Friday, 27 December 2013

No One True Cause

Effective altruists want to find the one cause that is more effective than all other causes. As a result, EAs often debate amongst themselves what the most important cause in the world really is. 

The reality is that there is no one true cause.

For one thing, different people are good at different things. I could start training right now to become the world's best brain surgeon or rocket scientist so that I could solve some highly important issue in those fields, but it would probably make more sense to let the current brain surgeons and rocket scientists handle those issues, while I work on the important issues closer to my current background. You know, the type of stuff that brain surgeons and rocket scientists wouldn't be able or willing to pay much attention to because they're too busy working on their own problems. If I felt like I had the capacity and motivation to train myself as an expert rocket scientist so that I could find the rocket science Holy Grail and benefit humanity, that could be a good idea. But there are huge issues in a diversity of fields and there's likely to be a Holy Grail hiding closer to my present destination.

Secondly, because there are so many different issues out there, we should want people to be working on all of them. If we collectively identified aging as the world's most cost-effective cause and everybody dedicated themselves to that, maybe we'd manage to cure death... only to get wiped out by some existential risk that nobody was paying attention to. So the goodness of a cause depends on how much attention is paid to it relative to the attention paid to other important causes. As more and more people start focusing on the "top causes," that might make formerly lesser causes surpass them in importance due to their relative neglect. The importance of a cause is constantly fluctuating, a little like the stock market. Whenever someone decides to focus on something, that changes the worth of focusing on that issue.

Effective altruists should keep their eyes and ears open for new high impact causes. They should also pay attention to what other people are paying attention to. In some cases, it might be wise to join a highly rated pre-existing EA movement. In other cases, it might be better to join a pre-existing movement that is usually deemed by EAs to be of less importance. In other cases, it might be best to start an entirely new project that has yet to be seriously explored or dealt with.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Cultural Functions of the Mass Media

This post is a very brief overview of some of the main ideas in the chapter on media effects in John Vivian and Peter J. Maurin’s textbook The Media of Mass Communication. The main content that I ignored was the section on violence in the media. I'll cover that sometime in a future post.

It’s been highly debated how the mass media affect society. This uncertainty might lead some to consider cultural optimization to be too wishy-washy to deserve effective altruist attention. Here are some concrete functions of the media in society, all of which shape a culture's makeup.
  • Agenda-Setting By the Media: The media create awareness more than they change attitudes or knowledge. They tell people what to think about, not how to think. 
1.  Creating Awareness: Awareness precedes concern. The media brings things to our attention, while omitting others.
2.  Establishing Priorities: People trust the media to find the most important stories for them. If something is featured in the media, it is given the air of credibility. If a lot of airtime is dedicated to a story, it appears to be even more important.
3.  Perpetuating Issues: Similarly, the media can control the perceived importance of news stories by choosing whether to continually focus on them over a long-term time span, or whether to bring them up only once.
  • Media-Induced Anxiety and Apathy: Regardless of its content, the centrality of the media in our lives and the sheer quantity of media messages can have mass effects on society. 
1.  Information Anxiety (narcotizing dysfunction): There is so much media content out there that some people become overwhelmed. In response, these people refuse to try sorting through all this information.
2.  Media-Induced Passivity: Media fandom can create “couch potatoes,” fueling obsessions at the cost of keeping audiences passive and lazy.
3.  Socialization Function: The media helps people fit in with other people by providing them with common experiences, interests, and information.
  • Socialization: The media play a strong role in informing people of what’s cool, what’s ethical, what’s normal, and what’s weird in a culture. Media content affects our self-images and social relationships.
1.  Media’s Initiating Role: People are born without knowledge of cultural norms and conventions – media content fills that hole by acting as a child’s initiation to their cultural setting.
2.  Role Models: People imitate their favourite fictional characters, buy their outfits, quote their catchphrases.
3.  Stereotyping: Fictional characters are often reflective of simplistic, one-dimensional identity clich├ęs. The continued reinforcement of these stereotypes in the media can shape views about real people, probably thanks to the availability heuristic.
4.  Socialization Via Eavesdropping: In the media, people become privy to conversations that would normally not be taking place in front of them: men “eavesdrop” on women-conversations by watching content targeted at women like Sex and the City, parents can learn about their kids by watching MTV, etc.
  • Diversion Function: The mass media can serve as a much-needed escape from everyday life. There are three different types of diversions.
1.  Stimulation: The mass media can relieve boredom or accelerating an experience (e.g. adding music to a party).
2.  Relaxation: When people are overloaded, they can use the mass media to unwind and relax.
3.  Release: Engaging with media content can be cathartic, allowing individuals to release their pent-up emotions.
  • Surveillance Function: The media, especially the news, survey the world for useful information to provide audiences. Masses of people pick up their information from media sources.

