The Common Sense Trap

Lindsay Lohan’s third best movie of all time.

I recently started reading Duncan Watts’s book Everything Is Obvious. (Watts was an academic sociologist who recently took up research positions at Yahoo! and then Microsoft.) One core theme of the book is the failure of common sense:

The same difficulty of reconciling what, individually, appear to be self-evident beliefs shows up even more clearly in the aphorisms that we invoke to make sense of the world. As sociologists are fond of pointing out, many of these aphorisms appear to be direct contradictions of each other. Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract. Absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is out of mind. Leap before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that these beliefs are contradictory–because we invoke different aphorisms in different circumstances. But because we never specify the conditions under which one aphorism applies versus another, we have no way of describing what it is that we really think or why we think it. Common sense, in other words, is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.

The same kind of aphorisms are found in tech commentary. For a fun exercise, I came up with two aphorisms. To make this more interactive, try to come up with some examples that go with each.

1. A good product does one thing and do it well.

Dropbox. Instapaper. 1Password. These apps and services succeed because they focus on a core feature and implement that feature better than anyone else.

Indeed, all the recent positive reviews of the note-taking app Vesper repeatedly emphasize the fact that, despite lacking many features present in comparable apps, it does what it does so exceedingly well. (See, for a small sample, reviews from beta-testers Marco Arment, Shawn Blanc, and Federico Viticci.)

It sure seems that the one-thing-well philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Take a break.


Let’s go to the next aphorism.

2. A good product is adaptive and versatile.

Think about the products that Apple sherlocked. No one needs an HDR or a panorama photo app once Apple built those features in. No one needs a notification manager app any longer either.

Most recently, Harry Marks dismissed the death of all the flashlight apps beautifully: “The implication that Apple is hurting developers by implementing similar features into its OS means the writer has no concept of history, nor understands the difference between a feature and an application. Versatile apps survive. One-trick ponies don’t.”

It sure seems that the versatility philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Wait a minute.

Didn’t Dropbox get sherlocked by iCloud? Didn’t Instapaper get sherlocked by Reading List? And, with the iOS 7 announcement, didn’t 1Password get sherlocked by iCloud Keychain? Do these products survive because they do one thing well, or because they’re versatile?

Of course there are grains of truth in both aphorisms. Some products succeed because they do one thing well. Some products succeed because they are versatile. Some, such as Dropbox, succeed because they have both. Neither truism, though, encapsulates what it takes to be successful. They are at most partial explanations.

The problem is that, since both aphorisms sound so good, it’s hard to not hear them as complete explanations. It’s obvious that flashlight apps got sherlocked because they’re not versatile. It’s obvious that Vesper succeeded because it does one thing well. Nothing more needs to be said. Nothing more can be said.

In each case, we reach for whichever aphorism that is most convenient to us, pronounce it as the beautiful truth, and forget about its contradictory twin. We fall into the common sense trap.

How can we escape? For one, we can stop repeating and relying on such aphorisms. Even today, people are still constantly reiterating variations of if you’re not the consumer, you’re the product. Stop! For another, we can be more cognizant of our own fallibility. Have we got the whole story? Probably not. What are the other similar cases? Does the same aphorism apply there? If not, why not? Asking follow-up questions is a good way to not settle with aphorisms as be all end alls.

Common sense aphorisms are the bread and butter of lazy parochial tech commentary. If that’s not the kind of tech commentary you want to read or write, try to avoid the common sense trap.

The Practical Benefits of Calls for Diversity

To start, I am going to assume that prejudice against women, non-whites, and other subordinate groups is bad — even when it is unconscious. If you think otherwise, then you can stop reading now and go listen to some Skrewdriver instead.

I am also going to assume that most, if not all, of us hold some implicit prejudices against women, non-whites, or other subordinate groups. As I said before, this assumption is quite well-supported by decades of research in the North American context, summarized here. If you are still skeptical, I invite you to try out some implicit association tests.

