Overcoming hardship and adversity together with other humans is probably among the most fulfilling experiences possible. I first read about this in Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis. Many people from the extraordinary groups he investigated described their experience, which usually involved significant sacrifice and hardship, as the best of their lives. I was reminded of this when I listened to Junger’s Tribe (EconTalk episode with Junger on the same topic). One of his core points is that humans don’t mind hardship. Instead, they mind not feeling needed by others. He further claims that small tribal societies are better suited to this human need than modern ones. He uses this breakdown of felt mutual reliance for a shared purpose to explain the increased incidence of mental illness, suicide, and even mass shootings. I find this view very plausible. There is much more in the book and much more to unpack in this cluster of thoughts, but two things stand out to me: (1) I expect this trend to get worse in the coming decades. Harari calls this “the rise of the useless class”. It will be difficult to stop this. (2) I believe early startup environments are one of the few places where modern humans can still experience this feeling. I would recommend people to seek them out just for that reason alone. They can be quite magical.
P.S.: While it’s true that mental health was likely better in hunter-gatherer societies, Junger unfortunately romanticizes the life in these groups somewhat. So I Iooked up an article I read a while ago criticizing this sentiment and the underlying evidence. I was surprised to see that the article (which I remembered as very convincing, lucid, and insightful) had been written by Ted Kaczynski who is better known as the Unabomber. I am honestly not sure what to make of this.
How to build communities
I read Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto who share their experiences about what makes communities thrive. I found this an interesting read for my own work, which sometimes involves community-building, as well as a useful perspective on community-building in effective altruism since this is probably the community I know best. Their core idea is to build communities with people, not for them. This is the opposite of the impression I get from the effective altruism community sometimes. I find it hard to put my finger on specific practices. It’s more a general feeling of not empowering and involving people from the community. I’m also not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing. The trade-offs involved are difficult and effective altruism is a very peculiar community after all. Still, it should give us at least some pause.
P.S.: Do check out Stripe Press which published the book. It’s the publisher of Stripe (the online payment company) and they’re dedicated to (re)publishing books on progress, undoubtedly inspired by Patrick Collison.
The importance of space
In November, I spent considerable amounts of time thinking about space. While it seems quite “out there”, most people in the effective altruism community arguably spend too little time thinking about it. (1) The rivalry between the U.S. and China has not been limited to Earth and we seem to be sliding into a serious space arms race. Even France plans to arm satellites with “active defenses”. In this context, it’s also noteworthy that Trump’s idea for a space force only sounds crazy at first glance. There are significant numbers of people in the U.S. security establishment who think it’s actually a good idea. Importantly, great-power conflict in space could plausibly escalate into nuclear war. Apparently, the first U.S. war game involving anti-satellite weapons ended with a nuclear exchange after just 5 minutes (!). (2) Many people in the effective altruism community believe that most of the moral value of their actions lies in the long-term future, partly because we might colonize space which would increase the stakes to astronomical levels. If space colonization is influenced by the governance mechanism we put into place now (which is plausible in at least some scenarios), some people should think about what those mechanisms should be and how to implement them.
P.S.: Why am I not surprised that Elon Musk wants to use SpaceX to put over 30,000 satellites in space to provide Internet access for everybody on Earth?
Other things I read
- Barker: Barking up the Wrong Tree: I didn’t finish this one as it didn’t seem particularly insightful.
- Feynman: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: The subtitle “Adventures of a Curious Character” captures the book quite well. It’s extraordinary to see how many different things he tried and mastered: safecracking, drawing, drumming, and so on.
- Newport: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Did not have many insights beyond the advice offered by 80,000 Hours. I found the last chapter about specific practices Cal himself uses to be most helpful.
- Scharre: Army of None: Probably still the best book on lethal autonomous weapons available.
- Guzey: Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep” Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors: I didn’t read the original but the craftsmanship and dedication behind this critique are impressive.
- Cummings: On the referendum #34: BATSIGNAL!! DON’T LET CORBYN-STURGEON CHEAT A SECOND REFERENDUM WITH MILLIONS OF FOREIGN VOTES: I’m still not sure what to make of Dominic Cummings.
- ScienceMag: Bangladesh could be the first to cultivate Golden Rice, genetically altered to fight blindness: Finally…
- STATnews: Across several continents, infecting mosquitoes with bacteria results in dramatic drops in dengue illness, trials show: Similar initiatives will probably be required to end malaria.
- Vice: ‘Nearly All’ Counter-Strike Microtransactions Are Being Used for Money Laundering. Markets in everything…
- Slate Star Codex: NEW ATHEISM: THE GODLESSNESS THAT FAILED: I came late to the New Atheism party in 2010 but was still surprised when I tried to find the same people a few years later. Scott’s assessment seems right to me based on what I saw.
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