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A map of Bay Area memespace

44 Post author: Julia_Galef 23 September 2013 05:34PM

The main reason we picked the Bay Area as a home for the Center for Applied Rationality was simply because that's where our initial fiscal sponsor, MIRI, was located. Yet as I’ve gotten to know this region better in the year and a half since then, I’ve been struck by how good the fit has turned out to be. The Bay Area is unusually dense with idea-driven subcultures that mix and cross-pollinate in fascinating ways, many of which are already enriching rationalist culture.

This map is my attempt at illustrating that landscape of subcultures, and at situating the rationalist community within it. I’ve limited myself to the last 50 years or so, and to subcultures defined by ideology (as opposed to, say, ethnicity). I’ve also depicted some of the major memes that have influenced, and been influenced by, those subcultures:

(Click to enlarge)

Note that although many of these memes are widely influential, I only drew an arrow connecting a meme to a group if the meme was one of the defining features of the group. (For example, yoga may be popular among many entrepreneurs, but that meme -> subculture relationship isn’t strong enough to make my map.).

Below, I expand on the map with a quick tour through the landscape of Bay Area memes and subcultures. Instead of trying to cover everything in detail, I’ve focused on nine aspects of that memespace that help put the rationalist community in context:

1. Computer scientists

Some of the basic building blocks of rationality come from computer science, and the Bay Area is rich with the world’s top computer scientists, employed by companies like Intel, IBM, Google, and Microsoft, and universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley. The idea of thinking in terms of optimization problems – optimizing for these outcomes, under those constraints -- has roots in computer science and math, and it’s so fundamental to the rationalist approach to problem-solving that it’s easy to forget how different it is from people’s normal way of thinking.

Another rationalist building block, Bayesian inference, is several centuries old, but had fallen out of favor until the computing methods and power of the 1970s made it actually usable. Widespread use of Bayesianism in the field of artificial intelligence (e.g. Bayes nets) also contributed to its resurgent popularity.

2. Startup culture

There’s a distinctive culture behind the successes of the Bay Area’s startups, and it’s one that I see benefiting rationalists as well. Business in general is good real-world rationality training: you test your theories, you update your models, or you fail. And startup culture in particular promotes a “try things fast” attitude that can be a perfect antidote to the “sit around planning and theorizing forever” failure mode we're sometimes prone to.

It’s certainly been invaluable to CFAR’s success thus far, and it’s one of the bigger differences I’ve noticed in my own skills as a rationalist since moving out here. Startup culture’s “think big, be ambitious” meme is also something I could see impacting rationalist culture in the coming years. (For a look at this meme turned up to 11, you can check out the only-partially-tongue-in-cheek Yudkowsky ambition scale.)

3. Hacker culture

A lot of the credit for the culture of Silicon Valley’s startup scene goes to the first generation of computer programmers, whose “hacker” culture originated at MIT in the late 1950s, but shortly thereafter sprung up in a few other early-adopter schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley. In addition to being passionate about coding, hackers were unimpressed by “bogus” status signals, like age and higher education, and judged people only by the cleverness and usefulness of the things they could create. (One of the most admired among the original hackers was twelve-year-old Peter Deutsch.) It was, in other words, the perfect cultural soil for the seeds of a paradigm-busting startup culture.

The hacker ethic also included an itch to fix broken or inefficient systems, and an impatience with the bureaucracy that prevented them from doing so. “In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt,” Steven Levy wrote in Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution. That's one reason I credit hacker culture for another Bay Area meme that I see in many entrepreneurs, rationalists, and others: building creative alternatives to establishment institutions like government, education, and health.

For examples, look at all the approaches to alternative education that have sprung up in the Bay – UnCollege, Coursera, Udacity, and General Assembly. Or look at Quantified Self, the community of people figuring out how to improve their health by tracking and analyzing their own biometrics. Or the Seasteaders, who believe the free market can produce better societies than the ones historical forces left us with. Or MetaMed, the company staked on the idea that we can improve significantly on mainstream medicine if we apply rationalist research tools to the medical literature.

