Eugene Wei on making and thinking


Every week at the Browser we conduct edifying interviews with interesting figures. Today we speak to product executive and filmmaker Eugene Wei—whose writing occasionally graces our recommendations—about how we often misclassify choices led by intuition as luck, the benefits of always being a beginner at something, and thinking in infinite timescales despite our finite human lives. Wei is known for his considered writing on tech at his blog Remains of The Day, but here he speaks lithely on the philosophy of film and mortality.

For more interviews, see the rest of our Browser Interviews.


Baiqu: So how did you end up being on this interview?

Eugene: It's funny, I was trying to remember how I first became acquainted with The Browser. I've been a subscriber for so many years that I honestly don't remember how I first heard about it, but it's been part of my daily reading regimen for a decade.

I remember the first time something I wrote got featured in the Browser, it drove a lot of traffic and was just like such a thrill. My friend Dan Wang said I should come on this interview series. That's how I ended up here.

Baiqu: So, tell us about your blog, Remains of The Day.

Eugene: I first started my blog when I was working at Amazon and a bunch of other developers had also started their first blogs. After I left Amazon, I started writing a little bit about my time there and reflections on what I'd learned. A few of those pieces went somewhat viral.

On Metcalfe's Law not applying to social media networks

Baiqu: What do you think is the best piece of advice you've given about product philosophy or product creation?

Eugene: The piece I've written that has been read the most is called Status as a Service. It is an analysis of how social networks achieve break out audiences or breakout growth.

We typically think of Metcalfe's Law when it comes to networks and how they gain value. So Metcalfe's Law says that the value of a network grows exponentially in proportion to the number of nodes on the network. So a social network gets increasingly valuable the more people you add—for instance, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

However, Metcalfe's Law doesn't always hold in the social media world, and that it was somewhat of a mystery. Facebook is way larger than any other network, yet other social networks come into being. Networks that grow really large run into growth problems even though Metcalfe's Law would predict that any network with an early edge and billions of users should just continue with runaway growth.

I argue that's because of the social dynamics between people on that network. Networks grow by creating some mechanism through which users feel like they can gain status there. So if you're on Twitter, you write some witty tweets and suddenly you gain a lot of followers. Or on Instagram, you publish beautiful photos of food or yourself, and suddenly you gain a lot of followers. So that's a mechanism by which a lot of social networks grow in the beginning.

But over time, when you add more and more people into a network, you can have status collapse dynamics. So people who feel that the network has gotten too large leave for some new network, or people join a network late and can't gain enough status go to something new where they can excel. I believe that post resonated because, in the past decade, social networks have become some of the largest and fastest growing companies in the history of the world, so everybody's curious about how they operate or how they work.

Human nature and product design

Baiqu: That observation on social media social dynamics is really interesting. Do you think it has reflections on how we interact with each other in real life "networks"?

Eugene: I do think so.

One thing about product development and technology that is true—at least for consumer software—is that humans tend to stay largely the same. Human nature is very consistent across hundreds and thousands of years. We can read something from hundreds of years ago—say Homer or Shakespeare—and still fundamentally recognise the human nature depicted.

When you're building product, you have a lot of variables that are changing so much—the competition is changing, the internet is changing the world, people are building new things—but consumer psychology itself stays consistent. That's the one firm footing that you can grab onto.

A lot of product advice in the world is very utilitarian—"does this product offer value above the cost it takes to use the product"—and tends to focus on rational economic calculation. But what that framework misses is that much of the reason people use products is about how those products make them feel. It's actually more of a right brain analysis.

Product philosophy or advice is usually written about in textual form, so it tends to be biased towards the left brain, because that's how we process information in that form. It's harder for us to speak to the right brain and the response we have, which we tend to think of as intuition. When we can't verbalise it, we reframe following that feeling as just luck.

For instance, all of the original Apple ad campaigns were built around the coolness of having the white earbuds on the original iPod. Apple tends to be the company that I think about the most when it comes to understanding that the emotional valence of a product is actually critical.

How to verbalise intuition

Baiqu: This idea about not being able to verbalise intuition and brushing it off as being just luck is fascinating. How do you tap into that? How do you pin down that sense of what something makes someone feel?

Eugene: Just speaking from personal experience: when I was an undergrad, I double majored in English and Industrial Engineering. I wanted a little bit of both right brain and left brain. I believe it helps to consume, study, and think about art.

In particular, filmmaking is a medium that really speaks directly and viscerally to its viewers. A lot of it is very right brain—you're just like overwhelmed by these images and sound—and it's a very young, medium, compared to writing. Writing is tens of thousands of years old and we've always associated being literate with being intellectual. You ask people in Silicon valley for recommendations, and they always just give you a whole bunch of books to read. People are always very impressed by those who say they've read many different books.

