Writing Down Conversations

Epistemic Status: Didn’t think through exactly how I worded things.

tldr: When you have insightful conversation, write it down and share it so people can build on it (instead of just sharing in person). Most of humanity’s power comes from being able to build complex thoughts out of other thoughts and transmit them across the world.

This is a rehash/​re-examining post. Related:

This is part 2 of N of my “Ray writes down conversations he had with people” series. It’s also the most adorably meta of them.

A month ago I was talking with Oliver Habryka about why Less Wrong was important. (Call us biased if you will). One thing we both noted: in the days of yore, it seemed like a lot of prominent scholars/​thinkers wrote down their insights and research on Less Wrong. Then, eventually they turned professional and joined official organizations whose job was to think fulltime.

Also over the past few years, those organizations (including but not limited to MIRI, CFAR, Givewell/​OpenPhil) shifted from being younger-with-nothing-to-lose to older-with-reputations-to-safeguard, and their public facing tone seems to have shifted from “earnestly sharing thoughts as they come up” to “carefully crafted PR statements.”

Thirdly, a lot of people moved to major geographic hubs, where it became easier to have in person conversations than to communicate via written blogpost. So… that’s what people have tended to do.

I sympathize with the notion that people are busy and writing things up is a) time consuming and b) potentially risky. But I think the consequences of this are at least underweighted.

At least, I think people having informal conversations should make more of an effort to write those up in accessible form when there aren’t reasons to be cautious.

Consequences of not writing stuff down include:

  1. If you’re not plugged into the personal-conversation-network, it’s hard to keep up with a lot of collective insights relating to both rationality, effective altruism and x-risk. (This results in weird filtering effects which aren’t the worst—being able to network your way is a credible signal of something. But I don’t think it’s the best possible filter)

  2. It’s actually fairly time consuming to propogate ideas via in-person conversation. Like, one of the major advantages of humanity is ideas being able to efficiently spread via writing.

  3. Another major advantage of writing is being able to increase your collective working memory and build on ideas. When much of your insights are developed via conversation, not only are you preventing far-away-people from building on your ideas, but you are hampering the ability of yourself and your immediate colleagues to build on those ideas. Writing things down (and then turning them into essays with titles that can be easily referenced) makes it easier to build complex models.

I think people feel a lot of pressure to write things up well, and as a result don’t write things up at all. So my current take is, if you have a conversation that seems to contain important insights, err on the side of getting it written up quickly without as much regard for being timeless.

Later on if you think it deserves to be written up in a more timeless, scholarly form, you (or someone with more time) can still do that.