Should the new Progress Forum be controlled by one man or the entire Progress movement?

This post is turning out very different than the one that I had originally intended when I started writing it.

On the evening of January 13th, Jason Crawford, the CEO of the Roots of Progress charity, declared that the Progress Forum will be under his control with no accountability from the Progress movement. For more information on what the Progress Forum is, see below.

Update: As of today, Jason Crawford is refusing to accept the outcome of any vote by the members on this issue. In addition, he has not disputed one fact in this post. What does that tell you?

If this is what the Progress movement wants, then so be it. But I think we should all think very carefully about how that power will be used.

What is the real issue being discussed here?

I want to make clear that this issue is not about Jason Crawford as a person. Jason has worked hard and the progress movement has benefitted from many of these actions. If anyone deserves a Lifetime Achievement award for building the progress movement, it would be Jason.

But the Progress Forum is not the prize for winning such a Lifetime Achievement award.

Jason Crawford being one of many leaders within the progress movement would be a wonderful thing. He is very intelligent, well-spoken, hard-working, and able to explain complicated issues in a simple way.

The issue of this post is about the very negative incentives that have evolved within the progress movement, and how turning over the Progress Forum to the Roots of Progress will only make things worse.

The issue of this post is about the very negative incentives that have evolved within the progress movement, and how turning over the Progress Forum to the Roots of Progress will only make things worse.

The negative incentives come from the very centralized nature of our current movement. This comes from the flow of money to only one organization. These negative incentives has led to the following:

  • A culture of secrecy and zero-sum competition.
  • A focus on public image as being important within the movement at the expense of others
  • A focus on fund-raising over collective action
  • Viewing other people within the movement who take action as a threat to the flow of money.
  • Playing down the achievements of others
  • Hampering our ability to work together on projects

I believe that the flow of money is corrupting the progress movement and making it very difficult to grow. The Progress Forum has a real chance of completely changing the dynamic by enabling many other potential leaders to come forward. Unfortunately, this can only happen if the Forum maintains autonomy.

What are the results of these negative incentives?

Take a look at the Roots of Progress website. Jason has raised $500,000, and he has the goal of raising $1 million. There is not one hint as to what that money has been used for or what it will be used for in the future. No transparency. No accountability to any outside the organization.

Currently, I see no evidence that the Roots of Progress donated one dollar to anyone outside the organization in 2021.

Should one not decide what the money will be used for and publish it transparently before raising that kind of money? I would not even dream of doing that. It makes one wonder where the money is actually going.

Also take a look at the Roots of Progress website, Jason’s Twitter account, his media appearances and interviews. How often does Jason actually mention other people in the progress movement (dozens of blogs and other sites) and link to their work?

Is he being a cheerleader for the movement, or is he building his own career as a public intellectual and using fund-raising in the name of the progress movement as a means to do so?

This critical lack of transparency and an image of being the only person doing anything also makes one wonder what donors to the Roots of Progress are being told. I presume that most of them are far too busy to really investigate what is happening within the movement and who else might be making contributions.

Does his control over virtually 100% of the money raised by the progress movement not give him a strong incentive to create the appearance that he is the only one who really matters? Does this not mean that someone who tries to help build the progress movement will actually be viewed as a competitor? Does this not mean that others who want grants or salaries from his organization have to play along with this public image game to get funding?

I have repeatedly questioned Jason in private about the purposes of the money and why he will not mention other people in the movement in public, but he refuses to give a clear answer. He just makes vague statements about developing his own career. And this is from the CEO of an official 501(c)(3) “charity” that is under very strict transparency laws from the federal government and the state of California.

What is the Progress Forum?

While we are still debating both short-term and long-term goals, the Progress Forum is likely going to start out with the functionality of the LessWrong website. We hope that in the long run, the Progress Forum will be far better than LessWrong. I have a design below that sketches out the possibilities.

If you are interested in the details of the project, feel free to snoop around “progress-forum” sub-channel on Slack to get updates on our progress.  We have nothing to hide!

The Progress Forum will be a HUGE step up from our current PS slack channel! I for one am so excited about the possibilities. If we do this right, we could radically increase membership in the Progress movement. And this would radically increase our power to promote progress that benefits all of humanity.

Here is a very early and very rough design that I created that might be implemented (whoever gets the governance will ultimately decide).

Why does governance matter to us?

The Progress Forum will give those who govern it great power. With the great power of the Progress Forum, however, comes great responsibility. While we have decided to build this Forum for the Progress movement, we have not decided how to govern it.

