And Some Notes On Aligning Friendly Egregores
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Social Design Is Like Friendly Egregore Alignment
For those who don’t know, this subtitle riffs on two things: the effort to engineer AI that is friendly, which is called AI Alignment; and the concept of an egregore, which can be thought of as some kind of memetic life-form which is parasitic or symbiotic on large groups of people. We may not know how to make an artificial intelligence aligned, but when it comes to aligning groups, there are many centuries of experience from which to draw.
Why do we have an application process? And why will this event be on the smaller side? Priya Parker explains a lot of this in detail, in her book The Art Of Gathering, but I’ll sum up.
The real vision and purpose of a group emerges more from the collective will of whoever is there, than from its written mission and vision statement or rules. That’s why you need to start small, try to filter for something specific, and carefully track the real commonalities between the actual people who show up. There should be a conscious and intentional feedback loop:
Start from a combination of
… explicit stated purpose.
… and a sense of what group is forming out there in the world around that.
… from which, filter who is in a small starting gathering.
… from which, learn the emergent collective will of those who have gathered.
… from which, tweak the explicit stated purpose.
… from which, slowly grow the group in alignment with that purpose.
Go to step 3.
I’ll address three ways for a rich textured social experience to collapse down to a sort of flat samey-ness:
Decoherence: a collapse into, basically, nothing
Vibe Cascade: a collapse into one vibe
Tribalism: a collapse into a mutually-reinforcing conflict process
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We have diverse definitions of what what we want from this specific gathering. Think of it as a Venn diagram. If a gathering doesn’t “meaningfully cohere”, that’s a way of saying those who were there couldn’t manage to establish a bare-minimum overlap in the Venn diagram. The more overlap there is, the more they cohere. They don’t have to be unanimous in “this is working for me” (and they especially don’t need to agree at all about why they think it’s working). But without sufficient coherence, they dissolve.
The size of the overlap in the Venn diagram is a measure of group satisfaction. Of course no participant can ever be satisfied infinitely, but when we add an indefinitely large number of participant-circles of random sizes in random places on the Venn diagram, the overlap becomes so low that even the least-dissatisfied participant feels “meh”.
Coherence is a spectrum: it’s good to have a permeable boundary, to adapt, change, and grow. A gathering can be too permeable, or not permeable enough.
Explicitly state what you intend to cohere to, and then observe what you are actually cohering to. If you don’t, then the coherence will be set by the random processes of anybody who comes in. They just expect you to be like what they’re already used to in the world at large instead of what makes the gathering distinct. And if we grow too fast, there would be so many of them that we can’t acculturate them quickly enough into the ways we’re different. Then they gradually change the group, until, a couple of years later, its norms are close to the lowest common denominator of whatever norms are prevalent in the surrounding thought-soup. The surrounding environment absorbed the group.
If we grow slowly, we can address it. The group can look at our founding vision and compare it to the Venn diagram overlap of what we collectively actually want. That sense emerges from all the interactions we had with each other, one-on-one and in groups. Then we reach more-or-less agreement that we need to say no. “That’s not what we do here.”
But the process is intractable if there are too many group-sense-making interactions that need to happen in too short a time. Suppose we’re flooded with so many who are not aligned with the group, so quickly, that they become the majority voice within the group. “Don’t we just want lots and lots of attendees? Money, fame, algorithmic virality, prestige, IMPACT?” the new majority says. Then the same-old-same-old is what we do here, and our distinctives are lost.
Next thing you know, most of the experience is like this: Somebody hawks his line of nootropics. A second person is shilling for you to pay your entire year’s salary to attend his Buddhist monastery. A third person is only there to promote her management consultancy to help middle managers put “developmental” on their resume. A fourth person is building a YouTube media empire in which he says almost nothing except complaining about public intellectuals losing their lucrative speaking engagements, but talks about it as if that were the reason we can't prevent climate change. A fifth person corners you to explain how the world is imminently about to end from existential risk, which requires that you put all your time and money toward raising awareness, and movement building, and personal growth, but he dismisses as futile anything anyone could do that could possibly avert the crisis. (From our website’s How We Measure Success: “Those who combine the urgency of righteousness with the futility of hopelessness will not be invited back.”)
Start small and grow slowly.
It would be enough to bring together a lot of meta-systematic people, but more than that, we hope to bring about an event which, itself, is an expression of meta-systematicity.
