Issue #35: Optimization and Belonging

"We are all tasked to balance and optimize ourselves." — Mae Jemison

The Future of Belonging examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging over the next decade as loneliness, alienation, and exclusion become more pervasive. If this newsletter was shared with you, please thank the sender. I invite you to subscribe and join the community as well.

I’ve long wanted to have this newsletter be open to other voices. I often say that futures thinking is a team sport, meaning all of us have talent and perspective to contribute. I’m always thrilled when all of you send emails, share comments, and participate in meetups. Your voice and imagination are always welcome .

If you’re in the United States, it’s likely that you’ve pored over polls, election returns and a variety of statistics that aim to predict the outcomes of the 2020 election. Although our present history is nervewracking, we cannot lose sight of the ways in which algorithms pervade our lives and livelihoods in increasingly complex ways. And more importantly, the rules and objectives of these algorithms do so much of the work in driving the outcomes they produce. We get what we optimize for.

I’m excited to share Part 1 of an interview with Elena Giralt, fellow Texan and fellow earth sign, reader of this newsletter featured in Issue #22, and someone eager to build better future of belonging. We talk about redefining optimization and new sources of value creation. I’d love to continue the conversation and hear your thoughts and insights. I’ll share a community post on Monday to host an AMA.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

VM: Tell me about yourself, what you're working on, why you're curious about this question of belonging and why you think that it's important to

EG: So a little bit about myself. I grew up in Texas and moved to New York for grad school. The early part of my career was in public radio and television specifically working for the local NPR and PBS station in Houston. I went to business school thinking that I was going to, you know, just turn coat and become a big bad corporate power woman and then found that to be utterly uninspiring. No shade for people who pursue that! It just wasn't speaking to me and I fell in love with cryptocurrencies and decentralized ecosystems and all of the interesting trends that are coming out of that space. So that's a little bit about my professional journey.

The reason why I'm interested in applying a “futures” framework to a topic as broad as Belonging is because I think that unfortunately, a lot of times people miss the mark thinking that the concept of belonging doesn’t need to be treated in a technical framework. It is often dismissed. It's a really exciting field, it can inform a lot of the ways we think about how economies can flourish or die in a global connected world. Belonging also informs a lot of our behaviors on social platforms and ideas like network effects. People often associate gig economies with shared spaces like Uber, Facebook, Lyft, Airbnb. A lot of those platforms can be rooted in a more sophisticated way of talking about belonging and connecting it back to the product or connecting it back to the secondary effects that you see play out in different platforms. So that's a little bit about me and belonging. 

VM: I love that you mentioned thinking about belonging and economies and network effects. There's this focus on network effects, especially those in the most profitable companies that every single user every single node that comes on is adding value. What we're seeing now is obviously that this is not necessarily true. Every incremental node on a platform is not inherently positive for everyone else who's there.

Are there any other kind of questions or areas that you're spending a lot of time thinking about beyond sort of thinking about networks and economies you mentioned?

EG: Yeah, I think there's two ways to answer this question. One is questions that I'm asking myself in a professional context, as it relates to the industry I am in and the company I work for. And then, the other way to answer that question is from my own lived experience, as a person. From an industry perspective, I think about what kind of models exist today that simply weren't possible before. For example, models for exchanging value between individuals. Before the Internet, you could talk about a network as a group of individual players, which could include people, products, and institutions. Today, our computers are such powerful players. You can expand the scope of these models to include people and the algorithms that they're influenced by or people and the individual computers that they have, their companions. I don't know if you ever played World of Warcraft or any of these RPG games, but you get a “familiar” which is like a pet owl, or a magic Wolverine. Our digital tools are kind of becoming our little special pets that guide us through these digital dark forests. So that's something I'm thinking about. 

On a personal level, I am asking myself, what's the worst case scenario for the next 20 years and what's the best case scenario for the next 20 years. What does agency mean in terms of trying to live my life in one way or another. 

VM: Yeah, and I think we're all asking ourselves that too. I hear and use the words a lot like “unprecedented” and “chaos”. I think it's one of the weirdest times to be a human. Like, I think, you know, like 1000 years ago when there was chaos happening, you only knew what was around you, what you could immediately sense and what people can immediately tell you but now we are all connected to just all the different ways in which things are currently going wrong and also can go wrong. It brings a whole pressure.

What are other drivers that we should be thinking about (connectivity maybe) as we think about new networks, new ecologies and new economies that are coming forward. What are some of the drivers that you are focused on and thinking about?

