Canons (What are they good for?)

People in the Effective Altruist and Rationalist intellectual communities have been discussing moving discourse back into the public sphere lately. I agree with this goal and want to help. There are reasons to think that we need not only public discourse, but public fora. One reason is that there's value specifically in having a public set of canonical writing that members of an intellectual community are expected to have read. Another is that writers want to be heard, and on fora where people can easily comment, it's easier to tell whether people are listening and benefiting from your writing.

This post begins with a brief review of the case for public discourse. For reasons I hope to make clear in an upcoming post, I encourage people who want to comment on that to click through to the posts I linked to by Sarah Constantin and Anna Salamon. For another perspective you can read my prior post on this topic, Be secretly wrong. The second section explores the case for a community canon, suggesting that there are three distinct desiderata that can be optimized for separately.

This is an essay exploring and introducing a few ideas, not advancing an argument.

Why public discourse?

People have been discussing moving discourse back into the public sphere lately. Sarah Constantin has argued that public criticism-friendly discussion is important for truth-seeking and creating knowledge capital:

There seems to have been an overall drift towards social networks as opposed to blogs and forums, and in particular things like:

  • the drift of political commentary from personal blogs to “media” aggregators like The AtlanticVox, and Breitbart
  • the migration of fandom from LiveJournal to Tumblr
  • The movement of links and discussions to Facebook and Twitter as opposed to link-blogs and comment sections


But one thing I have noticed personally is that people have gotten intimidated by more formal and public kinds of online conversation.  I know quite a few people who used to keep a “real blog” and have become afraid to touch it, preferring instead to chat on social media.  It’s a weird kind of locus for perfectionism — nobody ever imagined that blogs were meant to be masterpieces.  But I do see people fleeing towards more ephemeral, more stream-of-consciousness types of communication, or communication that involves no words at all (reblogging, image-sharing, etc.)  There seems to be a fear of becoming too visible as a distinctive writing voice.

For one rather public and hilarious example, witness Scott Alexander’s  flight from LessWrong to LiveJournal to a personal blog to Twitter and Tumblr, in hopes that somewhere he can find a place isolated enough that nobody will notice his insight and humor. (It hasn’t been working.)


A blog is almost a perfect medium for personal accountability. It belongs to you, not your employer, and not the hivemind.  The archives are easily searchable. The posts are permanently viewable. Everything embarrassing you’ve ever written is there.  If there’s a comment section, people are free to come along and poke holes in your posts. This leaves people vulnerable in a certain way. Not just to trolls, but to critics.


We talk a lot about social media killing privacy, but there’s also a way in which it kills publicness, by allowing people to curate their spaces by personal friend groups, and retreat from open discussions.   In a public square, any rando can ask an aristocrat to explain himself.  If people hide from public squares, they can’t be exposed to Socrates’ questions.

I suspect that, especially for people who are even minor VIPs (my level of online fame, while modest, is enough to create some of this effect), it’s tempting to become less available to the “public”, less willing to engage with strangers, even those who seem friendly and interesting.  I think it’s worth fighting this temptation.  You don’t get the gains of open discussion if you close yourself off.  You may not capture all the gains yourself, but that’s how the tragedy of the commons works; a bunch of people have to cooperate and trust if they’re going to build good stuff together.  And what that means, concretely, on the margin, is taking more time to explain yourself and engage intellectually with people who, from your perspective, look dumb, clueless, crankish, or uncool.

Some of the people I admire most, including theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson, are notable for taking the time to carefully debunk crackpots (and offer them the benefit of the doubt in case they are in fact correct.)  Is this activity a great ROI for a brilliant scientist, from a narrowly selfish perspective?  No. But it’s praiseworthy, because it contributes to a truly open discussion. If scientists take the time to investigate weird claims from randos, they’re doing the work of proving that science is a universal and systematic way of thinking, not just an elite club of insiders.  In the long run, it’s very important that somebody be doing that groundwork.

Talking about interesting things, with friendly strangers, in a spirit of welcoming open discussion and accountability rather than fleeing from it, seems really underappreciated today, and I think it’s time to make an explicit push towards building places online that have that quality.

In that spirit, I’d like to recommend LessWrong to my readers. For those not familiar with it, it’s a discussion forum devoted to things like cognitive science, AI, and related topics, and, back in its heyday a few years ago, it was suffused with the nerdy-discussion-nature. It had all the enthusiasm of late-night dorm-room philosophy discussions — except that some of the people you’d be having the discussions with were among the most creative people of our generation.  These days, posting and commenting is a lot sparser, and the energy is gone, but I and some other old-timers are trying to rekindle it. I’m crossposting all my blog posts there from now on, and I encourage everyone to check out and join the discussions there.

