Can you eliminate memetic scarcity, instead of fighting?

post by Raemon · 2019-11-25T02:07:58.596Z · score: 66 (22 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

Contents

  The Parable of the Roommates
  Philosophical Disagreements
  Trust and Costly Signals
  Epistemic Status: Untested
None
11 comments

tl;dr:  If you notice yourself fighting over how to tradeoff between two principles, check if you can just sidestep the problem by giving everyone tons of whatever is important to them (sometimes in a different form than they originally wanted).

Not a new concept, but easy to forget in the heat of the moment. It may be useful for people to have "easily in reach" in their toolkit for coordinating on culture.

 

The Parable of the Roommates

I once had a disagreement with a housemate about where to store a water-heater on the kitchen counter. The object was useful to me. It wasn't useful to them, and they preferred free-countertop space. The water-heater wasn't useful to them in part because other roommates didn't remember to refill it with water. 

There was much arguing about the best use of the counter, and frustration with people who didn't refill water heaters.

At some point, we realized that the underlying issue was there wasn't enough free counterspace. Moreover, the counter had a bunch of crap on it that no one was using. We got rid of unused stuff, and then we had a gloriously vacant kitchen-counter. (Meanwhile, an option we've considered for the water-heater is to replace it with a device directly connected to the sink that always maintains boiling water, that nobody ever has to remember to refill)

Thus, an important life-lesson: Instead of solving gnarly disagreements with politics, check if you can dissolve them with abundance. This is a quite valuable lesson. But I'm mostly here to talk about a particular less-obvious application:

Memetic abundance.

 

Philosophical Disagreements

Oftentimes, I find myself disagreeing with others about how to run an event, or what norms to apply to a community, or what the spirit of a particular organization should be. It feels like a lot's at stake, like we're caught between a Rock and Hard Place. [LW · GW] The other person feels like they're Destroying the Thing I care about, and I look that way to them.

Sometimes, this is because of actual irreconcilable differences. 

Sometimes, this is because we don't understand each other's positions, and once we successfully explain things to each other, we both go "Ah, obviously you need both A and B."

But sometimes, A and B are both important, but we disagree on their relative importance due to deep frame differences [LW · GW] that are hard to immediately resolve. Or, A seems worrisome because it harms B. But if you had enough B, A would be fine. 

Meanwhile, resources seem precious: It's so hard to get people to agree to do anything at all; stag hunting [LW · GW] requires a bunch of coordination; there's only so much time and mindshare to go around; there are only so many events to go to; only so much capacity to found organizations. 

With all of that...

...it's easy to operate in scarcity mindset. 

When resources are scarce, every scrap of resource is precious and must be defended. This applies to physical scarcity (lack of food, safety, sleep) as well as memetic scarcity (where two ideas seem to be in conflict, and you're worried that one cause is distracting people from another).

But, sometimes it is actually possible to just eliminate scarcity, rather than fight over the scraps. Raise more money. Implement both policies. Found multiple organizations and get some healthy competition [LW · GW] going on. Get people to take two different concepts seriously at the same time. The best way to get what you want you want might not be to deny others what they want, but to give them so much of it that they're no longer worried about the Rock (and thus, don't feel the need to fight you over your attempts to spend resources avoiding The Hard Place)

Not always. But sometimes.

 

Trust and Costly Signals

This may involve a lot of effort. Coordinating around it also requires trust, which may require costly signals of commitment. 

If you and I are arguing over whether to fund ProjectA or CharityB, and we only have enough money to fund one... and I say to you "Let's fund ProjectA, and then we'll raise more money to also fund CharityB", you're right to be suspicious. I may never get around helping you fundraise for CharityB, or that I'll only put in a token effort and CharityB will go bankrupt.

It's basically correct of you to not trust me, until I've given you a credible signal that I'm seriously going to help with CharityB.

It's a lot of hard work to found multiple organizations, or get a community to coordinate on multiple norms. There's a reason scarcity-mindset is common. Scarcity is real. But... in finance as well as memetics... 

Scarcity-mindset sucks.

It's cognitively taxing to be poor – having to check, with each transaction, "can I afford this?" – and that's part of what causes poverty-traps in the first place. The way out often involves longterm investments that take awhile to bear fruit, sometimes don't succeed, and are hard work in the meantime. 

