Let's Think About the Future Again

Stanley Kubrick said the future has no cure for the past. That's true. The past has already happened and the future will just distribute benefit at the time of delivery. But how is the future made? On one hand, the future is made by default. The passing of time from today to tomorrow means that the future will arrive whether we like it or not. In another way, the future is being made today. We have to be intentional about how we construct the future. There are very few people, relatively, concerned with how that will actually happen. Here is why you should be more concerned.

The past few years have been tumultuous. That is probably true for any subset of years in the past. By contrast to our past, our recent years have been some of the most peaceful in history. This is due to the advancements in communication, logistics, transportation, and medicine. Because of these things, we can be more egalitarian in how we distribute opportunity. Scarcity is something that causes conflict and we have done a good job as a society solving that problem. These are intentional improvements, made to solve problems that came up as a result of conflicts from the past. Conflicts often force a clear and obvious target, with varied problems along the way.

As a result of COVID-19, society was presented a clear and obvious target. Pharmaceutical companies, governments, and researchers all banded together with the objective of creating vaccines for COVID-19. Many estimates of the speed at which a vaccine would be deployed were years off, because they only considered the existing solutions. Many successful vaccines solved the problem using mRNA, a less known solution. We now have a new problem of encouraging vaccinations, and distributing these vaccines to countries which are less fortunate. This is a visible problem that has attracted a lot of attention.

Distribution of the vaccines is a visible problem, one with a clear path to an acceptable solution. Developing the vaccine itself was an invisible problem. Invisible problems are those where the solution is unclear or there is no acceptable path available. Another example of an invisible problem is space travel. This type of problem often appears to have few redeeming qualities, and no easy path to success. Someone may be able to identify that space travel would allow us to launch satellites more easily, or travel to other planets as we lose resources on our current one. But there are other problems which space travel on a commercial basis will solve as well which we may not even be aware of currently. There are also many problems with commercial space travel that we haven't solved for yet. Many will target space travel as a waste of resources or time. Those who are against space travel are detractors of our collective future.

So how does one reorient themselves to think about the future? First of all, it is to identify the current implications of the problems they are solving. If you are in tech, (as I'm going to assume a large swath of my audience is) consider the problem you are solving. The best analogy I can think of is to consider what Steve Jobs said to John Sculley. Steve Jobs, who succeeded in convincing John Sculley to leave Pepsi, said "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" In tech, as in other industries, there are plenty of problems that are sugar water. They are easy problems that will deliver a stable paycheck. Changing the world, on the other hand, is hard. Often to change the world you encounter invisible problems. Only those attempting to tackle these problems will succeed.

To succeed at something you must first try, and to try you must get started. That is the first step. Beyond that, it is dependent on the problem. If you are solving for a problem that exists today with no clear answer, the path to success is to try things that haven't worked in the past. If the problem is one which doesn't exist today, the path is to understand both what tools you can have to solve that problem and what success of that problem looks like. If you manage to solve the problem, the following step would be to consider what your solution might mean. For instance, with COVID-19, vaccines mean that volume and distribution is important, so building a partnership with the parties that can facilitate that becomes important.

Thinking about the future is something that isn't easy to prioritize. We must be able to consider future problems only when our current ones aren't too strenuous. If visible problems are more important, then they must be solved first. If you have the capacity to think about the future, it becomes an important exercise. If we don't stop and think about our future, we might lose it.

Things Don't Change

When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it. - Jeff Bezos

Think about your morning routine a few weeks ago. It was likely very similar to your morning routine today. Think about your morning routine a year or two ago. Still possibly some similarities. Back beyond that, you start to notice it was completely different. What changed?

The reality of things is that they do not change, except twice violently. You are born, and you will die. Along the way, you have basic needs which need to be met and preferably some exercise for your mind. Depending on access to opportunity and when you are born, your means for these things differ. Born 1000 years ago? You statistically live in Kaifeng, and probably listened to music for fun. You probably enjoyed cod as a treat, but primarily ate a vegetable heavy diet. You didn’t live as long as you do today, but more of that is down to higher violence and poorer hygiene, including medicines. If you were sent, today, back 1000 years, you would probably suffer a similar fate. This is even considering you go back with, say, the possessions you have today, like an iPhone, which would only have the remaining charge to go on.

If our basic needs and preferences do not change, even after many years, what does change? The ability of people to access opportunity, to distribute goods and services, and the speed at which we change our environments. Investing in these areas, or enabling people in these areas, then becomes the goal of humanity. And if you invest in these areas, you can afford to put a lot of energy into them, because they won’t change.

Nuance on the Internet is Dead

Now what?

When land was surveyed as the United States expanded west, it was surveyed in squares. As a result, many early cities were set up in grid formations. This initial decision some 200 years ago is still influencing the way we build cities today. Decisions like these have long term effects and consequences, eventually becoming so ingrained in our society that they no longer feel like decisions. That's the secret of design: every single thing in existence was once a conscience decision. Often, when we think through how to build things, we take our own agency out of the question. We can choose to account for near term or long term problems. Much like the decision to survey in squares, to make the pixel a square, and to make Twitter 140 characters (at first), these decisions have knock-on effects.

