An Age of Spin

Jun 24, 2019 at 6:19PM
Caleb Doxsey

My dad told me this story once:

He was working on a large, industrial construction project and they were nearing the end of it, so a QA engineer was scheduled to do a walk-through, and before that happened a higher-up purposefully damaged finished work, dented a pipe with wrench, unscrewed a bolt, etc… That way when the QA engineer did his checks, he’d find these obvious, easily fixable defects and mark them, whereas if he had found no problems, he would end up digging deeper, since he will feel like he has to find something, and then he might potentially uncover some major, catastrophic problem that’d be impossible to fix and still hit the customer’s deadline.

Theoretically everyone’s happier at the end of it… the higher-up because the tasks were trivial to complete, QA because they found something wrong, and even the client because the project was finished on time.

As it turned out, I saw this same thing happen in software development. I worked for a company with an extensive QA process and on occasion I found myself being less then thorough before handing the code off. I knew there were bugs, but just left them in there, because QA had bug quotas they had to meet, we had a tight deadline, etc…

We always have reasons for the dishonesty, for the white-lie to grease the wheels of business. But it got me thinking: we are surrounded by lies.

Ours is an age of spin, of deception, denial, false advertising and broken promises. We lie to customers, to colleagues, to our boss and the people we manage, to regulators and the press. We lie on our resumes and to the people we interview, to panhandlers on the sidewalk and to the barista who fetches us coffee, and for no good reason, to random strangers on Twitter. The organizations we’re a part of spin, cover-up, ignore the facts and rewrite history. It’s systemic dishonesty on a staggering scale.

Do we even know what the truth is anymore?

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

The Uber for Everything

Lately I’ve been pondering truth and technology, and a few disconnected ideas came to mind. The first was Uber.

Uber is a middleman taxi company which connects riders with drivers for peer to peer ridesharing. The business model is straightforward: a smartphone application, a matching service for rider to driver, a market-driven fee based on the distance traveled and supply and demand, and a percentage fee taken off the top for profit.

Ride-sharing dramatically improves the user experience for getting a taxi, as simple as a press of a button on your smartphone, and for less cost than traditional services. So one might wonder why this apparently striking innovation hadn’t been done sooner, and although the smartphone with GPS capabilities was perhaps the driving force behind the technology, equally as important was the fact that Uber was willing to violate the law.

Most cities have strict taxi legislation - the famous NYC medallion system comes to mind. For all its good intentions this sort of legislation had the effect of hardening the status quo and preventing innovation. When the communication systems we used dramatically changed with the advent of internet-connected smartphones, taxis were by and large stuck with antiquated, decades-old models enshrined in law.

But Uber didn’t care. They flagrantly broke the law to offer their services. And here we are, dozens of cease-and-desist letters later, with Uber still around and bigger than ever.

Uber exposed a valuable lesson about the nature of regulation in America. With a seemingly endless supply of venture capital and the support of everyday consumers, if you manage to grow big enough, fast enough, you can violate the rules all you want and eventually no politician in the country will be willing to do anything about it.

However, deeper than their less-than-scrupulous relationship with the law, was the fundamental dishonesty of their business model. Uber has never made money. They subsidize every ride. In 2015 riders were only paying 41% of the real cost of their ride.

Uber’s real business model wasn’t to shave a bit off the top of each ride. It was to undermine the existing industry so thoroughly as to capture the market, become a too-big-to-fail monopoly, and gain the power to set prices to whatever they wanted. Market capture is so profitable - just look at Google, Apple or Facebook - that Uber was willing to spend billions of dollars to get there.

And now Uber has become the template for all technology startups. How many hundreds of startups have been described as the Uber of X or the Uber for X? I used to think of small startups entering a dilapidated market that everyone despises, disrupting a few boundaries, improving the user experience and generally moving the ball forward.

Now I can’t help but think of buying their way into a market, flagrantly breaking the law, anti-competitively running every other player out of business and then taking advantage of consumers in their new-found monopoly.

