(featured image: Zak/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
We cannot possibly be aware of everything, but sometimes acting as if what we see is all there is can be embarrassing – or worse.
A long time ago, when my hair was long and not so grey – well it is pretty long again, the barbers have only just reopened after the latest lockdown – a friend of mine had come up with a new, jocular greeting. We were deeply into jocular phrases at the time. They combined attempts at sophisticated wit with our own private slang. The kind of thing you do as a teenager.
Anyway, my friend’s new greeting, instead of a more conventional variant on “how are you?”, was “how’s your mum?” Slightly absurd, slightly mysterious even – but he thought, and we all thought, that it was hilarious. He used it with actual friends, and indeed with perfect strangers, whose perplexed reactions just added to the fun.
Until, one day, the mother of the person he greeted had actually died a few weeks earlier.
Limited visual range
When you’re 16, 17 years old, your mum is not supposed to die. None of our sizeable circle of friends had experienced this unfortunate event, and so none of us had considered that possibility. Understandably the mood turned, cheeks became red, and that was the last time that particular jocular phrase was heard.
A clear case of WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – a concept coined by Economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Unlike some other cognitive phenomena, it has a pretty self-explanatory name.
Ideally, when deciding on a course of action, we ought to consider all relevant information. But that is problematic: we cannot possibly identify and consult all information that is germane to what we want to do. Imagine you need to buy a birthday cake – how many different types exist, or can be made especially for the occasion? What about the decoration – chocolate sprinkles, marzipan figurines, little flowers shaped in sugar? How big? Should it be themed? You see what I mean (or YSWIM, to stick with acronyms).
Yet, while we cannot look at everything, we can make reasonable assumptions. The birthday girl or boy, for example, happens to be a fan of Toy Story and has a strong dislike for chocolate, so that narrows down the options considerably. Before long we can come up with something that is suitable – not the very best possible cake, but certainly good enough (the great polymath Herbert Simon called this satisficing).
We can use our judgement about what exists (or might exist), and decide what to ignore, what to focus on. But imagine we have never heard of gluten intolerance, something the birthday girl or boy is afflicted by. Our ignorance limits the field from which we will make our selection – we literally don’t look elsewhere, we don’t consider that there might be certain kinds of cake that are unsuitable for reasons other than taste, so what we see is all there is – and we’d make a very bad choice.
WYSIATI is often implicated in overconfidence in momentous decisions, like capital investment in a business, or the purchase of a house or a car privately. A remarkable business example is the dispute between the popular American singer Taylor Swift and her former record label, with which she made her first six albums (as told in a Twitter thread). According to her original contract, the company owned the rights to these recordings. When the contract came to its natural end, they failed to agree on a new one, apparently because Ms Swift wanted to regain ownership of the recordings. Subsequently, the record company was acquired by Ithaca, a private equity firm, for the tidy sum of $300M, which included an estimated $100-200M for Swift’s recording rights. The buyers seemingly thought that what they saw was all there was. But there was more…
To use a recording in a movie, a film maker needs two licences: one to use the recording, and one, known as the sync licence, to use the song itself. The rights to use the song are usually owned by the writer – and the writer of songs on Taylor Swift’s first six albums is Ms Swift herself. So, having been denied the chance to acquire the recording rights to her back catalogue, she has been systematically denying requests for a sync licence to any song from these first six albums. She is also rerecording these albums – something she is at liberty to do. This means she can offer both the recording and the sync licence to any film makers, and even do the equivalent with streaming services like Spotify. Thus, she has cut the value of the recording rights to the original six albums pretty much to zero.
It can be a good idea to check if there is more.
Computers know no embarrassment
The magnitude of the consequences of a WYSIATI blunder may differ, but the embarrassment at realizing there is more than what you had seen – things you should have thought about – is common, whether it concerns an ill-conceived greeting or an astonishing due diligence oversight. Interestingly, it is not just human agents who may fall foul of WYSIATI.
25 years ago, the web was an exotic playground for nerds, and data entry was usually done by professional employees at the end of a telephone line. Since then, billions of consumers have become de facto data entry operators too – we register on web shops, news sites, social media and whatnot, and every time we must provide data. The designers, to ensure that these inputs are valid, set the computer at the far end up with rules to reject input that does not conform. So, for example, what should be the minimum length of a surname? Three sounds reasonable, think of “Lee” or “Fox”. Chances are you have never seen a name with just two characters, let alone one.
Bad news, though for the 120 or so Belgian citizens whose surname is “O”. Yes, just one letter, and that can be the case for transcriptions of some Asian names too. Imagine the frustration of Mrs O trying to book a ticket to a show, only to be told over and over that her name is not long enough – until the show is sold out. If all you see is longer surnames, then the problem people with one-letter names remains invisible.
Validation is one thing, but as the Internet gained in popularity during the 1990s, it became a sport among predominantly juvenile users to use profanities online. AOL, the erstwhile service provider with a clean image wanted none of that filth, and introduced a “profanities filter” to spot and block unsuitable terms. That led to what has become known as the Scunthorpe problem: the rejection of addresses in that pretty English town because – well, you can see why (check the link for many more examples). Here too, the obscenities the developers saw was all they thought there was – that no-no words might be embedded in innocent placenames had not occurred to them.
These problems have since been fixed, but I recently came across an issue that is curiously like my old friend’s: inadvertent algorithmic cruelty. To increase engagement with its users, social media like Facebook and Instagram remind them of the important moments from their past. Algorithms analyse their account activity (pictures posted, messages from friends associated with them, likes and so on), and produce personalized messages, excitedly stating “here’s what your year looked like!” with a picture… of a child that died less than a year ago. Or they encourage users to share a memory, picking the most liked images in a montage, helpfully enhanced with animated characters. Even if the most liked image was that of your mother’s grave.
These events, like my friend’s faux pas, are rare, but they’re not that rare, and because computers cannot experience embarrassment and learn from it, the phenomenon can escalate rapidly and widely. Of course, software developers can fix these problems too. Their technical field even suggests a valuable approach, also for non-programmers, to help avoid WYSIATI. A common building block in a program is the IF-statement: IF <condition> THEN <action1> ELSE <action2>. The key word here is ELSE, and that can serve us well.
We are at risk of WYSIATI when we make implicit assumptions, and we are unaware of what Donald Rumsfeld, George W Bush’s Secretary of Defense, famously termed the unknown unknowns. If we made our assumptions explicit – what do we think will happen and why? – we become aware of the conditions that are necessary for what we want to happen, and then it becomes easier to also ask ourselves what else could happen when those conditions do not apply.
That will at the very least hint at what more there is that we don’t see, and give us a chance to avoid embarrassment – and perhaps even more importantly, inadvertent cruelty.