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Back in the day, I used to wonder why it seemed like no one was competent or did anything. I feel like I have a much better understanding about this now. Agency is hard, agency is rare, and people don't appreciate it nearly enough.
My first big experience with how difficult agency is, was the founding of the intentional community Tortuga.
We discovered that very few people are willing to just pick up and move to live in a cool intentional community and make it happen. People are committed to jobs in certain locations, or to other people with jobs. Patri and I and our initial crew had many friends, but we were mostly able to find only friends of friends to participate. If somebody has agency but they're too busy on something else to get involved with your projects, that makes available agency a lot rarer in practice.
Then I figured once you got a group together, you just go pick out a property. I was very wrong. The plan was to buy property that we legally owned, as a tenancy in common, and Patri did his homework and discovered that things like bylaws were important. People really cared about having bylaws. We spent about a year and a half having weekly meetings - about bylaws, and what people wanted from the community, and whether it would be okay to have cats - before any property was even looked at.
Very few people came to every meeting. Very few people participated anywhere near as much as Patri did. Almost no one did behind-the-scenes work like I saw Patri doing. I personally didn't have experience, and didn't feel qualified to do things like write bylaws - that was my excuse. (Today I know that if an agenty person has to write bylaws and they don't have experience, they go off and read about how to write bylaws.) I had a rather prickly interpersonal style back in the day (generally I get along with people much better now than I used to), and was often upset with other people in the group. I was disappointed in how long things were taking, how inefficient the process was, how much more work Patri did and how other people weren't stepping up, that people weren't as worried about various things as I thought they should be, etc.
In the mean time, the process crept along, and we kept having meetings, but no apparent progress was being made. This went on for months. Patri was reading community books, and told me about his favorite, Creating a Life Together. One of the main things the book stressed was that 95% of potential intentional communities fail because of lack of unified vision.
At some point, this sunk in, and I realized why we weren't making progress. In our group, of around 30 people, we actually had two different factions that were blocking each other, without realizing it. Once I brought this to the table and we started checking it out, it turned out that we had one group of people who wanted a place that is pretty, but didn't really care about size, and then we had Patri and the group more in alignment with him, that wanted a large community with lots of people and really didn't care much about appearance. The people who wanted pretty places were vetoing places that were big enough for Patri's vision, and the people with Patri's vision were vetoing places that weren't large enough, and nothing was happening.
So Patri came up with the idea of having a vote to select for the largest subgroup of the people in our larger group who were interested in the larger group vision which we spelled out in much more detail so that we would be clear on vision, and everyone in the group willing to live with the most amount of people would be the founding members of that group.
Once the groups split, things started moving again. The group interested in a pretty place ended up putting a bid on a church, that was really cool, but ended up not working out. After that failed, they decided they were not motivated to continue.
Our group continued having meetings and fleshing things out. Unfortunately, once it came time to actually start looking at properties, things got bad again. A lot of key people were really slow to respond on emails on important things like getting financial paperwork together to get approval to go look at big complexes, and morale was getting low and the project was on the verge of collapse. I'd had interpersonal conflict with another couple members in the group and had been somewhat ambivalent about the idea of living with them, and had been mostly watching rather distressed in the background, not sure if I actually wanted to move into the community even if it happened. Turned out those other people felt the same way, and eventually, after weeks of being out of town and not responding to emails, finally said that they had been looking into a different community and decided to go there.
Once they left and my ambivalence cleared up, I saw that the project was again on the verge of collapse, and that if I didn't do something ASAP it'd be dead in a few weeks. So I started researching housing like mad, and dedicated about a week or two of full time work to property search, mostly on my own, but with the group coming to check places out once or twice. Eventually, I found these properties. They looked different back then :) Since my research told me that good housing went immediately when it hit the market, I got a scouting group to go look right away, and we liked it, and then the rest of the group actually came together quickly to go look. Lots of people didn't like it and said it wasn't what they wanted. Some people were unwilling to move forward because they'd really wanted an apartment complex with a courtyard and weren't willing to compromise on that. People complained about how the apartments weren't big enough, which I was shocked about, because these places were on average 200-400 sq ft/apartment larger than most of what we'd looked at previously, and none of these people had said anything to me prior in the search.
