Monday, April 6, 2015

Optimize This

While I was distracted doing things like reading books and thinking about things, somehow the categorical imperative of our time shifted out of the whole "do unto others" thing and into OPTIMIZE. It's like the central norm of our age.

"Optimize" sounds good. It's got that word part "opt" which sounds like optimism and optimal, suggesting once they're optimized things will be hunky dory. But most of the time people don't even know what they're optimizing. Ninety percent of the time I think it's a scam or a shell-game.

For example, the big thing in devices now is optimizing your health. But what does that even mean? What are you trying to optimize, exactly?

Are you trying to optimize your adherence to the guidelines for "normal" blood sugar blood pressure and so on? Low cortisol? Nothing against the medical science biz, but did you notice they're not always clear on how and whether those improve your well-being or even longevity?

Are you trying to optimize your well-being? OK, but what is that? Surely it's not just living longer. Many things that make you live longer, like certain medications, can make you feel worse. If you had a horrible illness, and it could be treated with a miracle medication which would make you feel great but would shorten your life a bit? Of course you would take it.

More broadly, as we've discussed before, people have priorities other than living longer. As I said there:

"There are trade-offs between medications and sex. There are tradeoffs between medications and other medications. Virtually all birth control entails trade-offs. And, of course, there are relentless constant trade-offs between things that "will make you live longer" and things that you enjoy doing that make you feel good."

Given the complexities of those trade-offs, how does the concept of "optimize" even apply?

You'd think moving into the economic sphere it would be more obvious what it means to optimize -- but I think even there it's pretty obscure. Say you run a business. Are you trying to maximize the amount of money that business brings in overall this year? Or over ten years? Or over a hundred years? Are you trying to maximize gains for shareholders, or profit for the owners?

Do you also have goals having to do with providing reasonable employment for people and goods that will make their lives better and not worse? How does that figure into optimization?

And what about ethics? Does the norm of "optimize" imply that honesty is something you're committed to only because you might get caught? Do you have no ethical commitments against defrauding people? Come to that, do you have any reasons against just killing off the competition with guns, other than the fact that you might get punished?

If you have any actual commitments against lying cheating and defrauding people, then what you're doing is not optimizing. It's weighing options and alternatives and making fine-grained decisions about how much things matter.

I was thinking about optimizing the other day while I was listening to some old songs, including Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes," and the Clash's version of the song "Junco Partner." These songs all have these weird brilliant moments where the sounds isn't quite what you expect. Simon's voice gets all weird in one chorus when he sings about the "greens of summer" and whatever string instrument is in Junco Partner is crazy and wobbly.

Those weird moments are some of the best things in those songs and you don't hear that sort of thing much anymore. Sometimes people talk about what's lost as involving "authenticity" -- but that's never seemed right to me.

I think instead it's that much modern music is "optimized" -- but we since we don't have a good grip on what makes music so great when it is, we don't know how to optimize, and we're basically just optimizing away the things that are the best things.

In the end, every choice expresses decisions about what matters. That's why optimizing language is such a scam. It works like a cloaking device, making you think you have "reasons," when really you're just flailing around like the rest of us.

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