The Spontaneity Algorithm
Less and less seems to simply happen. Today, the only times we ever hear about things like chance encounters, meetings, and other spontaneous events, are from grandparents or in old movies. It has become extremely rare to hear of two strangers meeting by chance at a library or coffee shop, and going on to form a relationship from that encounter. This did not happen overnight, but came about as the logical conclusion to our ceaseless efforts in making every process and every aspect of our lives more efficient. At first glance, it may be a little difficult to grasp the importance of this, or its relevance to anything for that matter. It may even seem like something bizarre to criticize; after all, is it not beneficial to everyone to make the best use of their time? Civilizations and their technologies have no choice but to progress, or risk being relegated to the history books; and as they progress their customs and shared beliefs must adapt. But I fear that despite the good intentions behind these efforts at over-optimization and scrambling to make sure not a single second is used incorrectly, we may, in some ways, be limiting our possibilities not only in our professional lives, but in our personal lives and leisure as well.
Let us consider how this crusade against chance and happenstance has manifested itself in a few of the most important facets of everyday life for the common person, and the ways in which it can negatively affect the trajectory of our lives.
Firstly, our professional lives. Any yuppie (or, Young Urban Professional) will be able to attest to the domination of their work environments — usually offices — by relentless optimization discourse. Management in any industry is always going to be pressuring employees to find the most efficient ways to complete tasks. This is perfectly normal, as it is essentially what a manager is supposed to do — that is, manage and make the most of the resources available to them in order to keep operations running as efficiently as possible. Most of the time, in the office setting, they rely on various software and computer applications to do this. A particularly interesting example of this is the calendar function on Microsoft Outlook. Most offices, corporate or otherwise, are equipped with Outlook and rely on it primarily for their email services, but one of Outlook’s more noteworthy features is its scheduling calendar. This feature allows members of the same organization to see each other’s daily schedules and compels them to arrange their meetings based on this. On the surface this is great, as meetings can be arranged without having to discuss and double-check prior commitments a hundred times before confirming. But as careers progress and days get busier, employees can become dependent on the scheduling feature and it can come to totally dictate their interactions with colleagues. This is not good, as it creates an atmosphere that restricts free flowing conversation and ideas, and consequently the innovations that can often result from such dialogues.
Just imagine for a moment that someone like Isaac Newton had been made to obey this regimented approach to work, where he would have had to accept that work and creativity can only happen during certain, predetermined timeframes. Would the idea of gravity ever have struck him if he had to use the Outlook calendar to schedule his allotted time to think about the physics problems his career threw at him, instead of simply taking the liberty to sit under his famous tree that fateful day. What about Archimedes, coming up with his principles of displacement, supposedly while sitting in his bath tub? Had he been made to believe that he could only work and think about these problems when he was behind his desk, would he have been able to contribute all that he did to the sciences, and consequent advancement of civilization?
Let us now move on to considering the effects of this optimization discourse on our personal lives, which is perhaps the more intriguing and relatable side of this story. The two largest, and most important, components of our personal lives have always been our relationships and leisure, as these two things generally take up most of our time that isn’t spent working or sleeping. But, for better or worse, these too have now also fallen prey to the optimization crusade. Just think for a moment about how people are meeting nowadays. In 2019 the Pew Research Center found that 48% of Americans aged 18 to 29 were using dating sites and apps (Vogels, 2020). These numbers may not seem frightening just yet, but with the lack of social awareness and lack of basic social skills that is being bred into the current generations of children and teenagers, these numbers are likely going to spike much higher in the next 5 years, as when these children are going to reach “dating age” they will only know how to communicate virtually — meeting people in a face-to-face setting will be completely alien to them.
Unfortunately, these dating apps (you know which ones I mean), in similar fashion to Outlook, create a sort of domain dependence that closes us off to any other possibilities for meeting new people, people who may very well end up being better fits for us. The problem is not so much that we would reject potential dates that come about non-virtually (on the street, for example), but that we no longer have the same urgency to propose them ourselves. I imagine the thought process across the board could look a little like this: “even though I feel attracted to the person across the room from me, I don’t need to waste any time unnecessarily putting myself out there, and possibly facing rejection, when all of my dating is done so much more efficiently, and without risk of public embarrassment, over the internet.”
