Molochian Systems

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Many of the problems with systems and institutions we encounter in daily life can be traced to breakdowns in the system not attributable to any particular person or any single mistake. Rather, the true problem can only be understood at a systems level. We refer to this class of problems as Molochian, in reference to Scott Alexander's classic Meditations on Moloch.

Note. Reading Meditations on Moloch is not required for this workshop, but recommended.

Instructional Material

Moloch's Toolbox (Ch. 3 of Inadequate Equilibria by Eliezer Yudkowsky), concerns the types of situations that give rise to Molochian traps. In summary, Yudkowsky separates Molochian outcomes into three broad categories:

  1. "Cases where the decision lies in the hands of people who would gain little personally, or lose out personally, if they did what was necessary to help someone else."
  2. "Cases where decision-makers can’t reliably learn the information they need to make decisions, even though someone else has that information."
  3. "Systems that are broken in multiple places so that no one actor can make them better, even though, in principle, some magically coordinated action could move to a new stable state."

Cohort Activity

Moloch Is Everywhere [45 minutes]

Identifying Traps [10 minutes]

Go around the cohort and take turns identifying Molochian traps in your own life, at work, school, or in institutions that you interact with.

Categorizing Traps [10 minutes]

Go around the group again and decide which of three types of trap best describes each person's situation.

Identify Fixes [10 minutes]

Identify where the specific breakdown is happening in each situation, and what you would do to remedy it if you had power. Are there any generalized principles your cohort discovers in addressing these categories of traps?

Identify Sanctuaries [15 minutes]

Go around the cohort and discuss examples of systems succeeding in avoiding Molochian traps through some clever mechanism.

Moloch on Station Seven [45 minutes]

You, the Commander of Station Seven, are stunned to find that operating expenses on the station have increased by 15% since this time last year. You head out to talk to your various subordinates to figure out what's happening.

Objectives:

  1. Figure out how to reduce the expenses
  2. Prevent expenses from ballooning again

Hover over a block to talk to that person.

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