4. Eastern spiritualities

Although the heyday of the counterculture was over by the 1980s, its memes still influence the Bay Area, and through it, rationalist culture. Yoga and meditation were introduced to the US via the hippies’ exploration of Eastern religions, but those practices have been mostly stripped of their original spiritual meanings by now, and are popular for their benefits to mental and physical well-being.

Meditation in particular has become common among rationalists, and has some interesting overlaps with rationality I hadn’t noticed before I moved out here. Meditation seems to train you to stop automatically identifying with all of your thoughts, so that, for example, when the thought “John’s a jerk” pops into your head, you don’t assume that John necessarily is a jerk. You take the thought as something your brain produced, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful -- and this ability to take a step back from your thoughts and reflect on them is arguably one of the building blocks of rationality.

5. Human Potential movement

Another pillar of counterculture was the Human Potential movement, named after Aldous Huxley’s argument that the human brain is capable of much more insight, fulfillment, and varied experiences than we’ve been aware of thus far. In 1962 the Esalen Institute, a retreat built on hot springs south of San Francisco, started running classes designed to help people realize more of their “potential,” through activities like roleplaying, primal screams, and group therapy. The Landmark Forum, originally known as est, was another leader of the movement, and emphasized taking responsibility and questioning the narratives you construct around events in your life. And I’d count other popular practices like nonviolent communication, radical honesty, and internal family systems in this same tradition.

Rationality also focuses on personal development, of course, but there's not much connection between the Human Potential movement’s approach and the rationalists’. As far as I can tell they developed independently of each other and have very different epistemologies. From my perspective, Human Potential practices span a spectrum from common sense techniques backed up by anecdotal evidence, to unsupported psychotherapy, to outright mysticism that makes claims that are clearly wrong or not even wrong.

Nevertheless, the basic goals of seeking fulfillment and becoming a better version of yourself are fine ones, and the fact that so many people today are interested in pursuing those goals is thanks in large part to the impact the Human Potential movement had on American society. And despite my qualms about their epistemology, I’d be willing to bet that there are at least a few practices the movement and its outgrowths discovered that really are useful, even if their practitioners don’t have correct models of why they’re useful. So I consider the Human Potential and related movements to be a source of hypotheses, if not conclusions.

6. Alternative lifestyles

Finally, the counterculture was also famous for its destigmatization and exploration of alternative lifestyles, which helped create San Francisco’s vibrant kink culture and LGBTQ community. Beyond their live-and-let-live attitude about alternative sexualities, people in the Bay generally put less stock in standard scripts for how a life “should” go. So being nomadic, or living on a boat, or setting up a co-parenting group, or not wanting children, or having an unusual job, or changing your gender, doesn’t raise eyebrows here the way it would in most parts of the country.

And having an expanded space of hypotheses about how to live is complementary with trying to improve your rationality, because a lot of rationality involves pushing past cached thoughts about what you believe, or what kind of person you are, and giving fair consideration to hypotheses that hadn’t even been in your choice set before. In other words: I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that most rationalists live alternative lifestyles. But I do think the conventional lifestyles led by rationalists are consciously chosen to a greater extent than are most people’s lifestyles.

7. Burning Man

One aspect of memespace I wasn’t able to depict on the map is how the cross-pollination between groups actually occurs. To some extent it’s caused by normal social interactions and the blogosphere, as you’d expect, but the Burning Man festival is another important driver of cross-pollination that might be less obvious to outsiders. In fact, I wanted to put “Burner culture” on my memespace map, but was flummoxed by the fact that it would have to be connected to essentially all other groups and memes.

Burning Man consists of 50,000 people, including people from all of the subcultures, coming together for one week in the Nevada desert to create a temporary city. And though the old-school hippies might distrust Silicon Valley’s wealthy elites, and the rationalists might look askance at the New Age aura-readers, the communal spirit of Burning Man does a pretty effective job of breaking down those barriers. It’s only a yearly event, but the sense of community lingers afterwards, and Burning Man social connections are reinforced throughout the year at events like Ephemerisle (Burning man + libertarianism) and the BIL conference (Burning man + social entrepreneurship).