This optimization-oriented thinking follows us to our leisure time as well, which is slightly ironic as our periods of leisure are supposed to be the moments in our lives when we are free from the pressures of work and other obligations, the moments when we are supposed to relax and not worry about things like being efficient. This is not any one person’s fault. The internet and its wonders simply take the burden away from us, the value of which we simply overlook. Just think of the approach that so many people now take to travel, one of the most common leisure activities throughout the world. Any time you now visit a new city, whether its Birmingham, Alabama or Paris, what is the first thing you do before even booking the flight? You go to google and search something like “10 best things to do in Paris” or “top 10 sights to see in Birmingham”, and you are bombarded with endless lists regurgitating the most popular museums and restaurants in the city. There is then this needless pressure to go out and visit all of these popular places so that you somehow have the optimal travel experience. But again, this leaves no room for veering off the unbeaten path and exploring. We would be doing ourselves a disservice by not considering the possibility that a small, overlooked corner of the city may end up bringing you more pleasure than the must-sees like the Louvre or the Eiffel tower (or the McWane Science Center in Birmingham), because we never know what we might find there. This is not to say that we should not visit the must-sees at all, but that if we are able, to leave some room for spontaneity and explore that little street or shop which, for whatever reason, arouses our curiosity.
The other important, and even more common, type of leisure that this type of thinking has affected is digital entertainment; specifically, the most popular streaming services that are used throughout the world, like YouTube and Netflix. In recent years these platforms have all adopted the well-known suggestion algorithms, which will recommend content to viewers based on the types of films and shows they are most frequently viewing. This is great for content producers, as these algorithms had been developed to keep viewers latched to their screens as long as possible in order to increase advertising revenues and maintain subscriptions. This is, of course, also great for viewers — assuming they are only interested in watching the same type of content all the time. But what if they are looking for content that is different from what they watch all the time, different from what they already know they like? Unfortunately, in a similar fashion to what happens with the travel recommendations on the internet, this content optimization discourages viewers from discovering new and different material that they may otherwise enjoy or benefit from. Even worse, being constantly fed the same type of content creates echo chambers for the underlying ideas and modes of thought in the content being broadcasted, which many analysts have cited as a major factor in the recent waves of radicalization among religious and political groups as varied as the extreme right and Islamic fundamentalists.
In the end, one does not have to look very far to find the roots of this scramble to optimize. For much of our history as humans we have been at the mercy of the future and its unpredictability. As we see technology progressing at such an extraordinary rate, though, we can also get a clearer idea of the direction it is progressing in. We can then see that these efforts at optimization are not simply for the sake of efficiency, so much as they are an attempt at mastering or taming the future and its unpredictability. But we must remember that despite our best attempts, it will never be possible to tame or master the future completely — so we should not optimize ourselves to death trying to do so. We are always going to be at the mercy of the unprecedented events that shape the future, as these events are, by definition, without precedent, and consequently without origins to analyze and optimize from. The renowned statistician, Nassim Taleb, has elegantly called our ignorance of this the Lucretius Problem, where we believe, for example, that the biggest object that we have seen or heard about to be the biggest object that can possibly exist. In other words, we erroneously make judgements about the future based on existing information, without considering the unknown unknowns.
Obviously, there is no benefit or solution in playing the Luddite and attempting to live in a way that rejects or denies the advancements in technology that have brought us to this point of disappearing spontaneity. Instead, given that for the most part this is a problem rooted in the uncontrolled propagation of software and code, we should consider the possibility of trying to solve it with software and code. It is for this reason that I propose a spontaneity algorithm, or code that is written for the express purpose of allowing for spontaneity and serendipitous events in our daily lives. While this may initially reduce the optimal levels of efficiency we have become used to experiencing, I believe it can save us from the colourlessness found at the endpoint of the optimization crusade. It will broaden our horizons and provide us with greater variety, and ultimately lead us to live more examined and fulfilling lives. And if the variety is not to our liking, then at least we will know.