Technology & Innovation

The Magic Laptop Thought Experiment

08.08.22 | 10 min read | Text by Tom Kalil

One of the main goals of Kalil’s Corner is to share some of the things I’ve learned over the course of my career about policy entrepreneurship. Below is an FAQ on a thought experiment that I think is useful for policy entrepreneurs, and how the thought experiment is related to a concept I call “shared agency.”

Q.  What is your favorite thought experiment?

Imagine that you have a magic laptop. The power of the laptop is that any press release that you write will come true.

You have to write a headline (goal statement), several paragraphs to provide context, and 1-2 paragraph descriptions of who is agreeing to do what (in the form organization A takes action B to achieve goal C). The individuals or organizations could be federal agencies, the Congress, companies, philanthropists, investors, research universities, non-profits, skilled volunteers, etc. The constraint, however, is that it has to be plausible that the organizations would be both willing and able to take the action. For example, a for-profit company is not going to take actions that are directly contrary to the interests of their shareholders. 

What press release would you write, and why? What makes this a compelling idea?  

Q.  What was the variant of this that you used to ask people when you worked in the White House for President Obama?

You have a 15-minute meeting in the Oval Office with the President, and he asks:

“If you give me a good idea, I will call anyone on the planet.  It can be a conference call, so there can be more than one person on the line.  What’s your idea, and why are you excited about it?  In order to make your idea happen, who would I need to call and what would I need to ask them to do in order to make it happen?”

Q.  What was your motivation for posing this thought experiment to people?

I’ve been in roles where I can occasionally serve as a “force multiplier” for other people’s ideas. The best way to have a good idea is to be exposed to many ideas.

When I was in the White House, I would meet with a lot of people who would tell me that what they worked on was very important, and deserved greater attention from policy-makers.

But when I asked them what they wanted the Administration to consider doing, they didn’t always have a specific response.  Sometimes people would have the kernel of a good idea, but I would need to play “20 questions” with them to refine it. This thought experiment would occasionally help me elicit answers to basic questions like who, what, how and why.

Q.  Why does this thought experiment relate to the Hamming question?

Richard Hamming was a researcher at Bell Labs who used to ask his colleagues, “What are the most important problems in your field?  And what are you working on?” This would annoy some of his colleagues, because it forced them to confront the fact that they were working on something that they didn’t think was that important.

If you really did have a magic laptop or a meeting with the President, you would presumably use it to help solve a problem that you thought was important!

Q.  How does this thought experiment highlight the importance of coalition-building?

There are many instances where we have a goal that requires building a coalition of individuals and organizations.

It’s hard to do that if you can’t identify (1) the potential members of the coalition; and (2) the mutually reinforcing actions you would like them to consider taking.

Once you have a hypothesis about the members of your coalition of the willing and able, you can begin to ask and answer other key questions as well, such as:

Q.  Is this thought experiment only relevant to policy-makers?

Not at all. I think it is relevant for any goal that you are pursuing — especially ones that require concerted action by multiple individuals and organizations to accomplish.

Q.  What’s the relationship between this thought experiment and Bucky Fuller’s concept of a “trim tab?”

Fuller observed that a tiny device called a trim tab is designed to move a rudder, which in turn can move a giant ship like the Queen Elizabeth.

So, it’s incredibly useful to identify these leverage points that can help solve important problems.

For example, some environmental advocates have focused on the supply chains of large multinationals. If these companies source products that are more sustainable (e.g. cooking oils that are produced without requiring deforestation) – that can have a big impact on the environment.

Q.  What steps can people take to generate better answers to this thought experiment?

There are many things – like having a deep understanding of a particular problem, being exposed to both successful and unsuccessful efforts to solve important problems in many different domains, or understanding how particular organizations that you are trying to influence make decisions.

One that I’ve been interested in is the creation of a “toolkit” for solving problems. If, as opposed to having a hammer and looking for nails to hit, you also have a saw, a screwdriver, and a tape measure, you are more likely to have the right tool or combination of tools for the right job.

For example, during my tenure in the Obama Administration, my team and other people in the White House encouraged awareness and adoption of dozens of approaches to solving problems, such as:

Of course, ideally one would be familiar with the problem-solving tactics of different types of actors (companies, research universities, foundations, investors, civil society organization) and individuals with different functional or disciplinary expertise. No one is going to master all of these tools, but you might aspire to (1) know that they exist; (2) have some heuristics about when and under what circumstances you might use them; and (3) know how to learn more about a particular approach to solving problems that might be relevant. For example, I’ve identified a number of tactics that I’ve seen foundations and nonprofits use.

Q.  How does this thought experiment relate to the concept that psychologists call “agency?”

Agency is defined by psychologists like Albert Bandura as “the human capability to influence …the course of events by one’s actions.”

The particular dimension of agency that I have experienced is a sense that there are more aspects of the status quo that are potentially changeable as opposed to being fixed. These are the elements of the status quo that are attributable to human action or inaction, as opposed to the laws of physics.

Obviously, this sense of agency didn’t extend to every problem under the sun. It was limited to those areas where progress could be made by getting identifiable individuals and organizations to take some action – like the President signing an Executive Order or proposing a new budget initiative, the G20 agreeing to increase investment in a global public good, Congress passing a law, or a coalition of organizations like companies, foundations, nonprofits and universities working together to achieve a shared goal.

Q.  How did you develop a strong sense of agency over the course of your career?

I had the privilege of working at the White House for both Presidents Clinton and Obama.

As a White House staffer, I had the ability to send the President a decision memo. If he checked the box that said “yes” – and the idea actually happened and was well-implemented, this reinforced my sense of agency.

But it wasn’t just the experience of being successful. It was also the knowledge that one acquires by repeatedly trying to move from an idea to something happening in the world, such as:

Q.  What does it mean for you to have a shared sense of agency with another individual, a team, or a community?

Obviously, most people have not had 16 years of their professional life in which they could send a decision memo to the President, get a line in the President’s State of the Union address, work with Congress to pass legislation, create a new institution, shape the federal budget, and build large coalitions with hundreds of organizations that are taking mutually reinforcing actions in the pursuit of a shared goal.

So sometimes when I am talking to an individual, a team or a community, it will become clear to me that there is some aspect of the status quo that they view as fixed, and I view as potentially changeable. It might make sense for me to explain why I believe the status quo is changeable, and what are the steps we could take together in the service of achieving a shared goal.

Q.  Why is shared agency important?

Changing the status quo is hard. If I don’t know how to do it, or believe that I would be tilting at windmills – it’s unlikely that I would devote a lot of time and energy to trying to do so.

It may be the case that pushing for change will require a fair amount of work, such as:

So if I want people to devote time and energy to fleshing out an idea or doing some of the work needed to make it happen, I need to convince them that something constructive could plausibly happen. And one way to do that is to describe what success might look like, and discuss the actions that we would take in order to achieve our shared goal. As an economist might put it, I am trying to increase their “expected return” of pursuing a shared goal by increasing the likelihood that my collaborators attach to our success.

Q.  Are there risks associated with having this strong sense of agency, and how might one mitigate against those risks?

Yes, absolutely. One is a lack of appropriate epistemic humility, by pushing a proposed solution in the absence of reasonable evidence that it will work, or failing to identify unintended consequences. It’s useful to read books like James Scott’s Seeing Like a State.

I also like the idea of evidence-based policy. For example, governments should provide modest amounts of funding for new ideas, medium-sized grants to evaluate promising approaches, and large grants to scale interventions that have been rigorously evaluated and have a high benefit to cost ratio.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Schmidt Futures.