The Crisis of Optimality

Platforms are making us complacent. Here’s why.

The FANG stocks: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google.

In an article published at the end of last year titled “Definite Optimism as Human Capital,” writer Dan Wang makes a compelling argument for why definite optimism — optimism with a goal in mind — is a vital component of “social capital” in the 21st century. We are an emotional species. We need things to look forward to, visionaries whose stories captivate and motivate us, narratives to tell and join. We are and have been driven forward by the ability to conceive of that which does not yet exist. If we cannot tell stories of greater futures and grander worlds, we will not realize them.

Luke Kanies, a writer on Medium and founder/strategist, replied to a response I wrote to his recent article, “Why We Hate Working for Big Companies” with a great quote. He said this:

“People love free markets because they get to tell their own stories.”

The stories they tell, too, are not so much about their products or services as they are about the problem their products or service will solve: mouthwash would not have been successful, after all, had marketers failed to make the public paralyzingly aware of a previously unspoken — but nonetheless acknowledged — problem: bad breath. And so if we do live in a free market, then there should be ample reason for definite optimism; there are, after all, endless stories left to tell, and problems left to solve.

“Since halitosis never announces itself to the victim, you simply cannot know if you have it.” Credit: Gizmodo.

And yet it feels as if the world of today has never been less optimistic. There is a tangible complacency among many I know, a complacency that I sympathize with because it feels as if we’ve reached a point in our society where all we’re doing is optimizing the distribution of everything via the few stories told by an elite minority—Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Reed Hastings (Netflix), and Sundar Pichai (Google) — rather than telling any of our own. Their four companies, collectively worth more than the GDP of all but ten countries in the world, are market-enabled stories on the grandest possible scale, edited by thousands of employees and read by billions of users.¹ These stories are enabled not just by the free market, but by the Internet-abetted free market. And I use all four religiously.

Perhaps that is why I propose that these platforms contribute to the complacency I observe in myself and others. In order for that to be true, however, three assumptions must hold. The first is that never in history has it been more profitable to satiate the consumer by playing to their expressed desires. If there is an argument against this, I haven’t heard it; Google and Amazon receive expressed desires from us anytime we use either one, and Facebook and Netflix somehow just know. The second is that satiation is a precursor to complacency. (The key caveat to make here is that there is a difference between security and satiation; the former is an admirable societal goal and, I believe, inspires innovation through the encouragement of risk-taking, while the latter does the opposite.) And the third is it that there has never been a wider gap between those with and those without a technical understanding of the inner workings of the algorithms that determine the success of products on sites like Amazon or Google. Thus, even as niches and opportunities reveal themselves to potential creators and entrepreneurs, the boundless complexity of exploiting and profiting from them makes it hard to blame would-be-creators for avoiding the headache and simply settling to be a consumer at the best time in history to be one, ever.

Two important caveats before continuing. First, we are experiencing a creative revolution as a result of these platforms. YouTube, Medium, and others have catalyzed an explosion of user-generated content. I do not mean to say that this isn’t happening — clearly, it is — just that the complacency I observe both within myself and those around me can be simultaneously explained by how easy all of these platforms make it to be a consumer. Second, there’s nothing wrong with editing and improving upon existing infrastructure with platforms like Facebook, or Airbnb, or Amazon — in fact, I’d argue that doing so is a humanitarian obligation, especially now — but the dark side to these platforms is important to consider: not only are their inner workings a mystery to those that use them (and in some cases, those that created them), but their existence relies on the status quo. Once their narratives are told — connecting people with people, or with lodging, or with *gasp* DIAPERS IN TWO DAYS AT NO ADDITIONAL COST — there’s nowhere else to go. And that matters. In a society as dynamic as ours is, true optimality — not the back and forth of the economy in search of it — is stagnation, and stagnation is death.


