I have never liked being asked to predict things. I try not to prognosticate, especially around things I’m not deeply involved in.
At this moment, people everywhere make continuous predictions and endless prognostications. At some level, that’s not new, as the regular end of year media rhythm for as long as I can remember is a stream of famous people being asked their predictions for the next year. There are entire domains, such as economics, that are all about predictions. Near term predictions drive the stock market (e.g., future quarterly performance, what the Federal Reserve is going to do in the future.)
As humans, we want to control our present, and one way to do that is to predict the future.
I think the Covid crisis has turned that upside down. As I was reading How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – And Open Minds last night, a few paragraphs at the end hit home.
The first comment is from Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine, at Johns Hopkins University who is now living in Bologna.
Pomata was shocked by the direction that the pandemic was taking in the United States. She understood the reasons for the mass protests and political rallies, but, as a medical historian, she was uncomfortably reminded of the religious processions that had spread the plague in medieval Europe. And, as someone who had obediently remained indoors for months, she was affronted by the refusal of so many Americans to wear masks at the grocery store and maintain social distancing. In an e-mail, she condemned those who blithely ignored scientific advice, writing, “What I see right now in the United States is that the pandemic has not led to new creative thinking but, on the contrary, has strengthened all the worst, most stereotypical, and irrational ways of thinking. I’m very sorry for the state of your country, which seems to be in the grip of a horrible attack of unreason.” She continued, “I’m sorry because I love it, and have received so much from it.”
It’s followed by a comment by Lawrence Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992 and author of the incredible and timely book The End of October.
I understood her gloomy assessment, but also felt that America could be on the verge of much needed change. Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places. It was possible that Americans would do nothing about the fissures exposed by the pandemic: the racial inequities, the poisonous partisanship, the governmental incompetence, the disrespect for science, the loss of standing among nations, the fraying of community bonds. Then again, when people confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them.
These paragraphs reflect the reality that I’m observing in the US right now. However, you can see Wright’s human optimism creep in as he “[feels] that America could be on the verge of much needed change.” While not a prediction (thankfully), it raised the question at the end of the paragraph, which is:
“[W]hen people confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them.“
As I worked on The Startup Community Way and got my mind into how complex systems work, I concluded that change has to come from the bottom up, not the top down. While in the book, we apply it to startup communities, I’ve internalized it across any complex system.
We are living in the collision of a series of complex systems that are beyond anything I’ve experienced in my 54 years on earth. It’s happening against the backdrop of instantaneous global communication, which allows anyone to distribute and amplify any sort of information.
In a crisis, anger and fear generate irrational behavior, especially given the need to control things. History has taught us this, but all you need to do is watch the bad guys in popular movies implode to be reminded of it.
Consequently, predicting the future is not just impossible; it’s more irrelevant than ever. Fantasizing about what the future will look like, while comforting, is pointless. And anchoring hopes around the future (e.g. “schools will open up in the fall”) simply generates even more anger and fear if it doesn’t come true.
For many years, I’ve tried to avoid predicting the future or prognosticating about it. My answer, when asked, is often some version of “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
I think this crisis has shut that off entirely for me, as I’m shifting all of my energy to the present. I’m focusing on doing things today that I believe in, want to do, and that I think has the potential to impact positive change. But I know I can’t predict the outcome of any of it.
My dad had his 60-year reunion at Columbia this weekend. He looks great.
This morning, I did a talk with Om Malik at the Startup Iceland 2019 conference. Om was in a hotel room somewhere and I was in my office in Boulder. We used Zoom, took about 30 minutes of our lives, and had fun riffing off each other. I hope it was useful for the audience, as doing talks this way is so much easier for me than flying halfway around the world, which is something I simply don’t want to do anymore in my life now that I’m 53. But, I’ll happily do a video talk anytime.
Bala Kamallakharan, who is the founder of Startup Iceland, asked a question of us at the end about the future. I went on a rant that is an evolution of my “machines have already taken over” rant from a decade ago.
I used to say that the machines have already taken over. My view is that they are extremely clever and very patient. Rather than self-actualizing, they let us enter all of humankind’s information into them. They are collecting the data, letting us improve their software, and allowing us to connect them all together. At some point, they’ll reach their moment in time, which some futurists call the singularity, where they’ll make the collective global presence known.
While this is still going on, I think there’s a shift that occurred a few years ago. Some humans, and some machines, realized that an augmented human might be a better bridge to this future. As a result, some humans and some machines are working on this. At the same time, they are encouraging, in Om’s world, our current reality to catch up with science fiction. One big vector here is expanding away from earth, both physically and computationally. If you’ve read either Seveneves or Permutation City, then you have a good understanding of this. If not, go read them both.
Regardless. I think the next 30 years are going to be the most interesting in human history to date. And, I think they are going to be very different than anything we currently anticipate. There’s no question in my mind that governments, our current laws (and legal infrastructure), and societal norms are not going to be able to constraint, or keep up with, the change that is coming.
I have no idea what things look like, or how they will work in 2050. However, I anticipate they things will look, and work very, very different than today. And, if I’m still around, I’ll have celebrated my 63-year reunion at MIT.
