Tomorrow, serendipity is for the rich
I gave an Ignite presentation last night in Sebastopol (which +Edd Dumbill
was referring to.) It was a bit dystopian. I'll record it (better; I screwed some of it up) but here are the speaker's notes.
It’s easy to forget that humans run on jungle-surplus hardware. Our lymbic region is wired for near-term things: remembering to breathe, avoiding sabre-toothed tigers, and so on. But we have a hard time with stuff like obesity, war, and climate change. We don’t optimize well when the feedback isn’t immediate. It’s worse if we’re bad at self-reflection: Incompetent people not only make stupid decisions but also think that they’re doing just fine, something known as the Lake Wobegon Effect.
The rich and famous have a way around their limited wetware and poor decision skills. They hire personal assistants, trainers, financial planners, and life coaches as prosthetic brains to optimize their lives. But soon, everyone will be able to afford their own personal assistant. Ubiquitous computing, Moore’s Law, a tolerance for increased personal data collection, and cheap, powerful mobility mean that what started as a phone is now much, much more.
Just take a look at the wall of the Apple store and you’ll realize that we’re equipping society with prosthetic brains, able to measure every aspect of our lives, at an astonishing rate.
Instead of trainers and coaches, we hook our lives up to the machine through sensors and APIs, then develop algorithms to optimize ourselves through constant feedback loops, part of a movement known as the Quantified Self. Today, QS focuses on basic stuff: food, sex, sleep, health. But it’s moving up maslow’s hierarchy fast: Rescuetime makes us productive; Gottafeeling catalogs our moods; New York’s School of One adapts teaching to the way each student learns best.
Companies aren’t far behind, using algorithms to hire and fire better, squeeze more miles out of truckers, identify bad insurance risks, and so on. Employees have little choice but to submit to optimization if they want the job; soon, citizens won’t be able to opt out either. Countries have to remain productive, after all, if they want to maintain their standard of living.
In the early 20th century, the entry of women into the workforce and cheap consumer credit boosted GDP. In the later 20th century, the boost came from a switch from atoms to bits, which built the Internet, flattened hierarchies, shattered distribution costs, connected the world, and monetized information.Now we’re going to turn the Quantified Self into the Quantified Society.
The optimizations that come from living algorithmically will be too good to pass up. And course, like Big Banks or Big Oil, Big Feedback will soon be too big to fail. The pressure to participate will be huge. Try to opt out, and at best you’re seen as a quaint anachronism, at worst, a traitor squandering scarce resources of your society and burdening it with chronic health issues. Unplugging is unpatriotic.
Which brings me to the risk. Algorithms are bad at exceptions. Every statistician knows that when an algorithm can’t find an underlying pattern, it can’t make good predictions. But breaking rules is how new rules are made.
We call exceptions by other names: “serendipity” or “leap of faith.” Exceptions invented the minivan and the Walkman. They gave us Kiva and Wikipedia. Exceptions, by their very nature, defy traditional analysis. Exceptions made Steve Jobs take a calligraphy class, made Feynman pick locks, made Einstein dream of trains. They’re not what the algorithm would have told you to do.
What if our dependency on feedback, algorithms, and optimization means we can’t afford serendipity? No joy rides, fatty foods, or lazy Sunday naps. And no time for the rule-breaking that breaks the mould.
Of course, today, only the 1% can afford the personal assistants and prosthetic brains that optimize their lives. This isn’t a widespread movement yet, and the technologies cost thousands of dollars. But remember: once, if you had a cellphone, it meant you were important. Today, the truly important are hard to reach, while the rest of us are issued digital tethers by our employers, expected to be on call around the clock.
In a world driven by feedback, only the privileged will be able to afford serendipity instead of slavish obedience to calculated regimen. In that world, only the rich can afford to waste time and to live sub-optimally. We need to be careful of a tomorrow in which we’re feedback slaves, with every cake, idle afternoon, and guilty pleasure calculated away by some future version of Siri, chasing ever-greater increased efficiency.