Just because Google does it, doesn’t mean we should do it too: This week Paul Ford and Gina Trapani meet with Christian Madsbjerg, author of Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. Christian discusses the limits of the algorithm, bringing human insight into technology, where artificial intelligence falls short, and the impact of Elon Musk. (Ed. Note: Unfortunately, this interview was recorded before the Met Gala.)
Paul Ford It’s a very sort of stereotypical tech dream. Right?
Gina Trapani Boring.
PF We’ll go to Mars. We’ll have electric cars. It’ll be, you know? He put a car into space.
PF Eh. That was a quite — I mean at the same time you’re like, “Well, he put in a car into spa — ” I didn’t do that.
GT That’s true. That’s all a victory. It worked.
PF Yeah. I had Cheerios.
GT It’s good marketing.
PF Yeah. [Gina laughing, says, “Right”] I didn’t put a car into space [music fades in, plays alone for 16 seconds, begins to fade out]. Alright, Gina, abstractions! We love ‘em!
GT We love them.
PF We [chuckling] love abstractions. Look: you gotta [sighs] — it used to be that you go get a degree in something and then you’re gonna just kinda teach at some college for the rest of your life.
GT Or do something somewhat related to your field [but what — ] but not always.
PF But what if not? What if there was an organization that took all the PhD super geniuses in the world, put them together . . . and turned them into management consultants!
GT [Laughing] Optimizing capitalism.
PF We’re gonna talk to Christian and uh I get the sense that this person is gonna be ssssmmmmart.
GT Very smart.
PF This is the author of a book but someone who deals with a lot of abstractions and a lot of very complicated stuff. So let’s — let’s talk to him about what he does all day and his team of super geniuses . . . I know that your first name is Christian. How do I pronounce your last name?
Christian Madsbjerg Mess-piah.
PF That was not what I was expecting.
CM I know it’s just consonants.
PF Mass-piah. Like that?
PF Did I get it?
CM There you go.
PF I did pretty good —
CM Slightly Americanized but —
CM — alright.
PF I’m not gonna do better than that, frankly.
CM That’s good.
PF Christian, you, you have a company. Is it — it’s R-lower-case ‘e’-capital D Associates.
PF How would I pronounce that?
PF Ok. See?!? Everything’s getting a lot easier.
PF Much happier. What does ReD Associates do? And you’re the co-founder?
CM Right. It’s a company based in the human sciences. So that means people there are from the kinds of . . . of university degrees that most of the time end up in museums or as, you know, professors in universities.
CM Anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, uh sociology and so on.
PF But it’s a management consultant firm.
CM It is. So we use that to figure out what people might want or need or what they — how they lead their life. And that can be helpful to understand if you wanna make something for them. So it’s the idea to study humans . . . in an advanced way to inform which cars or phones or TV sets or software we should make for them.
PF So, I work in a — in a consulting capacity, and we often are trying to deliver things like apps. I feel like an animal right now, actually. Um —
GT [Laughing] I know. I know [laughs].
PF People come to us and they’re like, “I need software that runs on a computer. You idiots seem just fine. Uh [Gina laughs] go ahead, build it for me.”
GT And we’re like, “We’re gonna make this user centric. We’re gonna really think about the people who are gonna use this and that’s how we’re gonna design it.” [Paul says, “Yeah, they’re like — ”] Christian has taken a whole different tact here.
PF So, you’re taking philosophers and your sending them into management environments. How does that work in practice?
CM Well it’s taken a while. Let’s say it that way.
CM And when you get them straight out of school, when they have done a PhD and are no Aristotle [Paul says, “Mm hmm”]. It can take a couple of years for them to get used to the practical realities of making things.
PF So what do you do with them in the meantime?
CM It’s not their world to begin with [Paul says, “Mm hmm”] um they pretend to be against um capitalism.
CM And uh that’s unhelpful if you’re working in it uh and also they tend to be against — uh mostly for critique and against suggesting anything.
CM But if you wanna make something, you gotta suggest something.
