June 11, 2019
About five years ago, I wrote about the honing of responsibility within the tech industry. As people advanced in their careers, they justified their work as both moral and interesting by focusing their attention on their specific slice. “Selling ads” became “scaling a system to provide content to millions of client computers a day”. Fascinating problem, right?
At the time, the reason for doing this felt obvious. Justifying one’s work is an existential imperative. But this sort of thinking isn’t often discussed. Did the engineer build missiles because she desperately wanted to be a dealer of death? Or did she find herself in that career, plucked from college by the invisible hand, and told she “excelled at it”?
When asked by our peers what we “do for a living”, we are rarely honest. So much of what we say is rose-colored, an effort to impress and stand out. We may be completely uninterested in banking, but we are incentivized to make it sound cool.
I’ve been thinking a lot about incentives. Every argument we make seems informed by them. When Mister Politician argues for the utility of the filibuster or the electoral college, does he genuinely believe in their benefit to the public good, or do they serve as instruments of his own power? If these same pieces of law aided his opponents, would he still fight for them? Any person would say the answer is a fat “no”, but when he talks them up, we still take his words seriously.
And less obvious is the lack of incentive. It is effortless to hop on the olde bandwagon of public opinion and trash someone’s life if we do not know them personally. It is simple to hurl an insult at an entire workforce if we are entirely divorced from it. Inflammatory criticism is nothing if not entertaining. And it can be dangerous to state one’s moderate position if the crowd has ruled.
We’re taught to see our anxiety for what it is, hold it in place and adjust expectations. I want to do the same with my incentives.
If I find myself arguing for more bike lanes and condos, how will they benefit me vs my neighbors? If an oil lobbyist argues against the existence of climate change, why should I give his beliefs weight? If a well-off white friend with no blue-collar family members asks “what are police for?”, how should I weigh their lack of stake against the inherent benefits law enforcement provides them?
Examining incentives doesn’t simplify discourse, but it does clarify it. It’s something I’ll have to practice.