Immanentizing the common trade-offs canon

Attention conservation notice: Meta-commentary on a 3,600 word essay that almost by definition is not directly relevant to your interests.


About five years ago I became obsessed with the idea that nobody had collected an authoritative list of all the trade-offs that cuts across broad domains, encompassing all of the sciences. So, I started to collect such a list, and eventually started blogging about it on my old site, some of which you can find in the archives.

Originally I had 25 trade-offs, then I realized that they could be combined until I had only 20, which were published in the first iteration of the list. As I noted above, at this point I wanted to describe all possible trade-offs, from the space vs memory trade-off in computer science, to the trade-offs underlying the periodic table, to deciding what type of tuna fish you should buy at the grocery store.

Eventually, I decided that this would not only be a) practically impossible for me, unless life extension research becomes way more promising, b) not particularly interesting or useful, because most of the trade-offs that come up over and over again occur because of the context-dependent structure of the world that we live in. In particular, most trade-offs are interesting mostly because of how our current situations have been selected for by evolutionary processes.

Upon deciding this, I trimmed the trade-offs list from 20 down to 11, and that is the number of trade-offs that you can find in the essay today. This new goal of indexing the common trade-offs that decision makers face is, I think, still ambitious, and still almost certainly more than I will be able to accomplish in my lifetime. But this way the interim results, at least, are more likely to be interesting.

Ultimately, I think that using these sort of frameworks can be a helpful way for people to learn from the decisions that others have made when they are making their own decisions. It certainly has been for me. I’m actively seeking feedback, for which you can either email me or leave me anonymous feedback here.

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