Uri: Tonight I'm excited to be sitting down with the pseudonymous author of Applied Divinity Studies.
On [Field] Culture Writing
Uri: ADS, you’re a prolific blogger spanning a range of topics that feel quite coherent to me even though it’s hard for me to define precisely, and a lot of which I think could be called "tech culture.”
I’ve always found [something] culture to be an interesting category of thought and writing, and I’m wondering if you’d accept that designation, and if so what you think of it. What does it mean to be a [something] culture writer, rather than a [something] writer directly? Do you think all fields eventually develop this kind of category around them, or are some fields more amenable to that than others?
Applied Divinity Studies: In software it's usually pretty clear. Some of the writing is actually technical. I can't understand it, it's not really of interest to lay people. And then the other half is stuff like Alex Danco describing how Venture Capital functions socially, or Byrne Hobart writing about the conditions for business mafias, or the numerous blog posts about how to raise money for your startup. That last one is kind of interesting, because you might think it's only of interest to founders, but it has far reaching implications. If you're a policy maker in DC, you care, or ought to care, about what kinds of startups get funded, what kinds of technology can be built. If you're a student aspiring to be a founder one day, you might want to do some long term trajectory planning. If you're a product manager at Google, you still care about what companies are getting founded that might compete with you... etc
But in other domains it's less clear that the distinction exists at all. In Effective Altruism, "meta" is a top level priority. So if you're writing about the construction of EA organizations, are you an EA writer or an EA culture writer? That's probably true in a lot of fields that are more relationship driven too. There's no distinction between being a celebrity gossip journalist at gawker, and writing about "celebrity culture" as some distinct thing.
On the last point, I would guess that fields begin as the culture, and the field itself emerges later. Silicon Valley was born of this weird cultural moment, and that was important to think about long before we had anyone actually writing software.
A lot of these fields are just weird social clubs that eventually get formalized. Progress Studies is a great example of this actually. I wrote a while back that there is no Science of Progress really, but there is a subculture of Progress, and that's where things will start.
How To Get Noticed
Uri: I feel that about the social clubs. As someone reading from outside the club, I often feel like I'm listening in on the public outcomes of private group chats -- both appreciative that I get to see the thinking at all, and jealous that I'm not actually part of the conversations
Applied Divinity Studies: Haha, that's relatable. I spent years just reading and being a passive observer before I got to be part of the conversation. As I believe they used to say on 4chan: lurk moar
But that's also the great thing about blogging, and EA, and Progress Studies, and really this entire cultural moment that's enabled by the internet. Kids used to grow up wanting to be football players, or the US president or whatever, and your odds of getting there are vanishingly small. Best case you get to buy a ticket to the super bowl or something, and you're just sitting in the stands.
But look at Progress Studies, which is still a young field, but quickly growing in importance. Tyler Cowen's email is public. Patrick Collison's email is public. Anyone can just email these people, who in other fields would be like legendary long-dead founders, or untouchable gods
Instead they're just a few clicks away. And the response rate might not be 100%, but I think Tyler's is pretty high up there.
It's not just social either. I'm not saying "look, you can reach out and high-five the football players and make physical contact". I'm saying you can write a blog post, and have them actually read and be influenced by it. Or write a response to something Tyler said, and actually get his feedback, and engage in a genuine conversation. That's not to say no one gets left out. But it's still amazing to me every day that any of this is even possible.
EA is maybe even crazier. Anyone can write on the Forum, and your post starts out on the front page! Most days there are only one or two posts, so if you put any serious effort into writing something, the odds of it being seen and actually read are incredibly incredibly high
Compared again to something like publishing in an academic journal, or submitting to a literary magazine, or trying to get a novel published.
You could argue that I'm out of touch or something, and this only feels possible to me because I'm already somewhat well known, already in the inner circle or something. But that's actually getting the causation wrong. My blog is only prominent in the first place because I cold emailed a bunch of people and got my blog featured on their newsletter, or blog or Twitter feed.
Uri: Ok, let me ask you this: how do you recommend getting your work noticed? Is it really as easy as just emailing the right people with your work and saying "I think you might like this?” Or maybe that in itself is not easy, maybe that's actually really hard emotionally or psychologically for most people.
Applied Divinity Studies: Yeah, logistically it's easy. The step we're missing is what it takes to actually produce good writing in the first place. Or to be less normative, writing that those specific people want to read.