8. Social pressure to give back

Bay Area society puts a high value on helping the world. Perhaps it’s an echo of the social justice movements in the 1960’s, or perhaps it comes from the hackers’ conviction that technology should be used for the public good. Whatever the origins of this social more, you can see it in the idealistic language entrepreneurs use to describe their startups, and in the recent growth of a segment of startup culture known as “social entrepreneurship” that focuses on the kinds of global problems traditionally addressed by charities.

And sure, it’s often the case that the “world-changing” rhetoric entrepreneurs use to describe their startups is just rhetoric. But the fact that they feel obliged to frame their business in altruistic terms is at least a symptom of the fact that the Bay Area expects you to try to make a positive contribution to the world. Which means that self-made millionaires in this region are more likely than elites elsewhere to put their wealth towards good causes.

That, in turn, forges social connections between the Bay Area’s entrepreneurs, investors and engineers, and the effective altruists, rationalists, transhumanists, and other groups they support. So this phenomenon is doubly fortunate for the rationalists: not just because Bay Area philanthropy helps us directly, but because those connections expose us to memes from different subcultures that can help round out our worldview.

9. Effective Altruists

The social pressure to give back is also fortunate because it makes the Bay a hospitable environment for the Effective Altruists, one of the newest communities to hit the Bay, and a close cousin to the rationalists. Arguably, the movement is still centered at Oxford, where the Center for Effective Altruism is based. But EA organizations Givewell and Leverage Research recently relocated to the Bay Area from New York, and Leverage hosted the first-ever global Effective Altruism Summit here this summer, which I think is enough to qualify this as a fledgling Bay Area subculture. I would also consider MIRI to be an older member of this group, specifically in the far future-focused subset of EA culture.

And CFAR itself is premised on the EA-style calculation that training decision makers in rationality is one of the highest-impact ways to improve the future. Which is why I’m particularly excited about the recent addition of the Effective Altruist community to the Bay Area memescape, and at the new opportunities for cross-pollination with rationalist culture that their presence will create.

Comments (29)

Comment author: [deleted] 21 October 2013 10:51:29AM 7 points [-]

I think the back-to-the-land might be one of the things that helped seed the 60s Counter-Culture on the West Coast rather than the other way around. Steve Sailer pointed out some connections in his piece The Original Nature Boy

In 1948, jazz crooner Nat King Cole was on Top of the Pops for eight straight weeks with the single “Nature Boy.” The song became a standard and was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee. (Much later, director Baz Luhrmann had a haggard Ewan McGregor type out the chorus at the end of his 2001 film Moulin Rouge.)

The record set off a brief journalistic frenzy in 1948 over its hitherto unknown lyricist eden ahbez, who had long hair and a beard, dressed in a robe and sandals, ate only fruits and nuts, had given himself a Book of Genesis first name and cosmic A-to-Z last name, and lived in a tent under the first “L” in the “Hollywood” sign.

In other words, years before the word was coined in the 1960s, this guy was a hippie. He and the dozen or so other robe-wearing proto-hippies who hung around a German couple’s health-food store in Laurel Canyon called themselves “Nature Boys.” Hence the song’s odd title.

Trying to figure out the story behind this weird anomaly led me to a 2003 article entitled “Hippie Roots & The Perennial Subculture” by Gordon Kennedy and Kody Ryan. They make the case for the origins of the hippie phenomenon in late-19th-century Germany: nudism, hiking (Wandervogel), health food, and the whole back to nature “life reform” business. It’s all more or less German.

Comment author: katydee 24 September 2013 09:47:25AM *  14 points [-]

I'm not entirely sure that thinking of yourself in terms of position relative to various subcultures is altogether a good thing-- Keep Your Identity Small and all that.

That aside, it also isn't entirely clear to me to what extent this map accurately depicts these positions.

For instance, I would say that rationalists are much "closer in memespace" to transhumanists and effective altruists than they are to "alternative approaches to wellness," but that doesn't seem to be what this shows. Is there a more sophisticated explanation for the positions of the various groups on here and the sizes of the boxes and text that I'm missing?

