A Few Things: Lessons on Deep Work, Galloway on Next Gens, Geopolitics, Society of Spectacle, Coatue and Sequoia on What to Watch in AI, Charts That Stood Out.....
November 7, 2022
I am sharing this weekly email with you because I count you in the group of people I learn from and enjoy being around.
You can check out last week’s edition here: What Creates Investment Opportunities, Why Do We Believe Conspiracies, Commodities In An Age of Scarcity, What's Happening In AI, Science of Aging, Matt Levine on Crypto, VC Metrics....
“Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.”
- Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem
“The secret to success is to do common things uncommonly well.”
- John D. Rockefeller
“And those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music.”
- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
“All the people like us are we, and all the rest are They.”
- Rudyard Kipling
“History never repeats itself. Man always does.”
A. A Few Things Worth Checking Out
1. Lessons from the Deep History of Work or What Hunter-Gatherers Can Teach Us About the Frustrations of Modern Work by Cal Newport.
I am big fan of Cal Newport, and he’s been instrumental in how I work:
a. Disconnection on between our goals and our day-to-day goals:
If we now jump forward to our current moment, and consider the daily lot of our protesting Apple employees, we discover a rhythm of activity far different from our immediate-return past. In modern office life, our efforts rarely generate an immediate reward. When we answer an e-mail or attend a meeting, we’re typically advancing, in fits and starts, long-term projects that may be weeks or months away from completion. The modern knowledge worker also tends to juggle many different objectives at the same time, moving rapidly back and forth between them throughout the day.
A mind adapted over hundreds of thousands of years for the pursuit of singular goals, tackled one at a time, often with clear feedback about each activity’s success or failure, might struggle when faced instead with an in-box overflowing with messages connected to dozens of unrelated projects. We spent most of our history in the immediate-return economy of the hunter-gatherer. We shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves exhausted by the ambiguously rewarded hyper-parallelism that defines so much of contemporary knowledge work.
b. Lack of leisure time to kick back, and always-on culture:
Once again, when we compare the work experience of hunter-gathers with that of our contemporary Apple employees we find a wedge of insight. Modern knowledge workers adopt the factory model, in which you work for set hours each day at a continually high level of intensity, without significant breaks. The Agta forager, by contrast, would think nothing of stopping for a long midday nap if the sun were hot and the game proved hard to track. When was the last time an Apple employee found herself with two or three unscheduled hours on her calendar during the afternoon to just kick back? To make matters worse for our current moment, laptops and smartphones have pushed work beyond these long days to also colonize the evenings and weekends once dedicated to rest. In the hunter-gatherer context, work intensity fluctuated based on the circumstances of the moment. Today, we’ve replaced this rhythm with a more exhausting culture of always being on.
c. Limited time spent learning and becoming more skilled:
Returning to the context of our protesting Apple employees, we find our instinct for skilled effort once again impeded by modern obstacles. To be sure, knowledge work does often require high levels of education and skill, but in recent years we’ve increasingly drowned the application of such talents in a deluge of distraction. We can blame this, in part, on the rise of low-friction digital communication tools like e-mail and chat. Office collaboration now takes place largely through a frenzy of back-and-forth, ad-hoc messaging, punctuated by meetings. The satisfactions of skilled labor are unavoidably diluted when you can only dedicate partial attention to your efforts. Our ancestors were adapted to do hard things well. The modern office, by contrast, encourages a fragmented mediocrity.
a. Work on one major objective at a time:
If we want to make office life more sustainable and humane, addressing these mismatches between our nature and our current reality is a good place to start. Consider overload. As argued, our brains struggle when asked to rapidly switch between many different ongoing projects. Knowledge work can be adjusted to better avoid this issue. I’ve previously advocated, for example, for more reliance on pull systems for task assignment in office environments. In such a scheme, you work on only one major objective at a time. When you reach a clear stopping point, you then—and only then—pull in the next thing to tackle from a centrally managed collection. This supports singular focus and the sequential completion of objectives, a rhythm that may be more familiar to our ancient brains.