Some of this is talent, but I think that's overvalued. Really, it's social capital.
Anyone can post on EA forum, but if you haven't spent years reading it before, and you're just vaguely aware of the EA cause, mission, etc, and you write up some post that's just your spur of the moment thoughts on maximizing impact, it probably will not get noticed. And it's not a failure of writing talent, or of intelligence or whatever: it's that you're not aware of what topics are currently being discussed, where the community is at intellectually. Or you're at a very high risk of doing very redundant work and just trying to re-derive everything from scratch.
Hence my totally un-ironic endorsement of "lurk moar".
You could argue the downside is this is all just social mimicry, or it's just trying to know what's cool, which is detached from what's actually valuable, or you just end up with a bunch of sheep or something. But I don't think that's true. Having interesting and novel thoughts is pretty much orthogonal to knowing what's even worth discussing.
Marginal Revolution is actually a great example. I have serious disagreements with Tyler on a really wide variety of topics. But where I've accepted his values is on the level of what's even valuable to talk about. So a lot of my early blogging ended up being these kinds of like, counter-contrarian hot takes.
Back in December I wrote this somewhat harsh critique of a bunch of Progress Studies people, including Caleb Watney. And then something really cool happened, which is that he shared the post on his own Twitter feed, subscribed to my email list, and we've been talking ever since. So the approach I'm taking is contingent on there being a lot of good will to begin with. And some willingness to embrace criticism, embrace dissent, and so on.
But yeah, at this point I'm pretty confident I could delete my website, erase my email list, etc, and build up an audience again in a few months under a new name
Uri: The Marginal Revolution Extended Universe is incredible, I can't get over how many writers and thinkers I know seem to have got their start by a link from Tyler or Alex. I once met a guy who dropped out from a Harvard PhD and launched a startup entirely because Tyler linked to a post he wrote.
Applied Divinity Studies: Yeah, it's an insanely high leverage activity for Tyler to share a link to someone's blog. It costs him nothing, but for the other person it can be a trajectory-shifting event.
Uri: Something I think about is whether it's possible to get more "outsiders" to join the conversation. I actually do agree that someone with no previous connection to EA could plausibly start posting and be taken seriously.
But, importantly, outsiders don’t have a real reason to believe that in advance. And very few people are going to put in hours of work, and have the self-confidence to start posting before even knowing that it’s worthwhile.
Applied Divinity Studies: Well hopefully they'll find this interview haha
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Don't Cure Your Existential Crisis
Uri: Moving on – what would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis?
Applied Divinity Studies: I would object to the premise. Some quick backstory, since I get this question often: my blog is called Applied Divinity Studies directly as the result of a multi-year existential crisis. Maybe even an ongoing existential crisis. If you conjure up an image of a conventionally mentally healthy person, they're not like, spending a ton of time thinking about really knotty questions. You don't think about how to live the good life if you're already doing it.
There's some equivalent to the Shaw quote that "all progress depends on the unreasonable man". All serious philosophical and theological progress depends on the existentially tortured.
Which is not to romanticize mental health problems, it's to question that model of a mentally healthy person in the first place. And to say, maybe spending your days thinking about this, spending your time worried about the nature of reality, or the difficulty of holding true beliefs, or of how God can be omnipotent and good in a bad world. Maybe asking those questions is precisely what the good life entails.
Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said it's no sign of good health to be adapted to a sick society. I'm not saying that we should embrace unhappiness, just that I don't believe existential crises are at odds with a deeply fulfilling, good, and yes, even happy life.
Derek Parfit is another fascinating figure to consider here. I never knew him, but you read accounts, or interviews, or his own writing, And my impression at least is not that he was deeply unhappy, but he was deeply concerned. He needed to know that morality was real, but he wasn't naive about it, he spent his entire life trying to prove that the necessary belief was also the correct one.
As an obituary, one of his students wrote "I told him I was inclined towards anti-realism, the view that moral truths are in some sense dependent on the human mind. He was visibly distressed by this – he said it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture – and I had to recant in order to stop him from leaving." That's, you know, that's pretty serious table stakes. You're spending your days working, convinced that if you don't succeed, torture will be permissible. Not as a policy matter or anything, but morally permissible, which is not nothing.