Another example of dishonesty can be seen on uber.com. The sales pitch is not to riders, it’s to drivers:

Get in the driver’s seat and get paid

Whatever you may think of Uber’s fairness with regards to how they pay their drivers, what’s undeniable is that they would get rid of the drivers entirely if they could with the self-driving car - and they’re spending 20 million dollars a month trying to do it. Their entire sales pitch is focused on a business they want to get out of.

It’s probably just my philosophical bent, but the name “Uber” always called to mind Nietsche’s Ubermensch, which seemed wholly out of place for a taxi company. But perhaps the name was more apt than I imagined: a post-truth company discarding the old, traditional morality and inventing a new one.

And Uber’s not the only one. The hypocrisy is everywhere: “Organizing the world’s information” Google works on behalf of the Chinese government to censor the internet and “Bring the world closer together” Facebook is one of the major driving forces of negative polarization. “We believe that privacy is a fundamental human right” Apple receives billions to make Google the default search engine on iOS devices. WeWork’s CEO makes millions renting to himself. Casper owns a popular mattress review site. I could go on…

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

Metrics and the Illusion of Objectivity

Such rampant dishonesty in technology companies is particularly disheartening. Computers are deterministic systems. They follow strict rules of behavior and are governed by logic. Every bug has a solution, every technology a design and specification. Technologies may be lost or forgotten, but in principle, the behavior of a system can always be understood.

The compiler never lies.

It’s one of the things that most drew me to computers in the first place. But like a fish in water, we’ve grown so accustomed to it we don’t even see it anymore. Most things in life don’t work like this. We have imperfect knowledge. We don’t understand the design and we don’t have access to the specification. And there’s no guarantee that the knowledge we do have is even reliable: people lie and we have deep-seated cognitive biases that can lead our perceptions astray.

Technology companies love metrics. Metrics make us feel like we’re engaged in science - that our explanations are completely objective and that our solutions and conclusions follow necessarily from our analysis. With metrics we can treat all problems like computer problems. Every problem is just a bug that we can fix.

As it turns out, this unstated working assumption about how to do things has several problems:

  1. Metrics can give the illusion of objectivity when they are carefully crafted and selected to buttress a point, rather than to accurately reflect reality.

    And when done with care, no one else will notice the selectivity of numbers. No one has time to check everything, so the system depends on trust and goodwill. And the incentives are all wrong to produce accurate outcomes. We have a deadline to hit, or our pay raise depends on a good performance review, or the system I spent 6 months building has got to be better than what it replaced, so we juke the stats. Everyone does it and we all collectively pretend like we didn’t.

  2. Not everything can be easily measured. For example, how do you measure developer productivity? Lines of code produced? Number of pull requests? Resolved bug tickets? Those metrics are great, but then you get nasty unintended consequences - developers adding tons of unnecessary comments, creating single-file pull requests, only fixing trivial issues, etc…

    One of the most difficult problems you face when focusing on metrics, is figuring out what actually matters. Crushing a ton of bugs looks good on paper, but you may be inadvertently ignoring far more critical issues. Optimization is great for small, measurable problems, but early over-optimization closes off unforeseen opportunities. In the long run those opportunities can be much, much more important. I suspect this is one of the reasons large corporations have such a hard time innovating. Innovation is so hard to measure that it always gets discarded.

    Consider the streetlight effect:

    A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

    Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us, David H. Freeman

  3. We provide causal explanations for phenomena we barely understand. Like the A-B test. Who could possibly understand what a user wants or why they make the decisions they do? Well there’s an easy alternative to real understanding, just show them two options, and with a big enough sample size we can find out without understanding the mechanism. Option A leads to 5% more conversions, so that’s what we’re going with.

    The application of this approach is absurd on its face, since people are hardly deterministic systems, but even discounting that, A-B tests are often quite flawed. They’re never run for long enough, not enough other variables are held consant and they almost always lead to entirely accidental correlations.

    We then take those correlations and make up a story about why they happened. Users prefer the color red over blue, because:

    Scientists cite other studies that suggest red correlates to male dominance and testosterone levels in animals. And in humans, they note, "anger is associated with reddening of the skin due to increased blood flow, whereas fear is associated with increased pallor in similarly threatening situations."