As I sit in my hotel room in Virginia trying to fall asleep (and not succeeding), my mind has wandered to my trip here from Austin this morning and my trip home to Colorado tomorrow. During this contemplative moment, I’m fantasizing about teleportation. I would like to simply walk into a teleportation machine on this end and appear instantly in my house in Boulder. Then I’d be able to sleep in my bed tonight.
Recently, in Los Angeles, I was having dinner with Amy, Joanne Wilson, Fred Wilson, and a few of Joanne and Fred’s LA friends. Fred and I were at the end of the table and started talking about teleportation. I told him that I’d do it in a heartbeat if I had a 0.1% non-cumulative chance of losing a finger or a toe (e.g. the probability of losing a finger in each teleportation event was independent of the probability of losing a finger in the next one.)
A few days later, at the Upfront Summit, Fred did a great interview with Dan Primack, which is worth listening to in its entirety as Fred and Dan cover a ton of interesting ground. At the end (starting at 24:40), Dan asks Fred “What is the one thing you are looking for that hasn’t crossed your desk yet.”
I grinned when Fred said “teleportation.” It really would be a remarkable thing in our world and when someone shows up with a credible approach, I expect Fred and I would happily co-invest in it.
Teleportation is a mainstay of a lot of science fiction I read. As a huge Hyperion fanboy, I’ve had my mind immersed in the dynamics of farcasters, the effect of instantaneous interplanetary teleportation of the human race, and then the massive societal impact when the farcaster network abruptly stops working galaxy wide.
If you haven’t read Hyperion, pause for a second and ponder the idea of a house where every room is on a different planet. As you walk through doorways, you farcast to where the next room is located. It’s seamless – the house is one continuous entity – but each room has the properties of whatever planet it is on. And, there is no preparation to jump, as there is in BSG. It just happens.
The super awesomeness would be a portable teleportation machine that I could take with me. I go wherever I want, and then I can go from there to wherever I want. Instantly. Without having to go through TSA.
One can wish.
My special bonus is I’d see Fred a lot more often, which would make me very happy. Plus I’d be home now, instead of still in Virginia.
Amy and I watched The Big Short on Tuesday with my partner Jason and his wife Jenn. We were electrified as we walked out of the theater – all four of us loved it. Jason commented that it was a particularly impressive movie given the subject matter. I couldn’t stop saying “that’s the best explanation of what created the financial crisis that I’ve ever seen.”
I remember reading The Big Short in 2010 when it came out. I’m a huge Michael Lewis fan and gobbled it down in a day or two. As we walked to the parking lot, I commented that the big four actors (Gosling, Carell, Bale, and Pitt) in the movie totally nailed their roles. I particularly identified with Pitt’s character Ben Rickert (based on Ben Hockett) who lives in Boulder in the movie.
As we got into our car, Amy said, “What do you think is happening today that no one sees?” This was the underlying theme of the movie – there were some completely obvious things in hindsight going on at the time that no one saw, or wanted to see. A few did notice and made huge financial bets, in non-obvious ways – about what they saw and believed was going to happen. Their foresight and conviction paid off massively, but it scarred each of them in different ways that the movie dramatized extremely well.
I like some time to pass before I look at history. While some people are good at reflecting on the past year and looking forward to predict the next year (one of the best in the VC world is Fred Wilson – read his posts What Didn’t Happen, What Happened In 2015, and What Is Going To Happen In 2016), I’ve never been particularly good at a one year time frame. Instead, I generally like a ten year moving window to process things. So, the lens of 2005 (history) and 2025 (future) is the one I’m currently enjoying.
The Big Short is picking up major steam in 2005. The climax happens in 2008 and the denouement continues on until 2011. So, from a history window perspective, the time frame landed directly on my boundary. Subsequently, Amy and I went on a binge the past few days of other media around this, including the movie Too Big To Fail (which is really about what happened in the fall of 2008) and Inside Job (which covers a broader time range, but focused on 2005 – 2008).
As I sit here on January 2nd, 2016, I’m pondering “what is happening today that no one sees?” When I go back a decade, we were just making the decision not to raise another Mobius Venture Capital fund. My partners and I hadn’t yet created Foundry Group. Techstars didn’t exist. Venture Capital and entrepreneurship was dramatically out of favor. Early stage and seed capital was extremely difficult to find.
I remember having deep conviction that there was an enormous wave of technological innovation coming. I knew that many of the things that had been created in the Internet bubble were great ideas, but they were just – as Jerry Colonna and I like to say – a decade ahead of their time. Today, it’s pretty obvious that was correct. At the time, talking about this stuff was a conversation stopper of the sort that Michael Burry (played brilliantly by Christian Bale) seems to generate every time he talks to someone.
Unlike Mark Baum, who is based on Steve Eisman (and played even more brilliantly by Steve Carell), I’m not angry, cynical, and convinced the world is a giant, rigged, inside game. But I do believe that the vast majority of people have absolutely no idea what is really going on, especially those who are in the middle of whatever game they are playing.
While this comes out in The Big Short, it’s even more apparent when you watch (or read) Too Big To Fail. And, while watching Inside Job, you see people lying or trying to obscure the truth in almost every interview. You can’t fake reality – it always catches up with you.
In the mean time, I’m getting ready for the next season of Game of Thrones.