🔮 Blockchains and governance; Economics of climate; Remote work; Arctic ice & the price of silicon ++ #342

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.

👉🏽 My new book, on the coming Exponential Age, is out now. Get it here. (Read the recommendation from Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, if you need more persuading.)

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Dept of near future

Blockchains and governance

🛠 One of the most fascinating aspects of the crypto token/blockchain space is how it enables new governance models. Governance technologies are often overlooked, yet they have proven synonymous with economic development. The joint-stock company allowed for the pooling of risk and let entrepreneurs take risks without an unlimited downside.

Blockchains – the crypto economy – are, first and foremost, in my mind, governance technologies. Governance technologies enable the processes of allocating and exploiting resources and distributing welfare gains. But crypto-economics relies on economic incentives as the primary levers to drive behaviour because not all behaviour seems to naturally lend itself to the scope of financial incentives. (Imagine the market for paternal hugs, for example.)

Now Nathan Schneider explores these limitations of crypto-economics and asks: “How do we design programmable systems that are still accountable to humans and the never-quite-programmable things we care about?”

And equally, he points out that “distributed-ledger experiments have produced a uniquely creative barrage of exploration around voting systems, dispute resolution, collective resource management, and other processes that can advance democratic traditions.”

This paper is long, and you’ll need to be “sitting back” to get the most out of it, but it forms an excellent critical review of the issues. It also drew the attention of Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum. His response is a helpful insight into how one of the more important figures in the emerging industry thinks. Buterin is thoughtful, but I think he conflates a couple of issues – in particular, his treatment of nation-state behaviours which he simplifies ad absurdum and, in general, a sense that he doesn’t seem to account for the embeddedness of humans in their culture, context, communities and families, instead of instead of treating them like 1500 byte internet packets to be routed to wherever they achieve maximum reward.

I’d love to discuss this and more with Vitalik on our podcast. 🙏 My inbox is open for warm intros, thanks!

Economics of climate

🌍 The transition to renewable energy can save trillions in energy costs and unlock new revenue streams. Wright’s Law teaches us that technologies get cheaper with scale. Government policy can accelerate Wright’s Law. Moreover, cheap renewable energy is a foundation that unlocks decarbonisation elsewhere. The idea that through practice and scale we can learn to make things more efficiently is key to the cadence of the exponential age. More details in chapter two of Exponential.

Writing in Bloomberg with J Doyne Farmer and Cameron Hepburn, EV reader Eric Beinhocker demonstrates a clear path to clean energy and economic return. The authors argue that a decisive transition of accelerated zero-carbon deployment would save the world $26 trillion in energy costs compared with continuing today’s energy system. The primary hurdle to this transition is the US Congress. US consumers could save trillions in energy costs with better legislation while kick-starting a new generation of energy technologies. Better economic policies that recognise the value of renewable energy will kick-start this rapid transition. It’s anyone’s guess when those policies will take hold. [See also: Climate change replaces pandemic as insurers’ biggest worry.]

Remote work is here to stay

👔 There was a moment earlier this year when it looked like we would all be headed back to the office. This was profound in the West, where successful vaccine rollouts gave people a false sense that the pandemic was ending. We know now that the pandemic is here to stay for some time, complicating efforts to get people back in the office. In a recent survey, the World Economic Forum finds that two-thirds of people around the world want to work flexibly when the pandemic is over. Moreover, almost a third are prepared to quit their job if the boss makes them go back to the office full time.

What sticks out about these findings is the data showing that workers feel comfortable looking for new jobs to suit their desired lifestyle. According to UK recruiter Reed, six in ten Londoners are currently looking for new jobs because “the balance of power is shifting in the labour market, with job seekers holding the majority of the cards.” That’s a revealing data point that gives weight to the idea that some form of remote work is here to stay. (See also: PwC is now offering US workers full-time remote work).

Chinese anti-technology voices

🇨🇳 China might be the last place you would expect to find an anti-technology group focused on understanding how algorithms are invading daily life. But that’s not the case. The “Anti-Technology Dependence” group on the Douban social network began earlier this year and now has 16,000 members. In one of the most restricted internet climates in the world, the group of primarily young people explores how AI, big data, and surveillance technologies are influencing the way people live in China. EV reader Jeffrey Ding published a deep analysis of the group, which is well worth the read.

