The Phatic and the Anti-Inductive - Scott Alexander

  • Phatic: talking for the sake of talking
    • Small talk
    • Formulaic media
      • Talk radio
      • “Standard” dramas like NCIS
    • Phatic exchanges are more about the ritual of the exchange itself than they are about the content of the exchange
  • Anti-inductive
    • Phenomenon that gets more complicated as you study it/understand it
    • Examples:
      • Stock market
      • College/Job applications
      • OKCupid profiles
    • The common phenomenon here is that once everyone realizes what the winning strategy is, and starts using it, that strategy is no longer the winning strategy
  • Phatic culture vs. anti-inductive culture
    • Phatic culture - people are okay with making small talk
      • Okay with going through the motions of communicating without actually communicating anything
      • Views anti-inductive culture as non-communicative and alienating
      • Sansa Stark
    • Anti-inductive culture - if you don’t have something interesting to say, don’t say anything at all
      • Small talk is boring and makes you boring by association
      • Views phatic culture as shallow, insipid, and inauthentic
      • Arya Stark
  • Maybe we should appreciate phatic culture more - phatic exchanges can act as a sort of social lubricant

Beware Trivial Inconveniences - Scott Alexander

  • Inconveniences that seem trivial actually can serve as a huge barrier because humans are lazy
  • Examples:
    • Great Firewall of China - [as of 2009] easy to circumvent, but the inconvenience it imposes means that those who circumvent it are already skeptical of the government’s opinion
    • LessWrong submissions vs. Overcoming Bias submissions - the “trivial” inconvenience of having to e-mail your submission to a moderator was sufficient to stop a large number of submissions
  • These trivial inconveniences can be used for both good and evil
    • Evil: Great Firewall of China - suppresses information without actually having to be technically capable of blocking every form of proxy/encryption
    • Good: opt-out government programs - by making the “right thing” the default, and forcing people to opt out, you can get people to do the right thing and opt out only when they’re fully cognizant of the consequences
      • Pension programs
      • Health insurance

Moving Towards the Hard Parts - Nate Soares

  • You can accomplish a lot more if you can somehow make yourself enjoy doing things that are you find aversive
  • Cultivate a part of yourself that experiences happiness in overcoming aversion and use that happiness as a reward to encourage you to overcome future aversions
  • Any strategy for change that requires the continued expenditure of willpower is doomed to fail

The Value of a Life - Nate Soares

  • Don’t confuse the price of a life with its value
    • The price of a life is the amount of money we must spend to save it
    • The value of a life is the sum value of the lived experiences of that life
  • The great tragedy of humanity is that the price of a life and the value of a life are so far apart

Discussion Notes

Lightning Talks

Ben: Attention

  • Attention can be defined as the amount of working memory you have devoted to a task
  • Operates differently from other “currencies” - the more control you have over your attention, the more benefit you get
  • Attention is not as subject to diminishing returns as other resources
  • To increase attention
    • Make systems
    • Outsource routine thoughts to external systems
      • To-do lists
      • Other people

Lauren - Inventing Rationality Techniques

  • Given a rationality technique R, how can we invent new rationality techniques?
  • Apply R to itself
  • Normally we apply rationality techniques to ourselves, what happens if we take those techniques and make them conversational techniques?
  • What happens if we apply rationality techniques to groups?
    • This might be especially useful for hamming problems
  • Find out the individual “mental movements” are for a rationality technique and recombine them or try to apply them in isolation
  • Take the negation of R - is it still a rationality technique?

Harmanas - memory

  • How does memory work?
  • We can’t consciously remember every component of everything that happens to us
  • How do we fill in gaps?
  • Hypothesis: memory is composed of layers
    • Story/narrative
    • Basic objects
    • Detailed descriptions
  • The basic objects of our memory generalize - we can use them in other situations
  • Detailed descriptions are tied to specific instances of those basic objects
    • When we imagine or remember (the distinction between the two is smaller than you think) a kite, there is a common subset of objects that we can refer to
      • Quadrilateral
      • Box kites
      • etc.
    • However the specific details regarding those kites doesn’t generalize as well
      • Color
      • Texture
      • Specific properties, like whether it has a tail or not
  • Narratives serve to provide context and reasons for our memories
    • Allow us to explain why a basic object is in the scenario that it’s in
    • Allow us to infer detailed properties without having to explicitly memorize them

Reading Discussion

Phatic vs. Anti-inductive

  • Scott’s choice of phatic communication seems to be an unnecessary use of politics
  • A better example of phatic media is crime shows like CSI or NCIS
  • Phatic communication is less tolerated online
    • Harsh reactions to “me too” or “+1” comments
    • Facebook “likes” bring back phatic communication back to online media
  • OKCupid is both phatic and anti-inductive
  • How much social “creepiness” is due to anti-inductive people meeting phatic people?

Trivial Inconveniences

  • Trivial incoveniences can be exploited to break bad habits
    • Don’t keep unhealthy in your home
    • Even if going to the store is a trivial incovenience, this is often enough to prevent you from getting the unhealthy snack
  • The Great Firewall of China may have started out as a trivial inconvenience, but it’s an anti-inductive system
    • As people get better at getting around the Great Firewall, the government also invests in upgrading the system to stop them
    • Currently the Great Firewall is not nearly as trivial as it was to overcome as it was when Scott wrote his post

Moving Toward The Hard Parts

  • Can you really condition yourself to enjoy things that you previously found aversive?
  • Is this dangerous?
    • We have some aversions for good reasons
  • Need to distinguish aversions that are the mental equivalent of trivial inconveniences vs. aversions that are there to protect us from real dangers

The Value of a Life

  • Is immortality really so good?
  • What would have happened if we’d discovered immortality when Ghenghis Khan was still alive?
    • Conceivable to imagine that the Mongol empire would have never been broken up, and many more would have been killed
  • What if we’d discovered immortality 200 years ago?
    • Slaveowners never die
    • Slavery and racism never become socially unacceptable the way they are today?
  • Scientific progress slows/stops?
  • What about economics?
    • According to Piketty, inheritance taxes play a key role in mitigating intergenerational increases in inequality
    • Does humanity get divided into a permanent society of haves and have-nots, as those who were rich when they became immortal continue to accumulate wealth, while those who were poor continue to have to work?
  • At what “mental age” do people become immortal?
    • Having a society of people who are mentally 25 years old is very different from having a society where people are mentally 75 years old