What’s the theory of change of “Come to the bay over the summer!”?

post by Luise · 2022-06-08T18:22:33.560Z · EA · GW · 27 comments

Contents

    1. All-year EAG
    2. Great people
    3. Networking
    4. Shifting deprecated defaults and intuitions
    5. Information flows
    6. Space for the important stuff
    7. Moving towards doing ambitious EA work
    8. Motivational effects
    9. An amazing community
  Concluding remarks
None
27 comments

Some EAs from the bay area like to invite people they find especially promising “to come to the bay over the summer” and “learn stuff and skill up”. It’s often very unclear to the other person what exactly the summer activity is that is being referred to here and why exactly it has to be done in the bay. It was very unclear to me. I’ve come to the bay area now and it has had tremendous benefits for me. So now I’ll try to lay out a theory of change for “coming to the bay over the summer” that helps other people assess whether this is something they want to do.
 

I’ve specifically come to Berkeley, which is the general EA hotspot around here, and this is where my points are most applicable. Also, the effects of coming to the bay are pretty diffuse and hard to nail down, which is why I’m going to list a lot of factors.

 

1. All-year EAG

There’s lots of cool and impressive EAs around, especially alignment researchers. You can reach out to them and ask for a 1-1 chat, like at EAGs.
 

There’s three advantages coming to Berkeley has over EAG as well:

 

2. Great people

Besides impressive and well-known EAs, the bay also has an incredibly high concentration of amazing but less-well-known EAs. Sometimes you simply chat with someone and it turns out to be hugely valuable even though you don’t know the person and wouldn’t have known to reach out to them. The average person you interact with here is probably smarter and has better models of EA than the average person where you are based. This means you get better input from the outside in all sorts of ways, including:

 

Caveat: Berkeley EA is a subculture and like every subculture it’s an echo chamber. There’s implicit knowledge in this culture, but so is there cultural baggage that has somehow gotten caught in the echo chamber. Not every quirk of Berkeley EA is especially smart or rational. Some may be harmful. However, I maintain it’s a better-than-usual echo chamber with better-than-usual quirks.

 

3. Networking

Going to office spaces, dinners, parties etc. in Berkeley will give you a lot of networking. Networking is sort of the precursor to the last point, great people who give you great input. However, that’s not the only thing networking affords you and hence I put it here as a separate point. Being networked also affords you favors, lets you exert influence on important decisions and if/how things are done in Berkeley EA projects, and by extension EA as a whole. Being networked also leads to serendipitous encounters with even more people (which is easier if you already know a lot of people).
 

Meeting in-person in Berkeley lends itself much better to developing any sort of connection to people and assessing their potential than doing it virtually. (You want people to be able to assess your potential so they will want to give you cool opportunities.)

 

4. Shifting deprecated defaults and intuitions

If you have intellectually changed your mind, but not emotionally, you will not be very effective at acting in accordance with your new view. If you’ve updated from valuing your time at $20/h to $100/h, but you still feel like your time is cheap, you’ll often intuitively make bad tradeoffs. Surrounding yourself with people who act in accordance with the correct defaults and intuitions will shift you more towards those emotionally.

 

Some especially important defaults and intuitions are:

5. Information flows

There’s some information that’s hard to get quickly and in a distilled fashion the further you are from EA hubs. I’m not entirely clear on what the mechanisms are that make this so. I will just describe some of the information of this kind.
 

Landscape knowledge: Information on the landscape of EA, or the field of alignment, or biosecurity etc. Including: The relevant people and what they do, the existing projects/orgs and how they think about the problem, the bottlenecks of the space as a whole, disagreements between people or projects/orgs, recent developments/the trajectory the space is on as a whole, hot takes floating around.

 

Landscape knowledge is insanely useful. Without knowing the whole space, you can’t make informed decisions about what sub-space you want to work in (Alignment agent foundations? Empirical research?). Without knowing the bottlenecks of the space, you don’t know what’s most urgent to work on. Without knowing about relevant infrastructure, you don’t know of all the support available in different places.
 

