Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, May 7, 2016

on the Quants and the Creatives

Over the past few months I’ve thought from time to time about this Planet Money episode on A/B testing. The episode illustrates the power of such testing by describing how people at NPR created two openings for an episode of the podcast, and sent one version out to some podcast subscribers and the second to others. Then they looked at the data from their listeners — presumably you know that such data exists and gets reported to “content providers” — and discovered that one of those openings resulted in significantly more listening time. The hosts are duly impressed with this and express some discomfort that their own preferences may have little value and could, in the future, end up being ignored altogether.

I keep thinking about this episode because at no point during it does anyone pause to reflect that no “science” went into the creation of A and B, only the decision between them. A/B testing only works with the inputs it’s given, and where do those come from? A similar blindness appears in this reflection in the NYT by Shelley Podolny: “these days, a shocking amount of what we’re reading is created not by humans, but by computer algorithms.” At no point in the essay does Podolny acknowledge the rather significant fact that algorithms are written by humans.

These wonder-struck, or horror-struck, accounts of the new Powers That Be habitually obscure the human decisions and acts that create the technologies that shape our experiences. I have written about this before — here’s a teaser — and will write about it again, because this tendentious obfuscating of human responsibility for technological Powers has enormous social and political consequences.

All this provides, I think, a useful context for reading this superb post by Tim Burke, which concerns the divide between the Quants and the Creatives — a divide that turns up with increasing frequency and across increasingly broad swaths of American life. “This is only one manifestation of a division that stretches through academia and society. I think it’s a much more momentous case of ‘two cultures’ than an opposition between the natural sciences and everything else.”

Read the whole thing for an important reflection on the rise of Trump — which, yes, is closely related to the division Tim points out. But for my purposes today I want to focus on this:

The creatives are able to do two things that the social science-driven researchers can’t. They can see the presence of change, novelty and possibility, even from very fragmentary or implied signs. And they can produce change, novelty and possibility. The creatives understand how meaning works, and how to make meaning. They’re much more fallible than the researchers: they can miss a clue or become intoxicated with a beautiful interpretation that’s wrong-headed. They’re either restricted by their personal cultural literacy in a way that the methodical researchers aren’t, and absolutely crippled when they become too addicted to telling the story about the audience that they wish was true. Creatives usually try to cover mistakes with clever rhetoric, so they can be credited for their successes while their failures are forgotten. However, when there’s a change in the air, only a creative will see it in time to profit from it. And when the wind is blowing in a stupendously unfavorable direction, only a creative has a chance to ride out the storm. Moreover, creatives know that the data that the researchers hold is often a bluff, a cover story, a performance: poke it hard enough and its authoritative veneer collapses, revealing a huge hollow space of uncertainty and speculation hiding inside of the confident empiricism. Parse it hard enough and you’ll see the ways in which small effect sizes and selective models are being used to tell a story, just as the creatives do. But the creative knows it’s about storytelling and interpretation. The researchers are often even fooling themselves, acting as if their leaps of faith are simply walking down a flight of stairs.

Now, there are multiple possible consequences of this state of affairs. It may be that the Quants are going to be able to reduce the power of the Creatives by simply attracting more and more money, and thereby in a sense sucking all the air out of the Creatives’ room. But something more interesting may happen as well: the Creatives may end up perfectly happy with the status quo, in which they can work without interference or even acknowledgement to shape the world, like Ben Rhodes in his little windowless office in the West Wing. Maybe poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world after all.

And then? Well, maybe this:

Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.


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