GT Yeah I was — I was looking at your website and I’m curious how do your consultants come to you? Like if you’re an anthropologist, or a philosopher, uh and you’re maybe not thrilled with the idea of capitalism. How do you get to the place where you say, “I wanna be a business management consultant.”
CM So if you think about your high school year half of the ten smartest went into engineering or business or something helpful and the other half went into something rather unhelpful which would be studying comparative literature or something like that but they were very smart. The — it’s those people in life. So it’s mostly people that have sort of fallen out of love with the — the — the track they were on or they just realized what it was and then they see . . . this; that there’s a way to still have integrity in what you’re doing and still deal with the kinds of things and the way you wanna deal with them but in a different world.
PF So do you have a problem where you hire someone and you say, “Look: I want you take a look at what’s happening over at this bank. There’s a few issues.” And they go, “Yes! But we should do — we should start from first principles and figure out what’s wrong with capitalism first.”
CM Yeah or, “What is money anyway?” [Gina laughs]
PF I mean honestly it’s a fair question right now. We’re all living in that. You know I’ve got blockchain companies coming and talking to me on a regular basis. And what is money anyway? Actually, what is a problem that someone — do people come to you with problems? Or do they just sort of say, “This seems interesting. Let’s have a conversation.”
CM They come with unease.
CM The other day there was somebody saying, “In the new Adobe suite there will be the ability to edit voice, video, and pictures. What — what’s truth then?”
GT Mm hmm.
CM H — how do we even know if somebody’s reporting anything that it’s true if you can take a snippet of what people say and then edit it into anything else?
PF Now are these NGOs? Government or — I mean like what kind —
PF Never. No NGOs?
CM No, never. It’s always commercial entities.
PF Interesting. Do they frame it as, “What’s truth?”
CM Yeah oh they would say, “We are uneasy about this area,” they would sort of suckle around it and they would say, “We don’t really know how to think about this.”
PF So your reputation is out there as such where if somebody is going, “I don’t know. You know what? Maybe we should call ReD.”
CM Yeah. You have to be —
GT But — but this is specific [Christian laughs] to the business. Like — like I’m trying to fo — the business is trying to form its opinion about those areas that it can then make future decision — like strategic decisions.
CM Right. Say you make things with a lot of sugar in it and sweetness used to be delicious.
PF Mm hmm.
CM Now it’s delicious and dangerous.
PF Mm hmm.
CM How do we deal with that? Do we create a whole new pipeline of products that capture people when they come stampeding out of uh sweetened drinks, say? Do we go into other areas? Do we de — how do we deal with that? And what does that mean? How are people — what’s the — what’s the state of mind of people right now?
PF Alright so I can see your anthropologists jumping on that and I can see your sociologists jumping on that. What about your philosophers? What do they do?
CM Right. So they all do the same.
PF Mm hmm.
CM It’s — I suppose it’s — phil — philosophy is just making manifests. What’s sort of underneath us all the time and that we didn’t think about and I think uh what’s happening at least in the technology space right now. It’s this big reckoning. Like there’s a big sort of realization that, “Oh there’s more to this than we thought there was.” And — and we, you know, that’s what a philosopher would do. They would — they would think about what are the — based on what do you say that? What are the kind of underlying assumptions? The idea that because someone’s successful then it must be true, too. You know? Those kinds of things. And there’s been a lot of that kind of reasoning the la — the last ten years, you know? Why do we do it this way? Well, because Google.
GT [Chuckles] Right.
CM And — and — and that’s not a very good way of reasoning in — in a philosopher’s perspective but your could sort of examine that and help figure out how to then examine it and understand what that means and — and how to make decisions based on that.
