Most volunteering is a waste of time for anyone except the volunteer

Volunteering is primarily driven by the need of the volunteer to feel good about themselves, not to do the most good; the way to really do the most good is to know how to do something valuable, like make a computer do what a person wants, or building things. Not that many people can or choose to learn how to do something really valuable, but many people can rehab trails or serve meals to the homeless.

Nonprofit and public agencies know this and many don’t really want volunteers, though they also can’t really turn volunteers away for PR reasons.* Nonprofit and public agencies want cash, which is fungible and can then be spent hiring professionals who don’t consume a lot of time and energy. Programmers know that the smallest number of programmers possible should work on a given project, because each additional programmer increases the communication overhead of the project. Sufficiently large projects often collapse because programmers cannot communicate effectively and ensure their code works coherently together. Volunteers face a similar problem, albeit to a lesser extent.

Low-wage labor is also widely available. Someone with a skill that can be sold for a couple hundred dollars an hour is better off doing that, and then donating their wages to hire at least ten people for ten dollars an hour. That’s much more useful to society as a whole. We’re in the habit of automatically admiring volunteers and volunteerism, to the extent that claiming volunteer hours has become yet another way of gaming college admissions through dubious altruism.

The primary way to usefully volunteer is to have a specialized skill that can be effectively deployed by the organization, but that rarely seems to happen. If the organization really needs a given skill, it tends to pay for it, because it needs that skill delivered reliably and, often, to precise specifications.

Mastering a complex skill, however, is a labor-intensive process; it’s famously been said to take ten years. Maybe one can master a skill in less time, but certainly it takes thousands of hours of dedicated practice. No one can wake up and decide to write a (good) novel or (good) operating system or whatever. One can go off and seal envelopes or make cold calls or serve meals for a couple hours.

One sees this at work in the misguided efforts to send expensive American teenagers to developing countries to build houses. Developing countries by and large do not have a shortage of effective construction workers (the U.S. imports plenty of Mexican construction workers)—they have a shortage of money. The thousands of dollars it takes to feed, secure, and transport American teenagers or twenty-somethings would be much more effectively spent on local labor and materials. But the purpose of volunteer trips is of course not about building houses but about making the volunteers feel good and useful.

Still, if the choice is between volunteering or watching T.V., volunteering is probably a “better” thing, but if the choice is between volunteering and mastering a unique skill, master that skill (and perhaps teach it to others). Be an example to others by becoming an expert, instead of by sacrificing time that should be optimally spent doing something useful for a large number of people.

* I’m a grant writing consultant. Many nonprofit and public agencies will admit in private that they don’t want volunteers. I suspect all or nearly all professions generate uncommon or counter-intuitive knowledge. The Internet is pretty good at letting people discuss that knowledge in a pseudonymous environment.

Progress, extra time, efficiency, and consumer goods

Robin Hanson, typically insightful:

The most recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that five-year-old vehicles had about one-third fewer problems than the five-year-old vehicles we studied in April 2005. In fact, owners of about two-thirds of those vehicles reported no problems. And serious repairs, such as engine or transmission replacement, were quite rare. (p.15, June ‘10, Consumer Reports)

Car problem rates falling 1/3 in five years is change you might not notice, but if you think about it, its a pretty big deal. Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different. Besides a few big changes, most things seem not pretty similar. But this is illusory – most change happens behind the scenes.

We don’t notice the (relatively) small, cumulative changes that add up to major improvements in life unless we’re paying attention to them, which Hanson is drawing attention to here. If we don’t have our cars repaired as often, we have more time to think about and do other things. This means we have more time to think about art, technology, life, and so forth, although most of that surplus is probably used watching TV, searching for pornography, and so on.

But computers have improved too, just like cars: around 2002 or 2003, a typical computer became more than fast enough for most typical activities aside from high-end gaming and video editing; by now, the developed world is awash in computers that are “good enough.” Some relatively small percentage of us will use those computers to help us think, help us make things, and help others learn.

Of course, most people spend that extra time watching TV; according to the Los Angeles Times:

“The Nielsen Co.’s ‘Three Screen Report — referring to televisions, computers and cellphones — for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That’s about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.”

But fewer are doing so now than once did, which is a large part of Clay Shirky’s point in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, a book worth checking out from the library but probably not worth buying. He says:

Today people have new freedom to act in concert and in public. In terms of personal satisfaction, this good is fairly uncomplicated—even the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.