If you care about growing the progress movement, you should care about who runs the Progress Forum. Depending upon how this new website is governed, the Progress Forum can either break us free as a movement from this stranglehold, or it can tighten the restrictions.

An autonomous Progress Forum could be an open platform that levels the playing field and enables lots of bloggers writing lots of great progress-related content to get the exposure that they need without serious financial barriers. Or the Progress Forum could be controlled by the one person who already has virtually 100% of the current fund-raising and the vast majority of the media exposure. This will lead all future fund-raising will only go in one direction making it hard for anyone else to breakthrough.

How can we grow the movement with these very negative incentives built into the system? How will things ever change if he is given control of the Progress Forum without accountability to the movement?

Is this what we want for the Progress Forum, which I believe will be the most powerful tool that we will ever have to grow as a group?

We need to ensure that the power of the Progress Forum is used to the benefit of the entire Progress movement. If this were 2010, I would say “Do we really need to talk about this? Let’s just focus on building it and figure out governance as we go along?”

Unfortunately, there have been too many examples of online platforms that started off looking like great technological achievements with no negative side-effects suddenly morphing into something very different. Unfortunately, far too many small committed minorities have figured out how to move into seemingly unimportant administrations and abuse their power at the expense of the majority.

We cannot allow this to happen with the Progress Forum. To be clear, I am not predicting that it will happen. I am only stating that it is a real possibility that we need to prepare for before it actually happens. This will mitigate the damage and reduce the possibility of it occurring.

Update: Jason’s announcement on January 13th stating that he will be controlling the Progress Forum without accountability shows that this is a real threat, not a hypothetical one.

I also think that many members of the Progress movement are a little naïve about the politics of progress. We need to understand that, though we have the facts on our side, facts alone will not win debates. The people who are skeptical of the existence of progress or opposed to progress are very strong and motivated. The bigger we grow, the more a target we will become.

For that reason, we need robust governance rules before we launch. To achieve that, we need a spirited, transparent and honest debate on how the Progress Forum should be governed within the PS Slack channel.

I say, no, but let’s debate it in the PS Slack channel with full openness rather than letting one man decide our fate.

Aren’t You Just Complaining From the Sidelines While Jason’s Team Does All the Work?

No, I am not a bystander on the project. I am a whistleblower.

Note: Jason Crawford has not disputed one single fact on this post.

In fact, I played a key role in getting this project started.

  1. My first Let’s Debate post “What the Progress Studies Movement Needs to Do to Grow?” explained why we need an online hub.
  2. When no one took the initiative to start work, I initiated a project on December 22.
  3. On December 30 I recruited a talented developer, Andrew Roberts, who is playing a key development role.
  4. We made a good faith effort to include Jason on the project.
  5. It was only after I announced this project to the Slack channel on January 3 that 20 minutes later Jason suddenly discovered that he already had such a project going.
    I did not complain at his obvious attempt to steal my project because I just wanted to get to work. I did not care who got the credit, but I certainly began to distrust his intentions.
  6. When I pressed him on what had actually been accomplished before my entry, Jason could not come up with anything more than having a domain name and waiting on an email. So basically it was ten minutes work.
  7. On the second day of the project, I created the UX Design for the long-term vision of the project (see above for design).
  8. I insisted that the project be transparent to all within Slack.
  9. I actively pushed to debate governance immediately, but Jason did everything possible to shut down that debate (now I know why).
  10. I started writing this post so the entire group could discuss governance in public, when suddenly everything within the project shifted.

It was only on the evening of January 13th when Jason Crawford made the statement that his organization, the Roots of Progress, would make all the decisions for the Progress Forum project before and after delivery.

Knowing that he could not control me, Jason made it clear that I should drop out of the project. Worse he refused to discuss the issue in private. He has also been unwilling to discuss the issue in public and has refused to agree to the decision of a fair democratic vote (which is going on right now).

I was outraged because I thought that it was a betrayal of the trust of the group. Many of the developers had no idea that this was the real goal of the project. I am sure that many still do not. The Progress Forum is not the property of anyone man or institution.

For weeks I saw a common pattern of secrecy and evasion with him, but I was shocked that he would do such a thing. So I had to go public with this post.

My Proposed Governance Model for the Progress Forum

OK, so what is my alternative to total control by Jason Crawford?

I do not pretend to be an expert on this topic. Indeed, I am somewhat of a neophyte on social media compared to others. I am sure that much of what I believe will change in the course of the debate. I recently asked a Developer from LessWrong if he had any in writing about the governance of Less Wrong, and he said something like “Nothing very useful.”

