Fun-to-work-on effect

I was listening to Andreas Mattsson presenting how Spotify's uses machine learning to recommend music. A fascinating topic, but what struck me was how interesting and challenging and rewarding must have been for Andreas and the team to work on this problem. Successful companies are made successful in large part by the people who work there. In many cases, employees-led initiatives result in the biggest breakthrough for a company. Just let people follow their curiosity and see magic happen. 

Sergei Brin pointed to the same magic when he told the story about how Google's Brain team became a fundamental part of the company: "Jeff Dean would periodically come up to me and say, 'Look, the computer made a picture of a cat,' and I said 'OK that's very nice, Jeff' … and fast forward a few years and now Brain probably touches every single one of our main projects."

I think of this as the fun-to-work-on effect. Similar to other types of network effects, it is a self-reinforcing loop that makes companies and teams stronger. A small group of people starts working on something. That something grows and begins touching more and more interesting problems. The volume of data available increases and even more problems can now be solved and explored. People start joining your team because they want to solve interesting problems. Once they are there, their curiosity leads them to uncover even more possibilities, and so on.  

The biggest part of any company's success comes from the drive, curiosity and ingenuity of the people working there. Create a company where it is not only fun to work IN, but where there are enough problems that are fun to work ON. The rest will probably take care of itself. 



Considering the future

Tyler Cowen has an unpublished book out there called Stubborn Attachment. In it, he makes the case for the "imperative of growth". No, it is not about startups, it is about the economy.  

Economic growth is a powerful force which has shown incredible healing properties in human history. Nothing cures inequality, poverty, unemployment, more than growth. In lack of growth we are destined to a troublesome epoch, with people and nations fighting over limited resources. I must add that growth here is attached to a broader concept of wealth, defined as "wealth plus": the total amount of value produced over some period, including leisure time, household production and environmental amenities. Growth should be our first and main objective, subordinated only to few universal human rights. 

What I like the most about this thesis is the moral principle that sustains it. Namely that we should care about the future at least as much as we care about the present. In the business world we are used to discounting the future. To compare present benefits and future ones we apply a rate of discount that puts an extra burden on our future gains. In traditional business accounting (and often in our private lifes) we procrastinate long term investments in favour of short term results. This leads to a dangerous way of thinking: 

"Why should costs and benefits receive less weight, simply because they are further in the future? When the future comes, these benefits and costs will be no less real. Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra wanted an extra helping of dessert. How could this be justified?"

In politics, this is reflected by the fact that people of the future are not represented. They are a silent constituency. While political choices (at least we would hope) have a great impact on the people who will come after us, nothing of their preferences and agenda is included in the political debate. As recent electoral results have shown, older age groups have the power to basically fuck up the future for younger generations. 

I like the idea that we should challenge this principle. Why should the present be as valued as the future (when not more)? Why should someone who is only going to live on a fraction of the consequences have the ability to decide for everyone else? Shouldn't we weigh our votes in a way that better represents who is going to stick around longer? 

It sounds like blasphemy. Many will jump off their chairs, pointing fingers at the disrespect for the elders, and maybe bringing the example of traditional societies. Well, traditional societies have always had mechanisms to give formal power and status to the elders, very often as an illusion of power. Our electoral democracies have made this into an a false absolute, "one head one vote", which implicitly assigns more value to the present than the future. It might be time to consider a change. It is time to consider the future.

The right kind of ambition

We talk a lot about ambition in our business. Having some is a prerequisite to start something. To do anything, really. But how much should you have?

Investors often pass on founders for lack of ambition. Entire businesses are considered "low-ambition" or, to use a word that I hate, "lifestyle". 

I consider myslef ambitious, and I do look for ambition in others. But of a specific kind. 

I don't care about world domination, about market size (in general), about power. The ambition I like is the ambition of doing something that wasn't possibile before. What can you do today that you couldn't do yesterday ? What is uniquely possible on the internet that wasn't possible in an analog world? 

 I meet often people that have seen a business opportunity, an idea to make money of something. I respect that,  but excuse me if I am not excited. 

