The Organic Algorithm
I think the last few months have confused a lot of people. How did we get here? Why is it so hard to fix? We want to blame individuals, to hold them accountable for doing bad things, but then, we don't seem to be able to find anyone responsible.
And that's because, for a lot of our big problems, there isn't anyone responsible. It's just how things have worked out because there are so many interconnected decisions, with so much interconnected stuff, that the butterfly effect is causing hurricanes.
We can look at something like single use plastic waste; we demand a reduction in plastic, but we still go to coffee shop and get that Iced Latte, so the store manager orders more plastic cups and you get a self-reinforcing loop with the wrong result.
That seems easy to short circuit, just bring your own cup. Then a pandemic hits and you're suddenly not allowed to bring your own cup. It's a total WTF moment where your choice to do good is overridden by another requirement to do good.
Consumer choice seems pretty linear and straightforward, but we all know life is never linear and straightforward. Some of the big questions about why things are broken as badly as they are get obscured by all the different influences on why your organic, corner mom-and-pop coffee shop has plastic drink cups.
In the tech world we talk a lot about algorithms, often mislabeling those algorithms as 'Artificial Intelligence.' In day to day life we talk a lot about broken leadership, but what I think we're seeing is what I'm calling the 'organic algorithm.' That is, the decisions we make today aren't always conscious decisions, they're driven by millions and millions of interwoven decisions.
Imagine you wanted to unravel the carbon and humanitarian issues with beef consumption. Your algorithm would have to account for all the decision points of production and consumption of beef including ranching, global distribution, packaging, refrigeration, waste disposal, preparation, kitchen design (both commercial and home) and… the list is seemingly infinite because you have to drill into each topic (ranching, farming, water management, soil…) and all the data in each of those topics.
To model how we currently manage that one product, beef, would take enormous data storage and processing. The compute cycles that are currently making these decisions are independent microservices we call human beings. And like microservices in the cloud, they aren't, and don't have to be, aware of what other decisions are being made.
But all those decisions, from what grain the rancher buys to what jingle to put behind the 'it's what for dinner' advertisement, are interconnected, and they form a feedback loop. The Wall Street company that decides to branch out into cattle feed does so based on what's already going on in the industry; that rancher's decision to buy commercial feed rather than just grass feed is driven by market demand, profitability, and effort. That market demand and profitability is driven by consumer habits, which are influenced by the Eric Copeland song in the ad, which drives awareness of a business opportunity for the Wall Street investor.
And each of those decisions are influenced by their own industries, profit, demand and effort. Again, my example is as grossly oversimplified as the plastic cup I'm forced to use if I want a latte when I'm not at home, but when you're wondering why things seem so hard, and they seem so out of control, it's because there is an unmanaged algorithm running society.
Leadership needs to understand how little we really understand of the impact or our decisions, and as a society, we need a few more guardrails on the organic algorithm. We need to define what we want in a greater good than simply profit and effort. We CAN manage the Organic Algorithm, but we, the individual microservices, need to agree what that management should look like for a global, interconnected society