It with a heavy heart that I must announce that Sam Altman is at it again. It's been a year and a week since I last got mad online enough to yell about him.[1] Well done Sam! What am I mad about this time? Well, let's dive in!

Sam's post title is "And yet it moves" in the original Italian. When you are leading off by comparing yourself to Galileo, it is probably not a good sign for what's to come. Right from the title, it's pretentious AND a logical fallacy! Anywho, let's see where this is headed.

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.

Oh boy. Sam felt more comfortable voicing his views in a notoriously authoritarian country with conservative-bordering-on-reactionary social mores? What...are those views? This is Sam Altman, so somehow I don't think he was building a mass line in order to begin a communist revolution.

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.

What is so dangerous Sam can't talk about it safely? Somehow, I don't think he's talking about all the women subjected to rape and death threats for speaking up about the tech industry's problems. I doubt he's talking about the fear that those of us who use the U word too often are going to end up on a blacklist if we ever make real progress. No, those aren't the sorts of controversial discussions Sam is concerned are being shut down.

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

A llama turning to the camera in and staring in disbelief



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.

Yes, you read that right! Sam just compared worries about eugenics and the biologification of class to evolution denial! But he hasn't actually told us how these projects are being stopped. People left because they...didn't like other people talking about the effects of their work? Hardly the thought police.

This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics. [1] Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic. We need to debate the actual idea.

Political correctness often comes from a good place—I think we should all be willing to make accommodations to treat others well. But too often it ends up being used as a club for something orthogonal to protecting actual victims. The best ideas are barely possible to express at all, and if you’re constantly thinking about how everything you say might be misinterpreted, you won’t let the best ideas get past the fragment stage.

[1] I am less worried that letting some people on the internet say things like “gay people are evil” is going to convince reasonable people that such a statement is true than I fear losing the opposite—we needed people to be free to say "gay people are ok" to make the progress we've made, even though it was not a generally acceptable thought several decades ago.

In fact, the only ideas I’m afraid of letting people say are the ones that I think may be true and that I don’t like. But I accept that censorship is not going to make the world be the way I wish it were.

Before I start on this myself, look at this revealing exchange on Twitter:

Aphyr posts a screenshot of the above paragraph, captioned: A gentle reminder, @sama, that homophobia led to the chemical castration and suicide of Alan Turing. Sam Altman replies, That was unimaginably awful. But because people were able to say and debate a then-unacceptable thing--that gay people are ok--you and I get to live our lives openly today.

I...just...ok, this is a frigging dril tweet. He's so badly misunderstanding things that it's actually tough to find a productive place to start. I'll rewind and take it bit by bit. But notice: he's showed what this is really about. It's not really about an environment that's somehow hostile to small companies. It's about an environment where wealthy white men are answerable for what they say.

This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics.

Why? He asserts this, but he gives no reason that it's true. None of the heterodox-in-their-time-but-accepted-today claims he's cited above had anything to do with demeaning other people. There's no logical connection between understanding quantum gravity and letting people write homophobic tweets.

Sam has retreated to talking about quantum physics rather than the things he's really defending (the worrying bioengineering mentioned above, the efforts to kick 5 million people out of the workforce, etc) because he can't really defend them. The outcomes of these things are genuinely worth debating, and they look bad under even really superficial analysis. But for his own reasons, Sam wants them anyway, so he just demands that we stop making the criticism for the sake of the poor muons.

Now, the footnote:

[1] I am less worried that letting some people on the internet say things like “gay people are evil” is going to convince reasonable people that such a statement is true than I fear losing the opposite—we needed people to be free to say "gay people are ok" to make the progress we've made, even though it was not a generally acceptable thought several decades ago.

In fact, the only ideas I’m afraid of letting people say are the ones that I think may be true and that I don’t like. But I accept that censorship is not going to make the world be the way I wish it were.

People aren't born bigots. That takes social conditioning. Deplatforming hateful speech keeps it out of the mainstream, and cut away some of the bigoted social conditioning people receive. If you're never afraid of people expressing ideas you know to be wrong, you need to take a history class. Or read the fucking news.

Sam thinks that if we don't let bigots speak, we'll also block social justice advocates from speaking. This is literally a dril tweet. It is possible to block speech that demeans people based on their marginalized identity without blocking speech that, uh, doesn't do that. It's very simple: you only block the speech that demeans people based on their marginalized identity! The two are very difficult to confuse in almost every case.

Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic. We need to debate the actual idea.

"We should gas the kikes" isn't an idea that needs debating. When Sam's friend Peter says women shouldn't be able to vote, that is not an idea that needs debating. You don't debate Nazis because that legitimizes them. If, as of last October, "few [had] done more than Sam Altman to defeat Trump,"[2] it's pretty weird that Sam knows so little about actually shaping the boundaries of politics. And as Anil Dash pointed out Sam's inability to understand this is actively dangerous.

Political correctness often comes from a good place—I think we should all be willing to make accommodations to treat others well. But too often it ends up being used as a club for something orthogonal to protecting actual victims. The best ideas are barely possible to express at all, and if you’re constantly thinking about how everything you say might be misinterpreted, you won’t let the best ideas get past the fragment stage.

Sam is not willing to do the hard work of expressing his ideas clearly. He wants to push the labor onto people who his words may hurt. He can't see how pushback protects people because he hasn't made the effort to empathize with victims of bigotry who don't have enough money to buy a major newspaper to defend themselves if need be.

I don’t know who Satoshi is, but I’m skeptical that he, she, or they would have been able to come up with the idea for bitcoin immersed in the current culture of San Francisco—it would have seemed too crazy and too dangerous, with too many ways to go wrong. If SpaceX started in San Francisco in 2017, I assume they would have been attacked for focusing on problems of the 1%, or for doing something the government had already decided was too hard. I can picture Galileo looking up at the sky and whispering “E pur si muove” here today.

Bitcoin is a technically broken project that's currently hellbent on destroying the planet. SpaceX is an ego project run by a megalomaniac trying to create dystopian private colonies on another planet for profit. They should be attacked, because they're shit ideas and yes, they do ignore the actual problems facing the world so they can focus on shoveling even more power and money to the already-rich.

If it weren't written by someone with enormous power in the most powerful industry of today, nothing Sam wrote would even be interesting. The whole thing is just a bad masquerade ball to let the kind of male fragility Dayna Tortorici wrote about recently slip in the door. Sam feels under attack because some of his unearned advantages are slipping, just a tiny bit, and rather than accommodate himself to that new reality he is demanding that things stop changing.


  1. I've come a long way in the last year, please don't go read that it probably sucks lol ↩︎

  2. Paul Graham blocked me for saying he wasn't as important as the Haymarket martyrs, and I don't like block evasion so I won't link to the tweet. You can find it pretty easily. ↩︎