My Instagram feed has become a guided tour through this crisis of optimality, routinely hit as I am with ads for the best version of the products of old: toothbrushes, clothes, etc. And while it’s flattering that Instagram’s algorithm has decided I’m a prime candidate for the best of this world, it’s a reminder of both how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t that the best of this world is nothing more than a collection of marginal improvements on what we consume.² Don’t get me wrong: I love a great pair of joggers as much as the next guy — in fact, I’m wearing a pair right now — but they weren’t what I was reading about as a kid when people told me anything was possible and I believed it. Call me naive, but I was reading about and envisioning a future of flying cars and deep space travel. I was excited about 2050 in 2005; now I’m scared of 2018 (and perhaps 2016) in 2018.³

And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the sense of wonderment and desire for exploration that once drove me dissipating with every swipe through my Instagram feed; with every new rendition of joggers I’m presented with, or shoes made from New Zealand Merino Wool. Perhaps it is good that I write pieces like this one, acknowledging that I am not inspired by the products in the ads I see on Instagram, understanding that life should be more a pair of joggers I can wear to work or shoes so soft they don’t require socks. And yet it isn’t enough that I am not inspired by these “innovations;” they don’t survive based on whether they inspire, only based on whether they satiate. And if their ability to do so is indicated by their ubiquity in the circles I run with — and I include myself in that group; like I said, I’m wearing joggers — the job they’re doing is more than adequate.

“Hey, Facebook!”

“Yeah?”

“Your ads!”

“What about our ads?”

“They’re working!”

 

*long pause*

 

“…We know.”

A better electric toothbrush, oh boy!

It would be easy to claim my Instagram feed as evidence that we’ve simply given up on innovating, but I don’t think that’s the case; in fact, the ads I see are proof we’re desperate to because they show us trying. Take Jawzrsize, the new fitness aid that you wear in your mouth as you work out and claims to “chisel the jaw for an attractive profile” and “increase metabolism to improve fitness” (among other things). An “innovation” like this one should serve as proof that society does want to innovate, we’ve just become so scared of big picture thinking that all we do is make tweaks — to our shoes, our pants, our jawlines — hoping that we profit without upsetting anyone. This is enabled by platforms like Facebook and Google and Instagram; micro-targeting is great because it works, and it works because the calculated bets it makes on who is most likely to purchase something are quite often right, and minimize the potential for anyone to be upset.

My recent trip to Europe was further evidence of this. Most experiences I had, specifically in an Airbnb or a tourist attraction, felt optimal in the sense that they were cosmetically flawless: the interior of my Scotland Airbnb was clean and spartan and stocked with essentials (most certainly a 5-star experience), but it was also devoid of anything you’d find anywhere anyone had lived for any actual length of time, anything that might’ve served as a reminder that I didn’t — contrary to Airbnb’s new slogan — belong . The sights, too, were beautiful, but I already knew that from Instagram. I’d seen them all before. The Old Man of Storr was majestic in person, yes, massive and daunting and ancient, but the hill leading up to it was packed with North Faces and Carhartt beanies, there one moment and on Instagram the next, reminders of the impossibility of originality in this age; even if Instagram wasn’t what initially drew everyone here, it would be where they would share the experience, eventually drawing everyone else, like it drew me.

The Old Man of Storr just outside of Portree, Scotland.

lament the perils of Instagram and social media even as they’re the reason I feel comfortable exploring as I do, and the contradiction inherent in that statement is the point: it isn’t exploring if it’s comfortable, it’s exploring if it isn’t. To know what I’ll take from an experience prior to experiencing it isn’t to explore at all, and yet this is what Instagram does to places like the Storr, New Zealand, Machu Picchu, the Faroe Islands, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Blue Lagoon, the Sutro Baths, hell, even the restaurants we eat at, or colleges we attend. Nothing is immune because there are few of us who would rather chance mediocrity than ensure decency. And yet the former is the only way to experience anything truly worthwhile. It isn’t optimal, but that’s the point.

The crisis of optimality, then, is not just that things get so good that the need to take risks evaporates; it is that eventually, the very ability to take risks disappears. Understood so well by the algorithms that once only guided us, we become fulfillment mechanisms for their determinations, relieved of our own volition, clear as it is that we will never be as good as they are at determining what we want.

Because of this, while in Amsterdam, I decided to avoid sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. Just once, I wanted to chance mediocrity, so I biked around the city and picked places based on gut instinct — strange, after years of relying on the wisdom — or lack, thereof — of the crowds. Yet for as wonderful as the serendipity I experienced in spite of these platforms was — chance encounters and crowdless scenes and an existence free of the tyranny of expectation — our innovations now still aim — consciously or unconsciously — to suppress all of that, clear as it is that the downside risk of chancing it and losing a user is far worse, from a pure-profit perspective, than the upside of delighting the occasional user with something unexpected — say, a song on a Discover Weekly playlist far outside their median preferences, or family heirloom left on the nightstand of an Airbnb. Even in Silicon Valley, once an innovation mecca, all anyone wants to be is a platform; all anyone wants to do is get the flywheel — a word thrown around in tech circles like Adderall at a frat party — spinning, and building in any room for serendipity is the antidote to doing so successfully.

