Humans need places

If, when you try to improve the world, you think about people but not about communities, you will tend to favor unsustainable net outflows of resources from your community. I wrote about this in Why I am not a Quaker. Effective Altruist (EA) and Rationalist communities such as the one in the San Francisco Bay Area suffer from this problem. Occasionally individuals - more often than not women, more often than not uncompensated and publicly unacknowledged - do something constructive about this problem. I’m now aware of one such effort where the person involved (Sarah Spikes) is publicly willing to accept support: The Berkeley REACH. The fundraiser page is here.

The opinions in this post are mine and not necessarily hers.

The basic problem The Berkeley REACH is meant to solve is that people who are in community need a place to be together. If EA or Rationality were a religion, there would be a church or temple of some kind to go to. If it were a school or academic discipline, there would usually be a campus. If a town, perhaps a library or Y. In past years the Center For Applied Rationality's office informally served this purpose, but CFAR is increasingly focusing its efforts in ways that seem right and proper but leave the community center role unfilled. In areas with a lower cost of housing, informal communities may have some slack in the form of surplus personal living space; not so in the SF Bay Area.

When I first heard about The Berkeley REACH, I was under the impression that it was going to receive a CEA community-building grant. It was apparently rejected on the basis of insufficient impact. When an impact narrative is required in advance for resource usage, this creates two problems.

First, anyone asking people to support a project that is speculative at all is forced to choose between deliberately selling a narrative they know will not be implemented in order to build momentum, and sticking to a bad plan on purpose in order to keep their word.

Second, illegibly prosocial activities - ones the predominant metrics are not well-suited to counting - will not be supported. This is imposes an unfair burden on the people well-suited to such work, which ultimately dooms us to a world in which that work gets done poorly or not at all.

But that only happens if we don’t do anything about the problem. And Sarah has taken the initiative to make it easy to do something. She has done the work, and we can pay her for it.

Not every organization has to do every thing. A balanced portfolio of strategies includes both purpose-built narrow organizations that can demand performance on explicit metrics, and more inclusive communities that need only have standards sufficient to avoid preventing work from happening. If CEA wishes to specialize in the former, then it is on others to step up and support the latter.

I am not arguing that it would merely be a nice thing for Bay Arean EAs and Rationalists to support projects like this; I am arguing that if you have supported recruiting more people into your community, it is morally obligatory to offer a corresponding level of support for taking care of them once you are in community with them. If you can’t afford to help take care of people, you can’t afford to recruit them.

If you don’t have enough for yourself, take care of that first. But if you have more than enough to take care of your private needs, and you are thinking of allocating your surplus to some combination of (a) people far away in space or time, and (b) recruiting others to do the same, I implore you, please first assess - even approximately - the correct share of resources devoted to direct impact, recruiting more people into your community, and taking care of the community’s needs, and give accordingly.

What is the correct level of funding for a project like this? Sarah advanced the money for the initial months of The Berkeley REACH, in the hope that funding would be forthcoming. This suggests that she is entitled to something like a return on investment, including the financial risk she took on and the time she put in. She has a track record now, of taking initiative to do things to take care of the community. She’s interested in doing so, and clearly competent to pull off projects. Her minimum Patreon funding target is a level that would simply pay for the space. But I don’t think the project is adequately funded until it pays Sarah enough that she can easily afford to do more work like this.

The Berkeley EA / Rationalist community stands between two alternatives:

  1. Pull people in, use them up, and burn them out.
  2. Build local institutions to support global and intergenerational coordination, enabling sustainable commitments that replenish and improve the capacity of the people making them.

If I see more ways to help move towards the second option, I'll let you know.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.

- Deuteronomy 30:19


Related: Melting Gold, The Craft Is Not The Community, Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be), Sabbath hard and go home,
Seeing Like A State, Flashlights, and Giving This Year

19 thoughts on “Humans need places

  1. Kyle Bogosian

    "First, anyone asking people to support a project that is speculative at all is forced to choose between deliberately selling a narrative they know will not be implemented in order to build momentum, and sticking to a bad plan on purpose in order to keep their word."

    What? This doesn't make sense at all. Why can't speculative projects have a true impact narrative?

    "Second, illegibly prosocial activities - ones the predominant metrics are not well-suited to counting - will not be supported."

    Why can't prosocial activities have an impact narrative? Isn't that literally what you are doing right now - giving an impact narrative for prosocial activities?

    It sounds like the project you like wasn't regarded as effective, but you found it easier to allege some kind of spooky bias on the part of CEA or EA methodology rather than accept the possibility that REACH is simply not a worthwhile project and argue on object level terms. But the idea that EA Funds is blind to social impacts is just nonsense. They have a whole section of their funds dedicated to EA community building.

