Everything Matches

Tyler Cowen is worried about our matching technology. We have algorithms which tell us what TV shows to watch, which books to read, what wine to drink, and what shoes to wear. We can be matched with romantic partners and music, and very often our matching gives us exactly what we wanted and were hoping for. But, in the eyes of Cowen, all this matching has a dark side. It can make us complacent and can lead to greater segregation between people with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests.

 

In his book The Complacent Class Cowen writes, “Better matching for all its pleasures and virtues, is also in some regards uncomfortably close to the concept of more segregation … Very often we match to what we already like, or what is already like us. Matching brings many new and varied delights into our lives, but in a lot of spheres, the like-to-like effects of matching outweigh the ability of matching to shake us up. That is partly why matching can make us so happy.”

 

We like matching. We like knowing that other people like us already like the restaurant we are going to, or the show that is on tv, or the song that is about to play. We like when things are similar to what we already know. It reduces our cognitive burden and eliminates the stress of picking something and spending money on something we ultimately do not like. We are all risk averse to losing money, and hate the feeling of sunk costs. Matching makes us happy by making decisions more simple and helping us avoid the feeling of loss. It reduces our worries and in many instances, such as auto-playing shows online, we don’t even have to make a decision at all.

 

At the same time, matching technology reduces the chances for us to find something new. Up-and-coming artists with a new take on an old style can have trouble breaking through if the algorithms don’t match them with our tastes. We might miss out on great new content because our matching technology put us in a certain silo. When we reduce opportunities for new experiences, we stagnate, leading to the complacency that Cowen feared as we lose a belief that we could be something better than what we are and currently have.

 

A further downside to the matching technology we use is the potential for extreme segregation. If we really like one sport, then we can be pushed ever further into the specifics of that sport. Our algorithms can provide more and more specific content, advertisements, and connections to that single sport, eliminating things unrelated to the sport from our orbit. As we get further along, we might find that all the people we interact with are also obsessed with our particular team from one particular sport, and we will lose some ability to be with people who are not also living in the same bubble.

 

The sports example is a relatively harmless side of segregation, but it can be worse. Racial, political, and religious segregation are also possible with our matching technology. As we burrow down in our own communities, in real life or online, we may alienate those who do not look, think, and hold the same preferences that we do, leading to situations where we cannot have meaningful interactions with diverse people. This type of segregation is not healthy in a democracy because it makes shared visions and understandings of society and culture impossible across different isolated bubbles.

 

Our matching might make us happy and reduce our cognitive load, but it certainly comes with dangerous downsides. We can embrace the matching technology we have, but we should also be aware of what can happen if we let it make too many decisions in our lives. We should also find ways, times, and spaces where we can get beyond the matching to try something new and experience something beyond our typical bubble.

To Wear a Sweater or Not?

There is a story that I hear from time to time in different contexts. Depending on the context, it is framed as either positive or negative, with different ideas about what our future holds and how we should behave. The story manages to hit political and social identities, aspirations and fears for the future, and concerns over self-sufficiency and parochialism. The story is about a president who encouraged us to wear sweaters during the winter.

 

I’ll start off with the negative view, one perspective of which Tyler Cowen expresses in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat, representing a new era of lowered aspirations. In other words, the American response to economic adversity was to seek to restore comfort more than dynamism, and Americans pushed their culture in this direction all the more in the 1980s.”

 

Cowen’s critique is that as a response to inflation and oil insecurity from foreign oil dependence, Carter suggested we accept limitations and lower expectations. Our president at the time did not encouraging Americans to find new ways to make the world the way they want it. I think this critique is fair. Instead of imagining that the world could be better, that we could be comfortably warm and energy independent through new technology, the story suggest we should just deal with some level of discomfort.

 

I’ve heard others reflect on this story in a similar way. They criticize Carter for a defeatist attitude and for thinking small. People don’t like the parochial feeling of having an elitist person tell them to be tougher and to put on another layer rather than be comfortable but use more resources. Its easy to understand why someone might have the mindset that they deserve to run the heat, even if it is wasteful, because they worked hard to be comfortable and they can afford it.

 

I also think there is value to having our top political leaders signal that we can be more and that we can use science, technology, innovations, and a sense of purpose to make the world a better place. Perhaps encouraging us to keep the thermostats where they were, but also encouraging us to, as the line from the movie The Martian says, “science the shit out of this” would have landed us in a better place than where we are now.

 

But on the other hand, perhaps Carter was right. I have heard people praise Carter for being honest and realistic with the American public. I have heard people criticize Reagan, Carter’s successor, as being an out of touch elitist wearing a suit 24/7. I think people today desire a president like Carter who would signal that they were more in touch with America by turning down the temperature in the White House, making a personal sacrifice themselves before asking others to do the same.

 

Carter’s statement that we need to conserve resources and think critically suggest that we should not just use resources in a wanton fashion. This is a sentiment that climate activists today are trying to mainstream, and perhaps if we had listened more carefully to Carter, we could have shifted our technology to be more green, less resource demanding, and less polluting. After all, who are we to decide that the world should perfectly suit us for every moment of our existence? Isn’t a little discomfort OK, and isn’t it a good thing for us to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us? Is it better if we turn the thermostat down, put on a sweater, and pull out a board game to play with friends and family rather than crank up the heat and stare at our screens?

 

My takeaway from this story almost has nothing to do with the story itself. Whether we decide Carter was right probably has more to do with who we want to be, who we want the world to see us as, and what is in our self-interest than it does with whether we truly believe his attitude reflected and encouraged complacency. My takeaway is that events happen in this world, and we attach stories and meanings to the events that can be understood in different ways depending on our background and context. The narrative we create and attach to an event matters, and it shapes what we see, what we believe, and in some ways how we feel about the things that happen in the world. Think deeply about your goals, what you want to achieve, and how a narrative can help you reach those goals, and you will find the ways to tie that narrative into an event. At the same time, watch for how others do the same thing, and when you have discussions with others and want to change their mind, be cognizant of the narratives at play before you go about throwing statistics and facts at someone. Maybe a new narrative will be more effective than a bunch of economics and math.