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Optimism vs. Optimization

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Optimism vs. Optimization

It’s November 2018. You’ve never been surrounded by more technology, more longevity, or – as Steven Pinker...

9 Minutes Read

It’s November 2018.

You’ve never been surrounded by more technology, more longevity, or – as Steven Pinker might put it -- optimism that there’s never been a better time to be alive.

Maybe we’re in Renaissance II, but: do you feel more optimistic?

And what about the thousands, tens-of-thousands, out there just like you? How can your optimism (or lack thereof) be “optimized”?

Silicon Valley behemoths, VCs, analysts, and start-ups have for years regaled us with the power of “platform optimization”. $3 trillion in market cap can’t be wrong, right? Indeed, we’ve long counselled that digital platforms — software layers that gather and synthesize data — are the building blocks of digital success, driving the next best action with data-based decision support. They’re also profoundly changing what talent is and how it’s put to work.

So, it’s a platform world, we just live in it, right? Sounds great, doesn’t it? Long live optimization.

The Space Between

What could possibly go wrong? Uh… tech addiction, a winner-take all society, job destruction, vile ravings/ranting on social media etc. Just last month, the Economist’s coverwas emblazoned with “Peak Valley: Why Startups are Going Elsewhere”. And just this week, Recode’s own Kara Swisher summed up the pervasive ennui with an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “I Thought the Web Would Stop Hate, Not Spread It”.

Despite the angst, agita, and aggression of seemingly every news cycle, what’s getting lost is hope. And optimism. And in the space between, platforms have dominated.

So that’s all well and good for commerce. But what if you could, in fact, optimize Optimism itself? That is, underneath all our human challenges, how can machines help supercharge results, and catalyze successful action?

Part of our job at the Center for the Future of Work is to acknowledge this question. In confronting it, it’s also our job to look for the (sometimes less visible) green shoots on the other side of that pendulum. Because based on the headlines (e.g., Cambridge Analytica, Twitter and Facebook mea culpas, teen tech addiction, etc.), you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s simply some misanthropic miasma, a cloud cooked up in a Silicon Valley petri dish of devilish, digital singularity. But make no mistake: behind every click, like, swipe, plus-up, or thumbs down in the digital domain are expressions of free will, agency, and reflections of personal hopes and dreams.

The Crowd is People

With all that playing out at massive scale millions – billions – of times per day, what we’re really talking about is The Crowd.

With apologies to Mitt Romney, it’s wise to remember that “The Crowd is people, my friend.”

Yet the Golden Rule seems further and further away with each passing day, and hopes and dreams have given way to agendas and power trips. On balance, Machiavellianism is as-ubiquitous a feature of Renaissance II as is was Ren I (if not more so).

Intentionally or not, The Crowd, per the above, are largely doing their thing for free, because there’s some animating purpose. Optimistically, it’s for happiness. Pessimistically, because it beats watch paint dry, or corn grow, or for the unwitting dopamine rush. (Or else being paid as a teenager in a Macedonian Bot Farm – see our “Juvenile Cybercrime Rehabilitation Counselor” job of the future).

There’s people who think they’ve cracked (ahem, “optimized”) the Crowd Code. Leaders like Gary Vaynerchuk talk about the need to be contextual to a given audience – at scale. He says “The person I am most obsessed with is the high net-worth, Alpha female in the suburbs of a big town… She’s so influential, and if you can get 39 of her in a concentrated area you can get the whole damn thing… Here’s why: Instagram. Here’s why I like it more: She has between 700-7,000 fans which means [from a corporate marketing perspective] nobody’s paying attention…”

To be sure, Gary Vee’s example is – at its core – contextualization in service of the transactional. And in his opinion, “It’s not fun because it’s long tail, and it’s a lot of hand-to-hand combat, but what you end up realizing is your hire 3 people at $45K a year – constantly DM’ing people – and you amortize out 150K on salary. This is super countercultural to people who are quant oriented.”

When the Golden Rule is the Only Rule

So in the Age of the Platform, where, as the saying goes “to be more digital is to be more human”, how do you galvanize optimism over obfuscation? How do you catalyze the Golden Rule of the good hearted core of humanity? The easy answer is “optimize it”. Yet the better, healthier, far-harder answer is in the trenches, one-on-one, person-by-person, in every encounter, in every interaction.

The lesson from the trenches: Don't unfriend. Engage a bit. Roll them around. See what's happening. Encounter their POV. Golden rule applies, always. They have a difference of opinion. If they’re a troll, DO NOT feed them; use the “rule of 3” (1st aggression is OK. 2nd aggression is annoying. 3rd aggression is DQ…). But see what happens. Let a bigger picture emerge of what might seem like a small and threatened piece of their world. Encountering it in human space can break open a hardened opinion that changes, evolves, and transforms. And sharing that can change them and others.

That’s why work (and the future of work) are central to our hopes, dreams, and optimism. Keeping it more human in scale is central to its power to do just that. Even though employment levels are really low in the US right now, you still hear a lot about the “underemployed” and those that have just stopped looking for work that fall off the unemployment radar.

Consider Spain – the people described in this video may at first blush be forgiven for having what seems like an idyllic existence – chatting with friends, dancing, gardening – until at minute 1:40 when the speaker starkly reminds us they’re doing things to keep their mind off the sheer, cold reality of the crisis of being unemployed in the first place.

Why is this important for business leaders AND citizens of liberal democracies alike? If collectively, it only “moves the needle” 10%, just remember – at massive scale – 10% is HUGE.

Optimism: A Grapnel for Kafka & Orwell’s Slippery Slope

In their book Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, authors Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson write that in the history of economics and political science, you can think about why The Crowd is the polar opposite of Soviet-style central planning. They write: “Central planning can’t work because the data for the whole society can’t be given to a single mind. It’s out of date before it’s of any use.” (For strategists, shiver the thought for the typical five-year plan – which is gets harder and harder as digital information flows compress time and render information irrelevant).

But imagine you had a huge omniscient optimization engine fed by people, AI, transactions, sensors, IoT, etc. Wouldn’t that truly encapsulate, well – everything? To Brynjolfsson and McAfee, this is where Optimization runs into Polanyi’s Paradox – and where (to my thinking) Optimism may find its opening to successfully prevail in the long run: “Optimizing algorithms … would be a society-wide version of the well-meaning, but addled relative who drives all over town to find you the Christmas present you wanted last year, but no longer care about. Even if the central planners were always trying to act [implausibly] only in the best interest of everyone else, over centralization would create a society that is simultaneously Orwellian and Kafkaesque”.

Color us in the Optimist’s camp. Indeed, for all these reasons – together with clear-eyed realism – it’s more important than ever to catalyze participation to inspire other people and fortify their belief that they have a place in the future of work. In our new video for 21 More Jobs of the Future, we’re emphatic in our desire to believe in the positive power of technologically-driven progress, and our fervent hope the better angels of our nature prevail. And just like in times gone by, optimism must remain an enduring virtue for our digital civilization, democracy and economy to survive into the future.


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