28 episodes

Thinking out loud about the future of the world, as shaped by technological serendipity

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Ribbonfarm Studio Venkatesh Rao

    • Society & Culture
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Thinking out loud about the future of the world, as shaped by technological serendipity

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    Welcome to the World of Tomorrow

    Welcome to the World of Tomorrow

    In this episode of Breaking Smart podcast, I want to explore what it means to say that Covid has accelerated everything. If so, it means we’ve done some time travel relative the old timeline. As the cryogenic lab tech said to Philip J. Fry on Futurama, when he landed in the year 2999, welcome to the world of tomorrow!

    1/ Let’s set the stage a bit. We’re now in the early days of post-Covid for at least some people, in some parts of the world. We don’t yet know how costly the endemic management problem will be, in terms of treatment, vaccination, fatality prevention, and surveillance, but it feels like we have one foot out of the tunnel now.

    2/ I don’t know about you, but I personally feel a bit like Fry in the pilot of Futurama. Right after he is greeted with “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!” he is assessed to determine what sort of “career chip” should be implanted in him, because in the bureaucratic future, everybody has a career determined for them.

    3/ The joke is, he is assessed to be best fit to the job of “delivery boy,” the same job he hated in 1999, so he runs away from the career assessment officer, Leela. As it happens, by the end of the pilot, he ends up a delivery boy anyway, but with an illegal career chip, but is happy about it because he gets to work on a spaceship and has new friends.

    4/ I hope to get my vaccine within the next few weeks, and the idea reminds me of the idea of Futurama career chip, including vaccine hesitancy. In many ways, this is not far wrong, what with all the talk of vaccine passports, green zones, and so on your vaccine status might shape your career. Unlike Fry, I don’t want to run from the career chip. I don’t have career chip hesitancy. I’m kinda looking forward to reinventing my life in ways that I didn’t expect to till 2031.

    5/ Even the idea of a very bureaucratic future is not wrong. Given the amount of fiscal stimulus, the effects of new geopolitics with China, and vaccine nationalism, the role of states everywhere has become radically stronger. Like it or not, the world of tomorrow has governments everywhere getting more into your business, not less. Not least because governments effectively own a lot of assets through the loans they have provided for bailouts and stimulus.

    6/ So the vaccine can be considered philosophically like a career chip for a new life in a future we’ve time traveled to, and are still getting used to. One of the signs for me has been that my Twitter feed, which is my main sense-making media feed these days, feels mis-tuned, and I’m re-tuning it. It feels like wearing glasses with the wrong prescription. Everything is a little blurry and distorted.

    7/ Okay, so we’re in the future, and like Fry and other time travelers, one of our first questions should be, what year is it? Obviously, no provable answer is possible to this question, since we can’t actually run a believable no-Covid simulation. The new timeline might not even be comparable at all to the old one, because qualitatively different sets of things are happening or not happening. Maybe we’ve gone sideways rather than leaped forwards. Some parts of the world have definitely gone backwards.

    8/ I do think the idea of an acceleration is well-posed though, and that we do overall have a forward acceleration rather than a sideways or backwards leap. I’m just going to propose 2031 as a strawman answer to what year it is, with the caveat that you shouldn’t anchor on it. The point of pretending we’ve time traveled 10 years in 1 year is to break old habits of thought and reorient. So how do we do that?

    9/ One way to think of this is as a weighted average of trends by acceleration. So for example, if vaccines jumped ahead 20 years, but other kinds of medicine stayed the same, and public health for pandemics is 50% of all healthcare by cost, then you could say the average leap ahead is 10 years.

    10/ But this is kinda silly, like applying a uniform ra

    • 15 min
    Demiurgical Businesses

    Demiurgical Businesses

    In today’s episode of the Breaking Smart podcast, I want to discuss a concept I call demiurgical businesses that I think goes beyond the 3 kinds you may be familiar with: lifestyle, customer-driven, and product-driven.

