The Home Base of EA

Pre­vi­ous: The league of ra­tio­nal­ists, We can all be high-sta­tus, In defense of com­mon-sense tribalism

Re: The ca­reer and the community

Richard writes:

for the first few years of their ca­reers, and po­ten­tially longer, most effec­tive al­tru­ists should fo­cus on build­ing ca­reer cap­i­tal (which isn’t just ‘skills’!) rather than do­ing good or work­ing at EA orgs. How­ever, there are so­cial dy­nam­ics which push new grads to­wards work­ing at EA orgs, which we should iden­tify and coun­ter­act.

I agree that we should prob­a­bly have a lot more peo­ple with an EA mind­set in out­side com­mu­ni­ties. They’ll pos­i­tively in­fluence their com­mu­nity, they will draw re­sources from the out­side as op­posed to draw­ing EA re­sources, they will provide con­nec­tions to EA, and they will learn im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion from their com­mu­nity and bring it into EA. This post re­it­er­ates my ideas on how to make this hap­pen.

Richard offers some sug­ges­tions from a mes­sag­ing per­spec­tive:

of course peo­ple are en­courag­ing about ca­reers at these orgs, be­cause they be­lieve they’re im­por­tant, and also don’t want to bad­mouth peo­ple in their so­cial cir­cle. Young peo­ple like that so­cial cir­cle, they want them­selves and their friends to stay in it, and so over­all there’s this in­cen­tive to­wards a de­fault path which just seems like the best thing based on the peo­ple you ad­mire.

While I think send­ing the right mes­sage is use­ful, I think “peo­ple do what they’re told” is an in­com­plete model, and I want to add “peo­ple go for what they want”. We shouldn’t just be think­ing about the memes we per­pet­u­ate. We should also be giv­ing peo­ple in­cen­tives to do the right thing.

De­spite the ex­treme com­pe­ti­tion and scarcity, many of us de­cide to en­gage ex­clu­sively with EA any­way. Ap­par­ently all the benefits of an ex­ter­nal ca­reer aren’t worth what­ever peo­ple are gain­ing from an in­ter­nal ca­reer. Why?

Ask­ing around, one friend men­tioned that EA is the only place that gives her per­son­hood. Another men­tioned that EA’s are the only peo­ple that she can take se­ri­ously. I per­son­ally re­mem­ber feel­ing alienated in my in­ter­ac­tions with my fel­low AI stu­dents, the ones that didn’t take safety se­ri­ously. I even­tu­ally man­aged to rem­edy this, but there was a pe­riod where a non-LW/​EA so­cial cir­cle just wasn’t an op­tion at all, emo­tion­ally. I think that work­ing at an EA org satis­fies a need for so­cial in­volve­ment.

Can we satisfy peo­ple’s need for so­cial in­volve­ment with­out a ca­reer at an EA org? Cer­tainly, but I don’t think this is hap­pen­ing right now.

In­clu­sive vs mer­i­to­cratic spaces

In any com­mu­nity, there is a ten­sion be­tween in­clu­sivity and mer­i­toc­racy. You don’t want to be putting too much pres­sure on your mem­bers, and you ba­si­cally want to give ev­ery­one a sense of be­ing ac­cepted based on con­di­tions that can be met with con­fi­dence. On the other hard, if you’re ac­tu­ally try­ing to ac­com­plish some­thing, you want your mem­bers to meet some bar of com­pe­tence. Meet­ing this bar re­quires an enor­mous amount of in­vest­ment, and so there is a ten­sion be­tween these types of com­mu­ni­ties.

Ex­am­ples on op­po­site ex­tremes of this spec­trum would be a cozy fam­ily, which is max­i­mally in­clu­sive and min­i­mally mer­i­to­cratic, and a com­pet­i­tive startup, which is min­i­mally in­clu­sive and max­i­mally mer­i­to­cratic.

I think that it is nec­es­sary for one’s san­ity to have the ma­jor­ity of one’s so­cial life in a com­mu­nity that firmly in­cludes them. While some highly com­pe­tent peo­ple might feel safely in­cluded even in the most mer­i­to­cratic places, the only way to solve this prob­lem for ev­ery­one is to have a com­mu­nity that is in­clu­sive.

But EA orgs can’t be in­clu­sive, so we should have a sep­a­rate so­cial space for EA’s that is in­clu­sive. Work­ing at an EA org shouldn’t be the only op­tion for one’s san­ity.

But aren’t we already do­ing this?

Lo­cal groups are par­tially aimed to­wards filling this need. While I don’t want to dis­credit lo­cal com­mu­nity builders and their great efforts, from what I’ve seen I don’t think they’re do­ing nearly enough.

The prob­lem that I have with most EA cir­cles it that they feel like highly cere­bral net­work­ing events, not cozy fam­ily gath­er­ings. I don’t think this gives off a sense of so­cial in­clu­sion. Not as much as it could.

How do you en­g­ineer such a thing? In­stead of giv­ing some ab­stract the­ory, I hope an ex­am­ple will illus­trate it best:

You sign up for a lo­cal group on Face­book. The event page shows a pic­ture of a group of friendly peo­ple sit­ting in the sun in some­one’s back yard, smil­ing at the cam­era. You see a bar­beque (it’s ve­gan!) and some peo­ple are play­ing foot­ball in the back­ground. A few hours af­ter you put your­self on “go­ing”, the event or­ganiser sends you a mes­sage. “Hey, thanks for sign­ing up! How’d you hear of EA?” You chat a lit­tle, and you feel wel­come.
Ar­riv­ing at the event, you’re greeted by some reg­u­lars. “Glad to have you!” There is a round of hand­shakes and in­tro­duc­tions, and the or­ganiser briefly takes you aside to ask whether you’d like to give a light­ning talk to in­tro­duce your­self, to which you hap­pily agree
After at­tend­ing a few events, the or­ganiser asks you whether you’d like to be­come an offi­cial mem­ber. For a small monthly fee, you are wel­come to join each weekly event. You agree, and there is a small wel­com­ing cer­e­mony, where you’re put on a hot seat and given a neat wrist­band, which is a to­ken of your mem­ber­ship. The defin­ing mo­ment is a group hug. “wel­come to the club”

This is loosely based on the lo­cal LessWrong com­mu­nity in the Nether­lands (called the Home Bayes), which is ex­plic­itly op­ti­mized for mak­ing its mem­bers feel in­cluded and val­ued. With these peo­ple, I have the most mean­ingful re­la­tion­ships. Surely there is some of the cere­bral stuff, but there’s also walks on the beach, danc­ing par­ties, hang­outs on roof ter­races, and lots of karaoke. With these peo­ple I feel com­pletely at home, and the only rea­son that re­mains to be part of an EA or­gani­sa­tion is pure im­pact. As it should be.

I think EA should have an in­clu­sive and a mer­i­to­cratic part. I’d imag­ine the mer­i­to­cratic part (the or­gani­sa­tions) to be a sub­set of peo­ple in the in­clu­sive part. I’d imag­ine a lot of peo­ple in the in­clu­sive part to be pur­su­ing ca­reers in differ­ent fields. Per­haps they’d re­lay con­nec­tions, wis­dom and re­sources from those fields to the core of EA. Per­haps they’d just hang around, do some donat­ing, and en­joy the nice so­cial at­mo­sphere and the good con­ver­sa­tions. There should be a space for that, an oa­sis to come home to af­ter a day’s hard work in the pur­suit of util­ity.