I went to an Effective Altruism conference21 Mar 2017 | Reading time: 2 min
I’m impressed at how slick Effective Altruism has become.
When I arrived at Oxford’s Examination Schools for EAGxOxford 2016, a greeter gave me a plastic name badge, a T-shirt and “a copy of Will’s book”. (You do know who Will MacAskill is, right?) I headed into the South Schools, which was dark except for a white fill lighting up the stage. The two co-organisers of the conference ran on stage, wearing headset mics, to cheers and applause. They gave a brief introduction, before yielding to Will MacAskill and Toby Ord, who each gave a sort of ‘state of the nation’ summary of where the movement began and where it had got to.
It was pretty cool. The branding was on point, the event was insanely well-organised (especially considering it was run solely by students) – even the process of asking questions (submitting them using a web app and voting on them in real time) was better than at any conference I’ve been to before.
And EA is growing up. More than 2,000 people have taken the Giving What We Can pledge (that’s an estimated $1bn in pledges). MacAskill said that “in 2016, it felt like effective altruism became a real thing for the first time.”
Unlike most conferences, everyone was very happy to meet new people, going out of their way to make friends and have challenging conversations. I eavesdropped on someone explaining a utilitarian approach to animal welfare – that even if we weight animals’ suffering considerably lower than humans’ (for whatever reason), the sheer number of animals raised and slaughtered in industry means we ought to be concerned about them.
Not your usual water cooler chat, then. You’d often get asked what your “cause area” was: that is, are you focusing on ending global poverty, improving animal welfare, reducing existential risks…? It was pretty inspiring to be in a room full of friendly, smart, utilitarians. It made me rethink some of my choices and priorities. And it made me want to do more.
Going to this was was one of the best things I did all year. To any shy EAs hesitating about attending one of these: go. Meet your people.