Idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein (from Notebooks, 1914-1916)
I just came back from spending a week on the water at Mandeville Point (~18 kilometers from Stockton, California), at a yearly gathering called Ephemerisle. Below I will share some thoughts, insights, and takeaways from this experience.
Ephemerisle is an event first conceived as a social experiment to investigate how the construction of autonomous floating nation-states could work in practice. The history of Ephemerisle is full of interesting lessons in how ideologies react when subjected to the acid bath of reality (cf. mini-documentary about the first iteration of the event). Over the years, this event has evolved from a wild, loosely organized libertarian congregation of like-minded individuals with no central planning, no rules, and no taxes, into a -somewhat- tamer, loosely organized libertarian congregation with central planning, rules, taxes, insurance, and heavy legal waivers that you need to sign when boarding islands and vessels. Despite the introduction of rules and legal waivers, the overall vibe of the place is one of freedom, intellectual intensity, and a spirit of giving.
To gain a sense of the scale of the event I’d recommend looking at drone footage over the years: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Compared to Burning Man, this is a relatively tiny event, with a crowd that reaches up to perhaps as many as 600 people throughout the week, the equivalent of only 1% of the population of Black Rock City. In absolute terms, however, it is certainly very impressive to see that many people organized into a superorganism capable of delivering the basic survival needs for hundreds of persons in such an inhospitable environment, along with the luxuries of dance floors, sound systems, massage bunks, and trippy art.
The captain of the ship in which I camped said that “the slogan of Ephemerisle should be ‘Figure It Out'”. Indeed, this event falls in the same category as Burning Man when it comes to the degree of self-reliance that it demands from each participant. Burning Man, as noted before, could very well be called “the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community”. Ephemerisle takes all of the hassle and preparation needed for Burning Man, doubles it, adds an extra dose of uncertainty, and sprinkles it with a number of challenges unique to living on the water for a week.
Indeed, attending Ephemerisle is not a simple task. The starting section of the Ephemerisle survival guide reads:
The first thing to realize about Ephemerisle is that it is not a festival. There are no tickets, no gates, and no central authority whatsoever. But Ephemerisle is on the water, which makes attending a very non-trivial task.
You are responsible for getting yourself to and from the event site and for everything you’ll need to live there and survive for your stay. There are few to no resources adjacent to the event site, and none on the water. Think carefully about what you’ll need, and plan ahead!
So, given the time, effort, resources, knowhow, and social connections needed to be able to attend, who actually ends up going to Ephemerisle?
Like Burning Man, the people at Ephemerisle are not representative of the general population.
Stating the obvious, the mean conscientiousness, openness to experience, and general intelligence of participants are all significantly above the mean relative to the general population. I might add that, based on many conversations I had, it seemed that the following qualities are also significantly more common relative to the general population: graduate studies, social skills, physical fitness, cryptocurrency investments, and of course, number of yachts owned.
What stuck with me was not only the average intelligence of the participants, but also the high density of particularly brilliant people doing impressive work of their own in fields such as nanotechnology, computational biology, machine learning, cryonics, innovation in politics, and many other heavy-duty intellectual fields. I lost count of the number of serial entrepreneurs, people with PhDs in STEM fields from MIT, and advanced meditators working on developing transformative technologies.
I asked people who have been to many Ephemerisles how to explain this unusual density of spiky people, and the answer seems to be a mixture of self-selection and founder effects. First, it takes some degree of agency and determination to choose to attend this event and do all the things you need to do to make it happen. And second, a large number of people attend via invitation from well-established boats and islands, which in turn were seeded by very impressive persons from the late 2000s/early 2010s Bay Area super-cluster of people working on seasteading, longevity, AI safety, and transhumanism. Taken together, these two factors make Ephemerisle a natural Schelling point for energetic people doing cool things to find one another.
