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.





6 thoughts on “Coordination isn’t hard

  1. I don’t think anyone thinks that coordination is *uniformly* hard. I think “coordination is hard” is accurate though. To use some of your examples, in the cases of labor movements, militaries and judicial systems, enormous amounts of bureaucratic effort are invested in ensuring that coordination will work at all.


  2. I agree that coordinating large groups of people sometimes requires lots of bureaucratic effort. I don’t think it’s correct to infer the generic statement “coordination is hard” from these specific instances of coordination being hard. In particular, coordinating a group of less than 100 people does not necessarily require bureaucracy. Labor movements, militaries, and judicial systems can exist on small scales too.

    Mostly I’m pushing back on “coordination is hard” as in “coordination is effectively impossible” (which I think is the most common usage), not “coordination is hard” as in “coordination sometimes requires a lot of work”.


  3. I think that in these X-risk situations, people are envisioning a scenario where coordination has to be perfect; if a single participant defects, the whole thing comes crashing down. It seems justifiable to say that perfect coordination among large numbers of actors is effectively impossible under most circumstances.


    1. Yes, perfect coordination among a large number of actors is effectively impossible. Good thing it isn’t necessary. (In the instances I have heard the phrase being used, it seemed to indicate that the person didn’t think it was practical to get coordination among 90% of the relevant decision-makers).


  4. I think a good example is that, despite absurdly bad individual incentives, voting as well as it does. I think its partly due to altruistic voters and partly due to politicians using their slack for good. As dumb as voters and politicians behave, they could be *much* worse.


  5. I also really dislike the blanket talk about ‘coordination is hard’, as if coordination were a single monolithic problem with few moving parts; hard the way that lifting 500lbs is hard. Its also often used to stop questions and discussion.

    But when people claim the opposite, there’s often an implicit not-quite-claim that coordination is easy. Of course meaning that coordination is easy because the right thing to do is obvious (and obviously the thing that they want to do). If find this pretty irritating because its just another kind of social pressure to believe what other people believe, lets you be stupid for not seeing the ‘obvious’ truth. I also dislike this.


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