I want to put special emphasis on knowing about disagreements in the field because I personally was uninformed about those for a long time within alignment. I was planning to become a technical alignment researcher, but hadn’t realised how different the premises are different alignment efforts (MIRI, ARC, Anthropic, …) are built upon, making work on the wrong agenda effectively useless on some worldviews. I could’ve easily ended up digging into, say, MIRI’s research, only to realise very late that I actually think their approach is hopeless.

 

How to get hiring ready: For some organisations this is clearer than for others. Either way, it helps talking to several people who have gotten hired recently by the organisation in question or who are on a good track to get there.

 

Opportunities: My experience has been that I’ve learned about more opportunities the closer I’ve been to EA hotspots physically and socially. So, so many fellowships, grants, scholarships, jobs, internships, retreats, summits, contests, jobs, invitations to just go and stay somewhere for a while…

 

Generally, I see the state of information flows in EA as highly suboptimal. I’d like to work on this. If you do too, please get in touch [EA · GW].

 

6. Space for the important stuff

In normal life, you can never give space and time to Effective Altruism according to its importance. Things come up, work, friends, interests, easier ways to spend your free time. Coming to Berkeley is helpful because it sets aside weeks or months for thinking about important stuff. And the environment here pushes you towards thinking about important stuff, not away from it.

 

The idea of making good money-time tradeoffs for example, was just some idea from the internet for me back in my home environment. Some weird idea as well, that felt unintuitive and socially unacceptable with the people around me. The incentive landscape was just not favourable at all to me engaging with this idea seriously and giving it space to unfold. In Berkeley on the other hand, people will bring it up to you, or it will come up because of the money-time tradeoffs people make all the time, and people want to hear your takes, and the space is made for you to think about this idea automatically. Not to mention that, whether this is a good thing or not, hearing an idea from a person is just much more engaging psychologically than reading it on a forum.

 

Usually all this space is also used in above-average ways since (related to 2.) the smart and highly engaged EAs around act as a filter for ideas, such that the highest quality ideas get amplified the most in Berkeley (roughly).
 

7. Moving towards doing ambitious EA work

(This is technically a child node of Information flows + Shifting deprecated defaults and intuitions, but it’s so important that it warrants a separate heading.)

 

It’s unclear from the outside:

Even once you know these things intellectually, it’s hard to act in accordance with them before knowing them viscerally, e.g., viscerally feel secure in starting an ambitious project. Coming to Berkeley really helps with that.

 

8. Motivational effects

Interacting with passionate, value-aligned people on a daily basis feels very motivating and nourishing. Being able to talk about your work with others and get excited together is nice. I personally have never worked so much in my entire life and it’s by choice. Working from an EA office is ideal for these things, and also increases your productivity by taking care of meals, environmental design, various charger types, and other logistical hassle. The fact that you get social approval for being impactful also doesn’t hurt.

 

9. An amazing community

I personally really love the EA and rationalist community here. There’s an amazing concentration of smart and interesting people. There’s people geeking out about the concept of agency or value-alignment or consciousness, people discovering emotional work together, people doing weird shit like ecstatic dance, and lots of other types of people as well. Being part of this community has been incredibly valuable to me and has made me even more committed to EA. I’ve made many great friends here.

 

Concluding remarks

Possibly, some of these benefits could come from just talking to EAs influenced by the bay area, and not travelling there yourself. Probably less than 50% of the benefits though.
 

If this theory of change speaks to your current needs/bottlenecks, and you’ve been convinced to try coming to the bay, please contact me [EA · GW] explaining where you are currently at and how Berkeley might help you. You can also apply for a call with Akash to speak about your plans [EA · GW].

27 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jan_Kulveit · 2022-06-08T20:01:20.487Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I. It might be worth reflecting upon how large part of this seem tied to something like "climbing the EA social ladder".

E.g. just from the first part, emphasis mine
 

Coming to Berkeley and, e.g., running into someone impressive  at an office space already establishes a certain level of trust since they know you aren’t some random person (you’ve come through all the filters from being a random EA to being at the office space).
If you’re in Berkeley for a while you can also build up more signals that you are worth people’s time. E.g., be involved in EA projects, hang around cool EAs.

Replace "EA" by some other environment with prestige gradients, and you have something like a highly generic social climbing guide. Seek cool kids, hang around them, go to exclusive parties, get good at signalling.

