In a 2017 article titled “Definite Optimism as Human Capital,” writer Dan Wang made 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.
The stories they tell, too, are not so much about their products or services as they are about the problem their products or services will solve. For example, mouthwash would not have been successful had marketers failed to make the public aware of a previously unspoken — but nonetheless acknowledged — problem: bad breath. If we do live in a free market, there should be ample reason for definite optimism. After all, there are endless stories left to tell and problems left to solve.
Yet it feels as if the world of today has never been less optimistic. There is a tangible complacency among many people I know, a complacency I sympathize with because it feels like we’ve reached a point in 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 10 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 are contributing to the complacency I observe in myself and others. In order for that to be true, however, three assumptions must hold. First, 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 them, and Facebook and Netflix somehow just seem to know.
In a society as dynamic as ours is, true optimization — not the back and forth of the economy in search of it — is stagnation, and stagnation is death.
Second, satiation is a precursor to complacency. (A caveat here is the difference between security and satiation; the former is an admirable societal goal and, I believe, inspires innovation through the encouragement of risk-taking, whereas the latter does the opposite.)
Third, 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 as a consumer at the best time in history to be one.
Two important reminders before continuing. First, we are experiencing a creative revolution as a result of these platforms. YouTube and others have catalyzed an explosion of user-generated content. I do not mean to say this isn’t happening — clearly, it is — just that the complacency I observe both within myself and those around me can be explained by how easy all 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 who use them (and in some cases, those who create 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 shipped 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 optimization — 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 optimization, routinely hit as I am with ads for the best new version of old products: toothbrushes, clothes, etc. And while it’s flattering that Instagram’s algorithm has decided I’m a prime candidate for the best products out there, it’s a reminder of both how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t that the “best” 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 shoes as much as the next human — in fact, I’m wearing a pair right now — but they weren’t what I was thinking about as a kid when people told me anything was possible and I believed it. Call me naive, but I was envisioning a future of flying cars and deep space travel. I was excited about 2050 in 2005; now I’m scared of 2018 in 2018.³
And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the sense of wonderment and desire for exploration dissipating with every swipe through my Instagram feed. Perhaps it is good that I write pieces acknowledging that I am not inspired by the products in the ads I see on Instagram, understanding that life should be more than the next best thing.
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 the shoes now — the job they’re doing is more than adequate.
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 innovate. Take a new fitness device that you wear in your mouth as you work out. It claims to “chisel the jaw for an attractive profile” and “increase metabolism to improve fitness” (among other silly things).
An “innovation” like this 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, 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, which minimizes the potential for anyone to be upset.
During one of my trips to Europe further evidence of this was presented. Most experiences I had, specifically in an Airbnb and at a tourist attraction, felt optimal in that they were cosmetically flawless. The interior of my Scotland Airbnb was clean and spartan and stocked with essentials (most certainly a five-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 Face jackets 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 there, it would be where they would share the experience, eventually drawing everyone else, like it drew me.
I lament the perils of Instagram and social media even as they’re the reason I feel comfortable exploring like I do, and the contradiction 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 few of us would rather chance mediocrity than ensure decency. And yet isn’t the former the only way to experience anything truly worthwhile? It isn’t optimal, but that’s the point.
The crisis of optimization, then, is not just that things become so good the need to take risks evaporates, it’s that eventually, our 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. Clearly 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. It was strange after years of relying on the wisdom — or lack thereof — of the crowds. Yet as wonderful as the serendipity I experienced in spite of these platforms was — chance encounters and crowdless scenes and freedom from expectation — our innovations still aim, consciously or unconsciously, to suppress all of that. The risk of chancing it and losing a user is far worse, from a 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 a 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.
The more optimal our lives become, the less of a chance there is that they’ll ever be extraordinary.
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 where 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 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 —access to their user data means being able to create products that don’t alienate anyone because they’re targeted only to people they make perfect sense for.⁴ A better electric toothbrush is anything if not useful; it’s also not a risk. (And yet here I am, outraged by it.)
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 the only way society moves forward is by people taking risks — exposing themselves to the wonder of serendipity and the truth of our species’ anti-fragility — the crisis of optimization 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 in 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.
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, because to someone in a developing nation, my life surely is extraordinary. But societies don’t move forward by assessing themselves in comparison to one another and holding back when they get too far ahead. We didn’t shut down NASA upon realizing that other countries lacked the resources to invest in space research.
Is there a moral obligation to remain critical and look to improve what exists? 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.
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 and 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 developed world has passed, though much of the developing world has not.
⁶ I see the irony of being critical of being critical, I assure you.