Real-World Coordination Problems are Usually Information Problems

post by johnswentworth · 2019-06-13T18:21:55.586Z · LW · GW · 2 comments

Let’s start with a few examples of very common real-world coordination problems.

Obviously these are all specific examples of problems which happen all the time.

To some extent, coordination problems are universal and have always been with us. But humans evolved to solve coordination problems in Dunbar’s-number-sized groups (plus or minus an order of magnitude) regularly talking face-to-face. Even just two hundred years ago, most people operated in relatively small communities. It’s only since the rise of cheap long-distance communication that large-scale coordination problems have crept into everyday life. The cheaper and more ubiquitous long-distance communication becomes, the more coordination problems are going to be a bottleneck. Not all coordination problems look like this, but these are the sort of coordination problems which we’d expect to become more common over time. (See “From Personal to Prison Gangs [LW · GW]” for a more fleshed-out version of this argument, and related problems.)

Look over the list of coordination problems above, and a few major themes jump out:

Standard discussions of coordination problems tend to focus on cases where a dictator could easily solve the problem. Need to meet up with someone in New York City at a specific place and time without communicating in advance? The dictator can declare “Empire State building at noon is the official meet-up spot and time”, and there we go, we’re done. But the harder sorts of real-world coordination problems usually aren’t that easy. Having a designated dictator on hand doesn’t help a doily company find enthusiastic customers, or help a biologist and an econometrician realize they should collaborate, or help translate data from one format to another (assuming they do in fact need different formats).

The biggest problem is that there’s a combinatorially huge space of possible coordination problems, and any particular coordination problem won’t happen many times. How many people have asked my exact question about atherosclerotic plaques? In order to be useful, a coordination mechanism has to address a very wide class of coordination problems in one fell swoop - e.g. the question-answering site Quora. But simply declaring “this is the canonical question-answering site” doesn’t solve the problem - in order for it to actually work, we still need a good matching engine, so that askers and answerers can find each other without having to search through the haystack themselves.

A combinatorially huge space of problems directly leads to a more insidious issue: humans have limited processing ability, so there will inevitably be coordination problems where nobody involved even knows what’s possible. The biologist and the econometrician don’t know that their fields complement each other. In order to solve that sort of problem, a third party has to proactively look for opportunities to coordinate. Once the opportunity is found, actually connecting people is the relatively easy part - lots of academics are interested in opportunities to collaborate across fields (I hear grantmakers love that stuff).


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comment by Dagon · 2019-06-13T21:59:29.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't see much justification for the word "usually" in the title. And while I'd agree that many real-world communication problems include information issues, I think they're almost always mixed with alignment (not all participants are fully onboard with the goals) and trust (even if we agree, is it worth my effort if you're going to let me down) issues.

It's very hard to tell which of these issues is most important for any given failure, but I'd argue that the alignment and trust issues are causes of the information issues.

comment by johnswentworth · 2019-06-14T00:17:43.919Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From Personal to Prison Gangs [LW · GW]” is my main foundation here. I say real-world coordination problems "usually" look like this, because these are the kinds of problems we'd expect to increase over time, based on the ideas in that previous post.

That said, Personal to Prison Gangs attributes both the information problems and the trust problems to the same root cause: I interact with a larger number of people, with fewer interactions per person. On the one hand, fewer iterations means less penalty for "defectors", and common knowledge of this fact means less trust. On the other hand, more people + fewer interactions per person means both less time and less mental resources to customize my interaction with each individual person. Thus, in a large company, people are forced to rely more heavily on job titles - and in a larger society, people are forced to rely more heavily on identities more generally.

All the examples listed in the OP are the sorts of things you'd expect in a world with more people, more specialization, and fewer interactions between any given pair. (In some cases, this means zero interactions between a pair which would really benefit from interacting, as in several of the examples.)

I don't disagree that alignment & trust have a role here. But I do think that the large majority of real-world coordination problems could be solved by sticking the right two or three people in a room and just letting them talk for a full day. And in most cases, I think the relevant people would actually like to talk! The problem is finding the right two or three people and building that communication channel.