Some optimizations for conviviality (and a little more “why”)

2016.11.28

I’m pretty sure that I had intended to write this post in August. I got about half of it done then, but didn’t finish it. I could come up with many reasons why I didn’t finish posting it then, but can’t imagine any of them being particularly meaningful. The only thing I can really think of to say on that topic is obvious: I didn’t make this post in August; I am making it now. Also a point that may not be obvious now, but should be soon (and may serve as something of an excuse, though I intend it more as a caution): this post is long.

Returning to August, I mentioned that optimizing for conviviality is a thing that I was happy to notice myself doing, and then posted further to elaborate a bit on why it seems like a good thing for other people to try doing too.

I haven’t yet given any sort of indication as to what things in my life seem to be optimizations in this direction, but before I do that, I’d like to briefly to return to the question of why we should optimize for conviviality (and perhaps answer the question as to why I’ve resumed making these posts, instead of just abandoning them after a few months of inactivity).

Since the last time I posted, I came across one of a long thread of commentaries on artificial intelligence. The general pattern is that the first artificial intelligence that is smarter than humans will probably need to be equipped with something that it is programmed to do — a goal or sense of what is good — and that we need to be extremely careful with what this goal is. The general term of the property that it is safe for a hyperintelligent AI to have is “friendliness”. While this is meant in a technical sense (that sort of imposes a friend or foe dichotomy on potential AIs), I think that the similarities between this technical friendliness, and the condition of human relationships that we commonly describe as friendliness is strong enough to justify continuing with this point (and not just to justify used of the same word for both concepts).

With other goals, the prospects for humanity can be (and often are) described as being, at best, being driven to extinction through habitat loss, as we have done to so many other species, by a single-minded
machine (or collection of machines) basically hell-bent on maximizing the number of, say, paperclips in existence.

Having worked professionally on systems automating the achievement of a simple goal, such as my employer’s profit (or more typically, my employer’s client’s profit), based on statistical analysis of all the data that could be collected in pursuit of that goal, I am concerned about the current state of the world, and the AIs it is likely to create.

Roughly speaking, my experience with machine intelligences so far is that they tend to mimic the goals of the system in which they are created. An AI created by a capitalist organization is likely to try and make as much wealth or profit as it possibly can. (It’s not unreasonable to consider capitalism itself to be a non-autonomous, not-really-hyperintelligent AI running this exact optimization right now — it would certainly explain our environmental crisis.)

So if we’re to avoid the existential threat posed by a hyperintelligent AI optimized for something terrible — or even just thoughtless — by developing an AI which pursues friendliness instead, a useful strategy in this direction is to change our society to seek friendliness as a fundamental goal: in other words, to optimize for conviviality.

That’s a pretty terrifying threat to contemplate, but I have ogood news: the actual topic of this post is how to optimize for conviviality. From here on in, I’m going to be talking about concrete steps I’ve personally taken to steer my life in this direction. If we steer enough lives in this direction, then we will have steered society in this direction, and we will be doing something to hold off this terrible threat. On top of that, after reading about the things that I’ve found to be helpful, you can (and should) make comments describing the things that you’ve found to be helpful, so we all have even more ideas for steps we could take.

Continuing at not quite getting to the meat of this post, I have even better news: these are optimizations for conviviality — for structuring our social relations as much as possible on friendship. I’m not suggesting more bamboo shoots under our fingernails, or more crippling guilt; I’m suggesting more friendship. It’s probably something that you’re already doing, and this is more of an opportunity to think about how to do it more and to share those ideas.

So let’s get on with things; the list of things that I’m mentioning, is bound to be incomplete. That’s ok. We have lots of room for comments, and absolutely no need for the options covered to be exhaustive, just inspiring.

There is a bit of a catch: the first items on my list generally fit a pattern of choosing conviviality over ease. At the heart of it, if we’re optimizing for conviviality, then we’re not optimizing for ease, for wealth, for comfort, or for numerous other things. So in this case, I had a choice between doing something easy, and doing something with my friends (possibly friends I had yet to make), and I chose friends. Fortunately, I’m very pleased to report that I have never regretted this decision for a moment: when I’ve faced challenges, or even done familiar work alongside my friends, it has never felt hard so much as it’s felt like a deepening of the friendship.

The first of these examples is deciding to live on a sailboat. Compared to living in an apartment (which I was doing before), living on a sailboat is not easy. There are myriad challenges and perils that people who stay ashore wouldn’t even imagine. My boat has a mast, and in order to apply a cover to the boat and secure it against the elements in the winter, the mast needs to be removed in the fall, and reinstalled in the spring. This is a job that (on my boat) requires the use of a crane, and takes four people to do safely. So I ask my friends to help. These are usually (but not always) the same friends who I do most of my sailing with, so there’s usually not much of a risk of coming up short-handed. As far as the crane, that’s one of the facilities provided by my yacht club.