In the end, out of a group starting of about 30 people, five of us - 2 couples and a single - scraped together the money to put down an offer.
We moved very quickly in all this - it was somewhere around 3 days for us to get our offer in. In the meantime, there were already other offers ahead of us, but no one else was offering to buy both buildings, and the sellers really wanted to sell the two neighboring buildings together, so we were in luck, and they wanted to work with us.
Then the actual purchasing was a whole new nightmare, involving lots and lots of negotiations with real estate agents. Our agent, Judd Weiss was awesome to work with, but the situation was fairly adversarial with lots of stipulations and involved many many hours of negotiations. I found our agent through a friend and worked with him some, and Patri ended up doing almost all of the work, as usual - only bringing forms stapled together and ready to be reviewed or signed by the full group. Oh, and parallel to this process, we were desperately trying to enroll enough people to fill all of the units and/or figure out how we would cover the cost if we ended up with units that were empty for awhile. I took point on a lot of that.
Eventually, after a year of long meetings where we couldn't even decide on a name, the community was eventually dubbed Tortuga, and was a wonderful place to live for several years. Even now, through everything, Tortuga has somehow continued to thrive, and now has some new really cool people living in my old apartment.
It didn't turn out anything like my vision. And I didn't end up there long-term raising a family like I'd hoped. But...
I learned a lot. We created a community that would not have existed without us. It was a place for my friends to come to. We had great parties. I met a lot of great people. Eventually Divia moved in with me, and my apartment ended up becoming a little Less Wrong mini-community, which eventually broke off and ended up spawning two new group houses - Asgard where Divia and her family live in San Francisco, and Zendo where my friends and I live in Berkeley. Two of my current roommates came from the Less Wrong meetup group that Divia and I cofounded, thanks to having the Tortuga Lounge to host events. (The Tortuga community, especially James who was a later comer, put an enormous amount of effort into creating the lounge.) As I write this, I’ve just spent my past several nights on the couch at Winterfell, a New York LW group house. I learned this morning that they used my distilled tips on creating cohousing as part of their creation process, which only took them about three weeks.
Why share all this? Because I really want people to get how hard and rare agentiness is, and to appreciate it. I worry that, having only elaborated this one example, people are likely to have the sort of reaction I did initially - just scoff at the incompetence. That is not the lesson I walked away with. I've seen this pattern over and over, though most of the other times I can't talk about. Tortuga actually *did* happen, when 95% of communities fail. I'm proud to have played a key role in it multiple times. I'm ashamed that I didn't contribute more when Patri carried so much of the load. I appreciate the very few people who came to all of the meetings, and the people who actually put down their money and committed who didn't come to meetings. Even the people who just did a little, took on a risk that other people didn't, they did a lot more than the people who did nothing. And I really appreciate agents like Patri. Now that I'm no longer around him all the time, I realize how few of him there are in the world.
As a psych coach I've worked on helping people become more agenty and I've worked on counseling the depressed, and I have some idea of the sorts of demons that people face. People with depression generally have them more severely, but I see them everywhere, with people of all levels of agency. One of my latest thoughts about ability to upload and things of this nature is that even if we just had "human" level intelligence, if the only augmentation we were able to do is go in and remove people's emotional blocks, I think that would suffice for the end of the world as we know it. Something like the creation of Tortuga could be done almost immediately if everyone involved had no emotional blocks. Every person I know has limiting beliefs and thoughts that make their lives harder. A quote that I came across the other day that I loved:"The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel." —Steve Furtick
I used to be married to Patri Friedman, a major PC if there ever was one (as Eliezer puts it) and I think in retrospect that gave me a distorted view of the average. Recently while trying to ensure I got home from the hospital safely after a major surgery, I designated one person to drive me and another person to coordinate calls if anything went wrong. The first person turned out to be far away in San Francisco at the time I needed driving, and the call coordinator thought that the doctor's message that the surgery had gone OK meant that it was okay to step away from the phone. I rather reluctantly had to call another PC, boyfriend Eliezer Yudkowsky, to pick me up. It made me realize how rare it is to have people who just make sure nothing goes wrong, the way Patri did. I was taking it for granted, in retrospect.
