TikTok Boom

Last year I downloaded TikTok for the first time. Over the course of one week, I spent more time on the app and my phone than I ever had before. It was wildly addictive. So much so that after that week I deleted the app and never looked back. I’m trying to spend less time using services that try to suck up and monetize all my attention (although Twitter is my vice).

I forget where but someone recommended TikTok Boom. The book was just okay, but interesting if you want to learn more about TikTok, which I did. I had several takeaways. First and foremost, the work ethic at Chinese tech startups is second to none. They are and will continue to wipe the floor with US companies. 9-9-6 is commonplace (that’s 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). That simply no longer flies with larger companies in the US. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, it comes with its set of very obvious downsides, but it’s definitely a competitive advantage.

The most fascinating thing to me though is that TikTok is the first global AI media company, and it doesn’t produce any of its own original content. It’s not really a social network. Sure you can follow people and like videos, but it’s primary utility is to entertain you with videos its algorithms think you will like. TikTok is arguably the best in the world at understanding what hooks its users and using AI to curate and individualize your feed. It’s a substitute for Netflix, television, video gaming, etc. Reed Hastings once said anywhere else you spend your attention is a Netflix competitor. TikTok has seemingly cornered the market on Gen Z and millennial attention, and they’ve done it brilliantly.

It’s not all bleeding edge AI and technology. They use hyper-aggressive blitzscaling techniques to enter and takeover markets, spending millions of dollars on marketing and creator grants to seed new geographies with content. They’ll woo influencers from Instagram and YouTube to the platform and double and triple down on the strategy. Those expenses are essentially their “programming” expenses. And then it’s rinse and repeat. Spend the money to get the content. Acquire users/viewers. Use AI to curate the feed. Sell advertising as the service scales. Rinse and repeat.

I really didn’t understand TikTok until I viewed it through that lens. It’s a global media company that uses AI to capture your attention so you continue watching the content created by everyone else but TikTok. The world has never seen anything like it before and it’s a wakeup call to the West that the future of media and software can easily come from elsewhere. It already is.

Software is Boring

When I talk about crypto with some of the smartest people I know, the most common critique I hear is that blockchain is a solution in search of a problem. It has taken me years to come around to this, but I couldn’t disagree more. Blockchain computers are not a solution in search of a problem, they are a brand new foundation that enables builders to create new business models, protocols, and applications that could have never existed on the internet before. They aren’t solving a problem, they are unlocking a new era of creativity and innovation.

I am so disenchanted with the state of software. We peaked and now almost all of the innovation is on the margin in areas that are either boring or don’t pass my “who gives a shit?” test. There are still remarkably good businesses to be built, the TAMs continue to grow as the secular trends strengthen in favor of software eats the world, but my head will explode if I hear about another CRM for blah blah industry or some smart person helping Fortune 1000 retail companies text message potential customers better.

Blockchain computers have sparked a new wave of awesomeness on the internet. Things are really fucking weird, and I love it. Between DeFi, NFTs, and web3 business models, I haven’t seen so many new cool things emerge on the internet over such a short period of time in my entire career. And none of these things would have existed were it not for blockchain. The other thing that’s so exciting is that these new protocols and applications are growing insanely quickly. Sure, there are a lot of ponzi and pyramid schemes, speculative garbage, opportunistic players, and a high likelihood a lot of tokens / projects go to zero. But there is way more good than bad, and so much open space to yet be discovered.

While it may seem like crypto is super mature and if you’re just going down the rabbit hole now you’re late to the party, this couldn’t be more wrong. We are so early. The creativity is boundless. There will be more breakthroughs similar to DeFi, NFTs, and gaming. Not everything will work and cross the chasm, but a lot of important things will. The only limitation is our collective imaginations and holy shit that is exciting.

So now when people tell me all of this is a solution in search of a problem, I say the problem for me has been discovered: software was really boring and we found a way to unlock an entirely new frontier on the internet to make things fun and interesting again.

Fusion vs. Fission

I’ve been on a journey to learn more about the problems we face due to the climate crisis and how technology (and by extension hopefully me in some small part one day) can help avoid what usually feels like impending doom. One of the things I’ve been doing is reading a climate related book every other month or so. So I recently picked up The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet.

It’s rather dense and good for people truly interested in the details of nuclear fusion. If you’re looking for something high-level, I’d start somewhere else. That said, nuclear fusion is exciting. We’re literally trying to reproduce the chemical reactions and physics that take places inside the stars on Planet Earth. In machines, usually tokamaks, that can magnetically contain plasma to the point it reaches one hundred million degrees (hotter than our sun).

People are enchanted by this concept because: 1) theoretical physics says it can be accomplished, 2) the problem is largely an engineering one now, 3) harnessing energy from nuclear fusion paints a path to energy independence, and 4) we can produce clean energy pretty much forever, or at least for billions of years, once we figure this out. So we’re obligated to pursue it. As Stephen Hawking said, “It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy without pollution or global warming.”