I started thinking about this while listening to Jan Erik from Mapillary. What they are doing is the type of ambition I am taking about. The right kind.


Letting the score take care of itself

"Focus on the journey" is an old idea that can be found in most ancient philosophies. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to focus on his action, not on the fruits:

"You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction."

Seneca says something similar in on of his letters when he writes: 

"Attalus philosophus dicere solebat iucundius esse amicum facere quam habere, quomodo artifici iucundius pingere est quam pinxisse" - The phylosopher Attalus used to say that making friends is as enjoyable than having them, just like for the painter, painting is more important than having painted. 

More recently, Bill Walsh, the famous 49ers coach, used to say that "the score takes care of itself", referring to the importance of daily practice and attitude in achieving results in the field when game-time came. 

I have always liked this way of thinking, to the point of making the Seneca one my motto. It is important however to understand it correctly. The right interpretation is about mental energy and focus. Once you have established your goal, all you have to do is making sure that you put in the right behaviour. That's the only variable you really control. Are you performing, day after day, week after week, the actions that are most likely to eventually lead to your goal? Or are you stressing about not being able to achieve it and looking for shortcuts? 

Every writer knows that the only way to complete a book is to sit down in front of the blank paper or screen everyday and write. Putting in the hours is the only true way writing gets done. So does the football player. Come to practice, perform, live a healthy life, the score will take care of itself. 

The wrong interpretation is to believe that process alone will tell you what to do. That you can apply a rational step-by-step process to define your goal and to live your life. In sports the goal is given. It's the championship, the super bowl, whatever your sport has. In life and business it is less clear. Our first step should be to define our goal, who do we want to be? what do we want to achieve? The next one is to understand what actions are needed to get there. Can you achieve your goal without putting in the right amount of hours? Can you do it without sleeping well, eating well, letting your mind wander around sometime? The right actions will ofter feel to have the least short term impact on the goal. That's the difficult part, to put the goal aside once we have defined it. To forget any form of short term thinking and optimisation. 

Every day, do what you are supposed to do, and enjoy the ride. 

Popular culture

Jeremy Liew is the man these days, his 500k investment in Snapchat will likely go down as one of the best venture deal ever. Reflecting on this success, he observed how innovation, at least when it comes to consumer tech, is being democratised. Silicon Valley's monopoly on technology is weakening and another powerful force of innovation is emerging as a source of competitive advantage: insight into popular culture. 

In his definition, this refers to people's interests and preferences, their emotions and habits. At a higher level, it points to a rebalancing in the relationship between theory and empirical observation, between intellectual elaborations and common sense. It reminded me of a comment Peter Thiel made in a recent interview: "I think often the smarter people are more prone to trendy, fashionable thinking because they can pick up on things, they can pick up on cues more easily, and so they’re even more trapped by it than people of average ability."

It is something I feel on myself very often. Faced with a situation I want to understand, I sense the weigh of established knowledge clouding my thoughts. In these moments, ignorance can be bliss. Simply ignoring what smarter people said about a certain topic allows us to get to a really personal understanding and we are often surprised about the simplicity of our conclusions, to the point we start doubting them again. 

The right heuristic here is that simplicity is the normal condition of right conclusions. It is a topic I will write more about, soon. 


Who is being laughed at today?

I am reading a biography of the impressionist painter Renoir, written by his son. It is a beautiful painting of a world in transition: from the post-napoleonic restoration until the carnage of WWI, passing through 1848, the Commune, electrification, railways and industrial production. Possibly the biggest transformation ever experienced by man, and comparable to the one we are living today. 

It is also a story of innovation and innovators. Of a group of painters that defy all conventions to follow their artistic instinct and impose an entire new approach to visual arts. They weren't received well. A reporter for Le Figaro wrote about the first exhibition of their work:

"The innocent pedestrian, attracted by the flags put up outside, goes in to have a look. But what a crule spectable meets his frightened eyes! Five or six lunatics -one of them a woman-  make up a group of poor wretches who have succumbed to the madness of ambition [...] Some people are content to laugh at such things. But it makes me sad at heart."

and here is another one, from La Presse:

"...the practitioner falls into a senseless confusion, completely mad, grotesque and, fortunately, without precedent i the annals of art. For it is nothing less than the negation of the most elementary rules of drawing and painting [...] one is inclined to wonder if there has not been a deliberate attempt to mystify the public."

