In November, during the week of the presidential election, I was at MIT for the Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship at MIT. The Friday night event included a keystone from Simon Johnson, an MIT professor who became famous during the financial crisis because of his superb analysis along with his almost daily blog The Baseline Scenario and his willingness to openly challenge an enormous amount of conventional thinking.
I remember hearing Simon for the first time at an MIT Sloan Dean’s Advisory meeting in the basement of a fancy hotel in NY in the middle of the financial crisis. Many of the advisory board member attendees looked like hammered dog shit as they were part of the New York financial services and real estate world. Simon gave a clear eyed, extremely compelling pep talk that challenged everyone to ask questions and think hard, rather than just retreat into gloom.
On the Friday night after the election in 2016 on the six floor of E-52, Simon gave another impassioned talk. As he wrapped up, he addressed the elephant in the room, which this time corresponded with Trump, a Republican Congress, and a huge swath of red on an electoral map where a bunch of people, including me, had previously expected blue.
One question really stuck with me.
“How do you make technology work for those who are not working? Especially for those who are not working because of technology.”
This is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this as a species, or a country. The transition from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution is a simple historical analogy. There are others, but Simon asked another question after making the analogy.
“Is this time different?”
I don’t know the answer to the questions but they slapped me in the face and made me sit up.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, mostly with Amy, about the next 20+ years. I believe humans are in for the biggest transformation (and subsequent challenges) that we’ve faced so far since the origination of our species. I think it’s going to be extremely complicated, painful, and confusing to many.
Simon suggested a powerful approach and one he’s going to take. He’s going to rip up all the old models and start with a blank sheet of paper. As part of that, he’s going to start with the question, and explore. He doesn’t know where it’s going to lead him, but he’ll let it go where it will.
I’m of a similar mindset. I’m also comfortable with my first principles, like the notion that a key part of the improvement in our situation, both economic and cultural, around the world are startup communities. I believe ever more deeply than ever in the philosophy of #GiveFirst, which is the title of my 2017 book. I’m committed to the work path I’m on with Foundry Group and Techstars, the philanthropic path that Amy and I are on with the Anchor Point Foundation, and the philosophical path I’m on with many friends around the world.
While I don’t have any answers to Simon’s question, I have more questions and answers to some of those questions. And, I know how to find answers, and find more questions. So that’s what I’m going to do this year, both in the context of my existing work, and on new intellectual, functional, and philosophical paths.
You’ll see this show up in what I read, what I do, and where I travel. For example, you’ll see hints in my Goodreads book list (whether or not I do book reviews.) For example, each of the last two books I read – Interface by Neal Stephenson / J. Frederick George and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – are both relevant to this discussion.
I’m not trying to find the answer right now to anything in particular. Instead, I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper and trying to learn more, with a beginners mind.
Amy and I watched the Amazon series Goliath last month. It was deeply awesome. Deeply deeply awesome. We also watched The Night Manager which we loved almost as much. And, at the end of each, I said to Amy, “They should end this now and not do a Season 2.”
Goliath captured my attention more.It had amazing character development. Bill Bob Thornton, who I’ve always liked, was at his best, William Hurt was excruciatingly delicious, Nina Arianda made me root for her every time she said something, and Molly Parker had mastery over the role of ruthless, hateful, and utterly self-centered, manipulative lawyer. The filming, while against the standard LA backdrop, was rich and unique. There were many tense moments that just kind of hung on for an extra few beats, which I loved. Each of the eight episodes had at least one unexpected twist and turn. The backstory was complex and finally all came together in the last episode, which was magnificent.
I thought the climactic moments were breathtaking. In the back of our minds we knew we were watching the last episode. And then the screen went black and it was over.
I expect it’s easy for Hollywood to crank out a Season 2. Take the complex characters, subtract a few, add a few new ones, put in a new current story, continue to unfold pieces of the backstory, and keep going. Hollywood knows how to do this.
But wouldn’t it be special if this was it? Just one season. An eight hour movie, instead of an annual TV show.
I have no idea what the economics of the movie business is, especially with all the new Amazon, Netflix, Showtime, AMC, SyFy, and HBO series. But I am intrigued with what feels like a new type of show – the six to eight hour movie. It’s a little too long to watch in one setting but you can watch it over a three to five day period. It becomes immersive without taking over everything. It doesn’t drag you out week by week with mildly unsatisfying endpoints. And it doesn’t end up being a 13 hour bingfest, which can be done (ala House of Cards) but doesn’t stay with you (or at least stay with me) as much.
