🔮 DAOs & the future of work; China in 2022; kids in the metaverse & Mars selfies ++ #354

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. I laid out my thesis in my 2021 book, Exponential.

🎙This week on the podcast
This week’s podcast is the second in a special two-part series. In the first episode, I went through some of the biggest technological, scientific and social developments of 2021. In this week’s episode, I look forward, laying out the major themes I think will define 2022 (and the years to come).

Some changes are hurtling down the pike, like the growth of Web 3.0 and the metaverse, while others are rumbling along more slowly, like the unstoppable progress of artificial intelligence.

You can listen to the podcast here or read a full transcript here.

Today’s edition has been supported by our knowledge partner, McKinsey & Company.

Improving organizational performance and sustaining it over time remains a challenge that few companies have cracked. One key finding from our latest McKinsey Global Survey? Three core actions during a transformation can help predict value capture. New research on the topic could up your organization’s odds of achieving its full transformation potential.

The near future

🇨🇳 A letter from China
Dan Wang is one of my favourite China analysts. In his 2021 letter, he reflects on where China is heading after a year that saw Beijing crack down on tech companies:

When Beijing punished Ant Financial and DiDi, all of us were nervous that these companies were pawns in a game of elite politics whose rules aren’t revealed to anyone who isn’t a player. At this point, however, the punishment of these two firms looks rather small compared to everything that happened afterwards: the decapitation of online tutoring, new restrictions on video games, anti-monopoly actions against internet platforms, and passage of statutes governing data and privacy. No small number of commentators have pointed out that any individual regulation passes muster on technocratic grounds. The US and Europe after all are debating rules with similar shapes—although they would never implement them with China’s speed and severity. I agree ... with the commentators who see a sound technocratic foundation for these rules.

As long-time readers will know, I also thought there was a sound basis for those moves.

Wang continues:

While Beijing has restrained internet companies, it has done nothing to hurt more science-based industries like semiconductors and renewables… Where does Beijing prefer dynamism? Science-based industries that serve strategic needs. Beijing, in other words, is trying to make semiconductors sexy again.

Beijing’s touch approach may have snuffed out cultural dynamism, argues Wang, with only TikTok and “The Three-Body Problem” to show for it.

This is worthy of a long read.

Electric realities
Chrysler will become an all-electric car brand by 2028. Together, the three big American car firms intend to spend $105bn on transforming to electric vehicles by 2025. (To put this number into context, US streaming firms are spending $115bn on new content commissions this year. Sony, which also has a content business, has unveiled its first EV prototype.)

In the UK, 41% of new car registrations in December were electric or hybrid vehicles. That share was 29% for the same period last year. (Via Tom Callow)

Elsewhere, self-driving vehicles have arrived… to farms.

Listen to my conversation with Hau Thai-Tang of Ford about the future of the car.

😕 Crypto unlocked
Rug pulls, a particularly mendacious type of crypto scam, are booming. A rug pull involves project developers promising and launching a shiny new endeavour, raising money from eager believers and greedy chancersand then running off with the cash.

Last year, $7.7bn worth of cryptocurrency was scammed from holders, an 81% rise on the previous year. The number of addresses falling victim to scammers dropped from 10.7m to 4.1m. Fewer people were scammed, but per person, they lost more money than ever.

About 37% of value scammed disappeared via rug pulls, up from 1% the year before. Innovation plus scaling in one year, what an achievement! 🤦🏻‍♀️

Dealing with scammers is tricky, because one of crypto’s mooted benefits is its censorship resistance. Yet, crypto platforms have found themselves stepping in to freeze misbehaving accounts or unwind transactions. This week, OpenSea, the NFT platform, froze more than $2m of Bored Ape NFTs, stolen from a hot wallet. Tether, which issues the USDT stablecoin, froze a million bucks worth of USDT associated with a single account.

Sunday commentary

The future of work is…
I’ve thought about how decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) might represent one future of the corporation. The rough idea is that corporations are legal structures with attendant managerial practices for organising capital and labour to do useful things. As an organisational form it has made sense, becoming extremely popular but not exclusively so. After all, informal structures, partnerships, joint ventures and other forms exist, even if guilds have fallen by the wayside.

How might such a structure change the nature of work from the worker’s perspective? Ben Schechter, the Operations Lead at a crypto platform RabbitHole, outlines how “work” is compensated in novel DAOs. I think DAOs are rather more experimental than Schechter suggests. Web3 has an ouroboros quality to it at the moment: building for itself. But there are some interesting signals emerging:

  • DAOs are very transparent in terms of how they value and reward output,
  • Enforcement through smart contracts means that the grift and opacity that can mar traditional corporates is, perhaps, less prevalent.

Members of Exponential View can expect the second in the series of my essays on Web3 in the coming week. If you're not a member, see an excerpt of my first essay here. To unlock my past and future insights on Web3, become a member.

But even at this experimental stage, one can see the limits of this approach. On the one hand, much work in the real world is not as containable, objectively specified or measured, as tasks within a DAO. Some work is just squishy – write a book, look after a child, review a contract, welcome guests – to be broken down into tight work packages. (The challenges of tacit knowledge on the one hand; and the problem of constant feedback and algorithmic management on the other).

The second issue is the regularity and certainty of cashflows. One of the great innovations in labour markets in the past couple of centuries has been the arrival of regular pay packets, instead of the unpredictability of piecework or day labouring. It is possible that large parts of humanity rather like predictability over occasional lottery rewards.

Experiments are important because without them my objections can’t be addressed. While not a DAO, one group that did experiment with radical transparency and a networked approach to corporate coordination, albeit without cryptocurrency to enable this, was the British AI firm, Satalia. You might enjoy my discussion with Daniel Hulme, Satalia’s CEO, on how they organised their business.

Elsewhere, fascinating data shows that remote work, at least for developers, meant always-on.

Short morsels to look smart as electric cars take off

🌿 Chinese millennials are increasingly adopting plant-based diets, which could make the Chinese plant-based meat industry grow 200% over the next 5 years.​​ Young Chinese people are also flocking to buy property as NFTs in the metaverse.

😬 Inside “Tek Fog”, an app used by the nationalist BJP to automate cyber hate against other groups

🤑 A study showed that children are less likely to spend money in a virtual reality system than in augmented reality. Undergraduate students, on the other hand, tend to invest more in VR.

💥 New research shows that jet fuel could be created by sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and combining it with hydrogen released by solar-powered electrolysis.

🌱 100,000,000 Mangroves NFT collection is fundraising to grow 100 milliom mangroves, with the goal to eliminate 20,000,000 tons of carbon over 25 years.

🚘 Car advertisers in France have to promote environmentally-friendly modes of transportation.

🎒 Mafia members who go to college become more effective criminals.

🛰️ Tianwen1 Mars orbiter took some stunning selfies floating by the red planet.

End note

Happy New Year! We are making some adjustments to the newsletter. We’re reconfiguring the department of decarbonisation. It’ll return shortly! Let me know what you think about today’s edition in the survey at the bottom of this email!


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Priya Guha is working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to shape their work on diversity and inclusion among startups and scaleups. Contribute to designing a toolkit by answering a 5-minute anonymous survey.  

Igor Carron and his team at LightOn reflect on how, in 2021, their large language models were an extra step towards “AI eating high performance computing”.

“A missionary and a mercenary”: Vishal Gulati described founder Elizabeth Holmes in the Channel 4 documentary about the Theranos scandal.

Bill Gross and his team at Energy Vault announced a strategic partnership with Korea Zing, which includes a $50 million investment.

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