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metatechnology and cultures of innovation
I switched career lanes from entertainment to tech immediately after getting a taste of Silicon Valley’s all-you-can-eat intellectual buffet and haven’t been able to shut up about the food ever since. I hold the opinion that Silicon Valley’s culture is something the rest of the world could use a whole lot more of.
My reasons for why I think this have less to do with progress or a technological imperative and more to do with my obsession with what it takes to get smart people finding and working on important problems — of which many are best solved using technology. It’s not technology itself that I think is special (though I do think tools are pretty neat) — it’s the outlook that gets instilled in a person from working in a culture with values such as Silicon Valley’s.
But what is that outlook? Well from what I’ve observed, SV — especially whatever is currently considered to be at the frontier (right now: ai and crypto, in the past: the internet and the personal computer) — tends to draw out a specific mentality about the world from its inhabitants that makes everything seem possible. It’s hard not to think big when you see such thinking working so well for so many others around you. But why is that, exactly? I’ll take a swing at defining it:
Shared striving toward an intensely optimistic and forward-looking vision of the future (read: meaningful work)
Tech’s low barrier to entry means young people flock to SV and form small teams with productive cult-like dynamics (read: coworkers become best friends and the lines separating work and life blur)
Building software has fast feedback loops that empower and instill agency in those making the thing (read: the “god complex” effect of programming)
A culture that rewards taking risk, contrarianism in ideas, originality/innovation, and ownership (read: being normie isn’t cool)
If you win, you win big and expand the pie (read: positive sum mindset)
There’s a whole class of people who bounce from small startup to small startup chasing the magic of the above: working closely with a small team on something everyone really, really cares about. Tyler Cowen describes this dynamic as “small group theory,” while Alan Kay reported a similar reflection in Leslie Berlin’s book Troublemakers:
“When a really difficult thing is being worked on and you get synergy from the small team in just the right way, you can’t describe it. It’s like love. It is love,” says Alan Kay, a visionary computer scientist who worked at Xerox PARC, Apple, and Atari. “You’re trying to nurture this thing that is not alive into being alive.”
Even Franz Kafka spoke of this magic almost two hundred years ago: “By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.” Which proves this phenomenon to have existed far before the tech industry as we know it came into being. But fast forward to today and Silicon Valley just so happens to be where a disproportionate amount of this magic can be found because the industry’s economics are powered by the outsized returns a select few of these magical zero-to-one innovations produce.
I’m interested in both sides of this coin: how more important problems can be identified and the right people can be matched to solving them (which often requires thinking in technological terms), as well as how such work can instill purpose in a certain kind of person that desires to do something greater with their life (I choose to believe this is most of us). In my eyes, both of these problems would be helped by spreading SV’s strain of tech culture.
All of which is to say, I think Silicon Valley’s mentality isn’t getting enough credit for the good thing they’ve cooked up. There are many ways to change the world — one is by working on an important tactical problem like climate or education, while another way is by getting more smart people working on identifying and solving said issues. The latter asks us to shift culture — by first defining what we positively want to see more of. This makes me wonder: while ‘metascience’ is defined as the use of scientific methodology to study science itself, what about ‘metatechnology’?
Best stuff I’ve read on what’s ahead
Perspective from the past
Canonical advice from Steve Jobs that I refer to often:
“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is — everything around you that you call life, was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
P.S. Moth Fund and I celebrated our first close this past week with some friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators. Pictures below, it was a blast :) Many more to come!