Epistemic status: argumentative. I expect this to start a discussion, not end it.
“Company culture” is not, as I’ve learned, a list of slogans on a poster. Culture consists of the empirical patterns of what’s rewarded and punished within the company. Do people win promotions and praise by hitting sales targets? By coming up with ideas? By playing nice? These patterns reveal what the company actually values.
And, so, with community cultures.
It seems to me that the increasingly ill-named “Rationalist Community” in Berkeley has, in practice, a core value of “unconditional tolerance of weirdos.” It is a haven for outcasts and a paradise for bohemians. It is a social community based on warm connections of mutual support and fun between people who don’t fit in with the broader society.
I think it’s good that such a haven exists. More than that, I want to live in one.
I think institutions like sharehouses and alloparenting and homeschooling are more practical and humane than typical American living arrangements; I want to raise children with far more freedom than traditional parenting allows; I believe in community support for the disabled and mentally ill and mutual aid for the destitute. I think runaways and sexual minorities deserve a safe and welcoming place to go. And the Berkeley community stands a reasonable chance of achieving those goals! We’re far from perfect, and we obviously can’t extend to include everyone (esp. since the cost of living in the Bay is nontrivial), but I like our chances. I think we may actually, in the next ten years, succeed at building an accepting and nurturing community for our members.
We’ve built, over the years, a number of sharehouses, a serious plan for a baugruppe, preliminary plans for an unschooling center, and the beginnings of mutual aid organizations and dispute resolution mechanisms. We’re actually doing this. It takes time, but there’s visible progress on the ground.
I live on a street with my friends as neighbors. Hardly anybody in my generation gets to say that.
What we’re not doing well at, as a community, is external-facing projects.
And I think it’s time to take a hard look at that, without blame or judgment.
The thing about external-outcome-oriented projects is that they require standards. You have to be able to reject people for incompetence, and expect results from your colleagues. I don’t think there’s any other way to achieve goals.
That means that an external-oriented project can’t actually serve all of a person’s emotional needs. It can’t give you unconditional love. It can’t promise you a vibrant social scene. It can’t give you a place of refuge when your life goes to hell. It can’t replace family or community.
As Robert Frost said, “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
But Tesla Motors and MIT don’t have to take you in. And they wouldn’t work if they did.
Internally focused groups, whose goals are about the well-being of their own members, are intrinsically different. You have to care more about inclusion, consensus, and making the process itself rewarding and enjoyable for the participants. If you’re organizing parties for each other, making the social group gel well and making everyone feel welcome is not a side issue — it’s part of the main goal. A Berkeley community organization that didn’t serve the people who currently live in Berkeley and meet their needs would no longer be an organization for our community; you can’t fire the community and get another. The whole point is benefiting these specific people.
An externally-focused goal, by contrast, can and should be “no respecter of persons” — you have to focus on achieving good outcomes, regardless of who’s involved.
So far, when members of our community focus on external goals, I think they’ve done much better when they haven’t tried to marry those goals with making community institutions.
Some rationalists have created successful startups and many more have successful careers in the tech industry — but these are basically never “rationalist endeavors”, staffed exclusively by community members or focused on serving this community. And they shouldn’t be. If you want to build a company, you hire the most competent people for the job, not necessarily your friends or neighbors. A company is oriented towards an external outcome, and so has to be objective and strategic about that goal. It’s by nature outward-facing, not inward-facing to the community.
My own outward-facing goal is to make an impact on treating disease. Mainly I’m working towards that through working in drug development — at a company which is by no means a “rationalist community project.” It shouldn’t be! What we need are good biologists and engineers and data scientists, regardless of what in-jokes they tell or who they’re friends with.
In the long run, I hope to work on things (like anti-aging or tighter bench-to-bedside feedback loops) that are somewhat more controversial. But I don’t think that changes the calculus. You still want the most competent people you can get, who are also willing to get on board with your mission. Idealism and radicalism don’t negate the need for excellence, if you’re working on an external goal.
Some other people in the community have more purely intellectual projects, that are closer to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s original goals. To research artificial intelligence; to develop tools for training Tetlock-style good judgment; to practice philosophical discourse. But I still think these are ultimately outcome-focused, external projects.
Artificial intelligence research is science, and requires the strongest possible computer scientists and engineers. (And perhaps cognitive scientists and philosophers.) To their credit, I think most people working on AI are aware of the need for expertise and are trying to attract great talent, but I still think it needs to be said.
“Good judgment” or reducing cognitive biases is social science, and requires people with expertise in psychology, behavioral economics, decision theory, cognitive science, and the like. It might also benefit from collaboration with people who work in finance, who (according to Tetlock’s research) are more effective than average at avoiding cognitive biases, and have a long tradition of valuing strategy and quantitative thinking.
Even philosophical discourse, in my opinion, is ultimately external-outcome-focused. For all that it’s hard to measure success, the people who want to create better discourse norms do have a concern with quality, and ultimately consider this a broad issue affecting modern society, not exclusively a Berkeley-local issue. Progress on improving discourse should produce results (in the form of writing or teaching) that can be shared with the wider world. It might be worth prioritizing good humanists, writers, teachers, and scholars who have a track record of building high-quality conversations.
None of these projects need to be community-focused! In fact, I think it would be better if they freed themselves from the Berkeley community and from the particular quirks and prejudices of this group of people. It doesn’t benefit your ability to do AI research that you primarily draw your talent from a particular social group. It also doesn’t straightforwardly benefit the social group that there’s a lot of overlap with AI research. (Is your research going to make you better at babysitting? Or cooking? Or resolving roommate drama?)