I think the easiest target is to say, "well, if you limit how much people can say, that will limit how much nuance you can convey". That's not really true or fair. Ernest Hemingway, sometimes tagged with creating "For sale: baby shoes, never worn.", illustrates the opposite. An even better example is Luis Felipe Lomelí's "El emigrante", which simply goes "Did you forget something? - I wish." (Spanish: ¿Olvida usted algo? -¡Ojalá!) So if you can convey a lot with a little, what is the blocker? Well, first of all, not everyone is an excellent writer. This of course is surmountable. Algorithms could simply dredge up the best takes and serve them to end users. This of course is also *not* how it works. You see, algorithms aren't built to serve up the best content. Algorithms are build to serve up the *best spreading* content. As a result, you see what is easiest to see. If you like what you see, you will see more of it. The more that you see, the more the algorithm learns what to serve you. The second half of that is how apps optimize your usage of them. Say for example you get a notification every time you get a like on your tweet for some content. Say, statistically, this probably means the tweets you deliver with the least bit of nuance but a strong call-to-action are going to give you the most notifications. Let's also say these notifications feel good, because they are designed to feel good. What type of behavior does that encourage?

Now we've gotten a bunch of platforms which reward putting gas in the engine. Millions of calls-to-action, which reward people for sharing or liking them. "Share if you agree", followed by a statement that only a psychopath wouldn't agree with. We've created this world intentionally, because we have designed this to feel good. As a byproduct, we've also eliminated the room for nuance in this space. People can share several inaccurate calls-to-action before they can finish reading one thorough take on a subject. This means that people are incentivized to create content which is in the form of the former. We've designed nuance out of the system, because nuance doesn't sell. You can't send a mob mixed signals, but mixed signals are what make up life.

So where do we go from here? The entrenched nature of this design means that many people likely believe there is nothing we can do to change it. Some new social networks, like Dispo have attempted to change the status quo, to mixed results. It isn't easy. Part of the intentional design in Dispo is that it takes 1 day to 'develop' your content. That intentional pause is both a strong element to return users to the app, and also a way to disincentivize rapid, less nuanced content. Others, like Mirror offer cash incentives in the form of cryptocurrency for long-form content. These also enable voting rights as to who is allocated future supply. Both are attempting to rewrite the book on nuance, but neither is seeing the same adoption (so far) as more established names in the space. Adoption, or the ability of an app to spread, is both the first and the last worry any new entrant into the field. Designing for adoption probably means using some of the tricks of call-to-action content in the packaging of the products themselves. For most, this seems to be a beta sign-up list. I have my doubts about the long term ability of these lists to convert users as the gap between initial sign-up and release confuses users who forgot what they signed up for in the first place.

For now, it is a minimally publicized problem. Sure, there was some initial outrage at Facebook and other information fiduciaries in 2016 but that quickly dissipated. It is no doubt that these platforms will continue to contribute to large scale issues. The problem is that, at their current scale and due to competitors, we've collectively gone past the point of no return. Any attempts at regulation would minimize damage, but eventually return to mean behavior. Broader regulation might help, but it would also hamstring strong institutions built on the values that make the United States a great nation. It could also potentially be disastrous for the broader American public, who could no longer benefit from these platforms. So now we're at an impasse. On the one hand, the lack of nuance is a real issue that has and will continue to cause real damage. On the other, we've designed our systems in such a way that any change will be a long and painful process. You can’t unscramble an egg, but you can make something new with it.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future

A reflection

Kabakov, who provided the quote for the title of this post, is a conceptual artist. Kabakov makes art which feels like you are at the scene of an accident, but after it has happened. Something moved but it no longer does.

I am speculating here, but this feels like a metaphor for the decay of the Soviet Union which Kabakov escaped from. After a while those who are paying attention can probably tell something is off. This likely occurred in the USSR and is the reason why you hear of more migrants than those who stayed. As something deteriorates, it becomes parasitic on those who stay involved. A small group benefitted deeply; the oligarchs, but the rest rusted as the country crumbled under the pressures of designer clothing. Who is responsible? Is it wrong to search for a better life? Should you be beholden if you grant the curse of freedom on your people and they don't know what to do with it?

We are nearing the end of Passover. This is historically a holiday where Jews exiled themselves in search of a better life and didn't have enough time to fully bake bread. Whether you believe the rest of story, it's fair to say that there was probably an out-migration at one point in time. I'm not particularly religious, but I felt it right to celebrate this year. This year I made a personal migration. Thankfully I didn't face the same adversity detailed in the story, but searching for a better life is timeless. The stories are, I believe, mostly there as metaphors. Some of them are possibly hyperbole, but to be fair we did have a literal plague.

I'm buying a house

Who, Why, Where

Hey everyone. On Monday, March 29th I’m going to be closing on a house. It will be the largest individual purchase I’ve made in my life, doubley so considering my wife is roped into it. We did a lot of thinking about what values are important to us, and where we see ourselves for the next 10-ish years. We landed on Tampa.

If you’ve been reading my Twitter, you’ll know that we’ve lived here for the last year or so. We saw the trend of cases spreading increased in cold climates, as well as the remote work trend broadly. I’ve never been one to completely agree with how Florida handled the pandemic, but I’m broadly an advocate for high quality of life at lower cost with year-round warm weather. There’s a good write up here: The Curious Case of Florida’s Pandemic Response

Miami is a wonderful place. It was the only place for us in competition with Tampa. Miami’s benefits are also its detriments. The city is too reminiscent of New York, with the hustle and bustle beneficial for commerse but detrimental for the general fatigue COVID has caused. Miami is also a transcient city - single people come there to have fun, hook up, and then go back home.

A secondary city was much more appealing. People who come to Tampa typically stay in Tampa. The city has a number of vibrant places to visit and things to do, and a strong jobs market, presumably made stronger by tech remotee’s such as myself. It has the only award winning water treatment plant in Florida. Great air quality. Strong patronage and investment from Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates. The sports teams all win.

The house itself is in a suburb to the east of Tampa. It is in close proximity to the city, Orlando, and high enough of an elevation to not be impacted by rising water levels. Buying a house is a very long winded process that I’ll write about some other time. I’ll share photos soon, but needless to say we’re excited.

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