Why We Fuck Up

In the bloodless war between computers and referees, computers win 100% of the time.

Research shows that baseball umpires are less likely to call a strike after they’ve called the previous pitch a strike.

Soccer referees flub offside calls all the time. Why wouldn’t they? They are asked to judge a split-second half-centimeter difference in player positioning from twenty meters away.

Funny thing is, after the blown call, the TV broadcast rewinds and replays the action in slow motion. Neon lines materialize and frame the play. High-definition lenses confer with powerful computer servers, and we have a near-instant, perfect judgment of what we just watched. The information is both thrilling and useless, like finding out a high school crush really liked you, 20 years later.

Why don’t we simply replace those near-sighted, weak-willed meat bags with infallible, unswayable robo-refs?

Because deep down, we like the chaos of it all. Because when shit goes sideways and our guy or gal misses the line by a nose hair (or did they?), we need a person to blame, a human voodoo doll to stick our pins.We need an idiot.

Ideally, computers would watch Them, and nervous humans would watch Us. At the end of the day, we want a fair game. But for Them, it should be extra fair.

Why We Fuck Up

If it feels like we’ve collectively stood on the precipice of some such cataclysm for all your living memory, consider this observation by Machiavelli:

“The physicians say it happens [with] hectic fever, that in the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

If you’re the first to see it, then they call you fringe, dangerous, deranged. And if most everyone agrees with you, you’re already doomed.

Crazy or doomed. We’re always on the precipice.

Why We Fuck Up

The irony is that even if our self-driving cars kill indiscriminately, we would read bias into their distribution of victims for the same reason we see famous faces in toast.

You will hear:

“We must take into account regional and cultural differences in adherence to pedestrian jaywalking laws!”

“Autonomous vehicles are effectively targeting specific populations, and we demand accountability!”

“Of course the cars are biased. They’re made in San Francisco.”

The car company’s public policy and legal teams debate the ethics of algorithmic vehicular manslaughter over an increasingly emotional and sleep-deprived chain of weekend emails. Philosophical battle lines are drawn. On Sunday night, the CEO informs both teams that she has arrived at a decision and has informed her head of product: to counter the perceptions of bias, we will begin adding bias to our artificial intelligence.

Why We Fuck Up

There are those that would ask for a summary of The Great Gatsby, yet read every page of whatever business book is en vogue among founders and VCs. The irony is that most books on business can be fully summarized in a few pages, while a hundred books can be written about The Great Gatsby and never capture it in full.

Pay attention to what expands and what contracts.

Why We Act, Why We Fuck Up

“If you aren’t speaking out, you are part of the problem.”

“If you aren’t in the streets, you are part of the problem.”

All variations of “If you don’t agree with me and act the way I’d like you to act, then you are part of the (i.e. my) problem.”

All variations of gatekeeping.

While some assert that inaction is itself a type of violence, there are plenty of cases where action is more harmful than inaction. It is often wise not to take action at the height of fear, anger, or resentment, when we are most capable of trading our humanity for a feeling of safety, a thirst for justice.

Sometimes we just don’t know the answer, and that’s okay.

As part of the Hippocratic oath, doctors pledge to “not be ashamed to say ‘I know not.’”

At the heart of the Hippocratic oath is the principle, primum non nocere: first, do no harm.

In times when we are called to act boldly, action itself is not the virtue. As doctors recognize, sometimes the best treatment they can provide in the moment is to listen, to comfort, and do their best to learn. Primum non nocere.

Why We Fuck Up

The hedonic treadmill describes our tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness (or curmudgeonliness) shortly after events we thought would bring us lasting joy: that new Tesla, that condo with the view, that promotion (long overdue, really).

We are less familiar with, yet no less afflicted by, the prognostic treadmill:

Our tendency to return to a level of confidence in our predictive ability, shortly after events that confirm our inability to make predictions: failure to reach last year’s growth targets, global economic recessions, populist upheavals.

Why We Fuck Up

There are four possible reactions to reading or watching the news. I shall describe the appropriate response to each outcome.

1. “I didn’t understand this before, and I still don’t.”

Bummer. Perhaps this topic was too complex for the author to effectively capture. You might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic, should you wish to better understand. Stop reading the news.

2. “I didn’t understand this before, now I do.”

No, you don’t. You might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic, should you wish to better understand. Stop reading the news.

3. “I thought I understood before, now I don’t understand at all.”

Hey, you understand! The author effectively captured the irreducible complexity of human nature. Should you wish to deepen your informed perspective, you might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic. Continue reading the news, but please exercise caution.

4. “I understood this before, and now I understand better.”

Please, for the safety of those around you, stop reading the news.