Sadly, we’ve always been several decades away from achieving net energy gain (ability to generate more energy than is put it to initiate fusion). The challenges are quite extreme in every sense of the word. As one Nobel laureate in physics puts it, “We say that we will put the Sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.” And then after the box is made, we need to confine plasma which is “…like trying to confine jelly with rubber bands.” And then you need to figure out how to harness and distribute the energy to the grid. Not easy challenges. Oh and every step of the process is subject to Murphy’s Law.

That said, it will happen. Largely because humans are resilient and tenacious and a critical mass of insanely brilliant people are focused on the problem. And capitalists are plowing billions into the space because it’s the right thing to do (and the returns will be astounding when it works).

My general takeaway is nuclear fusion is incredibly compelling and humanity needs to pursue it until it’s no longer decades away. But while people are plugging away at it, we need to invest deeply in nuclear fission. It works, we already have it, it’s scalable, and we just need to do it. Yes there are risks, but the benefits far outweigh them. And there are currently companies that are working on mitigating the nuclear waste problem that occurs from fission and making the process even safer than it already is. So while I’m terrifically excited about fusion, the book made me very perplexed and to a degree angry that we aren’t more aggressively rapidly expanding our ability to generate clean energy via fission.

The Exponential Age

I recently read Azeem Azhar‘s The Exponential Age. I’ve been a fan of his newsletter and podcast for a while. I find his ability to cover a breadth of topics with substantive depth quite impressive, and I really enjoyed his book. If you’re interested in how our societies and political economy will change due to rapidly accelerating technologies, I recommend giving it a read. It’s well sourced, packed with supporting examples to his arguments, and provides solid historical context for how and why modern society faces an existential problem: that the digital infrastructure controlled by a handful of private firms that we’ve come to rely on in our daily lives will likely be devastatingly bad for us. I believe this to be true, and that this is actually a crisis that if left unchecked will render our futures as the stuff only imagined in dystopian science fiction.

Azeem builds the case for this over the course of the book. He begins by pointing out that we are experiencing exponentiality in four key domains:

  1. Computing
  2. Energy
  3. Biology
  4. Manufacturing

General purpose technologies (e.g. the internet, PCs, mobile, cheap power, bioengineering, 3D printing) are leading to accelerating change across these domains, and other innovations within these domains are beginning to interact and producing compounding S-Curves that we can’t even begin to comprehend yet. If you follow Cathie Wood, she talks about a similar unprecedented exponentiality. In this Bankless interview she discusses how S-Curves across five platforms are beginning to feed one another and create explosive unprecedented growth. Those platforms are blockchain, AI (both of which could be classified as Azeem’s “computing”), genome sequencing (biology), robotics (manufacturing), and energy storage (energy). Only once before have we had multiple platforms evolve at the same time in the early 1900s: the telephone, automobile, and electricity. What comes next will be prolifically exciting, but it also comes with its set of societal challenges, and this is where Azeem focuses much of his attention.

Over history, exponential growth has shown that exponential gaps exist between institutions’ ability to change and the accelerating speed at which technology evolves. As members of society, we continuously underestimate exponential change because we evolved from a linear world. Adapting to this change is exceedingly difficult because society moves slowly. We only move fast when we face cataclysmic events like war, or COVID. Then we’re able to experience moments of extreme adaptation and evolution, like punctuated equilibrium. But wartime mobilizations are usually reactions to problems that are visibly staring us in the face in real-time, not ones that slowly creep in and build over a multi-year or decade period.

These exponential gaps create suitable conditions in which monopolies are much more likely to emerge and flourish, particularly in technology where things are increasingly winner takes all versus the analog world (e.g. Facebook & Uber versus Coca-Cola and taxis). Azeem makes the argument that the more digitized a space is, the bigger it becomes, and it’s unclear the full impact of how these modern technology monopolies will have on the economy or society. To mitigate the deleterious impact monopolies have in general, Azeem recommends the government should 1) ban M&A amongst tech incumbents, 2) demand interoperability (e.g. ability port my data from Facebook to Twitter), and 3) treat these companies like utilities to curb their monopolistic tendencies. Given the current state of government, this likely isn’t going to happen.

While some of these monopolistic technologies can create amazing experiences for consumers (e.g. food can be delivered to your doorstep in less than 15 minutes), they also create massive socioeconomic gaps and gaps in the quality of jobs and that always ends…poorly. Massive power imbalances emerge, blame is shifted around the room, and shit generally unravels.

In many obvious ways, and in ways undetectable in our day to day lives, power is shifting out of the hands of citizens and into those of a small number of technology executives. Technology is radicalizing and dividing us, influencing the erosion of democratic processes. Just look at our current political climate and the recent Facebook news. More than our governments and democratic processes, technology companies are determining the rules by which society operates. Their code is becoming law.