PF One of the big surprises in starting this company, so we’re about two and a half years old, is that a vast number of our conversations with myself and my co-founder, with management, on Slack, however, are ultimately about ethics. Constant refrain throughout the organization and it’s daily and it’s top to bottom. Everything we do . . . maybe also because we deal with so — so many abstractions and so many sort of requirements from the client. Our — and it’s [stammers] more about preventing unethical situations than it is — we — we rarely get into pickles because we know what we’re getting into when we’re working with the client. The relationship’s been built and we kind of understand what — the relationship we’re forming but it is surprising. So I could hire you, perhaps, to come in and — and — and — not you directly but your team . . . to come in and help me build an ethical framework for my business?
CM That’s —
PF What would you deliver to me?
CM It would be um I suppose an area.
PF Mm hmm.
CM So you would have an area that you do a lot in.
CM It could be mmm pharmaceutical companies.
CM Um and they would — you would then have to think through how are these apps I suppose you’re making or software. How is that interacting with people? And based on what assumptions about those people are you making these things and are those assumptions right? And — or could they be different and could we make things in a way that uh would be even more helpful in terms of getting people to take their medicine or live their life in a way that’s reasonable or, you know, that sort of thing. So there’s a lot of assumptions that we make under that normally which is that we can express it and that when we do so we do it with some honestly. And — and when we do so we will also do what we say. And that’s the way market analysis has been going on for, I don’t know, 50 years and that’s — all those three assumptions are wrong. So that’s why we have to go spend time with people and understand what’s the asymmetry or symmetry between the way that you think about the software you’re making and the way that people that might end up using it think about it, and see if we can align those two things.
PF Is the core deliverable in essentially a 200 page bound thesis? Or is it a PowerPoint? Like what — how — how do you get these things across to people?
CM So it’s mostly the latter. Um but it’s often what to do with a portfolio of products, what is missing, and — and — and what should we cut away. It’s often uh relating to big geography. So like what do we do with China and something? Or it would be a group of people. So how do we deal with 16 to 24 year olds and their, you know, how do we sell them phones in a way that isn’t annoying? Or something like that. So it’s often sort of a group of people that aren’t like you. And — and — and trying to understand what their life is like and what it is like to be them is the basic idea. That you enter their world. You can enter it in a way that’s — that can inform how to enter that world with whatever you’re making, whether that’s software or [music fades in] products or whatever you’re making.
GT Human inside into different people.
CM Yeah [music ramps up, plays alone for seven seconds, ramps down].
PF Wait, wait! Let me cut in here and remind everybody — Gina, what do you do?
GT Paul, I’m so glad that you asked! I’m a partner here at Postlight. Postlight’s amazing. We’re a digital products studio. We build web apps and platforms for our clients who are amazing.
PF It’s true. All I think — when you hear the word “digital” you should probably think the word “Postlight.”
PF I mean if — if — if it’s digital we build it. Unless it’s like an internet of things key chain that screams at you. We — we don’t do. There’s a lot of things we don’t do but the things we do, we’re awesome at!
GT We are. I write — I write a lot of code. I talk to some awesome clients. It’s — it’s some good — it’s good working here.
PF So anyway, if you need something built that’s digital and awesome and big . . . Postlight [music fades in]. Send an email to email@example.com. Alright, let’s get back to this program [music ramps up, plays alone for six seconds, ramps down]. So the book is called Sense Making [music fades out].
PF And tell us about this book.
CM So, it’s been seen as a business book but it was not — that was not the intention. I suppose it’s just because I live in the business world that people think of it like that but it’s a book about how we think and — and — and what’s wrong with the way that we have been thinking about people for awhile, and I think particularly the tech sector. So, five years ago it was much worse than it is today. It was sort of the dark ages in — in, particularly in — in — in California, around what makes us human; how — wha — what are the kinds of skills we have; and how’s that different from algorithms and big data and so on. And I was worried at the time the way that we talked about people. That the way that — that um is particularly very successful uh technology companies talked about us. That we are uneven, nonlinear, uh you can’t count us, we get tired, uh, you know, we’re sort of a problem. Where robots and algorithms will eventually take over because it’s much better and much more stable, it will take over every part of — of our society. And that’s just from an empirical perspective, from all the studies I’ve done not correct, and it’s also philosophically deeply flawed. And that’s why I wrote the book. That there’s — there are things we humans can do that we don’t understand yet. And the fact that the machine can beat us in — in, you know, chess or go doesn’t mean it can beat us in every other aspect of life, um including understanding each other. Um and I was just worried about the investments that was going into that, and uh so the blindness of it. And I’m not against data, and I’m not against algorithms, and I’m not against software at all. I just think it — there’s more to it. And I — I wanted to write a book that said, “There is way that we uh, humans, understand each other and understand human society that is way more sophisticated than any model built.
