Seeding a productive culture: a working hypothesis

This is a compact account of my current working hypothesis for what's wrong with our culture and what needs to be done.

I'm not trying to explain my reasoning fully here - some of this I've already covered, some I plan to cover later. I expect no one to be persuaded by this post - but I hope it's helpful context. And this is just my current best guess, subject to change as I learn more.

There are many subcultures that seem okay, but the dominant, elite, world-ruling culture is a homogenizing, commodifying force. This culture is ultimately self-defeating - it is currently at war with itself and in the process of destroying its own attention - but it is unfortunately the only culture I know of that has the tools to do life-extension research and space travel.

Because the central regime has lost most of its deliberative capacity, persuading it to change is not an option. We need a sustainable alternative.

There are alternative “sustainable” cultures. Some are even growing. Earthship is an example. But the ones that have avoided triggering society’s immune system are mostly not complete in the relevant sense - they're not the sort of thing that make efficient use of the whole accessible universe, for human flourishing. In particular, they seem targeted for static sustainability, not technical or intellectual progress. “Sustainability” is not quite the right term. A culture that is productive, and trying to live, would be closer.

There have been revolutionaries who tried to seize power and reform the whole system at once. This usually ends in either catastrophic failure, or more of the same, unless it is a conservative revolution like the American one. The problem is that optimizing for seizing power can easily destroy the information you might want to preserve about how to do better.

Instead, we need to construct a seed that will grow into the right thing. This seed needs to be sustainable at all levels, not something that will only pay off at the last stage. This is how you avoid failures like revolutionary Communism. It also needs to grow, without being dependent on growth. If you don’t grow, you don’t replace the empire. If you depend on growth, you may not actually be productive, and may instead collapse when you reach the limit of your range.

We need an alternative that does not depend on permanent growth, but knows how to make and retain intellectual and technological progress.

I’m currently trying to think through the attributes of the seed myself, but I’m not going to be enough. So I’m going to see if I can bootstrap my way up to this. I’m hoping that public discourse about the problems of the modern central system will help me find others with the ability to work out what’s needed. I’d like to identify a small number of people - six seems about right - to live in a house together for six months, build shared models, and work out what to do next.

The participants should have already demonstrated ability to participate in the relevant discourse. Thus, my recruiting funnel is also my recruiting filter.

Living in a house together would help us learn to lean into information-sharing norms, as we share in the work of figuring out how to live well together. Things as simple as keeping the house clean would provide a concrete task where we all care about and experience the outcome. Unfortunately, this excludes people who already have their own families and are rooted in different places. I’m open to alternative proposals.

Here’s what I already think about the seed culture. Since there is no guarantee that this will be the last seed culture we ever need, scholarship is a pragmatically important part of this culture, as it will help us hold onto some steering power. Local production and trade are also important, for two reasons. They will directly help us orient our discourse around fundamentally honest shared-production norms, rather than fundamentally extractive shared-consumption norms. And they will help us resist central cultural programming. I am not sure full autarky is necessary, desirable, or even feasible, but local production of housing, child care, basic medical care, and some aspects of food (at least shared quality control of purchases from outside) seems like it would help us avoid some cost-disease traps, freeing up time for leisure.

This seed culture must be benevolent towards outsiders, and cooperate with slightly-distorted copies of itself, but must also put itself first and defend itself from threats, in order to close the feedback loop and limit the ability of the central system to extract things from it.

Because we are looking for something outside of homogenized modernity, we should look to ancient successes for guidance. The Greeks and Israelites are especially interesting, as are the early Chinese, since they all left lasting positive-seeming legacies. The YHWH Memorial blog is an example of the sort of reading of ancient texts that might be helpful for the project.

In the short run, a religion seems like more the sort of thing than a city, mainly because it’s a less overt challenge to the status quo, though having a physical site seems important eventually. But we probably have to learn from just about every paradigm available, because this is gonna be hard.

If you want in on something like this project, the best way is to try to contribute to the public discourse around the issues I've discussed. If you're afraid of saying things that are politically incorrect publicly, you can email me.