If I were to cluster the population of Ephemerisle this year, I’d intuitively estimate that 35% of people are in the broad people-cluster of scientists, libertarians, anarchists programmers, entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency developers, Bay Area rationalists, and psychedelic users. 30% are people in the broad cluster of artists, off-the-grid environmentalists, Oregon ecosystem-oriented hippies, and psychedelic users. 20% are people who live physically nearby, who own a boat, and for whom it is relatively convenient to attend. 10% are people with a festival-oriented lifestyle (to the point that their main activity is to go from festival to festival), and the remaining 5% are real-life hard-core sailors who help trouble-shoot the most difficult problems that (inevitably) arise during the event.
Why are people willing to spend so much time and energy into making an event like this happen? Why not stay at home or go to a club, where the chances of drowning, breaking bones, and getting sepsis from exposing open wounds to delta water are orders of magnitude lower? Why bother to learn knots, anchoring, and how to handle a fire on your boat when you could instead learn to use a remote control, watch TV, and order a pizza? Why the need to carry bucketloads of water to and from different boats for hours at a time when you could simply drink tap water from the comfort of a vacation timeshare apartment? And if you are attending to meet smart people working on cool projects, why not go to a conference or visit an academic department?
I would claim that the thirst for adventure, fear of missing out, and ideological excitement can only go so far in explaining over-the-top events like Ephemerisle. To bridge the explanatory gap here we will need something more. This is why I will offer two analytic angles for explaining high-effort events like Ephemerisle: (1) Health Homeostasis (condition-dependence-based fitness signaling), and (2) Worldview Annealing (as a cure to adultification and the regeneration of a positive internal mental representation of one’s conception of humanity). Let me explain:
This analytic angle comes from evolutionary psychology. In particular, genetic fitness signaling dynamics may explain why some people may have the urge to do wild and risky things when they are exceptionally smart and healthy. The concept of “condition-dependance” comes handy here:
Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well. (Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, from Glossary, pg. 437)
From a gene’s eye view, it makes no sense for genetically robust individuals to spend one’s healthy years in relative security, for one would have no way to advertise one’s good genes relative to average specimens in such conditions. In a sense, doing complex and risky activities is a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Therefore, from the point of view of one’s genes, self-interest might (metaphorically) reason: “I have all this health and energy laying around, better don’t let it go to waste and use it to signal genetic fitness instead” (see: An Infinite Variety of Waste).
This could be summarized with a general principle I call Health Homeostasis, which posits that among sexually-reproducing species who engage in fitness displays, we can expect that individuals will have a “desired level of health”. If they notice that they are below that level of health, they will increase the time and resources focused on regenerating health. And if they notice that they are above that level of health, they will instead reduce the time and resources focused on regenerating health, and engage in costly genetic fitness signaling displays. Perhaps events like Burning Man and Ephemerisle have an element of this going on. They are appealing to people who have too much health and for whom the standard ways of signaling fitness simply won’t cut it. They need health-diminishing activities in bulk. They need challenges where they can display physical endurance while exercising their powers of creativity. And this is why, all considered, these events are so sexy.
I should add here that I am not suggesting that this explanation implies that participants are doing this consciously. Executing an adaption rarely involves conscious planning and strategizing. All it requires is following the gradient of what feels right and good.
Introspect, dear reader, about the times where you have felt the most alive. Have you, perhaps, not experienced them during risky situations? When you felt that “this could be a real danger to other people”? When by luck or grace you happened to be willing and able to do something few others could have done? This is what I am talking about. This feeling of reality and authenticity may very well be a good proxy for the process of down-regulating your health. And this is what it looks like for health homeostasis to be at play.
This event was- to be open and real with you- quite moving to me. I struggle to give words to some of the feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that I experienced towards the end of my stay. The situations in which I found myself made me feel new sensations about the possibilities hidden in humanity and the unfolding of intelligence on this planet. It felt mystical and significant. It’s as if we were glimpsing the birth of a new stage for humanity.
Something akin to this happened to me at Burning Man a few years ago (with a slightly different flavor). How do I explain it? Someone I met there shared the view that at Ephemerisle we are experiencing a certain kind of “chemistry of consciousness” that is unique to the space. That collectively, in a space of this sort, we all resonate with a set of ideals, conscious efforts, and love that makes the whole environment vibrate with a unique quality of consciousness tuning the participants to a new level.
