to imply a goal of describing how to achieve a good civilization, when the essay is simply trying to describe what civilization is, in practice (with the idea being that once you know what it's made of, perhaps you'll be more able to make it good).  Your comments seem to me to want to dock points for missing targets that aren't being aimed for in the first place.)

Mmm, I don't think that anything that I've said in the essay contradicts that.  Like, I think you have leapt to a stronger conclusion about what I believe in than what I actually believe.

(e.g. I don't think the essay makes any claim resembling "the whole system of land ownership and rent was designed with majority interests in mind." That's sort of a strawman, in the sense that it's much easier to knock down than what the essay actually says.)

There's a big difference between "this system had no dealbreakers"/"this system was designed such that every participant was getting an epsilon more from participation than they expected from breaking its rules" and "this was designed to actively please the most people."

Seems much more deceptive and dark-artsy to me; I disagree that's "the cool way" (or if it is the cool way in some objective sense, those are the cool kids I'm avoiding like the plague).  I'm also not into the idea of effortfully creating very wrong versions of views so that I can then have fun knocking them down.

The actual historical reason it's structured this way is not because I was trying to optimize for coolness or convincingness or w/e but rather that I tried for three years to produce the fully-fledged sequence and it kept not happening and I decided it was better to get some kind of abbreviated version of the content out (rather than nothing) and this was the format that ended up allowing me to write it at all.

I think this post was good as something like a first pass.

There's a large and multi-armed dynamic in modern Western liberal society that is a kind of freezing-in-place, as more and more moral weight gets attached to whether or not one is consciously avoiding harm in more and more ways.

For the most part, this is a positive process (and it's at the very least well-intentioned). But it's not as strategic as it could be, and substantially less baby could be thrown out with the bathwater.

This was an attempt to gesture at some baby that, I think, is being thrown out with the bathwater. I think it succeeded, in that a lot of people were like "huh! Wow! Never realized that someone might like X, and I agree that if you like X it would be good if there were ways for you to get it, so long as those who don't like X can continue avoiding X."

But I don't think that it did much more than make some people go "huh." I don't see many other people talking more about which socially-frowned-upon things are actually okay for them personally, and thus normalizing them, and thus setting up a counterpressure against boundary creep. I don't see many people acknowledging, or doing anything with, the insight that (metaphorically) we shouldn't ban sports just because some people have glass bones.

In particular, I would have liked to see, and hope to someday see in the future:

  • Theorizing as to how a society could have smarter boundaries, rather than simply making the boundaries wider and wider each time it realizes that some people are still being harmed
  • Direct phenomenological reports from people doing things like CoZE and exploring what happens when they tread near social boundaries vs. near personal boundaries
  • More concrete suggestions from the people whose personal boundaries are already being violated under social norms (or just more reports from those people in general; the ones who spoke up below all got strong upvotes from me).

I think the essay small-f failed in that it was so reasonable that it maybe didn't spark enough controversy? Or not controversy per-se, that's not a thing to Goodhart on. But I think it didn't leave enough of a sense of open dangling conversation to cause people to continue talking about it and write their own nearby posts, etc.

Which maybe they wouldn't've anyway; maybe this just isn't that interesting of a problem to most people. But I suspect that this is actually quite a large problem for quite a large number of people, and what's actually going on is that I failed to connect these thoughts to [the thing that's draining half of the light from their lives]. Among other things, this is an essay about the epidemic of touch-starvation that is rampant in our culture, and it didn't manage to recruit any of the people who care about that, for instance.

I'm very glad I wrote it, I just wish it were ... more.

This piece was reasonably well-appreciated (over 100 points) but I nevertheless think of it as one of my most underrated posts, given my sense of how important/crucial the insight is. For me personally, this is one of the largest epiphanies of the past decade, and I think this is easily among the top three most valuable bits of writing I did in 2022. It's the number one essay I go out of my way to promote to the attention of people who already occasionally read my writing, given its usefulness and its relative obscurity.

If I had the chance to write this over again, I might possibly make it longer and more detailed? I'm torn/conflicted. I don't like that short bits of writing tend to be taken less seriously than longer ones; I would prefer a world where the brief essays packed a punch commensurate with their value rather than their weight. But rather than railing against that dynamic, I think I would just ... flesh this out, so as to give it more felt-sense seriousness.

I might, in such a rewrite, also focus more closely on the key point that blind spots don't live in one spot—they tend to be pervasive, and the way in which they tend to be pervasive is an inability to distinguish between lots of different things. If you're red-green colorblind and don't know it, there are thousands of places where it feels like people are drawing completely meaningless and made-up distinctions that literally don't exist; those two objects are literally the same color, what are you talking about? ... and I see this same sort of blindness crop up in e.g. the writings of people who aren't even aware that they're typical minding, or the behavior of people who don't even know that it's possible to not care about monkey status games, or the update procedures of people who can't tell the difference between a logically sound argument and rhetoric/demagoguery.

I think that increasing the general awareness of what a blind spot feels like, on the inside and what a blind spot looks like, from the outside would go a long way toward improving our ability to do collective rationality. It would improve our ability to wisely defer to one another. It would make it much easier to recognize what's actually going on, in situations where one side thinks the other is making mountains out of molehills, and the other thinks the first is callous or disingenuous or motivated by antipathy. It's a pattern whose shape appears all over the place, and recognizing that "blind spot" was a bad handle for it and "color blindness" was a less bad handle for it has been a huge boost for me, both in navigating my own blindnesses and in more quickly recognizing (and having more productive and constructive reactions to) the blindness of others.