Film was invented around the turn of the 20th century, so it's only been around a hundred plus years. We're still figuring it out as a medium, but I believe film has sort of replaced the novel is as the medium for depicting the big sensations about what the world feels like.

When you look at how companies make decisions, their strengths and weaknesses are reflected in what process they choose. So some companies—the Amazons of the world—write six page memos and debate them, which is a literate/oral process of deliberation. That has certain strengths, because writing is very good for dealing with abstract ideas and linking them together in logical sequences. Further, oral debate has roots in the Socratic Method and allows you to get live feedback from others pushing back on your ideas.

In comparison, companies like Apple are very prototype driven. When they wanted to develop the all electronic keyboard for the iPhone, they originally had little drawings and proposals in place. However, Scott Forstall and Steve Jobs said: "I don't care about these little drawings and sketches, I want you to build a prototype that I can type with, and then I'll tell you if it's good enough or not."

It's not surprising Steve Jobs bought Pixar at one point. Pixar's filmmaking process is also essentially prototype driven. For every film, they actually make a short version of each scene, put in sound, sketch it out, and play it back to see if the scene works. The strength of that approach is that you have to experience some things directly in order to understand if they work or not.

There other ways as well. Sometimes the best way to make a decision is to look at a well-designed chart or spreadsheet. So depending on the type of decision you're trying to make, you have to pick the right medium for the job. Companies that are good at many things will be good at thinking in all those mediums.

Understanding the tech industry and filmmaking

Baiqu: You've blended together the lessons of your expertise in filmmaking and product so beautifully. Is there anything else that you would like to share in terms of your areas of expertise?

Eugene: Some would say I'm not an expert in anything.

If you don't work in the technology industry, but you're interested in how technology products are built, I liked a book called A Revolution in The Valley by Andy Hertzfeld. It's a compilation of little vignettes from this website, folklore.org, which is just memories from members of the team that built the original Macintosh computer. I like it because it's polyphonic: you get to hear from different people in different roles on the team. Technology products aren't built by one person, they're built by teams of people so you get to see how different people with very strong personalities come together to create something that feels singular and unifying.

In terms of film, I recommend people watch Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse, which is a documentary film about the making of Apocalypse Now. Similar to Revolution in the Valley, you get to see the chaotic and miraculous process by which films get made.

Apocalypse Now is a very powerful, visceral film, but looking at what the cast and crew went though in the Philippines to get this film made... it is bonkers what they managed it. The lead actor had a heart attack, they were fighting nature, half the cast started doing drugs. It's based on the Joseph Conrad novel, and in many ways, they also went on a parallel journey into madness as the characters in that book.

When it comes to both film and product work, I've always felt that many things are out of your control. You're constantly on the edge of panic and full of anxiety that you're not doing enough, but you learn to just keep going—one foot in front of the other. You trust in the process to get you to the end point, and that's how a lot of innovation and art is made.

Baiqu: Just slightly on the edge of madness.

It's funny, I watched Apocalypse Now again a few months ago, and I forgot how hard it hits you. I needed a good 20 minutes sort of just sit with it when it finished. But it's a great piece of work.

On the benefit of always being a beginner at something

Baiqu: So what got you into filmmaking thing? What made you decide to take a break and learn how to make films?

Eugene: I always loved movies from an early age. My father would get coupons for $1 rentals from the local film store and bring me VHS tapes. Film is such a visceral medium in so many ways.

The critics Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag wrote that it's okay to just feel art, to know how art effects you in that way. Pauline Kael's film criticism book collections have these very sexual titles—such as I Lost It at the Moviesand it expressed how she was viscerally moved by film.  She would write about actors faces being extremely handsome and it was a shock in a world where film criticism was more intellectual and abstract.

Instead, she was like, "Hey, Jeff Bridges is a really good looking actor, you can just appreciate looking at this beautiful face." When you work in film, you're surrounded by some of the most beautiful people in the world, they're very charismatic and that is part of the appeal of film.

At the time I was seven years into my career at Amazon and thought this was my chance to take that risk if I want to see how films are made.

I've long felt that it's healthiest when some part of you feels like a beginner and is struggling in some area to make sense of things. There's that saying in Zen Buddhism about the beginner's mind—I believe the term is mushin—and that is something I always want to have. If you go to film school—or any other place where you can repeatedly do some form of craft and make slow, but steady progress—I think that's helpful. When you progress in your business career and become an executive, it's harder to find that. You still want to learn and develop, but you may have fewer opportunities to do so. People tend to recruit you for what you're already good at, and they only want you to do more of that. So for me, it was good to just start over, at the bottom. There's something very meditative about it.