All other reviews follow the same pattern: shock, disgust, and laughter. 

It is the inevitable faith of all real innovators to be laughed at. To be dismissed as jokers, lunatics, people that have lost touch with reality. It reminded me about the famous "what's this internet thing" video.  . There was also another video, which I cannot find now, where Steve Jobs is introduced by the host dismissively as a "computer geek". 

Today, founders and investors of technology startups are seldom laughed at. On the contrary, they are celebrated and revered as the saviours of our time. They have gone from villain to heroes, even before proving much about what they are doing. The tables are turned and nobody wants to be the fool on youtube who laughed about the internet. 

But there is something missing here. Who are the true innovators, who is being laughed at today? 

I keep asking myself this question, and I don't have a definite answer. 

Beside their increasing popularity, bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptocurrencies (or the solutions they enable) might fit in to this picture. People skipping the conventional fund raising circuit and issuing their own tokens instead. A handful of visionaries that dare to imagine a future free from centralised sources of power, money and data. 

There are also the "common" men and women working in larger corporations or in public services. The "incumbent" are laughed at all the time. 

I never feel at ease when people laugh about something or someone too much. 


Tell me something I don’t know

When it comes to complicated problems - the ones that don’t bend themselves to unequivocal answers - the first solution coming to our mind is often a poor one.

Another sign that we are on the wrong path is when a lot of other people, of similar tastes and inclinations, agree with us. We can go as far as extrapolating a rule: any widely shared view on a complicated matter is likely to be wrong. There is a simple explanation for this: none of us has time to think deeply about all possible topics. We are wired to take shortcuts and settle on a position that appears coherent with pre-defined world views. Coherent, simple, and wrong.

A bit of trickery can do magic when we fall prey to this form of “common talk”. For example, we can take up the opposite position in a debate and let our (dialectical) opponent do the work for us. If we are lucky, we might learn something we don’t know and walk away with renewed conviction.

More often, we will only hear back the same argument we set off to challenge. The advantage is that we have now made it “their” position. We have externalised it. We have gained perspective. This allows us to spot logical fallacies, incongruences and false assumptions.

It’s a painfully refreshing experience. Armed with a better understanding of our biases we can now embark in our quest for clarity.

Geeking out on society

When I was young I had my parents build me a laboratory in our garage. Every week I would go to an electronic repair store in my street and beg for some broken radio, tv or small home appliance I could take home and dismantle. So many times I asked if I could work in that store. It was my dream, but it was too dangerous. I was 9, and I was a geek.

At school I was good in math, I would get bored and got myself kicked out of classes quite often. In high school I aced physics and thought about studying astronomy once I would get to college.

I ended up studying Political Science, majoring in History of India and writing my final dissertation on the relationship between a small tribe inhabiting the north-western part of the country and the traditional rulers.

——

Willian Gibson said once that all cultural change is essentially technology driven. We shape our tools and our tools shape us. Over the last 30 odd years, generously the time I have been alive, we have built the tools of our information age. First the computer, then the web. And boy did they shape us.

During this time, being in technology has been the right choice. “On the right side of history”, as it is often said. It has been one of those epochs where finding yourself in the right place, and at the right time, could really make a difference. Even at smaller scale, you can roughly split the people you know by whether they are part of the new world or the old one.

The ability to manipulate technology is a superpower. A secret key to a white canvas begging to be painted. It hasn’t been about permission, or title, but about skills, courage and, more than we actually realise, naivety.

——

Technology has now penetrated every aspect of our life. Like water finding its way through the cracks of a stone wall, a few drops at first, soon a full stream. What we considered immutable is now all up in the air.

Talking about a tech world and a real world today make much less sense. But so is the opposite. Vekatesh Rao said it right a couple of days ago: “It doesn’t matter if you are not interested in politics. Politics is interested in you.”