And this is sad, but really, who can blame them? To be a platform in 2018 is the woke capitalist’s dream; it is to be a profit-maximizer and risk-minimizer in a society in which the penalties for taking risks have never been higher because our propensity for outrage — individual, yes, but especially collective — has never been greater. There is a reason, after all, that Facebook has been so reluctant to call itself a media company: to do so would be to incur risk by admitting responsibility for what exists on its platform. It seems appropriate, then, that Facebook-enabled products are just as risk-averse as Facebook: to have access to their user data is to be able to create products that don’t alienate anyone because the only people exposed to them are those for whom they make perfect sense.⁴ A better electric toothbrush is anything if not useful; it’s also not a risk. (And yet here I am, outraged by it.)

Here’s Luke Kanies again in “The Market Is Wrong About Your Problems”:

“Most great companies exist because they provided something the market did not know it wanted. Their founders encountered a flaw, and managed to build something great in the opportunity created by it. Henry Ford claimed if he’d have given people what they wanted it would have been a faster horse. The market knew how to value them, but not cars. Before Apple, the market did not value personal computers. Before Google, the market valued directories but not search engines. Before the iPhone, the market valued expensive phones for professional use, but not personal.”

Once you realize that the only way society moves forward is by individuals within it taking risks, exposing themselves to the wonder of serendipity and the truth of our species’ anti-fragility — the threat of the platform economy, reliant on the status quo and risk-free by its very nature, becomes evident, and the crisis of optimality becomes clear.⁵


We have become a society of critics, compelled by stories but existing in a society scared of telling them, a society that takes solace in finding the errors within the stories of prior generations instead of imagining and writing any of its own.⁶ Free two-day shipping on diapers is great, but it’s not something worth talking about; it’s not a risk. We are innovating by optimizing, which by definition means both a satisfaction with and reliance on the status quo. We are becoming so privileged and so satiated that we have stopped wondering what could be because of how good what already is, is.

It feels like the more optimal our lives become, the less of a chance there is that they’ll ever be extraordinary. And maybe it’s naive to want the latter, ignoring that to someone in the third world, my life surely is. But societies don’t move forward by assessing societies in comparison to one another and holding those back that get too far ahead; we didn’t shut down NASA, after all, upon realizing that other countries lacked the resources to invest into space research. Is there a moral obligation both to remain critical of and look to improve what is? Absolutely. But a broken system optimized is still broken. We move forward not only by optimizing, but by taking risks and telling new stories. For now, it feels like we’re long on the former and short on the latter.


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Footnotes:

¹ Netflix is the only exception to this, but it’s worth noting that like the other three, it is infinitely scalable.

² Or maybe I’m just incredibly materialistic and everyone else is getting ads for deep space exploration programs/optimistic takes on the future. If this is the case, please tell me (in a private comment).

³ Anyone else?

⁴ Russia realized this prior to the rest of us, apparently.

⁵ I’m self-conscious writing this because I’m so conflicted about proposing that a fundamental goal of the discipline the guides my worldview — economics — is problematic, but I find myself more and more convinced that it is, at least past a certain point. For now, this is a point that I believe much of the first world has passed, though much of the third world has not.

⁶ I see the irony of being critical of being critical, I assure you.

2 Comments

  1. Although I agree with the spirit of this piece arguing that societies overall need to adopt a big-picture vision of the future, I don’t think the root of the problem lies with a dearth of risk-takers and storytellers in this day and age. In fact, to say so seems like a gross oversimplification because there are more risk takers and storytellers now than ever before in human history, as is evidenced by the explosion of independent media online, not to mention the new tools to publish that media. If anything, it’s the dissemination of their ideas that isn’t prioritized. People have to work so much harder to make an impact within a global media industrial complex that isn’t looking for their input and which actively devalues or appropriates their contributions.

    Like

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