Of course that's a bit weird, right? If it is morally permissible, why should the thought distress us? It seems like a win-win situation, or neutral at worst. So I don't quite endorse Parfit's specific view here, but I am saying that something like his mindset can be immensely valuable.
There's also an element of taking ideas seriously. For most people, even if you argue in the abstract that morality isn't real, it's not that disturbing. You're still going to act according to common sense, not according to your intellectual arguments. So that's an example where maybe, no matter our moral views, we should just not even consider that torture might actually, seriously, in real life, be permissible.
But intuition and common sense can fail as well. One of the big insights, or not even insights but breakthroughs, of the Effective Altruism movement was just to say "look, we do actually take these ideas literally and seriously. You literally should use your enormous wealth as an upper-middle class Western person on bednet distribution, and if you do not you are effectively failing to save many many lives". That view has been tamed a bit, and there's been sort of a pushback against relying too much on guilt, or on inaction as equivalent to causing harm, but the central insight is still really powerful.
And then the really cliche psychotherapist view here is that existential distress is only bad because you think it's bad. So it's not really causing you harm, but you're causing yourself harm by forcing yourself to live in tension, to live under immense cognitive dissonance all the time.
On The Vibes Of Cultures
Uri: Something I wonder about a lot recently is how much our membership in certain movements is determined by our underlying mood/vibe/attitude to life, and then finding a movement that suits that mood. Where of course we don't think we're doing that, we think we were convinced by the movement’s principles and beliefs, and therefore were compelled to join.
EA strikes me as attracting a lot of high-scrupulosity individuals, also with some amount of anxiety or neuroticism, in the Big 5 sense. Very pleasant, agreeable people who are very high in anxiety – not everyone, and I obviously don’t have a rigorous sample, but that’s my perception.
Whereas – to tie back into your earlier topic – tech in the startup sense strikes me as attracting certain kinds of optimists. I met a tech person recently and described The Browser to him, so I said some version of “we find interesting articles online and recommend them to people in a newsletter, that’s pretty much it.” And he looked at me very genuinely and said "wow, you're so modest" – I thought I'd just described our newsletter in a very normal way, but I think my vibe was just so contrary to his community's vibe that he was grasping around for ways to understand it. Anyway, I wonder if you agree with that, and if so what you think the mood/vibe of the tech culture sector would be.
Applied Divinity Studies: Yeah, there's an interesting point here in contrast to more purely social or artistic subcultures, where there's just sort of this mood, and it exists and attracts people who like it, whereas in EA, the scrupulosity is really integral to the project. And the anxiety, too. You have to feel that the world might actually end, and also be willing to shut up and multiply, and also be concerned, at least intellectually, about people in faraway countries with lives very different than yours, so there's a weird mix of moods, and without them the intellectual arguments don't really work.
In tech there's maybe an even stronger affect/organization symbiosis, where as a founder, or even an investor, you really only care about potential upside. So you're kind of willing these nearly impossible projects to succeed, and the false positives matter way more than the false negatives, so you should just be really optimistic all the time, and a bit too ambitious, a bit too credulous.
Peter Thiel once said of Sam Altman “Sam is not particularly religious, but he is culturally very Jewish—an optimist yet a survivalist, with a sense that things can always go deeply wrong, and that there’s no single place in the world where you’re deeply at home.”
So the startup vibe is then – you deeply believe that there might be a promised land, BUT it's not guaranteed, and you'll have to overcome serious obstacles to get there.
The other Peter Thiel line is that to get things done, you can't be too optimistic or too pessimistic, because then either way the future is determined and you can't influence it. But it's not just about straddling the line or having the right balance. It's about embracing some third mood that is not quite either of those. It's like optimism about potential, but pessimism about the rest of society. You're basically convincing yourself that if you don't solve this problem, no one else will either. The future will be glorious, but only if we work really hard to make it happen.
Or to put the two in more direct contrast, EA is characterized by a default belief in the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, whereas startups specifically require constantly violating it.
If Google is absorbing the entire space of possibly good ideas, there's no reason startups could possibly exist. It's even more direct in FinTech. Someone told me: if it were possible to turn money into good software, fintech would just be absurd because the banks already have all the money.
So Silicon Valley, culturally, just ends up being this fascinating place that embodies all kinds of contradictions. It's the 70s hippie counterculture, and all the anti-establishment ideology that comes with that, but it's also the hangover to that counterculture, and realizing that we can't just get high and party, we have to actually build things and change the world.