Cross-pollination between the Berkeley community and outcome-oriented projects would still be good. After all, ambitious people make good company! I don’t think that the Bay Area is going to stop being a business and academic hub any time soon, and it makes sense for there to be friendships and relationships between people who primarily focus on community and people who primarily focus on external projects. (After all, that’s one traditional division of labor in a marriage.)
But I think it muddies the water tremendously when people conflate community-building with external-facing projects.
Does maintaining good social cohesion within the Berkeley community actually advance the art of human rationality? I’m skeptical, because rationality training empirically doesn’t improve our scores on reasoning questions. [I seem to recall, though I can’t find the source, that community members also don’t score higher than other well-educated people on the Cognitive Reflection Test, a standard measure of cognitive bias.] [ETA: I remembered wrong! As of the 2012 LessWrong survey, LessWrongers scored significantly better on cognitive bias questions than the participants in the original papers. So it’s still possible, though not obvious, that we’re in some sense a more-rational-than-average community.] If we’re not actually more rational than you’d expect in the absence of a community, why should rationality-promoters necessarily focus on community-building within Berkeley? Social cohesion is good for people who live together, but it’s a stretch to say that it promotes the cause of critical thinking in general.
Does having fun discussions with friends advance the state of human discourse? Does building interesting psychological models and trying self-help practices advance the state of psychology? Again, it’s really easy to confuse that with highbrow forms of just-for-fun socializing. Which are good in themselves, because they are enjoyable and rewarding for us! But it’s disingenuous to call that progress in a global and objective sense.
I consider charismatic social crazes to be essentially a form of entertainment. People enjoy getting swept up in the emotional thrill of a cult of personality or mass movement for pretty much the same reasons they enjoy falling in love, watching movies, or reading adventure stories. Thrills are personal (they only create pleasure for the recipient and don’t spill over much to the wider world) and temporary (you can’t stay thrilled or entertained by the same thing forever). Interpersonal thrills, unlike works of art, are inherently ephemeral; they last only as long as the personal relationship does. These factors place limits on how much value can be derived from charisma alone, if it doesn’t build more lasting outcomes.
That means personality cults and mass enthusiasms belong in the “community-building” bucket, not the “outward-facing project” bucket. Even from a community perspective, you might not think they’re are a great idea, and that’s a separate discussion. But I’m primarily pushing back against the idea that they can be world-saving projects. Something that only affects us and the insides of our heads, without leaving any lasting products or documents that can be shared with the world, is a purely internal affair. Essentially, it’s just a glorified personal relationship. And so it should be evaluated on the basis of whether it’s good for the people involved and the people they have personal relationships with. You look at it wearing your “community member” hat, not your “world-changing” hat. Even if it’s nominally a nonprofit or a corporation, or associated with some ideology, if it doesn’t produce something for the world at large, it’s a community institution.
(An analogy is fandom debates. Sometimes these pose as political activism, but they are really arguments about fiction, by fans and for fans, with barely any impact on the non-fandom world. Fandom is a leisure activity, and so fandom debates are also a leisure activity. Real activism, as practiced by professionals, is work; it’s not always fun, has standards for competence, and has tangible external goals that matter to people other than the activists themselves.)
I think distinguishing external-facing goals from community goals sidesteps the eternal debates over “what should the rationalist community be, and who should be in it?”
I think, in practice, the people who go to the same events in Berkeley, live together, parent together, and regularly communicate with each other, form a community. That community exists and deserves the love and attention of the people who value being part of it. Not for any external reason, but, as they say in Red Dawn, “because we live here.” We are people, our quality of life matters, our friendships matter, and putting effort into making our lives good is valuable to us. We won’t choose the universal best way of life for all mankind, because that doesn’t exist; we’ll have the community norms and institutions that suit us, which is what having a local community means.
But there are individual people who are dissatisfied because that particular community, as it exists today, is not well-suited to accomplishing their external-facing goals. And I think that’s also a valid concern, and the natural solution is to divorce those goals from the purely communitarian ones. If you wonder “why doesn’t anybody around here care about my goal?” the natural thing to do is to focus on finding collaborators who do care about your goal — who may not be here!
If you’re frustrated that this isn’t a community based around excellence, I think you’ll be more likely to find what you’re looking for in institutions that have external goals and standards for membership. Some of those exist already, and some are worth creating.
A local, residential community isn’t really equipped to be a team of superstars. Certainly a multigenerational community can’t be a team of superstars — you can’t just exclude someone’s kid if they don’t make the cut.
I don’t want to overstate this — Classical Athens was a town, and it had a remarkable track record of producing human achievement. But even there, we were talking about a population of 300,000 people. Most of them didn’t go down in history. Most of them were the “populace” that Plato thought were not competent to rule. 90% of them weren’t even adult male citizens. I don’t know how you build a new Athens, but it’s important to remember that it’s going to contain a lot of farming and weaving along with the philosophy and poetry.
Small teams of excellent people, though, are pretty much the tried-and-true formula for getting external-facing things done, whether practical or theoretical. And the usual evaluative tools of industry and academia are, I think, correct in outline: judge by track records, not by personal relationships; measure outcomes objectively; consider ideas that challenge your preconceptions; publish, or ship, your results.
I think more of us who have concrete external goals should be seeking these kinds of focused teams, and not relying on the residential community to provide them.