b. Switch off occasionally and create a results only environment:
Another mismatch is the unnatural way in which modern knowledge workers toil at a continually high level of intensity. As noted, throughout our species’ history as hunter-gatherers the pace of our labors was likely more varied. Correcting this issue would require us to address the deeper issue of performativity in office environments. Work that takes place on computer screens tends to be vaguer and more ambiguous than physical efforts. Without the ability to point to a pile of completed widgets to demonstrate our productivity, we’re often forced to fall back on visible busyness as a proxy for worthy labor—leading to our unnatural constant intensity. Remote work might provide some relief here, as it removes you from the physical gaze of your manager, but escaping the office doesn’t eliminate the digital variant of this surveillance that refracts through modern communication tools. Your manager might not literally see whether you’re working, but she can see how quickly you’re responding to her e-mail messages.
There are practical solutions to these issues, too. Last summer, for example, I wrote a column about a philosophy called the Results-Only Work Environment, or rowe, for short. Innovated by a pair of human-resource employees at the Best Buy corporate headquarters in the early two-thousands, rowe provides you full autonomy over when and how you accomplish your work. In this scheme, you’re measured only by your results, not your visible activity. rowe is exactly the type of management philosophy that would enable more natural and autonomous variations in the intensity of your work over time.
c. Schedule time for “communication” and other times for “deep work”.
One simple but surprisingly effective improvement is to declare that e-mail and chat tools are only for broadcasting information or asking questions that can be answered with a single reply. Any interaction that instead requires multiple back-and-forth exchanges must be deferred to an actual, real-time conversation. Moving every such conversation to its own pre-scheduled meeting, of course, would be absurd: you would soon find your calendar overwhelmed by these discussions. But you might instead institute “office hours.” At a fixed time, every day, you make yourself available for unscheduled conversation—your door is open, your phone turned on, and you’ve logged into a public Zoom meeting. Now when someone sends you a message about a complicated issue, you can politely respond, “This sounds important, grab me at one of my upcoming office hours and we can get into it.” When you eliminate the need to service many different ongoing, back-and-forth interactions, the number of times you feel obligated to check your in-box plummets, improving your ability to find long, uninterrupted stretches to focus on hard things.
2. Why is this Generation Struggling So Much?
"To conflate toxicity and masculinity is bad for society."
This was a fascinating conversation between Chris Williamson and Scott Galloway, the most interesting part of which centred on the struggles of young men in our society. Galloway shared some staggering statistics:
Young women are graduating college at twice the rate of young men.
70% of high school valedictorians are girls.
Young men are three times more likely to overdose and four times more likely to commit suicide.
One in three men under the age of 30 has not had sex in the last year—up from one in ten in 2008.
This was the first conversation where somebody makes an honest argument that young men need help. And he's careful to caveat his argument by saying that this isn't to the detriment of women. But when this many young men are suffering, society is inevitably going to suffer. Sounds like we're going to have a staggering price to pay if we don't course correct.
3. America is gaining more economic power over Europe, according to Minerva Intelligence, from their Sunday Briefing (emphasis mine):
This week the US trade representative Katherine Tai travelled to a meeting of EU ministers in Prague to try and patch up the widening cracks between America and Europe. Both sides want to maintain a united front, but the underlying realities are making that difficult on lots of fronts:
The US Inflation Reduction Act is in part a huge protectionist subsidy for American car-makers. It has achieved the rare feat of uniting the French, the Germans, the free-market Swedes and everyone else in opposition.
America’s new restrictions on selling chips or chip equipment to China will hurt European companies, especially Dutch or German firms, which will presumably not wish to undermine US sanctions.
As Europe comes off Russian gas, it is becoming increasingly dependent on American LNG. Europeans are up in arms about what they see – unfairly, in our view – as US price-gouging that is destroying their economies.
Poland has chosen American firm Westinghouse to build nuclear plants rather than France’s EDF. The choice was driven by desire for close security ties with the US.
