Jaan Tallinn on carrots and social status

Jaan Tallinn (of Kazaa/Skype fame) gave a ‘big picture’ talk at SS2011 on existential risks and how society may (or may not) meet our coming challenges head-on. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but one thought in particular stood out: he talks about how social status is a powerful a carrot for doing good things, but also how the way social status is doled out fails in incentivizing people to do really great things. Right or wrong, it’s hard to think of a more structurally important topic. Here’s me paraphrasing his argument:

Many (if not most) things that are good for society happen because society grants social status to those who do them. Once the bare necessities are accounted for, this respect granted by society is the biggest carrot around– being high-status is one of the best feelings in the world, but moreover it’s convertible to so many different things, like money, preferential treatment, sex, etc.

Society benefits enormously from this. But there are at least three systemic biases in how society doles out status for achieving things good things:

1. There’s a natural bias toward the short-term. People literally get addicted to the social status cycle… just like a drug. It’s chemical. They go for short-term projects for a more steady ‘fix’.

2. Social status is scale insensitive. Minor things (like founding an animal shelter) can give almost as much social status as curing cancer, or Elon Musk’s attempt to get our species off this planet. It’s on a log-type scale, like the Richter Scale– if you do something 10x cooler, you only get twice as much status. This discourages people from aiming high and risky.

3. There’s a strong bias toward the easy to understand. Since social status depends on the perception of other people, achievements need to be able to be widely understood to ‘cash in’ on status. E.g., the Gates Foundation tries to do good things, but only within the context of stuff that everybody can understand. And so it ends up not doing REALLY GREAT things.

Of course, Tallinn is implicitly arguing that he (and his immediate audience, the Singularity community) should be granted more social status. He’s not a completely uninterested party here.

There’s also lots of interesting ground outside of Tallinn’s scope of ‘the flaws in society’s algorithm for granting status based on achievements’. E.g.,

– Different reasons society grants status (for achieving great things; for looking pretty; for successfully signaling you’re a member of the ‘in’ group, etc);

– The distinction of prototypically-masculine “respect is earned” vs prototypically-feminine “everybody deserves respect” cultures and their tradeoffs;

– Evopsych-derived theories on the psychosocial dynamics of respect and how to “game” them. And perhaps most pressingly:

– If and how we can fix some of these ‘bugs’ in how society grants respect.

Still, I think he’s got some good points.