II. This isn't to say this is bad . Climbing the ladder to some extent could be instrumentally useful, or even necessary, for an ability to do some interesting things, sometimes.

III. But note the hidden costs. Climbing the social ladder can trade of against building things. Learning all the Berkeley vibes can trade of against, eg., learning the math actually useful for understanding agency. 

I don't think this has any clear bottom line - I do agree for many people caring about EA topics it's useful to come to the Bay  from time to time. Compared to the original post  I would probably mainly suggest to also consult virtue ethics and think about what sort of person you are changing yourself to, and if you, for example, most want to become "a highly cool and well networked EA" or e.g. "do  things which need to be done", which are different goals.
 

Replies from: Linch, Misha_Yagudin, Luise, tamgent, Lukas_Finnveden, Atticus Hempel
comment by Linch · 2022-06-08T20:12:35.443Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(strongly upvoted because I think this is a clean explanation of what I think is an underrated point at the current stage, particularly among younger EAs).

comment by Misha_Yagudin · 2022-06-20T14:18:33.848Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, it would probably be good if people redirected this energy to climbing ladders in the government/civil service/military or important powerful corporate institutions. But I guess these ladders underpay you in terms of social credit/inner ringing within EA. Should we praise people aiming for 15y-to-high-impact careers more?

Replies from: technicalities
comment by Gavin (technicalities) · 2022-06-20T18:06:53.725Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We should praise the class of worker in general but leave the individuals alone.

comment by Luise · 2022-06-08T21:20:22.502Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you, being "a highly cool and well networked EA" and "do  things which need to be done" are different goals. This post is heavily influenced by my experience as a new community builder and my perception that, in this situation,  being "a highly cool and well networked EA" and "do  things which need to be done" are pretty similar. If I wasn't so sociable and network-y, I'd probably still be running my EA reading group with ~6 participants, which is nice but not "doing things which need to be done". For technical alignment researchers, this is probably less the case, though still much more than I would've expected.

Replies from: IanDavidMoss, alex-turner, Jack O'Brien
comment by IanDavidMoss · 2022-06-09T14:22:37.158Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Separating out how important networking is for different kinds of roles seems valuable, not only for the people trying to climb the ladder but also for the people already on the ladder. (e.g., maybe some of these folks desperate to find good people to own valuable projects that otherwise wouldn't get done should be putting more effort into recruiting outside of the Bay.)

comment by Alex Turner (alex-turner) · 2022-07-11T20:15:49.879Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This post is heavily influenced by my experience as a new community builder and my perception that, in this situation,  being "a highly cool and well networked EA" and "do  things which need to be done" are pretty similar

Even though these two goals may lead to similar instrumental actions (e.g. doing important work), I think these two goals grow different motivational structures inside of you. I recently wrote [LW(p) · GW(p)]:

It's not that my actions were wrong, it's that I did them for the wrong reasons, and that really does matter. Under my model, the cognitive causes (e.g. I want to be like EY) of externally visible actions (study math) are very important, because I think that the responsible cognition gets reinforced into my future action-generators. 

For example, since I wanted to be like Eliezer Yudkowsky, I learned math; since I learned math, I got praised on LessWrong; since I got praised, my social-reward circuitry activated; since the social-reward circuitry activated, credit assignment activates and strengthens all of the preceding thoughts which I just listed, therefore making me more of the kind of person who does things because he wants to be like EY. 

I can write a similar story for doing things because they are predicted to make me more respected. Therefore, over time, I became more of the kind of person who cares about being respected, and not so much about succeeding at alignment or truly becoming stronger.

comment by Jack O'Brien · 2022-06-20T00:09:25.686Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I feel like that's a good argument for why hanging around the cool, smart people can be good for "skilling up". But a lot of the value of meeting cool, smart people seems to come from developing good models! and surely it's possible to build good models of e.g community building, AI safety by doing self-directed study, and occasionally reaching out with specific questions as they arise. I think it's important to split up the value of meeting cool, smart people into A) networking and social signalling, and B) building better models. And maybe we should be focusing on B.

comment by tamgent · 2022-06-10T20:48:01.381Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah I also had a strong sense of this from reading this post. It reminded me of this short piece by C. S. Lewis called The Inner Ring, which I highly recommend. Here is a sentence from it that sums it up pretty well I think:

IN the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? 

comment by Lukas_Finnveden · 2022-06-10T00:27:34.707Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But note the hidden costs. Climbing the social ladder can trade of against building things. Learning all the Berkeley vibes can trade of against, eg., learning the math actually useful for understanding agency.

