Optimal level of hierarchy for effective altruism

Hierarchical modular network structure is an organizing principle found in many complex systems, ranging from ecosystems to human brain, and of course it is commonly seen in social networks. By "modularity" we mean, technically speaking, that there are parts of a network that are more densely connected than in random networks. This can have various causes, like spatial proximity or functional consideration. These densely connected parts often form hierarchies, where smaller units are parts of larger ones. Hierarchical structures is the way how things are done in real world.


We can view the effective altruism movement as a network. Then, we may ask what its network structure is and what processes generated it. We may also ask a question what network structure it should have: how the network should be optimized for a given purpose (like changing the world for better).


In general, this seems a hard question, but possibly just looking from this perspective leads to some easier and more practical questions. Like:

  • What is the optimal level of hierarchicality?
  • How much should geography correlate with function?
  • How much should things be localized

For the first question, we can easily imagine two possible answers:

1) Two level structure, where there are global EA organizations, and local groups.

2) Three level structure, where there are global EA organizations, country, region or language-specific organizations, and local groups.


It seems what effective altruism movement has at the moment is a mixture of both. There is CEA, which is at the same time the global organization and an anglosphere one, but also has some UK and Oxford flavour. On the other hand, we have also Effective Altruism Foundation, which is a mixture of country-wide organization for Germany, language-based organization, and a global one.


For the second question, at the moment we have a strong correlation of physical space and functional or meme-space. For example in Germany, people are much more than average focused on suffering reduction. People in Bay Area are more than average on long-term plans to influence AI, etc.


For the third question, it seems there are various forces pulling in different directions.


If we take an outside look, the whole does not seem to be a result of a design or some intentional optimization, but more likely a legacy of some “organic” evolutionary process with a lot of usual network effects and randomness. By network effects I mean for example homophily - people tend to link to people who are similar to themselves. This also leads to a disproportionate amount of influence of the "founding core" members of a cluster on the whole cluster.


Also what is interesting, the level of hierarchicality seem to be area-specific.


My intuition is this whole structure is far from optimal. Multinational corporations don't work that way: imagine Google US being focused on search, Google UK on advertising, Google Germany on machine translation, and a lot of local Google subsidiaries doing recruitment of engineers. Or Wikimedia having not one organization for running the Wikipedia site and local chapters supporting different language versions of Wikipedia, but chapters which would mix topic and language focus.


I don't want to propose solutions at this point: I'd like more effective altruists thinking about the question.


Comments (10)

Comment author: Dunja 28 March 2018 05:25:50PM *  5 points [-]

I think that EA as a movement is much less similar to multinational corporations than, say, to an academic field. In contrast to a corporation with a clear set of goals and a hierarchical decision-making procedures for how to achieve them, EA is neither likely to settle on the ultimate preference order on goals, nor on the optimal ways to achieve them. This is largely due to the fact that how to effectively help others is an empirical question, for which we don't have clear answers, and which is so complex that it may easily lead to peer disagreements (where different "schools of thought" become convinced of different methodologies, etc.). So I'd say, just like with academic research, what matters here is encouraging discussion and critical exchange within EA community, where EA-related institutions can strive to provide space for such interaction.

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 28 March 2018 09:15:10PM 2 points [-]

Good point, I think the "effective altruism as an academic field" metaphor is useful - but possibly having too much influence.

Effective altruism should be not only about finding answers to the central question but also about acting on them, at some point. The action part is IMO what makes it different from academia, may be brings it closer to "technology" than "science" and may benefit from a different structure or tighter coordination. Or maybe not, that's part of the question.

Comment author: Dunja 28 March 2018 09:50:51PM *  0 points [-]

Right, I agree, EA has both the research component (establishing what "effective" is supposed to mean) and then the practical component (application of effective policies). So maybe you primarily target the latter when you suggest the structure isn't optimal? Would be interesting to hear which suggestions you'd have in mind even as a brainstorming :)

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 28 March 2018 10:14:20PM 2 points [-]

To me the basic variance seems to be in the level of centralization (hierarchy with a centre vs. loose cluster), hierarchicality, type of connections between organizations (formal vs. informal).

Possibly closer example than academia or corporations may be "environmental movement" ... where you have research, action, and policy components, and I would guess there may be things to learn from.

Comment author: Dunja 29 March 2018 03:41:53PM 1 point [-]

Yes, environmental movement is a good comparison. I'm still not sure what exactly can be translated from that movement to EA at this point, mainly because the involved group is much smaller... but would be definitely interesting to hear your ideas on this.

Comment author: impala 01 April 2018 10:43:31PM 1 point [-]

The environmental movement seems to be the closest analogy. It would be strange to find this movement having even the levels of (implicit, claimed) hierarchy that EA does. This should be cause for concern.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 28 March 2018 07:57:51AM 2 points [-]

It seems to me the organically occurring hierarchy of EA is with organizations representing a language, then regional/national organizations below that, and then the local groups. This model makes sense as more EA movement organizations professionalize in countries around the world. Switzerland and Austria have EA organizations running things in each of those countries subordinate to the EAF for the whole German-speaking world. There is an EA Australia organization, Rethink Charity in Canada, and EA London and other British organizations which run lots of stuff in England while CEA is looking at things on a global scale.

Of course, CEA could be the top-level organization, the first to span multiple languages, as its sponsoring the development of EA in China. Of course in countries like France, the Czech Republic, India, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, there has been much independent development of national organization lately. So it doesn't seem like one organization would fill some unoccupied 'global organization' slot yet.

I've tried thinking of models of EA as a network like this. A difficult thing is accounting for all the EA organizations which work on particular causes, or have a particular background, and are correlated with geography, but not in a way you could tell by just looking at the map at the EA Hub. You'd have to know the history and culture of EA as well. We have that, but it doesn't mesh well with the model thinking we're so fond of these days.

I think EA is on the precipice of some major changes to it as a network. Maybe they're already taking place, and we haven't tracked them yet. Because it's still such a young and dynamic community, EA changes so fast our models of how and why it's changing become outdated quickly. I've been thinking that strategically growing and developing EA depends on a better, common group-level self-awareness. We don't have a good enough map of the current trajectories the movement is on. None of us may be steering this ship as much as we think, and if we don't know where we are, we won't know how to orient ourselves toward our destination.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 28 March 2018 08:13:00PM *  1 point [-]

Multinational corporations don't work that way:

Sure they do, companies can have branches in different areas doing different things. E.g. investment bank branches in Houston do energy banking, in LA they do media and retail, in NYC they are generalists.

Different kinds of industries arise in different locations.

Chain restaurants have different menus in different countries.

Universities in different cities focus on different things.

Different music styles and dance techniques become popular in different locations.

Having different centers for different topics is good because it amplifies network effects for the people who are involved with each topic.

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 29 March 2018 06:18:17AM 0 points [-]

So if I understand correctly your answer to "How much should geography correlate with function?" is "strong correlation is good". Do you see some limits, or the stronger, the better?

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 29 March 2018 06:52:02AM *  0 points [-]

People will naturally respond appropriately to the parameters of the environment. So unless you can identify a specific problem, whatever they do is fine.