The Secret Ingredient: Nuance
Let’s explore our obsession with oversimplification in the modern world. Specifically how oversimplifying prevents us from solving complex problems and making complex decisions. This essay previews some important themes we’ll revisit in upcoming essays.
Hope you enjoy!
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For those who know me IRL, one of my passions and hobbies is cooking. (Yes I had a sourdough phase during the pandemic).
When I make a good plate of food for someone, they ask “what’s the secret ingredient that makes this dish tastes so good?”
I always fumble the answer because this question often doesn’t have an answer.
A good dish or a good recipe is usually the result of different ingredients coming together in balance. It’s never any one ingredient that defines a dish. But if you remove any one ingredient, the dish falls apart.
Salt is a perfect example. Salt is rarely the main ingredient but if you’ve ever had a dish without salt or that was under salted, you know exactly what I mean.
Yet, we love to oversimplify and say, “this dish is great because of this [ingredient].”
Maybe when we are talking about a plate of food that is fine… but we tend to do this for more than just food.
The obsession to oversimplify everything, especially complex issues, defines a lot of how we try to have conversations and debates on the Internet. This prevents us from from understanding the nuances of complex issues or making complex decisions.
Obsession with Oversimplification
In today’s world, we try to distill complex issues down to a single, easily digestible factor. We think the success/failure or cause/effect of something is because of one specific element. In doing so, we overlook the intricate web of factors that contribute to a situation. We then propose solutions that are too basic or one-dimensional to complex problems.
And the modern world is filled with complex systems, issues and problems.
For example, in the recent SVB collapse, depending on who you ask, you will get a different “main cause of failure” that led to SVB’s collapse. Some think it was poor risk management, others think it was external forces and yet others think it was bad corporate culture. In reality, it is a combination of many factors coming together in a perfect storm.
Similarly, when we think of successful NFT projects and communities, we try to reduce the reason for a project’s success to one thing. E.g. it was successful because of the art, or the community, or the incentive design. Again, it’s a combination of different things.
Our obsession with oversimplifying becomes risky is when it comes to decision making and coordination around solving complex problems — oversimplifying complex problems leads to misguided solutions.
Struggling with Nuance
We seem to hate and/or struggle with nuance.
I asked ChatGPT why that is. Its answer is spot on.
All of this makes solving complex problems incredibly hard because complex problems by definition involve a lot of nuance and the cause-and-effect relationships are not so clearly defined.
The Ultimate Coordination Problem
In a complex problem, individuals / groups must work together to achieve a common goal or shared interest. There are usually different stakeholders with varying perspectives and different incentives.
Each individual / group wants to maximize their individual outcome. But the best solutions to complex problems are solutions that usually involve some tradeoff or compromise such that all the stakeholders feel like they didn’t get the shorter end of the stick. I.e. whatever the solution is, they feel like they’ve gotten their fair share.
Solving a complex problem ends up being about coordination:
how do we decide how to make this decision
how does the decision get communicated
what are the rules of engagement
how does it gain legitimacy
Ironically, the ultimate coordination problem is deciding how we coordinate.
For example, two separate communities might have the same problem: how to reward the community. But one community’s coordination mechanism might be top-down decision making, whereas the other might be bottoms-up. You can imagine how these two communities will probably come up with different answers.
Nuance is a Lost Art
Why is all of this important?
Well… in a world with the rapid rise of exponential technologies like AI, how we align and govern these technologies, both locally and globally, will increasingly become an important issue.
For example, in a world where AI drastically changes the global labor market, what are the rules that govern it? Are those the same rules across societies or are they different? Especially considering how interconnected and digitally native the world is.
The “right” answer will be filled with nuance and context, but most of the world’s default coordination mechanism is either “top-down” or choose between “Option A” or “Option B.”
Neither of these coordination mechanisms capture all the nuances and issues.
When we ignore nuances, the decisions we make around complex problems can bring about unintended consequences. I.e. we solve problem A, but solving problem A brings about Problem B, so on and so forth.
Nuance has become a lost art.
Our world today is dominated by sound bites and attention grabbing headlines. The quest for immediate gratification leads us to default towards binary thinking and definitive answers. Attention is the new currency.
As we drift further from nuance, we lose our ability to grapple with the intricate challenges that define our collective existence. There is little room for the contemplation and appreciation of complexity.
At heart this is goes back to how we coordinate in a world with razor thin attention spans.
Without oversimplifying, nuance is the secret ingredient.
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