Today I'm no longer living in Patri's shadow, trying to take on the agent role myself in many situations and projects, and realizing just how hard it actually is. I'm no longer the person sitting in the background and watching and pointing out when a decision needs to be made, but actually doing work and making decisions myself. (By the way, are you a successful entrepreneur interested in cofounding a much more ambitious company than the last one you worked on? Talk to me, I've got a cofounder with a potential 3.7 on the Ambition Scale in biotech. I feel surprisingly more confident about being a startup cofounder now; apparently, if you can manage basic agency, you don't have much competition.)
Today I appreciate, a lot more, the agents I'm seeing rising up in the Less Wrong community. I've been watching it struggle for years, and seeing how CFAR and Singinst are coming together recently, especially with so many people contributing in really key ways, is really inspiring to witness. Louie is kicking ass as Director of Development. Singinst has gone from an organization where people like Patri and I were shaking our heads at in dismay at the lack of organization many years ago to a non-profit that I am impressed by over this past year, and I know he’s had a big hand in this. Michael Vassar is still helping make connections and has recently gotten funding along with Jaan, Zvi, Alyssa, Sarah and Laura for Panacea Research whose service I really wish I’d had prior to ending up in the ER due to an avoidable medical problem! Eliezer’s vision of rationality and a community that understands it has become the seed for CFAR, and meet-ups and cohousing around the world, along with so much more - I’m sure most of us would have bet against this if asked when he was sixteen. Julia is totally kicking ass along with other agenty people I'm really impressed with, like volunteers Cat and Michael Keenan. Luke Muehlhauser is so busy kicking ass at Singinst that I haven't seen him in a really long time. Singinst hired Ioven who I adore. Kevin and Lindsey plus several other really awesome people came together to create a wonderful Burningman camp that was really great for community bonding and was the most comfortable I've ever stayed. Nisan, one of the first attendees of the rationality night that Divia and I started, helped me start my new Less Wrong community house and is now teaching at CFAR. And there are so many more. I really appreciate you guys, and I hope that this post helps someone else appreciate what is happening as well.
You are not a Bayesian homunculus whose reasoning is 'corrupted' by cognitive biases.
You just are cognitive biases.
You just are attribution substitution heuristics, evolved intuitions, and unconscious learning. These make up the 'elephant' of your mind, and atop them rides a tiny 'deliberative thinking' module that only rarely exerts itself, and almost never according to normatively correct reasoning.
You do not have much cognitive access to your motivations. You are not Aristotle's 'rational animal.' You are Gazzaniga's rationalizing animal. Most of the time, your unconscious makes a decision, and then you become consciously aware of an intention to act, and then your brain invents a rationalization for the motivations behind your actions.
If an 'agent' is something that makes choices so as to maximize the fulfillment of explicit desires, given explicit beliefs, then few humans are very 'agenty' at all. You may be agenty when you guide a piece of chocolate into your mouth, but you are not very agenty when you navigate the world on a broader scale. On the scale of days or weeks, your actions result from a kludge of evolved mechanisms that are often function-specific and maladapted to your current environment. You are an adaptation-executor, not a fitness-maximizer.
Agency is rare but powerful. Homo economicus is a myth, but imagine what one of them could do if such a thing existed: a real agent with the power to reliably do things it believed would fulfill its desires. It could change its diet, work out each morning, and maximize its health and physical attractiveness. It could learn and practice body language, fashion, salesmanship, seduction, the laws of money, and domain-specific skills and win in every sphere of life without constant defeat by human hangups. It could learn networking and influence and persuasion and have large-scale effects on societies, cultures, and nations.
Even a little bit of agenty-ness will have some lasting historical impact. Think of Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, or Tim Ferris. Imagine what you could do if you were just a bit more agenty. That's what training in instrumental rationality is all about: transcending your kludginess to attain a bit more agenty-ness.
And, imagine what an agent could do without the limits of human hardware or software. Now that would really be something.
(This post was inspired by some conversations with Michael Vassar.)