At the Formlabs Digital Factory event in June, Carl Bass used the phrase Infinite Computing in his keynote. I’d heard it before, but I liked it in this context and it finally sparked a set of thoughts which felt worthy of a rant.
For 50 years, computer scientists have been talking about AI. However, in the past few years, a remarkable acceleration of a subset of AI (or a superset, depending on your point of view) now called machine learning has taken over as the hot new thing.
Since I started investing in 1994, I’ve been dealing with the annual cycle of the hot new thing. Suddenly, a phrase is everywhere, as everyone is talking about, labeling, and investing in it.
Here are a few from the 1990s: Internet, World Wide Web, Browser, Ecommerce (with both a capital E and a little e). Or, some from the 2000s: Web Services, SOAs, Web 2.0, User-Generated Data, Social Networking, SoLoMo, and the Cloud. More recently, we’ve enjoyed Apps, Big Data, Internet of Things, Smart Factory, Blockchain, Quantum Computing, and Everything on Demand.
Nerds like to label things, but we prefer TLAs. And if you really want to see what the next year’s buzzwords are going to be, go to CES (or stay home and read the millions of web pages written about it.)
AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) particularly annoy me, in the same way Big Data does. In a decade, what we are currently calling Big Data will be Microscopic Data. I expect AI will still be around as it is just too generally appealing to ever run its course as a phrase, but ML will have evolved into something that includes the word “sentient.”
In the mean time, I like the phrase Infinite Computing. It’s aspirational in a delightful way. It’s illogical, in an asymptotic way. Like Cloud Computing, it’s something a marketing team could get 100% behind. But, importantly, it describes a context that has the potential for significant changes in the way things work.
Since the year I was born (1965), we’ve been operating under Moore’s Law. While there are endless discussions about the constraints and limitations of Moore’s Law, most of the sci-fi that I read assumes an endless exponential growth curve associated with computing power, regardless of how you index it.
In that context, ponder Infinite Computing. It’s not the same as saying “free computing” as everything has a cost. Instead, it’s unconstrained.
What happens then?
My favorite Onion article of all time (from 2010) is U.S. Economy Grinds To Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion. It starts off with some Bernanke brilliance.
“Though raising interest rates is unlikely at the moment, the Fed will of course act appropriately if we…if we…” said Bernanke, who then paused for a moment, looked down at his prepared statement, and shook his head in utter disbelief. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. None of this—this so-called ‘money’—really matters at all.”
“It’s just an illusion,” a wide-eyed Bernanke added as he removed bills from his wallet and slowly spread them out before him. “Just look at it: Meaningless pieces of paper with numbers printed on them. Worthless.”
This is not a new idea. From William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, one of the most important sci-fi books ever which established the idea of cyberspace in 1984.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
Back to the Onion article.
“Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) finally shouted out, “Oh my God, he’s right. It’s all a mirage. All of it—the money, our whole economy—it’s all a lie!”
Now, ponder Bitcoin.
“I’ve spent 25 years in this room yelling ‘Buy, buy! Sell, sell!’ and for what?” longtime trader Michael Palermo said. “All I’ve done is move arbitrary designations of wealth from one column to another, wasting my life chasing this unattainable hallucination of wealth. What a cruel cosmic joke,” he added. “I’m going home to hug my daughter.”
“A few U.S. banks have remained open, though most teller windows are unmanned due to a lack of interest in transactions involving mere scraps of paper or, worse, decimal points and computer data signifying mere scraps of paper.”
I just read Kenneth Rogoff’s The Curse of Cash: How Large-Denomination Bills Aid Crime and Tax Evasion and Constrain Monetary Policy. I literally have zero cash in my wallet. On a daily basis, I’m dealing with very large sums of money across multiple companies, but it has completely become a functional abstraction to me.
As I did a fairly sophisticated transaction on my computer yesterday that moved cash into a cybercurrency, I had the phrase “money is a consensual hallucination” echoing in my head. Math and computers are helping reinforce this. And the government is watching.
My cell phone experience is so fucking miserable. As I drove home last night and tried to have a conversation, I had five drops during a 30-minute drive from downtown Boulder to my house on the edge of Boulder and Longmont. When I drive into my office this morning, on exactly the same route, I expect I’ll have five drops at exactly the same spots.
This happens every day I drive between my house and my office. There is a dead spot at the corner of St. Vrain and 36. There is another dead spot on Broadway just across the street from Amante. There are four more that I can name (one on St. Vrain, one on 36, and one on Broadway), but I don’t want to give away all of Verizon’s secrets.