This feels like a surprisingly generic counterargument, after the (interesting) point about ladder climbing. "This could have opportunity costs" could be written under every piece of advice for how to spend time.

In fact, it applies less to this posts than to most advice on how to spend time, since the OP claimed that the environment caused them to work harder.

(A hidden cost that's more tied to ladder climbing is Chana's point that some of this can be at least somewhat zero-sum.)

comment by Atticus Hempel · 2022-06-11T12:08:36.617Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the most costly hidden impact is the perception of gatekeeping that occurs with such a system as this. Gatekeeping happens in two ways: for one, those who are less able to travel for reason such as their having to provide for their family or even their being homesick are put at a disadvantage. And two, those who are less able to schmooze (fun word!) and climb that ladder are also put at a disadvantage.

I agree, I think this is a problem, but I am not sure if the cost of solving the problem (I.e. replacing the system) is too high? Much like grades in undergraduate institutions, whether one agrees with their ethicality or not, they are a fairly accurate assessment of how one might do in graduate school because they are so similar in nature. Now, disregarding the argument as to whether or not grades should be used in either, what I am trying to say is that the social ladder that exists within EA exists because the skills that are required to climb this social ladder are skills that are valued within EA. Thus, I do not think we need to so much care about the system because I think it is actually solving for an efficiency problem that is addressed above.

You brought up specifically the opportunity cost, the essay above said that there are a million projects going on always and not enough people to staff them. I think this opportunity cost is apt in order to weed out the people who aren’t that serious about an idea or who just aren’t yet skilled enough. Furthermore, even if this wasn’t the case I do think that EA people are pretty productive when motivated enough, from experience I can say (I could be wrong on this in general, but for me at least) all you really need to know is one well-connected EA in order to have access to 100 more — and even then you can get access to many many more at online or in person events. You may call this time consuming schmoozing, but if thought about impact fully and effectively (qualities EA wants) I maintain that this could be done in one weekend.

For the negative perception it creates: I think it would only really do this for people who are already in EA because otherwise people just wouldn’t see the culture at hand. At the point of their seeing it, a negative perception might still occur, but by that point I would hope they weight the ideals of EA to say that this may be the most effective culture as we have been discussing in this thread.

Please let me know if there is something that I missed!

comment by ChanaMessinger · 2022-06-09T16:24:18.675Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For people who consider taking or end up taking this advice, some things I might say if we were having a 1:1 coffee about it:

