On Media and Effective Altruism

What is the kind of distortion you should expect if you are interviewed or go through media as a representative of EA?

Here is my response (I’d like to write a version of this writing for the Effective Altruism blog) 

 I’ve been interviewed/covered since I was 10 in many media. So I may have something valuable to share with EA’s on media distortion. When young I was interviewed in school with some of the other kids, and I’d notice that the TV show would come to the school already knowing exactly what they wanted us to say. They’d basically tell the teacher what he should inquire us about or lecture about, and the teacher would do so. Later they would interview us making questions hardly related to the class they were supposed to be covering, and even these questions would later be cut into a few seconds of something they already knew to begin with. I noticed that even the news part of TV is not news back then, it is pre-arranged fake reality.

 As an arrogant young teenager I refused giving further interviews when I was about 14, and I’d leave class if it was being filmed for some reason.

 Sometimes though you want to be filmed for some ulterior purpose. This happened to me when a movie director and producer came to me asking whether I would think it is a good idea that she made a documentary about me. More specifically, a documentary about the fact that I wanted to be cryopreserved when I died, “Diego Wants to Live Forever”. I was shocked and felt unsure about it. I sat down and told her “I can only decide later on”. So I asked people what they would do on Lesswrong, the World’s greatest rationality blog:


 I didn’t want to be filmed for filming sake. But there were ideas I could promote through the film, discussion of the Technological Singularity, Transhumanism, Immortalism, all topics unheard of in my native Brazil. Slowly those could be turned into discussion of GWWC and other Effective Altruist organizations as well, later. So all things considered I choose for it. The movie is yet to be released since it grew from a 15 to a 60 minutes documentary. The one thing I kept in mind throughout is that if my goal was to self promote, the movie would be terrible, since being a cryonicist in a christian country where no one else is makes you look completely insane. If I wanted to promote those ideas, I’d pay a price in my image, but attracting new interested people to those memes that surround cryonics (not to cryonics itself, I have no interest in promoting it) seemed to be worthy. If someone wants to interview you or film you, always consider it a personal image sacrifice for a cause, and see if the cause is worthy enough. You’ll never be depicted as you’d like to be. If you are not the writer, then the goal of the media is not your goal, check trade-offs carefully.

 After that I was featured on a TED talk. TED is libertarian media so they actually let you do what you came to do, and help you improve. The purpose of the TED@ event was to select people for TED global 2013. No one from my country got selected, but that didn’t matter, because the topic on which I spoke, Effective Altruism, got selected. TED curators are smart, and they had no reason to pick me over anyone to talk on TED Global about Effective Altruism, they did what they should, and invited Peter Singer to speak on behalf of the movement. Some media can really help you achieve your goals, specially if your goals don’t mind whether you are present or not, nearly always the case with Effective Altruism. If the media that wants you is TED like, go for it and don’t worry, they are there to help you.

 Later on were my so called 15 seconds of fame. This time I knew the distortion would be drastic, uncanny, absurd. The worlds second largest TV network (Globo) wanted to interview me for their Sunday show, the most viewed one. At the same time, Record, a smaller TV network was going to broadcast an interview with me. Basically, 40 million people would see me on TV. This is a massive amount of people, and I knew nothing I said could be immune from distortion, you don’t get to be the second worldwide without some manipulation skills. The interview was again related to the one thing I don’t want to get people’s attention to, cryonics. A man’s body was being held in the country due to a legal fight between sisters, since he wanted to be cryopreserved and only the daughter who lived with him wanted to send him to Cryonics Institute. That is what the media wants, they want to see half sisters fighting over a dead frozen body, that’s what gets most eyeballs, and I was a side dish given I’m the only Brazilian actually signed up for cryonics.

 Not long before I had founded my memetic child, http://www.ierfh.org, an Effective Altruism/Transhumanism promoter institute, we were growing and producing a lot. Our purpose was broadcasting, and there would never be a chance of broadcasting the right things for 40 milion people. The question in my mind was, was it worth it to broadcast the wrong things?

 I decided in favor of it. I tried to negotiate with the reporters so that my name would appear as “IERFH’s director” somehow. Something, a tiny tiny thing, that could connect that whole tragic comedy they wanted to broadcast as news to my actually serious work related to things I actually cared about. Of course this was to no avail. The major network displayed specifically the name they promised they wouldn’t (what am I going to do, sue a company worth tens of billions?) and the other one didn’t do what I asked, but at least also not the exact opposite.

I had done my homework, I wrote a piece on cryonics connecting it to Transhumanism to attract those who googled about me or cryonics or both. The bridge was there. We paid Google ads to show up on top on Google for a few days. If there were similar mind’s we would lure them into talking to us and collaborating. I learned that 40 million is a massive number of people. It is so massive that though I nearly didn’t appear in one channel, and none of the links that I wanted them to provide were there, dozens of people came to me or to us in the next few days. Few had something to offer or knew what they were talking about. but it has shown me the power of big numbers. When people say no press is bad press, it’s because when you have massive numbers, those at the curve’s tail can be helpful for you. If it’s big enough, I recommend you do it, regardless of distortion. It’s those who see through that matter most.  