Our white canvas is now society. Technology is the paint but not the painting. How we will work, how we will create and redistribute value, how we will organise ourselves. These are all open questions that beg to be answered in a new way.

Reforming society will be the new hacking.

——

I think a lot about my choices now that I work in technology. Would it have been better to follow my scientific inclination? When did I stop being a geek?

The truth is I never did. I remember when I decided to pursue a different path. Curiosity drew me to people, countries, decisions and errors more that it drew me towards machines and equations.

I wanted to find out why things looked broken in so many parts of our world. How did we get where we are? How do we go where we want to be?

Breaking an old TV apart was my way to find out how stuff worked. The attitude matters more than that topic.

Democracy rewound

Many people today believe that democracy is at risk. Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the UK “Brexit” vote (and its aftermath), the shadow of Marine Le Pen in France and the general rise of populist movements across Europe, are taken as signs that support for traditional liberal democratic values is declining. Other data points seem to suggest a similar trend.

An ultimate fight seems ready to be staged between so-called “New nationalists” and liberal “internationalist” elites:

“Let’s call it the New Nationalism: a bitter populist rejection of the status quo that global elites have imposed on the international system since the Cold War ended, and which lower-income voters have decided—understandably—is unfair.” Politico

I share these fears, but there is another scenario that receives much less attention and which is equally disturbing. What if the biggest threat for democracy didn’t come from the populists and nationlists but from the opposite side?

Last weak I wrote a short story to show how that might happen. It was a deliberate exercise in fiction, very aware that anything of that kind is highly improbable.

Improbable, not impossible.

The threatened minority

In its essence, my short foray into fiction shows how the global minority of internationalists could tip over to the temptation of using its power (economic and technological) to stop the rise of nationalists and their policies.

Dystopian fiction consists in taking certain visible signs of the present to their extreme consequences. Like solving a labyrinth backwards, it shows the path to a specific end. Except that here we are not trying to get there.

Polarisation and weakening of national ties

We have rarely been so politically polarised. When this happened in the past, it didn’t turn out well. Polarised societies can stick together when a strong underlying sense of unity survives [2]. That sense of “oneness” is weakening today under the impact of technology and international mobility which makes the internationalist class less attached to national values than in the past. People in London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona and Copenhagen feel closer to each other than to their fellow countrymen in the periphery.

The more we look at the political debates, and at the discussions on social media, the more the opposite poles seem far apart. We might still speak the same language and cheer for the same team when national football is on TV, but we understand each other less and less and we show worrying signs of contempt toward each others.

Feeling of impotence

Within the context of a polarised nation state, internationalist are almost everywhere a minority. They feel now hostage of an angry mob that can use its electoral weigh to push reactionary policies. Manifestations in London after Brexit and in NY after Trump could just be the beginning.

Two more factors add to the feeling of impotence. Many internationalists are not citizens of the countries where they live and work, and therefore don’t enjoy any political representation (the real disenfranchised). In addition, there is a widespread feeling that facts and objectivity have lost importance. The vaccination debate is emblematic in this sense, socialmedia-reinforced beliefs are so strong that even the most obvious facts seem impossible to push through. Civilised argumentation feels increasingly futile.

Watch the clip below for a similar example.

[2]

Economic influence

While in the national political arena internationalists are increasingly marginalised and frustrated, their economic dominance has never been greater.

Nationalists have always found an easy target for their propaganda in the “global financial class”. In the past however, this group had relatively little influence in the economy. Fascism in particular was able to gather the bulk of the economic forces behind its banner, with the promise of industry-friendly protectionist and anti-union policies.

Today, national economies are much more dependent on global trade and finance. Cities, and the internationalists that inhabit them, have a disproportionate economic power, despite their political status of minority.

Technology

Even more important is the role played by technology, and technologists, the vast majority of which are within the internationalist ranks.

This is the defining element of this clash. A potentially marginalised minority (at political level) controls the ultimate levers of our society, across culture, media, retail and even military.

The recent fake news debate and the call on Facebook and Google to impose a sort of censorship on them shows how explosive this situation could become. Only recently, people in technology have been waking up to a situation where their job is not only neutral to some of the most problematic developments in society, but it’s likely causing them (or at least accelerating them). We have seen the first defections, on a personal level, and more might happen.