  • Being away from home is by its nature intense, this community and the philosophy is intense, and some social dynamics here are unusual, I want you to go in with some sense of the landscape so you can make informed decisions about how to engage.
  • The culture here is full of energy and ambition and truth telling. That's really awesome, but it can be a tricky adjustment. In some spaces, you'll hear a lot of frank discussion of talent and fit (e.g. people might dissuade you from starting a project not because the project is a bad idea but because they don't think you're a good fit for it). Grounding in your own self worth (and your own inside views) will probably be really important.
  • People both are and seem really smart. It's easy to just believe them when they say things. Remember to flag for yourself things you've just heard versus things you've discussed at length  vs things you've really thought about yourself. Try to ask questions about the gears [LW · GW] of people's models [? · GW], ask for credences and cruxes [EA · GW].  Remember that people disagree, including about very big questions. Notice the difference between people's offhand hot takes and their areas of expertise. We want you to be someone who can disagree with high status people, who can think for themselves, who is in touch with reality.
  • I'd recommend staying grounded with friends/connections/family outside the EA space. Making friends over the summer is great, and some of them may be deep connections you can rely on, but as with all new friends and people, you don't have as much evidence about how those connections will develop over time or with any shifts in your relationships or situations. It's easy to get really attached and connected to people in the new space, and that might be great, but I'd keep track of your level of emotional dependency on them.
  • We use the word "community" but I wouldn't go in assuming that if you come on your own you'll find a waiting, welcoming pre -made social scene, or that people will have the capacity to proactively take you under their wing, look out for you and your well being, especially if there are lots of people in a similar boat. I don't want you to feel like you've been promised anything in particular here. That might be up to you to make for yourself.
  • One thing that's intense is the way that the personal and professional networks overlap, so keep that in mind as you think about how you might keep your head on straight and what support you might need if your job situation changes, you have a bad roommate experience, you date and break up with someone (maybe get a friend's take on the EV of casual hookups or dating during this intense time, given that the emotional effects might last a while and play out in your professional life - you know yourself best and how that might play out for you).
  • This might be a good place to flag that just because people are EAs doesn't mean they're automatically nice or trustworthy, pay attention to your own sense of how to interact with strangers.
  • I'd recommend reading this post on power dynamics in EA [EA · GW].
  • Read CS Lewis 's The Inner Ring
  • Feeling lonely or ungrounded or uncertain is normal. There is lots of discussion on the forum [? · GW] about people feeling this way and what they've done about it. There is an EA peer support Facebook group where you can post anonymously if you want. If you're in more need than that, you can contact Julia Wise [EA · GW] or Catherine Low [EA · GW] on the community health team.
  • As per my other comment, some of this networking is constrained by capacity. Similarly, I wouldn't go in assuming you'll find a mentor or office space or all the networking you want. By all means ask, but also also give affordance for people to say no, respect their time and professional spaces and norms. Given the capacity constraints, I wouldn't be surprised if weird status or competitive dynamics formed, even within people in a similar cohort. That can be hard.
  • Status stuff in general is likely to come up; there's just a ton of the ingredients for feeling like you need to be in the room with the shiniest people and impress them. That seems really hard; be gentle with yourself if it comes up. On the other hand, that would be great to avoid, which I think happens via emotional grounding, cultivating the ability to figure out what you believe even if high status people disagree and keeping your eye on the ball.
  • This comment and this post and even many other things you can read are not all the possible information, this is a community with illegibility like any other, people all theoretically interacting with the same space might have really different experiences. See what ways of navigating it work for you, if you're unsure, treat it as an experiment.
  • Keep your eye on the ball. Remember that the goal is to make incredible things happen and help save the world. Keep in touch with your actual goals, maybe by making a plan in advance of what a great time in the Bay would like, what would count as a success and what wouldn't. Maybe ask friends to check in with you about how that's going.
  • My guess is that having or finding projects and working hard on them or on developing skills will be a better bet for happiness and impact than a more "just hang around and network" approach (unless you approach that as a project - trying to create and develop models of community building, testing hypotheses empirically, etc). If you find that you're not skilling up as much as you'd like, or not getting out of the Bay what you'd hoped, figure out where your impact lies and do that. If you find that the Bay has social dynamics and norms that are making you unhappy and it's limiting your ability to work, take care of yourself and safeguard the impact you'll have over the course of your life.

We all want (I claim) EA to be a high trust, truth-seeking, impact-oriented professional community and social space. Help it be those things. Blurt truth (but be mostly nice), have integrity, try to avoid status and social games, make shit happen.

Replies from: Evie Cottrell
comment by Evie Cottrell · 2022-06-18T15:40:26.485Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This comment is great, and resonates with a lot of the stuff I found hard when I was first immersed in the community at an EA hub.

comment by ChanaMessinger · 2022-06-09T16:12:14.900Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there's a lot of truth to the points made in this post.

I also think it's worth flagging that several of them: networking with a certain subset of EAs, asking for 1:1 meetings with them, being in certain office spaces - are at least somewhat zero sum, such that the more people take this advice, the less available these things will actually be to each person, and possibly on net if it starts to overwhelm. (I can also imagine increasingly unhealthy or competitive dynamics forming, but I'm hoping that doesn't happen!)

Second flag is that I don't know how many people reading this can expect to have an experience similar to yours. They may, but they may not end up being connected in all the same ways, and I want people to go knowing that they take that as a risk and to decide whether it's worth it for them.

On the other side, people taking this advice can do a lot of great networking and creating a common culture of ambition and taking ideas seriously with each other, without the same set of expectations around what connections they'll end up making.