It doesn’t help that the Fed’s rate hikes are crushing European currencies and pushing up European inflation.
These disputes all arise from different problems, they don’t add up to a strategic change on America’s part. And none are targeted against Europe. The IRA is targeted at climate; the chips ban at China; the energy relationship and rising interest rates are just consequences of the US possessing both gas reserves and the world’s dominant currency.
But underpinning both the IRA and the chips ban is America’s gradual turn away from globalisation and towards overt mercantilism. It is using its economic power to try and secure future technologies for itself, and to deny them to China. Europe is collateral damage.
European responses are predictable. France and Germany are talking about matching IRA protectionism with a “Buy European” act. As Macron puts it: “The Americans are buying American and pursuing a very aggressive strategy of state aid. The Chinese are closing their market. We cannot be the only area, the most virtuous in terms of climate, which considers that there is no European preference.”
This makes sense given the world is heading in a mercantilist direction. But the familiar European problems of slowness and need for compromise mean that any moves will be too small and too late to halt the trend: namely, ever greater American economic power over Europe.
4. In geopolitics the most useful exercise I find is to read actual transcripts of what key global leaders are saying. You can read all the analysis in the world, but the most useful exercise is reading the actual words directly.
Last week’s speech by Putin to the Valdai Discussion Club is as clear as it gets. My read is that the Ukraine War is not about Ukraine, it is far larger than that. Putin is aiming to reshape the world order away from a US dominated unipolar world to one which is multipolar. Clearly this benefits Russia as a less powerful global player but it is also something which many countries around the world will find appealing.
Certainly, China and India but many other developing nations will too. And when Putin makes a speech like this he is talking not to the Americans and the Europeans but to the other nations of the world.
He is saying join me in my battle to create a “fairer” world. While I am not a fan of invading another sovereign nation and all the atrocities that have resulted, it is worth remembering the age-old quote (Palmerston, Kissinger, de Gaulle): ‘countries have neither friends nor enemies, only interests”.
For many countries, the judgement call is not about human rights, but about strategic interests.
5. The Changing World Order is Approaching Stage 6 (The War Stage) by Ray Dalio.
6. My friends at Project Brazen (the folks behind Billion Dollar Whale and BLood & Oil) have launched a new podcast with the journalist Kim Ghattas (award winning journalist and best selling author of Black Wave) titled People Like Us.
Their goal is to connect you to today’s Middle East and the world, how it works and why it matters to you.
7. My back is starting to hurt when I sit too long, so I am doing some of these:
B. Society Of The Spectacle:
A friend (Jakub) recommended reading Guy Debord’s book “Society of the Spectacle”. Debord was a French Marxist philosopher and this book was written in the late 1960’s. It’s one of those seminal books that is short, dense and has lots to say about our present day.
Here are the main ideas from Debord:
1. He saw society moving towards a place where images and appearances became more critical than real experiences. It’s not what you do or are, but what you appear to be. A society more focused on Buffet’s external scorecard versus internal scorecard.
2. In this world, things we consume or have get commoditised. We don't see a table as chopped, processed wood, instead it might just be an IKEA table. A hand bag isn't skin from an animal, it’s a magnificent piece of art by Gucci. We have added a layer of abstraction and then endowed that layer with social significance.
3. Because of this layer of abstraction between us and objects we consume, as a society we don't know or see reality anymore. We even endow people with qualities; We elect politicians that look and sound the part rather than trying to understand what their policies are. Policies and skills matter much less than sound bites and images.
4. This leads to a society that is no longer about: “fake it till you make it”, because it's just fake it.
5. And since we aren’t touch with reality, but memes and narratives, we feel the world out of control since we have to keep up with the memes and narratives we only know reality through those stories.
This list of the key trends of 2021 is an example. Who even remembers these narratives today, but in 2021 this is all that mattered.
Being a Marxist he laid the blame for all this on the capitalist system wanting you to focus on acquiring “commodities”.
To quote Debord:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.