There are three vibes listed on the website. We don't want to accidentally invite almost all attendees who use identical linguistic tics and are almost all inclined to use the same frame.
We are often presented with a false dichotomy; especially between two of the three vibes: the somatic-embodied, and the systematic-cerebral.
In the dichotomy, you must be the kind of person who dances and writes free verse and reads minds and overflows with big demonstrative emotions. Or, be the kind of person who is cerebral and emotionally-stable and not easily fooled. But never both. As if they were mutually-exclusive.
You see this false dichotomy in the phrase “just vibe”. The operative word is “just”, as in “don’t also be the other way”. Normal relating isn’t authentic enough, and somehow you think it doesn’t count as real relating; instead of expanding your repertoire to include relating in the new special way, the special way is the only relating that counts as relating at all.
Here’s another one. Normal thinking isn’t rational enough, and somehow you think it doesn’t count as real thinking; instead of expanding your repertoire to include thinking in the new special way, the special way is the only thinking that counts as thinking at all.
The reason it feels that way is your day-to-day life is so full of one of these vibes, that it feels oppressive to you. Be it authentic spiritual nurturing somatic wisdom, or being smart, or getting promotions and raises at work, the people around you usually assume everyone admires it and wants to focus on it. It is inescapable, it is The Whole World, it is something you need relief from. So you start to see that vibe, not as something with which to expand your repertoire, but as something to be escaped from completely. Before, you were limited to only one vibe, and afterward, you are still limited, but to a different vibe.
A vibe cascade occurs when this turns into a chain reaction in a group.
Multi-vibe coherence is lost, unless we explicitly do things to invite attendees with different languaging. It’s not easy, and I’m not sure yet how well we’ll succeed. I can’t do it without your help, and I welcome your suggestions.
Another expression of meta-systematicity is an event in which attendees hold their ideologies lightly enough that they can be constructive when interacting with attendees who are inclined to use other ideologies.
David Chapman’s essay “Vaster Than Ideology” has been on my mind a lot for the past few months. I’ve been trying to understand his idea in specific terms, and a new lens about it occurred to me at the Fluidity Forum organizer retreat. At the retreat, we were talking about who to approach to tell them how awesome it would be if they attend Fluidity Forum.
It was similar to conversations I’ve been in with my housemates about who to invite to Halloween or New Years Eve parties in our group house, which went like this:
[names are changed]
“Those two got a divorce. Should we still invite both of them?” “Yeah, I’m friends with both of them and I know they’re on amicable terms and would be comfortable with it.”
“Should we ask Bob to attend?” “Oh, Bob is owner and CEO of the company Larry works for. There might be a chilling effect on what Larry will say around his boss.”
“Should we try to get Tom?” “I don’t think so, lots of our attendees are mad at Tom, and with good reason. He pulled some egregious bullshit. They’d be distracted by it throughout our event.” “Then why are you still friends with Tom?” “Because his perspective is very valuable on specific subjects, and he takes my calls. I just don’t listen to him on topics where he’s full of it.”
Those conversations started to remind me of memeplexes. For example, if Jesus is a memeplex, suppose one were to say “better not invite Jesus, he and Matt had a falling out and can't be in the same room.” Or, “better not invite Jesus, several people at the event will clam up about their real opinions and fall all over themselves trying to impress him, like he’s their boss.” “I spent most of the last decade friends with Social Justice, but in the last few years I can’t take Social Justice anywhere!”
In culture war, we see people allied to memeplexes, or at war with them. Each memeplex gets bigger and stronger from their opponents making their supporters angry. At first it looks like two memetic life-forms who are in at war with each other, making their followers attack the other. Then you realize it’s not two. Two groups hate and fear each other, and respond by provoking each other further, as part of one big vicious cycle. One big memetic life-form uses a cycle of two opposed memeplexes to perpetuate itself.
All too often, what passes for skewering sacred cows is fist-shaking defiance that comes from perceived victimhood, which probably indicates being hijacked by a memeplex. The Rebel Wisdom project recently came to this realization about the “rebel” framing. Who is the underdog depends on what room you’re in. Defining your side as heterodox underdogs and the other as an orthodox mainstream results in your own counter-orthodoxy inside the room you are in. The other side rebels against it, as if the every room in the world is that room. If you notice there is this daytime TV studio audience jeering and sneering and throwing tomatoes, and you define yourself as a brave rebel against them, your group eventually ends up becoming a second daytime TV studio audience jeering and sneering and throwing tomatoes. A process hijacked you and made you a tool with which to perpetuate itself.
