Photo credit: Laura Gamse

Cross post from blog

While I was at EA Global, I was able to see more directly some of the outlooks of other EAs that I haven’t been able to experience first-hand. While by and large this was a good experience, it also led to several moments of contention.

First and foremost, on lot’s of minds was the debate around serving vegan food at the event. Jeff wrote a good summation of the whole problem; one of my favorites (unsurprisingly) comes from The Unit of Caring; and the lovely and talented Aceso Under Glass is clever and sciencey as always. I don’t really have a strong opinion. I like food; it is yummy. Please serve more of it next time.

I also had mixed reactions to the emphasis placed on AI risk. As usual Dylan Matthews at Vox (who was on one of the best panels) wrote a completely on-point article. He has this ability to explain complex layered ideas so succinctly. I want to steal his ability. Or maybe his editor.

In any case his article “I spent a week at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away… worried” is clickable gold. Go read it. I’ll wait….

*hums jeopardy theme song*

Good, right?! I’ll leave the crazy math alone. For now. What struck me as undeniably true, and a great summation of the best criticisms of EA is this:

“And you have to do meta-charity well — and the more EA grows obsessed with AI, the harder it is to do that. The movement has a very real demographic problem, which contributes to very real intellectual blinders of the kind that give rise to the AI obsession. And it’s hard to imagine that yoking EA to one of the whitest and most male fields (tech) and academic subjects (computer science) will do much to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the fold…
Effective altruism is a useful framework for thinking through how to do good through one’s career, or through political advocacy, or through charitable giving. It is not a replacement for movements through which marginalized peoples seek their own liberation. If EA is to have any hope of getting more buy-in from women and people of color, it has to at least acknowledge that.” *

I laughed. I cried (almost). I jumped out of my seat (actually). Spot-fucking-on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m actually inclined to believe there is risk in an indifferent, sufficiently intelligent artificial intelligence. This is a new development — before EA Global I believed the chances of AI being an existential risk were very, very slim. However, I think climate change, nuclear fallout, and pandemics are all more likely to kill us off; I think I am just not willing to put my money or time into mitigating existential risk. Ultimately there are millions of people across the globe now that are suffering. To me, the potential future death of many doesn’t take precedence over the certain hardship and misfortune of individuals alive today.

Hint: Self-interest is the antonym of altruism

Beyond my personal assessment of prioritization, Dylan points out it is problematic that it is the nerds proclaiming their own brilliance will be the downfall of us all. Talk about a pale and male problem! Lacking diversity can easily lead to self-aggrandizing, ossification, and (dun dun dun) ineffectiveness. The self-absorption problem Dylan is talking about is real. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

It is elitism. Battered in good intentions, deep fried in utilitarianism, and dusted with sugar. But still elitism.

One of the other fractures I noticed is that of movement growth. There are those that are concerned that bringing more people in on the idea of Effective Altruism quickly could result in a large culture shift. While at the conference I was discussing the talk triplet on movement building — another one of my favorites — and someone mentioned the concern around growing to quickly, or even growing too large at all. The concern being that by growing we would wind up being not as effective or exceptional.

The argument goes something like this: the best way to make change and construct something better is by using the best minds and skills available. These individuals (in this case, those of us here at the conference) are better suited to decide the best way to proceed in creating the correct kind of change. If we focus on bringing in more people we would dilute this exceptional talent pool and undermine our ability to create a better world.

The red warning lights inside my brain were blaring loudly

There’s nothing wrong with putting the best and brightest on the problem. It is the idea that only the most capable should be deciding how to instigate change, and that everyone else less suited to the job should be excluded, that is problematic. More than that, it is elitism. Battered in good intentions, deep fried in utilitarianism, and dusted with sugar. But still elitism.

This strain of thinking isn’t knew. Mill’s work on liberty is focused on the elite, class based individualism, and those he considers to be of superior intellect. The idea of elitism isn’t new to utilitarianism. This line of thinking matches well with the reasoning of exclusion: inaccessibility is good because it keeps the riff-raff out. As I’ve discussed previously those with different strengths, and different experiences are necessary for an effective organization. To dissuade participation, or ignore opinions is to exclude data.

Almost without exception as a larger society we have decided that elitism is morally wrong and leads to injustice. We come to this conclusion through a history of elitism leading mainly to injustice and brutality. In other words pattern-matching indicates these behaviors and beliefs make you an asshole.

All this narcissistic thinking makes me wonder what drew such individuals to Effective Altruism in the first place. Again: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

It is concerning when anyone can walk away from our gathering with a feeling that we are too self-congratulatory, or that we are prioritizing areas based on our demographic. It troubles me acutely when this person is myself.

Overall I loved the event. However the occasional undertone of pomposity gave me a feel for why others are so concerned about EA being undemocratic. It made me realize the real importance of having traditional nonprofit workers and social justice advocates, women and minorities in the movement.

Clearly we need someone who can step back from the philosophical argument and go “wait, you know that makes you an asshole, right? Right?

*Someone recently pointed out to me that the term ‘people of color’ is very clearly a US word and is not only inapplicable other places, but even offensive. In other parts of the world (and in the US) discrimination is based on much more than melanin. I was cautioned that using this terminology poses a clear US-slant on something that is a global problem and to consider it’s usage carefully.