thoughtwisps One commit at a time

always be optimising

It started out as ‘always be shipping’, the little mantra we had in our tech department. We loved it. And used it liberally to the probable annoyance of everyone around us. Repeating it, living in it, simultaneously made us look like those chic, young, faux-moneyed Londoners, always working, always busy, drinking our fashionable almond chai lattes while running from lunchtime power cycling to a slew of work meetings and gave us an excuse to stay glued to our screens until late 8.10pm, after which you could officially expense any dinner on the company.

“Nando’s or Shake Shack?”

I rarely stayed for the Nando’s or the Shake Shack, but I remember observing this life from up close and enjoying the dregs of limelight that seemed to emanate from this reckless, relentless desire to produce more and more software, so that, at the end of the year, we might be the ones leaving our comp meeting happy and blessed with the bonus.

From where we sat we could see the glass-walled corner office, with a gorgeous view of East London. And I’m sure, we all took turns into little narcissistic power trips, imagining ourselves in it.

It wasn’t easy being an outsider in this world where (almost) everyone was a white man, second or third generation Oxbridge, second or third generation fancy, posh grammar school, with a busy social schedule of golf, tennis and dinner with some of father’s old Oxford friends, and little by little I drifted further away.

I took up long distance walking. Usually solo, but a few frightening experiences prompted me to sign up for a walk with a group. Walking along a canal tow path, a fellow walker started a conversation with me. He told me, he had left a City career to work as a career change coach of sorts, helping high flying executives who had had a come-to-Jesus moment change to a more fulfilling path. I suppose, as part of a professional curiosity, he started asking what makes my career fulfilling.

I didn’t have a response. The only thing I came up with was that stupid phrase “always be shipping”. Always be shipping, I said. That’s it. I added, that it was easier to run on the treadmill than step off it and think about actually moving forward.

I think a lot about that conversation and the “always be shipping” thing, which was borne out of blind ambition and hubris, than anything more noble. Very few things in that place were noble. Unless, of course, you consider acquiring a fifth pool or a sixth holiday home in Southern France noble. I suppose for some people it is.

I’ve since left this business of building systems that directly make money for a minor career change to building systems that obliquely make money. On the surface it’s dressed up in the fancy buzzwords of AI, business intelligence and whatnot. Although this industry has sufferred much the same fate in the court of public opinion as did the bankers in the post-2008 turmoil, it still continues to clothe itself in the garb of world saviour. And part of it’s rescue plan, is building these artificial intelligence algorithms that will one day diagnose you better than a doctor, police you 24/7 and customise the news and media you get exposed to, to make sure you are maximially engaged in the system. A happy dystopia, in other words.

A peculiarity about building these systems, and the reason I came to talk about them via the memory about “always be shipping”, is a step of optimisation that is required in the process of constructing them. We define a function that captures what we want to optimise and then we run an iterative mathematical procedure until we find values that optimise the function.

In other words, I’ve swapped out “always be shipping” for “always be optimising”.

This idea of “always be optimising”, which occurs in the process of constructing AI (please, Dear Santa, for Christmas I want nothing more than for the tech marketing spin machine to stop calling these glorified if-else statements artificial intelligence), is a reflection of the general tendency of human existence in late capitalism: optimise every waking moment to be more productive.

The media spends a lot of time speculating about the dangers of runaway AI, but we already have it in our midst: corporations that run on the mantra “always be optimising”.

It’s somewhat easier to sleep away from the restless frenzy of the big city. Here in the far North, in the middle of nowhere, there is nothing else except errant lights of airplanes landing on the nearby airport.

I miss the city very dearly, but for the very selfish reason that I fear that now, that I have removed myself from an interesting surrounding, I myself am no longer interesting. I will no longer draw curious questions in conversations or invitations to gatherings. Perhaps that is why I clung so dearly to a life that, at the end of the day, was not terribly fulfilling.

Even though I am now far removed from the relentless pace of the city, I find myself no farther from the same mentalities. I still work in technology, I’m still always be shipping or always be optimising. However, the fog of technoutopia, is thinner here. There are no meetups, no swag bags. There are fewer stickered laptops in work places and at the security screenings at the airport. It’s easier to see through the fog.

And it’s the things I see through the fog, that now, keep me awake at night. Every day I go to work and go about my “always be optimising”, someone else takes the work product and uses it to optimise things far more sinister than the benign, world-saving usecases we always envision for our work. Today, I make a few tweaks to optimise an algorithm to predict whether someone is at high risk for having a heart attack. Doctors use it to classify patients into high-risk and low risk categories to provide better care and monitoring.

Tomorrow, the same optimisation benefits a health insurance company using the algorithm to deny coverage to applicants with a risk for heart attack (fictional example, but I’m sure you get the gist). Because in a world where most consumer technology is built by companies, what matters is optimising shareholder value/ venture capitalist return on investment and for that optimisation function all that matters is who can pay the most.