Saturday, June 8, 2024

"The lesson AI must learn from nature"

Rory Sutherland at the Spectator, January 20, 2024:

What’s the difference between a café and a restaurant? It’s not as simple as it seems. Yes, the food at a restaurant will be fancier and more substantial. But there is a social distinction too: a restaurant places you under an obligation; a café does not.

When you enter a café you order something out of courtesy – but it can be as insubstantial as a cup of tea. How long you stay, and what you choose to eat or drink, remains up to you. A café, as Nassim Taleb would say, is ‘high in optionality’. By contrast, entering a restaurant is like missing the Wrotham exit on the westbound M26 – you’re stuck there for ages with no chance of escape. Once you sit down in a restaurant, you’re in for at least two courses and a bottle of wine.

Jeff Bezos was insistent that his Amazon colleagues understood the distinction between an option and an obligation. Within Amazon, they still use his phrase ‘a two-way door’, which defines any course of action which can be attempted easily, then quickly reversed in the event of failure. Unlike a ‘one-way door’ (a restaurant), which demands a great deal of research and deliberation beforehand, a ‘two-way door’ (or café) is something which may be cheaper to try than to argue about. There is no point preparing an intricate business plan for something which can be tested in the real world and corrected on the fly.

But I think there is also a third kind of door which is emerging in technology adoption. This starts as a two-way door but then maddeningly slams shut, leaving everyone trapped on the wrong side. What began as an option becomes an imposition. Parking apps come into this category. Originally a welcome alternative to coins, they are now almost obligatory in many places. Likewise self-checkout tills at supermarkets. Originally a handy alternative for impatient people buying only a few items, they are often now imposed on everyone regardless. The gradual disappearance of cash worries me, too. In ten years we have gone from the ridiculous practice of taxis not accepting cards to the opposite: shops which won’t accept cash.

My experience of technology reminds me a little of visiting France or Scotland, where in the space of a single day you might encounter the best and the worst customer service of your life. When you obediently follow the system, and the system works, it is a joy. Make the slightest mistake, however, or encounter the tiniest anomaly, and you enter a Kafka-esque nightmare from which there is no escape. When a credit card of mine expired, it took me 25 minutes to pay to park my car. As I write this, my wife is engaged in an hour-long online odyssey to recover £29 from a credit-card company.

Why does this happen? Some customers are simply cheaper to serve than others – but the reasons for this are circumstantial, innate or fixed.  Today’s typical MBA droid, however, hooked on the catnip of efficiency, believes it is a good idea to force every-one to interact in the lowest–cost channel – which typically involves outsourcing as much work as possible to the poor customer and forcing him or her to submit to your processes....


As noted in our last visit with Mr. Sutherland a couple weeks ago:

"Harris Tweed, the miracle fabric"

....Our boilerplate introduction to the writer::

Readers who have been with us for a while know I get a kick out of Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland. He's a first rate marketer and enough of a behavioural scientist to be able to hold his own in conversation with Kahneman.
Additionally, he holds, along with Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, that most nebulous* of corporate titles: Vice-Chairman.