Trade Engagement?

First, let me invite readers, especially longtime/frequent readers, to suggest topics for me to blog on. I try to pick topics that are important, neglected, and where I can find something original and insightful to say. But I also like to please readers, and maybe I’m forgetting/missing topics that you could point out.

Second, many of my intellectual projects remain limited by a lack of engagement. I can write books, papers, and blog posts, but to have larger intellectual impact I need people to engage my ideas. Not to agree or disagree with them, but to dive into and critique the details of my arguments, and then publicly describe their findings. (Yes, journal referees engage submissions to some extent, but it isn’t remotely enough.)

This is more useful to me when such engagers have more relevant ability, popularity, and/or status. Since I also have modest ability, popularity, and status, at least in some areas, this suggests the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. I engage your neglected ideas and you engage mine. Of course there are many details to work out to arrange such trade.

First, there’s timing. I don’t want to put in lots of work engaging your ideas based on a promise that you’ll later engage mine, and then have you renege. So we may need to start small, back and forth. Or you can go first.

Second, there’s the issue of relative price. If we have differing levels of ability, popularity, and status, then we should agree to differing relative efforts to reflect those differences. If you are more able than I, maybe I should engage several ideas of yours in trade for your only engaging one of mine.

Third, we may disagree about our relevant differences. While it may be easy to quickly demonstrate one’s popularity, status, and overall intelligence, it can be harder to demonstrate one’s other abilities relevant to a particular topic. Yes if I read a bunch of your papers I might be able to see that your ability is higher than your status would suggest, but I might not have time for that.

Fourth, we may each fear adverse selection. Why should I be so stupid as to join a club that would stoop so low as to consider me as a member? The fact that you are seeking to trade for engagement, and willing to consider me as a trading partner, makes me suspect that your ideas, ability, and status are worse than they appear.

Fifth, we might prefer to disguise our engagement trade. When engagement is often a side effect of other processes, then it might look bad to go out of your way to trade engagements. (Trading engagement for money or sex probably looks even worse.) So people may prefer to hide their engagement trades within other process that give plausible deniability about such trades. I just happened to invite you to talk at my seminar series after you invited me to talk at yours; move along, no trade to see here.

These are substantial obstacles, and may together explain the lack of observed engagement trades. Even so, I suspect people haven’t tried very hard to overcome such obstacles, and in the spirit of innovation I’m willing to explore such possibilities, at least a bit. My neglected ideas include em futures, hidden motives, decision markets, irrational disagreement, mangled worlds, and more.

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  • Tom W. Bell

    A stategy to consider in furtherance of your worthy goal: search, publicize, and “repay” (as your model might have it) cites to your work.

    I.e., again in your preferred phrasing, “To demonstrate my commitment to this proposed exchange, I hereby repay my debts to those who have discussed my work by publicly dicussing theirs.”

    • Yes repay engagement, but citation is usually a pretty minimal engagement.

      • Could you perhaps link to a piece (preferably written by you or about your work) demonstrating a high level of engagement with another intellectual?

      • I’d probably write more comments here on OB (and put more effort in to them) if I knew you were going to read and respond.

        You might be surprised by how little effort it would take to increase engagement. For example, you could make a point of upvoting every comment on a post of yours that you feel adds to the discussion. As it is, leaving comments on this blog feels like a shot in the dark. Obviously I think my own comments are great, but I don’t trust my own opinion, so I don’t have a good sense of whether I’m adding value.

      • Joe

        Among ingroup bloggers, I’ve noticed Scott Sumner is particularly strong on engagement, replying to almost all comments made on his posts, even the dumb ones.

  • Robert Koslover

    Sounds to me like you are talking about a market in idea-reviewing. Why barter (trade engagements in ideas) when you can buy (e.g., pay a consulting analyst, buy a book etc.) or sell (e.g., offer your hourly services as an analyst, promote sales of your own book, etc.) with the prices set by whatever the free market will bear? It seems to me that this would seem to address at least most of your points. After all, individual trade is the most ancient form of economics; buying/selling using a universal “medium of exchange” (gold or silver coins, perhaps?) is “modern” economics. (Admittedly, trade can make it easier to avoid taxes, but you didn’t mention that.) But hey, wait a minute… you understand economics far, far better than I do. So just what’s the deal here? Was your blog post intended to be some kind of economics test? Oops, sorry if I gave that away! Regardless, I vote for “free market” in intellectual services as the solution of choice to your various concerns above. Note: You may have and use all the above comments from me for free, by the way. However, if you require substantial additional services, my employer will be happy to provide you with a quote for my intellectual time at a suitably-burdened (and arguably exorbitant) hourly rate. Purchase orders are generally welcomed, if you have good credit. 🙂 Happy New Year!

