Beyond optimisation: Coco Krumme and the need to plan for consequences

Optimise all the things has been the motto of Silicon Valley culture for two decades. Coco Krumme and Martin Gassner discuss the consequences of this philosophy.

In the fifth episode of the sixth season of the NEXT–Show, Coco Krumme, applied mathematician and author of Optimal Illusions, and Martin Gassner, Managing Director, Accenture Song discuss the limits of the optimisation mindset — and how we can better prepare for the consequences of emerging technology.

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For the last 15 years, the ever-increasing flow of data we generate about everything we do has opened up new ways to optimise your lives. This has, broadly, been considered a positive thing. Indeed, back in 2011, our theme was Data Love because people were seeing great benefits from embracing data and the insights it brings.

But now Coco Krumme is arguing that we’ve gone too far, in both her new book and in her NEXT Conference talk. There wasn’t one triggering event that led to this realisation. It was a succession of small observations, seeing how Silicon Valley’s obsession with optimisation changed the people around her. She cites seeing billboards suggesting that everything from nutrition to cloud computing could be optimised in some way.

To witness this for herself, she visited the construction site of Amazon’s new air hub in northern Kentucky in the US. It’s close to the East Coast and also to Chicago and the Midwest. It’s optimised to be close to population centres and population hubs. She also spent a lot of time with farmers growing sugar beets in the US, and saw how certain optimisation-based decisions are leaving farmers behind who don’t make them.

The side effects of optimisation

Martin Gassner points out that food is a great example — we’ve seen a decline in the inherent quality of food thanks to these practices. It’s not all bad; selective breeding of plants and now genetic modification have allowed a huge number of people globally to be fed who otherwise might be near starvation. There are benefits to having supply chains that get us products much more cheaply than we’ve had them before.

“The point I’m making in the book is not that there aren’t good things, it’s that they come with costs that we haven’t fully acknowledged,” Krumme says.

“When you optimise in one direction, you often don’t see all the cost until you look at it holistically,” agrees Gassner. “But is the drive for optimisation natural to us as humans?”

“I think it’s partly a drive. Humans like to engineer things, to make tools, to make the world around us better,” says Krumme. ”We’ve lost all our thick fur because we’ve invented better ways to keep warm. But I also think that this drive has been co-opted, and become bigger than its natural self. It’s been taken by those pieces of the capitalist equation with power to get more for themselves.”

The roots of the optimisation mindset

“Does this vary between the Western and the Eastern world?” Gassner asks.

Krumme argues that these are fundamentally enlightenment ideals that have developed in the West, and then parts of Asia have picked them up, applied them — and taken them further. She cites examples like Six Sigma as evidence.

“It’s all mixed up and a global phenomenon now, but its philosophical origins are in the West,” she says.

Krumme suggests that people like OpenAI’s Sam Altman are indicative of a sort of thinking in Silicon Valley that believes we can solve all the world’s problems through technology and algorithms. “It tends to flatten or erase other perspectives than the one of optimisation,” she says.

The fracturing of the Silicon Valley mindset

“We are getting to a point where, naturally, these systems that we’ve over-optimised will start to fracture,” she says. That will naturally lead to them backing off from fragility and over-optimisation.

“Then the philosophy of optimisation will crumble, but that will take time because there are factions in technology that are still ‘go, go, go’,” she says.

How would she approach finding a solution to this, Gassner asks? She’s clear that her personal solutions — moving to a smaller community included — won’t work for everyone, and maybe not even for her in the long term. And she doesn’t think that the solution is degrowth either, putting the brakes on industrialisation.

“More than anything, we need to become more cognisant of the choices we are making and their effects,” she says.

She suggests that it’ll be a piecemeal rejection of optimisation in aspects of individuals’ lives, rather than a top-down drive to eliminate optimisation, that sets this in motion.

Optimising optimisation

“We need to optimise optimisation,” suggests Gassner, “because some optimisation is a good thing, and if we want to find solutions for these challenges, we need optimised optimisation.”

Could there be a political movement in that direction?

“It could, in part, be a political thing, but I think this change will not be from an optimised solution to de-optimising, but simply from people feeling tired and fed up and not feeling that they want to participate as much in these global systems and companies.”

She cites “quiet quitting” as an example of that, as well as the attitudes of many in the Generation Z cohort. Surely, though, argues Gassner, the Silicon Valley world, wedded to growth as a societal good, will push back on her ideas?

“We’re addicted to growth in the West, and we’ve seen what happens to economies that can’t grow, or which are crippled by deflation,” she says. “But at a certain point, we hit the limits of that, and of the lies we told ourselves. Is it really growth if it’s based on lower wages in other countries?”

The value of de-optimising

Gassner studied fine arts, and he had a professor at university that focused on de-optimising the students at all times. “I still think it was a good thing, even if I didn’t see it that way at the time,” Gassner says. “As a designer, you are an optimiser, but you also need to accept boring times, doing the basic work on the project.”

“I would imagine as a designer it is useful to know the basics and do the boring stuff, even if you’re optimising and working in high technology now,” agrees Krumme.

“Absolutely. You need to think about the side effects of what you’re designing very, very early, which just didn’t happen in the past,” he says.

And perhaps that’s the answer: instead of optimising for just one direction, we must balance the positive and negative outcomes of what we do.

This post is based on the conversation between Coco Krumme, applied mathematician and author of Optimal Illusions, and Martin Gassner, Managing Director, Accenture Song, on the NEXT–Show in November 2023.