cover image Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization

Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization

Coco Krumme. Riverhead, $29 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-33111-8

“By embracing efficiency above all, we’ve crowded out what can’t be measured and optimized and allowed the metaphor of optimization to cannibalize other worldviews,” according to this muddled debut. Krumme, a mathematician and scientific consultant, aims to outline the shortcomings of the modern preoccupation with optimization but stumbles early in neglecting to define what she means by the term. This creates confusion later on when she traces the rise of optimization by lumping together thinly connected accounts of Isaac Newton’s efforts to break down natural forces into their constituent parts, mathematician Stanley Ulam’s innovations in computational methods while working on the Manhattan Project, and Marie Kondo’s gospel of decluttering. Stories about individuals affected by the pressures of optimization are similarly perplexing; for instance, Krumme details the travails of a North Dakota sugar-beet farmer reluctant to adopt GMO seeds, which are engineered to “optimize” crop yields, and suggests that their rise compromises farms’ “ability to adjust to setbacks” without explaining why that’s the case. The stories never quite cohere around a cogent thesis, and “optimization” comes to appear so broad as to be nearly meaningless, describing everything from online shoe retailer Zappos’s efforts to “optimize” customer satisfaction with their call center to the “optimization of buying ranches to restore bison.” This struggles to find the point. (Sept.)