Whereas on other topics in the “Let’s Debate Progress” series, I gave concrete proposals, this time I will state high-level principles with some suggestions for how to implement them.

Just so nobody thinks this post is a power move on my part, I publicly announce that I have no intention of running for Moderator. Nor am I trying to pack people who are sympathetic to me or my interests. Nor am I trying to use it for fund-raising.

I do, however, have a strong interest in making sure that all future Moderators have the best interests of the Progress movement at heart and do not abuse their authority. In particular, I am concerned about censorship or content imbalances for ideological or organizational reasons. No matter how much we wish otherwise, the concept of progress has huge political implications.

We should go into this with our eyes wide open to what could go wrong (and what is currently happening), while still believing that it most likely will not (update: it is already happening). Good governance is an insurance policy, not a prediction of doom.

I believe that the Progress Forum should:

  • Be Autonomous
  • Be a non-profit
  • Be focused on majority rule, not consensus.
  • Be affiliated with the Progress movement and all its current blogs and websites, but controlled by none of them.
  • Error on the side of transparency and free debate.
  • Focused on free speech, as long as the topic under discussion directly relates to the general concept of progress. Yes, even Nazis, Racists and Communists should be able to state their case as long as they keep the focus on progress.
  • Allow a certain number of skeptics of progress, as long as it does undermine the ability of the group to take effective action. Good questions and spirited debate are good, trolling and mockery are not.
  • Have a clear “Code of Conduct” document for members and Moderators.
  • Be able to fund-raise to cover operating costs.
  • Be able to run advertisements to cover operating costs, if the majority of members approve.
  • Have a clear public statement that no financial considerations will change policy (unless the Forum is simply running out of money).
  • Be run daily by Moderators, who are at first unpaid volunteers. Perhaps, we could start paying them in the future, but the person or institution donating the money should have no say in governance.
  • (to the extent that the technology allows) Able to track all edits, deletes and additions of content, so everyone knows what changed and who changed it.
  • Able to automatically backup itself in case of accidental or deliberate deletion of content.

The Moderators should:

  • Have very clear powers of what they can and cannot do.
  • (to the extent that the technology allows) Should not be able to take an action unless traceable to the person taking the action
  • Not be able to modify any key documentation (except correcting typos), including:
    • Group goals
    • Manifesto
    • Definition of progress
    • Results of any elections or votes
    • Code of Conduct document
  • Elected by the active members of the Progress movement. At first, this should be done via Google Sheets elections via the PS Slack channel. At a later date, we could have elections within the Progress Forum themselves.
  • Required to make public statements during the “election campaign” on the PS Slack channel and later the Progress Forum on how they intend to behave as a Moderator.
  • Required to answer “tough questions” that might include what they would do given a certain type of behavior by an individual on the Forum.
  • Be subject to recall by a majority vote of the members.

The majority of active Moderators should never be controlled by any one individual nor any organization. This should be true even if we feel that an individual or institution has good intentions. Good intentions can often go in a very bad direction.

On some important issues, I have no opinion at the current time. I would love to hear what others think!

  • What voting system should we use?
  • How many Moderators do we need?
  • How does the group screen new potential Moderators, other than via election and transparent questioning?
  • Should the Progress Forum become an official 5013c charity?
  • Should Moderators be paid in the future?
  • What happens with the money if too much is raised through donations or advertisement?
  • Do we need a Board of Governors? If so, how should they be selected? What should their powers be? In what way, are they accountable to the entire Progress movement?
  • How should we disclose funding?
  • How long should the terms of Moderators be? Should they have a fixed term or just be subject to recall?
  • How should we handle complaints by members who feel that Moderators have made a bad decision?

Why not just convince Jason in private?

I tried to for over a month.

Starting on December 3 I engaged in a number of private attempts to convince Jason that our group model was stunting our growth as a movement. It was clear to me that the people with the biggest social media “mega-phones” were not doing too much to boost up other potential leaders who could really help the movement grow.

I tried to convince Jason that there was a problem within the movement. I argued that we needed to have collective decision-making, a focus on action rather than chat and transparency. I tried to persuade him privately to be more transparent in money and building up others within the movement. We had long private messages across 7 different days and a 1-hour long Zoom call. I also invited him to join forces on this project despite my misgivings. The total length of our private messages was 10 pages.

Nothing. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that Jason had no desire to change towards that model.

More background on the Progress Forum project:

The following is a brief history of how the Progress Forum project got started and how it is progressing from my point of view.

Just so you know where I am coming from, I have been active within the Progress movement for a little over a year. During that time, I grew increasingly restless at the lack of action.

