mfioretti: unintended consequences*

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  1. Parker described how in the early days of Facebook people would tell him they weren’t on social media because they valued their real-life interactions.

    “And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be,’” he said.

    “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying,” he added, pointing to “unintended consequences” that arise when a network grows to have more than 2 billion users.

    “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he said.

    He explained that when Facebook was being developed the objective was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content.

    “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
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  2. There is this funny story about the “Cobra Effect” based on an anecdote from British colonial time in Delhi.

    Apparently, the officials of the British government were terrified by a large number of venomous cobra snakes in the city. To solve the problem, someone came up with a brilliant idea of an exchange offer to the people of Delhi. Money for dead cobras.

    Guess what happened next? Soon, the enterprising Delhiites were breeding cobras. When the government found out, they scrapped the bounty scheme, whereupon the cobra breeders set the snakes free. And the cobra population went up, not down.

    A similar incident occurred in Hanoi under the French colonial rule. There were too many rats, so the rulers introduced a bounty scheme for, of all things, rat tails. Pretty soon, Hanoi was full of tail-less rats running around. The bounty hunters never killed them. Instead, they just severed their tails, released them back into the sewers, so that they could continue to procreate and make more rats, which of course, increased the rat catchers’ income.

    Why did both situations backfire? Because well-intentioned people who created the bounty schemes didn’t think about second order effects. They didn’t pause, reflect and ask how people will respond to their brilliant-sounding idea.

    Thinking about first-order effects is easy. Thinking about second or higher order effects is hard.

    It’s fascinating to observe how this problem keeps on repeating over and over again. One variant is called “you get what you measure.” For instance, if hospitals are asked to publish their mortality rate, the ones with the highest mortality rates are incentivised to turn away terminally ill patients.

    If someone is paid on a cost-plus basis (e.g. for generating electricity), you can be confident that there will be plenty of gaming in the form of cost padding.
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