[Question] Babble Challenge: 50 thoughts on stable, cooperative institutions

In a recent LessWrong question Anna Salamon asks “Where did stable, cooperative institutions come from (like bridges that stay up; the rule of law; or Google)?” She also worries that “the magic that used to enable such cooperative institutions is fading”.

Anna’s post is strong in babble. It does provide gears-level mechanisms and concrete hypotheses. But it also gestures at intuitions, felt senses, and insights-waiting-to-be-had.

This week’s challenge is simple: Have 50 thoughts about Anna’s post and questions.

Do you have a guess at the magic enabling human societies to build roads and postal services? Do you think institutions are actually getting stronger over time? What are 10 examples of how institutions changed in the last 100 years? Or 10 predictions about how they’ll change in the future? Etc.

Your thoughts can be hypotheses, questions, anecdotes, confusions, disagreements, feelings… and so forth.

50 thoughts, no need for them to be longer than a sentence.

You have 1 hour.

Looking back

Here are the current rankings. (You gain a star for completing a challenge, and lose one for missing a week. I’m not including myself since it feels weird to be both gamemaster and participant.)

Great job everyone!

★★★★★ gjm

★★★★ Yonge

★★★ Tetraspace Grouping, Slider

★★ Mark Xu, Bucky

★ Turntrout, Harmless, Tao Lin, Daniel Kokotajlo, chasmani, supposedlyfun

Moving Forwards

This is week 6 of my 7-week babble sprint.

It is said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I think something similar is true for building skills.

There are some skills of which you can see the contours. You can squint and see yourself wielding them, with practice. And there are some things which seem like magic. As if though the kinds of humans who wield them are fundamentally different from the kind of human you are. There’s no set of steps that could get you to where they are at.

Intellectual creativity often falls in this bucket.

For whatever reason, culture loves to create the vision of a genius. The media writes about “the 14-year old who climbed Mount Everest and wrote software for America’s largest bank” when in fact they made an impressive-for-their-age contribution to an open source package and camped out at a lower base station reachable by walking.

Maybe because creativity is so illegible. It seems that there is nothing. And then there’s an idea. George Orwell said of writing that it was like being “driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

It’s especially illegible from the outside.

It will often happen to me that I read a LessWrong post. Full of brilliant, interesting, novel thoughts; and with a bustling comment section. And faced with this Tower of Babble I take a peak at what my own brain generates, 2 seconds after being hurled into the spotlight —


— and I despair.

I feel like I don’t have ideas. Like I am a person who does not have ideas.

But I miss that Tower’s are built one stone at a time. Once, where that great obelisk rests, there was only wind.

I’ve recently been meditating on this, trying to feel this truth in my bones:

I am a machine. One that turns time and food and air into creativity. And machines are in the domain of Science. They are understandable, extendable, lawful.

Now that I’ve done 5 weeks of the Babble Challenge, this is becoming clearer. I can choose to have ideas. I’m getting a better sense of the gears that turn to produce my creativity, I see motion where before there was only fog and magic.

If you’ve also looked at LessWrong threads and felt they were the playing fields of wizards, I also want you to have this experience. I want you to feel like a machine who, with ambition and deliberate practice, can learn to turn time into ideas.


  • Focus on the content of Anna’s essay

Think about the ideas and the questions, not the spelling or word choice. Think about institutions and cooperation, not about paragraph length and sentence structure. Try to engage with the substance, rather than the symbol.

  • 50 answers or nothing. Shoot for 1 hour.

Any answer must contain 50 ideas to count. That’s the babble challenge.

However, the 1 hour limit is a stretch goal. It’s fine if it takes longer to get to 50.

  • Post your answers inside of spoiler tags. (How do I do that?)

  • Celebrate other’s answers.

This is really important. Sharing babble in public is a scary experience. I don’t want people to leave this having back-chained the experience “If I am creative, people will look down on me”. So be generous with those upvotes.

If you comment on someone else’s post, focus on making exciting, novel ideas work — instead of tearing apart worse ideas.

  • Not all your ideas have to work

I’ve often found that 1 great idea can hide among 10 bad ones. You just need to push through the worse ones. Keep talking. To adapt Wayne Gretzky’s great quote: “You miss 100% of the ideas you never generate.”

  • My main tip: when you’re stuck, say something stupid.

If you spend 5 min agonising over not having anything to say, you’re doing it wrong. You’re being too critical. Just lower your standards and say something, anything. Soon enough you’ll be back on track.

This is really, really important. It’s the only way I’m able to complete these exercises.


Now, go forth and Babble!

50 thoughts on the question about stable, cooperative institutions!