Third flag is I have an un-fleshed out worry that this advice funges against doing things outside Berkeley/SF that are more valuable career capital in the future for ever doing EA things outside of EA or bringing valuable skills and knowledge to EA (like, will we wish in 5 years that EAs had more outside professional experience to bring domain knowledge and legitimacy to EA projects rather than a resume full of EA things?). This concern will need to be fleshed out empirically and will vary a lot in applicability by person.

(I work on CEA's community health team but am not making this post on behalf of that team)

comment by quinn · 2022-06-09T01:54:37.875Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Plausible that this post's comments is not the optimal place for some of this. One may argue that each heading should be it's own comment, but I'm slightly uncertain what mods prefer. 

Skilling up

“to come to the bay over the summer” and “learn stuff and skill up”

I don't think the meatspace value prop you outlined constitutes skilling up. That needs more justification. 

Aligning some social rewards with one's desire to believe true things or to help fix broken stuff seems plausibly critical for some people to keep their eye on the ball, or even to just take themselves seriously. Skilling up is not really related to this, except in the sense that you have to get whatever emotional structure that powers your motivation behind the grind. 

But I've been basically worried that emphasis on giving students quickly legible levers early in their exposure to the movement is sort of looting scholarship from the effective altruism of the future, and the way this post evoked "skilling up" to talk about what it was interested in talking about, which I see as boiling down to networking, really triggered me. 

I'd like to register a vote for an extremely boring notion of skilling up, which is: yes, textbooks. Yes, exercises. No, nodding along to a talk 3-10x more advanced than you and following the high level but not able to reproduce it at a low level. No, figuring out how to pattern match enough to flatter sr researchers at parties. Yes (often, or usually), starting hard projects quickly before an outside view would think you've done enough homework to be able to do it well, but the emphasis is on hard. Gaining friends and status may even be distracting! 

Obviously there's a debate to be had about a scholarship/entrepreneurship tradeoff-- my sense is that people think we use to swing too far to the scholarship side, and now there will probably be an overcorrection. (One should also register that few people think getting kickass at stuff looks like locking oneself in a monastary with textbooks, but a longer treatment of the nuances there is out of scope for this comment). 

But no, respectfully, I'm sorry but skilling up was not described in the post. Could you elaborate? 

I think in star wars 8 there was this "sacred texts" situation, you may recall that after listening to luke rant about the importance of the sacred texts, yoda challenged whether he even read them. Luke says "well...", implying that he flipped through them, but wasn't intimately familiar with what they were saying. I'm personally bottlenecked in my current goals by not having knowledge that is sitting in books and papers I haven't read yet! Which says nothing of doing avant garde or state of the art things. I think this post risks entering a kind of genre of message for young EAs, which is "you get kickass at stuff by exposing yourself to people who are kicking ass", and I think that's auxiliary -- yes you need to construct the emotional substructure that keeps your eye on the ball (which socialization helps with), and yes you need advice from your elders from time to time -- but no, you get kickass at stuff by grinding. 

Landscape knowledge

The bay is not necessary for landscape knowledge. 

I could’ve easily ended up digging into, say, MIRI’s research, only to realise very late that I actually think their approach is hopeless.

I (gave an 8 month college try at alignment) managed to form a map of and opinions about different threatmodels and research agendas online. I was at EA Hotel but there was only one other alignment person there and he was doing his own thing, not really interfacing with the funded cells of the movement. The discord/slack clusters are really good! AI Safety Camp is great! One widely cited, high status alignment researcher responded to a cold email with a calendly link. The internet remains an awesome place. 

Clout and reputation

I'm not gonna say clout and reputation are amoral distractions-- I think they're tools, instruments that help everyone do compression and filtering, oneself included. I roughly model grantmakers as smart enough to know that clout is a proxy for plausible future impact at best, so I'm not gonna come here and say status games are disaligning the movement from it's goals.

But jan_kulveit is 1000% right and it warrants repeating: networking and kicking ass are different things. What do I think goodharting on clout looks like at a low level? It looks like the social rewards for simply agreeing with the ideology leaving people satisfied, then they end up not doing hard projects.

Keeping one's eye on the ball

I conjecture that some people 

  1. Need consistent social rewards for trying to believe true things or fix broken stuff in order to keep trying to do those things
  2. See superlinearly increasing gains in the extra bandwidth of meatspace, or find a ton of value in the information that medium-bandwidth spaces like discord delete. 

