Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The A/B Test

with 2 comments

In this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, there’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Farhad Manjoo, who describes how the founder of Facebook is coming to terms with his role in the world in the aftermath of last year’s election. I find myself thinking about Zuckerberg a lot these days, arguably even more than I use Facebook itself. We just missed overlapping in college, and with one possible exception, which I’ll mention later, he’s the most influential figure to emerge from those ranks in the last two decades. Manjoo depicts him as an intensely private man obliged to walk a fine line in public, leading him to be absurdly cautious about what he says: “When I asked if he had chatted with Obama about the former president’s critique of Facebook, Zuckerberg paused for several seconds, nearly to the point of awkwardness, before answering that he had.” Zuckerberg is trying to figure out what he believes—and how to act—under conditions of enormous scrutiny, but he also has more resources at his disposal than just about anyone else in history. Here’s the passage in the article that stuck with me the most:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition, or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?”

Reading this, I began to reflect on how rarely we actually test our intuitions. I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about the role of intuitive thinking in the arts and sciences, mostly because it doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves, but there’s also no guarantee that intuition will steer us in the right direction. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his career to showing how we tend to overvalue our gut reactions, particularly if we’ve been fortunate enough to be right in the past, and the study of human irrationality has become a rich avenue of research in the social sciences, which are often undermined by poor hunches of their own. It may not even be a matter of right or wrong. An intuitive choice may be better or worse than the alternative, but for the most part, we’ll never know. One of the quirks of Silicon Valley culture is that it claims to base everything on raw data, but it’s often in the service of notions that are outlandish, untested, and easy to misrepresent. Facebook comes closer than any company in existence to the ideal of an endless A/B test, in which the user base is randomly divided into two or more groups to see which approaches are the most effective. It’s the best lab ever developed for testing our hunches about human behavior. (Most controversially, Facebook modified the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to adjust the number of positive or negative posts, in order to gauge the emotional impact, and it has conducted similar tests on voter turnout.) And it shouldn’t surprise us if many of our intuitions turn out to be mistaken. If anything, we should expect them to be right about half the time—and if we can nudge that percentage just a little bit upward, in theory, it should give us a significant competitive advantage.

So what good is intuition, anyway? I like to start with William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who once passed a choreographer holding his head in his hands while the dancers stood around doing nothing. When Abbott asked what was wrong, the choreographer said that he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Abbott shot back: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.” Intuition, as I’ve argued before, is mostly about taking you from zero ideas to one idea, which you can then start to refine. John W. Campbell makes much the same argument in what might be his single best editorial, “The Value of Panic,” which begins with a maxim from the Harvard professor Wayne Batteau: “In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won’t be so ignorant.” Campbell argues that this provides an evolutionary rationale for panic, in which an animal acts “in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism.” He continues:

Given: An organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: An environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: The organism will inevitably die. But…if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?

Campbell concludes: “When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors—it’s time to throw in an unknown.” In extreme situations, the result is panic; under less intense circumstances, it’s a blind hunch. You can even see them as points on a spectrum, the purpose of which is to provide us with a random action or idea that can then be revised into something better, assuming that we survive for long enough. But sometimes the animal just gets eaten.

The idea of refinement, revision, or testing is inseparable from intuition, and Zuckerberg has been granted the most powerful tool imaginable for asking hard questions and getting quantifiable answers. What he does with it is another matter entirely. But it’s also worth looking at his only peer from college who could conceivably challenge him in terms of global influence. On paper, Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner have remarkable similarities. Both are young Jewish men—although Kushner is more observant—who were born less than four years and sixty miles apart. Kushner, whose acceptance to Harvard was so manifestly the result of his family’s wealth that it became a case study in a book on the subject, was a member of the final clubs that Zuckerberg badly wanted to join, or so Aaron Sorkin would have us believe. Both ended up as unlikely media magnates of a very different kind: Kushner, like Charles Foster Kane, took over a New York newspaper from a man named Carter. Yet their approaches to their newfound positions couldn’t be more different. Kushner has been called “a shadow secretary of state” whose portfolio includes Mexico, China, the Middle East, and the reorganization of the federal government, but it feels like one long improvisation, on the apparent assumption that he can wing it and succeed where so many others have failed. As Bruce Bartlett writes in the New York Times, without a staff, Kushner “is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp,” and we may not have a chance to recover if his intuitions are wrong. In other words, he resembles his father-in-law, as Frank Bruni notes:

I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them.

Zuckerberg and Kushner’s lives ran roughly in parallel for a long time, but now they’re diverging at a point at which they almost seem to be offering us two alternate versions of the future, like an A/B test with only one possible outcome. Neither is wholly positive, but that doesn’t make the choice any less stark. And if you think this sounds farfetched, bookmark this post, and read it again in about six years.

2 Responses

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  1. That was the poin of the Star Trek TOS ep. Galileo Seven. Sort of.

    dellstories

    April 28, 2017 at 6:16 pm

  2. @dellstories: I haven’t seen that one!

    nevalalee

    May 1, 2017 at 8:47 pm


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