Footnotes & Credits

for [Dear Zuck] and [How to Design Social Systems (Without Causing Depression and War)]


I’m especially grateful to Nathan Vanderpool and Andy Matuschak for close attention to the text. And to Stripe, which has supported my research on metrics, on human values, and on this design curriculum. I hope that more startups support independent research in relevant fields!

Footnotes for Dear Zuck

  1. For more on what I mean by values, check out Human Values: A Quick Primer.
  2. Even if you do find a way to bend the rules (by, say, violating terms and conditions), you may just disappear from the platform. Your account might get banned.
  3. A third way in which social structures get encoded is through land use patterns: where we live, work, and socialize shapes our lives in myriad ways. Encounters between certain people become more likely, and others less likely. If you live in a US suburb, it may actually be designed to make it hard to socialize without spending money. But land, like convention can be expressively “misused” in creative ways: graffiti, parkour, and teenage parking-lot hangouts are all examples. Virtual spaces are different. Try reclaiming the space of News Feed with graffiti, and you’ll only manage to “decorate” your own screen. Teenagers can’t drink with their friends on a McDonalds’s website.
  4. I’ll focus a future essay on this topic. Bret Victor’s Dynamicland is one direction for this approach. There are more.
  5. Some see the creation of new social systems as an eternal war between different groups’ values. It’s true that different people and groups have different values, but does that mean that any system that is aligned with one person’s values is necessarily misaligned for another’s? Are social systems just a zero-sum power struggle? Those who think so may change their minds if they read part 2.

Footnotes for How to Design

  1. The terminology I’m using here (“sorting out values for a situation”) can be misleading. It makes the process sound more conscious, more verbal, and more individual than it has to be. The best account I’ve found of what this process actually consists of is in David Velleman’s books “How We Get Along” and “Practical Reflection”. I am also grateful to Ruth Chang for exposing the role of hard choices in sorting out. Unfortunately Velleman’s phrases for the process (such as “self-understanding” and “reflection”) and Chang’s (such as “finding more comprehensive values” or “making a commitment”) are even less accurately suggestive than Peterson’s (“sorting yourself out”).
  2. Nassim Taleb, in his book “Skin in the Game”, writes about how norms proliferate within low-exposure social structures, and come to displace values. Low exposure to consequences may be the single greatest flaw in our current systems.
  3. The way people talk about “dopamine hits” is a symptom of this problem: talking this way paints users as habituated rats rather than as people what’s process of sorting themselves out is interrupted. Both of these view present humans as vulnerable, but only the later view is clear about what they need, what must be protected. (Behavioral economics can have a similarly obfuscating effect. See What’s Next?)
  4. This is how it was for me with consistency, rationality, masculinity, and being understated. When I played On My Own Terms, I decided to value these less. My true values are only clear through experimentation and reflection.

    Some values run deep and are more stable. Values like being honest, respecting people, being kind, making things possible — these don’t go away, even after we shed other ideas about how to act. This smaller set of values survives reflection, reconsideration, and experimentation.
  5. It is especially important to consider social venues in this way: if our friends are on Facebook — or in a chat room, a bar, a cafe, a mall — then these become our practice spaces (at least for our values about relationships). When our friends can only be found in a narrow range of social venues, it can become difficult to practice even common values like honesty or emotional openness.
  6. Political policies can also be viewed through this lens. What do we practice when we participate in representative democracy at the national level? Are these the values we want to practice?
  7. Imagine a world in which people regularly shared this sort of information with one another. You may know the professions of your neighbors, but what if you knew the values by which they charted their lives and relationships?
  8. I talk through these previous kinds of empathy in Nothing to Be Done. Look there to see how different they are.
  9. This amounts to a view of human nature — with antecedents in Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant. A subculture of academics and writers with this view formed initially as a reaction to mid 20th-century post-modern views which didn’t distinguish between values and norms, and which conceptualized all culture as a kind of war. There were simultaneous reactions to this in literature — via the New Sincerity of David Foster Wallace and Miranda July — and amongst academics who viewed meaning as concrete, communicable, accessible, lived, and not-entirely-subjective phenomenon: most notably Charles Taylor, but also Velleman, Chang, Korsgaard, Putnam, and many others.
  10. This new way of listening to users requires a new array of metrics. See Is Anything Worth Maximizing?. It also likely requires changes in team process, company structure, and reporting.

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