The Amplification of Small Differences
Every year in China 10 million high school students sit down for a two (sometimes three) day test that will make or break their future.
The Gaokao is the single indicator that is used to determine who is going to get into a selective college and who isn’t. Who is going to move forward and who is going to be left behind?
The Amplification of Small Differences
Everywhere we look in our modern world, we’re seeing the amplification of small differences.
Just a couple of points on the SAT determines whether or not someone gets into a famous college.
That helps make a difference as to whether or not they get into a famous law school. Then, effort combined with luck, determines whether they make Law Review or just missed it.
Making Law Review helps them get a clerkship for a Federal Judge. Not making Law Review makes that really difficult.
A clerkship for a Federal Judge is amplified into the fast-track and then maybe one day, you end up on the Supreme Court, all because of a six-point difference on your SATs.
Of course, it’s not all because of this.
But it is an amplification process—something that we’ve been doing for a long time to sort people out.
Scarcity and Value
During the last decade or so, Hollywood has released two movies a week to wide distribution.
Just 100 movies a year.
They pick such a small number of movies with 10s of 1000s in some level of development.
They pick 100 because they need money to be able to make movies and money to promote the movies, and also, there aren’t that many movie theaters to go into wide release.
They need to be in a lot of theaters and there just aren’t that many.
So, scarcity drives the fact that there’s scarcity. Scarce money, scarce ability to pay attention, scarce theaters to put the movies in.
Even Netflix, which has an infinite number of “theaters” only released 371 titles or episodes in 2019.
371 dwarfs the movie industry but has nothing in common with the 10s of 1000s of screenplays that are just waiting to get picked.
But there are other areas in our culture in which humans venture in which there is no scarcity.
Amazon doesn’t want to tell us how many books there are on the Kindle, but there are more than 5 million of them. There are 1700 new Kindle books published every single day. That’s pretty much 100 every waking hour.
Why don’t they want to tell us how many books there are on the Kindle?
Or think about how many acrylic paintings or poems are written every year. No one’s even counting that. But there’s got to be more than a billion.
Does the fact that no one can stop you from writing a poem make it more likely that you’ll write a poem?
So, there’s an interesting balance here between scarcity and value.
Last year 30,000 nurse practitioners graduated. Nurse practitioners are capable of writing prescriptions and dealing directly with patients without a doctor. 30,000 nurse practitioners in the United States is about one in 10,000 numbers of people who need a nurse practitioner.
That number is laughably small.
The typical nurse practitioner sees three patients an hour and makes $110,000 a year.
What would happen if we had enough nurse practitioners that saw four or five patients an hour and maybe made $100,000 a year instead?
Or what if we went the other direction?
What if they only saw two patients an hour giving them focused, dedicated time and made, $80,000 a year?
The point is, we’re not running out of patients, but we are out of nurse practitioners.
So, what is it that makes somebody want to make a movie? What makes them perhaps hesitate when no one stops them from making a Kindle book?
Well, it’s scarcity at some level in our culture that creates value.
So now we go back to the Gaokao.
In June of 2020, they didn’t take the test because of the pandemic. But it’s interesting to note that, going forward, online education may make it so that there is no such thing as scarce spaces at a selective college.
Unless we want there to be.
Let’s think for a minute about the organizations that accredit higher education, extensively created to make sure that the quality is there.
That’s not really what they do, though.
They enforce, for example, how many PhDs there are per student.
But if the purpose of a college is to teach people, there is no evidence that PhDs are better at that than people who are simply good at teaching.
Now, having a ratio of PhDs per student simply makes it harder to start and run a University. Lots of the things that are in place at an accrediting institution exists to limit the number of things that are getting accredited.
How do they decide how many people will pass the bar exam when the lawyers take it in California?
Well, it’s not based on the absolute value of their score, it's how many lawyers they are prepared to make this year in California.
It’s well known that it’s really hard to pass the bar in places like Hawaii, where lawyers would like to go and retire, but pretty easy to pass the bar in states that have a shortage of lawyers. Because the bar exam is not a measure of “are you good enough to be a lawyer,” it’s simply a barrier to make sure that there’s scarcity so that people that value it will go on the journey, and want to be a lawyer in the first place.
