EMMA'S NOTES #33

WHAT IS IT OPTIMIZED FOR?

Hey!

Over the past months, I've trained myself to ask the question: what is X optimized for?

Often the coexistence of incentives and interests confuses our thinking and our conversations. Take the pharmaceutical industry:

Organizations within this industry are making a lot of money, isn't that unethical?

Still, the people that work there do help cure and prevent diseases, doesn't that make them heroes?

But what about all that money, couldn't they make their products faster and cheaper?

Although can we trust medicine that has not taken the conservative and slow route towards approval?

Asking yourself what the system is optimized for helps us to see what all actions are ultimately serving.

Important here is that there is a difference between the intention or goal is and what it's optimized for.

People can spend their lives intending to be healthy and at the same time live a lifestyle that is optimized for short-term pleasure rather than health. They have great goals, but their actions prevent them from reaching those.

Human behavior is optimized for survival.

Organizations are usually optimized for their survival as well. In a lot of cases, business is thought of as a zero-sum game that has to be won. Thus, people leading these companies are convinced that they need to grow and make increasing amounts of profit in order to survive.

The same questions I just raised about the farmaceutical industry could also be asked about social media platforms:

Social media platforms are making a lot of money from people's personal data, isn't that unethical?

Still, they are providing so many people with the opportunity to express their thoughts freely, doesn't that make them heroes?

If their algorithms are not geared towards equal distribution of content, doesn't that increase inequality?

But is it their job as a for-profit company to advance equality in society?

I believe the root of the harm social media platforms are doing to democracy is rooted in the fact that they are not optimized to nurture democracy. They are optimized for profit.

I trust that the people working at Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms are great people. After all, most people are great people. I refuse to believe that their honest intent is to cause division and societal unrest.

However, their product is not optimized to nurture the democratic process. It is to make profit. And they make profit by people spending as much of their time possible on their platform. Unfortunately, people don't end up spending a lot of time reading and thinking through things that don't fit their worldview. Content that invokes emotion makes us devote time to social media, preferably outrage.

Yes, social media have had a tremendous when it comes to access to share your content with the world outside of traditional media channels. This has offered so much value to the world when it comes to truth-seeking, collective learning, and valuable communication.

It's a mistake however to let positive side-effects rather than the fundamentals of a system shape your opinion or even worse, governmental regulations. The cases of both the pharmaceutical industry and social media platforms are complex. And I don’t claim I have the answers, I do know however that asking yourself ‘what is this optimized for?’ helps to think clearly.

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