And it's the California optimism, and the sunny beaches and the promise of a Good Life, but you're not quite in LA right? San Francisco isn't that warm, North Beach isn't that nice, you can't really relax and drink cocktails all day.
California, for that matter, is both the epitome of frontier spirit, and its death. It's born from literal speculation, from gold miners trying to get rich, and it's American pioneers setting out for uncharted lands, but it's also the realization that there is an end. We're at the west coast, there's nowhere further to go from there. And so you get this kind of restless pent up energy.
And then guilt, Jesus, so much guilt. From the beginning we were displacing and killing and plaguing the Native American population, and now it's tech workers pricing Latino immigrants out of their homes, or living on land that was forcibly taken from Japanese Americans during internment and never returned, or homes rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, but essentially taken from the people who lived there previously, and just this overwhelming self-hatred.
Some people have become less apologetic lately, but for a while every VC firm had to have a blog post about how actually, venture capital is bad. And every multi-millionaire early employee had to write an op-ed about the evils they witnessed, and just this endless self-criticism, self-flagellation. A lot of the anti-tech sentiment is born from within the tech industry. A lot of these people, not like Lina Khan and Tim Wu, but a lot of the AI ethics people, the privacy people, the anti-Google people, were once tech people.
I'm not being normative about any of this by the way. One argument would be that it's all performative and there's no serious reform. Another view would be that it's the overwhelming dominance of social justice, or "woke-ism" as a cult. I'm not here to endorse any of that. I'm just saying this is what I've seen, from my limited perspective, talking to some people, reading blogs,
But even that is essential to the culture. Because the disruptors quickly become the incumbents. And so if you're not engaged in this kind of constant tug of war, embracing the paradox, embracing the tensions, you fall into stasis.
I mentioned the VC posts, and it's true, a lot of VCs are critical of the industry. But really what they're saying is "everyone else is broken, we're doing things differently." And that's a very different message. It's not "shut things down and go home", it's Chamath Palihapitiya leaving Facebook to set up his own firm, or Paul Graham denouncing VC firms to set up a very new kind of VC firm. And yeah, it's the Traitorous Eight leaving Shockley.
Uri: The Traitorous Eight! Sooner or later we'll have a movie of that.
So I’m thinking that our version of the Tyler Cowen "what is the [your name] production function?" question should be.... tell us, ADS, what is the ADS mood/vibe/affect?
Applied Divinity Studies: One of my first pieces was about the incentives for bloggers on Substack, and how they differ from incentives for regular bloggers. A key insight is that you benefit a lot from organic growth. I have a small email list, but probably most of the readership I get is when a piece is shared by someone with a larger following, or goes somewhat viral and gets shared a whole bunch.
The upshot is: good posts are really beneficial, but bad posts are not that bad, since they'll just get ignored. So you should just accept some risk, embrace some variance and try a wide variety of things. There is a limit: You can't be really horrendously wrong or untrustworthy. You can't demolish your reputation, or spam subscribers, or engage in really mean or petty or cruel behavior. So mostly I try to be generative, think of interesting ideas, and don't worry too much if they're the correct view. But as a supplement to that, I try really hard to avoid being very wrong.
There's a really important distinction there. It's okay to say something crazy, like I said earlier about how "California embodies the frontier spirit" or whatever. But I can’t just cite statistics that are false, or leave out crucial details. It at least has to be in good faith and not deceptive, and I have to do my homework, and verify claims, and often end up spending a lot of time getting feedback from whoever's work I'm engaging with. A while back I wrote a piece about Ashish Arora's research, and as a random internet blogger, there are some things I can say that he probably cannot. I can be a little more bold, a little more speculative. But before publication I still sent him my draft, and asked him to confirm that it wasn't totally outlandish, and I wasn't totally misinterpreting his work.
So the level of epistemic rigor is not super super high, but it's consistently defensible.
The other aspect of the ADS mood is perpetual wariness of society and socialization. Like a fairly low level, but persistent concern. So I'm always scared that Twitter has brainwashed everyone, or that we're all subject to mood affiliation, or that no one is really thinking independently and critically. Just a fear of hype and fear of the memetic ape-like thing.
So yeah, that's two things: embrace variance, beware socialization.
