The Business of Emotion

January 14, 2018

The Business of Emotion is a great song. It’s satire on the era of big data by the band Big Data: monetizing attention, addicting users and somehow creating loneliness in the biggest, most sociable crowd ever seen on earth. It’s dark, dystopian, dehumanizing. It’s about how faceless organizations use data to turn people’s attention into money.

I love it. It might be my career’s theme song. But to understand why, you need to sing it with conviction.

Bear with me. I need to take you on a brief, nerdy, detour.

This is one of my favorite scenes from Star Trek. Captain Picard learns that a god-like being Q is testing all of humanity through a game. Q expects humanity to fail, and quotes Shakespeare at Stewart. So Stewart quotes Hamlet (a pretty negative guy all around) right back at him:

What he might say with irony, I say with conviction.

That stuck with me.

Picard takes a cynical, sarcastic judgement of humanity, and with full appreciation of current shortcomings, and chooses to bet on progress and growth as the core of what we are. It’s easy to be cynical. Pessimism seems smarter than optimism. Saying “we’re going to work hard to do the right thing for our customers” can sound naive, and some in finance would outright snark and smirk at it.

Well, plenty of people live their lives shorting virtue, I’m sure they’ll get along fine. That’s just not my bag, baby. I’d rather speak with conviction.

The Business of Emotion: listen to it or read the lyrics. Now, let me say with conviction what he says with irony.

Oh I been watching you
I’m gonna get you high
The things I do to you
They’re gonna make you cry

Yes, your behavior is tracked. I mean, at some level any orgnization has to. We need an auditable trail of if/when a client or employee did something. Timestamps, location data, pageviews: it all automatically generated from the fact that your interacting with the web service.

So, how do you helpfully get people high, and make them cry? Encouragement, positive feedback, relief.

I once received an email from a client who was a long-distance trucker, who used us to save before he spent the money. He was proud of how much he’d saved up, and how it meant he was more secure and less stressed than before. When clients withdraw money to make a house downpayment or buy a new car, that’s a reason for rejoicing. That email was better than cocaine. (I’ve never done cocaine, but still.)

Doesn’t matter if you like it or not
Doesn’t matter if you don’t wanna play my game
You signed up, you gotta participate.

Ok, so this one is a bit trickier, but it’s worth discussing.

I’m helping design a piece of technology that will run, automatically, for (hopefully) millions of people. Mistakes scale up just as fast as successes. It’s important to pay attention to not just the median client, but the whole distribution, and try to make every change a Pareto improvement. We test new products and services, we do it as an experiment, and we try and learn and iterate.

Most of the time, the people who are experiencing the ‘alternative’ design or service won’t know about it. That can be important. We act differently when we know we’re being watched. Placebos are surprisingly powerful. I want to know people are acting honestly, and that if if a new design is ossified into the system, it’s not unintentionally hurting anyone for years.

Second, and equally if not more important, is adverse selection. Suppose we let clients opt out from ever seeing the ‘alternate’ design while it was being tested, and that people who opt out tend to fall on the extreme of some behavior relating to investing. A design might deployed into the world which has a disproportionately large effect (good or bad) on the very group who we have no data on. That’s scary.

Doesn’t matter to me cause you’re all the same.

By default, all clients are just a number. Or a whole bunch of numbers, really.

And I’m not sure as a client, I’d really want it any other way. Do I really want service providers treating me differently because of how they perceive me? Their biases about my name, ethnicity, gender, skin tone, or taste in music? Should I help more attractive clients first? Or perhaps the wealthiest?

Doesn’t matter to me, cause you’re all the same.

That said, I likewise think they’re all different. We should make left-handed and right-handed scissors. We should create a service which is systematically personalized, not ad-hoc or haphazardly personalized based on the perceptions/biases of one person.

I do respond to client emails and take phone calls, and at that point they become more than a number: a voice telling me how they understand the world, where they find themselves, and where they’d like to be. And that can hit you in the gut with emotion. But you have to take that fire that this actually matters and keep it burning for all the people who don’t call in, who didn’t raise their voices. Because they’re all the same. They all matter equally.

Feel good
Make you feel good
I’m looking for emotion
So I know just what to show you

Yes, duh, of course, come on. I want to make people feel good. People who feel good persevere longer, solve problems better, and I want people to enjoy the time they spend with my product, and tell their friends about it.

What he says with irony, I say with conviction.

It’s worth noting that this shouldn’t just depend on the good will of the designers. Incentives matter. I chose to work for a company with a client aligned compensation strategy so that I don’t get paid to be the investing worlds version of an attention merchant.