Baiqu: Definitely, and it's nice to fail without any costs associated with it, because it's almost expected that you're going to screw up when you're new. At least that's how I feel when I learn new things. But every little incremental step feels like an achievement whereas if you've been doing something in your career for a long time, maybe it's harder to feel that same sense.

On films that remain indelible

Baiqu: I love that story about your dad bringing back vouchers. I remember saving up my pocket money to rent VHS videos from Blockbusters when I was a kid. Are there any movies that stuck with you from that age?

Eugene: My first diet of films were just Hollywood blockbusters because those would always be the new releases. I still love a good blockbuster film, but I'd say one of my earliest memories of a film that really changed my appreciation for the art was Chungking Express by Wong Kar-wai.

Wong Kar-wai often works without a script. He thinks of some vignettes and then goes on set with his actors and they start filming. Often the actors don't even know what's happening or what kind of story they're trying to create and, by consequence, many of his films don't have linear narratives or a classic three act structure. They're just a series of aesthetic experiences.

Related to what I said earlier about film being a very emotional right brain medium, I'm drawn to directors who move away from straightforward narratives and help the viewer experience something that almost can't be verbalised.

Chunking Expresses is set in Hong Kong and has two stories paired side by side. Even though I was young and hadn't really grown up there, I really felt a deep connection to what these characters were feeling on the other side of the world. A lot of scenes are almost wordless. It was the first time I saw a director do that, just take someone's emotion and spill it onto the screen in moving image form. There are a lot of shots in the film where the characters barely doing anything—just sitting there in a bar or something—but you know exactly how they feel.

Baiqu: And is there one film that you've recommended to everyone?

Eugene: Well that's definitely one of them.

Another one I really love is The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Like Wong Kar-wai, Malik is another director who, later in his career, stopped working directly off of a script or a screenplay. His style is so distinct that he's become one of those directors that people think maybe satirising himself in a way. But I love it.

He uses a lot of steady cam camera work and wide angle lenses. The camera's just moving around in space all the time. He'll also have these very poetic voiceovers over some shot that is maybe unrelated to what the person's talking about. It almost feels like a stream of consciousness.

The Tree of Life is autobiographical for him. It's a film about one person grappling with the meaning of everything in existence. It goes as far back as the beginning of the universe—there are shots of outer space and earth being formed for the first time—and then it goes all the way into the future to what feels like his afterlife. But in-between he just recounts memories of his childhood, going through puberty, and a lot of the things that young men experience growing up. All the time that you're watching it, you feel like you're engaged with a mind that is asking the big questions. What does this all mean? Why are we here?

Dealing with an existential crisis

Baiqu: When you watch The Tree of Life, what feelings did it bring up for you?

Eugene: I know you like to ask a lot of your guests about how to deal with an existential crisis.

Baiqu: Yes.

Eugene: We can talk about that now because I think during the pandemic a lot of us probably have skirted on the edge of—or gone full blown into—existential crisis. That weird sort of isolation.

So I revisited The Tree of Life recently because almost all of Malick's films seem to be about characters going through existential crises. Malick originally studied to be a philosopher and was into Martin Heidegger in particular. Heidegger deals a lot with the question of what the meaning of being is. This concept of dasein, or being there, or being in the world.

So you might say, why would you tell someone in an existential crisis to watch a Malick film, which is all about people in an existential crisis? Especially since Malick doesn't always provide a clean-cut answer.

But in The Tree of Life, this character is trying to figure out what this all means. Like why do we exist? The mystery of the universe beginning and the fact that the universe will all end someday—all this will go away—what does it all mean? The people around us dying and grappling with death.

What I get out of a Malick film is the idea that being human means that we will have these existential crises. We will grapple with the meaning of it all. Maybe not at the beginning of life, but someday we're all going to go through this and maybe repeatedly. And there's a sense in which we shouldn't run from it, we should embrace it. That is the act of actually trying to probe the meaning of everything, that's also the way out of the existential crisis. What you don't want to do is just leave it towards the end of your life, and then wonder what it all meant.

If along the way, we think about the future and our own mortality, we'll be better prepared for it when the time comes. So it's a bit of a paradox, but there's some comfort to me to realise this is part of the human condition and it's fine. There are no answers necessarily. You come to have some sort of peace with the mystery of everything.

I like watching films that have almost galactic time spans or timescales that far exceed one human lifetime. It's almost like the overview effect that astronauts experience. The first time they go into outer space, they look back at Earth and it changes their whole view of the world, because they see with their own eyes that we humans are all sitting on this rock floating in the vast expanse of space. They stop thinking about national borders and distinctions between people and start to think of humans as one species.

