Report — From the January 2015 issue

Come With Us If You Want to Live

Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley

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That night, there was a party. Alumni were invited. Networking was encouraged. Post-its proliferated; one, by the beer cooler, read slightly addictive. slightly mind-altering. Another, a few feet to the right, over a double stack of bound copies of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: very addictive. very mind-altering. I talked to one of my roommates, a Google scientist who worked on neural nets. The CFAR workshop was just a whim to him, a tourist weekend. “They’re the nicest people you’d ever meet,” he said, but then he qualified the compliment. “Look around. If they were effective, rational people, would they be here? Something a little weird, no?”

I walked outside for air. Michael Vassar, in a clinging red sweater, was talking to an actuary from Florida. They discussed timeless decision theory (approximately: intelligent agents should make decisions on the basis of the futures, or possible worlds, that they predict their decisions will create) and the simulation argument (essentially: we’re living in one), which Vassar traced to Schopenhauer. He recited lines from Kipling’s “If —” in no particular order and advised the actuary on how to change his life: Become a pro poker player with the $100k he had in the bank, then hit the Magic: The Gathering pro circuit; make more money; develop more rationality skills; launch the first Costco in Northern Europe.

I asked Vassar what was happening at MetaMed. He told me that he was raising money, and was in discussions with a big HMO. He wanted to show up Peter Thiel for not investing more than $500,000. “I’m basically hoping that I can run the largest convertible-debt offering in the history of finance, and I think it’s kind of reasonable,” he said. “I like Peter. I just would like him to notice that he made a mistake . . . I imagine a hundred million or a billion will cause him to notice . . . I’d like to have a pi-billion-dollar valuation.”

I wondered whether Vassar was drunk. He was about to drive one of his coworkers, a young woman named Alyssa, home, and he asked whether I would join them. I sat silently in the back of his musty BMW as they talked about potential investors and hires. Vassar almost ran a red light. After Alyssa got out, I rode shotgun, and we headed back to the hotel. It was getting late. I asked him about the rationalist community. Were they really going to save the world? From what?

“Imagine there is a set of skills,” he said. “There is a myth that they are possessed by the whole population, and there is a cynical myth that they’re possessed by 10 percent of the population. They’ve actually been wiped out in all but about one person in three thousand.” It is important, Vassar said, that his people, “the fragments of the world,” lead the way during “the fairly predictable, fairly total cultural transition that will predictably take place between 2020 and 2035 or so.” We pulled up outside the Rose Garden Inn. He continued: “You have these weird phenomena like Occupy where people are protesting with no goals, no theory of how the world is, around which they can structure a protest. Basically this incredibly, weirdly, thoroughly disempowered group of people will have to inherit the power of the world anyway, because sooner or later everyone older is going to be too old and too technologically obsolete and too bankrupt. The old institutions may largely break down or they may be handed over, but either way they can’t just freeze. These people are going to be in charge, and it would be helpful if they, as they come into their own, crystallize an identity that contains certain cultural strengths like argument and reason.”

I didn’t argue with him, except to press, gently, on his particular form of elitism. His rationalism seemed so limited to me, so incomplete. “It is unfortunate,” he said, “that we are in a situation where our cultural heritage is possessed only by people who are extremely unappealing to most of the population.” That hadn’t been what I’d meant. I had meant rationalism as itself a failure of the imagination.

“The current ecosystem is so totally fucked up,” Vassar said. “But if you have conversations here” — he gestured at the hotel — “people change their mind and learn and update and change their behaviors in response to the things they say and learn. That never happens anywhere else.”

In a hallway of the Rose Garden Inn, a former high-frequency trader started arguing with Vassar and Anna Salamon, CFAR’s executive director, about whether people optimize for hedons or utilons or neither, about mountain climbers and other high-end masochists, about whether world happiness is currently net positive or negative, increasing or decreasing. Vassar was eating and drinking everything within reach. My recording ends with someone saying, “I just heard ‘hedons’ and then was going to ask whether anyone wants to get high,” and Vassar replying, “Ah, that’s a good point.” Other voices: “When in California . . . ” “We are in California, yes.”

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