I let this idea sit for a few weeks (I wrote the headline for this post three weeks ago after we finished Goliath.) When I saw it this morning, it still felt right to me. I wonder if, as the tech to deliver content continues to evolve, we will start seeing the one season / 6-8 hour show that ends at a peak moment, rather than is cancelled because it sucks.
One of the podcasts in my regular rotation is Turnpikers. Luke Beatty and Danny Newman – both long time friends – are doing an awesome job interviewing interesting people in the Boulder – Denver startup community.
If you don’t know the area, Turnpikers stands for U.S. Route 36 (known locally as “36” or sometimes “Highway 36”). But the locals call it the Boulder Turnpike. So, those of us who travel up and down 36 between Boulder and Denver are known – at least to Luke and Danny – as Turnpikers.
Luke and Danny interviewed me a few weeks ago in a studio at Postmodern Company in Denver. We hung out for an hour in a windowless room talking about whatever came to mind. I never listen to interviews I do before they are published – I like to listen to them after they are out in the world. This interview was one of my recent favorites.
The interview is Episode 18 of Turnpikers. You can listen to it here on the web. Or go to iTunes and download the entire Turnpikers podcast. iTunes gives me a little E for explicit – go figure. If you live in Boulder or Denver, be recursive and listen to it while driving on 36.
If you are a VC then you know Dan Primack. You also probably know that yesterday was the last day he wrote his magnificent daily newsletter The Term Sheet. It’s been a daily read of mine for – well – as long as I can remember. So I was delighted to see this tweet from Dan first thing this morning.
Of course I’m gonna write another email newsletter. Please sign up here: https://t.co/pF6NWEkK5s
— Dan Primack (@danprimack) October 26, 2016
I will now have five things that I read every day to get coverage of the VC and deal landscape in my world.
- Dan Primack’s Next Newsletter
- Mattermark Daily
- The Term Sheet (now by Erin Griffith)
- Data Sheet (by Adam Lashinsky)
The only other daily / continuous information I get is Techmeme River (which streams into a Slack channel) and Google Alerts on all the companies we are investors in. There’s plenty more in my RSS Reader (Feedly) including my VC feed but I don’t look at that daily.
Dan – congrats on the new gig. And thanks for continuing to do a newsletter!
This is a line my friend Jerry Colonna uses when something like the AT&T – Time Warner deal occurs. As time passes, the line has shifted to “We were right – just fifteen years early.”
Jerry was Fred Wilson‘s partner at Flatiron Partners. We were all investing in Internet-related stuff at the end of the 1990s. Jerry and Fred had one of the most successful VC funds during this time period until the Internet bubble burst and blew us all up for a while. We made plenty of investments together and I sat on a number of boards with Jerry – we had some big winners and a handful of craters in the ground.
At the peak, AOL bought Time Warner for $162 billion. We only know that was the peak in hindsight – at the time it looked like it validated a lot of what we were doing by investing in the Internet.
“This merger will launch the next Internet revolution,” said Steve Case, America Online’s chairman and chief executive, told a news conference Monday. “We’re still just scratching the surface.”
The market responded according to plan.
“Analysts expect competing Internet and entertainment companies to seek similar deals in hopes of keeping pace with AOL and Time Warner, and some of those stocks also got a lift Monday. Disney jumped $4.81 1/4 to $35.93 3/4 and News Corp. rose $7.31 1/4 to 45.06 1/4 on the NYSE. Lycos leaped $9 to $79.75 and Yahoo! climbed $28.81 1/4 to $436.06 1/4 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.”
Yup – you saw that correctly, Yahoo was at $436 / share. I think it split 2:1 twice, which would have made it priced at $109 / share. It’s currently at $42 / share so if I got the splits right, after its collapse in 2001 to a low of around $5 / share it took it 15 years to claw its way back to $42 / share (a 10x from the low, 40% of its high at the peak.)
Ponder Gartner’s Hype Cycle for a moment. You can apply this to pretty much anything in tech.
2000 was the Peak of Inflated Expectations. 2002 was the Trough of Disillusionment.
Now, choose any new and exciting technology now. Apply Gartner’s Hype Cycle to it. Ponder where you end up.
Steve Case wrote a book earlier this year called The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. In addition to looking forward to the future, Steve uses his lessons from the past to explore how things play out. It spans the time frame from 1985 – 2015 which you can just lay down on the Gartner Hype Cycle.