    I'm guessing that one reason that REACH was not funded is that it's mainly a place for "rationalists", rather than being dedicated to Effective Altruists, who are people who are actually motivated to make the world better instead of simply talking about it. But you seem to think that these two groups are one and the same. In doing so you are asking for the very opposite of the "inclusive communities" vision that you claim to support, since not every effective altruist wants to deal with rationalists all day.

    Moreover, the idea that we need more community anything in the Bay Area of all places is simply ludicrous. There are countless EA houses and rationalist houses there. There are conferences and parties all the time. If you want more "places" then build them somewhere where they are actually needed.

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    1. Benquo Post author

      Why can't speculative projects have a true impact narrative?

      If we knew in advance how things would work out, the project wouldn't be speculative. The vast majority of worthwhile exploration of things we don't already know for certain work - excepting the occasional RCT testing a single crisp hypothesis - will work out somewhat differently than expected, in a high-dimensional way. There will be loads of false starts that should be abandoned or refactored on the first day. People should often spend their time sitting and thinking about stuff or doing very small tests, but it's hard to articulate exactly how that will lead to positive impact.

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    2. Benquo Post author

      Why can't prosocial activities have an impact narrative?

      They can, I say they can in the post, and my argument explicitly addresses this. I am not saying that it is impossible for benefits to be legible. I am saying that it is possible for benefits to be illegible. The amount of interpretive labor required for me to write this post - also uncompensated, by the way - is prohibitively expensive for most people who might undertake projects like this, which is why it usually doesn't happen.

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    3. Benquo Post author

      It sounds like the project you like wasn't regarded as effective, but you found it easier to allege some kind of spooky bias on the part of CEA or EA methodology rather than accept the possibility that REACH is simply not a worthwhile project and argue on object level terms. But the idea that EA Funds is blind to social impacts is just nonsense. They have a whole section of their funds dedicated to EA community building.

      It sounds like your position is that CEA's activities are so comprehensive a strategy that other, complementary efforts are not needed. Can you give me three examples of projects funded with the explicit intent of taking care of EAs who already exist rather than recruiting more people or mobilizing existing EAs?

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      1. Kyle Bogosian

        >If we knew in advance how things would work out, the project wouldn't be speculative.

        I don't know exactly what you mean by impact narrative, but it looks like it entails knowing in advance how things will work out, which implies that it is not true that you need an impact narrative in order to get funded by EA Funds. For many recipients of EA Funds payouts don't rely on knowing in advance how things will work out. For example, we don't know in advance how things will work out with the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative, for there is no crisp RCT for existential risk initiatives, but they still got a payout.

        >The amount of interpretive labor required for me to write this post - also uncompensated, by the way - is prohibitively expensive for most people who might undertake projects like this, which is why it usually doesn't happen.

        I imagine that anyone applying for funding for the community will do at least as much as one blog post's worth of labor in order to demonstrate that their project has merit.

        >It sounds like your position is that CEA's activities are so comprehensive a strategy that other, complementary efforts are not needed.

        No, just that if you disagree, it's because you are disagreeing about the impact of a specific project. It's not a matter of discovering a hidden methodological blind spot. It's not like CEA has decided that people who already in the community are supposed to be used up and discarded, or that they don't matter, or some other silliness.

        >Can you give me three examples of projects funded with the explicit intent of taking care of EAs who already exist rather than recruiting more people or mobilizing existing EAs?

        Given that the numbers of projects submitted to and supported by EA Funds are both very low, this question has little consequence.

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        1. Benquo Post author

          I imagine that anyone applying for funding for the community will do at least as much as one blog post's worth of labor in order to demonstrate that their project has merit.

          Since apparently we're judging interpretive labor by the number of posts it is packaged in, I won't bother explaining why you're wrong - the mere fact that I wrote this comment will suffice as an answer to your argument.

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    4. Sarah

      > I'm guessing that one reason that REACH was not funded is that it's mainly a place for "rationalists", rather than being dedicated to Effective Altruists

      It was originally entirely EA focused, but after CEA choose not to fund the project, I expanded it to include rationalists as well since there is a lot of overlap in the Berkeley community, and it did not make sense to exclude people who were interested in using and helping pay for the space.

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    5. Benquo Post author

      There are countless EA houses and rationalist houses there. There are conferences and parties all the time. If you want more "places" then build them somewhere where they are actually needed.

      This is disgustingly callous, actually; "not literally homeless" is not remotely enough.

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    6. Zvi Mowshowitz

      I'm guessing that one reason that REACH was not funded is that it's mainly a place for "rationalists", rather than being dedicated to Effective Altruists, who are people who are actually motivated to make the world better instead of simply talking about it.