Speaking of which, for all the people who don’t live on their boats in the winter (and for me to take my boat out of the water for a week each spring to clean and repaint its bottom) the club has a remarkable system for launching and hauling boats, which I’ve heard described (within the club) as being “like the way the ancient Romans launched and hauled boats, but where they used draught animals, we have a diesel winch, and where they used slaves, we have members.” Briefly, the horizontal movement of boats in this system involves pushing (or sometimes pulling) them around on greased skids with plain old muscle power.

It takes towo weekends of 10-hour days each Spring to launch all the boats, and another two similar weekends in the Fall to haul them out, and we’re all expected to be there the entire time to help with pushing and pulling (how well various people live up to this expectation is a different story, but the work gets done, and no one really slacks off enough to generate ill will around the club).

What’s really interesting about the boat storage processes is how they basically define the character of the club. Of all of the club’s events, launch and haul-out, are hands-down the best attended of the bunch (it helps that they’re compulsory). Not only do we get the chance to strike up conversations with other members who we might never cross paths with otherwise, but there’s a built-in trust when we strike up those conversations: this other person is out here in the cold rain (it’s almost always cold and rainy when we launch and haul the boats — if the weather were nice, wouldn’t we
want our boats to still/already be in the water and ready to sail?), giving up their weekend and working hard to get this job done that we all benefit from; I already know they’re a good person.

Of course keeping my boat in the water all winter includes me in another slightly different community: there’s a little bit of collective effort (though mostly in pooling resources around weatherproofing supplies), but mostly there are shared hardships, and shared laundry and washroom facilities at which to talk about them. There’s something that feels fundamentally human and real about passing through the laundry room on the way back from taking a shower, seeing a neighbour, and striking up a conversation about the storm last week and what broke on each of our boats, and what we heard (or saw)
broke elsewhere around the marina.

In the moment, these hardships are uncomfortable, and maybe even a bit dangerous, but once they’re over, the cease to be hardships, and become stories to bond over. I would gladly trade (and continue to put myself in a position to trade) the occasional night of poor sleep in a storm, and the occasional moments retying my boat in my bathrobe and slippers to the end of an icy, bucking dock (while muttering to myself about how it was foolish of me not to put on a lifejacket first) for the opportunity to reminisce with my neighbours about what a terrible storm we had.

Now two aspects of the whole liveaboard thing tend to fit into some broader patterns that I find are also good optimizations for conviviality: joining (or holding) work parties, and sharing tools.

For the case of sharing tools, among other less formal arrangements with friends, I belong to a makerspace. This is basically a shared workshop with some pretty substantial shop tools and other equipment. I certainly don’t have room on the boat for an industrial sewing machine, or a big old CNC milling machine, and a lot of my shopmates don’t have room in their homes either (never mind any of us having the disposable cash to buy any of these things, or the spare time or maintenance budget to keep them running — or industrial zoning and 3-phase power for that matter).

Of course the makerspace isn’t a strictly economic arrangement. It’s not just a matter of paying dues and having access to the machinery. We have to trust each other not to wreck the machines, cause serious injuries, burn the building down, etc., and we need to maintain the space and machines, and perform some basic administration. Roughly speaking, to make the space work, we need not just to operate on economic terms, but to be a functioning community. And in participating in that community, I’ve been invited to join in a whole bunch of interesting projects, and met a bunch of really interesting people, several of whom I can proudly and confidently refer to as friends (in fact I met the monk at whose monastery I started writing this series, at my makerspace).

Incidentally, another friend I met at the makerspace (in fact one of the founders of the space) recently purchased a parcel of land with a house and a barn on it, and started hosting an assortment of work parties to make it into a viable community resource (e.g. renovating the barn so that its upper level could function as useful sleeping quarters for a large number of people in the Winter). Although he has the additional status that comes with founding that space (and the security that his
name on the deed to the property provides in making sure that he won’t be ousted by infighting like he was at a different space he founded), he’s made his intentions very clear that he set up the space as another effort in building community, and that it is a community space. So really, that’s an optimization for conviviality that he’s done more than me.

That said, I’ve also met friends at those work parties who I discovered to also be interested in hunting, invited them hunting with me, and we now have an incredible hunt camp between me and them and our other friends (some of whom were already hunting with me). As an added bonus, because so many of us camping together basically met each other at work parties, no one has the slightest doubt that
everyone in the camp is good to pull their weight, and we can just do our respective bits to make the camp go without any anxiety that we’re being exploited, even if we contribute way more than is necessary. As a result, we all contribute way more than is necessary, and just end up with an incredibly functional and relatively comfortable hunt camp as a result.