In addition to broadcasting my own signal, I'm searching for others. I'm currently driving across the country, looking for subcultures, intellectual communities, and other intentional communities that seem to be doing something interesting on purpose. Let me know if there's somewhere you think I should maybe go. Or, someone I should read. I'd be quite happy to simply support someone else's project, if there's a credible one out there.

This is not the only project that needs to be pursued right now - it's just the one I perceive myself to have a comparative advantage in.

20 thoughts on “Seeding a productive culture: a working hypothesis

  1. Presto

    French new reader here, not pretending to be insightful or anything, but I feel like Taizé Community could have some relevant things to steal from. They're a catholic/protestant community that grew in 50 years to welcome a lot of european young people, to foster discussion and getting some things done, while preserving some slack and to prevent becoming a cult or just a camp.
    I don't think they're very well known in the US, and there are probably superior forms of this somewhere, but their success and longevity and results are good signs. The founder wrote some interesting books such as their Rules of Community, (or how they reacted when the 1968 events outside the community impacted their home).

  2. estelendur

    I have a friend or two who might be interested in picking up some of what you're putting down here. I'll send them over. I myself would be interested, except that I have no interest in leaving my hometown at this time (local social roots, obligations, etc).

    I am interested in the question of whether some of the benefits can be bootstrapped inside a group house that already exists but was not formed around any particular ideals. However, I live with 3 other people who may be persuadable but will find themselves short on bandwidth to make any sort of hard commitment to effortful ideals of living. Everything I know about intentional communities suggests that they last much longer when there is a hard commitment mechanism, when you have a lot to lose in terms of identity and sunk cost if you leave, when you pay a lot to stay. So I would like the benefits of helping create a productive seed culture without the hard commitment mechanism of probably moving across the country and this is probably a want that is doomed to remain unfulfilled.

    I have written an amateur paper trying to classify some of the failure modes of intentional communities, based on my experience living in a house that was formed around particular ideals and fell away from them through bad luck in member turnover. The short version is: there are certain attributes that communities seem to need in order to survive, and also multiple ways those attributes can be made toxic and begin destroying the community instead of keeping it together and building it up. So that's related to my interest.

  3. Milan Griffes

    "Change the dominant culture by starting a small intentional community" feels like a well-worn hypothesis.

    I'd be curious to see an analysis of past attempts that seemed promising but didn't succeed. Is this just a really hard thing to do, such that most high-quality attempts fail? Or are there patterns in the failures of previous intentional communities?

    1. Benquo Post author

      Agreed that something like this is a well-worn hypothesis. So far what I've seen mostly doesn't seem to have much in the way of deliberative capacity, instead organizing around a fixed practice of some kind. (For instance I recently visited Arcosanti, which fizzled out early, and hasn't really managed to figure out an alternative to their original focus on monumental architecture.) Plenty of Christian sects seem to have done just fine with this sort of thing in recent history, though.

      1. Milan Griffes

        Do you have a succinct definition of what you mean by "deliberative capacity"? (search of your site didn't uncover a clear definition). Do you use it interchangeably with "steering capacity" or are those separate concepts?

        1. Benquo Post author

          I don't have very precise definitions here yet. Roughly speaking, when I say "steering capacity," I mean something like, there exist some human-accessible levers that can cause the institution to change what it's doing, and there does not exist a selection process that prevents anyone with the intent to use those levers from accessing them. When I say "deliberative capacity," I mean that part of the normal functioning of the institution involves genuinely open (in the sense of open-ended, not in the sense of public) discussion of how to use this steering capacity, which determines how the steering capacity gets used.

          I am a bit lazy about distinguishing between these, because in the absence of either, the other is pretty hard to detect.

          Working through exactly how this plays out, and coming up with definitions that are unambiguously operationalizable for actually-existing institutions, seems like an important part of the work to be done here.

          1. Benquo Post author

            To give a simple example - the early Christians had steering capacity, because they could e.g. write to Paul with a question, and he'd send them an epistle, and depending of the content of the epistle, they'd do things differently in various ways, rather than buckling to strong forces pushing them back into the standard behavior. They had deliberative capacity, because Paul wasn't strongly selected for one particular sort of opinion, e.g. whatever maximizes quarterly returns.

