Drawing Toward Power

At the Bay Area pre-sols­tice un­con­fer­ence, I gave a talk which started as a dis­cus­sion of how ra­tio­nal­ists could build tools to en­able bet­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion and con­ver­sa­tion on­line. I’m a largely im­pro­vi­sa­tional speaker though, and it quickly turned into a dis­cus­sion of the fu­ture of the move­ment.

I’m pretty old now, and I’ve seen a num­ber of groups of peo­ple move from rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity, to po­si­tions of power or, at least, to be­ing sub­jects of gen­eral cu­ri­os­ity. The most rele­vant, I think, for ra­tio­nal­ists are the early (pre-2002) Googlers.

If a so­cial group gets pro­jected onto the broader can­vas of mass at­ten­tion, or their in­ter­ests get mag­nified through ac­cess to the lev­ers of power, you get crit­i­cism and praise in varied amounts (Paul Gra­ham has just writ­ten a piece about this). But just as visi­bly, the tiniest omis­sions and im­perfec­tions of the anal­y­sis and at­ti­tudes of the founders are also mag­nified.

I gave a talk in, I think, 2009, about this at a Foo Camp. I warned in an en­vi­ron­ment that was ready to hear it, but not ca­pa­ble of chang­ing mat­ters much, that geeks were about to be­come dan­ger­ous: that we had a set of Tragic Flaws, that we were already see­ing mag­nified in the wider world.

I don’t re­mem­ber all of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of geek­dom I gave then that would lead to its down­fall, but a cou­ple of them stuck with me: that we were bend­ing the work­place into our own vi­sion of a pleas­ant place to be (un­bounded by the 9-5, con­tract-driven, full of in­ter­est and un­bor­ing, self-driven, uni­ver­sity-like), and that meant that we were work-fo­cused, and push­ing oth­ers to be (even when their lives could not be bent that way). We ex­pe­rienced burn-out as a part of our lives, and now we were driv­ing oth­ers into burn-out. We viewed effi­ciency as a life goal for our­selves, in­di­vi­d­u­ally, and that was how we were en­courag­ing oth­ers to live. We were strongly in­fluenced by our aliena­tion from oth­ers as young peo­ple, and that meant (para­dox­i­cally) that when we did as­sume power, we would not recog­nise it, and in­stead con­tinued to use the habits and at­ti­tudes of out­siders with no power. (I called this “Stal­inism”: Stalin’s para­noia and cru­elty may have come from be­ing the weak, minor­ity group ex­pe­rienc­ing cru­elty from the more pow­er­ful. I’m not sure if that is truly the case, but per­haps we could give as a bet­ter ex­am­ple Bill Gates, who for years as­sumed that Microsoft had to act as a scrappy com­peti­tor, be­cause it was weak, and could eas­ily be de­stroyed by IBM—even when it reached the point of dom­i­nat­ing the PC mar­ket.

I see the same dy­namic play­ing out among ra­tio­nal­ists now. Do­minic Cum­mings will not be the last power­bro­ker who will see the ra­tio­nal­ist point-of-view as pro­vid­ing an edge that can be swiftly adopted. At my talk at the Sols­tice un­con­fer­ence, I de­scribed this op­por­tu­nity as emerg­ing from ra­tio­nal­ists ap­pear­ance as be­ing similar to the ex­ist­ing pow­er­ful groups (well-ed­u­cated, mildly sec­u­lar, po­lite, ver­bal) -- but also seem­ingly “harm­less”.

This is im­por­tant, be­cause some groups who seek to trans­form so­ciety are quickly beaten down with base­ball bats, be­cause of ei­ther their un­fa­mil­iar­ity, or be­ing all too eas­ily pat­tern-matched as “dan­ger­ous” rad­i­cals.(I may have noted that ev­ery­one at the Un­con­fer­ence looked like the rad­i­cal uni­tar­i­ans from Un­song, whose very ex­is­tence in the book was to play up the joke of how un-dan­ger­ous they seemed.)

What this means is that ra­tio­nal­ist ideas, even as they are dis­par­aged as weird by the first waves of me­dia, will be far more quickly adopted by en­claves of the pow­er­ful than one might ex­pect. Or might be healthy for any­one in­volved. If Bill Gates, or Googlers (or Stalin!) go from be­ing un­fore­seen up­starts to be­ing able to af­fect world events in a decade or two, that means that those minor flaws turn into tragedies with­out be­ing ad­dressed or cor­rected.

Ra­tion­al­ists have an ad­van­tage of their own in­ter­nal warn­ing sys­tem. You have, as they say, no­ticed the skulls. So what are the heroic flaws, the blindspots, the mono­cul­tural as­sump­tions that will lead to the move­ment’s down­fall?