If I had to sum up the ADS mood, or my whole worldview in one phrase, it would be: “Be as weird as possible without destroying the world.”
There are so many benefits to this, and I still think it's really under-appreciated. Being weird is good for you, but also good for other people.
One version of this is just standard economic specialization. It's like, okay, there are benefits from trade, but only if you have some skill set other people don't have.
Then there's the sort of Marxist view, which is that labor is always being exploited, And the flip side of that is no, you're exploited if you're replaceable, but there are actually ways to get around that.
In a simplified model, wages are basically two factors: it's how much money do you make for the firm, and then how much of that do you capture? And those values are basically unrelated. So you could be a Google engineer optimizing ads, and making ten million dollars for the company, but unless that skill set is unique, you're not going to capture most of the value you create, you're just going to be valued at replacement cost.
And then there's specialization in consumption which is a whole other way to be weird. If you're the kind of person who, for whatever reason, enjoys very long commutes, then great! You can live out in the suburbs, save on rent, or get a bigger house, and get this opportunity that isn't accessible to people who hate commuting.
It's not clear that you can easily change your preferences to enjoy commuting, but there are lots of areas where we're a bit more fungible. An example of specialization in consumption that doesn't involve transformation is just shifting your schedule a bit.
So if you do everything 2 hours earlier than everyone else, you can get to the gym before it's crowded, commute to work before rush hour, eat dinner at 4pm when it's easy to get a seat at a desirable restaurant and so on, and that's a pretty minor change.
If you shift your schedule by 2 days, now you can avoid the weekend crowds, go to the bar on Tuesday night or whatever, get cheaper flights, etc.
If you shift your schedule by 2 months, you can celebrate Christmas in October, and fly home to see your family with way less stress.
But that last example really highlights that this is a coordination problem. You have to get everyone else on board too. Dinner at 4pm might sound great, until it wrecks your dating life. But that's precisely why the arbitrage opportunity exists. You just have to shift your entire life into a new, equally convenient equilibrium.
Okay, so that's kind of the egoist case, I promised an altruistic case too. Which is actually much shorter. It just requires this bit of insight that a globalized world benefits from variance. So as an individual person, if you go and experiment with some new thing, maybe you create a new style of music, or a new culinary dish, that innovation can be spread really really widely, the potential benefits are huge. Whereas the cost, if it doesn't work, is mostly limited to your own personal downside.
In that view, a willingness to be weird, or experimental or whatever, is really a tremendous social good. Assuming, of course, that there are mechanisms at play, in this case, capitalism and globalization, for ensuring that the right kinds of novelty spread while the wrong ones do not.
Again, that's a very high level argument, but there are some specific implications. One is that people, from an altruistic perspective, are probably way way too risk-averse. There's some theory and empirical data that says utility correlates with log(income) right? So you shouldn't make too much money, shouldn't be too greedy, there's no point in earning over 100k, you should just be highly risk averse and lead this safe comfortable life. But from a global perspective, the world is just this massively diversified asset class, and you're the asset! It doesn't care if one person's value goes to 0, it cares about the portfolio in aggregate.
And there's a nice EA tie-in as well, which is that if you care about counterfactual impact, impact that wouldn't have happened in your absence, you have to be pretty weird. In practice EA people have backed away from that view a bit, but it's still an important insight. If your job can be done by someone else, it's not clear that you're actually doing anything good for the world, aside from maybe being marginally better than the second best candidate.
The broad criticism about this whole view is that it calls to mind, like, really cringey teenager weirdness. Like, wearing weird clothes for no reason except to stand out, or using weird slang for no reason or whatever. Someone once told me the cognitive diversity among people with dyed hair is close to 0. So you signal being unique, but end up conforming.
I don't totally buy that though. The upshot here isn't that you should go out and get a weird haircut, it's that you should stop suppressing your natural weirdness.
Uri: As a counterargument, I think it was Bryan Caplan who argued that you only get so many weirdness "points" before people stop taking you seriously, so use them wisely.
Applied Divinity Studies: Haha, yeah, that's another view I totally disagree with! A lot of weirdness just doesn't work in isolation.
If you do the 2 day shift, for example, you can't just go on living the rest of your life normally, you kind of have to go all in on that.