Incomplete List of Good Memes

What ideas should we want to be circulated in the mass media? Since there is a lot of uncertainty involved, we should probably stick with very broad and safe messages that are difficult to be abused or to lead us in bad directions. A meme like "New technologies are good" may be good but it could easily lead to untrue beliefs or bad consequences. I think our general goal should be to raise the average level of rationality, as that will help us resolve many of our other issues.

List of good memes:

Rationality is great
Science is useful and reliable
Morality is non-arbitrary
Atheism is acceptable
Breaking conventions is acceptable
Being uncool is acceptable
Being wrong is acceptable as long as you're willing to change your mind
Understanding cognitive biases is good
Defining one's terms before an argument is good
Other people think and feel a lot like you
Being able to control your emotions is good
Learning is good
Accepting criticism is good
Consequentialism is good
Democracy is good
Belief without evidence is bad
Racism is bad
Sexism is bad
Speciesism is bad
Homophobia is bad
Xenophobia is bad


Note that many of these memes are already very prominent in the media and popular culture. The ones that are the most overlooked are the ones relating to rationality and self-improvement. It could also be important to focus on specific political issues that are hot at a given time. For example,

Abortion should be legal
War X should not happen
Apartheid X should be stopped
Gay marriage should be legal
Marijuana should be legal
Capital punishment should be far less common
Gun control laws should be stricter
Climate change should be taken seriously
Party X should win the election
The rich should be taxed more


[Note: I don’t necessarily stand 100% behind all the above examples.]

Some of these issues might be far less important than the media and politicians make them seem, but knocking them down, one by one, could probably pave the way for more important change. Making gay marriage legal is a relatively trivial victory in the grand scheme of things, but it is still a move in the right direction and many such victories can snowball into large-scale positive change. Perhaps more importantly, they prevent the tides from gaining momentum in the opposite direction.

It matters who your audience is. The average person does not need a reminder to develop their social skills or learn how to communicate, but the average rationalist might. Similarly, there’s no need to convince rationalists that atheism is acceptable because that would be preaching to the choir.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Worship of Nature

“Roszak views the current widespread sense of malaise as a kind of “separation anxiety” from nature. It should be an easy metaphor to connect with. We’re bombarded these days with analyses of failed relationships, of the psychological havoc breakup wreak. The psychological fallout from our breakup with nature is like that. When you cut off arterial blood to an organ, the organ dies. When you cut off the flow of nature into people’s lives, their spirit dies. It’s as simple as that.” – Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam

I trust that our “fallout from nature” can be defined in such a way that it is empirically true. But it’s less obvious to me that there is some non-trivial connection between spiritual wellbeing and closeness to nature. I’m also unsure this fallout has a net negative impact.

Lasn’s book isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this meme, however. Those that oppose the American consumerist culture often conceptually package spiritual fulfillment with the preservation of the natural environment. It’s said that in our raging consumption, constant craving for the newest technology, and slow destruction of the environment, we are steadily transitioning from a spiritual culture to a material culture.

We’re spending so much time chatting online that we’ve forgotten how to talk face to face. We’re so connected that we can barely sit down for a minute without checking our phones. We can navigate Apple TV but wouldn’t be able to survive on our own in the wild. What we need to do, we are told, is return to nature and rediscover ourselves.

Being “in touch with nature,” whatever that means, is not inherently good or useful. If it reduced suffering to do so, I would gladly chop down a forest. Often, there are situations where it makes sense to mess with nature: to engineer animal populations, to provide homes that keep out the cold along with intruders, to develop vaccines that fight “natural” conditions.

One issue with Lasn’s perspective is that its view of the natural world is glorified. Nature is competitive, wasteful, and harsh. Murder, rape, and injury are rampant throughout the natural world. Natural disasters wipe out millions. Diseases overtake our bodies. After a certain amount of years, natural bodies inevitably wear down and die. The planet itself is only inhabitable to us during a certain window of time – and just imagine all the other possible creatures it isn’t habitable to. Nature, when left to take its course, is indifferent to suffering. Human civilizations have done a lot of great things over the millennia to improve the quality of our lives. Many of these have come at the cost of dominating nature. These are good things. In glorifying the natural world, Lasn downplays the good that can be done by using tools to reduce natural suffering.

He also overlooks that many of our cultural changes are pretty much lateral moves. Why is talking in person more valuable than talking online via text? The main reason is that our culture demands that we speak in person a lot of the time. We had better be able to communicate in person because otherwise, we won’t get that job that requires an in-person interview. But as culture change and technology change, so do the skills necessary to thrive. In 2013, social media skills are an important component of what it means to “have social skills.” If you can’t get your point across in a text without it being misinterpreted or work Facebook or know when to call vs send a text, you’re at a social disadvantage. Face-to-face communication skills are still valuable but there’s nothing inherently wrong with this changing. There could be a healthy future society that has no face-to-face communication whatsoever.

