Always ask why

The family story (“legend” just sounds pretentious) is that one of my most valuable, and likely most irritating, habits was instilled and encouraged at a young age by my uncle Denis. “Always,” he advised, “ask why.” I’ve always imagined it must have caused my parents some consternation that his was a direction I chose to listen to.

Fast forward a bunch, and I’m working at one of the A’s in FAANG (the river, not the fruit). Like any large company, it has a culture. Some of its norms and customs have been instituted deliberately, others have accreted, all have evolved. Adherence to those customs is a large part what it means to “be one of us.” While I disagree with some of those customs, in the aggregate I think they’re positive. One such positive, in my view, is that we look critically at our mistakes, try to understand root causes, and to capture those observations and lessons in written form and publish them, so that others might learn vicariously. And part of that process is to ask the five whys.

The nuance, and the value, in the five whys approach is is asking ‘the right’ question at each iteration, stress-testing the answers, and following the chain of causality, even if – especially if – it leads in unexpected directions. When it works, the illumination can be blinding.

So what, I hear you ask? Well, I’m reading more and more in the “main-stream media” asserting that social media may just might be hurting us. What I don’t read much of, if any, is thoughtful analysis of the how and why. Mostly, the argument goes, it’s because they have all the data – and with enough data, “they” (whoever “they” are) can make us do what they want. Some sort of social-media mass hypnosis.

This, to put it crudely, sets off my bullshit detector.

I don’t think it can be wholly explained by Facebook, or Twitter, or Mark Zuckerberg and all the data they have about us. They have the data we give them. If an individual tends to engage with content that’s dishonest, narcissistic, misogynistic, xenophobic, or antiscience – the algorithms didn’t make them do it. The person is making the choices. Clicking the links. Clicking some more.

I also don’t think it’s Trump. Don’t get me wrong, he’s pathologically dishonest, narcissistic, misogynistic, xenophobic, and antiscience, but he didn’t create any of those things. And regardless if he was elected to office because of those traits or in spite of them, he didn’t invent anything. He tapped into something existing. Exploited it.

So the algorithms feed us what we show them we want – it’s just operant conditioning – and we’re conditioning the algorithm. Living in a filter bubble certainly doesn’t makes us better, more rounded, people – but feedback loops amplify an input signal. They don’t create it.

So where does that leave us?

If you’re one of those people, like me, who have concluded that social media is a clear and present danger to democracy, ask yourself why. And keep asking. Because you can’t fix a problem until you understand it, and I believe we need to fix this problem.

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