Or there's like this digital nomad subculture right? If you're buying into that, you can't say "well, I'm going to live in a new country every week, and that costs my weirdness points, so I'll try to get a really conventional job and dress really conventionally." If you're doing this digital nomad thing, you also have to be weird in the kind of employment that you pursue, and you have to wear these weird like quick-dry low-weight clothes or whatever, it's a whole package. And then once you're doing that, you might as well have a weird schedule too and eat dinner at 3pm.
There's a similar concept in startups, I think I've heard them called "innovation tokens". The idea is you're taking a lot of risk on some axis, say technological risk, so you should do everything else conventionally. But again, I think that's totally wrong. If you were starting a longevity company in 2010, you should not have thought "well, this is weird, so as a compromise I'm going to hire really conventional people". You should go all in and think creatively about how to hire, how to compensate and so on. And then at that point, you might as well have a flexible dress code and a flexible remote work policy and so on.
Audre Lorde has this great book title, which I'm going to completely mangle and take out of context, but it's basically "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House."
Uri: I'm pretty sure you have that exactly right, actually.
Applied Divinity Studies: I don't think she would have endorsed many aspects of tech culture. But the point stands, which is that if you want to do weird things, you sometimes have to go about it in a weird way.
Again, some caveats here, namely that the entire cluster still has to make sense. No matter what your startup is working on, it's probably not helpful to, say, force all employees to work upside down hanging from their toes. (Though I have visited an office with an inversion table for employees). It's just that, provided they have intrinsic benefits, you should be more willing to accept weird things.
On How To Be Weird
Uri: Ok, I fear this is another of those questions that is just very hard to answer, but: do you have any recommendations for people who WANT to be more weird, or let out their existing weirdness, but are struggling to?
I truly think it goes against the grain of something very deep in (most of) us, whether evolved or socialised, that finds it very very hard to stand out in any way. Certainly I think personally I’m being way less weird than I could be, or rather, suppressing my natural weirdness so much and for so long that I start to forget it’s there.
Applied Divinity Studies: Yeah, this goes against not doing weird things for their own sake, but it can, at least the outset, be a good way to desensitize yourself from social pressure. Steve Jobs was a fruitarian, which is probably not actually a sensible diet. But if you are a fruitarian, people will tell you it’s a bad diet, and you’ll have to ignore them. So at least it’s good practice in the abstract.
The other really big thing is lockdown.
My blog is very much a product of those times, and being stuck indoors, and not having a lot of social interaction and so on. I don't think I could ever have started this blog pre-lockdown. Unfortunately, or fortunately from this very limited perspective, it's looking like there might be more lockdowns in the future, so if you missed your chance the first time around, it's not too late
You can self-impose a lockdown too, or move to a city where you don't know anyone. But there's a lot more FOMO and it's harder to commit to.
This is another case where there are some returns to the initial commitment. And where I think Balajis is pretty wrong about pseudonymity being this casual convenient thing. As a result of blogging pseudonymously, the vast majority of my friends basically have no idea what I'm up to day to day. And the vast majority of people I happen to meet at a dinner party or whatever just have no idea what I do with my life, and I can't tell them. And the result is, I just don't care at all what they think about me.
Which is a pretty profound shift, right? I used to go to parties, and tell people what my job was, maybe my employer, my job title and so on, what I've been working on, reading, and I would take it kind of personally if my life wasn't sufficiently interesting to engage their attention
It's a bit taboo to talk about, and a really dirty secret, but yeah, I used to care a lot what acquaintances thought of me, and probably made way too many life decisions on that basis.
If you're a college student, most people you meet, they're asking what your major is, or what classes you're taking, or what your summer internship is, and it does a tremendous amount to color their view of you. So we probably end up indexing way too hard on asking ourselves "for this life decision, how good will it sound when I introduce myself at a party?"
And now even if I want to, I just can't even ask myself that question. Because it's not going to come up, and I won't be able to talk about it.
That's not to say I'm totally free of social influence. I get emails, sometimes I read the things people write about my blog, and so on. But it's been a really major shift at least in terms of being able to choose whose opinions I care about.
Unless you're a hardcore buddhist monk or something, I think it's really hard to ever just be free and not care what people think. Social behavior is so deeply ingrained. I mean, sometimes we talk about being programmed by society or education or whatever, but I think it's even deeper. To engage in a bit of highly speculative evolutionary psychology, as a caveman, isolation would have meant death. You need a tribe.
