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Optimize For Nothing

Anything new is by nature without precedent — meaning, without data to know whether it will work or not.

I recently read a piece by the folks at The Browser Company about how they are optimizing for feelings:

When Olmstead crafted Central Park, what do you think he was optimizing for? Which metric led to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight? What data brought the iPhone into this world? The answer is not numerical. It’s all about the feelings, opinions, experiences, and ideas of the maker themself.

They ask a good rhetorical question: what products that you love were created in optimization around a metric?

I like the against-the-grain nature of the piece. They bemoan “the relentless optimization of everything in our world” and conclude:

We believe this mindset has led us to a very specific place: one of efficiency, productivity, and profit…but not a place of humanity.

I’ll buy that. It reminds me of a quote from Eric Gill where he says: “We have elected to order manufacture upon inhuman lines; why should we ask for humanity in the product?”

And yet, after arguing against optimization, they themselves say they are optimizing — albeit for feelings not metrics.

Maybe that’s inevitable. If you want to run a business, you have to optimize for something to turn a profit? I’m no good at business, so don’t ask me.

But for argument’s sake, what would push this piece further is to hear a claim like: “We’re not optimizing for anything. Rather than optimize around metrics or feelings from our users, we are building something based on our own sensibilities and opinions of what makes the world more enjoyable to us.”

What I find profound and universal about anyone’s work is what they observe in themselves and, in turn, reflect in their work to the world — not any one optimization.