(originally published here, in 2013)
The Bay Area is unusually dense with idea-driven subcultures that mix and cross-pollinate in fascinating ways, many of which are already enriching rationalist culture.
This map is my attempt at illustrating that landscape of subcultures, and at situating the rationalist community within it. I’ve limited myself to the last 50 years or so, and to subcultures defined by ideology (as opposed to, say, ethnicity). I’ve also depicted some of the major memes that have influenced, and been influenced by, those subcultures:
(Click to enlarge)
Note that although many of these memes are widely influential, I only drew an arrow connecting a meme to a group if the meme was one of the defining features of the group. (For example, yoga may be popular among many entrepreneurs, but that meme -> subculture relationship isn’t strong enough to make my map.).
Below, I expand on the map with a quick tour through the landscape of Bay Area memes and subcultures. Instead of trying to cover everything in detail, I’ve focused on nine aspects of that memespace that help put the rationalist community in context:
Some of the basic building blocks of rationality come from computer science, and the Bay Area is rich with the world’s top computer scientists, employed by companies like Intel, IBM, Google, and Microsoft, and universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley. The idea of thinking in terms of optimization problems – optimizing for these outcomes, under those constraints — has roots in computer science and math, and it’s so fundamental to the rationalist approach to problem-solving that it’s easy to forget how different it is from people’s normal way of thinking.
Another rationalist building block, Bayesian inference, is several centuries old, but had fallen out of favor until the computing methods and power of the 1970s made it actually usable. Widespread use of Bayesianism in the field of artificial intelligence (e.g. Bayes nets) also contributed to its resurgent popularity.
2. Startup culture
There’s a distinctive culture behind the successes of the Bay Area’s startups, and it’s one that I see benefiting rationalists as well. Business in general is good real-world rationality training: you test your theories, you update your models, or you fail. And startup culture in particular promotes a “try things fast” attitude that can be a perfect antidote to the “sit around planning and theorizing forever” failure mode we’re sometimes prone to. Startup culture’s “think big, be ambitious” meme is also something I could see impacting rationalist culture in the coming years. (For a look at this meme turned up to 11, you can check out the only-partially-tongue-in-cheek Yudkowsky ambition scale.)
3. Hacker culture
A lot of the credit for the culture of Silicon Valley’s startup scene goes to the first generation of computer programmers, whose “hacker” culture originated at MIT in the late 1950s, but shortly thereafter sprung up in a few other early-adopter schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley. In addition to being passionate about coding, hackers were unimpressed by “bogus” status signals, like age and higher education, and judged people only by the cleverness and usefulness of the things they could create. (One of the most admired among the original hackers was twelve-year-old Peter Deutsch.) It was, in other words, the perfect cultural soil for the seeds of a paradigm-busting startup culture.
The hacker ethic also included an itch to fix broken or inefficient systems, and an impatience with the bureaucracy that prevented them from doing so. “In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt,” Steven Levy wrote in Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution. That’s one reason I credit hacker culture for another Bay Area meme that I see in many entrepreneurs, rationalists, and others: building creative alternatives to establishment institutions like government, education, and health.
For examples, look at all the approaches to alternative education that have sprung up in the Bay – UnCollege, Coursera, Udacity, and General Assembly. Or look at Quantified Self, the community of people figuring out how to improve their health by tracking and analyzing their own biometrics. Or the Seasteaders, who believe the free market can produce better societies than the ones historical forces left us with. Or MetaMed, the company staked on the idea that we can improve significantly on mainstream medicine if we apply rationalist research tools to the medical literature.
4. Eastern spiritualities
Although the heyday of the counterculture was over by the 1980s, its memes still influence the Bay Area, and through it, rationalist culture. Yoga and meditation were introduced to the US via the hippies’ exploration of Eastern religions, but those practices have been mostly stripped of their original spiritual meanings by now, and are popular for their benefits to mental and physical well-being.
Meditation in particular has become common among rationalists, and has some interesting overlaps with rationality I hadn’t noticed before I moved out here. Meditation seems to train you to stop automatically identifying with all of your thoughts, so that, for example, when the thought “John’s a jerk” pops into your head, you don’t assume that John necessarily is a jerk. You take the thought as something your brain produced, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful — and this ability to take a step back from your thoughts and reflect on them is arguably one of the building blocks of rationality.
5. Human Potential movement
Another pillar of counterculture was the Human Potential movement, named after Aldous Huxley’s argument that the human brain is capable of much more insight, fulfillment, and varied experiences than we’ve been aware of thus far. In 1962 the Esalen Institute, a retreat built on hot springs south of San Francisco, started running classes designed to help people realize more of their “potential,” through activities like roleplaying, primal screams, and group therapy. The Landmark Forum, originally known as est, was another leader of the movement, and emphasized taking responsibility and questioning the narratives you construct around events in your life. And I’d count other popular practices like nonviolent communication, radical honesty, and internal family systems in this same tradition.
