Friday Food for Thought: 31 March 2023

It’s worth emphasizing that whoever makes the choice of what to optimize is effectively deciding what problems are worth solving.

from System Error by Reich/Sahami/Weinstein

I watched The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) this week. Not the most inspiring story, but what music. Supposedly the music performances were a big influence on Lennon and McCartney. And the combination of CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color made for scenes that looked like paintings. I’ve read that some directors at the time didn’t care for CinemaScope because the wide aspect ratio was inversely proportional to the actors they were filming, but as a viewer I love it.

Abbey Lincoln performs “Spread the Word” in The Girl Can’t Help It
The Treniers perform “Rockin’ is Our Business” in The Girl Can’t Help It
Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It

Look, I made bagels. I used the recipe from How to Cook Smarter. I like his videos because his recipes are sugar-free and simple enough that even a culinary klutz like me can get good results.

After rewatching Season 1 of The X-Files, I had forgotten how the final episode (“The Erlenmeyer Flask“) calls back to the pilot, with Mulder again calling Scully late at night, and the Smoking Man revisiting the Know Your Exits warehouse in the Pentagon. But what I never noticed before is that Mulder’s final line (“I can’t give up. Not as long as the truth is out there.”) must have inspired Sculley’s final line in the 1998 movie: “If I quit now, they win.” I can even see a similarity between the warehouse that ends “The Erlenmeyer Flask” with the corn field at the end of the movie, a broader landscape to hold secrets even more vast and sinister.

Final scenes of “The Erlenmeyer Flask” and The X-Files (1998)

I’ve started reading System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein. It’s an excellent overview of the optimization mindset of technologists, how they have taken over the world, and the advantages and disadvantages that result. It’s a powerful reminder, because I’m as guilty as anyone in criticizing individuals or specific companies, when the real problem is how we express our own values in the products and companies we support and the politicians we elect. Hence my decision to abandon Twitter when the current narcissist took over.

  • P. 15: “The real worry is that giving priority to optimization can lead to focusing more on the methods than on the goals in question. If a particular problem to be solved is simply delivered to a software engineer without consideration or debate as to its value, we are stuck with the results of optimizing the goal. And suddenly boosting screen time, increasing click-through rates on ads, promoting purchases of an algorithmically recommended item, increasing predictive accuracy in facial recognition, or maximizing profit leads to other important values being lost.”
  • P. 17: “It’s worth emphasizing that whoever makes the choice of what to optimize is effectively deciding what problems are worth solving. The glaring lack of racial and gender diversity in the ranks of technologists and start-up founders means that these choices rest in the hands of a small group of people not representative of the wider world. No surprise that many new start-ups show a bias in favor of solving the problems of a privileged demographic.”
  • P. 42: “According to a study released by Stanford [University] in 2011, if the companies started by Stanford graduates, frequently funded by other Stanford graduates, were their own independent nation, it would be the tenth largest economy in the world. It also creates an inward-looking and self-reinforcing system whose values become more detached from everyone outside it.”
  • P. 45: “…there are literally hundreds of would-be Zuckerbergs who are in the pipeline to build the next world-changing, disruptive, optimizing, and potentially socially deleterious product. It’s not just a question of identifying the problems with celebrated tech founders. It’s not even a question of identifying the problematic companies whose harmful social consequences need to be reined in. We need to become clear about the values we care about to understand how to set the rules for far more companies tomorrow.”
  • P. 53: “…regulation is just a loaded word for an important thing: the actions taken by those we elect to transform our shared values (and reconcile our differences) into rules that serve the common interest. So when engineers and venture capitalists bemoan government regulation, they are in effect rejecting the role that democratic institutions serve in establishing rules of fair play, facilitating cooperation that advantages everyone, and helping us address the (potential) negative impacts of new technologies.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s