Comment author: lukeprog 25 September 2013 05:01:46AM 15 points [-]

For instance, I would say that rationalists are much "closer in memespace" to transhumanists and effective altruists than they are to "alternative approaches to wellness," but that doesn't seem to be what this shows.

I don't think the map is trying to use space that way. E.g. LGBTQ culture isn't all that close to Computer Scientists in memespace either; they just happen to be next to each other on the map because of the way the various arrows and stuff worked out.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 25 September 2013 05:09:22AM *  4 points [-]

I'm not entirely sure that thinking of yourself in terms of position relative to various subcultures is altogether a good thing-- Keep Your Identity Small and all that.

Memes seem worth studying in general if you have memes you want to spread. Not thinking about memes and subcultures because they're tangentially related to identity, which can compromise one's rationality, seems like not studying economics because it's tangentially related to politics, which can also compromise one's rationality. But this could be a good caution. It's worth noting that not everyone agrees with PG on identity (another).

For instance, I would say that rationalists are much "closer in memespace" to transhumanists and effective altruists than they are to "alternative approaches to wellness," but that doesn't seem to be what this shows. Is there a more sophisticated explanation for the positions of the various groups on here and the sizes of the boxes and text that I'm missing?

There's a lot of overlap between transhumanists and effective altruists, but that doesn't mean that the relevant memes share the same history?

Comment author: LM7805 23 September 2013 08:18:22PM 11 points [-]

Another meme that arguably reached the Bay Area via the 1960s/1970s counterculture, but predates it, is "intentional community". This influences startup culture and hacker culture (specifically hackerspaces), and to some (lesser?) extent seasteaders, the back-to-the-land movement, and rationalists as well.

Comment author: Julia_Galef 24 September 2013 07:12:20AM 2 points [-]

Great one, thanks!

Comment author: Dagon 24 September 2013 07:21:39AM 8 points [-]

Interesting - this is something I'd never seen or considered before, and I thank you for it.

I have to admit I'm not sure how to make best use of the information. Also, I find it suspiciously focused on groups and memes that are mostly accepted as good. Would it be equally valuable to track the less-obviously-pleasant ones like gang violence across the bay, ruthless evaluation of peers and coworkers, drug use, and such?

Comment author: eggman 22 July 2014 08:53:41AM *  3 points [-]

The whole subculture that is the new 'rationality movement' has some nodes, i.e., nodes, and subcultures, which are not included in this map of the Bay Area memespace. I'm sitting here at home with my friend Kytael, and we're brainstorming the following:

  • What nodes are part of the rationalist movement that aren't typical of the Bay Area memespace.
  • What nodes aren't part of the rationalist movement that are still part of the Bay Area memespace.
  • What nodes we as a community might want to add the rationalist memespace.
  • What nodes might enter the rationalist memespace that some parts of the community might consider undesirable.

Nodes Unique to the Rationalist Community

  • Neoreaction
  • Men's Rights Activists/Pick-Up Artists
  • Secular Solstices, Spiritual Naturalism
  • Self-Reflection
  • Hansonian Contrarianism
  • Generalization of Science and Economics to Everyday Life
  • Nerd/Geek Culture

Nodes From the Bay Area Separate From the Rationalist Community

  • Whole Earth community
  • New Age Culture
  • Back-to-the-land movement
  • Kink Culture

Controversial Nodes Within the Rationalist Community

  • Neoreaction
  • Men's Rights Activism, Pick-Up Artists
  • Social Justice

Emerging Subcultures and Memes in the Rationalist Community

  • Post-rationality/Post-rationalism
  • Partnered Dancing
  • (Whatever Is Trending On) Slate Star Codex
  • Applied Rationality=???
  • Psychtropic/Nootropic Use
  • Bitcoin/Cryptocurrency Enthusiasm

New Memes and Groups The Rationalist Community May Want to Explore More

  • Open Borders
  • ...

This list isn't exhaustive, and it could be controversial, so please question, or criticize it below. I will reflexively update this list by editing this comment in response to replies. This was more of a brainstorming exercise than anything, but one I thought other Less Wrong users might consider interesting. If a great discussion results, myself, or someone else, could turn this into a fuller post in its own right.