I think the bay can be counterfactually very good by increasing the impact of these people! 

But I want the Minneapolis EA chapter to be powerful enough to support people who fail the university entrance exam. I don't want to leave billion dollar bills (or a billion human lives) on the sidewalk because someone wasn't legible or well connected at the right time. Keeping all our eggs in one basket seems bad in a myriad of ways.

People who can keep their eye on the ball, and grow as asskickers, without the bay should probably resist the bay, so that we build multipolar power. One of the arguments for this I have not advanced here is to do with correlated error, the idea that if we all lived together we may make homogenous mistakes, but perhaps another post. 

Networks and caution

We should be cautious about allowing a set of standards to emerge where being good at parties (in the right city) correlates with generating opportunities. 

comment by Eli_Nathan · 2022-06-09T06:25:26.325Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I won't go into too much detail here, but FWIW I lived in the Bay Area for ~2.5 years and found it somewhat difficult to network or get into various EA/rationalist social scenes (I think I was something of an outlier, but not extremely so). If you don't have a clear pathway to meeting people (such as being invited to work out of an EA co-working space for the summer, or having friends already living out there) you might have a more difficult experience networking/socializing than the post describes.

That said, I think for many EAs, visiting the Bay Area for at least some period of time is a great idea.

comment by Linch · 2022-06-10T23:31:03.721Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You got a lot of flak this post, and I think many of the  dissenting comments were good (I strongly upvoted the top one). I also think some specific points could be better argued, and it'd be quite valuable to have a deeper understanding of the downside risks and where the bottom-line advice is not applicable.

Nonetheless, I think I should mention publicly that I broadly agree with this post. I think the post advances a largely correct bottom-line conclusion, and for the right reasons. I think many EAs in positions to do so, for example undergrads/grad students over the summer, people with remote jobs, and people who can afford to take a break in between jobs, should seriously consider spending time in EA hubs.* I further think that many of the main reasons to do so are covered in this post, so this post is broadly right for the right reasons.

(If you read the dissenting comments carefully, none of them really contradicts this message. However I'm worried that the "vibe" of those comments will end up dissuading many EAs from seriously considering this in their option set). 

* As far as I understand it, the SF Bay Area (Berkeley specifically) is the best hub for some important EA subfields, most notably AI alignment work and longtermist community building. 

Replies from: vaidehi_agarwalla
comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-06-12T15:48:12.639Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I was going to comment pretty much exactly the same thing, thanks for doing the hard work for me :)

I think part of what is missing here for me is a bit of the context before hand 

  • who is saying come to the bay? it seems like this message is shared in specific circles
  • what factors fell into place for you to have a positive experience, where others may not have, e.g. the kinds of thing Chana points out, and Joseph Lemien's comment
  • (this one is unfair, since it's a bit out of scope for the post) how one might actually go about going to the bay. I think it's pretty fuzzy and unclear how to navigate that space unless you already know the relevant people
comment by Joseph Lemien (jlemien) · 2022-06-08T23:26:16.713Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This probably speaks to my own biases and perspectives, but my initial reaction to "come to the bay over the summer" involves several thoughts:

  • The bay? You mean the San Francisco area? What is with this in-group lingo? It feels sort of like the San Francisco version of View of the World from 9th Avenue.
  • I'm not going to quit my job just to hang out in a new city for a summer. I need to earn money for food, shelter, and clothing.
    • Also, there is the factor that "my word is my bond" and I don't want to abandon my colleagues/boss/team after I made a commitment to them.[1]
  • Maybe this is mainly targeted at undergraduate students, who are more likely to have a few months of time over the summer with no commitments. But in that case how do they have the money to do what is basically an extended vacation? Most students aren't earning much/any money. 
    • Maybe this is only targeted at students who have wealthy families willing to fund expensive adventures.
    • Or maybe this is mainly targeted at students with fields of study that involve well-paid internships and student work, like a multi-thousand salary for being an intern at Google.
    • Or maybe there are some kind of travel grants people can apply for.
  • Maybe this is primarily targeted at people who do remote work and have no family  commitments or other commitments. Okay, then I guess it is fine. I can imagine how it is really beneficial for a not-tied-down EA to be in a densely packed environment with other EAs, especially other EAs that have access to resources.
  1. ^

    Maybe according to strict utilitarianism I should abandon them, but in terms of virtue that seems horrendous. I don't want to be the kind of person who breaks his word whenever it is convenient; I want to have a really high bar for breaking my word.