    1/ In the discourse around tech, both on the tech side and the techlash side, you’ll often hear the term “real problems” which should make you wonder what “unreal” problems are.

    2/ When the term is used, it’s usually used by socially conscious people, whether builders or critics, who use “real problems” as the notional antithesis of whatever is behind what they see as bad, misplaced entrepreneurial priorities. Today it is NFTs, ten years ago it was apps.

    3/ The term “real problem” is misleading because even though people who use the term will offer some cliched examples like climate tech or world hunger, the point of the term is to point at the thing being criticized, not the thing being aspired to.

    4/ But if you take real and unreal seriously, you actually get an actually interesting train of thought. Usually, the thing being criticized is an example of a thing that doesn’t seem to solve any problem, whether real or made up.

    5/ If you ask, “what problem does it solve?” about the thing being criticized, you’ll find that the people building it can’t even supply a bad, disingenuous, or morally indefensible answer.

    6/ For example, if I answer the question, “what real problem does space exploration solve?” with “it helps discover better cancer drugs through zero-gravity biochemistry experiments,” you know that’s b******t. It is obviously a rationalization. It’s both a bad answer and a disingenuous one. If you claim it is a real answer, you’re either stupid or lying. I discussed the real answer for that a couple of weeks ago.

    7/ For a morally indefensible example, let’s say I build luxury yachts with built-in torture chambers. The answer to “what real problem does it solve” would be, “the problem dictators have of partying and torturing their enemies at the same time.” Now that’s a bad and morally indefensible answer, but it is actually a real answer that points to a real problem that a real person has, just not a very pleasant kind of person. I’d want such a yacht if I was an evil dictator.

    8/ If you think about it, there is no such thing as an unreal problem. If it can be posed as a problem at all, it’s real. You just may not share the motives or values of the person who wants to solve it.

    9/ Or to put it more simply, the idea of a “real problem” is actually an expression of identity. Evangelizing “real problems” is a way to do identity politics by indirect means. The problem you choose reveals who you are, what values you prioritize, and what identity you’re attached to.

    10/ An easy way to see this is to notice that “real problems” are actually a generalization of “customer-driven.” A real problem points to a real person who already has that problem — namely a customer. Whether it is hungry children or evil dictators.

    11/ It might be quite abstract — for example, the “customer” for climate tech is people who believe in climate change and also believe it’s good to ensure the survival of as many humans and animals as possible, and will vote for politicians who will make policies in favor of that. But it’s still a direct equation between being customer-driven and focusing on “real problems.”

    12/ I’ll even go further and say that all identities are in fact customer identities. So identity politics is actually customer politics. The only reason to have a stable identity is if you want to acquire something through it, whether it is through participation in family, community, the market, or politics. So things like race and ideology are customer identities just like preferring vanilla over chocolate ice cream is a customer identity. You buy things through those identities, even if it isn’t with money.

    13/

    • 15 min
    Mars and the Meaning of Money

    Mars and the Meaning of Money

    Space exploration has an unusual side effect: giving us a sense of the value of money on earth.

    1/ The Perseverance rover, shown touching down on Mars in the photo below, cost about $2.2 billion to design and build, and about $243 million to launch on an Atlas rocket.

    2/ Now that it is on the ground, if all goes well, and it is able to operate, it will cost another $300 million to operate for two years. So that’s at least $2.7 billion overall, or about 54,000 bitcoins. Hopefully more, if the mission gets extended.

    3/ For those who don’t track this stuff, it is the fifth Mars rover, not counting the early Viking missions in the 70s which were not rovers. The previous ones were Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.

    4/ Perseverance is very much like Curiosity — about the size of an SUV, and powered by an MMRTG — Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. By contrast, Sojourner in 1997 was about the size of a lawnmower, and the MERS were about the size of golfcarts.