I think this post is emblematic of the problem I have with most of Val's writing: there are useful nuggets of insight here and there, but you're meant to swallow them along with a metric ton of typical mind fallacy, projection, confirmation bias, and manipulative narrativemancy.

Elsewhere, Val has written words approximated by ~"I tried for years to fit my words into the shape the rationalists wanted me to, and now I've given up and I'm just going to speak my mind."

This is what it sounds like when you are blind to an important distinction. Trying to hedge magic things that you do not grok, engaging in cargo culting. If it feels like tediously shuffling around words and phrases that all mean exactly the same thing, you're missing the vast distances on the axis that you aren't perceiving.

The core message of "hey, you might well be caught up in a false narrative that is doing emotional work for you via providing some sense of meaning or purpose and yanking you around by your panic systems, and recognizing that fact can allow you to do anything else" is a good one, and indeed it's one that many LessWrongers need.  It's even the sort of message that needs some kind of shock along with it, to make readers go "oh shit, that might actually be me."

But that message does not need to come along with a million little manipulations.  That message isn't improved by attempts to hypnotize the audience, or set up little narrative traps.

e.g. starting with "There's a kind of game, here, and it's rude to point out, and you're not supposed to name it, but I'm going to." <—I'm one of the cool ones who sees the Matrix!  I'm brave and I'm gonna buck the rules!  (Reminiscent of a right-wing radio host going "you get punished if you say X" and then going on to spend twenty minutes on X without being punished.  It's a cheap attempt to inflate the importance of the message and the messenger.)

e.g. "I really do respect the right for folk to keep playing it if they want" <—More delegitimization, more status moves.  A strong implication along the lines of "the illusion that I, Val, have correctly identified is the only thing happening here."  Not even a token acknowledgement of the possibility that perhaps some of it is not this particular game; no thought given to the possibility that maybe Val is flawed in a way that is not true of all the other LWers.  Like the Mythbusters leaping from "well, we couldn't recreate it" to "therefore, it's impossible and it never happened, myth BUSTED."

(I'm really really really tired of the dynamic where someone notices that they've been making Mistake X for many years and then just presumes that everyone else is, too, and just blind to it in the same way that they themselves were. It especially rankles when they're magnanimous about it.)

e.g. "You have to live in a kind of mental illusion to be in terror of the end of the world." <—More projection, more typical minding, more ~"I've comprehended all of the gears here and there's no way anything else could lead to appropriate terror of the end of the world.  The mistake I made is the mistake everyone's making (but don't worry, I'm here to guide you out with my superior wisdom, being as I am ahead of you on this one."  See also the actual quote "for what it's worth, as someone who turned off the game and has reworked his body's use of power quite a lot, it's pretty obvious to me that this isn't how it works," which, like basically everything else here, is conspicuously missing a pretty damn important for me.  The idea that other people might be doing something other than what Val comprehends seems literally not to occur to him.

e.g. "I mean this with respect and admiration. It's very skillful. Eliezer has incredible mastery in how he weaves terror and insight together." <—Look!  See how I'm above it all, and in a position to evaluate what's going on?  Pay no attention to the fact that this incidentally raises my apparent status, btw.

e.g. "In case that was too opaque for you just yet, I basically just said 'Your thoughts will do what they can to distract you from your true underlying fear.' ... This is slow work. Unfortunately your 'drug' supply is internal, so getting sober is quite a trick." <—If your experience doesn't match my predictions, it's because you're unskillful, and making [mistake]...but don't worry, with my "yet" I will subtly imply that if you just keep on listening to my voice, you will eventually see the light.  Pay no attention to the fully general counterevidence-dismissing system I'm setting up.

Again, it's a shame, because bits like "If your body's emergency mobilization systems are running in response to an issue, but your survival doesn't actually depend on actions on a timescale of minutes, then you are not perceiving reality accurately" are well worth considering.  But the essay sort of forces you to step into Val's (broken, self-serving, overconfident) frame in order to catch those nuggets.  And, among readers who are consciously wise or unconsciously allergic to the sort of manipulation he's trying to pull, many of them will simply bounce off the thing entirely, and not catch those useful nuggets.

It didn't have to be this way.  It didn't have to be arrogant and project-y and author-elevating and oh-so-cynical-and-aloof.  There's another version of this essay out there in possibility space that contains all of the good insights and none of the poison.

But that's not what we got.  Instead, we got a thing that (it seems to me (though I could be wrong)) had the net effect of marginally shifting LW's discourse in the wrong direction, by virtue of being a popular performance piece wrapped around an actually useful insight or two.  It normalizes a kind of sloppy failure-to-be-careful-and-clear that is antithetical to the mission of becoming less wrong.  I think this essay lowered the quality of thinking on the site, even as it performed the genuinely useful service of opening some eyes to the problem Val has identified.

(Because no, of course Val was not alone in this issue, it really is a problem that affects Lots Of Humans, it's just not the only thing going on. Some humans really do just ... not have those particular flaws. When you're colorblind, you can't see that there are colors that you can't see, and so it's hard to account for them, especially if you're not even bothering to try.)

I haven't made up my mind about whether to ask that people not cross-post.  Until such time as I explicitly do (it would be a visible and hard-to-miss request, such as an author's note in several consecutive essays), please consider cross-posting fine.

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