We should be aware that in showing caution against dangerous future technologies that we are possibly spreading the “Going Back to Nature” meme or the “Nature = Spiritual” meme. Writers like Lasn might be good allies for those interested in countering cultural problems but some of the spillover effects of his views might get in the way of making the world a better place.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Advertiser Control Over Content

In my post Probabilistic Needle Theory, I gave two reasons why cultural goods are becoming increasingly homogenized:

  1. In meeting their shared objective of maximizing profit, they all try to appeal to the widest possible audience. If lots of media producers are trying to reach the widest possible audience, then we should expect there to be a lot of overlap in the methods they employ to do this.
  1. The established powers of the present thrive in a certain kind of political, economic, and cultural environment. It is in the best interests of the multimedia corporations and the other organizations (such as the advertising agencies that influence their content) to promote conservative and capitalist values. We should expect all of these corporations to produce ideologically similar content in their rational attempts to cement the environment that is best for their corporations.

Brian Tomasik commented on the post, disagreeing with the second point:
"...Unless there's robust collusion among many parties, the selfish value of preserving capitalism is tiny compared with the prospect of more profits for you specifically. It's like the tragedy of the commons. If anti-capitalist media would sell well, some big media company would start doing that."

Companies are not inherently in favour of capitalist messages, they are in favour of maximizing their profits. It so happens that strategies for maximizing profit overlap heavily with pro-capitalist and pro-status quo messages but that is only the natural by-product of companies trying to make money. If there was a way to make more money by spreading anti-capitalist and anti-status quo media, then companies would sell that.

This view is more or less correct but it leaves out the intricate relations among the world's power networks. Most notably, the need to appease advertisers in central in determining what content gets airplay.

In Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn writes about the power of advertisers to control content:

"In 1997, Chrysler, one of the five largest advertisers in the US, sent letters to one hundred newspaper and magazine editors demanding to review their publications for stories that could prove damaging or controversial. 'In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial content that could be construed as provocative or offensive.' According to a spokesperson at Chrysler, every single letter was signed in agreement and returned. This kind of editorial control is widely, quietly practiced throughout the industry."

It's difficult for a company to act in their own best interests when a more powerful company is able to make them instead act in their best interests. So even if a network could make money publishing anti-capitalist and anti-status quo content, that doesn't mean it's advertisers would support that content. Without advertisers, it's difficult for a media outlet to survive.

Advertisers are specifically in the business of getting people to buy stuff. Usually, it's pretty typical stuff that serves pretty typical needs in a particular culture (e.g. cures bad breath, makes silky hair, conveys status to peers). Advertisers are thus more likely than the average organizational body to oppose anti-capitalist and anti-status quo content.

In the same chapter, Lasn relays his experience trying to sell his "Buy Nothing Day" commercial to major TV stations. These are some of the responses he received:

"There's no law that says we have to air anything - we'll decide what we want to air or not." - ABC New York station manager Art Moore 
"We don't want to take any advertising that's inimical to our legitimate business interests." - NBC network commercial clearance manager Richard Gitter 
"I dare you to get any station manager in this town to air your message." - CBS network's Libby Hawkins in New York 
"We don't sell airtime for issue ads because that would allow the people with the financial resources to control public policy." - CBS Boston public affairs manager Donald Lowery 
"This commercial ["Buy Nothing Day"] ... is in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States." - CBS network's Robert L. Lowary

Buy Nothing Day is oppositional to the values and environment that makes these stations - or at least, their advertisers - so successful. It's this dominance of the advertisers over media content that makes it so difficult for oppositional messages to overtake conventional messages.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Claiming Noam Chomsky

Among the world’s public intellectuals, there is perhaps nobody closer to the aspiring rationalist and effective altruist schools of thought than Noam Chomsky. Yet I have rarely heard his name mentioned among the people that comprise these circles. Chomsky is seen as being something entirely different. Recently, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Chomsky and I’ve been struck by how many similarities there are between his worldview and the AREA worldview.

I see 7 main commonalities:

1. Emphasis of substance over style

Chomsky famously embraces being a boring speaker:

"I'm a boring speaker and I like it that way.... I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is.... People are interested in the issues, and they're interested in the issues because they are important."

In typical rationalist fashion, Chomsky cares more about the content of an argument than on the way it’s delivered. In his lectures and interviews, he calmly states facts and arguments without “superficial eloquence.” He’s equally passive and attentive when being spoken too. This is an attribute that applies to many people but it is certainly a virtue among AREAs.

2. Indifference toward cultural norms and group identities

Chomsky adamantly holds unpopular views, regardless of how acceptable they are in society at large or among those who share his other views. For instance, his belligerent criticism of the US government doesn’t lead Chomsky to share crazy views held by others who critique the US government, namely epistemological critiques of science or crackpot conspiracy theories.