    5/ Probably the most charismatically interesting thing about Perseverance is that it is carrying a drone helicopter called the Ingenuity, which will be a genuinely fascinating thing if it works. An aircraft on another planet — one with 1/6 the gravity, and about 0.6% the atmospheric density.

    6/ So how should you think about the value of the Perseverance mission? Some people who are space-exploration positive are still kinda defensive about such things and try to make up rationalizations like R&D benefits for problems here on earth.

    7/ I think this is not even wrong. When someone asks why we spend money on Mars missions when there are starving children on earth, the answer is neither to make up specious theories of how space science can lead to life-saving medicines on earth, nor to walk away saying values are different, but to talk about how money works.

    8/ Money is the largest-scale coordination mechanism we have for negotiating differences in values of things, and is what allows us to define what the word “we” means. Its design has to accommodate everything humans might disagree about. Money that cannot value space exploration or art cannot value medicines or food very well either.

    9/ So I think the simplest mental model is as a civilizational art project. 2.7 billion is about 0.013% of the GDP of the United States. This is actually pretty cheap by civilizational artwork standards.

    10/ For comparison, at the height of the Mughal empire, the Taj Mahal cost about a billion of today’s dollars, and a double digit percentage of the empire’s GDP at the time. Possibly as high as 20-25%. According to some historians, it contributed to the bankruptcy and decline of the empire.

    11/ A good question about civilizational art projects is — who is the art project for. Whether you’re talking medieval monuments or Mars rovers, it is easy to figure out who the artwork is by, but it’s not always easy to figure out who it is for.

    12/ Pre-modern civilizational art projects were generally monuments to the narcissism of emperors and religious leaders. To get people to accept the fiscal burden to undertake them, you had to make up myths and religions.

    13/ There is some of that in modern space programs. We still quote Kennedy’s speech about getting to the moon. But even the most powerful modern cults of personality, whether you’re talking Kennedy or Trump or Xi Jinpeng, pale in comparison to the cults of old monarchies and religions.

    14/ Presidents get to bask in the reflected glory of space programs a little bit, but ultimately, they ultimately get only a small slice of the attention. If you add up all the attention we give to astronauts and Nasa, and the people who work on missions, you still get a big deficit. You’re left asking, who exactly asked for this?

    15/ It’s not even national pride really. Space programs in the 1950s were strongly linked to national industrial bases, but today, a modern space program, even

    • 11 min
    Anti-Network Effects

    Anti-Network Effects

    In this first 2021 episode of the Breaking Smart podcast, I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately that I call anti-network effects.

    1/ As I am recording this, governments around the world are working out the logistics problems of distributing billions of vaccine doses. It feels like a symbol of the times we are entering into, times that I think will be defined by anti-network effects.

    2/ Vaccinations and mask-wearing are examples of anti-network effects. I’ll define these as effects that can slow down, regulate, arrest, or reverse the operation of network effects, and which might themselves be network effects.

    3/ For almost 50 years, since the invention of the PC, the world has been riding one network effect after the other, all of which ride on top of the infrastructural network effect of the internet.

    4/ To review, a network effect is when the power of a system grows faster than its size. The original form was called the fax-machine effect. One person with a fax machine is useless. Two people is one connection, three people is 3 potential connections, 4 is 6, and in general n nodes is n(n-1)/2 unique connections. So the power of the network grows as the square of its size.

    5/ Network effects in computing infrastructure are deeply connected to Moore’s Law. When computers get cheaper, network nodes get cheaper too, and more things can get attached to computers, and then to each other via the network.

    6/ This leads to a double effect. Every 18-36 months, the density of transistors doubles. This makes the cheapest computers based on the cheapest chips much cheaper, and what’s more, this allows whole new classes of even cheaper computer to be invented ever decade or so. So one compounding effect rides another. That’s how we we went from mainframes to Raspberry Pis, and from an internet of 2 computers to an internet of billions.