In late November, I decided to get things rolling. I thought about what we needed to do and I published my ideas on this blog. I originally started with an appeal for an “online hub” in early December. It generated a great deal of debate in the Progress Studies Slack channel.

Unfortunately, no one took up the challenge of building it. Not being one to sit on my hands, on December 22, I launched a project to create this hub and then noticed that Andrew Roberts had said he was willing to volunteer to be a dev for progress projects. I recruited him on December 30, explained my idea, and then he convinced me that cloning LessWrong would get us most of the way there.

We did some initial scoping of the project and started working. I did not make a public announcement until the day after the New Years because no one was online during the Christmas break.

On December 31, Andrew asked me to contact Jason to find out if anything was already being done in this area. We did so. It was only at this point that I became aware of Jason’s work (though it is clear that he had made virtually no progress up until then).

Twenty minutes after I announced the project on the PS channel, Jason announced that “it turns out” that the project already existed and he was the leader of it. He also pretended not to know that Andrew and I contacted him about working on the project!

This seemed very odd to me. Why did he not announce it months earlier? I decided that it was best to cooperate together rather than run a dueling project, so Andrew and I joined the common project. Only afterward, did Jason start recruiting developers.

Despite this clear power play, I made a good faith effort to work with Jason and his employees on this project. Together we worked to build a Progress Forum. As far as I know, none of us working on the project are being paid by any organization to do so.

I worked hard to keep all of the decision-making transparent on the “progress-forum” sub-channel. Jason and his people worked hard to do the opposite.

As a UX Designer with 20 years of experience, I knew that I was in a good position to get the project pointed in a really good direction. In about six hours of work, I created a very rough initial design for the “long-term vision” design (see earlier in this thread).

Andrew proposed a modification of my design to release as an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). Alec Wilson, Jason Crawford’s Chief of Staff, appeared to agree with Andrew’s proposal as well.

Everything seems great. I was very happy. I was about to step back and let the developers focus on the implementation and step back from the project.

24 hours later, Jason stated his opposition to the compromise and then later Alec retracted his statement and claimed that there was a misunderstanding.

Fine, that often happens early in projects. The obvious next step was to call a brief meeting to hash out the differences and then let the project focus on implementation.

Unfortunately, Jason chose to handle the situation with a clear statement that he was in control and would make the ultimate call on all project decisions, including governance (see below).

This was shocking to me. I had sensed that something was wrong with Jason’s pattern of behavior. It was obvious that he was hiding something, but I had no idea that this was his real opinion. I had seen how he was very reluctant to discuss governance until after launch, but I took it on good faith that he was working on behalf of the progress movement.

That is when I went public and wrote this post.

Jason’s statement escalated a small difference of opinion that could have easily been resolved in good faith in 30 minutes into a power play that hurts the entire movement. He refused to answer my questions that related to conflict of interest, and he pressured me to drop out of the project because I was interfering with his real objectives.

I do not believe that it was bad people, but bad incentivesSadly, trying to help build a flourishing decentralized movement is the opposite of the incentives created by our current system (as I explained above).

Jason’s public announcement that the Roots of Progress will control the Progress Forum makes it clear why he suddenly jumped into action when I announced the project. He knew that his ability to control the Progress Forum was in danger. He did not want people that he did not control influencing the project in any way. He knew that he could not go back to the board and fund-raising and say that he built the Progress Forum.

When I asked Jason what had been accomplished on this project thus far, he evaded the question. At this point, it is pretty obvious that almost nothing had been done and he was just trying to get out in front of me so that he could maintain control of the project.

It quickly became obvious that I was not wanted on the project. Remember, this entire debate started with a minor difference of opinion ideas of what MVP should be. In any functional project, this could have been resolved with a 30-minute discussion.

And now Jason Crawford refuses to accept the result of a fair election, even if the majority of members of the Progress movement votes against Roots of Progress control of the Progress Forum.

Last night’s declaration by Jason Crawford confirmed what I had sensed over the last two weeks. His goal is to control the Progress Forum. His actual motivation for doing so is unclear, but it represents a clear conflict of interest with his role on the project.

I had planned on making this post next Monday, but Jason’s action forced me to push it forward to ensure a transparent group debate.

Again I have no desire to control or Moderate the Progress Forum. I only want to design a great Progress Forum and assist the developers in building it as rapidly as possible. I really wish that Jason Crawford had not done what he did.

I believe that the Progress Forum will be the single best thing to ever happen to the Progress movement. Let’s get to work, and let’s debate who should control it: the entire Progress movement or the Roots of Progress.

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