Tag: philosophy

A Civilian at World of Watson Part Three: Philosophy

Back in October I was invited by IBM to attend their World of Watson event in Las Vegas – I wrote a little about it at the time.

Now that I have had some time following the event, I’ve been able to percolate and put my thoughts to paper, as it were. In the interest of you, dear reader, I’ve split these thoughts into three different posts; Technology, Business and Philosophy.

This post is the third and final, talking a little bit about Philosophy. You can find my first post, discussing the Technology and my experience of it, here. The second post, discussing the Business of IBM and the conference, here.

Continue reading “A Civilian at World of Watson Part Three: Philosophy”

Metrics, Means, and Maps

As a younger man, I spent a lot of time reading and discussing philosophy.

In the end, I was most attracted to modern moral theorists like Rawls and Nozick, but like all Philosophy majors at the State University of New York at Binghamton, I spent some time with all of the greats: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Marcuse, Arendt, and so forth.

(In fact, in the forward of Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick describes what I think is the most perfect description of all professional academia, not just Philosophy. I’m away from my copy, but I’ll post the passage when I get home!) edit: I gave it its own Post!

I’m bringing this up because one of my least favorite philosophers to read was Immanuel Kant. I struggled with Kant, like I suspect many 20 year olds do, as his writing is so incredibly dense, and translated from the original German. One piece of his moral philosophy that stands with me is this: to behave morally, a moral agent must treat other humans always as ends in themselves, and never as means.

To be more philosophically precise, Immanuel says never to treat other humans merely as means, but always as ends as well.  So, it’s not necessarily immoral to treat another human as a means, so long as you keep them in mind as an end also. It’s a tricky bit that’s easy to forget. Kant, he’s dense.

One thing that we need to bear in mind, whatever department we’re working in, is that our metrics are necessarily abstractions, a means to a larger end. In this way our mindset needs to be like Kant’s – some things are ends, some things are means, and we should be intentional about which is which, and remind ourselves that the distinction is important.

A quote that came up a number of times at the Growth Hackers convention this year was this: “Be careful what you optimize for,” and that, too, points at what I’m getting at here.

Our metrics, our measurable indicators of success, must necessarily be abstractions from real life. 

By this, I mean, reducing churn by 10% is only a means to a larger end, and has to be considered in that larger context. What’s the real reason? Why do you, personally and as an organization, want to reduce churn? Maybe it’s because you believe you have a product that can genuinely make peoples’ lives better, so the more folks who use it, longer, the better off they’ll be. That’s great! Maybe it’s to make more money – that’s OK too. 

In either of these cases, churn reduction is itself only a means toward a larger end. Success with this metric points to a larger success, something that you’re maybe not equipped to measure, something like Customer Happiness or Success of the Business. We need to keep this in mind.

Another quote that’s on my mind a lot these days: “The map is not the territory.

Our metrics are only maps upon which we build our assumptions and beliefs – the underlying terrain, the real territory of your customers and your business, is far more complex, far more nuanced. Remember that we use metrics because they are abstractions, because they take our complex world that is impossible to understand all at once, and break it into easier-to-understand chunks.

Our metrics are by design not the whole truth. They’re reductive because they must be – because only by reducing a complex concept can we hope to make meaningful decisions. If our metric were the whole truth, if the map were a perfectly accurate representation of the whole territory, it would be perfectly useless.

Measuring our work, and our companies, and our success or lack of success, is absolutely vital to the success of any enterprise in 2016. Choosing the right metrics, and bearing in mind that our metrics only represent one part of the truth, is the hard part.


“Reformed Philosopher”

“Reformed Philosopher”

Today, this happened on Twitter:

Scott is a speaker and author, and someone I have a lot of respect for. He has written a number of books that are worth your time, most notably one about his time with Automattic. We actually met one time, at my first ever Automattic Grand Meetup, which took place in San Francisco. I was nervous. I’m a little nervous now, to be honest.

I do think of myself as a reformed Philosopher, and I do recognize and appreciate the historical weight that a term like ‘reformed’ can carry. All of the formal education that I have was focused on philosophy; mostly political and economic philosophy (think Nozick, Rawls) but also some headier stuff (I was especially fond of Levinas’ Talmudic studies, for example).

I currently hold an MA in Philosophy from the State University of New York, specifically the Binghamton campus (Go Bearcats!). I taught teenagers philosophy when I lived in Providence, running Ethics and Logic classes out at the Community College of Rhode Island. It was before that, though, when I was living in Binghamton, that the reformation happened.

I think probably at the root of it all was the quiet realization that while I really enjoyed thinking philosophically, I was pretty rotten at the role of a philosopher. There’s an important distinction to be made here: I don’t see anything inherently wrong in the profession and practice of philosophy – in fact, I think capital P Philosophers do some of the most important work that there is to be done! I am glad that they are out there and the world is a better place for having them.

I found myself at one end of what would turn out to be a pendulum – I was more and increasingly frustrated to be sitting in small classrooms with my fellow graduate students, discussing at great length the ideas of justice, and global equality, and so forth.

I can see now the broader view, the necessary tension that exists between making space for discussion and using thought to try to influence action farther down the road. The importance of separating theory and practice. At the time, it felt very disingenuous, and that tension ate at me.

It felt as though the pursuit of justice, and equality, was not well served talking about justice and equality. That pursuit, it required action.

So I graduated, and did not continue on to more schooling (as many of my peers did) – rather, I followed the pendulum to the far end of the spectrum, and took a job making $11,000 per year working with the Binghamton Neighborhood Assemblies Project, an Americorps placement in an experimental (and controversial) direct democracy experiment. It was in some way my personal schism, splitting away from what seemed to be, at the time, the church of academic Philosophy.

I became a community organizer, a position that would later become steeped in significance as a young Senator from Chicago would take his place on the world stage.

As I continued through my working life, I’ve continued to swing on this pendulum between practice and theory, and I’ve always found a certain personal value to bringing the dogged intellectual rigor of the philosophy classroom into my endeavors. On some level, I can reflect on how frustrating I must have been to work with at times, challenging assumptions and demanding a certain consistency of position – but it has served me well, and I can’t very well change my heart, my roots.

It was this love of Big Ideas that drew me to Automattic. Open Source is, at its core, a philosophically enormous idea, and one that cannot be ignored. Automattic’s goal, to democratize publishing on the Internet, to providing a voice for folks who would otherwise be voiceless – these are the kind of ideas that motivate me, and not just as an employee. As a philosophical thinker.

That is the distinction, for me. The “reformed” piece of “Reformed Philosopher” is not a commentary on Philosophy – it’s a commentary on me, and on my mindset. I pushed away from academic philosophy to dive into almost pure praxis, literally knocking on doors in Binghamton’s First Ward. I’ve found for myself a middle way, a place where I can engage with Big Ideas and still find ways to act on them in a way that is impactful and meaningful.

There is a shocking amount of space in business today for Big Ideas, and for folks who can chew on them and find ways to apply them in practical and meaningful ways. Reformed Philosophers who are dedicated to thinking philosophically and acting efficiently will always have a place in American business.

As always, Automattic is hiring.