OPINION: I spent a weekend at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away … worried.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

“There’s one thing that I have in common with every person in this room. We’re all trying really hard to figure out how to save the world.”

The speaker, Cat Lavigne, paused for a second, and then she repeated herself. “We’re trying to change the world!”

Lavigne was addressing attendees of the Effective Altruism Global conference, which she helped organize at Google’s Quad Campus in Mountain View the weekend of July 31 to August 2. Effective altruists think that past attempts to do good — by giving to charity, or working for nonprofits or government agencies — have been largely ineffective, in part because they’ve been driven too much by the desire to feel good and too little by the cold, hard data necessary to prove what actually does good.

It’s a powerful idea, and one that has already saved lives. GiveWell, the charity evaluating organization to which effective altruism can trace its origins, has pushed philanthropy toward evidence and away from giving based on personal whims and sentiment. Effective altruists have also been remarkably forward-thinking on factory farming, taking the problem of animal suffering seriously without collapsing into PETA-style posturing and sanctimony.

Effective altruism (or EA, as proponents refer to it) is more than a belief, though. It’s a movement, and like any movement, it has begun to develop a culture, and a set of powerful stakeholders, and a certain range of worrying pathologies. At the moment, EA is very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers. And it is increasingly obsessed with ideas and data that reflect the class position and interests of the movement’s members rather than a desire to help actual people.

In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty. Now it’s becoming more and more about funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence–provoked apocalypse. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a “rounding error.”

Source: Vox (link opens in a new window)

philanthropy, poverty alleviation