Draft status: I wrote this in ~1.5 hours before starting work today.
TL;DR: “Cool” is no longer cool. (when referring to projects or people in an EA social framework)
Longer TL;DR: I worry that the usage of blanket statements like cool to refer to projects or people in social contexts where impactfulness is implicitly assumed to be the highest good worsens epistemics and helps conflate status in EA with impactfulness.
No longer a TL;DR:
I hear “cool” a lot in the young berkeleyite EA scene, probably more than would be optimal. Let me explain why I think this with a totally fictional example (all resemblances to real life are a coincidence borne out of my lack of naming creativity and time).
Alice, a manager at the EA organization MeThinks Priorities, and Bob, who recently joined her team, are casually chatting in the office after hours.
At one point, Alice off-handedly says, “Atlas is doing cool work”.
Hearing this, Bob stores Alice’s opinion in his head and implicitly raises his general evaluation of Atlas’ impactfulness.
The problem is that what Alice was trying to gesture at by saying “Atlas is doing cool work” was probably meaningfully different than what Bob understood. Cool refers to a bunch of loose positive associations specified by the context it’s used in. Alice might have been using cool to mean something like “Atlas is an interesting experiment in the efficacy of scalable talent search based community building”. But from the vaguely EA work backdrop the conversation was set in, Bob probably got something from Alice's words more like “Atlas is doing a good job making the world better”.
There’s a lot of key information being lost there! Alice might have a nuanced and complex view on Atlas’ work, but based on her comment, Bob’s understanding of Atlas moves only on the binary axis of impactful | not impactful. He’s not able to specify the characteristics of the Atlas program that make it seem cool in Alice’s eyes.
This is bad, because it makes it more difficult for him to identify the key reasons behind any differences in Alice’s view of Atlas and his view of Atlas. Or maybe he hasn’t formed his own views on Atlas yet and this one casual outside opinion is going to have an outsize influence on how he views Atlas in the future. Even if he doesn’t know the reasons behind Alice’s view, her endorsement while being someone of high status makes Atlas’s work seem prestigious too.
People who identify with the framework of effective altruism are supposedly trying to figure out how to do the most good, and then do it. In EA social backdrops, using cool as a blanket statement leads to imprecise communication about what people actually believe is impactful and useful in the world. Moreover, I worry that the usage of blanket statements like cool is something that helps conflate social status in EA with impactfulness. It’d be great for more specific terminology to be used in place of cool when people are communicating in EA social backdrops. This is especially true because so many EA social interactions are also professional interactions where pushback or questioning from a lower-status individual might be unusually difficult.
Thanks to wANIEL, Yonatan Cale, shannon, and saulius for fun conversations.
All mistakes are mine.
I'm curious what EA projects are considered "high status". I have no idea, and I don't believe that all your other readers do either.
Totally agree, and I am concerned that small things like that are a indicator of larger problems in the movement. Specifically, I think there's way too much status stuff going on, and it's incredibly easy to goodheart. Infact, 3 easy steps to status signalling in EA: (1) Hang around EA city hub (2) Repeat all the busswords you hear (3) Namedrop and associate with "Cool" ppl/orgs
To be honest, I'm horrified by how easy (and effective) it appears.
This is going to sound self-serving, but I would prefer if your fake name for EA orgs don't sound very much like a specific organization. The exception is if you're specifically criticizing Rethink Priorities, in which case I would prefer if you state your criticism more explicitly.
(Disclosure: I work at Rethink Priorities)
Which will be mildly surprising to me, since I'm the only RP employee who regularly lives in Berkeley, works from Berkeley offices etc.
I also found this curious. The original post did, at least, preface the reference to "MeThinks Priorities" with
But the reference to "MeThinks Priorities" didn't seem to add anything to the post, and it would have been fine to just say "Alice, a manager at an EA org..."
This table is a valuable resource for people wanting to come up with imaginary EA org names.
This is one reason I haven't wanted to live in Berkeley. Whenever I visited (which was very frequently at one point) it was pretty exhausting to have so many people running around trying to figure out and chase which things were "cool" (far from everyone in Berkeley was like this, but too many seemed to be).
Outside Berkeley I notice it much less. I still interact frequently online with a lot of people who live in Berkeley, and for me this is much more pleasant. It's a shame, because there are lots of benefits of talking to people in person. But for me they don't seem worth the costs.
Often many people have the same words have different meanings! it depends on the experience of the individual!