Trevor Whitney had a very upwardly mobile life. He grew up poor in the rural suburbs of Hastings, Nebraska, and had done some less than honest things to become the head algorithm developer at Facebook. He had a posh house on the San Francisco bay and had all the toys. He was powerful to influence the world, but he found that he was just like the world; he was motivated by money. He knew no other way to be.
So it surprised him when a simple man next to him on the plane told him something that changed him and the world.
Trevor had just opened his computer. There was a very complex algorithm tweak he had been zeroing in on for a week; how to maximize the adrenaline response from polarizing language.
He had just figured out what to add when the man turned to him and said, "Is there someone close to you named Whitney, by any chance?"
This got Trevor Whitney's attention. "No?"
"Alright, I'm sorry to bother you then."
"Why do you ask?"
"Well," the man breathed deeply as if he knew the next thing he said would likely be judged. "This morning, God told me to tell something to a someone named Whitney. I know, sounds crazy."
"No, that's cool." Trevor needed to get the message out of him of course, without giving this man the upper hand. "I've done some focused breathing before. Some good ideas came to me then. I assume it's something like that?"
"Well, I do, in fact, do something I call breathing prayer where I listen for one thing, and only one thing, each breath, every breath. It decreases distractions. But that's beside the point." He smiled kindly.
"That's cool." How else could Trevor coax the word out of him? "So, what--uh . . . so, what's your work, that you have time to pray?" He smiled coyly.
"I'm just a handy-man for folks around our neighborhood."
"Have you always . . . uh . . . just done that?"
"Well, no. There was a time as I was finishing school--"
"No, well, it was my doctorate degree. Political science. Anyway, there were some very convincing forces imploring me to get into politics--"
Trevor was shocked this man had earned a doctorate. "Like . . . as a lobbyist, or a think tank or something? What did they want you to be-- I mean, if I can ask."
"Sure. Sure. It's just, it's not who I am- I want to make that clear. They wanted me to run for Senate and when I woudn't do that, County Commissioner. But simply seeing what lengths they were willing to go to to persuade me made me realize I could never work in that system. It was fast, false, and driven by money. So I chose a quiet life in which I could pray a lot and raise a simple family."
"Wait. You turned down . . ."
Bobby nodded. "I am very downwardly mobile, you might say. I've earned about the same wages since high school." He smiled. "It's the life I've chosen. At least I am content and at peace."
Trevor sat back, shocked by this man next to him. Trevor couldn't say he was content or had much peace.
"Anyway, sorry to bother you. Sometimes I don't know if it's really a word from God."
"No, no. That's totally fine. Um . . . is it like a breach of contract or something to ask what word you had for this person named Whitney?" asked Trevor Whitney.
"Ha. no. I don't think it would do any harm to tell you. I believe God said to tell this person named Whitney to 'write health, not wealth. Life, not strife.' I thought his rhyming was pretty clever," Bobby smiled. "But I don't even really know what it means. I hope if the word ever gets to this Whitney person they know what it means." Bobby put his head back and closed his eyes, letting Trevor get back to work.
Bobby never found out that his humble, downwardly mobile life produced one idea from God that had a far greater positive effect on the world than did all the ideas generated by Silicon Valley for the previous two decades.
Before the plane had landed Trevor Whitney had changed a tiny bit of code on which was built Facebook's whole algorithm. Before, the code, which motivated all of the other decisions the algorithm made, had basically read:
"Maximize user's time on site and maximize monetary earnings."
This dictated all of the rest of facebook's learning engine which optimized its factors to achieve those ends. and it very much did involve wealth and strife. Trevor replaced the old code with this new code:
"Maximize user's health and unity."
What this did was it cued articles and featured posts on feeds which were found to produce more comments with words of satisfaction and kindness. And to his delight, the platform barely suffered. The retention rate, which was previously dropping, flattened out. It turned out it was a more sustainable model.
Trevor Whitney did a TedX Palo Alto talk about this and it influenced several execs from Google and Twitter to modify their algorithms as well.
The nation, which had been slowly dividing and polarizing for the ten years previous, now began to slowly bend toward the middle. People found better phones/life balances. The platforms were powerful, and were teaching its users, by subtle psychological rewards, to feel empathy and find healthy rythms.
And after this, Trevor Whitney became a praying man.
What if our frantic efforts to earn the world are not as powerful as simply waiting for one word from the One in charge of the world?
Raw Spoon, 11-3-20