Transferring the metaphor: the act of constantly having to argue over whether Norm A and Norm B are more urgent may add up to a lot of time and effort. And as long as there are people who think Norm A and Norm B are important-and-at-odds, the cost will be paid continuously. So, if you can figure out a way to address the underlying needs that Norm A and B are respectively getting at, and actually fully solve the problems, it may be worthwhile even if it's more initial effort.

 

Epistemic Status: Untested

Does this work? Depends on the specifics of Norm A and Norm B, or whatever you're arguing over. 

I'm writing this post, in part, because to actually test if this works, I think it helps to have people on the same page about the overall strategy. 

I've seen it work at least sometimes in collaborative art projects, where I had one creative vision and my partners or parts of the audience had another creative vision or desire, and we succeeded, not by compromising, but by doubling down on the important bits of both visions, simultaneously.

My hope is that the principle does work, and that if one successfully did this multiple times, and build social-systems that reliably eliminate scarcity in this way...

...then eventually, maybe, you can have a system people actually have faith in, where they feel comfortable shifting their efforts from "argue about the correct next step" to "work on longterm solutions that thoroughly satisfy the goals". 

11 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-11-25T21:20:07.508Z · score: 23 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great post!

This reminds me a lot of the idea of "Contradictions" in TRIZ.

TRIZ is a systematized innovation framework, specifically for engineering.

One of the central ideas in TRIZ is that innovation happens by breaking through contradictions. There are two types of contradictions:

1. Physical Contradictions. E.g. We want to make this object both larger and faster, and we can't figure out how to do that.

2. Logical contradictions. E.g. We want to make this object both larger and smaller, and we can't figure out how to do that.

One of the central ideas of TRIZ is that there a common framings that can help you overcome contradictions - and that innovation is usually a result of breaking through those contradictions. By finding a way to create both desired properties, you create a more ideal system.

Note: All the below stuff is about how contradictions are solved in TRIZ, and my not be as relevant to this post.

For physical contradictions, there's the Contradictions Matrix, which is the result of a statistical analysis about what types of solutions are used to solve what types of physical contradictions. For instance, if I want to improve reliability without compromising speed, the solutions I use will typically involve Skipping, Parameter Changes, Beforehand Cushioning, or Mechanics Substitution.

For logical contradictions (which is usually just another way of framing physical contradictions) there's the separation principles. The separation principles says that for instance if you want an object to be both Large and small, you can separate by:

1. Time (Small when carrying, big when moving like an umbrella)

2. Space (Small at the top, big at the bottom like a christmas tree)

3. Condition (Small when dry, big when wet like those water toys)

4. Parts and Whole (Small handle, large object like a door)

comment by Raemon · 2019-11-26T00:52:22.134Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was really helpful, thanks!

comment by ErickBall · 2019-11-26T18:09:57.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I like the idea here of having reusable patterns of problem-solving across diverse engineered physical systems. It reminds of the idea of software patterns. I'm actually kind of disappointed that this was never taught in any of my engineering classes, especially given Wikipedia's big list of organizations that use it (including Samsung, GE, Boeing, NASA, HP, Intel, and a bunch of others). Now I'm excited to read about some case studies!

If you have any examples of how you've used it, I'd love to hear about those too.

comment by Raemon · 2019-11-25T02:59:06.558Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I apologize for the OP being light on actual examples. Most of my motivating examples have to do with "local politics" and a) weren't quite appropriate for frontpage norms, and b) potentially a bit distracting.

But here are some concrete examples. The ones I've concretely seen results from mostly relate to Winter Solstice. The ones that I expect to be more generally relevant to LessWrongers are more "aspirational" – I'm pretty sure that some sort of "eliminate scarcity" plan would work, but I don't have as much proof-of-concept.

Posting them in different subthreads since I expect the conversations to be pretty different.

[edit: the LessWrong cultural examples turned out to be non-trivial to write. Still working on it]

comment by Raemon · 2019-11-25T02:59:15.835Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Winter Solstice 

(a holiday ritual [LW · GW] involving singing and reflecting on human progress, which some LessWrong-folk celebrate)

1. Pagan vs High Church

I used to feel some desire for the Bay Winter Solstice to have a bit of a "pagan*" aesthetic (contrasted with a "high church" aesthetic, which others were more into). I eventually became a lot less attached to this by A) pushing Summer Solstice in a more pagan direction, sB) having my own small Winter Solstice with friends that had more of the elements I wanted. Once that need was satisfied, I felt more comfortable helping Bay Winter Solstice be the best high-church-aesthetic version of itself it could be.