Uri: I feel this all so much
Applied Divinity Studies: The path to freedom now is in getting to choose which people are in your tribe. And at least getting to choose whose approval you crave.
Uri: I was going to say "well this is all very well but what does the average person do to be a bit weirder, what can they do to move in that direction but without starting a whole pseudonymous blog and a second online life and withdrawing from their regular world." But I think that actually affirms several of your points, about weirdness bundling together and it not necessarily being possible to separate it out, so well done on being consistent and coherent.
Applied Divinity Studies: Haha thanks.
One really easy and practical option is just to spend more time with people who are demographically different than you. And at least have multiple perspectives instead of just the one.
Uri: Ahahah, easy in theory!
Applied Divinity Studies: Haha, yeah, especially under lockdown. But in normal times, you know, maybe it's hard to, like, become deeply embedded in local communities, but you can at least travel.
Actually, what's even easier is going on Reddit. I love discovering Reddit subcultures and just trying to get really deeply into the mindset. Memes, like actual internet memes, are a really really powerful way of imparting a totally new set of subcultural norms. So okay, maybe everyone you know in real life is upper-middle class, educated, western, etc. But now you can go on the, like, China propaganda subreddit. Or if everyone you know is a urban elite liberal, you can go and look at the gun owner subreddits, and it's just a completely different world. Or the mental health problem subreddits, or the hobby subreddits, or subreddits for political views, or the like really weird incomprehensible gen Z meme subreddits. Of course there's always this skew, which is that you're looking at people who are posting on Reddit, but it's still a huge world. And then if you're really trying to broaden your horizons you can try to google translate social sites in different languages, or try to download the latest banned conservative app or whatever.
I'm not as good at finding them, but there are lots of weird Twitter spheres too. A side benefit to all this is not just about weirdness, it's about learning to see ideas as just sort of, existing out in the world. Not just as things you either endorse or reject. One of the skills that's turned out to be really useful for blogging is just being able to map out a large space of different perspectives, or reasoning of the form "by some view X, by some other view Y". You're not necessarily saying it's all reasonable or true, but you're gaining a perspective that now lets you ask "what ideas in this space are missing" or "what ideas, would, if true, have an important implication?" And then you work backwards to evaluate the veracity of those ideas, instead of working forward from beliefs to conclusions. You ask what arguments could even matter in the first place. Or what answers would even be satisfying. I think David Chapman would call that meta-rationality… or at least one component of it.
What Is Your Favourite Piece Of Writing?
Uri: Ok, wonderful. Our traditional next question is "can you recommend an article/piece of writing that has really stuck with you?"
Applied Divinity Studies: Haha, speaking of socialization, I feel so much pressure to recommend something written by a friend.
I think about science fiction a lot. I've had this quote about the Three Body Problem on my about page since forever. There's this much less well known author, QNTM, who wrote Ra which I quoted a while back. He has this other book, There Is No Antimemetics Division, that just completely destroys you. I still remember my first time reading it, and just every chapter, having to put down the book and just sort of daze off into space and think about my life
I won't tell you what it's about.
Honestly the second half is worse, but the first half is criminally underrated. So that's 100 pages of reading, in this pretty compact paperback. Plus I think he's made it free online, so there's really no excuse.
Uri: Amazing. is QNTM a friend, or did you overcome that internal pressure?
Applied Divinity Studies: I intentionally chose to ignore it. Really, I replaced it with the fear that if I mentioned something by one friend, I would be leaving everyone else out. So then I thought I would choose my least well known friend, but then that's kind of an insult too.
Uri: Ahahahah, can't win.
How about some writing recommendations in your areas of expertise -- tech culture, EA, all the other things we’ve talked about?
Applied Divinity Studies: That's a good question. It's not clear that I have expertise at all! Some of the pieces I wrote initially were about mechanism design, but then it veered into a tech culture blog for a while, then I was talking about the organization of scientific organizations, and these days a lot of it is Effective Altruism related.
The best tech culture blogs are probably already well known, though I'll plug Delian Asparouhov who has some under-appreciated notes, and John Luttig who doesn't publish often, but hits hard when he does
Of course there are new and more promising avenues now, but my impression is that a lot of those conversations are still private.
On EA, there are lots of primers, but still nothing really good for going from basic to more "advanced" concepts. I actually think the field is being crippled by Research Debt, and would love to see more work here, but at the moment it still feels largely preliminary.