    Red Outfits Give Athletes Advantage

    And that conclusion came from actual scientists… who are we kidding with these stories we tell?

    These are sometimes called just-so stories, as artfully depicted in Rudyard Kipling’s book, explaining how the Elephant got such a long trunk:

    Then the Elephant's Child sat back on his little haunches, and pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and his nose began to stretch. And the Crocodile floundered into the water, making it all creamy with great sweeps of his tail, and he pulled, and pulled, and pulled.

    And the Elephant's Child's nose kept on stretching; and the Elephant's Child spread all his little four legs and pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and his nose kept on stretching; and the Crocodile threshed his tail like an oar, and he pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and at each pull the Elephant's Child's nose grew longer and longer--and it hurt him hijjus!

    [...]

    Best Beloved, all the Elephants you will ever see, besides all those that you won't, have trunks precisely like the trunk of the 'satiable Elephant's Child.

    The Elephant's Child, Rudyard Kipling

    Wonderfully detailed, with immense explanatory power, these stories can be so persuasive we may even end up believing them. How many just-so stories have you told lately?

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

Ancient Spin

Of course spin is hardly isolated to technology. It’s particularly pernicious in politics, where nearly all discussion is empty, tribal rhetoric. Facts are spun and a veil of metrics and objectivity is used to cover the dishonesty.

But spin is nothing new. Recently I ran across an article from James Jordan describing an ancient example of political spin from 1 Kings:

After Solomon died, the people came to his son, King Rehoboam, and asked for tax relief. Rehoboam refused to give it, and indeed told the people that he was going to tax them even more severely than his father had. At that point, with the blessing of God, the ten northern tribes of Israel seceded from the Israelite Confederacy and created their own Kingdom (1 Kings 11:26-40; 12:1-24).

Their first king was Jeroboam I, who had been called by the Lord to this task. Jeroboam decided not to honor the Lord, and set up golden calves at Bethel and Dan. He named his sons Nadab and Abijam (equals Abihu), after the two sons of Aaron who perished before the Lord (1 Kings 12:25-32; 14:1, 20).

Jeroboam was a shrewd politician. What he was saying to the people was this: "My people, as you know I have spent many years in Egypt as a refugee from the tyrant Solomon. While I was there, I learned the real truth about our past — not the lies you have been told in these so-called Books of Moses, but the real truth. The Society of Egyptian Revisionist Historiography generously let me into their files, and this is what I found out.

"Originally, the people worshipped Yahweh openly, and every man was free to worship and to bring sacrifice. That is how it was when we came out of Egypt. All the people brought their offerings to Yahweh at the golden calf, which please notice, was not hidden away from view in some Tabernacle or Temple. You’ve heard that Yahweh was displeased with this, and ordered Moses and the Levites to slay the calf-worshippers (Exodus 32). But stop and think about it. How do we know this is true?

"After all, look what happened next. Moses and his Levite bully-boys set up this Tabernacle that only they could go into. Moses armed these Levite storm-troopers to kill anyone who tried to go into this secret Tabernacle. Isn’t it obvious? Moses and Aaron pulled off a coup against the people. We went from being a participatory democracy to being a tyranny.

"I found out in Egypt the real story about Nadab and Abihu. You want to hear it? Well, these two men sided with the people. They opposed Moses and Aaron’s tyrannical attempt to take over everything, and Moses had them killed (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Elijah's War with Baal, James Jordan

Politicians from time immemorial have learned that History isn’t the orderly recounting of objective facts, but rather the story we tell about those facts. Facts can be emphasized or de-emphasized, manipulated and recast in a different light, ignored, hidden from view, questioned or denied. They’re merely the raw material we use to construct reality how we see fit. As Machiavelli states:

Whoever takes upon him to reform the government of a city, must, if his measures are to be well received and carried out with general approval, preserve at least the semblance of existing methods, so as not to appear to the people to have made any change in the old order of things; although, in truth, the new ordinances differ altogether from those which they replace. For when this is attended to, the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities.

