Survival & Pleasure Technology, Expand & Collapse Loops
Jun 24, 2020
Companies like Zoom, Instagram, Slack, and Apple have taken their respective markets by storm. There are of course a variety of factors as to why. But one commonality they share is the extreme focus on making important outcomes take close to zero time and effort using their products.
Even when it’s at the expense of great pain by the product team such as the attention to every pixel at Slack. Or at great financial cost such as improving battery life by a few minutes through multi-billion dollar R&D budgets at Apple. These companies won people over by choice in heavily saturated spaces. Markets that numerous giants operated in long before them. So how did they know what to build and when to keep investing?
While analyzing 10s of products and iterating with 100s of millions of users at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and smaller startups I’ve developed a battle tested theory of how. A lot of ideas are cross applied to product from statistics, machine learning, and AI since that’s what my background is in. I wanted to share it here as a series of articles.
I’m always growing and learning so I look forward to all types of discussion. Feel free to reach out to me on any platform. Now to it.
Survival & Pleasure
The reason humans do anything roughly falls into two buckets:
We brush our teeth, earn money, and sleep so we can continue pain-free existence. When there’s time to spare we long for love, revel in our accomplishments, and get dopamine hits from entertainment.
When negative experiences such as a crappy boss, loneliness, boring tasks, and an aching back invade our experience we lose pleasure in life. Small pains grow into big ones through repetition and large pains can quickly eat away at our happiness.
Happiness over time
In one statement:
Humans strive to maximize the longevity of their positive subjective experience.
Building Survival & Pleasure Technology
The point of technology is to make survival easy and maximize pleasure. You can roughly map market categories this way:
- Survival: Prosumer, SMB, Enterprise
- Pleasure: Consumer
Random Note: There doesn’t seem to be a mainstream professional market in pleasure. Are there not people who love their work? Survival is hardly the word that comes to mind of why Warren Buffet works. People who invent interesting technologies or professionally help others in non-profits tend to highly enjoy their work. Perhaps the enjoyment that comes from such work is not during the work but after.
If we look at the macro goal of products in the survival category they:
- Collapse extremely repetitive or unpleasant tasks important to survival.
- Expand what is possible for one person to do.
Example: Each one of us used to plow fields for 16 hours a day to eat. Now, one person with a tractor does that for tens of thousands of us.
Because of the innovations of the past most of our jobs are much easier today. Check out Chapter 5 in the book Sapiens to read more about the history of this. We also have more time leftover for pleasurable activities. Let’s break down the collapse and expand loop of survival technology in detail.
Collapse & Expand Loop
Take a bunch of survival tasks:
Some of these tasks are pretty painful so we dedicate people to them. Other tasks are still important but are easy enough for the same person to handle.
We begin the work to break these tasks down. They are not enjoyable so our ultimate goal is to eliminate. En route to that goal we:
Technological paradigm shifts enable technology to be created. E.g.: The discovery of electricity, transistors, internet, and cell phones. Each paradigm shift makes it easier & cheaper to enrich more tasks with technology. If the real world task has enough scale and importance to sustain the technology, companies form around it.
Once enriched, through intense competition and research, companies simplify the technology to be easier to use. With time, tasks that used to be hard become easy. Some tasks are automated away.
Once a set of tasks become automated or easy we eliminate the need to occupy multiple people’s time and effort with them. E.g.: What used to take 3 people can now be done by 1 person.
Through more intense competition an all-in-one solution usually emerges that collapses tasks within a similar activity into one product. This lowers the mental overhead of this activity overall for the person. The new concepts and work do mean the overall task becomes pretty difficult for one person initially but with time it will enter the collapse phase itself again.
With 2 people freed up, they can go on to tackle other important difficult tasks of the world.
There are a lot of questions and concerns around:
- Do individuals get to benefit from inventing collapse technology forever if they secure it through a monopoly?
- What should happen when there is enough technology to ensure survival for everyone but it’s owned by a tiny % of people?
- What if the tasks left are extremely complicated and out of reach for most people to learn how to do?
I’m aware these concerns exist but it’s out of scope for this post. If you are interested in the topic, Kurzgesagt did this excellent video about it.
While the demands of survival are clear, how we derive pleasure is much more varied. It is the long tail of wants. There are of course obvious ones which directly tie into our visceral pleasure center such as food and sex. I would argue they make up a relatively small portion of our time. A much more time consuming part of our existence in this category is dealing with the emotional soup that is our subjective experience.
Our subjective experience is influenced by genetics, environment, actions, and beliefs. Internal ego drivers vary drastically and whether a solution is able to deliver on ones you enjoy is hard to predict. It’s also very hard to know how many people share that unique set of circumstances and desires to determine whether it can sustain a company. That’s why you see a bunch of weird consumer startups pop up all the time.
The successful consumer products usually identify an often contrarian chunk of this emotional soup through a stroke of genius, luck, or personal experience. Products that find an initial way in then iterate to retrofit their product more and more to the internals of how our minds work. If they are able to do so repetitively, they stay in business and grow.
It would be silly to try to summarize a framework for building pleasure technology. How big is the market for each one of these and how would you create something that makes you feel these?
- Aesthetic Appreciation
And in one statement:
Technology collapses the time & effort required to survive and opens up new ways to derive pleasure.
That’s it for this one and next to a more practical breakdown of The Path Of Least Resistance.