2. Darkness vs Holiday Cheer

Some people have complained about the dark, depressing portions of the Solstice. The whole point of winter holiday is to feel cozy and uplifted, not sad! Others (including me) saw the dark portions as a major part of the point – to feel catharsis, and face the truth unflinchingly. 

But I think a number of "anti-darkness" people were justifiably frustrated because the Solstices they went to (earlier Bay Solstices), sort of struggled to stick the landing. The intended arc is to experience the (metaphorical and literal) darkness, and then emerge into the light, uplifted after catharsis. But this requires you really succeed at the light, happy portions as well as the depressing portions. Instead, there were a couple years where the third-act didn't bring enough energy back into the room.

Successfully hitting the dark parts as well as the light parts enables both darkness and light to be deeper, fuller.

3. Singalongs vs Choir

There's a particular kind of fun/beauty/upliftingness that comes from singing along with your friends, without worrying about whether you sound good. There's a different kind of fun/beauty/upliftingness that comes from hearing a beautiful, well-rendered performance piece.

Part of my original intent with Solstice was to provide an avenue for singalongs, which I saw as very undersupplied in the modern world. There were a few years where Bay Solstice didn't end up having many singalongs, and meanwhile had a few polished choir pieces. I wasn't really able to appreciate the choir pieces because I was mostly frustrated with not being able to sing, and I felt some impulse to fight a zero-sum argument about which was more important. But, the fact is this was mostly about undersupply of singalongs, and now that there's been more of a return to communal singing I expect to get a lot more value out of the choir pieces, and would be much more excited to devote resources to making improving them.

comment by Dagon · 2019-11-25T23:04:44.915Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I look forward to hearing the scarcities you are able to eliminate for these things. Naively, I'd expect there to be a desire for "significant participation in the activities that resonate with me". Turning it from "a holiday ritual" into "a plethora of ritual-ish activities" doesn't seem like it's going to satisfy.

I hope I'm wrong - please let us know how it works out!

comment by Raemon · 2019-11-25T23:12:13.707Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Solstice examples are places where I think the elimination-of-scarcity basically worked (or at least, I've seen examples of it working – it varies by individual instances of the Solstice and who's running them and what skills they bring to table).

The idea wasn't to turn it into a plethora of (unrelated? I assume was the implication) ritual activites, just to make sure that the ceremony hits a number of particular notes.

(I'd say this is kinda like editing a movie: a movie can have funny parts, sad parts, fast/exciting parts and some slower sections that just give you room to breath. Some people prefer particular kinds of parts, but it's common for what makes a "good" movie to be whether it successfully blends them into a cohesive whole. Fewer people are up for watching a movie that's just depressing, but many people are up for watching a movie that weaves sad bits into uplifting or funny bits)

comment by Dagon · 2019-11-26T00:46:09.741Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

good deal - interestingly, that's an aspect of "resource provision" I hadn't connected with your original post - you may not need to find/add resources, you can find more efficient uses of time/attention resources, and still satisfy a lot of needs.

This probably generalizes somewhere on the satisficing/optimizing plane - things close to a satisfy-level can be addressed this way.

comment by Raemon · 2019-11-26T00:48:12.971Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nod. I'd add that part of the check here is "could your 'maximize' function be rewritten as a 'very high satisfice' function?"

comment by Dagon · 2019-11-25T18:15:17.475Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I very much like this line of thinking, but I have to admit that I'm not hopeful that there are very many nontrivial cases where it's actually possible to satisfy everyone. Certainly do so when you can, and don't forget to explore the possibility.

A lot of the cases where this comes up for prioritization, the wants are many orders of magnitude larger than the resources you currently have, so you're really arguing about priority of effort, and that effort is a very limited resource. Worse, expending effort to find clever alternate approaches eats into the effort that's under contention.

Many other cases are about social cohesion and agreement more than about resources, and "let's both be right" is unsatisfying. I don't have a lot of sympathy for these cases, but I do notice that they're abundant.


comment by jmh · 2019-11-26T12:57:57.317Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I liked this post as well. To me it's done a great job of providing an operational form to the old saying about thinking out side the box. In just about all the examples it seems that the conflict occurs because people have boxed themselves into a framework of seeing the situation where they focused on the constraints and could not see where the opportunities to solve the dispute, contradiction or impasse exist.