Note — Jul 04, 2021

The Limits of Optimization

Great piece by L. M. Sacasas on how optimization, taken to its logical conclusion, and used indiscriminately, can rob us of something, a quality not reflected in the numbers, a je ne sais quoi that made the “imperfect” version better. I’ve covered similar arguments before, I’m recommending this one because he uses baseball (which I don’t care for) as an example and refers quite a bit to French polymath Jacques Ellul, who’s view of la technique I wasn’t familiar with. In other words, he slides right next to computing and productivity but makes the point from other angles.

As a side note, it’s not lost on me that there’s a certain irony to a French native speaker reading and writing in English, concerning a piece where Sacasas, in English, refers to three French thinkers.

Ellul’s issue was not with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological techniques. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on technique, on the proceduralization whereby everything is organized and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity. […]

Technique became the defining force, the ultimate value, of a new social order in which efficiency was no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity. Technique became universally totalitarian in modern society as rationalistic proceduralism imposed an artificial value system of measuring and organizing everything quantitatively rather than qualitatively. […]

Data-driven optimization is, in this sense, a way of perceiving the world. And what may matter most about this is not necessarily what it allows us to see, but it keeps us from perceiving: in short, all that cannot be quantified or measured. […]

The key, then, is to recognize where and when it is appropriate to allow technique (or quantification or optimization) a place and where and when it would be good to circumscribe its scope. In order to do so we must have before us a clear sense of the good we seek.