Justice Education

Good Read
October 2023

Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization by Coco Krumme

Optimal Illusions

We want our lives to be efficient – our work commutes brief, our checkout lines short, and our internet connections fast. But sometimes, this desire can obscure what matters most. In Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization (Penguin Random House, 2023), Coco Krumme provides a thought-provoking exploration of the often overlooked consequences of our relentless pursuit of efficiency and optimization in modern society. On Krumme’s view, “Optimization was invented, over time, with the idea of making a system, or a society, more perfect. And yet, with a world steeped in optimization, we often see the opposite happening.” 

Krumme’s book is not a call to abandon our efforts towards optimization entirely, but to realize that, rather than leading us to utopia, this pursuit will always come with important trade-offs. An integral aspect of the quest for optimization is increasing atomization and quantification. Only by meticulous calibration and computation can we measure our preferred outcomes, turning “the world into something to be divided, conquered, measured, and mined.” But many of the things we value – including character, virtue, and human flourishing – are not simple to quantify. And because development along these metrics is less easily measured, they tend to get crowded out by what can be assessed, like the growth of GDP. While an emphasis on optimization can provide many benefits, it can also come with many unseen and unacknowledged costs.