The “freedom to act in concert” is significant because the costs of doing so are low. Still, we don’t just have more time because the cost of doing things other than watching TV have fallen, although that’s important, as Shirky discusses elsewhere in his book—we have more time because things like cars, as Hanson points out, don’t demand as much time as they did. And that change is fairly recent; as John Scalzi wrote a few months ago:

You have to get to about 1997 before there’s a car I would willingly get into these days. As opposed to today, when even the cheap boxy cars meant for first-time buyers have decent mileage, will protect you if you’re hit by a semi, and have more gizmos and better living conditions than my first couple of apartments.

The question still is: what are we going to do with all that spare time, spare computing power, and spare mental capacity? The answers (so far) look positive, but I don’t have the foresight (and neither does Shirky—he points out that we have it, but can’t really say what will happen) to predict specific changes rather than the scale of those changes. In a very small way, I’m part of the answer, since I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing right now 20 years ago. About 10 years ago, it would’ve been much harder because blogging software hadn’t matured. Now it’s incredibly easy. That’s progress, even if most blog posts don’t look much like progress because they concern cats, celebrity scans, and so on.

On standard English, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), dialects, and efficiency

A recent Hacker News thread links to a paper by Arnold Zwicky arguing that African American Vernacular English is not Standard English with mistakes. Its purpose is to explore a large controversy over the possible exploration of AAVE in Oakland schools, and the discussion around the paper on Hacker News heated up when Paul Graham said, “The argument here is in effect that no vernacular variant of any language could possibly embody a mistake. Which is true for some definitions of mistake, and false for others.” In response, “grandalf 9” said, “AAVE is no more “improper” Standard English than Spanish is improper Standard English.” Graham didn’t disagree with that statement, but would rather prefer to change the ideas behind it: whether AAVE is “proper” or not depends on the context, and in another reply grandalf 9 said, “Well, I think the burden of proof is on you to show why language mistakes matter at all.”

I took him up on the challenge. The big challenge with language “mistakes” (or whatever) is that they can inhibit efficient communication among parties. The lesser problem is that they might signal low educational status and/or incompetence: I know there is no such thing as “standard English,” but you can get pretty close to it through guides like Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers or my favorite work, Write Right! The further you get from this thing that’s close to standard English, the more likely you are to sound incompetent or incomprehensible.

If someone comes into a job interview—or Y Combinator interview—speaking AAVE, or some wildly non-standard form of English, they’re probably signaling that they haven’t figured out how to speak, if not “proper” English, then a form of English that will allow them to communicate with high-level technical workers. They’re not likely to get the job or the funding or the lawsuit won or whatever it is that they’re trying to accomplish. That’s the problem, rather than some abstract problem about language purity.

There isn’t a central authority language because there doesn’t need to be: as Foucault might argue, there are merely different loci of power or force that tend to create webs of what is acceptable or not in a given situation.

“The fact is, language changes over time like any other fashion. If you don’t like a particular grammar or a particular fashion that is a matter of taste.”

Which is all very interesting until you’re applying for a job or writing a research paper and you can’t write something very close to standard English, at which point you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want to. A friend of mine actually wrote a very interesting paper (which is, to my knowledge, still unpublished and shouldn’t be) on the use of AAVE in Walter Mosley’s books, and she argues persuasively that Mosley’s deployment of AAVE is central to his being able to perform his job as a detective and navigate the “white” and “African American” worlds.

“You can make the argument that using Standard English (and wearing a suit) are useful social conventions to adopt when going to a job interview, but I think the usefulness of either judgment ends there.”

I don’t. The fundamental issue is what you signal and how efficiently you communicate. Whether you wear a suit or not has little to do with how you communicate verbally or in writing; whether you can speak something akin to standard English matters enormously. If you speak AAVE at home, it’s vital to be able to speak standard English for most purposes that are generally associated with success in the United States (academic advancement, business contacts, legal and medical contexts, etc.).

Another commenter named “aristus” says: “A standard joke about that: a dialect is an ideolect with a history and body of literature. A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Language is an instrument of politics like any other.” He’s right, but I would say “power” instead of politics.

For more on standard (or not) English, see Speaking good from Language Log (“The obvious thing to do was to teach VBE speakers how to add Standard English to their repertoires and to use it in socially appropriate and expected contexts but NOT to wipe out their vernacular…”) and How safer is America today? (“Now some background about the system of standard English…”)

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