This post describes the reasons for, process, and preliminary result of creating an information design poster of the essential books on effective altruism. Fundamentally this is an attempt at a visualization of an effective altruism library.
However, this is only half the process. The current design is meant as an approximation, as a surface to collectively disagree with and to add perspectives and knowledge. It was designed with Cunningham's Law in mind, which states that the best way to get the right — if not any — answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer. Once the comment and survey activity subsides I will synthesize the information into the final design (and second post).
The final design will be a digital document with hyperlinks or a physical scratch-off poster.
The goal of this endeavor is an information visualization that represents the most important books on and related to effective altruism. This product then affords various functions; it can, e.g., get printed as a scratch-off poster that can be handed out at introductory events and efficiently give a first overview of the knowledge space of effective altruism. Part of the value of the artifact is, however, the collective process of creating it, namely the creation of a first draft and external representation of the knowledge space, offering a surface to quickly show gaps or disagreements, which can then be integrated into the next version.
With these goals in mind, the project was funded by a one-month salary from CEA to conduct the scratch-off reading list. More complex information design projects will potentially be conducted. This will depend on how well this project is received and what was learned from the process of creating it. The reception of this project will be judged by how widely it will get used by different organizations and by the engagement with this EA Forum article. Ideas for what to visualize next are welcome.
Why is creating an information visualization poster of books on effective altruism a meaningful endeavor? It helps to resolve many different issues, offers various affordances, and, accordingly, is a robustly valuable case:
- An easy way for new aspiring effective altruists to get an insight into the knowledge space of effective altruism. This process of getting accustomed to the ideas, as you might know, can quickly be very overwhelming, as it is simply impossible to know and read it all, and one might fall down one particular rabbit hole and miss out on the big picture. This design can offer precisely this grasp of the big picture.
By Matthew Barnett and Jackson Wagner in the EA Dank Memes Facebook Group
- It can be a guiding light in a self-administered curriculum for studying effective altruism-related resources, either by reading the most introductory books from the list first or by taking the book that is currently the most far away from one’s current thinking. The self-administered study is still relevant for many people who don’t have the privilege to live in a place with a developed EA community.
- The poster can function as a form of a quality control measure in effective altruism education, assuring that the breadth of its thinking is represented in an easily accessible way so that everyone shares some basic knowledge. Deeming this critical stems from my personal experience. I have repeatedly met people who considered themselves effective altruists but didn’t know ideas I and many others would consider foundational. I’m talking about “Who is Esther Duflo? Who is Peter Singer?”. It is OK to disagree with all foundational ideas. However, the lack of awareness was shocking and made me worry about whether we could achieve basic quality control measures.
- Creating common knowledge of what one should have a basic understanding of — or at least meta-knowledge of its existence! — can then make communication and collaboration more efficient. For example, Gary Klein states that common ground can never be firmly established at any time. It is continuously eroding. People have different experiences, process different information, and come to different conclusions, and therefore there have to be processes in place to continuously create common knowledge. When sharing common knowledge, one can reasonably expect to be able to skip asking for certain knowledge in a conversation. Common knowledge and common ground are required for efficient communication, or any communication, and for all the collaboration efforts that build on this communication. Generating such a knowledge synthesis and visual abstraction is fundamentally a simplification and reduction. It, therefore, requires discussion and synthesis of what matters, and the process helps with collective sense-making.
- The visualization can function as an “antilibrary.” According to Nassim Taleb and Umberto Eco, an antilibrary or antischolarship can keep you intellectually humble. The number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. While you might specialize more and more in one cause area, there will always be topics you have no idea of.
- In his work on the evolution of technology, Brian Arthur shows how the creation of artifacts then repeatedly evolved in unforeseen ways, so maybe someone will use the visualization to make a great point about how the current thinking in effective altruism is completely off lacking something. So while there are obvious and concrete goals, there is also the open-ended offering of an affordance.
- Ben West spoke about the usefulness of such communication projects in his related EA Forum post after we discussed the topic in person at EAG London 2021.