And so the long tail collides headfirst into the power-law curve.
The Power-Law Curve
The power-law curve points out that the ones all the way to the left, get a lot of attention. And way at the other end of the curve is the long tail.
The long tail, when you add it up, is just as big as the short head, but the attention paid to every single individual on the long tail is small indeed.
If you release a song on iTunes, or Spotify, or if you write a book on the Kindle, almost no one is going to read it.
If your movie gets greenlit for wide release after the pandemic, far more people are going to see it because there’s scarcity. There’s an enforced shorthead. Just two movies a week.
So we have a choice to make as we create online learning, as we create more and more long tails.
The choice is, will we as humans seek to do poetry, or acrylic painting, or Kindle books… things where no one can stop us? Or, will we devote huge amounts of our time and energy to hoping for the amplification of small differences?
Because there’s a real problem with the amplification of small differences.
The problem is we waste potential.
We waste potential for someone who’s almost good enough to qualify for the Olympics, doesn’t, and then they don’t develop, they don’t get the coaching, they don’t get all the other things that would’ve helped them get to the next level.
We waste potential because, at the age of two or three or four, we look at someone based on who their parents are, what their race is, where they grew up, and we don’t give them the attention they need to get to the next level.
By the time the “selective High School” is looking for potential students to amplify their small differences, they’re already 1% or 2% or 3% behind with no hope of catching up.
To get specific, I don’t think it’s difficult for any of us to imagine that just five years from now, there can be an automated series of AI-driven courses (or learning, or education) online, that anybody with internet access could put themselves through and that it will be shown that going through this accredits you better than going to one of those other institutions.
It makes you actually better at whatever thing we were just sorting for.
That if you are willing to go through the grueling effort of using this process, you will come out at the other end knowing more than the handbuilt process.
And given that an online interaction scales to infinity, given that the shelves of the Kindle will never be filled, are we okay with that?
Or are we more comfortable embracing the mythology of the amplification of small differences?
One Last Practical Thought
For years and years, Google has used a mysterious algorithm to decide who ranks high in the Google results.
What we know is that you’re 100 times more likely to get clicked on if you’re on the first page of Google than if you’re on the third page.
Now, let’s remember that for any valuable search, there are more than 1000 pages of results. So there are 1000 pages of results, and almost every click goes to the first page.
The people on the first page, the websites on the first page, might be, I don’t know, 0.01% better than the websites that are on the fifth page?
Better at what? Better by what metric?
It’s a mystery. They won’t tell us.
But what happens is the people who locked into the first page, whether it’s through SEO or just good fortune, get more traffic. More traffic gets them more resources, more resources lets them invest more and more in whatever it took to get on that front page.
And the process continues and continues until power accrues to both Google (because they get to dictate the algorithm) and the people who run those sites on the front page.
What would’ve happened if instead of Google showing the front page to everybody, they only showed it to 10% of the people who visited any search, and the second page to 9%, and the third page to 8% percent…?
Do the math any way you want.
They could’ve done this. They could’ve easily randomized and minimized the small differences.
But instead, they decided to amplify them, because it gave them power. Because it made everyone pay attention to their mysterious algorithm.
We’re looking right now at a world torn between building more choke points, (even though they’re artificial) and embracing the long tail, even though it offers less in the way of scarcity and thus, value.
There isn’t one obvious answer.
But when we think about the nurse practitioners, it seems to me that what we ought to be defaulting to is: amplifying potential.
How do we find more and more people who can figure out how to make a living doing something that benefits our community?
How do we strip away all the artificial barriers that keep that number small, and instead say, what would happen if they were as plentiful as poems?
What would happen if there were plenty of people doing health care? Or working on mental health in our community? Or helping with food supplies?
Go down the list…
We can do that if we figure out how to make the long tail attractive enough to get the right people to embrace it.
Thanks for reading. This was quite a rant.