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?

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