Rationalists often sign up for cryonics, anticipate a technological singularity within their lifetimes, concern themselves with the suffering of artificial and subhuman minds, reject religion, embrace transhumanism, etc. Chomsky calls himself an anarchist, criticizes many (most?) academic fields of study, has radical and fundamental problems with both US parties, accuses almost all mainstream media of attempting thought control, etc. This is another quality that applies to many groups of people and does not say much on its own.

3. Multidisciplinary expertise

Along with certain rationalists and effective altruists, Chomsky is among the greatest polymaths to ever live. He began his career by revolutionizing the field of linguistics, wrote extremely influential books in communications and cultural theory, is perhaps most well-known for his criticism of political and economic systems, is an expert on several branches of philosophy, and has spoken intelligently on many scientific issues, including artificial intelligence and the possibility of a singularity. He hasn’t merely learned science or politics – he’s taught himself several fields of study.

The only living people I know that surpass Chomsky in this way are in the AREA community – those people are all ~50 years younger than him, having grown up in the Internet age.

4. Deep concern with existential risks and mass human suffering

In several talks, Chomsky has brought up the issue of risks that threaten species survival. Again and again, he emphasizes the seriousness of nuclear war and climate change

Here: "There are two good reasons why the species might not survive very long."

Further, Chomsky’s concern has always been with large-scale systemic issues that possess the potential to dramatically alter the world’s total utility. If not systemic issues, then mass violations of human rights and ethics.

This, of course, is the defining characteristic of being an effective altruism: the want to do as much good as you can possibly do. I think one reason why Chomsky isn’t accepted as an effective altruist is that he has different, although more mainstream, pet causes and interests. While effective altruists tend to see nuclear war as only a moderate priority, Chomsky sees the probability of a deadly singularity as a very low priority. That may exclude him from the community but it doesn’t make him any less of a person using reason and knowledge to fight to help as many people as possible.

5. Activism

Effective altruists are big thinkers but they are also big doers. The whole point of effective altruism is that you actually have that big positive impact on the world that you type about. Many effective altruists have formed organizations, made large donations, and drastically changed their lifestyles in order to accomplish to reduce suffering.

Chomsky is best known for his political activism against corrupt governments and illegitimate structures of power among capitalistic systems. He has praised activists like Edward Said for fulfilling the true role of intellectuals. Clearly, his interest is not in talking politics with other academics, but with actually changing the world.

Following the death of Chomsky’s wife in 2008, The Chomsky Fund was created. It seeks donations for the humanitarian needs of the victims of human rights offenses in Palestine. He has also donated to other political movements such as the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network. Like effective altruists, he is interested in the suffering of those in dire situations, regardless of how geographically distant they reside.

6. Contempt for postmodernist, relativist, and religious philosophy

Chomsky has levelled some of the most vicious critiques of postmodernist, relativist, and religious thinking I've yet to come across. Rationalists would enjoy this letter tearing apart 20th Century French theorists for incomprehensible and meaningless writing.

"The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames."

In recorded interviews and lectures, he has also commented on the charlatanry of postmodernist intellectuals, the incoherence of extreme moral relativism, the stupidities of religion, and why the 9/11 terrorist attacks were likely not inside jobs. He has a rationalist's knack for seeing through bullshit.

7. Unusually high productivity

Chomsky has published over 100 books during his career, let alone academic essays, articles, and open letters. He also has hours upon hours of footage online from lectures and interviews on various subjects. He has possibly been in more high profile debates than anyone else in history: with WVO Quine, Michel Foucault, Hilary Putnam, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, George Lakoff, John Maynard Smith, Jean Piaget, Alan Dershowitz, and others. Currently in his 80s, he has continued to give lectures around the world.

Effective altruists are highly concerned with productivity because it allows one to maximize his or her life's contribution. Rationalists likewise are interested in efficiency. This is partially responsible for the abnormal levels of knowledgeability among AREAs.

* - * - * - * - *

Given these commonalities, I see Chomsky as a very close figure to the effective altruist and aspiring rationalist perspectives.

I think the main reasons why he isn't recognized as such are (1) he doesn't seem to quite come from the same literary genre and (2) he prioritizes different issues in his attempts to reduce suffering. He speaks mainly about politics, economics, abuses of power, and human rights violations, rather than about animal rights, future technologies, or donating to charity. 

I think his place in the pantheon of rationalist legends is as secure as anyone's.

Here: "In the sciences you have a framework of understanding. You pursue what you think is important but you maintain in the back of your mind the recognition you might be completely off on the wrong track... You say there's a "flood of criticism." Actually, I welcome it and I read it carefully and I look to see if anything's there that's valid and with astonishing consistency there's nothing."