Opacity Bias

I recently had a bit of a chat with someone I've looked up to for a long time over email, and here's a tid-bit from one of their responses.

Much more goes into building a successful company than you're aware of. Yes, many people can build prototypes of Uber, or Fortnite, or Airbnb, or Twitter. But why do only certain companies survive? It must be either due to 1) nuances of the product that are opaque to you as an outsider, 2) other hard work in invisible areas that you don't see as a user, 3) just random luck (which is IMO less of a factor than laymen think).
--Some Wise Tech Entrepreneur

I'm particularly interested in his first point about opacity, as a few examples of such an "opacity bias" come to mind from my own experiences. You think something is trivial (unimportant) in the naive sense as an outsider to the field, but when you learn a little bit about the field you realize how important it is that that thing is done well.

Household Savings

There is a Harvard professor I got to know who works in behavioral economics and macroeconomics. In behavioral economics, there is a notion of "choice architecture," where framing matters for human decision making. For example, changing 401k plans at companies from default opt-in, where you had to fill out an annoying form to start your 401k retirement plan, to a default opt-out, has done a huge amount to increase savings in the United States (empirically). It's not a profound idea, but it's important. Even more, this economist spent a great deal of time using ideas from psychology and behavioral economics to think about how the form for opt-out should be designed, distributed, and presented, to make sure anyone who actually wanted to opt out, even a little bit, had no beauracratic burden stopping them from doing so. I was flabbergasted to see that someone so intelligent could be spending their time and intellectual energy on something so pedestrian as form design. It seemed to me that the work of this prodigious economist was as unimportant as that of a lone accountant at an obscure small company.

Then I took a course on basic macroeconomics, and learned how the banking system actually works. It turns out (this was new to me; or, rather, it's obvious but I had never actually given the topic serious thought) that the reason banking, as an institution, is so profound as a lever for progress, is that it moves capital from useless places (under one's mattress) to useful places (as the up-front cost needed to kickstart a new construction project). Banks are responsible for correctly (efficiently) allocating this capital (and the associated risk), and the fundamental idea: all of this capital comes from savings. A bunch of it from corporate savings (residual profit companies have), but a lot of it also comes from savings on the level of individual households. And so, any money an individual or household saves (such as in a 401k) is really a contribution and bet on future progress (capital being earmarked for capital-intense projects like construction or loans to businesses) of society. And there are robust (ie. reproducible) examples of how savings rate has much to do with future economic output, and, transitively, future progress and prosperity (especially when it comes to technology). And most of all, when you look at the effect of form design on the choices people make by examining huge datasets of millions of responses, you see that even small changes have big effects (this is part of the reason that big tech companies A/B test their UIs so aggressively -- these things make a big difference) on how much people save. And so being an economist that is part of the reason that opt-in 401ks became opt-out 401ks is something to be immensely proud of: it directly contributed to billions of dollars of excess capital being invested into the future, as opposed to on jewellery or being stored under a mattress. It's just that this contribution is opaque to most outsiders to the field, as it was to me. That's a lot of leverage this economist has had; certainly one that Monsieur Lambda at Ye Olde Accountancy Firme doesn't have to his name.

And so it was really only by learning the foundational/basic modes of thought in a field (macroeconomics) that I gained the tools I needed to properly appreciate the motivations and importance of certain work being done in that field. I think this is one example, amongst many else in my own experience, and that of others, of how something seemingly trivial to outsiders can turn out to be of profound importance, once you think and learn a little about it, ridding yourself of "opacity bias."

[TODO: more examples]