    • I wasn’t proposing to regulate engagement, so all the trades I consider here are “free market” trades. Even so, there’s lots more one can do to encourage trade than to just make sure it isn’t over regulated. My post is about those further things.

      • Robert Koslover

        ? Um, I wasn’t talking about regulating such a market. Rather, I was talking about how *buying & selling* such intellectual services, instead of *trading* such intellectual services, would very nicely address the multiple issues that you posed.

      • Trading engagement for cash suffers worse from both adverse selection and looking bad to observers.

      • Robert Koslover

        Really? The Government employs (and pays) huge numbers of “experts,” variously as civil servants and contractors, who are specifically tasked with reviewing and analyzing the ideas, proposals, and claims of other people, across a huge number of subject areas. Does doing that make the Government look bad? When corporations pay high-status experts to advise them, does that make those companies look bad? As I recall, you’re one of those paid high-status experts yourself. What am I missing here?

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Those are engineers and technicians, not scientists. Hanson is a scientist.

        A scientist discovers new truths.

        An engineer devises ways to use those truths for practical purposes.

        A technician implements the practical purposes.

      • Robert Koslover

        Not so. Many thousands (at least!) of the aforementioned employed and/or contracted experts are genuine scientists. And some of them have quite impressive credentials.

  • sflicht

    Here are some topic ideas where I think you might be able to provide an interesting perspective:

    * More historical posts about futurism — and especially economic futurism — done by people in the past, especially the distant past. I’m curious if there are examples of intellectual precursors to the type of approach you took in Age of Em.

    * Economics of warfare in the medium term future.

    * Attention. Actually a lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, from various angles, especially recently. But not much of the work strikes me as very good, and I think there are interesting aspects to this beyond the economics of the advertising and media industries. Propaganda is one angle, for example; information sifting and espionage is another. More generally, people have always encountered the twin problems of figuring out what to pay attention to and trying to get people to pay attention to things. Existing institutions for doing so — in both business and government — don’t seem to be coping gracefully with technological changes that have upset various apple carts. Trying to understand emerging new patterns in this area seems like an important component in building accurate models for the next few decades.

  • What do you think of undergraduate economic education? How should it be improved? How much of the value that undergrad econ majors receive comes from signaling positive qualities and how much from learning useful stuff?

  • It’s a pretty cool idea! You scratch my intellectual itch and I’ll scratch yours! I always love to encounter some new form of market imperialism. As in… markets being applied to things generally outside the typical scope of markets. As the MR guys might say… markets in everything.

    It wouldn’t be a fair trade though for us to tackle each other’s ideas because you have a lot more twitter followers than I have. Plus, you haven’t seemed that interested in my previous efforts to tackle your ideas. Then again, my efforts generally involved single sittings.

    Of course I can’t help but be curious why you’ve never engaged my favorite idea of pragmatarian markets. As in… NY Times subscribers choosing which articles they spend their fees on. Netflix subscribers choosing which movies/shows they spend their fees on. And, most importantly, taxpayers choosing which public goods they spend their taxes on.

    You sure seem interested in markets… so it’s very curious that you don’t seem at all interested in the idea of pragmatarian markets.

    If you wrote a blog entry about pragmatarian markets… then I’d buy your book, read it and review it on my blog. Perhaps it isn’t the best deal for you. I haven’t bought your book so far because nothing I’ve read about it inclines me to do so. The idea of making copies entirely neglects the whole point of sexual reproduction. Progress is a function of difference.

    I think deep down you kinda must appreciate this idea because here you are looking for different people to engage your ideas.

    Have you considered sharing your ideas on Medium? The format is pretty neat. If we were on Medium right now… this reply that I’m writing would also be its own entry. It sounds pretty basic and at first I didn’t appreciate it… but now I kinda like it. For example… check out my discussion with Koen Smets.

    Quite often I think favorably about the Jesus model. He could have only debated and discussed his ideas with the subject matter experts… instead he went out and shared his ideas with the common people. Voila! Crucifixion! Well… here we are still talking about his ideas 2000 years later. Whether or not he was a real person is a “minor” detail.

  • SoCloseYetSoFar

    I’m afraid that I have nothing to really over in terms of resources outside of time i have spent pursing potentially sub orthogonal ends of yours (em’s/brain scanning) in my own personal time and for the red queen’s races of academic labs *cough grant hamster wheel* cough.