I agree that we need to move more discussion back into enduring public media so that we can make stable intellectual progress, and outsiders can catch up if they have something to contribute - especially if we're wrong about something they know about. And Anna Salamon's also suggested that common fora such as LessWrong are an especially important means of creating a single conversation:

We need to think about [...] everything to do with understanding what the heck kind of a place the world is, such that that kind of place may contain cheat codes and trap doors toward achieving an existential win. We probably also need to think about "ways of thinking" -- both the individual thinking skills, and the community conversational norms, that can cause our puzzle-solving to work better.

One feature that is pretty helpful here, is if we somehow maintain a single "conversation", rather than a bunch of people separately having thoughts and sometimes taking inspiration from one another. By "a conversation", I mean a space where people can e.g. reply to one another; rely on shared jargon/shorthand/concepts; build on arguments that have been established in common as probably-valid; point out apparent errors and then have that pointing-out be actually taken into account or else replied-to).

One feature that really helps things be "a conversation" in this way, is if there is a single Schelling set of posts/etc. that people (in the relevant community/conversation) are supposed to read, and can be assumed to have read. Less Wrong used to be a such place; right now there is no such place; it seems to me highly desirable to form a new such place if we can.

We have lately ceased to have a "single conversation" in this way. Good content is still being produced across these communities, but there is no single locus of conversation, such that if you're in a gathering of e.g. five aspiring rationalists, you can take for granted that of course everyone has read posts such-and-such. There is no one place you can post to, where, if enough people upvote your writing, people will reliably read and respond (rather than ignore), and where others will call them out if they later post reasoning that ignores your evidence. Without such a locus, it is hard for conversation to build in the correct way. (And hard for it to turn into arguments and replies, rather than a series of non sequiturs.)

It seems to me, moreover, that Less Wrong used to be such a locus, and that it is worth seeing whether Less Wrong or some similar such place[3] may be a viable locus again. [...]

I suspect that most of the value generation from having a single shared conversational locus is not captured by the individual generating the value (I suspect there is much distributed value from having "a conversation" with better structural integrity / more coherence, but that the value created thereby is pretty distributed). Insofar as there are "externalized benefits" to be had by blogging/commenting/reading from a common platform, it may make sense to regard oneself as exercising civic virtue by doing so, and to deliberately do so as one of the uses of one's "make the world better" effort. (At least if we can build up toward in fact having a single locus.)

My initial thinking was that we should just move from the ephemeral medium of Facebook to people having their own personal blogs. The nice thing about a blogosphere as a mode of discourse is that community boundaries aren't a huge deal - if you think someone's unhelpful, there's nowhere you have to boot them out from - you just stop reading their stuff and linking them. But this interferes with the  "single canon" approach.

What are canons good for?

When I hear people talk about getting communities to read the same things, they often bring up very different sorts of benefits. So far I count three very different things they mean:

  1. Common basic skills and norms
  2. The shoulders of giants
  3. Synchronized discussions

Common basic skills and norms

Some have pointed to LessWrong's Sequences - a series of blog posts by Eliezer Yudkowsky on the art of human rationality - as an example of the kind of text that should be a community canon. I do think that the extended LessWrong community has benefited from internalizing the insights laid out in the Sequences. Lots of cognitive wasted motions common elsewhere seem less common in this community because we know better.

This kind of canon plays an analogous role to professional training among, say, engineers - or in a liberal arts education. You don't necessarily expect a liberally educated person to know each particular book you reference, but you do expect them to know what math, and music, and literature, and philosophy are like on the inside. Not every "liberal arts college" does this anymore, but some still do, and people who get it can recognize each other and have conversations that are simply unavailable between us and people without that background. Not because the material is impossible to communicate, but because there are way too many steps, and because it's not just about getting across a particular argument. It's about different ways of perceiving the world.

Similarly, if I'm talking to someone who has read and understood the Sequences, there are places we can go, quickly, that it might take a long time to explore with someone else who hasn't stumbled across the same insights elsewhere.