The Value of Visualizations and Information Design
A visual diagrammatic representation communicates information fundamentally differently from uniform sentential - sequential verbal - content. This is why Jill H. Larkin and Herbert A. Simon (1987) argue that “a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words”:
“When two representations are informationally equivalent, their computational efficiency depends on the information-processing operators that act on them. Two sets of operators may differ in their capabilities for recognizing patterns, in the inferences they can carry out directly, and in their control strategies (in particular, the control of search).”
Larkin and Simon show a diagram of a mechanism and next to it the information-theoretical equivalent is written in rules of the different components interacting. While from a "view from nowhere" the two representations contain the same information, humans can intuitively process the diagram better and make quick inferences about how the mechanistic system would react to certain interactions.
When the importance of one part of the information is for example represented by its relative size to other pieces of information, this decreases the cost of recognition and search strategies, as the perceptual system is directly “drawn to” what matters in the order of its importance. By the same logic, such a visual representation ensures that the most important pieces of information get processed first. This matters when the average interaction time with content is low. Which they usually are online. Most EA forum posts will not get read.
As an example of this point, here is the information representation of the Global Burden of Disease Compare tool, showcasing the causes of deaths in 2019 for humans with high-middle SDI. In the temporal process of looking at the image quite early on the relative size of IHD (ischemic heart disease) and strokes “pop out” to a human observer. The temporal processing in such a diagram is directly correlated to the relative importance of the squares to the topic at hand.
For the same reasons representing a knowledge space visually also affords more efficient disagreement and insight transmission in both directions. When an observer first sees the big picture representation a first disagreement could be about which dimensions in the representation are relevant and then about the largest and most relevant pieces of information. While in a sequential verbal representation the knowledge exchange might get derailed by the first piece of information about which there is a disagreement, even if it is relatively unimportant in relation to the big picture. An image can afford an information exchange that is in order of relevance and, given that it will usually be limited in time, more efficient exchange relative to time spent.
Because of these effects, visual representations can function as tools for collective sense-making processes. This was established under the term “information mapping” by Bob Horn. He extended the use of visual language and visual analytics to develop methods—involving large, detailed infographics and argument map murals—for exploring and resolving wicked problems. On his website (bobhorn.us) you can find examples of information murals, for example on the economy of China, suicide prevention, sustainability dynamics, the history of Systems Science and Cybernetics, and many more.
Another completely pragmatic reason for information maps is that they often look nice or, god forbid, even beautiful. Humans like to look at beautiful things and therefore spend more time doing so and are a bit happier while doing so.
Visual EA (adjacent) Knowledge Projects
For the sake of completeness, here is a list of past projects from inside the effective altruism and rationality community that visually maps their knowledge spaces. Please point me to the ones that were missed here.
- How can we help the world? A flowchart (2015) by the Global Priorities Institute
- The Map of Effective Altruism (2020) by Scott Alexander
- The Map of the Rationalist Diaspora (2014) by Scott Alexander
- Map of Progress Studies (2021) by Dan Elton (thanks Chana for the post on Twitter)
- The HPMOR bookshelves (2013) on LessWrong by Jesse Galef on his blog Measure of Doubt
Other works and people worth mentioning:
- Katy Börner’s “mapping science” work
- Bob Horn’s information mappings of wicked problems
- Brian Castellani and Lasse Gerrit’s map of the complexity sciences (2021), which I have started to adapt into a map of the cognitive sciences
The Choice of Books
Let’s address the elephant in the room. The most important information resources in the effective altruism and rationality community are not only books but also blog posts, talks, academic papers, tweets, Facebook posts, mailing lists, presentations, conversations….
Why then does this representation of the knowledge space focus on books?
