Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
Dept of the near future
The creator dilemma
🕺 The halcyon days of the internet’s early years was a non-commercial era. The internet was everyone’s printing press, but that soon gave way to a centralised commercial enterprise model. Today, millions of creators in all fields use the internet to share their work and acquire new audiences but struggle to earn an equitable living. But the times they are a-changin’. YouTube said this week that it has paid out more than $30 billion to creators in the past three years from ads, merchandising and other service features. In a nod to the clout of creators (and their ability to organise an outcry), OnlyFans reversed its prospective ban on pornography this week. Additionally, Spotify announced that all US podcast creators could charge up to $150 for monthly subscriptions. These are all nice perks, but they don’t address the fundamental problem facing creators. They don’t own the infrastructure, so they are essentially pawns for much larger and more powerful companies. As we will see in the next item, the power of these platforms is exacting a multifaceted toll on various segments of society and commerce.
Experts, polarisation, and social media
🗣 Did you notice the sudden shift on social media last week when many experts on, say, Covid-19 became pundits on Afghanistan virtually overnight? Well, there is a word for this: epistemic trespassing (thanks to Noah Smith for diving deep on the subject). These trespassers are “thinkers who have competence or expertise to make good judgement in one field but move to another field where they lack competence - and pass judgement nevertheless”.
I’m with Smith that, while ‘overnight experts’ is often annoying, in general, we should be
highly suspicious of the practice of epistemic enclosure — of using social consensus to delineate the boundaries of fields of inquiry, and to assign each bounded region to a single club of human beings. This practice, to me, raises the specter of a gang of epistemic squatters claiming a piece of epistemic territory for themselves and using social censure to defend it against anyone who might point out the gang’s errors or force them to raise their game.
But therein lies one of the core challenges of social media. Leading platforms reward power users for bad takes and stepping outside their lane on controversial issues. These users receive engagement and end up staying on the platform for longer than most. The content they produce has the knock-on effect of deeper societal polarisation and our digital dopamine addiction. I understand these are big claims, but you don’t need to be a Luddite to see these compounding crises converge on popular social media platforms. The question is, who benefits from our addiction to this form of communication and what it will look like in another five, ten, or 20 years. [See also: An excellent essay on our digital addictions and their effects on dopamine.]
🍏 It’s been a decade of Apple with Tim Cook at the helm. No CEO in history has created more shareholder value, taking the company from a market value of $349bn to more than $2.5tn. Cook has been able to keep Apple products right in the sweet spot of what consumers want and need. However, close Apple watchers wonder what Apple’s next breakout iPhone-like product will be or if Cook can deliver it. Apple is a bigger and better version of itself under Cook, as Apple analyst Horace Dediu noticed, but what does that mean for the next decade of rising competition and changing consumer tastes?
Elsewhere, Edward Snowden makes a very compelling argument that Apple’s new obscene content filters fundamentally change the company’s stance on privacy and with it the underlying trust architecture of the internet. It isn’t a mere slippery slope, but rather a sharp cliff. Well worth the read.
New conversations to ESG
🌱 Tariq Fancy, the ex-CIO of sustainable investing at BlackRock, thinks that environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investing is intellectually bankrupt and even damages the causes it espouses to support. Fancy’s comments, which came in a string of Medium posts that didn’t hold back, have been said in one form or another before but not by someone of his stature. Regardless of where you fall on the efficiency of ESG investing, Fancy is correct that a new conversation about its goals and usage is needed. It reminds of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s comments about how to operate in business even though that includes polluting and hurting the planet. “Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable”. It might be time for some more honesty in ESG to save it from itself. (As a counterpoint to this, I will acknowledge that my pension is held under an ESG mandate, even though I knew their real limitations with ESG data and reporting. I had a good discussion with Harvard Business School’s Rebecca Henderson on the topic last year. Reading Fancy’s critique has me revising my priors. Is ESG investing fixable or fundamentally broken? Share your thoughts in the comments.)
AI’s societal conundrum
In last week’s EV I touched on a paper from Stanford’s CS department highlight the power and risks of so-called foundational AI models. Now, EV’s friend, Jack Clark, and former OpenAI head of policy, has pulled together a helpful presentation on such big models. Jack argues that such foundational models present power asymmetries that need to be closed by making the resources to create them more widely available and empowering governments to analyze, measure, and audit them.
On the topic, the Cyberspace Administration of China has draft proposals for recommendation algorithms. The recommendations are very progressive and more sophisticated than any similar consumer protections in Europe or the US, including bans on differential pricing, brutal gig work conditions, or extreme manipulations of unhealthy consumer behaviours. Fascinating to see the Chinese authorities in the lead on aiming to close this exponential gap.
🔋Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 413.87 ppm | 3,238 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of August 25, 2021): 4143.87 ppm; August 2020: 413.56 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
🏠 Welcome to the era of hybrid home heating, writes EV reader Tony Pan. The popularity of hybrid cars in the US for consumers who can’t afford an all-electric vehicle led to a boom in hybrid heating and cooling projects for the housing market. It’s a massive market in need of disruption as Pan notes that heating and cooling for buildings is about 50% of home energy demand in the US and a whopping 80% in Europe. This is a crucial area to watch in the short term.
☢️ The development of small nuclear reactors could help meet climate targets by producing low-carbon hydrogen.
Short morsels to appear smart during the final weeks of summer
🤖 Samsung is making an incredible $200bn investment into biopharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, semiconductors and robotics.
🛰 Impressive! Hubble captures a stunning “Einstein Ring” in the depths of the Universe.
📱 Why is Google’s messaging strategy a mess? A history.
☢️ Can you rebrand the worst nuclear disaster in history? Some scientists at Chernobyl are trying.
🌾 Climate change is causing droughts that are starting to take their toll on American farmers.
🌧 Follow the path of a rain droplet from any point in the US.
🇨🇳 Must read reporting on China’s new group of elite hackers that blend espionage and entrepreneurship.
🛌 We don’t know much about the experience of being aware that you’re dreaming, but it could lead to incredible discoveries about the brain.
🧬 A fossil found near some of the world’s oldest cave art in Indonesia hints at a mysterious lineage of people.
It’s nearly September. This is always a big month for me as I celebrate my birthday, and despite the advancing years and more grey in the beard, I still look forward to the month. (A crazy one it is too as we have four family birthdays in the next 28 days!)
🎉 Doubly special this year as you all might guess! And if you are considering getting me a present (please do, I love presents, especially early ones), please treat yourself to one of these. You have the founder of LinkedIn’s word for it.👇
Have a lovely week!
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Congrats to Daniel Hulme and his company Satalia for being acquired by WPP!
Check out Gianni Giacomelli’s wonderful interview with Fortune’s CEO Alan Murray.
How to make bold decisions to live your best life by Sam Barcroft.
The Mobility Disruption Framework is a new book by Olaf Sakkers. The book creates new useful ways to talk about mobility including some clearer ways of describing the trip economy, both for people and goods.
Alexander Steinhart is excited to share the launch of the responsible tech playbook.
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritise updates from paying members and startups I have invested in. (You can become the former by subscribing, if you have not already, and the latter by getting an intro to me via a trusted contact.)
Exponential Jobs - Featured roles for our community
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Around, hybrid workspace & collaboration startup, is hiring:
Sustain.Life, sustainability software platform that gives organisations the tools and guidance to reduce carbon emissions, is hiring a Product Design Lead.
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