GT And how — how’s it gotten better in the past like five years? Like you said that it — it seems to have gotten better.
CM Particularly in the last year I think the launch technology firms have realized that limits of what an algorithm or what the big data analytics sort of investments gives them. So [Gina agrees, “Mm hmm”] you would see hospital systems uh say first — like five years ago they would say, “Watson is going to do everything that a — that a — that a doctor can do, um and it will be so much better. It can read all the manuscripts and all the papers everyday and a doctor can’t do that. Now they’re saying, “Well Watson can support some processes but most of the time uh it’s going to be um a supporting mechanism rather than something that takes over the job of the doctor. And — and — that’s new. And I think what has happened is they’ve run into a wall of — a philosophical wall — of what an — what an algorithm can and can’t do and —
PF I do think this is cyclical too. I mean I think from the fifties the — there was a huge over promise for AI.
CM And the eighties too.
PF In the eight — that’s right. And it’s um all the various, you know, X generation efforts. Like at one point Japan went really deep and it was just gonna solve everything. It was a national . . . sort of nationalistic effort to run AI in the eighties and now we’re um at this point where these sort of nation state style enterprises are able to say, “No, our — our computer brains will be better.” And . . . I mean [stammers] a good example here too is the . . . the conversation around self driving cars and watching that percolate out into the world and seeing uh that, first of all, one of the — one of the things that everyone’s tried to bring up is just sort of the ethics, you know? Can the — does the car run over somebody . . . in order to preserve the life of the inhabitant? Somebody had a great point not too long ago and I can’t remember where I read this but they’re like, “No one’s gonna buy a car that sacrifices your life to save another life.” And I think that might be right. Like I think that —
CM Or your daughter’s.
PF Yeah! We’re about to hit a wall um in like this is where, you know, capitalism and ethics are about to have a very exciting moment around self driving cars. Is that, I mean —
CM It’s a topic I’ve been discussing with the Ford Motor Company for five years now. And it’s not — I mean that’s one way of thinking about it. Another way of thinking about driverless cars is are they really — is that really so attractive? Some people enjoy driving those cars. And some people enjoy the feeling of driving and that’s, you know, that’s worth something as well. Another was of seeing it is you can look at the people that get slaughtered in our — in traffic everyday and that’s a big problem that we have to deal with and we have to solve but does that really mean that all cars have to be driverless? And isn’t it a magical thing if you think about all the people that step into a car everyday and then they somehow find their way through these streets and they don’t get crashed. It’s just ama — I mean sometimes I look it and say like, “How on earth does that not go wrong on the New Jersey turnpike?” I mean it’s —
GT It’s true.
CM — it’s magical.
PF I mean here. We’re on 5th Avenue and it’s madness [Gina laughing].
