Sept 2019#Opinion

Startup culture, spiritual practices, effective altruists:What are the chances Minsk will become the next San Francisco?

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12 min

Julia Galef, one of the founders of the Center for Applied Rationality, created a meme space map of the San Francisco Bay Area. This study is on how the subcultures in this region interact with each other, form the city, and the rationalistic community. The BDC Consulting agency who supports startups in Belarus has translated and adapted an article about nine subcultures that have had the greatest impact on the city. Additionally, they have asked Ekaterina Sakovich from Minsk what factors shape our capital and what Minsk and San Francisco have in common. Katya is currently studying for a master's degree in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of San Francisco.

How to use the map?

When creating the map, Julia limited herself to the last 50 years and the subcultures that had been formed as a result of ideology (rather than ethnicity, for example).

Subculture is a community of people whose beliefs, views on life, and behavior are different from the dominant majority.

The connecting arrows between the meme-factors were drawn only if the indicator impact had been decisive for the group.

For example, yoga is popular among businessmen, but its influence is not enough to form a subculture.

1. Mathematics and computer science scientists

Computer science is the main area of Silicon Valley. Leading scientists in mathematics and computer science work in San Francisco, Intel, IBM, Google, Microsoft, and the University of California and Stanford.

Their optimization-focused thinking in many respects has influenced the formation of a rationalistic approach to problem-solving.

For example, the Bayesian inference, a method of calculating the validity of hypotheses based on the available evidence, has been around for several centuries. But it had long been in the shadows until computational methods made it suitable for use. The revival of the popularity of Bayesian theorem has been facilitated by its use in artificial intelligence.

2.  Startup culture

Startups and the business as a whole develop rational thinking. Either you test your theories in practice and then correct them, or you fail. Startup culture says: "try fast". Such a credo can be an excellent antidote to the "sit, plan, and ponder" regime, which we sometimes tend to do. It also helps to develop personality and brand. The meme of the startup culture "Think big, be ambitious" is something that could affect rationalist culture in the coming years.

 3. Hacker culture 

The first generation of programmers whose hacker culture was born at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1950s has made a significant contribution to the development of Silicon Valley startups.

They evaluated people only by the intelligence and usefulness of their work. This cultural ground has become ideal for the startups’ development.

Hackers have always sought to fix things that are broken or working bad. Therefore, they did not tolerate the bureaucracy that had prevented them from doing so. In a perfect world of hackers, anyone who is brave enough to get to the traffic light control box, take it with them and fix it to get better, should do it, and they should be able to do it," writes Steven Levy in his "Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution."

Hacker culture is close to many entrepreneurs and rationalists. It manifests itself in the desire to create creative alternatives to institutions such as government, education, and health.

Take a look at examples of alternative education that have emerged in the Bay Area: UnCollege, Coursera, Udacity, and General Assembly. Quantified Self is the community of people who figure out how to improve their health through biometric analysis Seasteaders is a community whose members believe that a free market could create a better society than what we inherited. MetaMed has relied on the idea that we can significantly improve basic areas of medicine if rationalistic research tools are applied to the medical literature.

MetaMed is a company that relies on the idea that we can significantly improve the main approaches in medicine if we apply rationalist tools of research to medical literature.

4. Eastern spiritual practices

Yoga and meditation originated in the United States thanks to hippies who had studied Eastern religions. Today, these practices are popular not because of their original importance, but because they are useful for mental and physical health.

Meditation has become commonplace among rationalists. It helps to get rid of the automatic habit of identifying yourself with all your thoughts. For example, if it flashed in your head that "John is a moron," then you no longer take this thought for truth. It's something your brain created, whether it's true or untrue, useful or not. This ability to move away from thoughts and think about them that has been developed by meditation may be one of the building blocks of rationality.

5. Human development movement

It is based on the concept that man has extraordinary capabilities that have not yet been disclosed. 

In 1962, the Esalen Institute began conducting classes that were supposed to help people reach their potential. To do this, the techniques of role-playing, shouting, and group therapy were used. 

The leader of the Landmark Forum movement stressed that it is necessary to take responsibility for one's life and to question the information that influences it. This movement can also include the practice of nonviolent communication, radical honesty, and internal family systems.

The human development movement encompasses a range of practices, from sane to frankly mystical, that could lead to clearly erroneous judgments. Nevertheless, the very desire to become a better version of yourself is wonderful. The fact that people are interested in it is largely due to the human development movement. Despite the study author's doubts about the quality of their practices, Julia Galef is sure that there are at least a few useful ones that have yielded excellent results.

6. Alternative lifestyle

Exploring alternative lifestyles and abandoning social labels have helped to shape San Francisco and the LGBT community. 

Residents of the Bay Area are not guided by standard scenarios of how "should" life go, and their attitude to alternative sexuality is illustrated by the phrase "live yourself and let others live." Therefore, people here will not be surprised if they find out that someone wanders or lives on a boat, does not want to have children or has changed his/her gender.

A large number of hypotheses about how to live develops rationality. This helps to distance one's past cached thoughts and beliefs (about what you believe in, what kind of person you are) and think about those options that you didn't even consider in the first place. 

Of course, it is unlikely that most rationalists follow an alternative way of life. But those rationalists who chose the traditional way of life did it consciously, unlike most people.

7. Burning man festival 

One aspect of the meme space that the map doesn't reflect is how the interaction between the groups takes place. Usually, it is simple social communication, a blogosphere. The Burning Man Festival is another important way to interact.

It has been held since 1986, and is visited annually by more than 50,000 people from different subcultures. They gather for one week in the Nevada desert and create a temporary city there. While old-school hippies may not trust the Silicon Valley elite, and rationalists can take an oblique look at new Age readers, the Burning Man atmosphere is coping quite effectively with breaking down social barriers. 