It’s 2017. I think my Cellular One experience in Boston in the mid-1990s was better.
For a few weeks, I thought maybe it was that Verizon knew I supported Net Neutrality and was fucking with me. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so this is my inner sarcasm rising to the surface.
I sent out an email asking a bunch of local friends what they used and how they liked it. I got general bitching about Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile, so there wasn’t a clear answer.
So, I’ve decided to go on my own exploration. I’m going to get each service and try them for a week. I’ll put up with the nightmare of porting my phone number around, which I expect will end in tears, but fortunately, I use Google Authenticator instead of SMS for two-factor authentication, so at least that won’t be a miserable pain in the ass.
Or maybe I’ll just get a second iPhone, a new phone number, and use that as the test device. That sounds safer, but now I’ve got to figure out how to sync two different iPhones to one account so that the images on both iPhones is the same. A quick Google search does not reveal the magic trick, so I’m sure that will be entertaining.
Do I sound like I’m at the end of my rope on this issue? Please don’t ask me about CenturyLink and the Internet non-service at my house.
Pro Tip: If you are at CES today and want to connect, I’ll be hanging out at Eureka Park from 11am this morning (Friday) when I’m on a panel about diversity until I leave the premises at 2:30.
My dad and I left the Venetian yesterday at 8:30am to head over to the Las Vegas Convention Center. When I arrived back at the room at 10pm, I was done / baked / toasted / wiped.
For a number of years (somewhere between 5 and 9, according to the little badge they gave me), my dad and I went to CES together every year. In 2013, when I got depressed, I decided not to travel for a year. I punted CES that year and for the next few years, so this is the first time in four years we’ve done the drill.
We had a blast together yesterday. I think my dad was delirious by about 9pm when he left our party and went up to the room. And hour later when I checked in on him before going to sleep, he was flat on his back in bed pretending to be awake but was clearly out for the count.
We started at the LVCC. I saw a tweet from Dan Primack saying the North Hall was basically indistinguishable from the Detroit Auto Show. He nailed it – it was basically a takeover by the worldwide auto industry with a few startups sprinkled here and there. It felt like six months ago every CEO of a major auto company sent an email to the CMO that said
“We are going to be at CES. We need to show up three things: (1) Our EV prototype, (2) A completely new in-car electronics package that looks better than Tesla’s, and (3) something about autonomous driving. Your budget is $10 million. Don’t fuck it up.”
If any of this shit comes together, we are going to have completely different cars by 2020. If you are a VC and you haven’t placed your bets on this sector yet, good luck. And if you have, make sure you are spending lots of time with big auto corp dev / M&A people.
If you’ve been following any news about CES, you know that it’s been a huge Alexa takeover. Amazon’s move in the home is brilliant. I love Alexa and I’m amazed at how far ahead Amazon suddenly is. When I think of all the money, time, and energy Microsoft, Apple, Google, Nintendo, Sony, Samsung, and LG have spent in the home, I have one word for them. “Wasted.” As far as I can tell, I’ll be talking to Alexa in the future a lot more than I’ll be saying “Ok Google”, especially when I’m talking to a Samsung TV.
Several times an hour I bump into someone that I like. That’s one of the fun parts of CES – you are surrounded by 180,000 of your fellow nerds and you bump into Dick Costolo on the way to dinner. I ended up in a fifteen minute conversation with Josh Ellman. I could list another 20 serendipitous connections in random places but you get the idea.
After wandering through the Sphero secret rooms in their booth, I told my dad I thought it was the best booth experience I’ve ever had. Way more awesome than yet another random shag carpet open space with marketing displays.
Interviewing James Park at Eureka Park about the Fitbit story was fun. My experience with James, his partner Eric, and Fitbit continues to be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable – at all levels – professional experience I’ve ever had.
And then dad and I wandered around the Sands. It completely blew away the LVCC and was so much more interesting to me that I’m just going to spend the day at the Sands, wandering around startups, smaller companies, 3D printers, robots, and all kinds of stuff I like. There are zillions of CE startups in Sands. While 90% of them will fail, it’s pretty awesome to see what entrepreneurs are working on.
The only thing more baffling to me than the auto stuff were home robots. I think the 2017 crop of home robots at CES will be like the 2013 crop of 3D TVs. Kind of cool, but not commercially viable. We’ll get there, but it’s not this.
And – well – lots of chocolate ice cream. That’s one of the best things about Las Vegas. Chocolate ice cream is less than 0.25 miles away, no matter where you are.
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.