The Bay Area Metaverse

A pair of hilarious articles by Scott Alexander of AstralCodexTen

Every Bay Area House Party

You walk in. The wall decorations vaguely suggest psychedelia. The music is pounding, head-splitting, amelodious. Everyone is struggling to speak over it. Everyone assumes everyone else likes it.

You flee to the room furthest from the music source. Three or four guys are sitting in a circle, talking. Two girls are standing by a weird lamp, drinks in hand. You see Bob.

“Hi, Bob!”

“Hey, good to see you again!”

“What’s new?”

“Man, it’s been a crazy few months. You hear I quit my job at Google and founded a fintech startup?”

“No! What do you do?”

“War insurance!”

“War insurance?”

“Yeah. We pay out if there’s a war.”

“Isn’t that massively correlated risk?”

“Yeah. The idea is, we sell war insurance to companies who do badly if there’s a war – tourist attractions and the like. Then we sell the same amount of peace insurance to military contractors. As long as we get the probabilities and costs right, we make the same profit either way.”

“Neat idea, how’s it going?”

“Great! Ayatollah Khameini just bought a ten billion dollar policy.”

“Of the war version or the peace version?”

“Can’t say, confidentiality agreement.”

You make conversation with a woman to your left.

“Hi, what’s your name?”

“I’m Sara.”

“What do you do?”

“I quit my job at Google a few months ago to work on effective altruism. I’m studying sn-risks.”

“I can’t remember, which ones are sn-risks?”

“Steppe nomads. Horse archers. The Eurasian hordes.”

“I didn’t think they were still a problem.”

“Oh yeah. You look at history, and once every two hundred, three hundred years they get their act together, form a big confederation, and invade either China, the West, or both. It’s like clockwork. 400 AD, you get the Huns. 700, the Magyars. 1000, the first Turks start moving west. 1200, Genghis Khan, killed 10% of the world population. 1400, Tamerlane, killed another 5%. 1650, the Ming-Qing transition in China, also killed 5%. We’re more than 50 years overdue at this point.”

“But I would think with modern technology – ”

“Exactly! With modern technology, the next time could be so much worse! Usually the steppe nomads are limited to a small fringe around the steppe where they can still graze their horses. But with modern logistics, you can get horse food basically anywhere. There’s no limit to how far the next steppe confederation could get. That’s why I think this is a true existential risk, not just another 5 – 10% of the world’s population like usual.”

“I was going to say that with modern technology, it just doesn’t seem like steppe nomads should be such a problem any more.”

“That’s what the Ming Dynasty thought in 1650. You know, they had guns, they had cannons, they figured that horse archers wouldn’t be able to take them on anymore. Turned out they were wrong. The nomads got them too.”

“Are there even any steppe nomads left?”

“Definitely! Lots of people in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, stick to their traditional ways of life. All they need is a charismatic leader to unite them.”

“And the effective altruists gave you a grant to work on this?”

“Not Open Philanthropy or Future Fund or any of those people, but I was able to get independent funding.”

“From who?” you ask, as if you don’t already know the answer.

“Same place every overly confident young person gets money! Peter Thiel!”

“No, really, it’s fine. I’m not even bitter. Just – five years working on the Trust And Safety team at Twitter, and Musk comes in and fires me just like that.”

“Oh, you were involved in that!”

“Yeah – are you smirking? You’re not one of those freeze peach people, are you?”

“I guess sort of . . . “

“Whatever, I know everyone hates us. But let me tell you, it’s not all just banning any conservative who gets too popular, or burying stories that embarrass the establishment candidate a week before an election. We did good, important work.”

“Like what?”

