September 10, 2019
When I was in high school, I argued passionately in defense of determinism. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the idea of free will or want it to exist. Rather, I believed there was an order to the universe that could be known. It was complicated, but knowable. With enough processing power, the secrets of the universe could be revealed.
Over the years, as others in the world have seemingly become more and more convinced in the predictive power of computing through machine learning and artificial intelligence, I’ve grown more skeptical. The more I see of the world, the more people I meet, and the more situations that I experience that don’t fit within a neat framework, the more convinced I become that there’s something about the world, and humanity in particular, that’s rich, fascinating, and utterly unpredictable.
It’s common practice to use shortcuts when meeting people. Short cuts to bucket them into groups which are easily, and well, understood. We use questions like, “what do you do?”, “where are you from?”, “what school did you attend?”, or “what is your home church?” to elicit information from which we extrapolate and scaffold a rudimentary understanding of the person. The fact that much of the structure we build based on the answers would likely prove to be wrong in time is quickly forgotten. The questions are tools and we use them to arrive expediently at an answer. Details are tossed aside. The model suffices.
That, though, is the problem. In our efforts to simplify the terrifyingly complex world, we put people and things in buckets, organize and file ideas, and we promptly forget that we’re ignoring the complexity that underpins all of that information. While these models simplify the world to a point that they’re comprehensible, when we operate based on them without a recognition of the nuance, the results are often terrible.
One of the most prolific, and horrific, examples is Communism in Soviet Russia. Millions died in labor camps and from starvation as the government, which claimed to be able to accurately plan for demand and generate supply, failed spectacularly. Despite these failings, Communism, and specifically Soviet Russia, was viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement for decades with ardent defenders across the globe.
While Soviet Russia is an extraordinary example of what happens when man’s hubris leads to the belief the world can be distilled down to formulas, we can see other examples everywhere. This week, I read two articles united by a common theme: problems arise when we forget that people are much more complicated than they appear in a model.
The first article was an opinion by Tim Wu in the New York Times, “We Are More Than What We Buy”1. Wu, a professor of law at Columbia, argues that the twin goals of maximizing shareholder value and lower costs of goods - emerging in the 70s, ascending in the 80s, and firmly established as American gospel in the 90s - has left us poorer. Americans may be able to buy more, but we, the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, artists and merchants, craftsmen and tinkerers, are left out of the picture. We’ve been reduced to consumers or shareholders only, as if the only thing we desire is to buy stuff.
The second was an article on management with the tantalizing title: “Overcome the odds to become a great boss.”2 In it, Ann L. McGill, a professor of management, marketing, and behavioral science at Chicago Booth, explored why so many bosses fail to live up to the standards they strive for. She finds the issue for most bosses is that they’ve forgotten they are human and work with humans. Dissatisfaction with bosses is the largest contributor to employee dissatisfaction according to multiple studies and it’s a problem that costs businesses dearly and the economy hundreds of billions annually through employees disengaging from their work. 3
Humans are not coin operated and most of us do not respond well to fear and intimidation. Rather, we crave connection and meaning. Unfortunately, as McGill notes, most bosses dehumanize their employees (my view is that this is unintentional, a consequence of ignorance on the effects of their actions and not stimulated by malice) - treating them in turn as animals and robots.
Dehumanization involves thinking someone does not have the full range of mental capabilities we associate with people. Sometimes, we view others as being a bit like animals, who are able to feel things just fine but not to think effectively. This happens, for example, when we see laborers as akin to plow horses and are a little surprised when we see them reading. Other times, we view others as being a bit like robots, who can think, at least in a routinized way, but not feel.4
McGill’s conclusion is simple: Be human, be whole, and allow your employees to be individuals - fully. It’s complicated and messy. The answers aren’t quite as straightforward because humans aren’t quite as straightforward.
In retrospect, my philosophic predilections as a young person reveal quite a bit. My affinity toward Determinism and the Moral Imperative, the only defender of either in my class, is seen today in my preferences for order, organization, and rules. Looking at the world through a model is immensely satisfying. Pieces fall in place and they can provide a language for understanding and examining problems. And the allure of a neat explanation, put in a box, and wrapped in a bow is strong. So strong that once it’s wrapped up, it looks like a gift and is easy to forget everything that was tossed aside to make it fit.
Humans are resilient, so the effects of governing models that have discarded nuance may not be clear immediately, but if we forget to reintroduce the complex pieces and account for them, in time the consequences will come. Wu notes, “For an individual person, the lengthy neglect of significant parts of one’s identity can lead to psychological harm. The same goes for a whole nation.”5
So where does that leave us? Use models. Categorize the world. Embrace the insights that data can offer. At the end of the day, however, I believe the reason we, all of us, are here is to live full, meaningful lives. We have only one and it’s too precious to neglect. Our lives are messy, and complicated, and beautiful. When making decisions then, whether related to crafting national policy, responding to an employee, or talking to a friend, never forget to put the humans back in the center.
Thanks for reading! My name's Stephen Weiss. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn.
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