The model is not the thing itself. The map is not the territory. Our attempts to turn reality into data are inevitably imperfect, and sometimes they’re way off — like they were last night. On Election Night, everything the experts and their algorithms told us was likely to happen came out different.
Trump’s against-all-predictions win doesn’t mean we should give up on the very idea of empiricism. It does mean that each time we inquire into the state of reality, we should begin with humility. We could always be wrong, and we often will be.
The future’s bright — but we’re counting it all wrong. Forget about the fate of that iPhone headphone jack! Sometimes it’s important to zoom out to the big picture. Google’s economist Hal Varian has been looking at technology’s economic impact over the long haul, and remains upbeat. In a brief paper for the International Monetary Fund’s Finance and Development, Varian outlines five areas where connected tech (primarily, networked smartphones) will keep introducing big new opportunities: Data collection and analysis, personalization and customization, “continuous improvement” through experimentation, novel types of contracts, and better coordination and communication. These sound like the same sorts of Good Things the industry has been promising since the early days of the personal computer, but Varian argues, convincingly, that we’re ramping up fast now that these trends are moving into every crevice of our businesses and lives. On the plus side, we keep reaping unexpected benefits and lifestyle improvements as these changes snowball. On the negative side, our systems for tracking and measuring economic activity have been left behind in the dust. Econometrically, we’re flying blind into the future. If Google doesn’t figure this one out for us, maybe there’s a startup we haven’t yet heard of that can.
Airbnb vows to build anti-discrimination into its platform. Last winter, after a study found that hosts were discriminating against African American users of Airbnb, the company commissioned an internal investigation and vowed to do better. Today Airbnb released the full report (PDF) and details of a plan of action, including a “community commitment” hosts and users will need to affirm and other interface changes designed to make discrimination more difficult (The New York Times). To some extent, Airbnb is just reflecting bad behavioral patterns that exist in the larger society, and the report admits that “no one company can create an alternative universe” that magically wipes human minds free of bias. But it’s entirely possible to build a platform that provides cues to better behavior and boundaries that bar socially damaging practices. Airbnb says it’s going to try — and the world will be watching carefully.