David Lowry's A Ghost Story starts small, there's a married couple and an accident that kills the husband, but at the end of the film it focuses on their house and fast-forwards through thousands of years. The house gets knocked down, a mall gets built on top of it, etc. It goes all the way into the future and it's such a shock to see the film suddenly fast forward so many centuries. It's useful even in our day-to-day lives to have long-term time horizons with that type of perspective.

Baiqu: It makes what seems unbearable or impossible now, feel like it can be resolved at some point in time, right?

Maybe it can help with the feeling that one must achieve within the social framework of legacy or status. Because very few people are remembered and even those who are, I'm not sure that knowing that they are remembered would have added so much value or happiness to the life that they led at the time. Especially with artists who were completely unknown during their lifetime, for example, or whose work no one appreciated.

Eugene: Yeah, that's something in Malick films. Thin Red Line is about World War II, but all of a sudden in the middle he'll just cut to a shot of a butterfly or a grasshopper on a stalk of grass. What I take from that is that when we think about the meaning of everything and in longer-term timescales, paradoxically, it also helps us to appreciate being in the moment. To appreciate just the joy of existence.

Baiqu: Definitely the joy of existence.

I felt that more during the lockdown as well, because when one's days are not bookended by specific things that run at specific times, time feels kind of free flowing and eternal. Very cliche but I found myself sitting down with my coffee and just looking at the light coming through the window and thinking it's really great to be alive today.

I think you're right, there is a sort of other side of seeing things on this grand universal scale. Both are actually quite hard to comprehend with just rationality.

Balancing between left and right brain thinking

Eugene: Yeah, absolutely. This is where over time, I hope that we come to appreciate the balance of the right brain and left brain.

A friend of mine recommended I read The Master and His Emissary, which is about the structure of the brain. The book asks why our brains are separated into a right and left hemisphere. For some reason, we've evolved two connected hemispheres of the brain that operate somewhat independently, and there must be a reason for that. I do think there is one, and we just need to come to appreciate that both our right and left brains are important to being human and making the most of existence. So the things that we refer to as intuition or feelings carry their own distinct form of wisdom.

Baiqu: Agreed. Definitely.

Recommendations

Baiqu: Now to take a very sharp turn back to the daily realities of our lives, what has been your best online purchase over the last year and a half?

Eugene: Here's here's where I have to say. I promise that I came up with this answer before I saw that you had that new microphone, but since it seems like remote work is here in some form in another for the next few years—if not forever—everybody should get a good microphone.

It just so happens that you and I have the same Blue Yeti. When you popped up on video, I was like, oh my gosh, she already has this. The blue Yeti has been hard to come by since the pandemic started and it's sold out a lot of places.

We essentially live in like this low fidelity meta-verse now—of remote videos, zooms, and things—but we have evolved over hundreds of years to have human bodies that are very aware of other human bodies and all these senses that are harder to put into use when we're just talking over video.

One thing we can do to try to restore some level of bandwidth and fidelity is to improve the quality of our sound. I think sound is actually even more important than video when you are talking to someone. If they're using just the microphone on their laptop and it's a little bit faint, subconsciously you're just always straining to try to hear what they're saying. That adds a little bit of stress, and I think it's part of what contributes to what people call zoom fatigue. Whereas when you get a good microphone, at least you have a very high quality shared audio space that you inhabit together.

The human voice is like a fingerprint. It's so expressive and unique. So I think it's such a low cost investment that will pay dividends over many years, because it feels like we're going to be doing this a lot.

Baiqu: There are a lot of things that are low-key cognitively tasking that we don't quite realise. Spending hours trying to hear what someone's saying while our brains are trying to make up the patterns of the words that are missing can be pretty tiring and exhausting.

Excellent recommendation. And I didn't realise these were so coveted.

Eugene: You sound great today. So it was a good investment.

Baiqu: Well Eugene, thank you for being such a thoughtful and wonderful guest. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

Eugene: It was an honour to be on. Thanks for having me.


Eugene Wei on Twitter

Remains of the Day blog

Amazon's business model

Status as a Service

Metcalfe's Law

Original iPod advertisements

Early History of Motion Pictures

A Revolution in The Valley by Andy Hertzfeld

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse

Apocalypse Now

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I Lost it At The Movies by Pauline Kael

Chungking Express by Wong Kar-wai

The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

Martin Heidegger

Dasein

A Ghost Story by David Lowery

Thin Red Line by Terrence Malik

The Master and His Emissary

Blue Yeti microphone

Disclosure: We may receive commission from purchases via links.


Looking to hear more from interesting people? See our other Browser Interviews which include conversations with three Stanford professors on where Big Tech went wrong, A Literal Banana on the problems with social science, and Chris Williamson on having an existential crisis while being on Love Island.


Elsewhere on the Browser, see: The Reader, our daily commonplace book of clippings and quotations; Notes, our occasional blog; Academia, our Browser formula applied to research papers.


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