Perhaps! We could very well throw the towel and declare victory to mysterianism at this point! Alas, this is not the path that Qualia Computing has ever taken before.
So how can we explain the deep emotional feelings induced by Ephemerisle and events akin?
Here is the big picture idea: There are elements about the experience there that give rise to “heightened states of consciousness” for many hours at a time. This can be explained largely due to the build-up of semantically-neutral energy thanks to the high-density of surprising stimuli (cf. free-energy principle, entropic disintegration, and neural annealing). Over the course of several days, such build-up of semantically neutral energy enables neural search processes that solve constraint satisfaction problems that have to incorporate the fact that hundreds of human volunteers can come together to peacefully construct a mini-world in a treacherous environment, all for the benefit and enjoyment of others. Integrating this experienced fact can lead to the felt-sense that the world could be better, much better. That we could create heaven-worlds for each other. That the future could be a place of loving-kindness energized with electrifying creativity and positive energy. By the end of the event, one’s cynical internal representations of humanity have been replaced -to an extent anyhow- by optimistic and loving thought-forms. It is hard to see the creation of such a beautiful thing without shifting one’s priors about the real world.
It is important to realize that changing one’s deep representations of high-level concepts such as humanity and the world can have far-reaching ramifications. The emotional valence that is attached to our big-picture ideals can determine how we see the world. A somewhat far-fetched but ultimately accurate analogy could be made with Rubik’s cubes: Imagine that a “perfect state of the world” is equivalent to a “completely solved Rubik’s cube”. In addition to the degree to which you are close to a fully-solved state, you also have preferences about the aesthetics of the colors of the cube. But ultimately, you care more about the cube being solved than you care about the cube having pretty stickers.
Now, let’s say that we start with a completely scrambled state, which you feel very bad about. If you feel hopeless about being able to unscramble it, you can focus on improving the look of the stickers. The stickers could be more pretty and that will briefly make you feel good, but you will know that doing any surface modification still does not help in rearranging the entire cube so that it is in a solved state. The analogy here is: changing the look of the stickers is akin to many of the band-aid solutions we use in our life. We try to make ourselves feel better by doing superficial things like changing our cars, our appearance, and our job titles. But deep down, none of that addresses the deeper sources of dissatisfaction. The cube of our life remains in an unsolved- if more outwardly pretty- state.
There could also be uncertainty about how far you are from the perfectly solved state. Especially when you are unfamiliar with the algorithms that work for solving the cube, you will find that there are configurations that give the impression of high disorder that are in fact close to getting the cube solved. And then there are situations that seem close to the goal line of a completely solved cube that still require a lot more work to figure all out. The same could be with the state of our lives.
Now, what do I mean with a perfectly solved cube? I’m referring to a sense that “everything is as it should be”. I would argue that for many people, the very idea that humanity cannot get its shit together is a deep source of discomfort. Changing jobs, romantic partners, living situations, and perhaps even political parties do little to address this deep problem. They could be thought of as akin to trying to make the Rubik’s cube more pretty by decorating the stickers.
Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than one might intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope. All you need is someone showing you a video of speedcubing for you to realize that there is a short path from the state of your cube to a fully-solved state. And this can be exhilarating and deeply moving.
Now, for this to take place, we need to be on a flexible state of mind. Hence the importance of art, meditation, philosophy, and psychedelics in conjunction with the unfamiliar space. This is the recipe for annealing a big picture change of mind -a reframing of humanity, its possibilities, and one’s place in it. It indeed requires multiple days of iterations of changes of one’s mental representations. Here, meditation, art, psychedelics, and philosophy synergize with the scene in order to raise the brain’s energy parameter. The scene adds a lot of novelty: confrontation with the necessities for survival, extended exposure to people who are smarter and more competent than you along multiple dimensions, high temperatures, new wildlife (spiders and wasps), large amounts of water, wobbly platforms and ships, odd shapes and weird objects abundant in the platforms, etc.