“Like – have you heard of the Temple of Artemis? One of the Seven Wonders of the World. Burned down not by a Christian or a Muslim, but by a random Greek guy who wanted his name to be remembered by history, and figured that burning the most beautiful building in the world would ensure it. The Greeks responded by banning anyone from mentioning or recording his name, but the historian Theopompus wrote it down anyway, and it’s survived to the current day. No, I won’t tell it to you. Anyway, I was going to lead a consortium with the censors at Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, all the big name sites. We were finally going to complete the ancient Greeks’ work. We were going to memory-hole this guy’s name from the Internet. Even the people at Amazon were going to be on board – they would stop selling editions of the Theopompus book that gives his name. And then, finally, the burning of the Artemision would be properly avenged. We were this close! And then some dumb billionaire waltzes in and says ‘muh free speech’ and ruins everything!”

“I actually don’t think that saying ‘we should be able to unperson whoever we want’ helps your case that this is valuable and non-creepy.’

“The Temple of Artemis burner was just the beginning. The ancients used damnatio memoriae as a frequent punishment. How frequent? We don’t know! There’s no way of knowing! We only know when someone like Theopompus defects from the plan. How many ancient Hitlers and Stalins might there have been, now totally forgotten? And how many others were dissuaded from murder or other abominable acts because of the fear of erasure? And now that tool is lost to us forever. I hope you enjoy the world that you and your freeze peach buddies have created.” He storms off in a huff.

RTWT — you won’t be sorry.

Another Bay Area House Party

If you don’t go to social events, maybe other people will go and have great times and live fuller lives than you. “As the dog returns to its vomit, so returns the fool to his folly”, says the Bible. And so you find yourself mumbling thanks to your Uber driver and crossing the threshold of another Bay Area house party.

“Heyyyyy, I haven’t seen you in forever!” says a person whose name is statistically likely to be Michael or David. “What have you been working on?”

“Resisting the urge to go to events like this”, you avoid saying. “What about you?”

“Oh man,” says Michael or David, “The most exciting startup. Just an amazing startup. We’re doing procedural myth generation with large language models.”


“Yeah. We fine-tune an AI on a collection of hundreds of myths from every culture in the world. Then we can prompt it. A myth about snowflakes. A myth about mountain-climbing. A myth about lunch.”

“How do you make money?”

“So think about it. Myths aren’t just old stories. They’re methods for understanding and relating to the universe. Have you ever listened to Jordan Peterson’s lectures on Genesis? They’re life changing. Myths are our psychic motor, our source of inspiration, the way that we make sense of our world. Without them we’d be spiritually adrift. Well, it stands to reason that if we had more of them, we’d be more inspired, and we’d be able to make sense of our world better. So far we’ve been limited by the number the Greeks or Norse or whoever passed down to us. But if we could generate new myths on demand, man, we’d be unstoppable. That’s why I’m pitching this to corporations. Imagine if your competitor’s still working out of Bulfinch’s Mythology, but you can generate thousands of myths, on any topic, whenever you want. You’d be unstoppable!”

“I know people say myths give life meaning,” you say, “but I think it’s just cope for galaxy-brainers who are too obsessed with the classical western humanities tradition. I definitely don’t think you can make life have extra meaning just by making more myths.”

“See, that’s the kind of negative talk that used to get me down. I would have given up. But now I just think to myself – did Jesus give up when the Minotaur kidnapped his daughter? No! He set out through the Fiery Forest to find the magic helmet that would bring her back! And that’s why I’m not going to give up either. See! I’ll let you have that one for free.”

Maybe Michael or David senses your skepticism. His tone becomes more confrontational. “And if myths are really just for ‘galaxy-brainers who are too obsessed with the classical western humanities tradition’, then explain why my startup has already gotten $10 million in funding from Peter Thiel!”

Maybe you should flirt with a girl. There is one next to you. She says her name is Lisa.

“Nice to meet you, Lisa. Tell me about yourself.”

“Oh, I’m always embarrassed to answer that. I don’t work for a startup or an effective charity. Actually, I’m a Wikipedia administrator.”

“A Wikipedia administrator! That’s really interesting! What kind of things do you do?”

“Mostly just, if someone says that there’s misinformation about them on their Wikipedia page, we try to clear it up.”