Rationality also focuses on personal development, of course, but there’s not much connection between the Human Potential movement’s approach and the rationalists’. As far as I can tell they developed independently of each other and have very different epistemologies. From my perspective, Human Potential practices span a spectrum from common sense techniques backed up by anecdotal evidence, to unsupported psychotherapy, to outright mysticism that makes claims that are clearly wrong or not even wrong.
Nevertheless, the basic goals of seeking fulfillment and becoming a better version of yourself are fine ones, and the fact that so many people today are interested in pursuing those goals is thanks in large part to the impact the Human Potential movement had on American society. And despite my qualms about their epistemology, I’d be willing to bet that there are at least a few practices the movement and its outgrowths discovered that really are useful, even if their practitioners don’t have correct models of why they’re useful. So I consider the Human Potential and related movements to be a source of hypotheses, if not conclusions.
6. Alternative lifestyles
Finally, the counterculture was also famous for its destigmatization and exploration of alternative lifestyles, which helped create San Francisco’s vibrant kink culture and LGBTQ community. Beyond their live-and-let-live attitude about alternative sexualities, people in the Bay generally put less stock in standard scripts for how a life “should” go. So being nomadic, or living on a boat, or setting up a co-parenting group, or not wanting children, or having an unusual job, or changing your gender, doesn’t raise eyebrows here the way it would in most parts of the country.
And having an expanded space of hypotheses about how to live is complementary with trying to improve your rationality, because a lot of rationality involves pushing past cached thoughts about what you believe, or what kind of person you are, and giving fair consideration to hypotheses that hadn’t even been in your choice set before. In other words: I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that most rationalists live alternative lifestyles. But I do think the conventional lifestyles led by rationalists are consciously chosen to a greater extent than are most people’s lifestyles.
7. Burning Man
One aspect of memespace I wasn’t able to depict on the map is how the cross-pollination between groups actually occurs. To some extent it’s caused by normal social interactions and the blogosphere, as you’d expect, but the Burning Man festival is another important driver of cross-pollination that might be less obvious to outsiders. In fact, I wanted to put “Burner culture” on my memespace map, but was flummoxed by the fact that it would have to be connected to essentially all other groups and memes.
Burning Man consists of 50,000 people, including people from all of the subcultures, coming together for one week in the Nevada desert to create a temporary city. And though the old-school hippies might distrust Silicon Valley’s wealthy elites, and the rationalists might look askance at the New Age aura-readers, the communal spirit of Burning Man does a pretty effective job of breaking down those barriers. It’s only a yearly event, but the sense of community lingers afterwards, and Burning Man social connections are reinforced throughout the year at events like Ephemerisle (Burning man + libertarianism) and the BIL conference (Burning man + social entrepreneurship).
8. Social pressure to give back
Bay Area society puts a high value on helping the world. Perhaps it’s an echo of the social justice movements in the 1960’s, or perhaps it comes from the hackers’ conviction that technology should be used for the public good. Whatever the origins of this social more, you can see it in the idealistic language entrepreneurs use to describe their startups, and in the recent growth of a segment of startup culture known as “social entrepreneurship” that focuses on the kinds of global problems traditionally addressed by charities.
And sure, it’s often the case that the “world-changing” rhetoric entrepreneurs use to describe their startups is just rhetoric. But the fact that they feel obliged to frame their business in altruistic terms is at least a symptom of the fact that the Bay Area expects you to try to make a positive contribution to the world. Which means that self-made millionaires in this region are more likely than elites elsewhere to put their wealth towards good causes.
That, in turn, forges social connections between the Bay Area’s entrepreneurs, investors and engineers, and the effective altruists, rationalists, transhumanists, and other groups they support. So this phenomenon is doubly fortunate for the rationalists: not just because Bay Area philanthropy helps us directly, but because those connections expose us to memes from different subcultures that can help round out our worldview.
9. Effective Altruists
The social pressure to give back is also fortunate because it makes the Bay a hospitable environment for the Effective Altruists, one of the newest communities to hit the Bay, and a close cousin to the rationalists. Arguably, the movement is still centered at Oxford, where the Center for Effective Altruism is based. But EA organizations Givewell and Leverage Research recently relocated to the Bay Area from New York, and Leverage hosted the first-ever global Effective Altruism Summit here this summer, which I think is enough to qualify this as a fledgling Bay Area subculture. I would also consider MIRI to be an older member of this group, specifically in the far future-focused subset of EA culture. [EDIT: This section is outdated, but the main point stands, in the sense that Effective Altruism has grown dramatically since 2013, and is now arguably centered in the Bay Area.]