Chasing that to another related point, be generous with your friends. I’m not saying to be generous only with your friends (in fact generosity with strangers can be a great way to make new friends) but definitely be generous with your friends. If they’re short on money, give them money (or lend it to them, and then promptly forget that you did so; if they don’t repay you, then you forgot that you ever lent them money, and if they do, it’s like a whole new gift from them to you, and you
can pledge to yourself that you’ll do something else nice for them later).

There are some theories on early economics that suggest that the most fundamental and primitive economic unit is actually the sense of owing a favour to a friend or fellow community member, and that community cohesion is built and maintained by a tendency for these gifts to create a sense of gratitude in the recipient that is more valuable than the cost perceived by giver. Generosity is really a topic for a post of its own, so I’m going to leave it here.

Also in the realm of basic or primitive cohesion, stay in touch with your family. I don’t mean this to be an unpleasant thought to people who are estranged from (certain members of) their families (often for good reasons), though I recognize that this is sometimes the case. If you suspect that this applies to you, just skip over the next two paragraphs so you don’t have to feel any worse about your family than you already do.

Outside of those cases, and excepting spouses and in-laws, every relationship between two family members is basically as long as the younger of the two have been alive. I’ve known my sister for her entire life (which isn’t quite 3 years shorter than my own life), and my daughter for her entire life, and my parents have known me for my entire life.

There’s something about the permanence of those relationships that I suspect is somehow instructive on maintaining friendships and other community ties. Back in August, I went to a family reunion organized around descendants of great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side. Although it’s an annual event, I
hadn’t been in something like 14 years. In spite of my lengthy absence, my relationships with my cousins basically picked right back up as though I hadn’t been away for nearly a decade and a half (well apart from the fact that we had a bit of catching up to do at the beginning of our conversations). I can’t quite articulate a good description of it, but there’s a part of me that just senses that there’s a remarkable power in the ability of people to be able to relate to each other in this way. I also intend to dig into that at some point in the future.

My final optimization in this post is naturally one that’s somewhat ill-suited for a blog post: actually physically be around people. There’s been enough written on the degradation of civility on the internet when people can’t see the hurt or joy that their words cause in the faces of the people they’re directed to, enough written on the effectiveness of touch (whether handshakes, hands on shouders, hugs, or whatever else) as a form of bonding, or on moods and pheromones and the limbic system and hunches — generally speaking a lot of writing on so many subtle interactions that often escape conscious detection when we interact with people by being in the same space as them.

I don’t want to say that participating in community over the internet or by letters, or over the phone, is somehow false or wrong. In fact I’d propose that all of these means of long-distance, large-group, or otherwise slightly distant contact are an excellent way of sustaining friendships and other relationships between opportunities to spend time together in person (or while holding the intention to eventually meet in person). Not only that, but I intend to write a bit more on how there is some historical evidence that a significant part of the cultural input that went into the creation of the internet, specifically intended to develop it as a tool for conviviality, and that the ability it provides to make and sustain connection probably make it an essential piece of infrastructure for the emergence of a new convivial social order. That all said, there’s a peculiar reality to a relationship that involves periodically occupying the same physical space, and we need to preserve that.

That’s about it for what I have to say (for now) about what I’ve been up to in this area. Please comment with your own optimizations, or to ask me more about my own. Also if you think that something rings true here, please share it with your friends (or family) — let them know that you suspect the bonds of friendship you share with them maybe have the potential to save the world.

4 comments

mrdomino, on December 2, 2016

This is amazing. Thanks for writing it up! I’ve already applied this in terms of staying more in touch with my family than I otherwise would have.

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kiwano, on December 14th, 2016

Thank you for providing so many of the inspirational nudges in the direction to get it written in the first place. On the topic of family, I’m vaguely relieved that about half a month has passed without my getting any responses from relatives to the effect of “nice blog post; so why don’t you call more often?” (I really need to get on preempting those responses ;P )

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frigginGlorious, on December 14, 2016

I’ve had a feeling my whole adult life that how western society has evolved, consumerism, and capitalism are all detracting from what life should be. I came to the conclusion last Spring that I needed something in my life a lot like the yacht club, hunting shack, hackerspaces that you have described.

I have looked into cohousing and intentional communities since then. The only conviviality I’ve actually optimized for is musicianship. I have a solid small network of people I’ve formed bands with, and there is quite a bit of comradery that comes with this.

I’m glad you finally explained what the hell you meant by Optimizing for conviviality though 🙂. I think you’re on a righteous path, my friend!

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kiwano, on December 14th, 2016

Making music is an amazing optimization. Shortly before my daughter was born, a friend of mine used to have weekly jam sessions at his house, and I’d come by and either mess around on the keyboard, or more often do some sort of improvised percussion (I rather enjoyed playing spoons, since I remembered having so much difficulty getting a pair of spoons to do anything musical at all as a child).

It’s also a nice optimization, because in addition to forming communities of its own, it’s something you can bring into another community and use to strengthen that community, writing and playing songs for and about it.

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