Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Farhad Manjoo

The A/B Test

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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.

Are bookstores necessary?

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Earlier this week, Slate’s Farhad Majoo published an essay, in response to Richard Russo’s recent piece in the New York Times, on why it makes more sense for readers to buy books on Amazon.com, rather than local bookstores. Manjoo makes a lot of sound points—Amazon offers better prices and a much wider range of choices, meaning that you can buy two good books for the price of one at an ordinary bookshop—and I don’t intend to try and refute him here. (Plenty of others have done so already.) But as much as I love my Amazon Prime, his article still rubbed me the wrong way. Ultimately, I think I’m irritated by his assumption, which he presents without any particular scrutiny, that shopping in bookstores is an inherently irrational act, like voting or visiting an ashram, that people do just because it makes them feel good. It’s this paragraph, in particular, that annoyed me:

I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.

As someone who loves going to bookstores more than just about anything else in the world, I’m irked by this condescending tone, which implies that bookstore browsing is a quirk Manjoo is willing to tolerate in others—like being a LARPer, say—but secretly finds faintly absurd. As what Majoo might term a “bookstore cultist,” I can testify that browsing isn’t just something I “fancy”: it’s an essential part of being an intellectually curious person. For those of us who depend on new ideas for a living, there’s a definite utility to browsing among physical books, to the point where the failure to browse even puts us at a disadvantage. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned countless things while browsing that I never would have found in any other way: a small but crucial subplot in The Icon Thief, for instance, revolving around the Black Dahlia murder, was inspired by a random discovery in a half-price bookshop. Bookstores and libraries are simply the best places in the world to think and dream. And I can’t do that online.

Some of Majoo’s other points fail to hold water as well. “If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends,” Manjoo asks, “why would you choose your books that way?” This conveniently overlooks a couple of facts. First, the universe of books is far wider than those of movies in wide release, so a personal recommendation does carry some weight, as it once did at video stores. Second, and more importantly, we do choose our movies based on what theater owners recommend, albeit indirectly—the movies playing at my local art house theater are only a small subset of the independent or specialty titles out for release at any given time, and have been invisibly curated for us before we even set foot inside. This kind of curating, for better or worse, is also what good independent bookstores do. When I visit the Book Table in Oak Park, for instance, or the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, I’m guaranteed to see something interesting—like the new edition of Pale Fire, say—that I never would have found on my own.

Of course, I’ve made even more serendipitous discoveries at used bookstores, or the Strand dollar bin, implying that the best curator of all is random chance—and in a form that has no economic advantage whatsoever for the authors involved. Even worse, when I see something interesting at a local bookstore, I tend to do exactly what foes of Amazon’s Price Check promotion have complained about: I’ll check the prices available elsewhere, usually on my phone, and ultimately buy it online or get it from the library. As a reader and browser, then, I’m a mercenary: I’ll browse in one place and buy in another, or buy a used copy that doesn’t benefit the author at all. Obviously, I have mixed feelings about this, and the occasional purchase of a new book at a local bookstore doesn’t do much to assuage my guilt. My only hope, as a writer and browser, is that there are enough irrational book lovers of the type Manjoo derides to keep these bookstores alive. Without them, an intangible but real part of our culture will be lost. It has nothing to do with economics. But it’s very rational indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2011 at 10:37 am

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