The theme of EA Global 2017: San Francisco is doing good together. We chose this theme because we think it represents an important shift in mindset that the EA community must undergo to reach its full potential.
Below I explain what “doing good together” means, and its implications for the future of effective altruism and for what we hope to discuss at EA Global.
The early EA community consisted of a small number of people with some interesting ideas about how to improve the world, but with very limited resources and limited power to put those ideas into practice. The early EAs had a mostly single-player approach to doing good, making individual decisions about how to do good, without needing to think about how to coordinate with other like-minded people.
Six years later, things look very different. Today, there are now thousands of bright, committed people in the effective altruism community who want to use their time and money to have the biggest impact they can.
This means that the single-player approach is incomplete. Rather than asking how I can make the biggest difference, we need a portfolio approach to doing good that asks how we as a community can make the biggest difference. We need an approach that focuses on the achievements and knowledge of the community as a whole, and evaluates individual actions in terms of the effect they have on the overall value of the community.
Two primary things follow from a portfolio approach to doing good.
First, we need to think about the externalities of our actions — the positive or negative effects our actions can have on others in the community. As the community grows, those externalities become larger. From a single-player perspective, you don’t need to figure out how your actions impact others in the community in order to determine how much impact you can have. For example, if you want to raise money for charity, you can evaluate your impact just by looking at how much time fundraising will take and how much money you’re likely to raise.
As a member of a community, the situation is more complicated. Communities allow you to add value in new ways. You can add value through direct actions like donating, but you can also add value by sharing things you learn for the benefit of others, providing mentorship to others, or generating new ideas. For example, you might generate more value by writing up the results of a failed fundraising experiment than you do by actually raising the money.
Second, a portfolio approach highlights the value of specialisation. In the same way that a company can have more output by using division of labor, the effective altruism community can get have a larger impact by having specialisation among its members. Even though from a single-player perspective it might make sense to build general-purpose skills, if we have a community of hundreds of generalists we won’t be able to get much done.
Similarly, as the community gets larger, the value of taking a hits-based approach to doing good increases. If many different people pursue different high-risk, high-reward paths, we can be confident that at least some of those bets will prove successful — and those who have been successful can then share their knowledge so that we know which ways of improving the world look most promising.