Replies from: IanDavidMoss, Habryka
comment by IanDavidMoss · 2022-06-09T14:12:32.022Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like this comment because it does a great job of illustrating how socioeconomic status influences the risks one can take. Consider the juxtaposition of these two statements:

(from the comment)

Maybe this is mainly targeted at undergraduate students, who are more likely to have a few months of time over the summer with no commitments. But in that case how do they have the money to do what is basically an extended vacation? Most students aren't earning much/any money. 

  • Maybe this is only targeted at students who have wealthy families willing to fund expensive adventures.

(from the OP)

It’s unclear from the outside:

  • How easy it is to start a project and how secure this is relative to starting ambitious things outside of EA. Funding, advisors, a high-trust community, and social prestige are available...Looking at what scale EA projects in the bay operate at disperses false notions of limits and helps shoot for the correct level of ambition

Even once you know these things intellectually, it’s hard to act in accordance with them before knowing them viscerally, e.g., viscerally feel secure in starting an ambitious project. Coming to Berkeley really helps with that.

Let's say that for a typical motivated early-career EA, there's a 60% chance that moving to the Bay will result in desirable full-time employment within one month. (I have no idea if that's the correct number, just taking a wild guess.) From an expected-value standpoint, that seems like a great deal! Of course you would do that! But for someone who's resource-constrained, that 40% combined with the high living costs are really big red flags. What happens if things don't work out? What happens is that you've now blown all your savings and are up shit creek, and if you didn't embed yourself in the community well enough during that time to get a job, you probably don't have enough good friends to help you out of a financial hole either. So do you make the leap? Without a safety net or an upfront commitment, it's so much harder to opt for high-upside but riskier pathways, and that in turn ends up impacting the composition of the community.

Replies from: Charles He
comment by Charles He · 2022-06-09T14:17:42.124Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In theory, there is funding specifically to cover exactly the scenarios you are worried about (“40%”), for promising AI safety people going to the Bay Area.

If there is a systemic gap, the funders would very much like to know and people should comment (or PM and concerns can be referred if appropriate).

comment by Habryka · 2022-07-10T18:59:59.408Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"The Bay Area" or "The Bay" is I think a totally normal abbreviation for the "San Francisco Bay Area", see e.g. this wikitravel article. I've used this abbreviation with lots of people outside of the EA/Rationality community, and it seems to be commonly understood.

Replies from: Khorton
comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-07-10T22:09:38.993Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd expect it to be understood within people who live in the coastal US. I may have heard of "the Bay area" before I got involved in EA but definitely also wondered "what bay?" when people abbreviated to "the Bay". (In Canada, The Bay is a department store, so spending your summer interning in the Bay would have very different connotations!)

Definitely agree it's not an "ingroup" thing though, I think this is more of a certain class of American thing.

comment by DonyChristie · 2022-06-08T22:46:21.848Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think you're understating how gatekept the inner ring offices are.

I'm happy to host couchsurfers.

comment by Miranda_Zhang (starmz12345@gmail.com) · 2022-06-08T21:59:40.554Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I love that you wrote this because I grappled with a slightly bigger version of this, which was 'move to the Bay,' and I wasn't able to get a detailed theory of change from the people who were recommending this to me.

I think point 4 is especially interesting and something that motivated my decision to move (essentially, 'experience Berkely EA culture'). Ironically, most people focused on the first three points (network effects). I do think I'm unsure whether point 4 (specifically, the shift towards maximization, which feels related to totalising EA) is a net positive. Though perhaps by "theory of change" you really just meant the effect of coming to Berkeley, and not claiming that coming to Berkeley is net positive for one's impact?

comment by Owen Yeung · 2022-08-08T21:23:32.181Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Now that people are leaving the bay, I'd be pretty interested to see an "exit survey" of what people found most valuable about their stay in the bay and whether they think the visit was worth it (in terms of time, money, etc) ex-post

Replies from: Luise
comment by Luise · 2022-08-09T01:15:33.813Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

pls make one!