Firstly, it makes the problem tractable. The increased accuracy of thinking of the knowledge space in informal ideas and tracing their origins down multiplies the effort by orders of magnitude. While this could be a project of the future, for now, having thoughts published as a book means they have individually gone through various editorial and quality control processes. As a consequence, this makes the mapping of the knowledge space immensely more tractable. Many meta-questions about whether ideas should be included or not can, for this particular project, be circumvented by asking “well, are they in a book?”. One could of course argue that what makes for a book is not straightforward either, but most cases are surprisingly typical cases.
To Read or Not To Read
The focus on the books does not mean that you should be expected to read or have read them all. The meta-knowledge of their existence is an excellent start. And there are multiple intermediate steps to slowly reading the whole book, from reading a summary or skimming them to get a rough idea.
Given the time trade-offs, it can often be harmful to spend too much time reading. Holden Karnofsky wrote more on the topic of time and retention trade-offs on his blog “cold takes” under the titles Honesty about reading and Reading books vs. engaging with them. (Thank you to Rob Bensinger for pointing out that this should be pointed out).
A mindset of completely trying to "hack" a deep understanding of complex topics is not feasible, even foolish. There is no one weird trick. A long-term commitment to learning, engaging with diverse materials, and putting in the related work is a prerequisite to what effective altruism is. I agree with Holden, that this value can not be operationalized as reading predefined books. Reading the same book can mean significant advances for one person and procrastination for another. What knowledge is meaningful for you to acquire or what ideas are valuable to engage with more depends on your goals, your current knowledge, and your education. Choose wisely.
The process of creating an information design of a library of effective altruism consists of the design process (“design”) and the process of generating and choosing its content (“information”).
The first step was generating drafts of general design options related to a library knowledge space. Along which dimensions and in which categories should the books be ordered, should they be represented by their title, spine, or covers, all in the same size or proportional to importance?
These drafts were then handed as inspiration to designers through a 99Design competition.
After external feedback on contenders in the design competition — requested in Effective Altruism Facebook groups — the aim was a representation of bookshelves with book spines as the essential element. Especially for digital nomads, such a poster would represent the non-existent library more pleasantly.
However, the lacking availability of images of book spines online turned the goal back to representing the books by their covers.
The majority of the process of gathering information on important books in effective altruism was my year-long involvement with the community since 2014, reading the books myself, and talking about what content was valuable to others.
The short-term process directly relevant to this project was first, to gather other projects that give overviews of effective altruism books and resources.
The List of Book Lists
- Effective Altruism Goodreads List
- Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) Reading List
- Giving What We Can (GWWC) List of Recommended Books
- Center for Effective Altruism (CEA) Resources
- The HPMOR bookshelves (2013) on LessWrong by Jesse Galef Measure of Doubt
- Less Wrong Community Essays Books
- Goodreads LessWrong book List
- Less Wrong The Best Textbooks on Every Subject (2011) and Update (2018)
- Pablo Stafforini’s List of EA Syllabi
- The Daily Idea: 6 Best Books on Effective Altruism
- Harvard Effective Altruism Book List
- Effective altruism reading list (EA Forum 2013)
- Recommended Reading for Pareto Fellows by Tyler Alterman (2016)
- EA reading list: other reading lists (Richard Ngo, 2020)
- EA Hub reading lists
- EA syllabi and teaching materials (Wise)
- The most important questions and problems (Stafforini)
- EA syllabi (Stafforini)
- Bibliography for a course on EA (Stafforini)
- EA blogs (Stafforini)
- Old EA forum posts (Šimčikas)
- EA reading list
- GCR institute bibliography
- EA reading (Ben Kuhn)
- Facebook threads (Rob Wiblin)
- YEA links
- Priority Wiki
- EA reading list: Paul Christiano (Richard Ngo, 2020)
- MIT The Great Problems Course Syllabus
- A full syllabus on longtermism (EA Forum, 2021)
- The Stanford In-Depth EA Program Materials
- Reading List on Existential and Global Catastrophic Risk
- Effective altruism reading material for busy people
- EA Syllabus
- Personal MBA’s List of 99 Best Business Books
- Pablo Stafforini's Bibliography for a course on effective altruism
In a first collective sense-making process I shared the Goodreads list in effective altruism Facebook group and call for more people joining in its upvote process.