What can we do about the negative stereotypes that we implicitly hold? Clearly, being “gender blind” and “color blind” — contrary to what Andy Rutledge will have you believe — is not the answer. To do so is to give in to our lizard brains and to let our implicit prejudices win over our explicit anti-prejudicial commitments. (Again, if you don’t have these commitments, go listen to Skrewdriver.)

I want to suggest that boycott petitions and other explicit calls for diversity can have a kind of practical benefit that is only tangentially related to their stated goals. The upshot is that, whatever ambivalence you have about boycotts in general (and I have plenty), you should also take their hidden practical benefits into account.

I’ll focus on a recent research program by social psychologist Gordon Moskowitz and colleagues on suppressing implicit stereotypes. What they found is that one effective way to prevent the activation of implicit stereotypes is to prime people with egalitarian goals.

[Disclaimer: While the existence of implicit stereotypes is confirmed through decades of research, the work on the suppression of implicit stereotypes is relatively nascent. Apply appropriate caution.]

From Moskowitz’s review article on the implicit stereotype control:

In several experiments, the temporary priming of egalitarian goals was achieved in a fashion similar to Spencer et al. (1998) — by having people contemplate a failure. Research participants were asked to describe behavior from their recent past that clearly violated the egalitarian ideals they hold. In this case, the failure in question was regarding treating African Americans in an unbiased way. This failure at being egalitarian should trigger a goal to be egalitarian and initiate the inhibition of goals that are incompatible with being egalitarian, such as those that promote the activation of stereotypes.

[…] Do participants control the immediate and ‘automatic’ process of stereotype activation on a task that they do not know has anything to do with stereotyping? The answer is ‘yes’, but only if one had previously had an egalitarian goal triggered. Participants who write about a failure relating to a control goal show stereotype activation. However, people for whom egalitarian goals had been triggered showed stereotype inhibition — they respond slower to stereotype-relevant words (and only these words) following faces of Black, but not White, men.

[… in conjunction with other studies …] Thus, simply thinking about being egalitarian does not lead one to stereotype less, striving to be egalitarian, having a goal, does.

Implicit stereotypes can therefore be implicitly inhibited — by striving for an egalitarian goal. To reach a bit, we might say that thinking about past failures and trying to be egalitarian are more effective for preventing the activation of implicit stereotypes than consciously suppressing those implicit stereotypes. So one thing we can do about the negative stereotypes that we implicitly hold is give ourselves a special kind of attentional misdirection.

You probably see the application to the current conversation on diversity in tech already. There are practical benefits to Matt Andrews’s pointing out a conference’s failure to have a female speaker and Rebecca Rosen’s petitioning for the boycott of such conferences. They (mis)direct our attention to egalitarian goals. Then, in striving for those egalitarian goals, we are less prone to the activation of harmful unconscious stereotypes that we all probably hold. So even if you don’t think something like a boycott is the right response at the end of the day, there can still be practical benefits that come from someone calling for it.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

What is Pragmatically Bad about Tech’s Diversity Problem?

Jamelle Bouie has an excellent piece in the latest issue of The Magazine about the source of tech’s diversity problem.

He points out that the lack of diversity in tech, broadly construed, has less to do with people’s explicit attitudes, and more to do with their implicit attitudes. The problem is perpetuated by little things we don’t pay much attention to, like network effects. As anyone familiar with the research on privilege is keenly aware, it is hard to acknowledge privilege — let alone to fight against it — because it is largely invisible, even to our conscious minds. (A good companion piece is Tom Morris on geeks and privilege.)

Tech’s diversity problem is still here. Most recently, Matt Andrews pointed out the existence of an all-male (and mostly white) tech conference. Shockingly, one of the organizers responded to his inquiry with: “I don’t feel need to defend this, but am happy with our process”. A firestorm ensued, and you can catch some sparks by clicking on the links that Andrews added to his post, at the bottom. (Don’t miss the contributions in the comment thread.)

