Coordination isn’t hard

In discussions around existential risk, I sometimes hear the phrase “coordination is hard”.  Most of the time, the person saying this is using this as a reason to give up on strategies involving decentralized coordination and instead pursue more-centralized strategies, such as “a small number of people being extremely rational individuals and using other people as advisers and actuators”.  In this context, I think the phrase “coordination is hard” is very misleading.

Here are some examples of successful coordination:

  • Labor movements manage to hold strikes despite individual incentives to break the strike.
  • Open source software is usually created by volunteers and is often of fairly high quantity and quality.  Some projects, such as Linux, have hundreds or thousands of contributors.
  • CFCs have been largely phased out globally due to their impact on the ozone layer.
  • Communities, in-person and online, develop discourse norms, which can implement significant functionality for the community (e.g. fact-checking, preventing people from unjustly harming others)
  • Some groups of people distributed among different countries (e.g. workers, moderates, various racial/ethnic groups, intellectuals) will feel affinity with each other and help each other out (e.g. intellectuals in the US might support immigration as a way of assisting intellectuals in other countries)
  • Militaries usually have significant decentralized coordination.  Soldiers usually fight bravely; defectors are relatively rare.
  • Many societies have a well-functioning justice system.  This system requires people to perform many different functions (judge, juror, witness, expert, …).

None of these examples are in perfect analogy with current existential risk issues, but given them, the generic statement “coordination is hard” looks silly.  Upon dismissing this generic statement, more interesting questions emerge:

  • When is coordination easy or hard?
  • How does ability to coordinate vary across different societies historically?
  • What different coordination strategies are there?  How do they work?  What are their strengths and weaknesses?

In many cases, humans seem to be better at coordinating than Homo economicus would predict; anyone concerned with the future of humanity ought to find this fact extremely interesting.