This all results in what we might call worldview annealing. That is, the high energy state repeatedly cooled and re-heated over several days enables the fast search over alternate representations of the world. Worldview annealing gives rise to novel ways of seeing the world and one’s relationship with it.* And this is, perhaps, the underlying reason why people report having durable psychological benefits from doing things like attending Burning Man and similar events (see graphs below for statistics about transformative experiences at Burning Man; I intuit that Ephemerisle might be similar in this regard).
At the end of an event like this, you may very well feel exhausted and totally partied out, but if worldview annealing successfully took place, you will be able to tell that something deep and inward shifted in a good direction. You now have a felt-sense for what a different and better world could be like.
Can such an effect be scaleable? Hopefully many more people can experience it in the future. Perhaps we need to open-source the essential features of that kind of event so that others can take advantage of these key properties and export its benefits elsewhere. And thus we encounter the concept of “Serious Fun”.
In the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of paradise engineering. This comes up a lot when contemplating the coming centuries in light of David Pearce‘s Hedonistic Imperative, which posits that humanity will ultimately get rid of suffering by tackling its genetic roots. Now, it is true that the bulk of what will make our posthuman paradise a paradise is to be found in the quality of experience of our descendants rather than in their external environment. But for our Darwinian minds to contemplate what paradise might look like we usually need to evoke images that give us good feelings in our current state. For example, images of people cooperating to generate incredible experiences! Indeed, saying “in the future we will all be genetically endowed with negligible mu-opioid receptor down-regulation” does not sound nearly as exciting as saying “we will all be incredibly sexy, live our lives in massive cuddle puddles, be on the brink of orgasm, and have mind-blowing levels of intelligence and loving-kindness” (note: the wise would be advised to choose the first option, for the second does not guarantee sustainable happiness while the first one does). To tickle our imagination and inspire motivation it is indeed a good idea to trigger visions that engage our current reward architecture (even if we know that we are responding to Darwinian triggers and that a true paradise has more to do with brain configurations than external conditions).
So let’s think about wonderful external conditions to evoke a sense of paradise. I like to think of large groups of people engaged in serious planning and strategizing to create amazing experiences for even larger groups of people. Burning Man and Ephemerisle are a proof of concept of what could end up becoming super-fun events of civilizational proportions. And here is where we start wondering: what makes such events possible? What is the distribution of effort, time, resources, etc. contributed by each participant that is needed for Serious Fun to take place? My hunch is that to make this work in real life, the distribution needs to have a long-tail:
The Long-Tails of Serious Fun
It is interesting to ponder the idea that the distribution of the total contribution per participant in events like this has a long tail. In the most simplistic case the distribution could be a power law. As it turns out, many phenomena that are usually described with power laws don’t really fit power laws when closely examined.** Now, whether the “true distribution” of the contribution per participant follows a log-normal, Zipf, Pareto distribution, or one of the general Lévy distributions is an open question. But for the time being, what I want to emphasize is the long-tailed nature of it. In particular, the fact that there seems to be a small cluster of individuals who contribute massively to the event, followed by a larger group that contributes a lot, followed by a large minority who contribute more than they consume, followed by a majority who come to the event and mostly enjoy what others brought with them. Nothing inherently wrong with this, for after all, the people who contribute the most tend to truly enjoy giving, believe in the ideals of the event, and earn the respect of others. That said, it should be noted that if the distribution is too skewed it may lead to burnout among the most active members, which does not bode well for the sustainability of the event.
Although statistics for Ephemerisle are lacking, we can again use as an example people’s responses to the Burning Man Census:
The above results are represented with too few bins to really be able to tell what kind of long-tail distribution they follows. However, it is pretty clear that we are looking at a very skewed distribution that does not at all look like a normal/Gaussian distribution. I really wish they had included one more option (e.g. $20,000+) so that we could see the number of people who are really (economically) invested in the event. In addition, another key question that would shed light on the long-tailed nature of the event would be “How many hours did you spend preparing/building/helping others/driving/cooking for others/etc.?” Again, I’d expect a very skewed distribution in the responses to such a question.