  4. Steven

    Reading this post, I've updated considerably in the direction that it'd be useful for you to spend some time at the Monastic Academy in Vermont. You and I have talked before about monasteries, but in summary, they are if nothing else extremely interesting as a model for a small-scale, self-contained community that is capable of: A, resisting value drift from changing membership, and B, outlasting the culture in which it's embedded. This seems highly relevant to your project.

    The Monastic Academy is itself interesting (as opposed to, say, a Zen temple in Japan or something) for being an actual living attempt to take the good bits of monastic life and embed them within the currently dominant culture. So spending some time here will if nothing else give you a sense for what that looks like in at least one real live case.

    Beyond that, I continue to have the impression that our goals are somewhat aligned. I'm tempted to say that I could describe our entire long-term plan as creating a seed culture that out-competes the dominant one and enables greater coordination. There are crucial differences, but there's at least enough to talk about, and it may be time to have that conversation.

    1. Romeo Stevens

      Riffing on this: you might also find the shambala mountain center interesting. You can pay a bit of money to do self guided retreat there.

    2. kpm

      +1 to this comment. Monasteries are the only things I've seen that do anything remotely resembling what OP gestures at. They have some of the difficulty knobs turned down (poverty/chastity/obedience make important things easier) and some turned up (difficult weirdos self-select in).

      Objection: I'm not sure if monasteries are creating anymore the kind of deliberative capacity they historically created (the theological kind, which decayed into the medieval university and then into the modern university).

      Objection: what shall it profit a man, if he shall save his soul, but be turned into paperclips, is a decent question that I'm not sure "welp, he will have become trustworthy" is an adequate answer to.

      (Hi, Steven!)

      1. Milan Griffes

        Re: paperclips – I think there's a set of people who in their current state are unable to contribute enduringly to x-risk mitigation (or to any monumental project). One of the best things someone in this set could do is change their state such that they can contribute meaningfully to other humanitarian projects.

      2. Steven

        🙂 Hi kpm!

        Response: I am eagerly listening for strategies to avoid getting turned into paperclips. I very much doubt that my current approach is very good, but it seems like a modern monastic tradition is a thing that could help in this regard.

        Response: I'm currently working on building the deliberative capacity here. But indeed, it's not a common or easy thing in monasticism in its current form.

        Regarding self-selection of difficult weirdos, guilty as charged?

        1. Steven

          Whoops I now understand that deliberative capacity has a specific meaning here and isn't just what I imagined it to be. I imagined it to be something like scholarship, which I do happen to be working on these days, as a pet project.

          If deliberative capacity is “part of the normal functioning of the institution involves genuinely open (in the sense of open-ended, not in the sense of public) discussion of how to use this steering capacity, which determines how the steering capacity gets used,” my current place of training has a good amount of that. (By “good” here I mean enough that we can make such determinations when appropriate, and not enough that we sacrifice stability. And in addition, there is currently a somewhat trustworthy knob we have access to to tune this parameter.)

          1. Benquo Post author

            I do think studying history & philosophy etc (liberal arts generally) are force multipliers on deliberative capacity. A group that can deliberate but doesn't know about anything outside its current behavior is laboring under an unnecessary disadvantage.

  5. Jason Green-Lowe

    You might be interested in visiting Esalen, the 50-year-old hippie-flavored meditative retreat center near Big Sur. They are much more woo-oriented than the rationalist community, but they seem to have a serious commitment to sustainability, changing the broader culture, etc., and they're at least stable enough to have been around for 50 years. The natural scenery there is also truly breathtaking, so the trip wouldn't be entirely wasted even if you didn't learn anything.

    Also, I agree with your analysis, offer moral support for your project, and could (probability 2-ish%) potentially be convinced to join.

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  7. Girish Sastry

    Do you have any updates on your project? Like a list of the most productive/interesting cultures? This doesn't seem totally related, but I'm also curious if you've found any online communities that are doing something intellectually interesting (other than LesserWrong, Ribbonfarm, and SSC).


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