EA should help Tyler Cowen publish his drafted book in China
Tyler Cowen was on the Jan 9th episode of ChinaTalk, a podcast hosted by Jordan Schneider.
China Talk Substack: https://www.chinatalk.media/about
At 39:45 Tyler mentions writing a book to improve US relations with China that will likely never be published. We should help him publish it!
Edit: Tyler is interested although worried about censorship
I transcribed this part of the podcast with Whisper, so there may be mistakes. Go listen to the entire episode anyway, it’s worth a listen.
So shortly, millions of Chinese nationals who’ve been playing World of Warcraft their entire lives will no longer be able to. I’m curious, how important shared cultural touchstones, like video games, the NBA and Marvel movies are to keeping the peace?
I don’t know, we had plenty such touchstones with, say, Germany before World War I, World War II, it didn’t matter. But certainly worth trying, you know, I had my own project to improve relations with China, which failed, by the way. I wrote a manuscript for a book, and my plan was to publish it only in China. And it was a book designed to explain America to the Chinese, and make it more explicable, more understandable. So I wrote the book, I submitted it to Xinhua, which gave me a contract, even paid me in advance. But then a number of events came along, most specifically the Trump trade wars, and the book never came out. They’re still sitting on it. I don’t think it will ever come out. That was my, you know, you could call it, misguided project, to just do a very small amount to help the two countries get along better.
Wow, what were your, what were your themes?
Well, if you think of Tokvill, he wrote democracy in America, so that Europeans would understand America better, right? So I thought, well, if we’re trying to explain America to Chinese people, it’s a really very different set of questions, especially in the 21st century. Though I covered a lot of basic differences across the economies, the policies, why are the economies different?
Why is there so little state ownership in America?
Why are so many parts of America so bad at infrastructure?
Why do Americans save less?
How is religion different in America?
That was, I think, an especially sensitive topic. And just try to make sense of America for Chinese readers, but not defending it. Just some kind of, all of branch of understanding. Here’s how we are. And I don’t know. I don’t think they’ll ever put the book out. And of course, by now, it’s out of date.
Yeah, but there’s, I mean, there’s plenty of other people. Other like countries on the planet who could use a little, you know, a civics 101.
They could. I mean, this is a book written for Chinese people with the contrasts and data comparisons to China. So to sort of send the same book to, you know, Senegal, I don’t think would really make sense.
Yeah, but if you publish it in the US, it will like, you know, Osmos out. I don’t think it needs to be published by Xinhua for Chinese people to read it, Tyler.
I’ve thought of having it translated into Chinese distributed Somersault in some way. Haven’t ruled that out. No downside for me, but you want to do things right. And I kept on waiting for Xinhua. And now I’ve really completely given up. The book is out of date with facts. That’s not a big problem. Facts you can update, but it’s very out of date with respect to tone. So right now, everyone feels you need to be tough with China. You can’t sort of say nice things to China about China, you’re pandering. You look like LeBron James or you’re afraid to speak up. And the book would have made a lot of sense, say in 2015 that its current tone doesn’t make sense in the current environment, even though I still like the current tone, but it would be misread as something it’s not.
Well, I think it’s, I think it’s a more important book in 2023 than it was in 2015.
It probably is. So, you know, it will have some future. I’m still thinking about it trying to get that right. By the way, this is the only time I’ve ever discussed this publicly. So breaking news here on the China talk.
No, but seriously, someone out there who’s listening to this is a translator or works at a publishing house that might make a little more sense than the Chinese state, you know, apparatus. So yeah, get in touch with me or Tyler. Let’s peer pressure him into making this thing happen.
What can we do to help?
This seems like a great way for the EA community to help. OpenPhil or someone else with a bit of experience and prestige should reach out to Tyler and ask how they can best help get this book updated, translated, and published.
They can do all of the annoying or tedious work he doesn’t want to do, like hire and manage a really great translator, do the basic research to update the facts (with his signoff), etc.
I think it would be pretty cheap and easy to do with almost no downside risk. There’s some great potential to reach many Chinese readers and increase cultural understanding at a time when tensions are rising.
Jordan here—happy to facilitate! i’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
Good idea. Are you planning to make this happen? What steps will you take next?
My quick thought is:
Email Tyler. List a few people you think are worth reaching out to.
If Tyler is keen, help him do the work.
It’d probably be worth releasing it in English as well, for an Anglosphere audience.
Tyler released Stubborn Attachments on Medium a year or two before it was published by Stripe Press. He could do the same for this book, with some big caveats at the start, along the lines that he made in the podcast.
If you don’t plan to do something like (1) and (2) please DM me on Twitter. I’d probably be up for it, but I’m not sure I’d have time to product manage / significantly help Tyler after the initial setup.
I could fairly easily create an audiobook version. The TYPE III AUDIO AI narration pipeline is coming together nicely.
I don’t really have the time, skills, or contacts to make this happen, if you want to pick up the torch I would gladly pass it to you.
Tyler seems keen although worried about censors: https://twitter.com/tylercowen/status/1614402492518785025
It seems from the podcast he wanted to only release the book in Chinese (maybe especially at this point due to the decline in willingness for the west to work with China) but I’m not sure, maybe the book would help westerns understand China’s culture as much as Chinese to understand the west. A lot of great power war-concerned EAs would probably buy the book to get a better insight.
If I had to guess, I don’t think he needs help finding a translator or transcribing the book to an audiobook or any other particular singular task, I think it’s bigger than that.
If we could get someone with contacts and backing like OpenPhil to say to Tyler “We will pay all costs to publish the book and assign a project manager to do all of the annoying bits for you” it seems harder for Tyler to turn down, but I’m just guessing.
Happy to chat more, if you’d like
they have scihub and random pdfs in china just like we do...yes getting officially censored is annoying but I’d guess 90% of what he publishes get through
(Don’t have a lot of time, quickly typing and very quickly skimming this post and comments, might have missed things.)
The concerns in this comment are true. This can be overcome, but this requires a lot capability in many ways and is currently extremely hard.
“Getting censored” is much more than just annoying and could affect a lot of other people and projects.
There is a lot of context here and it’s not easy to explain this. The comments and post, in some ways, show the limits of projects/activity from online discourse and social media.
I don’t want to throw cold water on your enthusiasm. But I think you are underestimating the difficulty of getting anything potentially politically controversial published in China in the current climate and the potential downside risks of coming to the attention of the Chinese government in such an area.
Given the recent crackdowns on NGOs and civil society in China this would entail a very genuine risk of the related organisations being banned from operating in China, and make the government more likely to suppress EA idea in general. Which is a very high risk for the low odds of a single book meaningfully changing public opinion, and which is very unlikely to be published.
From the way Tyler was talking about the book and topics, it did not seem to me like a politically controversial book “it was a book designed to explain America to the Chinese, and make it more explicable, more understandable”.
Or at least the controversial parts could be taken out if required and a lot of the value could remain.
Tokvill > Tocqueville