As we begin to think about how we can plan the creation of heaven worlds (i.e. large-scale projects of fun) we should consider the long-tailed nature of the contribution distribution per participant. My hunch is that we can perhaps determine whether an event is even possible by estimating how skewed the distribution needs to be to make it happen. On one extreme we have events such as “a picnic at the local park” where the event can realistically take place even if most people do roughly the same amount of work (save for perhaps the organizer who post the event details online and coordinate setting up the chairs and coolers). On the other extreme, we could imagine an actual Seasteading event out in the open ocean, or a festival at the very cusp of Mount Diablo, or even something extreme like a party at the Lagrangian between the Earth and the moon, where we would need a group of people to come together and intensely collaborate for many months and spend millions of dollars on providing the basic infrastructure for the event. In-between these two extremes you could find events like community-led concerts, regional Burns, Ephemerisle, and Burning Man proper. Whether a pie-in-the-sky idea like Ephemerisle ever actually gets to happen may be a matter of the event having the right long-tail skew that makes it possible for actual humans to carry it out. In some sense, I suspect that Ephemerisle is right at the edge of impossibility, while Burning Man proper may have more slack and hence can afford to be substantially bigger.
What other amazing events are there that are “just barely impossible”? And what events will become possible as soon as we discover new techniques, ideologies, and cultural norms to make the distribution needed to make them happen just barely less skewed than impossible? This might be a very generative question to ask if you want to invent “the next Burning Man”.
A final thread to pull here concerns to allometric scaling properties of large events (cf. allometric analysis of Chinese cities). Due to economies of scale, there are thresholds for the number of participants at an event at which some utilities become rentable. Thus, there could also be many un-imagined crazy events that simply require a threshold number of participants to become possible. For example, perhaps a tunnel-based event at a beach is impossible with 100 participants but completely realistic with 500. Who knows! It’s an interesting thing to wonder about.
Anyhow, I invite you to think more about these ideas… perhaps this way you will help us invent the next iteration of paradise on earth.
* This can be used in order to treat the problems associated with psychological adultification. You see, most of the people alive today have some degree of psychological trauma associated with adultification. Acting free and childish is something that we can only really do in a context where we feel like we’ve earned the right to do so. So many highly conscientious people need to nearly kill themselves for the wellbeing of others to feel like they can deserve the right to feel care-free and innocent again. Guess what? Ephemerisle does not have a shortage of ways for you to do prodigious amounts of work to show how much you love others. Hence, perhaps, it is a place where some exceedingly responsible people can finally feel deserving of a relaxed, care-free, time.
** I am using here power laws to point at the general property of long-tailedness. In reality many other similar distributions tend to fit the data better than power laws, among which the log-normal distribution is commonly a superior fit (see: So You Think You Have a Power Law — Well Isn’t That Special?).
- Featured image source.
- I know that the sense of the words idealism and realism in the header quote by Wittgenstein are inappropriate here. I am just amused that the quote happens to be a great fit for this essay if the senses are interpreted within a different context. In true libertarian fashion: Deal with it.
I think there’s something important about the fact that parsing and making sense of the surprising stimuli at such an event feels low-stakes, even though as you covered the event itself is sort of dangerous.
In the “default world”, at least to me, it often feels like any surprising stimuli are very important to either make sense of or tune out, and so they are stressful and I can get overstimulated.
At a transformative festival, it’s okay if things are just weird and if my reactions to them don’t make sense, which allows me to more properly process the surprising new information.
Thanks for adding that observation! It may take a threshold of novelty abundance before one starts to encode the experience (and think of it) as one’s reality rather than the negation of one’s reality. Sort of like the bunny-duck visual illusion, it doesn’t take to “overcome it entirely” before the gestalt becomes ambiguous and it’s possible to switch over at times.