- 1985 – 1994 was the initial entrepreneurial Grind
- 1995 – 2000 was the climb up to the Peak
- 2001 – 2002 was the collapse to the Trough
- 2003 – 2012 was the climb to Enlightenment
- 2013 forward has been the plateau of Productivity
In the context of this, the AT&T – Time Warner deal seems extremely well timed and relevant. Now it’s all about execution.
Consider any of Apple / Google / GM / Ford buying Tesla. Where does that fall on Gartner’s Curve? How about the auto industry. Or drones. Or what people are currently calling AI. Or – well – keep going.
One of the biggest challenges in tech is not being right. It’s being ten or fifteen years too early.
If you are reading this on Medium and have seen other posts of mine in the past month, tell me if you think it’s been worth it for me to republish what is on Feld Thoughts to my Brad Feld channel on Medium.
I’ve been using the Medium WordPress plugin to republish my posts automatically. It’s generally not much effort, although there are a few bugs. The most annoying is that when I publish something on WordPress, update it, and then publish it again, it doesn’t update on Medium.
Yesterday my WordPress database automatically updated and published a pile of posts from 2006 and 2007 to Medium. It also filled up my drafts on Medium, which eventually caused Medium to rate limit me (it seems like that happened around 100 posts). I didn’t want the old posts up on Medium so I went through and deleted them. That was a pain in the ass as Medium doesn’t have a bulk delete feature and I had to do it one by one. That prompted me to ask the question as to whether this has been a useful experiment.
While Medium says I have 51,000 followers, it looks like I get about 1,000 views per post and between 10 and 50 likes. So – that’s a little incremental exposure, but a very low percentage of the people who follow me, which is interesting.
I’ve had a lot of trouble engaging in comments and feedback on Medium. Some of it is the UI, some of it is time, and some is modality. I do almost all my responses to comments on WordPress via email, which Disqus handles extremely well. Medium, on the other hand, doesn’t have a reply by email feature.
Any thoughts, especially from the Medium side? Feedback welcome.
I’ve done a number of video interviews lately. This seems to be the norm for a live event today. I start with a short one from when I was in Adelaide, then a longer one from Sydney, and wrap it up with what is one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done – this time in Minneapolis with my partner Seth.
I’ll start with my bias – I’m very optimistic about the superintelligence.
Yesterday I gave two talks in Minneapolis. One was to an internal group of Target employees around innovation. In the other, I was interviewed by my partner Seth (for the first time), which was fun since he’s known me for 16 years and could ask unique questions given our shared experiences.
I can’t remember in which talk the superintelligence came up, but I rambled on an analogy to try to simply describe the superintelligence which I’ve come up with recently that I first saw in The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. I woke up this morning thinking about it along with one of the questions Seth asked me where my answer left me unsatisfied.
I’ve been reading most of what I could get my hands on about current thoughts and opinions about the superintelligence and the evolution of what a lot of people simply refer to as AI. I’ve also read, and am rereading, some classical texts on this such as Minsky’s Society of the Mind. It’s a challenging subject as it functions at the intersection of computer science and philosophy combined with humans efforts to define and describe the unknown.
My ants and the superintelligence rant is a way for me to simply explain how humans will related to the superintelligence, and how the superintelligence will relate to humans.
If I’m a human, I am curious about and study ants. They have many interesting attributes that are similar to other species, but many that are unique. If you want to learn more in an efficient way, read anything written about them by E. O. Wilson. While I may think I know a lot about ants, I fundamentally can’t identify with them, nor can I integrate them into my society. But I can observe and interact with them, in good and bad ways, both deliberately as well as accidentally. Ponder an ant farm or going for a bike ride and driving over an ant hill. Or being annoyed with them when they are making a food line across your kitchen and calling the exterminator. Or peacefully co-existing with them on your 40 acres.
If I’m an ant, there are giant exogenous forces in my world. I can’t really visualize them. I can’t communicate with them. I spent a lot of time doing things in their shadow but never interacting with them, until there is a periodic overlap that often is tragic, chaotic, or energizing. I get benefit from the existence of them, until they accidentally, or deliberately, do something to modify my world.
In my metaphor, the superintelligence == humans and humans == ants.
Ponder it. For now, it’s working for me. But tell me why it does work so I can learn and modify my thinking.
