Clarifying the Petrov Day Exercise

Summary: The Petrov Day Red Button event is on today. I think it would be more successful as a community ritual if it were presented less like a social experiment or game and gave individuals an opportunity to reaffirm their values by choosing to opt in.

Today is Petrov Day and the EA Forum is marking the occasion by taking part in a joint exercise with the LessWrong community. 100 EA Forum users received codes that could shut down the LessWrong homepage for a day, and vice versa, with the aim that everyone would resist temptation and choose to do nothing rather than destroy something.

I was one of the 100 people from the EA Forum trusted with the codes and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of the exercise (and causing Aaron a lot of stress while doing so!).

This exercise has been described or treated in a few different ways today:

  1. A game: The post describing the exercise says “LessWrong is teaming up with the Forum to play a game of mutual destruction” and that’s certainly what it looks like. When I opened the original email, it looked like I was being invited to a murder mystery! The button on the front page looks interesting and inviting and last year multiple people tried pressing the button and entering codes just out of curiosity.

  2. A social experiment: The exercise is sometimes treated as a way to learn about game theory and nuclear warfare. For example, last year’s post-mortem talks about how “well-intentioned does not means secure” and draws analogy to larger security issues in the world, and the author says that the exercise changed how he thinks about the Cold War.

  3. A community-building ritual: Ben Pace from Less Wrong wrote last year, “We’ll return next Petrov Day, for another round of sitting around and not pressing destructive buttons, alongside our ceremonies and celebrations.” Aaron Gertler wrote on the EA Forum about how this exercise is a way of celebrating not destroying the world. Several users from both forums have told me that these exercises are meaningful to them, that it feels important to coordinate to preserve value in memory of Petrov and others like him.

I believe that because the purpose of the exercise is unclear (or because it’s trying to be all three things at once), the exercise is less successful than it could be.

If we want the Petrov Day Red Button to be a game, we could make it way more fun! First and foremost, we should make it clear that the stakes are low (a homepage would go down for a few hours, all your favourite links would still be up, no one will get hurt). If this is a game, we should disentangle real-life ethics about truthfulness and cooperation from gameplay and strategy like most people would in a game of mafia or werewolf. We could also make it bigger and more inclusive.

This morning I made some light-hearted comments on Twitter about the Red Button exercise. A few good people who were genuinely concerned about me mentioned to me privately that if I don’t take the Red Button exercise, there could be social consequences, or it might even lead to me missing out on job opportunities in the EA Community. I really appreciate those people for their compassionate warnings, but I definitely don’t see this exercise as fun anymore.

If we want the Petrov Day Red Button exercise to be a social experiment or learning experience, we need a better experimental design. There are experts on war-gaming scenarios who could definitely help. If it’s a social experiment, it should also be opt-in, so that people should give their consent to be studied in this way. Honestly, though, I don’t think the type of people involved here or the scenario have enough similarities to a nuclear war that this would ever provide truly useful data as a social experiment.

If we want the Petrov Day Red Button exercise to be a community ritual, to help community members to build trust with each other and re-affirm their values, it again needs to be something people opt in to. I would love to see people choosing to take part as a way of reminding themselves that they are choosing a life of courage and wisdom and rationality. I think it could be really moving.

At present, however, participants aren’t given any way of opting out without deeply hurting their friends, regardless of whether this ritual reflects their values, which undermines the value of the ritual. I can imagine the Petrov Day Red Button exercise as being as meaningful for some longtermists as the Eucharist is for some Christians—but that level of meaning can only be achieved if everyone has a free choice to take part or not.

I believe that Aaron, Ben and Ruby want the Petrov Day Red Button exercise to be a way for people to show their commitment to certain principles. In order for that to happen, people have to be given the free choice to exercise those principles. My experience today has been of several people asking me to conform to their expectations because otherwise I’ll be socially punished—that has basically no application to a nuclear war and seems pretty toxic to a community building situation.

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll push the button, but if I do, it will be on behalf of anyone who would like to push it but can’t because they work (or want to work) for an EA organisation and can’t take the social risk. In my view, Petrov Day is about being willing to do what we think is most valuable instead of following orders, and I’d love to see a Petrov Day that makes more space for independent choice.

Hat tip to this comment for helping me understand the different ways this event can be understood.