“Sounds simple enough.”

“Not anymore. The vandals have gotten more creative.”

“How so?”

“Somebody edited a Controversy section into the Douglas Hofstadter article. It talked about how Hofstadter provoked criticism for forcing the Wikimedia Foundation to censor true but unflattering information from his Wikipedia page. Totally false. Never happened.”

“So did you remove it?”

“Well, the problem was, we only heard about it because somebody told Hofstadter about it. He was incensed. Demanded we take it down. Obviously you see our problem.”

“What did you do?”

“We had no idea what to do. If we took it down, then it would be true, and we have a policy against removing true information. But if we left it up, it would be false, and we also have a policy against letting false information stand. Finally we escalated to Jimbo himself. He said there was only one solution – we had to trick Hofstadter into forcing us to remove some other piece of true but unflattering information from his page, to break out of the loop. So we hired a private eye to snoop around, try to find dirt on him. Maybe some past offensive statements, or someone who felt “uncomfortable” around him. We figured once we get it, we could put it up on his page, Hofstadter would cry foul, and then we could delete it and leave the criticism up without causing any paradoxes. Problem is, the guy is squeaky clean. The best private eyes in the country couldn’t find anything on him.”

“So what now?”

“So we went to Jimbo again, and Jimbo said he had a hunch, and we needed to look into someone named ‘Egbert B. Gebstadter’. Well, sure enough, Gebstadter is in every criminal database we checked – the guy has practically left a trail of devastation across the entire country. Nobody’s ever been able to track him down. I have no idea what any of it means. Maybe Jimbo can explain the next time I see him.”

You are safe for now – except that by coincidence, you have stumbled straight into the Effective Altruist Nexus!

“I quit my job at Google to work on promoting altruistic kidney donation,” says the woman you have almost bumped into. She wears a white dress, and statistically her name is most likely Elizabeth or Anna. “I’m the liaison between hospitals and religious groups.”

“Oh,” you say, desperately trying to blend in and keep the conversation going. “How does that work?”

“Well,” said Anna-or-Elizabeth, “it depends on the religion. Most Christian sects are okay with organ donation, except Jehovah’s Witnesses. Muslims are a little more complicated; some of the old-fashioned ones believe the body belongs to God and you shouldn’t give parts of it away, but most scholars have come around. As always, the worst is the Jews.”

“They’re against it?”

“Oh no, it’s more complicated than that. The Talmud – Berakhot 61a – says that ‘a person has two kidneys, one of which counsels him to do good, and the other counsels him to do evil.’ If the Sages are right, then someone who gives away one of their kidneys would end up either totally good or totally evil.”

“And I guess there aren’t medical tests you can perform to figure out which is the good vs. the evil one.”

“Oh no, the Talmud is very clear, the left kidney is the evil one. And most surgeons take the left kidney, because it has a longer associated renal vein.”

“Hm. So if you donate your evil kidney, then you become entirely good, but the recipient becomes entirely evil. So it’s kind of a wash.”

“Sort of. But the way I model it is – most donors are healthy young people. And most recipients are older people with a lot of comorbid conditions – in fact, the average life expectancy for a kidney recipient is only fifteen more years. So we’re making a healthy young person entirely good, at the cost of creating an entirely evil person who’s probably too old and sick to commit too many misdeeds anyway. Overall I think it’s positive utility.”

“But just to play devil’s advocate – the people doing altruistic kidney donation are probably already selected for being more altruistic than the general population. But there’s no reason to think kidney recipients are inherently more evil. So there might be a ceiling effect on how much better you can make the donor, but there’s no floor effect on how much worse you make the recipient.”

“Darn!” says Anna-or-Elizabeth, “I hadn’t considered that! It’s all so complicated!” She thought for a while and frowned. “This is why I can’t stand Jews!”

A few people look up, mildly alarmed, then decide that it’s probably just some new kind of trad heterodox reactionary thing they don’t want to know about.

RTWT — Lot’s more…

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