Category Archives: Discourse norms

Defense against discourse

So, some writer named Cathy O’Neil wrote about futurists’ opinions about AI risk. This piece focused on futurists as social groups with different incentives, and didn’t really engage with the content of their arguments. Instead, she points out considerations like this:

First up: the people who believe in the singularity and are not worried about it. […] These futurists are ready and willing to install hardware in their brains because, as they are mostly young or middle-age white men, they have never been oppressed.

She doesn’t engage with the content of their arguments about the future. I used to find this sort of thing inexplicable and annoying. Now I just find it sad but reasonable. Continue reading

On the construction of beacons

I am afraid of the anglerfish. Maybe this is why the comments on my blog tend to be so consistently good.

Recently, a friend was telling me about the marketing strategy for a project of theirs. They favored growth, in a way that I was worried would destroy value. I struggled to articulate my threat model, until I hit upon the metaphor of that old haunter of my dreamscape, the anglerfish. Continue reading

Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be)

In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.

The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.

Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production. Continue reading

Request: Cabin [RESOLVED]

UPDATE: I'm currently staying in a cabin at a Quaker retreat center. This is basically the thing I needed. Thanks to everyone who reached out with suggestions or offers.

I’m currently coming to terms with just how much of human communication is marketing, like unto the Hobbesian war of all against all. I want to figure out a way for human beings to coordinate and create value when the dominant society is like that. That task is too big for me, so I need a team. I don’t know how to find the right people, but my best guess is that if I can clearly articulate what is needed, the right people have a good chance of recognizing my project as the one they want to be part of. But I can’t write about this in a reasonable way, because I can’t think about this in a reasonable way, because my intuitions are still all applying way too high a level of implicit trust, which means that I’m effectively deluged with spam and buying everything.

So, I want to get away, physically, to buy myself a little breathing room and get my head screwed on straight. A cabin, somewhere where I am not implicitly obligated to engage in more than incidental contact with other human beings, and can live in a reasonable amount of comfort for a while (e.g. includes basic temperature control and running water) is the essential thing. Other desiderata that are nice to have but not essential include:

  • A high vantage point overlooking something, whether it be coastal cliffs, a mountainside, or something similar. One goes to a mountaintop to receive the law, so this feels aesthetically appropriate in a way that “a cabin in the woods” or something out in the more level desert does not.
  • A land line telephone I can use.
  • Drivable distance from the SF Bay Area or otherwise convenient for me to get to.
  • Inexpensive.
  • Internet access, either on-site or within an hour of the site.
  • ETA: Running water

Let me know if you have something like this to offer either free or for money, know of someone who does, or have advice beyond checking AirBnB for how to find something like this.

My best guess is that I should try this out for two weeks and then figure out what to do longer-term.

Oops Prize

if you don’t correct errors, you don’t get anything done, because you stay wrong. I don't think we do enough to reward saying oops.

Lately, I’ve been complaining about ways the EA community’s been papering over problems in ways that forgo this sort of learning. But while complaining is important, on its own it doesn’t offer any specific vision for how to do things. At the recent EA Global conference in Boston, I was reflecting with a friend on what sorts of positive norms I would like to see in the discourse.

One example of something I wish I saw more of, is people publicly and very clearly saying, "we tried X, it didn’t work, so now we’re stopping.” Or, “I used to believe X, and as a result asked people to do Y, but now I don’t believe X anymore and don’t think Y is a particularly good use of resources.” People often invest a lot of social capital in their current beliefs and plans; admitting that you were wrong can cost you valuable social momentum and mean you have to start over. You might worry that people will associate you with wrongness. We need communities where instead, clear admissions of error or failure are publicly acknowledged as signs of integrity, and commitment to communal learning and shared model-building.

So I'm offering a prize. But first, let me give an example of the sort of thing we need to be praising more loudly more often. Continue reading

Bad intent is a disposition, not a feeling

It’s common to think that someone else is arguing in bad faith. In a recent blog post, Nate Soares claims that this intuition is both wrong and harmful:

I believe that the ability to expect that conversation partners are well-intentioned by default is a public good. An extremely valuable public good. When criticism turns to attacking the intentions of others, I perceive that to be burning the commons. Communities often have to deal with actors that in fact have ill intentions, and in that case it's often worth the damage to prevent an even greater exploitation by malicious actors. But damage is damage in either case, and I suspect that young communities are prone to destroying this particular commons based on false premises.

To be clear, I am not claiming that well-intentioned actions tend to have good consequences. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whether or not someone's actions have good consequences is an entirely separate issue. I am only claiming that, in the particular case of small high-trust communities, I believe almost everyone is almost always attempting to do good by their own lights. I believe that propagating doubt about that fact is nearly always a bad idea.

It would be surprising, if bad intent were so rare in the relevant sense, that people would be so quick to jump to the conclusion that it is present. Why would that be adaptive? Continue reading

Actors and scribes, words and deeds

Among the kinds of people, are the Actors, and the Scribes. Actors mainly relate to speech as action that has effects. Scribes mainly relate to speech as a structured arrangement of pointers that have meanings.

I previously described this as a distinction between promise-keeping "Quakers" and impulsive "Actors," but I think this missed a key distinction. There's "telling the truth," and then there's a more specific thing that's more obviously distinct from even Actors who are trying to make honest reports: keeping precisely accurate formal accounts. This leaves out some other types – I'm not exactly sure how it relates to engineers and diplomats, for instance – but I think I have the right names for these two things now.


Everyone agrees that words have meaning; they convey information from the speaker to the listener or reader. That's all they do. So when I used the phrase “words have meanings” to describe one side of a divide between people who use language to report facts, and people who use language to enact roles, was I strawmanning the other side?

I say no. Many common uses of language, including some perfectly legitimate ones, are not well-described by "words have meanings." For instance, people who try to use promises like magic spells to bind their future behavior don't seem to consider the possibility that others might treat their promises as a factual representation of what the future will be like.

Some uses of language do not simply describe objects or events in the world, but are enactive, designed to evoke particular feelings or cause particular actions. Even when speech can only be understood as a description of part of a model of the world, the context in which a sentence is uttered often implies an active intent, so if we only consider the direct meaning of the text, we will miss the most important thing about the sentence.

Some apparent uses of language’s denotative features may in fact be purely enactive. This is possible because humans initially learn language mimetically, and try to copy usage before understanding what it’s for. Primarily denotative language users are likely to assume that structural inconsistencies in speech are errors, when they’re often simply signs that the speech is primarily intended to be enactive. Continue reading