Exit vs voice

A way to look at how the situation might evolve is through the lenses of “Exit” and “Voice” [3]. A few observers, among which Balaji Srinivasan, believe in “exit” as the likely choice for internationalists.

Strengthening individual freedoms, facilitating international mobility and, in general, allowing people to “vote with their feet” is always a good thing. But the possibility of exit as a realistic scenario is questionable. Physical exit (actually moving) remains a difficult choice for many (assuming there is even a country that wants you). Technology exit (individual freedom through technology) is an interesting idea, but in the present state of affairs a bad government can still ruin your life regardless of the fact that you have the internet. Too much of your life is still offline. [4]

The issue with exit, in addition, is that it often leads to an even worse situation for those that stay behind. It is a legitimate choice, but a selfish one.[5]

The alternative to exit is voice, and with the electoral way potentially barred for a long time (remember, this is a pessimistic scenario) violent voice is not to be excluded a priori. Especially when we consider that only 19 of millennials in the US believe it would be illegitimate for the military to take over if the government is incompetent.

Comparisons

It is interesting, at this point, to turn briefly to history and compare the present situation with similar ones in the past. Can we find examples of progressive minorities abandoning democracy to protect their status? And if not, why?

The ascent of neo-nationalism is often compared with the early years of facism in Italy and nazism in Germany. Also then it all started with an anti-establishment protest, targeting a minority of cosmopolitan and internationalist “elites”. That minority, though, simply didn’t have sufficient economic and cultural leverage. Economic power was firmly connected to the land (and the people) and it didn’t take much to align national interests with business interests.

More recently, and on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, populist movements in Venezuela and, partly, Bolivia have also failed to provoke a violent reaction from the democratic opposition (although a coup was attempted in Venezuela in 2002). While in this case economic power was clearly opposed to the ruling majority, the possibility of “exit “(mostly to the US) provided a real alternative to the use of “voice”.

Digging further, the only case where a democratically elected anti-elite movement was met with a violent un-democratic response is probably Chile in 1973. The difference here is that Allende never had the support of the majority of the population. On the other side, it is also difficult to argue that the social base behind Pinochet was democratic in the first place.

Anecdotes

This entire post (and the short story that inspired it) has been a rather theoretical exercise, exploring the possibility of a violent, undemocratic, reaction from the internationalist elite to the growing populist wave.

It is obvious that such a scenario is unlikely, as we have not even reached the point where a neo-nationalist victory can be ascertained. Even in its remote likelihood, it provides another good reason why we should do all we can to prevent slipping further down the black hole of a complete nationalist take over.

I’d like to conclude listing just a few tweets that kickstarted my fantasy and brought me to think of this. Nothing to worry about, it’s just a few isolated anecdotes…

[1]Post-war Italy is a good example where a country deeply split between communists and christian democrats managed to stick together. This was made possible by the presence of unifying elements: a fresh memory of the resistance to fascism which saw both groups fighting together (not without issues), a strong patriotic feeling, a full commitment within the party elites to the democratic constitution.

[2] My point is not to take position on the specific exchange in the clip. We could debate the misinformation of the 5 Trump voters but also the contempt that transpire from the anchor. Both reinforce my points above: these people have nothing in common and would gladly not have to live under the same roof/country. Yet they have to.

[3] Introduced by Alber Hirscham with his “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”. The basic concept is the following: when members of a group (e.g. a country) see their condition worsening, they have two options, “exit” (leaving, defecting) or “voice” (attempt to fix, oppose).

[4] In some cases the opposite is happening. People “exit” by leaving Facebook and/or Twitter.

[5] The typical examples is that of middle class parents withdrawing their children to public schools. This deprives that school of the constituency (middle class parents) which is often more vocal about the school’s problems and leave the remaining children in an even worse situation. Hirschman himself reached the point, obviously extreme, of regretting leaving Germany in the 1930’s.