How many books should be represented?
The initial idea was to aim for roughly one hundred books, but, as Rob Bensinger pointed out, it is unlikely that a specific number passes some threshold of importance. In future iterations, there will be either cutoffs represented to indicate different levels of importance or the number of books will get adapted. Currently, the reduced opacity reflects that these books were added on a whim.
Importance of Books
Books are to be chosen based on expected value and importance along multiple dimensions
- Some books represent knowledge that was crucial for effective altruism coming into existence, e.g. Poor Economics, Thinking, Fast and Slow, The Life You Can Save….
- Some books are important for describing the principles and methods by which effective altruists think and act, like ethics, rationality, scientific thinking e.g. The Expanding Circle, Ethics in the real world, Rationality: From AI to Zombies, The Scout Mindset, Algorithms to live by, How to Measure Anything…
- Some books represent knowledge that was generated by effective altruism e.g. 80,000Hours, The Precipice, The EA Handbook, How to launch an High-Impact Nonprofit, …..
- Some books are important by empirically repeatedly introducing new people to the movement e.g. Doing Good Better, HPMOR, The Life You Can Save, The Precipice
- Some books are important by introducing or being relevant to cause areas, e.g. Superintelligence, The Alignment Problem, Animal Liberation, Global Catastrophica Risks, The End of Poverty…
- Some books are important by representing general knowledge EAs should know about, like economics, demographics, geopolitics or history e.g. Factfulness, The Changing World Order, Guns Germs and Steel
- Some books are important by giving insights into practical approaches taken in the effective altruism movement, e.g. The Art of Gathering, Change of Heart, The Personal MBA…
Finding the most important books along many dimensions can easily become a complex problem itself. This complex decision process can be easiest approached by:
- Sorting books into different categories (tends to be quite straight-forward)
- Ordering books inside the categories by their general importance and relevance to the category
- Determining the relative importance of different categories of books, including meta categories (the relative importance of different cause areas is empirically grounded in EA surveys around how the causes are funded and valued relative to each other. The question of how important the underlying principles are relative to the cause area knowledge, however, is up in the air. To what extent is effective altruism a body of knowledge or a way of thinking and acting. The current estimate is roughly 50:50)
- Filling up the category: Including the most important books in their categories until either a quality threshold or maximum amount of books per category, as determined by category importance, is reached
Contribute Your Perspective [Comment/Survey]
Your three options are commenting on this post, answering the survey, and, less importantly, voting on the Goodreads list.
Should you find commenting tedious or not want to share your opinion for others to see, here is a survey that guides you through the questions, books, and categories. In the survey, most answers are not required, accordingly, you can quickly skim through the survey to find sections that are relevant to the perspectives, knowledge, and feedback you want to share. Otherwise, please comment directly:
- Speak up about overview pages that are missing in the list of resource and book lists. Were there any meta lists of books from the community or related organizations forgotten?
- Are there other existing visualization projects in EA and adjacent communities?
- “To what extent is effective altruism a body of knowledge or a way of thinking and acting”? How large should the methods, principles, and the underlying philosophy section be represented relative to knowledge and practice relevant to specific causes?
- Which books would you personally remove or add to the list in general? This could be judged by how important the books were to you personally, in forming motivation and mindset, or in learning and insights gained. It can be judged by how important the books were for EA in general according to your knowledge, how important you think they will be for the future of EA, or how important you think they are in creating common ground in the community.
- Which books give the best cases for specific causes and which contain the most relevant knowledge about the causes?
- In a specific category, which books would you add or remove? Which categories would you add or remove?
You can also vote on the Goodreads Effective Altruism List so your personal perspective gets integrated there.