Comment author: Matvey_Ezhov 06 October 2013 11:57:40AM 3 points [-]

I suspect this post tends to produce a burning urge to move to Bay Area, unless you're already there. Or am I the only one?

Comment author: lsparrish 24 September 2013 11:20:57PM 3 points [-]

I wonder if the bitcoin/cryptocurrency community fits in the map somewhere, perhaps in the lower right area. It's newer, so the influence on other things would be weaker.

Comment author: LM7805 25 September 2013 01:56:40PM 3 points [-]

Eh, cryptocurrency has been a thing since the 80s (see Chaum's Blind signatures for untraceable payments, 1983), but it was patent-encumbered for a long time. If you look at the people involved, they're all cypherpunks of one stripe or another, so I'd place cryptocurrency as a subset of hackers at least initially. (The community has certainly expanded since the emergence of bitcoin.)

Comment author: fubarobfusco 25 September 2013 12:12:33AM 3 points [-]

Links with startup culture, libertarians, and the "do better than establishment institutions" meme.

Comment author: roland 23 September 2013 07:54:58PM 10 points [-]

Psychedelics? Nootropics? I guess they are also a big part connecting lots of those subcultures.

Comment author: Julia_Galef 24 September 2013 06:58:55AM 3 points [-]

Agreed. I might add them to a future version of this map.

This time around I held off mainly because I was confounded by how to add them; drugs really do pervade so many of these groups, in different variants: psychadelics are strong among the counterculture and New Age culture, nootropics are more popular among rationalists and biohackers/Quantified Self, and both are popular among transhumanists. (See this H+ article for a discussion of psychadelic transhumanists.)

Comment author: shminux 23 September 2013 07:45:21PM 4 points [-]

Cool stuff. I wonder how a similar map for, say, NYC and/or Boston would look like.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 September 2013 07:56:33PM 6 points [-]

Agreed. Or Oxford for that matter.

Not to conflate my opinion's with shminux's, but I feel like a set of these maps from different hotspots of activity could help provide greater balance to the more implicit parts of Less Wrong's ethos. Consider the problem where those who visit Less Wrong for the first time conflate the above memes as what we consider a "rational" course of action; or consider how derivations of what's rational might depend on a background knowledge in ways that are easy to miss (the kind of biases that "softer" sciences may attempt to track). It's only possible to think what we have basis for in our memories, as per the availability heuristic. This could lead Less Wrong members to confuse the instrumental with the rational, similarly with the optimum and the rational.

It could also be possible to identify other potential "hotspots" for rationality communities if their culture follows a similar pattern. I imagine Minneapolis could be a city with such potential, for example, due to its youth population and tech firm presence.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 23 September 2013 08:49:35PM 4 points [-]

IME (which is admittedly about a decade out of date at this point), the Boston area as compared to the Bay Area is:
* relatively lighter on the human potential improvement, environmentalism/whole-earth, alternative wellness fronts
* more neo-Pagan than New Age in its spiritual flavor
* relatively heavier on the computer science fronts
* has a significant "actually, working for established companies to do worthwhile things is kind of cool too" component I don't see represented here

That said, "relatively" is a key word. The Boston and Bay Areas are more like each other than either of them are like most of the rest of the country.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 24 September 2013 06:44:56AM 2 points [-]

I wonder how a similar map for, say, NYC and/or Boston would look like.

Or for anywhere outside the anglosphere. Europe had academic socialist movements in the 60s and 70s which might loom similarly large as the 60s counterculture does for the US West Coast.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 September 2013 10:52:34PM 3 points [-]

Objectivists might show up stronger in a NYC map than a Bay Area one, for instance.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 October 2013 10:45:00AM *  2 points [-]

The "with cleverness we can do better than the establishment", together with the signalling value of certainly not being a vegan closely tied to the upper left part of that graph does explain the, perhaps otherwise unexpected, connection of Paleo diet and rightwing ideas from the libertarian cluster, as KarmaKaiser hilariously parodied on twitter recently:

I believe in one diet, Paleo Almighty, maker of fat and neck beard loss, improver of Game both Inner and Outer.