I am less interested in stoking this fire than in tackling a common attitude that I see in the discussion. Basically, the attitude is something like: let’s grant that the lack of diversity in tech is morally bad; what is so pragmatically bad about it? In other words, from the perspective of a conference organizer who is neither interested nor disinterested in issues of social justice, why shouldn’t there be an all-male (and mostly white) panel speaker list?

I want to suggest that we can begin to see one way in which tech’s diversity problem is pragmatically bad through the recognition of the false-consensus effect. (Since the effect is well-documented, the Wikipedia entry, which is based on an academic review, is actually quite good.) This effect, roughly described by Wikipedia, refers to

a cognitive bias whereby a person tends to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her. There is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are ‘normal’ and that others also think the same way that they do.[1] This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a ‘false consensus’.

Here is the causal pattern that I see, without the fine prints. First, implicit biases drive the lack of diversity. Then, the the lack of diversity drives the false-consensus effect. In the end, the tech world loses out on perspectives that would have added significantly to the conversation — perhaps by challenging our conceptions of normality and guarding us from overgeneralizing from our own experiences. If something like this is going on, then you should still care about the practical losses for tech even if you don’t care about the social injustices (but of course you should care about that too).

The matter, as always, is more complicated. In this context, a further complications comes from the fact that implicit bias and false-consensus effect can interact in dangerous ways. In a recent article in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found a direct relation between holding an implicit prejudice and perceiving a consensus about the acceptability of the prejudice. They then noted some consequences of this interaction:

[…] the illusion of strong support among prejudiced people can be expected not only to make them more willing to act on their views, but also more forthright in expressing their opinions, less prepared to compromise, and less likely to modify their attitude. Furthermore, consistent with spiral of silence theory, we can expect that people with nonprejudiced attitudes will be less likely to express their attitudes if they perceive themselves to be in the minority, leading their attitudes to be underrepresented in the environment […]

Together, implicit bias and false-consensus effect generate another form of pragmatic badness from the vocalness of the minority who fail to recognize the moral badness in tech’s lack of diversity. Taking this into account, it is all the more important for us to speak out and fight against the problem. Even from a selfish perspective, there can be a more fun tech world if there exist a wider range of voices.

Update: At this point, a common follow-up is: well, what about merit? People’s judgments of merit turn out to be significantly gendered and racialized too. Amongst the earlier studies that convincingly demonstrated this is Steinpreis et al. (1999), which found that people rate a male CV more highly than an otherwise identical female CV. Most recently, Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) got a lot of press. But really, the effect is studied extensively and proven to be quite robust.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Satisficers > Maximizers

People who write about tech seem to be obsessed with maximizing — attempting to find and get the best, always.

There is The Wirecutter, a website that is dedicated to find the best in everything tech (and some more).

Ben Brooks wrote about his obsession with the best a while back:

[…] it’s something that is an ongoing pursuit in my life: to get the best X that I can get. […] It really is the little things that count, because if you improve enough of the little things (and the big things don’t suck) then pretty soon you are going to have a lot of great things going for you and thus you will be happier. This is the reason I often write about recurring topics on this site — it’s a documentation of my pursuit to find the perfect thing for me.

More recently, Dustin Curtis’s eponymous declaration of his obsession with the best has been making the rounds in the Appleverse:

[…] trust me: the time it takes to find the best of something is completely worth it. It’s better to have a few fantastic things designed for you than to have many untrustworthy things poorly designed to please everyone.

Marco Arment echoes the sentiment:

This is why I research and review everyday objects like light bulbs: I have no patience for poorly working, poorly designed, or low-quality products.

Patrick Rhone agrees too:

This is something I believe in strongly. The reason is simple, choosing the best is a final choice. A final choice means I never have to spend the mental energy on that choice again.

These quotes all converge on two themes.

