Friday, December 15, 2017

YCombinator's Sam Altman: The Heresy That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The heresy is thinking/speaking ideas unapproved by the thought police.
Our headline is a play on a phrase that came up at Oscar Wilde's indecency trial,
Mr. Altman's headline is from the quote attributed to Galileo following his recantation at his heresy trial for belief in heliocentricity.

From Mr. Altman's blog:

E Pur Si Muove
Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me.  I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco.  I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year.  Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

This will be very bad for startups in the Bay Area.

Restricting speech leads to restricting ideas and therefore restricted innovation—the most successful societies have generally been the most open ones.  Usually mainstream ideas are right and heterodox ideas are wrong, but the true and unpopular ideas are what drive the world forward.  Also, smart people tend to have an allergic reaction to the restriction of ideas, and I’m now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere.

It is bad for all of us when people can’t say that the world is a sphere, that evolution is real, or that the sun is at the center of the solar system.

More recently, I’ve seen credible people working on ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension leave San Francisco because they found the reaction to their work to be so toxic.  “If people live a lot longer it will be disastrous for the environment, so people working on this must be really unethical” was a memorable quote I heard this year.

To get the really good ideas, we need to tolerate really bad and wacky ideas too.  In addition to the work Newton is best known for, he also studied alchemy (the British authorities banned work on this because they feared the devaluation of gold) and considered himself to be someone specially chosen by the almighty for the task of decoding Biblical scripture.

You can’t tell which seemingly wacky ideas are going to turn out to be right, and nearly all ideas that turn out to be great breakthroughs start out sounding like terrible ideas.....MORE
Back to the headlines, it is doubtful Galileo actually expressed the "And yet it moves" sentiment, even if he believed it, as doing so would make him a relapsed heretic, the punishment for which was being burned to death.
See for example: Joan of Arc.
From what I understand the old boy was pretty intelligent and could do a risk - reward analysis.

In the case of Wilde it is possible that the "Love that dare not speak its name" line, written by Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, 16 years his junior (but of-age at the time of their meeting), was not male homosexuality but pederasty which would open up a whole 'nother thing, although not in the Queensberry case where Oscar was vindictively charged with gross indecency not child rape.
Had there been anything to the pedo rumors (rumors in England at any rate, abroad: see André Gide and Oscar), you can bet the Marquess' detectives and attorneys would have found a way to get it out at the trials.

So, where were we?
Ah, careful what you say in Silicon Valley.