I believe in one job, IT, the only acceptable career. Eternally begotten of the Paul, Paul from Paul, IT from IT, true politics from true politics. One in being with the Paul. Through him all forums are flamed. For us and our currency he came down from Texas.

By the power of the NAP, he was elected by the Texans and became Representative.

That reminds me Game/PUA is also a Californian, at least in its canonical mid 2000s form, memeplex, with the goal of improving one-self's ability to hack people. It touts this can be done with cleverness, willingness to break social convention, assuming less agency from regular people and a lot of experimentation.

Comment author: ozziegooen 23 September 2013 06:29:03PM 3 points [-]

Awesome map. I highly encourage the creation of diagrams and similar structures, I will reference this repeatedly. On that note, something like this (maybe iterated on a bit) would make a fantastic wall poster.

Do you have any calculations on how decision training is one of the highest-impact ways to improve the future? This seems very different from the other Effective Altruist organizations I'm aware of, and if there were a really convincing Fermi estimate or similar, it would mean a great deal to the community.

Comment author: lukeprog 23 September 2013 07:56:37PM 3 points [-]

something like this (maybe iterated on a bit) would make a fantastic wall poster.

Yeah. It's pretty easy to make this kind of thing available for sale as a poster or t-shirt using Zazzle.com. I did this for my huge 2000+ gods you don't believe in poster.

Comment author: Douglas_Reay 09 October 2013 10:20:38AM 2 points [-]

Nice diagram. A bit reminiscent of the game "Illuminati" published by Steve Jackson.

I think a website that generated the diagram dynamically from information that people could update and vote upon would be interesting. Let users claim affiliation to (or knowledge of) specific group, and vote on the percentage that group is influenced by different memes that other groups lay claim to having promoted.

I'd like to see a version with memes added about attitudes towards privacy, the role of government, and the nature of reality verus fantasy, and groups added that include not just burning man, but also gaming, science fiction and academia (the universities in the Bay Area had a strong influence). See perhaps where Anonymous, flash mobs, etc fit in. Also perhaps some art movements (eg the way Dadaism had an effect upon the sureal and the anarchistic). Again, a dynamic version would let people add what they think was influential, and then voting would pare it down to what others agree actually did influence things.

Comment author: shminux 23 September 2013 09:14:25PM *  1 point [-]

Finally, the counterculture was also famous for its destigmatization and exploration of alternative lifestyles, which helped create San Francisco’s vibrant kink culture and LGBTQ community.

Tangential: I wonder if straight vanilla poly counts as "kink".

Comment author: BrienneYudkowsky 24 September 2013 06:04:07PM 10 points [-]

Even straight vanilla mono can be part of kink culture. Especially when described in those words. Subcultures come as much from how people are doing things as what it is they're doing.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 25 September 2013 12:17:38AM 11 points [-]

If someone says "Hi, I'm Sandy, I'm bi-poly-switch," and you can say, "Nice to meet you, Sandy! I'm Chris, I'm straight-mono-vanilla," you may not have compatible bits set, but you're ① speaking the same dialect, ② in a social context where that dialect can be spoken, ③ and not running away. That's an okay start for a subcultural connection.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 23 October 2013 08:55:30PM *  1 point [-]

No one's mentioned neuro-linguistic programming, created by people living in Santa Cruz, CA, which if not in the Bay Area, is certainly adjacent to it.

(I'd describe it as a contrarian approach to psychotherapy.)

Comment author: networked 26 September 2013 12:05:28PM 1 point [-]

Am I correct in assuming the color you chose for the "Startup culture" block is a reference to Y Combinator or is this a coincidence?

Comment author: brainoil 01 April 2014 03:28:58PM -1 points [-]

So there's that arrow that connects the 60s counterculture to distrust of authority. I'm reminded of something David Brin said about distrust of authority. Every generation thinks it invented it.

Anyway, I think the 60s counterculture had more to do with rejection of authority than distrust of authority. They totally trusted Eugene McCarthy, didn't they?