  1. Best or Bust. If you are not getting the best, then you are getting something untrustworthy, poor, or low-quality.
  2. Bestness = Happiness. If you do try to find and get the best, even at the cost of spending a great deal of time and money, you’ll be happier in the end.

Both are false.

Best or Bust is simply a false dichotomy. In most instances, there is middle ground between what is the best and what is untrustworthy, poor, or low-quality. There is such a thing as being good enough — being above some acceptability threshold relevant to one’s needs and wants. Often, the second best in many categories are good enough. iPad 4 is the best, but iPad 3 is good enough.

Unlike maximizers, satisficers do not always attempt to find and get the best. Satisficing is about attempting to find and get what is good enough.

As the Wikipedia entry on satisficing recounts, Herbert Simon argued in 1956 (!!!) that, given our cognitive limitations, rationally we should be satisficers rather than maximizers:

He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to [maximize]: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality [that is, satisficing] takes into account these limitations.

In other words, even if you attempt to find and get the best, in an uncertain world you often won’t succeed. To say that the world of tech is rather uncertain is a serious understatement. Even if you researched endlessly and settled on the iPad 3 as the best tablet your money can buy, six months later that choice probably wouldn’t look so optimal after all.

Given human cognitive limitations, Bestness = Happiness turns out to be false too. More from Wikipedia:

Maximizers tend to use a more exhaustive approach to their decision-making process: they seek and evaluate more options than satisficers do to achieve greater satisfaction. However, whereas satisficers tend to be relatively pleased with their decisions, maximizers tend to be less happy with their decision outcomes. This is thought to be due to limited cognitive resources people have when their options are vast, forcing maximizers to not make an optimal choice. Because maximization is unrealistic and usually impossible in everyday life, maximizers often feel regretful in their post-choice evaluation.

In other words, you might aim for more happiness with maximization, but you won’t actually have more happiness. If anything, the attempts to find and get the best make you less happy in the end. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, satisficing is the way to maximize happiness.

Once we recognize our own cognitive limitations, it’s obviously more rational to settle for good enough than to keep searching for and trying to buy the best. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Sparklines, Animated GIFs, iOS Devices

A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution. Sparklines mean that graphics are no longer cartoonish special occasions with captions and boxes, but rather sparkline graphic can be everywhere a word or number can be: embedded in a sentence, table, headline, map, spreadsheet, graphic.

This famous quote is from Edward Tufte, who proposed sparklines as a way of representing quantitative information in text. Sparklines were supposed to change the way we write about data. No longer do we need to write cumbersome sentences or make oversized charts to convey quantitative information. A sparkline would be worth a thousand words.

The reality turned out a bit differently than what Tufte envisioned. Sure enough, you can spot some sparklines in the wild — especially on financial pages. Even Excel now supports sparklines, in addition to a number of other implementations. Still, sparklines are by no means thriving. They can hardly be found on the sports pages, a natural habitat. For the most part, they remain obscure creatures that are known only to design nerds. Perhaps tellingly, when I searched for real world uses of sparkline, Google’s first page of results included two hits for sparkling wine.

In contrast, animated GIFs have thrived in the web journalism context. As Andrew Phelps of Nieman Labs puts it, “When video says too much and a still image too little, the animated GIF can be the perfect container for the agony and ecstasy of sport.” In a way, animated GIFs have turned out to sparklines’ non-nerdy cousin: a way to encapsulate information that cannot be succinctly or forcefully conveyed via text. In many contexts, an animated GIF is worth a thousand words.

But there is a huge problem for the animated GIF: mobile. On my iPhone and iPad , animated GIFs function truly awfully. All the same reasons that made people hate animated GIFs on 1990s Geocities pages are back on iOS devices: animated GIFs load slowly, play jerkily, and sometimes even pause weirdly. Whenever they’re around, there is no ecstasy but only agony. (I assume that mobile performance is one reason that Dr. Drang converted an animated GIF of an at-bat to H.264 video.) In the near-future when we often read things on the go, it looks like animated GIFs are doomed to the same fate as sparklines.

