Scott Alexander on Eliezer Yudkowsky

Scott writes,

Everyone hates Facebook. It records all your private data, it screws with the order of your timeline, it works to be as addictive and time-wasting as possible. So why don’t we just stop using Facebook? More to the point, why doesn’t some entrepreneur create a much better social network which doesn’t do any of those things, and then we all switch to her site, and she becomes really rich, and we’re all happy?

The obvious answer: all our friends are on Facebook. We want to be where our friends are. None of us expect our friends to leave, so we all stay. Even if every single one of our friends hated Facebook, none of us would have common knowledge that we would all leave at once; it’s hard to organize a mass exodus.

This is Scott’s example of what Yudkowsky calls in his new book Inadequate Equilibria. Another excerpt from Scott’s review:

The Inside View is when you weigh the evidence around something, and go with whatever side’s evidence seems most compelling. The Outside View is when you notice that you feel like you’re right, but most people in the same situation as you are wrong. So you reject your intuitive feelings of rightness and assume you are probably wrong too.

…Eliezer warns that overuse of the Outside View can prevent you from having any kind of meaningful opinion at all.

My thoughts:

1. By the time this post goes up, I will have finished the book (recall that I typically schedule posts two or more days in advance). When I finish it, I am likely to write a long review.

2. The book is worth your time and your money.

3. I believe that Yudkowsky describes a real problem. Rather than call it “inadequate equilibria,” I would use a term popular in mathematical economics, “local optimum.” A group can find itself at a local optimum that is not the global optimum. It remains stuck at the local optimum because it resists going downhill to eventually go uphill.

Yudkowsky is focused on what I would call an intellectual local optimum. That is, it is possible for people to be stuck in a set of beliefs (leading to actions) that are difficult to discard but far from the global optimum. This is the way David Colander and Roland Kupers describe the state of economic thinking in their book Complexity Economics, which I described as

highly ambitious, always stimulating, and often frustrating.

I expect to say the same thing about Inadequate Equilibria. It is even more frustrating.

[UPDATE: I did indeed finish the book. I am glad that it stimulated me to think about the topic and to write an essay. But I think that you will find my essay on the topic will be more concise and more helpful than the book itself. I expect to have the essay up later this week on Medium.]

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10 Responses to Scott Alexander on Eliezer Yudkowsky

  1. Robert Sterbal says:

    This argument works even better for congress than for Facebook

  2. MG says:

    Resisting going “downhill to then go uphill” may be a rational reaction to (A) the path to there not being risk-less/certain and (b) the journey expected to take more than a certain time frame. So risk-aversion and impatience will provide some room for apparent dis-equilibrium.

  3. Slocum says:

    Everybody didn’t use to hate Facebook because, when it started, it was more user friendly. As it achieved critical mass and overwhelmed its competitors, it gradually switched from favoring user interests to favoring its own corporate interest. So of course lots of Facebook users now feel they are stuck with it. They are. It’s in the nature of the beast — successful businesses that depend on network effects will almost invariably abuse and exploit their now captive customers and be hated by them in return.

    Personally, I’ve never been a Facebook user — partly because I’ve always hated walled-gardens (even the new ones in during their deceptively friendly phases), partly because I disliked the idea of having all my friends, relatives and acquaintances thrown together into a single pool (or having to work to categorize and separate them), and partly as explained so well by The Onion:

  4. GC says:

    Everyone hates Facebook? I’m not a Facebook use, and even I know that’s not true.

  5. Various says:

    I was previously unaware of the concept of a “local optimum”. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It seems like a powerful concept that explains much in everyday life. A situation that came readily to mind is people’s career choices, where folks often chose the suboptimal, but safer alternative. The “local optimum” concept may also have a bearing to what finance types often refer to as loss aversion, but not sure.

  6. Jay says:

    This sort of thing also shows up in evolutionary biology. For example, human retinas are famously backward (they have the light-sensitive part behind the blood vessels and the nerves). We would see better if it was reversed, but that would require at least two mutations. Mutations can’t coordinate, so eyes have been stuck like this for countless eons*.

    * I’m pretty sure there’s an estimate somewhere, but I don’t feel like looking for it.

    • Handle says:

      It’s not just a few mutations. Retinas are inverted for all vertebrates, because the retina grows as an extension of the vertebrate brain, and only marine mollusks like octopus or squid have the opposite ordering of tissue layers, which probably means that their vision systems evolved independently and convergently. (There are also Warnowiaceae which are fascinating single celled organisms that have nevertheless evolved organelles that fit together to form an “eye” (called an ocelloid) which is no mere light-sensitive “eyespot” but comes with “cornea”, lens, “iris” and “retina” and everything, and which it seems to use to recognize and hunt prey. That raises the interesting question of how the cell “processes” and makes use of complex visual information without a brain.)

      It is probably typical “rational constructivist hubris” to conclude that the eye is wired “wrong”, just because one can’t tell why nature might have settled on a particular design. The fact that all vertebrates wire their eyes the same way probably means that it’s not an inadequate equilibria or local optimum, but provides some necessary benefits such as increased oxygen and blood flow to a highly energy-intensive region of neural tissue, and also some protection from damaging light which can degenerate tissues and pigments.

      • Jay says:

        The fact that all vertebrates wire their eyes the same way probably means that it’s not an inadequate equilibria or local optimum

        Umm… That’s exactly what you’d expect to see if vertebrate retinas got stuck in a local optimum hundreds of millions of years ago.

  7. Butler T. Reynolds says:

    Facebook’s biggest competition is probably not another social network. The replacement for Facebook doesn’t have to be something similar to Facebook. It does not have to be a social network at all.

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