And on social narratives:
The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
Although The Society of the Spectacle is recognised as an indictment of the consumerist experience; what else would you expect from a Marxist, but Debord would argue that capitalism having already served our most basic survival needs (the means to food, shelter, etc.) relies on fabricating new desires and distractions in order to propagate itself and maintain its oppression over the working classes.
In 1994, six years after he described the spectacle as “the most important event to have occurred this century,” Debord killed himself at his home in the remote French village of Champot.
His interrogation of capitalism and visual culture preempted the work of theorists such as Jean Braudrillard, who’s book Simulacra and Simulation we discussed in September.
To conclude, Debord would want to you to ask yourself these questions:
What compels us to buy the latest iPhone? Why do we share our feelings out on Facebook, in posts that are archived on servers deep underground? Which is more important, the expression of the feeling itself, or the knowledge that it will be documented and seen by others?
Are we afraid of being a nobody - of being on “the margin of existence?” If you’re concerned with how you appear, then are you really living?
C. The Tech and Crypto Section:
1. We discussed AI last week, and a friend shared Coatue’s AI 2022: The Explosion. It’s a great read.
Here are their 2030 AI predictions:
AI will drive the cost of content creation (word, image, video) to near zero
The value of sports increases exponentially as the only form of “original content”
Advertising will be hyper-personalized: unique ads and commercials for every user!
Metaverse will become AI augmented reality
Every developer will be an AI developer
The majority of code written will be AI-generated
Btw, the API for OpenAI's DALL-E 2 is now available in public beta, allowing software developers to start building apps on top of the image-creating tool.
The launch of the API opens the door for developers and businesses to integrate the text-to-image capability into their products, websites, and apps.
2. The Generalist had a post titled What to Watch in AI.
Copilot for everything. AI is already streamlining illustration, writing, and coding. It may soon become an assistant for all knowledge workers. In the future, we may have versions of GitHub’s “Copilot” feature for lawyers, financial analysts, architects, and beyond.
Tracking value accrual. As AI startups often rely on publicly available models like GPT-3 or Codex, some question their defensibility. The fundamental question centers around value accrual. Will applications that leverage GPT-3 successfully capture value? Or will it accrue to the infrastructural layer?
Beyond words and images. GPT-3 and DALLE-2 have attracted deserved attention for their ability to automate text and image creation. The most impactful uses of AI may come from the life sciences, though. AI can be used to design better pharmaceuticals or run more efficient clinical trials.
Improving interfaces. Interactions with AI typically take the form of a basic text box in which a user enters a “prompt.” While simple to use, greater control may be needed to unlock the technology’s power. The challenge will be to enable this potential without introducing needless complexity. Applications will need smooth, creative interfaces to thrive.
Addressing the labor shortage. Skilled laborers are in short supply as society’s need increases. For example, while demand for skilled welders increases by 4% per year, supply declines by 7%. AI-powered robots may be part of the solution, automating welding, construction, and other manual tasks.
3. Sequoia Capital, the venture firm’s piece on: Generative AI: A Creative New World is a good read.
If we allow ourselves to dream multiple decades out, then it’s easy to imagine a future where Generative AI is deeply embedded in how we work, create and play: memos that write themselves; 3D print anything you can imagine; go from text to Pixar film; Roblox-like gaming experiences that generate rich worlds as quickly as we can dream them up. While these experiences may seem like science fiction today, the rate of progress is incredibly high—we have gone from narrow language models to code auto-complete in several years—and if we continue along this rate of change and follow a “Large Model Moore’s Law,” then these far-fetched scenarios may just enter the realm of the possible.
This chart illustrates a timeline for how they expect to see fundamental models progress and the associated applications that become possible. 2025 and beyond is just a guess.
Funnily, the Sequoia’s article was co-written with GPT-3.
We covered Generative AI last week.
D. A Few Charts That Stood:
The level of spending by Zuckerberg is extraordinary:
Surprised by the % of users of TikTok or Instagram who get their news there.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. Many of you have shared recommendations on how to improve “A Few Things”. Thank you and please keep your ideas coming.