I’ve been thinking about what “truth” means lately. With almost no effort I can find contradictory articles, thoughts, perspectives, statements, and opinions on almost everything being discussed today. I’m sure our election cycle is amplifying this, but I see this in a bunch of stuff I’m reading about tech as well.
As someone who views independent critical thinking as extremely important, this dynamic is perplexing to me. A few months ago I wrote a post about TruthRank vs. PageRank. It started me down a path where I began separating types of truth. Specifically, I’ve begun referring to “your truth” vs. “the truth.”
When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.
To understand this better, I’d like to use a classic example from tech – that of Steve Ballmer’s view of the iPhone, and subsequently his approach to the mobile business.
Let’s set the stage with a classic interview with Ballmer at the time the iPhone is announced in 2007.
Now, let’s look at Ballmer’s reflections about this in 2014.
As part of this arc, Ballmer’s big solve was to move Microsoft from a software only company to software+services and then software+devices. For many years, Microsoft was disdainful of Apple’s tightly coupled hardware+software business. In a final thrust of reactionary behavior, Microsoft bought Nokia in 2014 for $7.2 billion and then wrote off $7.6 billion a little over a year later.
Ballmer had “his truth.” It was stronger than an opinion. It shaped his entire view of the world. He held on to it for seven years (or probably longer).
And, at least in the case of mobile, it was completely wrong. It was not “the truth.”
I see this in all aspects of the world. It’s noisiest in politics right now, but it’s prevalent through all aspects of society. I’m running into it constantly in business and technology – both at a macro level (about the industry) and a micro level (within a company).
In the same way it’s different than an opinion (which can be wrong and/or invalidated over time), it’s different than strategy. I’ve always felt that a strategy was the framework for executing your truth. Strategies evolve and opinions change but your truth doesn’t.
And herein lies the problem. I’m seeing people hold onto their truth for much too long. They hold on too tightly. They turn an opinion into their truth. They extrapolate their truth from a small number of data points. The generalize one experience to create their truth. They react emotionally to something that they disagree with and anchor on their truth. They justify their behavior by holding onto their truth.
In many of these situations, individual critical thinking goes out the window. The internal biasing behavior of your truth dominates. You stop being able to listen to other perspectives, to process them, to think about them, and to evolve your opinion. Instead of deeply held beliefs, you end up with a shallow and self-justifying perspective that you hold on to endlessly rather than think hard about what is actually going on.
I embrace the idea of seeking the truth. I love the construct of deeply held beliefs as a framework for it. I challenge everyone to think harder about what the truth actually is, rather than just hold on to your truth to justify your perspective. Remember, the truth is out there.
At dinner last night with Amy and friends we ended up in a long conversation about what’s going on in the world right now. We went down a few different paths, including a set of provocative questions like “Should the US have gotten involved in World War II earlier?” (me: Yes) and “Should the US have have gotten involved in World War I earlier?” (me: I don’t know – I never have really understood World War I .)
The subtext kept cycling around what, if anything, is different today. Sure – many specific things are different – but is the essence of anything human fundamentally different?
I kept coming back to the idea that we have instantaneous information about everything everywhere all the time. That has been enabled by technology, especially over the past twenty years, and is accelerating. Technology doesn’t address everything – for example, air travel still sucks.
And, more importantly, the instantaneous information we have isn’t necessarily the truth. In fact, much of it isn’t the truth, but rather a point of view that a subset of people would like to enforce on another subset of people. This is a fundamental tenet of human behavior that has been going since, well, before, well, forever. If you are struggling with what I’m suggesting, just ponder religion (and the history of religion) for a little while.
As I mulled over our conversation this morning, I feel like we are in the middle of a profound struggle between the future and the past. Many people, companies, and organizations are trying to protect the past at any cost. We see this regularly in business as the incumbent vs. innovator fight, but I think it’s more profound than that. It’s literally a difference in point of view.
For those trying to protect the past, it is a way of retaining power, status, money, a way a life, predictability, comfort, control, and a bunch of other things like that. It is a struggle against the inevitability of change. The approach, as change becomes more certain, or accelerates, is to become more extreme in one’s behavior, in an effort to defend the past. The defenders of the past get uglier, nastier, more hostile, louder, and more irrational. Ultimately time passes, people die as mortality is still a foundational characteristic of humans, and the future becomes the present on its way to the past.
Our dinner discussion reminded all of us that this cycle plays out over and over again in the history of humanity.