Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization
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Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization

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Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization

Coco Krumme is an applied mathematician and writer. After completing her doctorate at MIT and working in technology, she founded Leeward Co, a consultancy that helps research teams with computational science and strategy in agriculture, climate science, logistics, materials and biosciences. After founding Leeward Co, she moved into a cabin on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, where she now resides.

Below, Coco shares 5 key insights from her new book, Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization. Listen to the audio version—read by Coco herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization By Coco Krumme Next Big Idea Club

1. Optimization and efficiency have become our modern gospel.

Today, the mathematical concept of optimization dominates not just our scientific and engineered systems, but also our worldview and our daily lives in the West. You hear it everywhere: software helps you optimize childcare calendars and tax returns; vitamins and supplements promise optimal performance.

In other words, optimization has been a critical technology in shaping not just the world around us, but how we see it. As with any technology or epistemology, it’s important that we also consider its limitations, and what we’ve lost.

2. There is no such thing as opting out.

A decade ago, fresh out of a doctorate at MIT, I led data science teams in Silicon Valley. Prior to MIT, I’d worked at an early data start-up that went on to be acquired by Google and form part of its search algorithm. Before that, I grew up in the Bay Area in the 80s and 90s, watching this new tech mindset and wealth seep in. I’d spent almost my entire life in places where mathematical abstractions were in the drinking water. On top of that, both of my parents are engineers, my father first-generation and my mother, an immigrant who got a rare ticket out of the old country and into this one through her expertise in operations research. It’s perhaps dramatic to say I owe my very existence to optimization, but it’s not untrue.

“As with any technology or epistemology, it’s important that we also consider its limitations, and what we’ve lost.”

Despite growing up with it, and being drawn to mathematical modeling as a career, I’d always felt uneasy about optimization’s reach. Then about seven years ago, as Silicon Valley’s obsession with data and scale hit a fever pitch, my own unease crescendoed. I quit my job and cobbled together consulting work that eventually grew into a small business; I bought a run-down cabin some 900 miles from San Francisco and set about to fix it up. I had no idea what I was doing. This was four or five years before the pandemic, the rise of remote work, and this trend of moving to rural places, so my move struck everyone in San Francisco as absolutely nuts. My peers couldn’t fathom the appeal of what they saw as an intellectual backwater, a place with slow internet and no DoorDash. Similarly, my newfound island friends couldn’t make sense of what it was I did all day, glued to my computer, head and code in the cloud.

My attempt in writing is to make sense of the disconnect between these two worlds that I’ve inhabited, and also what they share. Ultimately, for me and for most people, it’s impossible to “opt out” of the world of optimization. Both because its conveniences, like two-day delivery, now stretch to the farther corners of the earth, and because its mindset of doing more with less has increasingly cannibalized most other ways of seeing.

3. It’s harder to undo an optimization than it was to put it in place.

Optimization has given us a great many things: expansive supply chains, cheap airline travel, and life-saving medicines, among others. And yet, shortcuts like these are rarely free. As we optimize, we tend to lose three things: slack, place, and scale.

Slack, or downtime, is often optimized out of a system, increasing its fragility.

The more we streamline and make things efficient, the more we lose nuance and particulars. Every place begins to look like a replica of the next.

“As we optimize, we tend to lose three things: slack, place, and scale.”

Finally, as we try to squeeze more out of less, we lose a sense of scale: operators become disconnected from their machines, farmers from the people they feed, and individuals from one another.

Moreover, there’s an asymmetry to optimizing. That is, it’s easier to put an optimization in place than it is to undo it. Perhaps none is more tragic than the decimation of the American buffalo in the late 19th century. The Western U.S. was “optimized” for land development and cattle ranching, and tens of millions of bison were slaughtered in a couple of decades. Now, restoration efforts have ramped up; there are public and private enterprises working on this, with indigenous leaders. But undoing the destruction of bison and the surrounding ecosystem won’t happen in a decade—it will take hundreds of years.

4. We are living through “metaphoric breakdown.”

For decades, and especially in America with its frontier mythos of unbounded resources, we’ve worshiped speed, scale, grandiosity, and control. Those ideals are increasingly butting up against people’s everyday realities. While we might enjoy the conveniences of streaming television and two-day delivery, we also feel a deep loss. We crave the intimacy of human conversation, the messiness of doing it yourself, and the challenge of not having everything pre-programmed.

It’s a truism that any technology can be used for good or for ill. An overly optimized system—a bridge built with too-thin tolerances, an airline schedule wound too tight—can crash quite suddenly and dramatically. Becoming overly focused on efficiency or productivity is bad for one’s health, and it’s bad for the soul. Humans aren’t machines. There are dozens of studies to support this, and billions of live examples.

That said, I don’t think optimization is a bad thing, nor in any practical sense is it going away. The mathematics of optimizing will continue to undergird many engineered systems, and rightly so.

What I believe is in decline is optimization as a metaphor or way of experiencing the world. This can feel scary but also hopeful. For individuals, the challenge will be to navigate between techno-utopianism on one side and nihilistic retreat on the other, and learn to make choices that feel true.

“We crave the intimacy of human conversation, the messiness of doing it yourself, and the challenge of not having everything pre-programmed.”

For businesses, and especially those in the business of inventing something bold, the challenge will be in driving toward a vision, while not losing track of first principles. Now that the 25-year stash of Silicon Valley’s crack-cocaine-scale-or-die funding model is drying up, how do we recalibrate to build the things that matter?

5. More of the same won’t fix what’s broken.

There’s a lot of noise right now in the world. And a lot of so-called solutions. We love solutions. Elect this candidate so everything can go back to normal. Buy this product to stop climate change. Listen to this podcast to change your life.

We often hear the mantra that we must fix or save the world. We hear it even with optimization: if our schedules are optimized too tightly, here’s a solution to “de-optimize.” Here’s an app to meditate during your 20-minute lunch break, so that you can become more productive at work.

One of the things we’ve forgotten, that past generations knew better than us, is that shortcuts aren’t free. Often with an optimization, we see the magical shortcut it’s created, but not the steps it took to get there. We see the skyscrapers and the cheap air travel but not the sweat and calculations that went into them. This makes it easier, more tempting, to elect the candidate or buy the product that promises the magic bullet but ultimately just creates more noise.

Part of the joy of being alive is doing things the hard way; that is, not taking the shortcut, not optimizing, or only optimizing once you know how to do it long-hand too. This might sound like a pessimistic or anti-innovation stance but in fact, it’s just the opposite. If you look at almost any organic system, it’s the ongoing redundancies—rather than the efficiencies—that allow for the greatest flourishing and growth.

To listen to the audio version read by author Coco Krumme, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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