    7/ There’s in fact a third effect. If computers get more powerful at a steady geometric rate, and industrial mass production lag is minimal, then the rate at which the network can grow is itself a function of network size. You don’t have to add 1 node at a time, you can bulk-add n nodes.

    8/ Everybody with a home computer already had an internet connection, so with a router, everybody can add a wifi connected device at the same time. With software it’s even easier: everybody with a phone can download an app at nearly the same time, creating near-instantaneous soft networks.

    9/ We’ve been riding this triple-punch meta-network effect for nearly 50 years. You’ve got Moore’s law, the basic network effect of devices, and then the network-size-proportionate growth effect. And for people about my age and younger, our entire lives have been spent on this ride. To the point where it is second nature.

    10/ This is actually pretty unnatural. Think about the classic brainteaser to teach exponential or geometric thinking. If a lily plant doubles in size every day and on the 30th day covers the whole pond, when did it cover half the pond?

    11/ The answer is of course, the day before, on the 29th day, and to people like us, this barely even counts as a brainteaser. In fact, for kids today, I suspect the expected wrong answer, which is the 15th day, will feel unintuitive. They deal with fewer important things that work that way.

    12/ There’s a lot more to say about network effects and various formulations like Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law, but we’ve been doing that for my whole life, so enough said. I’ll just add one more point: network effects are pretty dumb. I mean even viruses and lily plants on ponds can embody them.

    13/ This is in general not true of anti-network effects. While some anti-network effects are themselves driven by network effects, most work on other principles. So let’s take an inventory.

    14/ The first kind of anti-network effect is self-limitation, when a network effect self-neutralizes. For example, once you have had Covid,

    • 14 min
    Complete 2020 Roundup

    Complete 2020 Roundup

    Well, I guess 2020 is a wrap. I’m going to do a quick round-up of everything I published on Breaking Smart this year, and try to tease out the larger themes, but obviously no look back at the year can begin without acknowledging the 800lb virus in the room.

    To quote J. Peterman on Seinfeld, in the episode where he takes back the reins of his company from Elaine after she mismanages it during his absence, kudos to all of us on a job…done. It’s a reference I’ve used before, in my 2018 annual roundup, but this time, I am really feeling it.

    Whatever our personal successes or failures, as a species, the highlight of our collective performance is probably that we made it through the year without either sliding into apocalypse or going insane.

    Well, most of us. As of this writing, 1.75m people are dead from Covid, and will not be seeing 2021. Against that backdrop, the best thing I can say about my writing and podcasting is that I continued doing it all, and that you guys continued to pay some attention.

    On to the roundup.

    It looks like we’re finishing the year pretty strong on this list, with just over 10,000 subscribers, and just over 500 paying subscribers.

    I published 10 podcast episodes (free, with accompanying transcripts), 8 one-off essays, and 11 chapters or essays across 3 serialized projects. Let’s take a look.

    Podcast Episodes (free)

    Beyond Optimism and Pessimism

    Defaults and Defaults

    How, What, and Where to Build

    The Medieval Future of Management

    From Story to Setting

    Big Moods, Little Moods

    The Next Experiments in Elitism

    The State of Business Play

    Fifth-Generation Management

    Involvement Capitalism

    One-off Essays (paywalled)

    Life Go Brr

    Reimagining Publics

    Post-Covid Circularity

    A Bad Prequel

    Tunnelhead

    Notes on Textual Capital

    In the Wake of the Eighties

    Darker Things

    The Great Weirding (paywalled)

    Into the Weirding: Part 1, Part 2

    Control Failure: Part 1, Part 2

    After Westphalia (subscribers only)

    After Westphalia: Introduction

    The Descent of the Public

    The Clockless Clock (paywalled)

    Chapter 1: Pandemic Time, Pandemic Time -2 (abridged free version in Noema)

    Chapter 2: Indoors in Time

    Chapter 3: Operating in Time, Operating in Time -2

    This would count as a productive year if it were any other year besides 2020, but obviously, against the backdrop of everything going on, it feels marginal at best.