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Chapter XXV., Niccolo Machiavelli

As with politics, so with business. Controlling the message is the sine qua non for the modern corporation.

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

Noetic Necrosis

Lying is our attempt to control reality - to remake it in our image. History exists in the memory of others. If we can alter the content of those memories, we can change history and by so doing change reality.

Of course reality has a funny way of refusing to bend to our will. I might imagine that I can fly and jump off my roof, but no matter what lies I believe, gravity will reassert itself in the end.

And we also vastly overestimate our ability to control the narrative.

Jereboam’s spin didn’t end in his lifetime. Nearly 1,000 years later you’ll find stories in the New Testament about the Samaritans, whose religious beliefs were quite similar to 1st century Jews, but worshiped on a different mountain and had slightly different religious texts. I wonder how much of these differences were the result of the institution of new religious practices put forward for pure short-term political gain. And yet, long after the politics have disappeared, the religious beliefs remain - a lie with millenia-long ramifications, so interweaved into the history of people that it’s impossible to separate truth from fiction.

As the old story goes, the boy who cried wolf never considered what would happen if a wolf really did show up. But I wonder if the story couldn’t be told in a slightly different way. Suppose it was merely his summer job of sheep-tending, and that the wolf never did show up. Maybe he spends the next decade recounting the same lies to anyone he can - spinning yarns of wolf-sightings and near death experiences. I suspect, in a situation like that, that the boy might actually start to believe his own stories. Perhaps he comes back home and is talking with a friend about the summer he nearly died from a wolf attack, when his friend tells him straight: none of that ever happened… you made it all up.

Such a story may seem implausible, but it really does happen. (Consider Brian William’s Iraq helicoptor story for example)

As Paul Tripp says:

No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you as much as you talk to yourself.

People laugh at that statement, but I’m really quite serious. You’re in an unending, incredibly important conversation with your soul every moment of every day.

You interpret, organize, and analyze what’s going on inside and outside of you. You talk to yourself about the past, you talk to yourself about the future, and you talk to yourself about what you’re experiencing in the present.

We aren’t isolated minds in complete control over what we believe and say. The stories we tell influence our beliefs. After years of lies, we forget the truth. We end up buried in self-deception. We’ve spun so much we’re dizzy and can’t think straight. It’s a form of mental death - of noetic necrosis. We don’t even know what the truth is anymore.

We think lies are our ticket to freedom - it’s a dog-eat-dog world and this is how I get ahead. But in the end lies are a form of slavery. They ensnare us. They ensare others. They undermine all that is good and decent in the world. Lies can’t exist on their own. A world without trust is a world where its impossible to do anything - a world where you’re always on your guard, every statement has to be checked and re-checked and where you can never have any certainty about anything. Every lie we tell is creating that world. Is that really what we want?

A while back I ran across the delightful movie, The Death of Stalin, which wonderfully illustrates the weariness of a post-truth society:

I'm exhausted. I can't remember who's alive and who isn't.

Georgie, when you go home, make sure you wife writes down everything you think you said tonight. Alright, this way in the morning you know what you're dealing with. It's Kruschev's Law.

The Death of Stalin

No it’s the truth where real freedom is found:

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

There’s a radical honesty in Christian belief:

We can be honest about the reality of the broken world around us. Creation has gone haywire, and we aren’t surprised when human systems are corrupt. Indeed we expect them to fail and take all the good things in our lives, not as owed to us, but as a gracious gift from a loving Father. And because our hope isn’t in human systems, we can admit to this without undermining our core identity.

Rather than being trapped by the logic of “I have to do this to get ahead”, we can lay down our anxieties before the Lord and trust in his provision. We don’t have to try and bend reality to our will to survive. Instead we can say “not my will but yours, bend me to fit the reality you’re creating”.

And we can be honest about our own brokenness. Christianity teaches two radical ideas about human beings: that they are desperately wicked, fallen creatures, incapable of pleasing God as they are, but also that God is incomprehensibly gracious and gave his own Son to save them. Without grace how could we possibly admit to our own failings. The weight of it would crush us.

The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, Tim Keller