      Despite all the terrible things Benquo highlighted already (and the fact that the argument it is supporting was completely invalidated by Sarah, below), I can't let this one slip by. This is disgusting and toxic. The idea that if you don't organize all of your resources around organizing all of everyone else's resources on only those things which can be officially stamped as "effective". The idea that talking (and by obvious implication, thinking) are not effective or useful things to be doing, and that doing them makes you a horrible person. The implication that everyone not in one's officially approved activity group is not someone who is motivated about making the world a better place. You have a monopoly on that, clearly.

      This is the type of attitude that causes people to destroy, not build, communities. To lie to those around them, because they are working on a 'effective altruist' cause, and when caught, defend themselves with words like "honesty is not a terminal value." And to treat those treating those around them differently than those elsewhere, not only as wrong, but literally, to their face, as horrible people for helping people when other helping would have been 'more efficient'.

      You might want to go back and take another look at those skulls.

      Reply
      1. Kyle Bogosian

        I stumbled back upon this post because the author wrote an update in which they explained why they changed their mind and no longer support REACH because of its behavior...

        >This is disgusting and toxic

        I think it's disgusting and toxic to refuse to prioritize people's lives and suffering over the hobbies and polyamorous adventures of some of the wealthiest engineers and entrepreneurs in the world.

        >The idea that talking (and by obvious implication, thinking) are not effective or useful things to be doing

        Then you misunderstand me - sure they can be, as long as they are done towards the purpose of effectively improving the world. Obviously I'm not opposed to all the thinking and talking that goes on in EA about EA topics, otherwise I would be complaining about EA as well. But what we see in [Rationalist & !EA] folks is that they talk about minor matters with no coherent strategy for converting this talk into sizeable benefits. Those Rationalists who do talk about valuable things can talk within EA circles, just like everyone else.

        >This is the type of attitude that causes people to destroy, not build, communities. To lie to those around them, because they are working on a 'effective altruist' cause, and when caught, defend themselves with words like "honesty is not a terminal value." And to treat those treating those around them differently than those elsewhere, not only as wrong, but literally, to their face, as horrible people for helping people when other helping would have been 'more efficient'

        First order effects (incentivize people to be good) generally outweigh second order effects (bad people lying to take advantage of incentives to be good).

        Reply
        1. Kyle Bogosian

          NB: REACH's behavior seems unrelated to their involvement with Rationalists, so I don't claim there is any sort of irony here.

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    7. Raymond

      > I'm guessing that one reason that REACH was not funded is that it's mainly a place for "rationalists", rather than being dedicated to Effective Altruists, who are people who are actually motivated to make the world better instead of simply talking about it. But you seem to think that these two groups are one and the same. In doing so you are asking for the very opposite of the "inclusive communities" vision that you claim to support, since not every effective altruist wants to deal with rationalists all day.

      REACH actually started specifically as an EA project, not a rationalist project, and most of the reason it's also a rationalist project is because in Berkeley the line between the two is very blurry.

      Reply
  2. Crystal Stellwagen

    We also have a community-sponsored space for EA/Rationality in Seattle. It is technically also a group house, but it has several unoccupied rooms sponsored by non-residents and is billed as a public space for anyone in the community who wants to use it.

    Reply
    1. Zvi Mowshowitz

      I don't have your email, but I'll be visiting the city in a few weeks (May 11-18) for other reasons, would be good to coordinate on a visit. My email is ("The" + myFirstName @ gmail.com)

      Reply
  3. J

    Well, the primary outcome of the Bay Area rationalist community seems to be making its members less mindful, so this seems like potentially effective symptom treatment.

    (an example of what I mean by less mindful: getting excited/getting emotional validation from doing things that have been socially stamped as "effective", or that you can make be socially stamped in that way, and feeling bad about yourself when doing something else, like you're intrinsically shameful or something. And the associated culture that promotes this).

    Of course, if people feel sufficiently bad, then symptom treatment would be the first line of defense, since you can't get anything done, self-work included, when you're in such a state.

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  4. Zvi Mowshowitz

    In case I don't get a chance to write a full post about this (which is likely, since I am overloaded right now), I want to say: Thank you for writing this, thank you Sarah for doing this, and I hope the community comes through and supports this, as it is badly needed and a very, very good use of funds. It's a damn shame that this isn't even half funded yet.

    CEA passing on this tells me, as it tells Ben, that they are not useful for building real community or investing in intangible or hard to measure things even when they're obviously great. This is sad, because previously at least one CEA person said they'd consider such a place in NYC, but it seems obvious that they were not being realistic/honest.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Why I am no longer supporting REACH | Compass Rose

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