This benefit from having a canon requires a substantial investment. For this reason, taking an existing community and pushing a canon on it seems unlikely to work very well without a very large investment. Traditional Western academia did this for a while, but that depended on the authority of existing elite scholars, and a large, hierarchical system that had a near monopoly on literacy and concomitant employment. Judaism seems in some large part formed by its canon, but the process that knit together a tight literary core ended up interposing layers of commentary beginning with the written Talmud in between Jews and the text of the Bible itself.

Taking a canon and forming a community around it, composed of people who find it compelling, seems more tractable right now. LessWrong coalesced around the Sequences (and later, the CFAR workshops). Objectivism coalesced around The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. My alma mater, St. John's College, reformed as a community around the New (Great Books) Program and the students and tutors it attracted.

This suggests to me that the thing to do is to figure out how to teach the skills and norms you want in your community, and see who joins.

The shoulders of giants

A second reason for a canon is so that we don't have to retreat old ground. This is not so much about the unarticulated, holistic seeing that comes from having read a corpus of text together, but from having common knowledge of specific accumulated insights.

This is why academics publish in journals, and typically begin papers by reviewing (and citing) prior work on the subject. The academic journal model does not really depend at all for published discourse on having a single uniform canon. Instead, it relies on common availability of prior sources. A norm of citing, linking, or otherwise directing the reader to prior work is more adaptable to this purpose, because it does not so fully exclude outsiders as a community where everyone is expected to have already learned the thing.

I've tried to follow something like these practices myself, linking to prior work on a subject that's influenced me when I'm aware of it. Much of the Rationalist and EA blogosphere works on this model at least sometimes. But I can think of one thing that could be useful for the academic journal model that doesn't yet exist in the Rationalist or EA communities: a stable archive of prior work, that brings the different sources together - blog posts, academic papers, and personal web pages that advance the Rationalist project. Right now, there's no search capability here, no Google Scholar equivalent to look up "works citing this one" or "works cited by this one." (If you want to advance this project, let me know if you want me to put you in touch with others interested in making this happen.)

Synchronized discussions

When a TV show becomes popular, people who like it often come together to watch it, or discuss each episode, sharing their reactions to it and speculating about characters' motivations or what will happen next. This sort of agenda-setting makes it much easier to have large, complex conversations about such things, while the text (in this case, the episode) is still fresh in everyone's mind. Serialized stories such as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, or the original Harry Potter series, or Unsong, have a similar coordinating effect. If your community's largely following the same texts at the same time, then when you meet a stranger at a party, you don't get stuck talking about the weather.

Getting everyone looking at the same thing at the same time can also spark productive disagreement. If something will be out in public forever, you can put off commenting on it. But if now's the time for everyone to talk about it, now's your only chance to speak up if someone is wrong on the internet.

Tiers and volleys

The synchronization of conversations can be a powerful force for extracting additional value from the intellectual labor people are already doing, and getting them to share their perspectives more promptly and publicly. But if an intellectual community doesn't have people going off on their own, doing self-directed work of the kind that can lead to more academic journal style discourse, then it won't produce deep original work of the kind that may be needed to steer the world in a substantially better direction.

Creating a sort of community "TV show" and a forum for people to comment on it is the least expensive way to extract additional public value from the intellectual activity already going on. Slate Star Codex has to some degree taken over LessWrong's role as a community hub, and provides a good starting point - its author, Scott Alexander, was kind enough to link to a few posts in the attempted LessWrong renaissance, and perhaps will do so again if and when that or some similar effort shows substantially more progress. But I don't expect this on its own to lead to the kind of deep intellectual progress we need.

Some people are already doing work at something more like an academic tempo, doing a fair amount of research on their own, and sharing what they find afterwards. Building a better archive/repository of existing work seems like it could substantially increase the impact of the work people are already doing. And if done well, it could lead to an increase in truly generative, deep work - and maybe even more importantly, less progress lost to the sands of time.

I expect building something like academic journals for the community, and persuading more people to do this sort of intellectual labor, to be substantially slower work, at least if done right, and it will only be worth it if done right. It will require many people to invest substantial intellectual effort, though hopefully they'd want to think deeply about things anyway.

Creating a common conceptual vocabulary, skills, and norms, by contrast, can be very expensive. A full-blown liberal arts education is famously pricey. The Sequences took a year of Eliezer Yudkowsky's time, and I don't think he worked on much else. CFAR has several full-time employees who've been working at it for years. This approach - especially the high-touch version where you educate people in person - is to be used sparingly, when you have a strong reason to believe that you can produce a large improvement that way.

(Cross-posted at LessWrong.)

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