2016

I remember 2016. Lots of famous people died that year. There was David Bowie, and then that other one, and Fidel Castro. Generations are a funny thing. People are born everyday and yet it seemed baby boomers were all dying at once.

They would have never believed how things were about to change. Democracy seemed such a stable feature of the western world. I guess that’s just what happens when you get used to things.

What do you say? Why didn’t we do anything about it? You really don’t have a clue, do you?

— -- 

I’ll have to go back to the nineties, before your were born. Progress seemed unstoppable. No more communism, no more nuclear risk, just trade, business and money. There were a few people who didn’t agree. Mostly old nostalgic leading a bunch of wannabe rebels with nothing better to do than trashing some windows in Seattle. Couldn’t they see that globalisation was for the poor?

Anyways, the combo dot-com 9/11 was the first big shake. The moment the rope we were all climbing with start cracking. We would only notice some years later.

The majority of us shrugged it off pretty fast. Times were good and loans were easy. Then 2008, another crash. This time the rope snapped, those behind were left back. No chance to catch up. No summit for them, not in this life.

What happened next is more complicated. I remember being in New York, how it all felt so great. I cursed myself for missing that train: “the best time to be alive”, someone said. It was a tale of two worlds. On one side unemployment, frustration, rage. On the other you couldn’t go to a fucking meetup without getting at lest three offers, two for jobs and one for an investment. “In case you start a company, you never know”. Euphoria and despair.

Then despair won. What do you expect when the majority of people feels neglected, derided, scared? What do you think they will vote? And yet again, we didn’t notice at first. Elections over we all turned back to our jobs, we had stuff to do, we were too busy to pay attention.

I guess London was the first spark. They had started deporting people, literally. Even if you were married to a local it didn’t matter. “No job, no stay” was their slogan, or some idiocy like that. The first big manifestation was huge. Londoners walking as one, protesting against a UK government they didn’t recognise. I swear to God somebody said there were even some Russians in the crowd, the fear of losing their townhouse stronger than allegiance to the political line back home.

It just didn’t matter. We were all upset, indignation was the big word, what a loser choice. Nothing mattered, not the headlines, not the strikes, not the protests from every single business unable to hire the talent they needed, or to retain the one they had. The economy kept spiralling down but they just didn’t care. They were accusing us of boycotting the national economy. Treason toward the fatherland. The economy security act won by a landslide at the referendum.

People in tech were the first to do something. Imagine going to work every day knowing that everything you do ends up against everything you believe in. Some started to quit already back in 2016. At first it was only a few, easily replaced. With fewer jobs around, finding an engineer that didn’t care wasn’t so difficult.

They called themselves “the resistance”. Weird things started happening. A few accounts disappeared. Puff, vanished, just like that. There were protests, people wanted to see some heads rolling. Nationalisation wasn’t a taboo word anymore. The big 5 went out publicly to confirm their pledge to neutrality. And yet the sabotages became more frequent.

The day the network went down will be remembered for long time. A new Bastille, some said. Except it was the opposite. Something did remind of France though, for a moment it seemed they would cut that boy’s head. The police came storming, two hundred were arrested, fifty went straight to death row. The toy was broken and there was nowhere to hide.

It is probably then that we started changing our mind. There was no hope in elections. They were just too many, just too angry. But we owned everything. We owned the banks, we owned the tech, the owned the culture. We owned the cities for Christ’s sake.

The army you say? Oh, come on.. They have always been where the power is. And what could they do anyway? Their drones, their intelligence, their satellites. It’s all software. We owned the whole goddam software and yet there we were, subjugated by our own government, a government we didn’t want, which didn’t understand us, which was trying to take it all away from us. Should we have let that happen?

If democracy was the price to pay, so be it.

It was a nasty business. Our great “liberation war”. I hate the name too. But a war nevertheless. You couldn’t believe the riots, the looting, the unimaginable violence. The curfew was established in December. Martial law on Boxing day. I don’t think the world had seen a bloodiest Christmas. Even during WWI they had stopped to play football. But we had no time for football. Revenge what was we had time for.

Why are looking at me like that. What do you want from me? What would you have done?

You should thank me. We did’t all for you.