Over a decade ago, Robin Hanson wrote about the dream time,2 and I feel that Scott Alexander’s “Studies on Slack” has led me to understand the origin of the phenomenon much better.1 The dream time, then, is a period of unusually abundant slack.

There have been studies on how software teams use Slack. Scott Alexander’s article “Studies on Slack” is not about that. Rather it describes the world as a garlic-like nesting of abstraction layers on which there are different degrees of competition vs. cooperation between actors; how they emerged (in some cases); and what their benefit is.

The idea, put simply, at least in my mind, is that in a fierce competition innovations need to prove beneficial immediately in logical time or the innovator will be outcompeted. But limiting innovations to only those that either consist of only one step or whose every step is individually beneficial is, well, limiting. The result are innovators stuck in local optima unable to reach more global optima.

Enter slack. Somehow you create a higher-order mechanism that alleviates the competition a bit. The result is that now innovators have the slack to try a lot of multi-step innovations despite any neutral or detrimental intermediate steps. The mechanisms are different ones in different areas. Scott describes mechanisms from human biology, society, ecology, business management, fictional history, etc. Hence the garlic-like nesting: It seems to me that these systems are nested within each other, and while Scott only ever describes two levels at a time, it’s clear enough that higher levels such as business management depend on lower levels such as those that enable human bodies to function. This essay made a lot of things clearer to me that I had half intuited but never quite understood. In particular it made me update downward a bit on how much I expect AGI to outperform humans. One of mine reasons for thinking that human intelligence is vastly inferior to a theoretical optimum is that I thought evolution could almost only ever improve one step at a time – that it would take an extremely long time for a multi-step mutation with detrimental intermediate steps to happen through sheer luck. Since slack seems to be built into biological evolution to some extent, maybe it is not as inferior as I thought to “intelligent design” like we’re attempting it now.

It would also be interesting to think about how slack affects zero-sum board games – simulations of fierce competition. In the only board game I know, Othello, you can thwart any plans the opponent might have with your next move in, like, 90+% of cases. Hence, I made a (small but noticeable) leap forward in my performance when I switched from analyzing my position through the lens of “What is a nice move I can play?” to “What is a nice move my opponent could now play if it were their turn and how can I prevent it?” A lot of perfect moves, especially early in the game, switch from looking surprising and grotesk to looking good once I viewed them through that lens. So it seems that in Othello there is rarely any Slack. (I’m not saying that you don’t plan multi-step strategies in Othello, but it’s rare that you can plan them such that actually get to carry them out. Robust strategies play a much greater role in my experience. Then again this may be different at higher levels of gameplay than mine.)

Perhaps that’s related to why I’ve seen not particularly smart people yet turning out to be shockingly efficient social manipulators, and why these people are usually found in low-slack fields. If your situation is so competitive that your opponent can never plan more than one step ahead anyway, you only need to do the equivalent of thinking “What is a nice move my opponent could now play if it were their turn and how can I prevent it?” to beat, like, 80% of them. No need for baroque and brittle stratagems like in Skyfall. I wonder if Go is different? The board is so big that I’d expect there to be room to do whatever for a few moves from time to time? Very vague surface-level heuristic idea! I have no idea of Go strategy.

I’m a bit surprised that Scott didn’t draw parallels to his interest in cost disease, though. Not that I see any clear once, but there got to be some that are worth at least checking and debunking – innovation slowing so that you need more slack to innovate at the same rate, or increasing wealth creating more slack thereby decreasing competition that would’ve otherwise kept prices down, etc.

The article was very elucidating, but I’m not quite able to now look at a system and tell whether it needs more or less slack or how to establish a mechanism that could produce that slack. That would be important since I have a number of EA friends who could use some more slack to figure out psychological issues or skill up on some areas. The EA Funds aim to help here, but I feel like we need more of that.


  1. Disclaimer: I don’t generally endorse the works of the author. Alexander originated a wealth of helpful ideas, so that I can’t help but cite him lest it seem that I plagiarize them. Unfortunately, (1) the community around his blog contains some insalubrious factions, and (2) until roughly 2016, he himself still published articles that presented issues in a skewed fashion reminiscent of the very dynamics he warns of in Toxoplasma of Rage. Occasional remarks make me think that he hasn’t so much updated away from his previous opinions than that he merely doesn’t address them on the blog. I’m adding these disclaimers to avoid the impression that I accept such intellectual wantonness or that it is accepted in my circles. 

  2. Disclaimer: I don’t generally endorse the works of the author. Hanson originated many useful ideas, so that I can’t help but cite him frequently lest it seem that I plagiarize them. Unfortunately, he seems to be attracted to controversial ideas for controversiality’s sake. But controversial ideas are unusually often insensitive, inaccurate, misleading, or all of these. They need to be treated with special care to make them as uncontroversial as possible. I’m adding these disclaimers to avoid the impression that I accept such intellectual wantonness or that it is accepted in my circles. 


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