The Most Important Question You Can Ask: Then What?

The Most Important Question You Can Ask: Then What?


Life is full of next steps. In the academic literature, these things would be called “second order effects”. But, in real life, they’re called consequences (or unintended consequences). Each of our actions has an immediate effect and a range of different long term effects. For example, the short term effect of eating a McDonald’s hamburger may be enjoyment and satiety. However, the long term effect may be sleepiness and, eventually, weight gain (though, obviously, it takes more than one burger to get there).

The great art of life is in balancing the short term and the long term, so that one can have enjoyment with integrity - pleasure with purpose. But in most areas of life, we pay strict attention to the immediate consequences of things. We look at the immediate results of a social or economic policy and call it a victory (or a complete failure). We look in the mirror after each workout, hoping to see substantial changes in belly fat or physique. We play a game because it’s “so much fun”, and disregard the fact that it’s taking away from valuable study or work or social time. What is not present is always underrepresented, and opportunity cost is an invisible demon that steals us blind while we look right through him.

Luckily, there’s an antidote to this type of short-term thinking. It’s a simple question: “And then what?” Thomas Sowell, the great economist, once said that essence of economics is asking “and then what?”. The problem is that so few of us take the effort to do this very simple thing. It’s understandable, we get caught up in the moment, and we don’t particularly enjoy thinking in minute detail each and every moment of our lives. But in the coming era, it will become increasingly important for us to ask these kinds of things, as our interconnectedness makes ideas and new technologies spread faster than ever before.

If we think two or three steps ahead, it’s possible for us to make small changes in our products and services that can save us a lot of pain and heartache in the long run. Facebook would have been well served in asking this question when developing Beacon, the controversial program that shared a user’s purchases on other websites (like Blockbuster and Overstock) in Facebook’s social feed. Unfortunately, the system was opt-out instead of opt-in, and so many users found themselves with a sense of shock and betrayal as their personal shopping habits were shared far and wide in their social graphs. A ten minute exercise of “and then what?” could have easily prevented a mistake like this.

Of course, groupthink is a strong thing, and every single industry and organization falls prey to this fundamental human impulse. We’re tribal creatures, and we bind together at many different levels of life to feel a sense of belonging, and to get into positions that are advantageous to our desires and goals. But, an understanding of the complexity of the world, and second and third order effects, is essential for building technology - and dancing along with the chaos of life.

We technologists could really use a little reminder from time to time. And then what?

Image: 

How New York's largest hospital system is predicting COVID-19 spikes

Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.

Credit: Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
  • The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
  • Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

Listen: Scientists re-create voice of 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy

Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
  • With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
  • The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Keep reading Show less

Put on a happy face? “Deep acting” associated with improved work life

New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.

Credit: Columbia Pictures
Personal Growth
  • Deep acting is the work strategy of regulating your emotions to match a desired state.
  • New research suggests that deep acting reduces fatigue, improves trust, and advances goal progress over other regulation strategies.
  • Further research suggests learning to attune our emotions for deep acting is a beneficial work-life strategy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    World's oldest work of art found in a hidden Indonesian valley

    Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.

    Pig painting at Leang Tedongnge in Indonesia, made at 45,500 years ago.

    Credit: Maxime Aubert
    Surprising Science
    • Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
    • The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
    • The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
    Keep reading Show less
    Mind & Brain

    What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem?

    The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast