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Liu Yongliang
Liu Yongliang

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Thinking Like An Economist

As a Computer Science student, I found many other areas of study fascinating. During the many holidays throughout my education thus far, I had taken various introductory-level courses in disciplines such as Psychology, Philosophy, and Economics. There are just subjects that make an interesting read (or, if you are watching online lecture series like I often do, a delightful binge) and are closer to our lives. This year I decided to take a general education module called "Thinking Like An Economist", and here are my thoughts after my first week.

The concept of "humans respond to incentives" cannot be said enough. We behave in many ways following incentives planted by the government or resulted from the natural course of things. Therefore, anyone who wishes to manipulate or nudge the public into doing something, whether good or bad, should heel a piece of economists' advice on how to do it properly.

Change is hard to induce, even with incentives. The problem with incentives is that it may backfire. You have examples of cheating among teachers when they were told that their bonuses were tied to their students' performance. Or, you have a higher child accident rate when the government made car seats required in aircraft, thereby incurring extra payment to purchase a ticket on a flight for children (long story short, people might be compelled to travel by car, which is more accident-prone, instead of paying more for a flight).

Sometimes we can clearly understand why incentives might work against our will. Other times we need a long chain of logical deductions for what might have gone wrong. There are countless examples in the popular literature on Economics. From environmental protection to managing organizations, we see economists at work in most of the human interventions.

So, I would like to discuss Web Development with the lens of an economist.

I started doing web development because I learned and believed the following:

"You send a link to a person, and he gets to see your work instantly. How cool is that?"

The ease of visualizing and communicating our ideas through the Internet is probably one giant incentive for people to start web development. Perhaps, apart from the popular discussion on how front-end development is subjectively easier and therefore has a much lower barrier to entry than back-end development, is the idea that front-end developers see what they build and get motivated by that sheer fact. Money, of course, is also at play. When we look beyond money however, which I think it occurs more often than not, citing the well-known Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, immaterial incentives such as the joy of seeing one's work might be a considerable driving force.

The other thing that I would like to talk about is writing a blog. I have not long ago committed myself to write every week at DEV, in the hope of achieving a few higher purposes:

  • To leave behind any valuable pieces of knowledge that might help somebody in the future
  • To motivate me in life long learning
  • To participate in community building
  • To join meaningful discussions and
  • To tinker out of pure curiosity and fun

and some practical considerations:

  • To create an online presence of my work and interest
  • To share with future employees that I care about CS
  • To work on communicating my ideas as a non-native speaker
  • To earn a side incoming (if possible) and
  • To gain a public following

It does not matter if you have the same set of motivations behind your current gigs. We all do them out of intrinsic and pragmatic reasons. And what's more important are the reasons why we all CONTINUE to do them. It could be discipline and resilience in oneself. It could be monetary or in today's term, "eyeballs" that are sold to you. If none of the reasons why you have started what you are doing right now, would you continue to do them diligently?

I remember one article on DEV that I read about recently. It's on the writer's frustration that his well-crafted tutorial videos which he put up painstakingly on his Youtube channel are not getting any views. There are no incentives for him to stay in the game. Although, I might add that the encouragements that he received from that DEV article's comment section could possibly last him a bit longer.

Incentives are cold and harsh things devised to achieve public good. One writer falls out of the wagon so that the better one gets a bigger share of the pie. The game around incentives has a clear winner and a bunch of dejected losers. Does it have to be like so? Not necessarily (Let's make the pie bigger, some might say). However, I do think that the fact that it is unyielding fair could work in our favor. If I ever lose my intrinsic motivation to write articles on DEV and there are no external encouragements from anyone or the platform, I might end up discovering something else that worth my time and effort.

Till that day.

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