EG: I would probably put these drivers into three main buckets that I spend time thinking about. First is, shifting away from optimization-based algorithms to different types of algorithms. An optimization based algorithm is usually like find x at the lowest price or find accept the highest price or match seller to the least entropy in a situation or the most entropy and that tends those models tend towards addictive behavior or polarizing outcomes. But there are other algorithms. Imagine if Google Maps, instead of giving you the most direct path could give you the path with the most trees or the path that you've been on the least. Funny, the way I phrased this, these algorithms would be optimisation functions, but my point is, you could design more sophisticated systems that either increase randomness in a system or prioritize different types of the experience than what we’re used to. That's something that's really cool. 

VM: I haven't ever heard anyone speak about algorithms that way. The first thing that popped in my head was that optimization algorithms focusing on the outcome which I feel gives a very capitalist paradigm where it's just like, “Okay, what's spitting out at the end of this process?” And what you're talking about is much more process oriented. It's much more like “what's happening along the way? How does the experience of all of these ones and zeros coming together produce something that is valuable?” So talk to me more about what you think would change about society? Which I realize is a very large question. If we were to have, optimization more for experience and process rather than optimization of outcomes, per se. Does that make sense?

EG: So, a lot of what I'm saying is informed by this idea of redesigning money. Money is power. And when you redesign money you have a huge opportunity to redesign power structures. So to the question of what happens...What would the world look like if we shifted from optimizing for profit to optimizing for something else?

VM: Like a quantum world.

EG: In a capitalist society you worship money or your capitalism is an optimization function where the outcome is money right? So if you want to convince the entire world basically to shift to another type of function. Money basically has to fundamentally change either in its form or in the role that it plays. So people either have to decide the technology of money that we've created is no longer useful, are no longer serving our needs and therefore, let's go to another one. If money isn't useful to us in its current form, let's redefine it, let's reinvent it.

VM: Assign it a new job in the world.

EG: Really I love Clayton Christensen. A really great book to read on is called Sacred Economics, it's a little hippy dippy. But I think one of the cool underlying ideas is that scarcity is usually the model that we use to assign value to something in a capitalist society — gold and money. That's why I think people have found those to be useful tools for exchanging value across different networks of belonging. Right. There are other things that are scarce and precious like clean water, trees, air quality, arable land. 

So what if you could create a type of money that assigns its value based on the scarcity of that system and then you create an incentive to have more of that. Right, so if you and I were using the Clean Water money or the Clean Water cash. We would want to go out and say, “Hey, Vanessa. Let's go clean this pond. Because once that pond is clean, the value of our cash goes up. Incentives can be really powerful to think about when thinking about what would cause the shift. Then the second part of your question, is what does the world look like? I think the world could look really ugly if we all have competing incentives that cause us to cannibalize each other. In order for us to move away from optimization functions as we currently see them, we'd have to figure out really how to optimize for something else.

VM: Yeah, and I think that makes a lot of sense what you're highlighting. I think what I've written about once before in the newsletter is just, you know, our current society and the way that we organize ourselves really prioritises a particular type of labor. And it doesn't really prioritize like some of the things that you're talking about. You know, could we, is there an economic incentive for maintaining clean water, clean air, is there an economic incentive for caring for others, whether because you are a dedicated caregiver or you just are checking on your neighbors. We don't really have good mechanisms for creative labor that we all benefit from and add that layer of what makes us human, like the creative expression that we all benefit from. Having functions that allow people to optimize for that kind of different work and labor and just practice and ways of being in the world are ways of, from my perspective, building more belonging. 

EG: Another thing I think about belonging, is this idea of “meme as a culture” and how it ties to appropriation. Everybody wants to belong to something. For example, I'm Latina and I could decide to really step into my identity in certain digital spaces because it's something that has gone more viral than talking about a particular hobby, like biking. You can see this performative call and response or reward mechanism that also incentivizes people to fracture these types of identities and be like, “Oh, I'm going to just take the Chicana part of my identity because that's really what's trending right now.” And that's not great, because just like you were talking about capitalist societies prioritizing a certain type of labor. In order to have a resilient system, you need to have a diverse ecosystem in order to have resilient feelings of belonging. It can't just be, I belong, because this is the flavor of the week, or I'm going to the Women's March because I'm really feeling AOC right now. In order for it to be substantive and have roots. It also needs to acknowledge the whole kit and caboodle of what it means to belong and own a space.

VM: Yeah, it's sort of like we need a certain level of sort of stasis and some things being fixed in order for to allow the flexibility and the stretching and the pulling and adapting that

EG: You almost need to raise the switching costs a little bit. Right now it's too easy to switch in and out of different things. And so there's not a huge incentive to invest in one thing and make it really beautiful and make it really strong. If I don't like where Texas is going and my identity as a person from Texas isn’t serving me that well. Okay, I'm a New Yorker now and that fluidity could have an impact on making Texas as a whole better or making me as an individual worse.


Coming Next

Next week, I’ll share Part 2 of the interview with Elena Giralt where we talk about new business models and cultural narratives for newly optimized algorithms.

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