It’s striking that such a group could flourish in a restrictive environment like China. But that misses a key point about how the Chinese government operates. With total power to dismantle the group at the drop of a hat, Beijing might simply allow it to develop as a sort of experiment. If anything were to get out of control, the group would disappear. Thus, it is a form of resistance – a frank and open discussion on surveillance technology – that might not have any agency to grow. What a dystopian concept!

🔋Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 412.31 ppm | 3,203 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of September 29, 2021): 413.18 ppm; October 2020: 411.38 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm.

🌞 Limiting global warming to 1.5°C is the cornerstone of the Paris climate agreement. While scientists have recently warned about worsening global warming, the goals are still in place, and we must find creative ways to meet them. The Energy Transitions Commission has just released a list of actions that can be taken on a large scale to keep the 1.5°C target alive. These include rapid reductions in methane emissions, halting deforestation, beginning reforestation, decarbonising the power sector and phasing out coal. What’s remarkable about the report is how clearly it identifies the steps that need to be taken to safeguard the planet. We have the road map; we need capital and governments to follow it.

If we don’t take these steps fast enough, the effects of climate change will compound exponentially. Consider this harrowing news from the Arctic. Arctic sea ice has passed its minimum extent for this year, shrinking to 4.72 million square kilometres. This summer’s minimum ice cover was the twelfth-lowest ever. This confirms the trend that the ice is melting.

Short morsels to appear smart as the Arctic sea ice melts

🇬🇧 The UK government published its national AI strategy, which outlines its long-term vision for the technology and its impact on society.

🤖 Rodney Brooks, the creator of the Roomba, throws cold water on the idea that AI will surpass human intelligence in the near future.  

📈 A unique look behind the curtain at how one VC fund increased returns.

🚴‍♀️ How Peloton uses design and gamification to keep people on the exercise platform.

☕️ If you think gentrification is about new coffee shops and high rents, you are missing an essential aesthetic element.

✨ Watch out for the Trisolarians! Scientists might have found the first-known planet orbiting three stars at once.

👷 Workers on the front lines of the global supply chain are warning of a “system collapse.”

In another sign of the global shortage crisis, the price of silicon has surged nearly 300%

📱 Extracting precious metals like cobalt is a nasty business. Efforts to clean up the process in countries like the DRC are falling short.

🎨 What is art anyway? An artist was commissioned $84,000 to create a painting and delivered a blank canvas titled “Take the money and run”.

😎 Flies can sense the world while sleeping.

🏍 Ever thought about sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a motorcycle? Someone just completed a similar trip.

🌊 Captivating footage from inside a hurricane in the middle of the ocean.

End note

The Beinhocker/Farmer argument that the transition to renewables will be cheaper than maintaining fossil fuel infrastructure – even before we account for climate costs –  is powerful. At the heart of this are the declining costs that are a hallmark of the Exponential Age. In my podcast with Ramez Naam, I explored a number of these issues. They are further contextualised in my book. If you want to understand the historical trajectory of “how solar got cheap”, I can point you to Gregory Nemet’s technical read “How Solar Energy Became Cheap.”

The summary of my view is that through simple incentives, government can effectively buy the metaphorical first thousand of an exponential technology while it is expensive so that the next million (or more) can be cheap for us. In the case of the technologies of renewables, storage or the emerging bio-economy this will unleash tremendous economic welfare.

Cheers all!


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Gianni Giacomelli published “Weak network ties, strong impact.”

After four years of figuring out how to reduce his carbon, Adam Oskwarek wrote a 14-day email course on the topic.

Eduardo Plastino published an article with the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacture and commerce on digital twin ecosystems.

Jacek Lubinski wrote a blog post on the product framework for B2B marketplaces.

Ken Pucker published “Heroic Accounting: New proposals for monetizing corporate planetary impacts are alluring, impossible, and perilous.”

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Exponential Jobs - Featured roles for our community

Every week, we curate jobs for our community, by our community. Our members are hiring in climate tech, blockchain, space tech, healthcare, future of work, among other areas. Here are the highlights:

Coglode, a startup that enables better decisions by making sense of behavioural research, is hiring a Head of Training and a Nuggeteer with deep knowledge of behavioral science.

Build a Climate Startup is hiring a Venture Science Associate to lead technical diligence and analysis of venture creation opportunities in climate deeptech.

CitiVentures / D10x is looking for a Venture Builder / entrepreneur in residence to work with senior business leaders to discover, develop, build, take to market, and grow problems worth solving by Citi now.

Spark No. 9 is looking for a Creative Lead with strong storytelling skills to lead, inspire, collaborate with, and develop the growing creative team.

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