    What I would like to see more of is practical neural interfaces, first starting with intracranial (presently cheap [sub $2k per head set if you include proprietary blobs(hardware/software)]) but moving towards intracranial systems that use bio-mechanical machinery (on the micro/nano scale) to interface with the neuronal systems inside of beings/animals that contain such.

    I fear that I must be relegated to getting emails year after year for invites to the latest hype in over priced and under performing headphones passing as bci interfaces.

  • Paul Christiano
  • Sixth, we might disdain engagement trade. Engagement is a signal for the impressiveness or interestingness of ideas, and trading for engagement partakes of intellectual petty fraud.

    • That seems an elaborate on of why it “might look bad to go out of your way to trade engagements.”

  • Jim Menegay

    It occurs to me that ‘trade’ is the wrong metaphor here. The iterated transaction of ‘engagement’ does not normally take place under understood and negotiated ‘terms of trade’, but rather under a tâtonnement process in a kind of iterated prisoner’s dilemma.

    In fact, it is unclear that engaging is an altruistic action, even in the short term. Most people engage with other people’s ideas because they enjoy engaging with ideas. And even if they are doing so primarily to promote their own reputation, they frequently expect to ‘cash out’ that reputation gain by way of receipt of return engagement from third parties.

  • Joe

    I still think there’s scope for you to get more engagement via the usual route of convincing people that your ideas are plausible enough to be worth exploring! 🙂

    It’s very interesting that your comments on Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence book included the following point:

    Bostrom’s book has much thoughtful analysis of AI foom consequences and policy responses. But aside from mentioning a few factors that might increase or decrease foom chances, Bostrom simply doesn’t given an argument that we should expect foom. Instead, Bostrom just assumes that the reader thinks foom likely enough to be worth his detailed analysis.

    Seems to me that this is the main obstacle to further engagement with your ems scenario. Your arguments rest on particular claims regarding the nature of intelligence and its role in human capability that you largely take for granted. For people who don’t agree with those claims, the book is largely irrelevant. There are obviously great opportunities in exploring what-if scenarios, but people who don’t think the ‘if’ part is remotely likely just aren’t going to care. In fact I think this is more of an issue for you than Bostrom, as the intelligence explosion idea is quite intuitive – whether or not it’s correct.

  • Wei Dai

    Robin, this reminds me that there’s a good argument against mangled worlds that you never responded to.

    My experience with engaging your ideas is that I’ve sometimes spent hours thinking about some critique and trying to express it as clearly as I can, only to have you totally ignore it. Here is another example I was able to find. I’ve also seen you give one-liner responses to other people’s detailed comments, which surely discourages engagement in a similar way.

    Maybe you value engagement more in the form of books and academic papers instead of back-and-forth discussions in the comments section? Even if you do, I think the latter is a good way to build up enough interest in your ideas for people to engage you more formally.

  • Gunnar Zarncke

    Sounds sensible economically. But does it send the right signal? Even if we, your readers, think it is sensible, do we feel compelled to a mere deal? Don’t we aspire to more idealistic goals of advancing economics? I wonder what you think the transaction on that level might be?

    See also e.g. the Economics of Pricelessness

  • colorado

    Can you write your thoughts on when one should apologize for one’s mistakes? Is apologizing just signaling or does it serve any purpose? Who should apologize more—high status person or low status one? Do Japanese people apologize too much? Do Americans apologize too little?

  • Lee Wang

    I’d like to know if your thoughts on empire time have evolved.

  • Gerard de Valence

    I’d like to take up your invitation. As an offer I have this idea:

    I am really wondering whether prediction markets for outcomes of major construction projects might be interesting.

    To be fair, you should know The Age of Em featured in a more recent post:

    • A criticism made in Gerard de Valence’s blog and a few times here (not by me, incidentally):

      “Exactly what and why they [ems] are producing anything is not clear.”

      • oldoddjobs

        Hah, good point. I’m quite fuzzy on the “demand” side of the em economy myself. Haven’t read Robin’s book yet, maybe he goes into that?

  • sflicht

    Robin, here’s a request for a subject to blog about that I think you might like. A lot of futurism revolves around megastructures, and this seems to me intimately linked with Kardashev’s theories about measuring signatures of advanced civilizations in terms of their energy usage. In a discussion elsewhere, someone challenged this premise. My counterargument was that there may be a very deep sense in which thermodynamics makes this the right way to measure things. But I haven’t fleshed this argument out very much. I think this is a topic uniquely suited to your own background and expertise, so I’m curious what you think.