But for most press related matters, numbers are more mundane, in the low thousands, and trying to forecast the trade-off is worth it. Sometimes it is better not to do it. The recent coverage of Effective Altruism by Rhys Southan (with a distorted title by someone else, but keep in mind not even your interviewer has complete control over his writing), is a good case in point. I invite you to use it as proxy for how much you are willing to be distorted. Here are the parts of his article that mention my name:

From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children. An idea often paraphrased in EA circles is that it doesn’t matter who does something – what matters is that it gets done. And though artists often pride themselves on the uniqueness of their individuality, it doesn’t follow that they have something uniquely valuable to offer society. On the contrary, says Diego Caleiro, director of the Brazil-based Institute for Ethics, Rationality and the Future of Humanity, most of them are ‘counterfactually replaceable’: one artist is as pretty much as useful as the next. And of course, the supply is plentiful.

‘We’re actually very stacked out with people who have good mathematic skills, good philosophy skills,’ Robert Wiblin, executive director of the Centre for Effective Altruism, told me. ‘I would really love to have some artists. We really need visual designers. It would be great to have people think about how Effective Altruism could be promoted through art.’ Aesthetic mavericks who anticipate long wilderness years of rejection and struggle, however, would seem to have little to contribute to the cause. Perhaps they should think about ditching their dreams for what Caleiro calls ‘an area with higher expected returns’.

And the next paragraphs are the content from which he drew them, about a 1/4 of the whole written interview (the rest was simply discarded), I don’t  want you to assume beforehand that I find his a very degrading or very uplifting change in what I said. I want you to see for what it actually is, so you can judge for yourself if you would do an interview if you were in my place, Our cluster of ideas, from Transhumanism and Singularity to Effective Altruism and X-Risk reduction are becoming mainstream by the day. You may have to face similar choices to those I did. Rhys was actually very interested and from my experience, he distorted quite a bit less than what is usually done, so take this as a below standard level of distortion:

When I was originally going to write an article about effective altruism, it was going to be about earning to give. My one hesitation was that I felt like someone else could easily write a similar article about earning to give, and I worried that made my “replaceability” very high. (And it turns out it was — someone had already written such an article.) Do you find yourself applying the concept of “replaceability” to other aspects of your life? Like could you consider the replaceability of someone you’re dating and the marginal improvement of happiness they bring to your life compared to someone else you could be dating?

That is a great question because Love, as very few things in life, is exactly the kind of emotion in which you can’t apply the logic or replaceability, or as we philosophers call it, counterfactuals. A great part of what love is is valuing a relationship. A specific one relationship that is built over time. Most songs about love, as Marvin Minsky reminds us, are about how the loved one could become anything, even a dumb psycho crazy nutcrack, and we would still love them. There are things that counterfactual reasoning can’t buy. For all others, there is effective altruism.

I suspect artists will tend to resist the effective altruism idea: there seems to be no place for them within EA, unless they happen to already be very successful, in which case they can earn to give. Do aspiring artists who want to do art full time pretty much have to give up that dream and change courses if they want to become effective altruists?

Artists are fighting in red markets. The things they make dispute people’s attention, and there are way more things available to pay attention to then there is attention to be given. Nearly all artists are counterfactually replaceable. This is why you feel they have no space within the EA movement. What I find interesting is that most of the early effective altruists come from a philosophy background, and the exact same is true of philosophy. Nearly no one reads academic publications by philosophers, and the area is so disputed it is hardly the case that anyone who left the profession would leave a significant blank behind that no one else could fulfill. Even then the EA movement thrives among philosophers, we should expect that over time, artists will find similar unusual paths to either conciliate their interests, or else shift their perspectives.

And related to the previous question, one thing that effective altruism does is put things in perspective, and artists and other creators of various sorts won’t like the perspective EA provides: by judging actions based on how much they improve well-being and decrease harm, the works of art, comedy routines and so on that people create turn out not to be that important after all. Devoting years of your life to writing a novel, for instance — while many see this as noble in some way — seems to be a horribly inefficient way to make a positive difference. Is there a way to reconcile effective altruism with artists’ beliefs that their creations are worthwhile contributions?

The short answer is no. Something will have to give, either effective altruist artists shift their art to promote altruism, like some friends of mine are doing here in São Paulo, or they abandon the artistic field. Art is a noble pursuit, and it should always be the case that a small subset of humanity is pursuing artistic expression and interacting with the world in that way. But I don’t think it will ever be the case that this subset will become so small that it would actually be worth it, all things considered, to choose to become a novelist instead of an effective altruist in some other area with higher expected returns. Not because the value of art is any less than people believe it is, but just because it is infinitely easier to understand the value of art, than to understand the value of saving the lives of hundreds of people who live across the ocean, or across the century. When I say it explicitly it may not seem that way, but hundreds of millions of people are able to see the value of art, and only very few, less than one in a million, if you consider the entire world, have already understood how much good they can create by being as altruistic as possible.

This is it, make your decisions accordingly and keep in mind that the media is part of reality, in a sense, of nature, it is not good or bad intrinsically. It has it’s properties just like gravity, which can help or hinder, and if you want to use it, you have to understand those properties and be prepared for them.


6 thoughts on “On Media and Effective Altruism

  1. Thanks for writing this, Diego! Impressive that you reached 40 million people — and makes me wonder whether it’s a good use of time for EA people in the West to give lots of logistical support to those in places where our ideas are even less mainstream. A Chinese or Indian or Argentinean or Russian EA advocate appearing on national TV would be a huge victory.

    1. When I was working for THINK, the high impact network I had one and only one goal. Getting them to contact not only people in the top 100 English speaking universities, but also the 50 non-English speaking ones. I find non-native English speakers are still under-represented in the movement. Specially the Japanese and Korean, who are very empathetic and socially aware, as well as wealthy.

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