Best Online Purchase, Best Piece Of Music, Best Daily Habit
Uri: Ok, great. Room for future writers, definitely.
The last thing we have is quick-fire questions. Can you recommend... one online purchase, one piece of music, and one daily habit?
Applied Divinity Studies: I try to avoid writing about life hacking, but I do have pretty strong feelings about this stuff. Everyone should have an air monitor at home. PM2.5 is the main concern, but there's some indication that VOCs and even CO2 might be a problem too, though Scott Alexander has some evidence against Co2. That's for health, but also just short term cognition. If you read some of the papers Patrick Collision has listed on his website, the evidence is a bit weak, but the effect sizes are gigantic.
The other thing, which is not even necessarily a purchase, is just easy and constant access to good tasting water. I used to live in a place with bad tap water, and basically just got too lazy to filter it, so I was constantly dehydrated. They make these giant nalgenes that are like, the size of all water you should drink in a day. So that's easy because you just fill it up at the beginning of the day and then finish it by the end. But you can also just get a brita filter, or even a kettle. Or if you really really must, bottled or canned water, but that's a last resort. I actually think LaCroix kind of disincentivizes hydration because it's fizzy, so it's harder to drink, plus it feels like needless consumption and waste (which it is), so you don't drink as much.
By the way, this view is also taken directly from a weird subreddit culture. It's called r/hydrohomies
Uri: Ahahah this is amazing level of internal self-reference in this interview.
Applied Divinity Studies: For music, I wrote a while back about Kanye. He has a lot of great songs. Ghost Town is incredible, and though it's not his best album, JESUS IS KING is not nearly as bad as people say. There are also a bunch of really incredible live performances. If you search "kanye rant nike" on Youtube, and then just follow a bunch of the recommendations -- it was on the Yeezus tour he would do, part of the show, this incredible like 10 minute long rant about a new topic every night, just whatever was top of mind. But it's not spoken word, it's like half singing, autotuned, set to music. It's really incredible stuff, just exceptionally powerful. He's talking a lot of shit though, you have to be ready for that.
I kind of covered daily habit with the water thing. I started using a CBT-I app after reading the Scott Alexander post, that's Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia. It's worked shockingly well, I used to have a really crazy sleep cycle, now I'm awake at 7am every day. Alexey Guzey might argue that regular sleep is not as important as people claim, but I think there are some real downsides. I kept getting stuck in this cycle of staying up late, and just wasting time. Too tired to be productive, but not able to sleep either.
Of course there are benefits to insomnia too! Some of my most popular posts were written in the middle of the night. The recent post on billionaires that got a lot of attention was written entirely between 3 to 5am, hunched over my phone in the dark. And some of the wasted time is spent on weird subreddits I wouldn't otherwise visit, so maybe there's an unexpected benefit there too. It's just that once I started tracking this at all, I realized it wasn't a once-in-a-while thing, it was a really pervasive problem. Like I would stay up until 3am at least one night pretty much every week, and then the next several days my schedule would still be off.
I think that's a common misconception about life hacking, or lifestyle optimization or whatever you want to call it. At least for me, it's not about trying to get from 99% to 100% productivity. It's about trying not to get stuck at 0% productivity.
I had a long call with Alexey. And he asked me to tell him about my schedule, and as I described my weekly schedule, it became really apparent that on most days, I had literally 0 hours of productive time. So now I'm pretty regularly able to work 4 hours a day, which doesn't sound like much! That's way less than a 40 hour week, way less than these 100 hour weeks you hear about Elon Musk or whoever working. But 4 hours a day is pretty good, it's an infinite improvement over 0.
Uri: Ahahah definitely. Well, I one for one am infinitely grateful for the 4 hours of work you do do, or rather, the insightful and incisive writing you produce which I am assuming is coming out of those 4 productive hours each day, though who knows, maybe you are doing something else productive during that time instead and dashing off all your writing from 3-5am. On which note: where can people find you online, how can they follow your work?
Applied Divinity Studies: I’m at AppliedDivinityStudies.com, you can subscribe for email updates, and find my contact info.
Uri: Wonderful. ADS, it's been an absolute pleasure
Applied Divinity Studies: Thanks Uri. It's been good to try this weird interview format with you.
This interview was conducted over instant messenger and lightly edited.
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