Examples include for-or-against the memeplex of taxes and big government; or, for-or-against social justice. Another dyad of seemingly-warring memeplexes is sometimes framed as faith vs. reason. Another memeplex is what some call heteropessimism, which is at war with several memeplexes, for example, sex-positivity, or BDSM. A lot of communities and events develop rifts along these battle lines.
I’m taking a risk of losing some of you by naming specific examples. If an ideology has you, you might already feel yourself falling into line with its demands on you, as you read the above examples. You might feel the urge to change the subject of this conversation off of specific examples of “what if a memeplex were like a person?”, and turn it into an argument about “but the one I’m allied with is good, and the one I’m at war with is bad!”
And that could be true. I’m not saying you’re wrong. If anything, when a memeplex is right and important, it’s even more effective at hijacking the space between stimulus and response. Then the ideology becomes your boss, just like how Bob is Larry’s boss. Don’t think only of whether it has correctness (although, think about that too). Think also about what you’re doing with it, and what it’s doing with you. I’m not making an argument about the substantive content of the memeplexes, but what they’re doing to our heads.
It became clearer and easier for me to think about these matters, by imagining each memeplex as if it was a person. I imagine a memeplex as a very talented and influential man, who has a lot of value to offer, but has also done awful things and given his foes a lot of justifications to be angry at him. I imagine a memeplex as a woman who has overwhelming influence over almost everyone in my social environment, and I feel pressure to act as her mouthpiece and contort myself into her ideal exemplar, in order to avoid being rejected by my community.
Obviously the metaphor breaks down eventually, as all metaphors do, but it’s been fruitful to recognize how much power I actually have. If it’s a person, I could ask the memeplex for advice in specific situations where he has expertise, and ignore him in others, but if I know him well enough, he’ll probably give the advice when I want it. I could create a new event, and maybe I’ll invite the memeplex, maybe not, but I’m going to ensure she doesn’t dominate it.
How do we ensure a memeplex doesn’t dominate? Something that might help is, when we have a “no” to what we don’t want in our event, be mindful not to let it take too much of our attention; don’t play into the hands of a memetic process. Then, have just as much of a “yes” to what we do want! Invite each other to wonderment, curiosity, humor, play, enjoyment, and creativity. Focus on those who share that.
My plan to accomplish this, is:
Engage with new milieus friendly to these solutions.
Create gatherings for these milieus, like Fluidity Forum.
Design event systems (processes, methods, techniques) which are likely to support holding ideologies lightly, and discourage being “had by” ideologies. These include application forms before the gathering, ceremonies during the gathering, and/or other things.
Don’t invite attendees who make it obvious they are “used by” their ideology instead of using it.
Be careful what kind of sacred-cow-gorers you invite. Many sacred cows will be gored occasionally during the event, but (and this is crucial) not as a gesture of fist-shaking defiance. It doesn’t define the sacred cows as an oppressive orthodox mainstream, and the cow-gorer as always and only a heterodox rebel speaking truth to power. Because, that power relationship is contextual to what room they’re in, and the tables would turn.
If there are teachers who are acknowledged to have mastered something, they can be questioned, and not just retreat behind their social authority. And again, that social authority differs between social contexts. So seek representatives of multiple views, approaches, and paths, such that no one languaging is so predominant in influence and respect that those who say the same things in other styles would not want to come back.
Use constant meta-rational improvisation to prop up the event’s systems at their limits.
Re-evaluate and tweak the event systems, and tweak how we improvise on them.
Together, we can do this! If you’re excited, I hope you’ll apply. Here’s the application button again.
The Art Of Gathering, a book by Priya Parker
“Intersubjective Parasitology”, a series of talks on The Stoa, by Evan McMullen
“Bridging Communitas: Tensegrity & Mutual Support”, from The Bridge series of talks on The Stoa, by Evan McMullen
“Vaster Than Ideology”, an essay from the online book Meaningness by David Chapman
“The Memetic Tribes Of Culture War 2.0”, a Medium post by Peter N. Limberg and Conor Barnes
“The Stifling Air Of Rigid Radicalism”, an online preview excerpt from the book Joyful Militancy by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery
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