CM That it’s not breaking down all the time is . . . we’re witnessing to some skill in terms of — of a lot of people getting, you know, getting to and from places. So I’m — I’m just not so sure that there’s a historical necessity in us ending up in driverless cars. If it’s possible, it will be in some areas and I think Manhattan is probably a good candidate uh but — but not necessarily everywhere and certainly not as fast as everybody’s saying it. So what annoyed me it’s also this sort of Wired Magazine fast company kinda uh thing where, “It’s already here. It’s coming tomorrow.” And, you know, Elon Musk saying it every six months that we have it now and then six months later it’s not there. That this sort of um the evidence was not really available. When you stop to talk to the engineers, they say, “Well, we still need a sensor that look, you know, a hundred — a hundred meters out [Paul says, “Mm hmm”] and we need processing power of a significant amount of data in order to get above 40 miles an hour and I mean if we just wanna be below 40 miles an hour in some traffic that won’t work.” So he says, “It’s the same thing as saying, ‘You know, we want, I don’t know, a new kind of energy,’ Yeah, that’d be great. We just don’t have it yet.” And — and there was just this sort of story told two years ago, three years ago, where technology was absolutely going to take over our traffic, our hospitals, our teaching exerci — you know, everything would be done by better, smarter technology very, very quickly and — and I think that is, hopefully, the case in many, many situations but — but it won’t wipe us out right now.
PF What do you make of Elon Musk?
CM Um I would if I was the biggest celebrity billionaire think about this planet —
PF Mm hmm.
CM — first. I would — I would think about um maybe making this planet livable before I made Mars livable and I think it’s an extremely luxurious position to take to say, “ You know if you have the kind of cloud and the kind of money the guy has, and the kind of investors he’s got, you know, why not go to Mars?” So that’s — that’s sort of just my — that’s just my pet peeve with him. But the guy has balls. I mean he’s doing things that um I can see scaring very, very large companies to do some things that they should’ve done a long time ago [Paul says, “Mm hmm”] and I think — I think Tesla eventually would be bought up or go down but [stammers] as a legacy they would’ve kicked the — the electric uh car into — into sort of all the pipelines of all the big companies that are now coming out um at a pace that would be scary if I was Tesla. Um I think driving Tesla is like driving a laptop and — and — and has the feel IT which means I get annoyed with it after a couple of years and that’s not what a car should be. Um so the experience of the car I’m less impressed with than — than — than most other people and I think a lot of people are falling out of love with — with their Teslas right now. But — but you can’t, I mean, you can’t deny him the — the guts of building I don’t know how many companies and doing it at the same time and, you know, good for him. I would wish that he would represent a more interesting dream for 18-year-olds than, you know, going to Mars.
PF It’s a very sort of stereotypical tech dream. Right?
PF Alright, back to sense making. Ok so what is the process of sense making?
CM The first process is that in any public institution or any company um there is a language that is often native to that place. So in um the Ford Motor Company, the vehicle categories they’re talking about — uh just calling it vehicle categories [chuckles] is very native to that place and they think everybody else understands what an SUV and CUV and a mid-sized and a hatchback and, you know, all those kinds of things are, and the first thing is to translate that business language or that sort of . . . language of the institution into a human language. So how would human beings think about this? And what would be the human phenomenon at the heart of this? So that would be, instead of thinking about sugar, you think about sweeteners. Instead of thinking about vehicle categories, you think about, you know, cars that you would use from to and from work and so on.
PF And big and little and ideas like that.
CM Exactly. And so in a — translated into a way that humans can relate to and then the second thing is to capture data about that. So figure out what’s the way that a company looks at say money and what’s the way people look at money. And the company, let’s say that is JP Morgan Chase, they would look at money as something that you can add up in a spreadsheet. And that is pretty much an abstract object and that’s something that more is better than less uh [Gina chuckles] and it’s a beautiful thing. I — I think they think. I think there’s an aesthetics to it. But if you look at people, they’re scared of it. They have [Gina says, “Absolutely”] multiple, multiple categories of money that are not something you can add up in a spreadsheet. So they would, probably, if you looked at it — we’ve looked at it so I know, but that they would have some money that’s slow and some money that’s fast, some money that’s for now, and some money that’s for my children. Even though it makes no sense. It’s all dollars and cents but — but they would have emotional or experiential categories of it. So we try to observe that, so that’s the third phase: observing how this phenomena, say money, is playing out in life and how is that different to the way a company . . . is thinking about it. And then you have two systems of thought and then you can say, “What are the asymmetries between the two?” And, “What does that mean for the way we’re doing things? Selling things? Proposing things?” Um and so on. And that can lead to reduction of things or addition of things. So you can say, “What you’re doing is not connected to the way people think about it, so we oughta redesign or we need to get rid of it or we need to make something completely new.”