- Basic Principles of Thinking and Acting: philosophy of science, epistemology, rationality, ethics
- Scientific Methods: Statistics
- Practical Knowledge: Career Choice, Entrepreneurship, Non-Profit World, Community Building, Activism, Advocacy & Outreach, Evidence-Based and Cost-Effective Giving, Management & Operations, Earning To Give, Soft Skills
- General Knowledge: Strategy, Economics, Geopolitics, History, Classics, Complexity Science, Cognitive Science, Failure Modes of World Improvement Attempts, Biographies of World Changers…
- Cause Areas: Longtermism, Catastrophic Risks, Global Priorities Research, Global Poverty & Development, Global Health, AI Safety, Animal Ethics, Mental Health & Happiness, Scientific Process, Promoting positive values & Movement Building, Biosecurity & Catastrophic Biological Risks, Peace-Building/Mitigating Conflicts, Nuclear security, Improving institutional decision-making, Governance…
Current Book List Selection by Categories
Unnumbered means not on the current poster
- Doing Good Better (William MacAskill)
- 80.000 Hours
- The Life You Can Save
- The Precipice
- The Most Good You Can Do
- EA Handbook 1-3
- What We Owe The Future
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
- Poor Economics
- Reasons and Persons
- On What Matters (Derek Parfit)
- Practical Ethics
- Famine, Affluence, and Morality
- Good & Real
- On Liberty & Utilitarianism
- The Hedonic Imperative (Pearce)
- Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
- Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications
- The Moral Landscape (Sam Harris)
- Against Empathy
- The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress
- Ethics in the Real World
- Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Power
- Moral Uncertainty
I would love to include Essays on Reducing Suffering by Brian Tomasik, but they don't fulfill the book standard.
Rationality, Epistemology, Science, Scientific Methods & Measurement
- Rationality: From AI to Zombies
- Thinking, Fast & Slow
- Heuristics and Biases
- On Bullshit
- Nature of Rationality
- Rationality (Pinker)
- The Scout Mindset
- Predictably Irrational
- Algorithms to Live By
- Adaptive Thinking
- The Rationality Quotient
- Thinking in Bets
- The Undoing Project
- Sources of Power (Gary Klein)
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
- Exact Thinking in Demented Times
- Logicomix (Bertrand Russell)
- Fooled by Randomness
- Slate Star Codex (Abridged)
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (left out by mistake!)
Entrepreneurship & Strategy
- The Personal MBA
- How to Launch a High-Impact Nonprofit
- Startup Playbook
- Good Strategy, Bad Strategy
Introduction to Microeconomics
- The Age of Sustainable Development
- Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving (Friedman)
- The End of Poverty
- How much have global problems cost the world
Global Problems, Smart Solutions: Costs and Benefits
Catastrophic & Existential Risks
- The Black Swan
- Averting Catastrophe (Sunstein)
- Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks
- Worst-Case Scenarios (Sunstein)
- Global Catastrophic Risks
- Engines of Creation
Governance & Systems
- The Systems Bible
- Anarchy, State, and Utopia
- Inadequate Equilibria
- Governing the Commons
- How Change Happens
- Seeing Like a State
- Thinking in Systems
- Skin in the Game
Introduction to Theory of Complex Systems (Thurner)
Markets, Networks, Crowds
- Human Compatible
- Our Final Invention
- The Singularity is Near
- Life 3.0
- The Alignment Problem
Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach
Smarter than us
Animal Welfare & Rights
- Animal Liberation
- The End of Animal Farming
- Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows
- How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach
Advocacy & Community Building & Soft Skills
- Change of Heart
- The Art of Gathering
- Non-Violent Communication
Well-Being & Mental Health
- The Origins of Happiness
- Climate Shock
- Our Final Hour
- The Uninhabitable Earth
- Ending Aging
- Human Enhancement
- The Doomsday Machine
- Command and Control (Schlosser)
- A Lab of One’s Own
- Principles for a Changing World Order
- Why Nations Fail
- Guns, Germs, and Steel
Learning from Failure
- Gulag Archipelago
- Confessions of an Economic Hitman
- The Righteous Mind