    Still, thank you all for reading and listening, and here’s to the light at the end of the tunnel that we will hopefully emerge into sometime next year. I’m not going to wish you Happy Holidays or Happy New Year, since I personally find it kinda unseemly to even attempt to be festive this year, but I do wish you some productive introspection and contemplation, and perhaps a brief personal break from the bleakness.

    I’ll see you again in January 2021. Have a good week.

    Get full access to Ribbonfarm Studio at studio.ribbonfarm.com/subscribe

    • 10 min
    Involvement Capitalism

    Involvement Capitalism

    Welcome back. The Breaking Smart newsletter and podcast is starting up again after a very refreshing 6-week break.

    I want to kick off the post-break programming with a podcast on a big question: if we are headed at least partially towards a post-scarcity world, as we seem to be, does it look more like the Star Trek universe, or the universe in Iain M. Banks Culture novels? Both are varieties of something I call involvement capitalism, which I think it’s going to emerge in the next decade one way or the other. The choices we make in the next few years will determine which flavor we end up with.

    1/ Over my break, I had a chance to unplug from weekly writing, and reflect on the broader theme of this mailing list, while watching the news. In case you forgot my tagline for breaking smart, this broader theme is serendipity through technology, and in the last few years, that has been a murky theme to think about. Is it the best of times or worst of times? Hard to tell.

    2/ I unplugged from writing, but not from media consumption. As you might know I don’t believe in that, especially when historic news is unfolding, and the last six weeks have of course been extra historic. Very much in the “weeks when decades happen” category, so I was very plugged in.

    3/ The US elections happened, a second or third wave of the pandemic kicked off (depending on where you live), and multiple vaccines passed early trials, in the process pioneering a whole new class of mRNA vaccines.

    4/ Closer to our own set of usual topics, bitcoin neared its historic all-time highs, a DeepMind AI sort of solved the protein-folding problem, SpaceX launched its first operational crewed mission, and also launched its beta Starlink broadband services.

    5/ There was a small detail in that last news item that’s my jumping-off point for today. The Terms of Service for Starlink require you to agree that Mars is going to be a free planet, outside the jurisdiction of Earth governments, which is an interesting move with real consequences.

    6/ The thing is, if SpaceX’s plans continue to succeed, they may put a Starlink constellation around Mars and offer very cheap launch services to Mars, which would lead to a broad-based democratized Mars access at least for rovers and robots, with low-cost communications once your rover is on Mars.

    7/ Even if human settlement does not follow, we are on the cusp of creating at least a robotic telepresence society on Mars. And if you read between the lines of the Starlink ToS, SpaceX hopes to keep that presence an open, anarcho-capitalist zone of sociopolitical experimentation.

    8/ What might that look like? Well, there are two precedents to consider, one fictional, one factual. The factual one is the current state of Earth oceans, which are essentially an outlaw zone. I highly recommend William Langewiesche’s brilliant 2005 book, The Outlaw Sea, for a deep look at how the world of oceans works. Shipping, piracy, law on the seas, ship-breaking, all sorts of cool stuff.

    9/ The fictional one is the post-scarcity anarchist civilization called the Culture, in Iain M. Banks’ novels. We know SpaceX is inspired by that since they name their barges after Culture space ships: their current fleet of 3 comprises the drone ships Of Course I Still Love You, Just Read the Instructions, and A Shortfall of Gravitas.

    10/ The two together paint a consistent portrait. The Outlaw Sea kinda does look like the fictional universe of Culture books, especially the margins of the civilization, where the Culture’s Special Circumstances agents, a sort of CIA, interfere in less advanced civilizations.

    11/ The fictional plots of Culture books very much resemble British and American interventionist global foreign policy, enforced by naval power projected across the world’s outlaw seas, and directed at less-developed countries, over the last two centuries. Internally, the Culture is quite different from Britain or the US, but you could say de

    • 26 min

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