Maybe this won’t be the case. I don’t know if the limitation here is hardware or software. So I don’t know if the new new iPad (4th gen), with its A6X chip, would play back animated GIFs much more smoothly. I also don’t know how animated GIFs play on Android or Windows mobile platforms. So, maybe someone can let me know about these things. I do hope that some solution is found, though. Otherwise, I will never be able to enjoy FanGraphs‘s wonderful statistical analyses with some illustrated animated GIFs when I’m on the go. And that, as far as first world problems go, is a pretty suboptimal outcome.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Launching Environments & Launching Projects

When I am using OS X, I work in two ways.

One way is enviromentally-oriented. For example, I open Chrome to look at websites. I launch an environment to access a bunch of things of the same type; in this case, websites.

Another way is project-oriented. I almost never open InDesign by itself. Instead, I launch a project; in this case, a specific design that I’m working on. I just click on the file I want, and the relevant application opens it.

Of course, it’s not just work. The same goes for play and (gasp!) consumption too. I open iTunes to open an environment for music. But I click on an mp4 file to launch VLC to play a video.

I like having these two modes of workflow available. To me, it makes no sense to open InDesign, and then click on “File”, and then click on “Open”, and then browse through the file architecture to find the project I’m working on, and then finally opening it. Even with a keyboard shortcut, accessing the file architecture from within the environment feels like an unnecessary chore. Similarly, I cannot even imagine clicking on a specific URL (file?) to open Chrome. Sometimes it just makes sense to launch environments, and other times it just makes sense to launch projects.

In fact, the two workflow modes are not merely two ways to work (and play and consume). They represent two ways of thinking: tool-oriented and task-oriented. Of course, in thinking about what to do, one always has to think about both how to best do it and what needs to be done. But the questions can be prioritized. Sometimes it is more important to think first about the tool to use, and other times it is more important to think first about the task to be accomplished.

The problem with the iOS environment is that it exclusively privileges the environmentally-oriented workflow. While, to emphasize again, there is nothing wrong with thinking about tools first in some cases, it’s entirely unobvious that this way of thinking is preferable in all cases. Yet, the universal preference for tool-oriented thinking is exactly what the core design philosophy of iOS assumes, builds on, and mandates. Everything is to be done from an app environment. And so I am worried that the same core design philosophy appears to be creeping into OS X with the increasing prominence of iCloud in Mountain Lion.

The core design philosophy that exclusively privileges tool-oriented thinking is, obviously, no accident. Steve Jobs articulated this vision in 2005 (thanks to @tiny_mach for the reference):

Now, e-mail, there’s always been a better way to find stuff. You don’t keep your e-mail on your file system, right? The app manages it. And that was the breakthrough, as an example, in iTunes. You don’t keep your music in the file system, that would be crazy. You keep it in this app that knows about music and knows how to find things in lots of different ways. Same with photos: we’ve got an app that knows all about photos. And these apps manage their own file storage.

And eventually, the file system management is just gonna be an app for pros and consumers aren’t gonna need to use it.

Jobs is clearly right, about email and music and photos. What is doubtful is that his point generalizes: that the environment-oriented workflow is always the better way of managing things.

Importantly, contrary to what Jobs seems to think, the project-oriented workflow is not exclusive to geeks and pros. Recent discussions on the shortcomings of iCloud makes this point apparent (my emphasis):

But Pierce added that “the biggest limitation to Dropbox is that it works with traditional file and folders.” There are times such a traditional approach feels entirely appropriate—as with text editors, where users are accustomed to saving individual documents.

Even ordinary users, when it comes to writing, prefers to launch a project, and not to launch an environment. It’s not, I believe, merely a matter of tradition versus the future. Instead, the two modes of workflow exist because there exist two ways of thinking, each good in some contexts but not others. (Of course, what those respective contexts are may well vary from person to person.)

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.