GT Those are the suggestions that your consultants make? That’s the deliverable: making a suggestion.
CM Rather concrete.
CM I mean we don’t have any designers. So we don’t design anything and — but we would suggest, “If you were to make a um . . . service that uh gets people that buy, say, SUVs um out to do the kinds of things that they dream of doing with it, maybe that would be helpful. So if you do it in this way and you get rid of these impediments then we think that they would use the cars in the ways that they — or the vehicles in the way that they would dream of using them. So let’s try that.”
PF The sense making as a practice is sort of . . . observing and understanding and organization well enough that you now have a foundation for . . . organizational change, for defining what needs to happen now.
CM Often we would relate then to the interface to customers rather than organizational change —
PF Mm hmm.
CM So that’s the real aim of HR and I get tired just thinking about it. I like to deal with the product lineup. I like to deal with the — with the real interface to customers. And I — and I understand that that’s not the only thing and the most important is often the culture and so on. It’s just not my area.
PF Yeah just so change the product and — and let the organization fix itself once the product is out there and —
CM Ah McKinsey can come in . . . with all their robots.
PF There we go! There — ok. So — so you get in there and — and sort of do that work and then all the larger . . . like sticky organizational stuff, fine. Go to.
CM Right. Right.
PF But if the customer is happier with the product and feels more connected to it, you’ve done your job.
CM That’s what’s important to me.
PF Mm hmm. Alright, so to gain this understanding, buying sense making is the first thing a person should do.
CM Uh well . . . I dunno. I mean um in the book I say that the people that are good at this tend to have a relationship to fiction.
PF Mm hmm.
CM Uh and they tend to have a relationship to entering other people’s world, whether that is through travel, you can travel with food, you can travel with wine, you can travel with um air — airplanes or you can travel with poetry and literature.
PF Mm hmm.
CM And — and the humanities is a place to exercise the muscle of trying to understand others in the most advanced way. So when you study art history you would try to understand what was it like to be Picasso or something like that and what was it like at that time. Um or if study history you would — you would try to figure out what was it like to live in the Edwardian England and — and — and — the world of literature and art is a place where you can see human worlds in a way that’s advanced and interesting and often beautiful. So often um the people that are good at this have the um have a [stammers] sensitivity to that. So I would say read, you know, The Peregrine or read great works of literature if you wanna — if you wanna learn this and don’t stop there, use those skills to understand why people are doing what they’re doing but with the same focus on piecing together their world, like you do when you read a great novel or when you look at great art or listen to music.
GT Mm hmm. We — we have quite a few humanities. We have like English majors turned coders. Those are my favorite, my favorite coders and for this reason.
CM They probably have a super skill, right?
CM That is the ability to understand how that code might play out.
PF Ok. How do people get in touch with you? And who are you looking for?
CM Well, we have a website and it’s redassociates.com.
CM And we — if we look for two things: well we look for one thing, really. We look for talent. We look for people that are interested in the — in the painstaking piecing together of other people’s world.
PF Well thank you so much for coming in and talking to us [music begins to fade in].
CM This was nice. Thank you.
PF Alright, Gina, I mean wow! Ok. You just get a sense sometimes that people live in a very different world.
GT It’s true. But there’s deep thinking going on and that’s somehow assuring me.
GT And now I’m gonna go back to my desk now and open up my code editor and feel —
PF I think we both have to go get PhDs.
GT Nah — I — [heavy sigh] I know. I’m gonna feel a little bit inadequate when I do that.
PF Alright, well, thank you to Christian for coming on and um let’s get outta here. firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t need um the kind of strategy is about changing the world but you do need a platform that’s out there and ready to go, Postlight’s your place! Aaaand have a good week, everybody.
GT Bye! [Music ramps up, plays alone for five seconds, fades out to end.]