What do I want the future to be like? What amazing inventions do I want to see, and help build in my lifetime? I realized this morning that I don’t know. I was shocked.
I’ve been tinkering with technology since I was a child, and I’ve been investing in early-stage companies for the past five years. More than sixty bets on the future. I’m meant to have bold visions of a better world, theses I support, and capital that I allocate in a technologically optimistic way. I began investing in startups because I wanted to help shape the future. And while I still get excited talking to founders with bold ideas, I have none of my own.
When I was a teen, growing up on a diet of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Alvin Toffler’s Futurism, I had plenty of big ideas: spaceflight, supersonic travel, mag-lev trains, geodesic domes, bio-nanotech for longevity, and social organization to provide maximum freedom for all. Cheesy, but optimistic.
Now I am 29 and I have no big, optimistic ideas. I think of plenty of arbitrages and improvements in efficiency. And while I believe that better infrastructure enables more construction and innovation, closing an obscure pricing gap just isn’t like dreams of great adventure and exploration on the frontier of human experience and possibility.
I spend much time thinking about solutions to existing problems – the incentive mismatch in mass media that is causing accelerating polarization, how to remedy the effects of climate change, and so on. But these are all fixes, reactions. It feels like I’m in the belly of the ship, frenetically plugging leaky holes, never even having the space of mind to think where the ship should go. Ostensibly, those decisions are made on the bridge of the ship, which, in October 2020, seems to be populated by well-intentioned individuals, but hamstrung in their ability to make good collective decisions.
Recent years have shown me how difficult it is to make any meaningful public decision. Every debate is endlessly contentious, every subject has meaningful nuance, and every decision has exceedingly hard-to-predict second-order-effects. The world is much more complex than it was even twenty years ago, and the effects are paralyzing. This is clearly felt among policymakers, but I feel it even as a technologist: I understand that virtually all tools can be used – and more often than not, will be used – for both good and evil, and how hard the results are to predict over years in our dynamic world. I learned that technology can rarely solve fundamental social problems, and I’ve seen the public perception rollercoaster of “this technology/person/policy is good” to “this is evil” more times than I can count.
This puts me in a real bind for having high-conviction views that aren’t microscopically focused. As an example, for the past few years I have struggled developing a long-term view on bitcoin. By network effect, I think it is clear that in the long term, we will have either fiat or crypto – either fully centralized or fully decentralized – not both. Which world do I want to live in? I’m not sure. On the one hand, it is clear that our existing US financial system is fragile with systemic risk, a playball exposed to potentially irresponsible governance. You might call its mechanics unfair to the masses, but you’d also need to point out that it has actually worked in creating prosperity over the past 110 years. (And, comparing the US to other countries, it has worked remarkably well!) I agree with need for overhaul of the system, but I’m not sure if it’s wise throw out the entire thing and open up the world’s largest power vacuum in the process. This rarely ends well. I cannot tell, with intellectual honesty, which avenue is best to pursue. I doubt that anyone does.
Other arenas of big problems and changes yield similar dilemmas. Perhaps consequently, I have found myself not dreaming big anymore. I dream small, where the effects are predictable. On dreaming big, there is the paralysis of responsibility and effects, but there is also a level of cynicism that has come to me over the years, as big dreams turn out to be much more fraught and complicated as they move into reality. The nuance, complexity, difficulty, responsibility, and often irreversibility in effecting big changes has slowly removed the stars from my eyes as I look at technology. Maybe that’s a good thing as I come to appreciate the gravity of change.
But at the same time, if we don’t take big, bold, bets, we’ll be forever stuck in the valleys of local optima. As Bezos says, the size of your risk-taking should increase with the size of your enterprise – at scale, we should be taking many daring gambles, all the time. But it doesn’t feel like that’s really happening. It feels like we spend lots of effort debating marginal nuance, sitting in the belly of the ship doing maintenance, rather than charting the course forward.
It is difficult to be an optimist in 2020. I admire the few1 that still have the courage to dream big and to remind ourselves that there is a future that could be amazing and that is worth fighting for.