To solve this problem Azeem believes four things need to happen:

  1. We need transparency. Systems must be easier to scrutinize. We should be able to observe how decisions are made by technology elites and the effects they have on us (the Facebook papers are a prime example of why this should be out in the open). We also need external parties to have oversight of the outcomes of the process like the operation of algorithms that shape what we do and do not see on digital platforms. Many other industries have similar oversight like aviation and the financial sector.
  2. We must demand interoperability. We should have the power to carry data from one platform to another, and participate in the digital social space even if we don’t like a platform. Azeem suggests that interoperability be mandated once a platform gets to 10-15% market share.
  3. Our data should be our property, not that of corporations. We deserve oversight and authority over it, and should be compensated for it.
  4. We need commonality, a way of organizing and managing resources for the benefit of the people who use them. The “commons” is an alternative to the binary view of privatization/”the market” versus the State. People, when sharing resources, make good decisions (e.g. grazing lands, data pools like the UK Biobank). Commons approaches can be used to share and produce assets. Open-source software that powers the web is an example of commons. Nobody owns projects like Brave and Linux OS, and nobody can prevent anyone from spinning up alternative projects. Wikipedia is another example. These things bring enormous social benefits.

Azeem proclaims that if power continues to concentrate in a handful of technology companies that control our lives, “we will cease to be fully fledged citizens. We will be mere consumers…At heart, all four approaches are about limiting unchecked power…put citizens, acting in their collective interest, in control.”

This is scary stuff. If you read the book, Azeem provides enough examples for most to believe these ideas to be credible. I certainly do. When the problems facing our political economy and society become so apparent and daunting, and when our government can barely function because of radical divisiveness and general batshit insanity, our ability to tackle the problem at hand feels rather grim.

The one thing I couldn’t help but think about when reading Azeem’s proposed recommendations was just how beautifully crypto networks emerge as a potential solution to the problems that emerge. If you want a little background as to why, I love this thread by @punk6529. While it starts off talking about NFTs, it’s really about how modern society runs on databases controlled by Trusted Third Parties (e.g. the types of technology monopolies Azeem alludes to), and how that can create a lot of problems in our future.

Crypto networks (or web3) are powerful antidotes to a lot of this mess. Their characteristics thread the needle on almost all of Azeem’s four solutions. We can take a look at them one by one:

  1. Transparency: crypto networks are open source. They’re forever transparent by design. If code is becoming law then that code damn well better be open source.
  2. Interoperability: composability is one of the core tenets of crypto networks. I can mix and mash protocols however I want. I can fork code and copy an application on a dime.
  3. Control over our data: so many elements of web3 enable us to seize control over our own data, from our wallets to pseudonymity and cryptography. What’s ours is ours.
  4. The commons: DAOs, DAOs, DAOs!

This is one of the things that gets me so excited about web3. It’s new, it’s neat, but most of all there’s a utopian element to it. It’s very design combats the societal issues that we face and are exponentially growing due to current tech incumbents. So I’m rooting for crypto networks. At the very least, it’s a bridge between a heady writer like Azeem and a pseudonymous cryptopunk on Twitter.

The Two Hour Workday

This weekend I read an article about Gen Z in the workplace with a funny title: The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them. There was a choice quote that stood out to me:

Mr. Kennedy [a millennial] interviewed a Gen Z candidate for a full-time position who asked if she could stop working for the day once she’d accomplished the tasks she’d set out to do. He responded that her role was expected to be a nine-to-five.

CEOs and managers are going to have to radically change the way they think about employment in order to adapt to today’s world and succeed. In my mind, when an employee has finished the work they need to accomplish for the day, they should do whatever they want. They can go to the spa. Take the kids fishing. Work on their side-project. Even work another job. Several years ago I’d have balked at what I just wrote, but why the hell not?

One of the things I’ve come to understand over time is you need to be crystal clear about the expectations you have for employees. Like write-them-down-and-share-them-and-review-them-every-month-type-clear. It makes life super easy when it comes to performance management and to objectively tell when someone is living up to your expectations and doing their job well, or falling short. Writing them down and regularly reviewing them is also a great way to stay on the same page and course-correct if needed.

So when someone is living up to expectations and doing the work they need to do on a day-to-day basis, it really shouldn’t matter if they put in two hours a day or fifteen hours a day. In a world where things are becoming increasingly remote and virtual, outcomes matter most (they always did, but this is increasingly amplified). Meeting expectations matters. The raw number of minutes hunched over a keyboard doesn’t mean shit.

Now that doesn’t mean a two-hour day is for everyone. But for someone who wants to get the job done and then do other stuff, this option will become commonplace. Because why not? It makes sense. Other people will want to drastically exceed expectations and give their all to a thing and work tirelessly. It doesn’t necessarily make them better, it’s just different. You need both types of people when building a company. I’ve talked to several founders and technology execs recently that are internalizing this. It’s impacting the way people think about hiring and constructing teams and they’re rethinking roles especially for IC positions where it’s totally cool for someone to get the work done and that’s that. For people who want to do this, employers are going to have to quickly adapt because the most talented people who want variety and particularly prefer the IC route are going to likely pursue this option.

The world changed fast in the past two years, and this is a welcome evolution that will free a lot of people from the silly construct of a 9 to 5. So if you’re hiring for a role where you know exactly what you need and a candidate asks if they can leave after they’ve done the job, I hope you happily answer Yes.