John Stokvis

November 10, 2021

It always goes both ways

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You can call it privilege. You can call it utopianism. You can call it self-regard.

Whatever you call it, people have a blind spot that I see pop up over and over again. We tend to view our relationship with the world as a one-way street, when it actually goes in both directions. For whatever reason (egotism? present bias?), it's easy for us to imagine that the things we do will have an influence on things that "aren't us" but it's difficult for us to imagine that influence will also run in the other direction, especially in reaction to the things we do.

One example of this is a bias called the fundamental attribution error. In short, we tend to assume the underlying reason ("fundamental") that good things happen to ourselves is because of our innate qualities, while bad things happen to us because of circumstances beyond our control ("attribution"). And we reverse the tendency when thinking about other people ("error"). It's a tendency, not a rule and it's understandable.

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Therefore it's easy to define things as good because I did them (because I'm good people). There's cognitive dissonance when I do something that I can't rationalize as good. After all, if good people don't do bad things, and I did a bad's less painful to just not go down that road. An easy offramp is to presume that I did it because something (not me) caused me to do it.

And since this one-way thinking happens at the individual level, it makes sense that it would happen at the group level as well. In an interview about the relationship between leaders and employees with consultant researcher Ben Jackson from Charlie Warzel's new newsletter (same as the old newsletter) at the Atlantic, Galaxy Brain Ben points out:

Warzel: I feel like there’s a really interesting trend of employees becoming more vocal about how companies are being run and exercising a little of that labor power. It feels heartening. Are you seeing that? 

Jackson: The challenge is that, after years of being told to “bring their whole selves to work,” now people are doing that. As employees and managers and leaders brought more of their whole selves to work it’s revealed some of the divisions that weren’t really visible because they were papered over in everyone’s day-to-day.

It's easy to imagine that leaders saw the trend of employees blurring the line between work and "not work" as a net positive. Employees are more committed (so less likely to leave or ask for more money), spend more time working (so more productive - maybe?), and all it cost was some free lunches and a pool table. 

But leaders missed how the relationship would flow in the opposite direction as well. As employees increasingly saw their job as tightly wrapped up in their personal identity, they naturally want to influence the what the company stands for ("make money however possible") to align more with what they stand for ("do good," "support justice," "make a positive difference" whatever that means to each person). This was probably exacerbated in the US where "what do you do?" is usually the second question people ask someone when meeting someone (after "what's your name?"). Mix in the pandemic which literally turned the place people live into the place they work for many, and it's no wonder that employees are pressuring the companies they work for to reflect their personal values.

And since we're leveling up, we can see it happening on the country scale as well. Ben Thompson, who writes about tech strategy, wrote in 2019 (in an article about China's pushback on an NBA GM making a public statement in support of the Hong Kong protests) about the 1990s optimism that led western countries to believe that the internet would be a force that would impose western values like freedom of expression on China:

The problem from a Western perspective is that the links Clinton was so sure would push in only one direction — towards political freedom — turned out to be two-way streets: China is not simply resisting Western ideals of freedom, but seeking to impose their own.

We're alive and we act on the world. But the world is made up of other alive beings, and they act on us as well. It goes both ways.

Where it gets a little scary is when we embed this kind of bias into machine learning models which run on their own, relentlessly pursuing some goal. Doug Colkitt pointed out in a Twitter thread how the company Zillow wound up training a model with the unconscious assumption that it will be the only actor in the world (as if it were simulating physics) as opposed to just one actor in a world of other actors who will react to everything the model does. This lead to the model making a series of bad real estate deals and almost taking down the company. It's not hard to imagine something like this happening and severely damaging an entire country or the world.

I don't have the answer other than to remember that as we interact with the world, we can't separate what we do from what we value...and that trying to do so is itself a statement of what we value. At the end of his article, Ben Thompson articulates it much better:

First, the Internet is an amoral force that reduces friction, not an inevitable force for good. Second, sometimes different cultures simply have fundamentally different values. Third, if values are going to be preserved, they must be a leading factor in economic entanglement, not a trailing one. This is the point that Clinton got the most wrong: money, like tech, is amoral. If we insist it matters most our own morals will inevitably disappear.

The world isn't made up of neutral, mindless actors. I should not be one either.