Burning Man takes place once a year, but the emerging sense of community strengthens social ties throughout the year at events such as Ephemerisle (Burning Man and Libertarianism) and the BIL Conference (Burning Man and Social Entrepreneurship).

8. Give social incentive

The Gulf Society pays a lot of attention to helping the world. Perhaps these are echoes of the 1960s movements for social justice or the belief of hackers that technology should be used for the public good. But anyway, social entrepreneurship, which focuses on solving global problems, is growing.

Millionaires who have earned their money in the Gulf region are more willing to invest in good deeds than elites from other regions. This strengthens the social links in the region between entrepreneurs, investors and engineers, as well as effective altruists, rationalists, transhumanists and other groups that millionaires support. 

9. Effective altruists

The social incentive to "give away" makes the Bay Area a hospitable environment for effective altruists. This subculture has recently settled in the region and is a close relative of rationalists. Effective altruists seek to make the world a better place in the most efficient way by basing their actions on numbers and facts.

The world's first global summit on effective altruism was held in San Francisco in the summer of 2013. Since then, such events have been held regularly.

The Center for Applied Rationality, co-founded by the study's author, Julia Galef, has a similar philosophy to this movement: the center teaches rationality to the decision-makers. This is one of the most effective ways to improve the future.

What are the Minsk's chances of becoming like San Francisco?

“Comparing cities is a thankless task,” says Ekaterina Sakovich, a graduate student at the University of San Francisco with a degree in Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

— Everyone has its vibe and its culture. The atmosphere of Silicon Valley cannot be repeated by Austin, Berlin or Minsk simply because it has been influenced by a huge number of social, economic, and cultural factors. They are superficially interconnected with each other, which prevents their artificial reproduction. There are no reasons for this. Long ago, the founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator Paul Graham wrote a wonderful essay on how to find own city and home in this city. Therefore, the Valley has its own IT vibe, and Minsk has its own. This is the strength of every place.

Of course, we can see how the landscape and ecosystem of the city are changing under the influence of technology, creative industries, and the IT sector. Globally, these processes are similar. The ability to export digital services and products to the global market, large-scale growth and telecommunications (work from anywhere) have brought capital to the company, and therefore the cities where they are located. Here Minsk is rich in its memes about IT workers on Zyablitskaya Str., which is flooded with all the restaurants and bars, the new "Belarusian" man of dreams necessarily with the profession of the data scientist in Tinder. In San Francisco, everyone also complains that the opening of every new "unicorn" office increases the prices of rental housing, Starbucks coffee, and yoga classes. Creative people leave the city, because it is very difficult to survive in it for those who do not work in technology.

The so-called gentrification of former industrial areas or neighborhoods with social housing, on the one hand, contributes to the opening of new restaurants, coworking, lofts and art centers, and on the other - it takes out its authentic inhabitants. 

This may seem strange, but the phenomenon of homogeneous IT community is similarly manifested in Minsk and San Francisco.

First of all, everyone knows each other. Secondly, they go to the same events. It gets to the point where you come to the cafeteria and get to know people, like at Friday's Party at 4 Svoboda Str. It's surprising, considering I've only been in San Francisco for seven months. 

Technology has always gone hand in hand with creative industries and festivals. Minsk also has its own Burning Man. This is FSP, which has scaled from a personal initiative into a global event due to the growth of a certain class of audience buying oysters and lemonades. Even if it is not so crazy, but with its unique aesthetic. As always, “veterans” complaining that the FSP is now no longer a cake, but once it was better.

If we talk about differences, in the Valley there is a great sense of the general charge of people to improve the world and make its opportunities equal for everyone. Here I discovered social entrepreneurship, environmental friendliness and sustainability with every action or purchase, women's leadership, numerous communities and volunteering. At the interview, it is customary to ask about the company's mission and how it saves the planet, supports minorities, and then — about salary and benefits. One would like to bring this creative mood to Minsk.

Another striking difference is that Minsk is a clean city. This urban meme forms in the inhabitants the perception of other cities and the expectation of them. Therefore, for many San Francisco would not seem so attractive because of the large amount of garbage and homeless people.

How the IT sector forms Minsk

Comments from BDC Consulting

— Until recently, IT was perceived as an area exclusively for web developers: then everyone was just beginning to learn programming languages and discovered startup culture. Thanks to the "going to IT" trend, this area already has a place for graduate programmers. IT companies employ copywriters, SMM specialists, PR and event managers. In 2019, it is no surprise when a creative copywriter leaves for an IT-company as a product manager where he has the opportunity to work with international markets, influence the creation of a product, and earn well.

The appearance of new sites has provoked the development of the IT sector in Minsk. Imaguru, which has been gathering business professionals, startups, and investors since 2013. The program for training schoolchildren in entrepreneurship, a coding academy and a laboratory of design thinking are working there. SPACE is one of the most popular event spaces in Minsk, specially created for IT conferences and meetups. The Hackerspace is the first technical creative workshop for inventive inventors in Minsk. Both beginners and experienced engineers can go here. One-off visits are free, but those who want to get into the community, will need to pay for a season ticket. It's almost like going to the gym, only at Hackerspace.

The state is trying to keep up with the trends, as with the cryptocurrency bill, but sometimes forgets about the little things. A striking example is that not all digital specialties are enshrined in the National Classifier of the Republic of Belarus. Companies have to choose from what they have. Although, in the work record book of the SMM-specialist is indicated as an "internet marketer" and the developer of mobile applications is recorded as a "software engineer". It causes us to smile, but makes us think at the same time.


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