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TiB 207: How to raise a genius; Sanctions as network effects; Silicon Valley philanthropy; and more

Matt’s Thoughts in Between
Matt’s Thoughts in Between
This week: Why economic sanctions are a network effects business; why Silicon Valley thinks differently about philanthropy; the case for tutoring in shaping genius; and more…

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Sanctions, trust and network effects
Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman have an excellent new piece in the NYT on the US as a “sanctions superpower” (see also Farrell’s Twitter thread on the same topic). If you’re a long time TiB reader, you’ll know that I think Farrell and Newman’s idea of “weaponised interdependence” is one of the most important frameworks for understanding modern geopolitics. We started talking about this three years ago in TiB 50, but thanks to the war in Ukraine it has never been so important. The core idea is that, far from decentralising and fragmenting power, globalisation has tied most countries’ success to participation in highly interdependent information and financial networks - networks whose choke points the US tends to control.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen the US and its allies use this power to an unprecedented extent. Farrell and Newman’s question is how the US can maximise the long-term effectiveness of weaponised interdependence. They argue that the West mustn’t overreach, however tempting it may be. It’s easy to look at what Putin is doing and see our legal processes as a frustration to applying maximum pressure and saving lives. But the rule of law is exactly what has allowed the West to build the powerful network effects that uphold this form of power. Yes, China and/or Russia could build their own alternatives, but they’d enjoy little trust from the rest of world. Interdependence works best when the world believes it won’t be weaponised arbitrarily.
Farrell and Newman, though, argue that the West needs to go beyond negative sanctions if it is to maintain and build global economic power. The authors point to this new book by Nicholas Mulder, which argues that the consequences of economic warfare are both far reaching and unpredictable. As we discussed last week, the second order effects of the war and sanctions will be large, from further fuelling inflation to a potential global food crisis. Without positive action to help the worst-hit countries offset these impacts, it’s hard to see how the US and its allies will maintain consensus for long. Interdependence can be weaponised, but it’s a long way from a precision munition.
Why Silicon Valley gives differently
My podcast guest this week is Nadia Eghbal. Nadia is an independent writer and researcher, who focuses on ethnographic studies of technology communities. She’s well known for her book, Working in Public, which looks at how open source software is built and maintained. More recently, Nadia has turned her attention to how Silicon Valley thinks about philanthropy. We discussed her recent essay on startup-inspired science funding initatives, which is part of this broader project, in TiB 205. I also recommend this recent piece from Nadia’s Substack, which is a beautifully written tour of why this is such an interesting - and surprisingly understudied - space.
In our conversation, we discuss how and why the philanthropy of the tech wealthy is changing and how it differs from the traditional approaches of the ultra-rich. We talk about the impact of this evolution on politics, society and the arts. Nadia is particularly interested in how the recent emergence of cohorts of the crypto-wealthy will change things again, given the distinctive worldview and technological mechanisms for creating and distributing value associated with crypto.
We also discuss:
  • Philanthropy as “risk capital for public goods” (in the way that VC is risk capital for private goods)
  • Why science has captured the imagination of several tech founders as a focus for their philanthropy
  • How “fractal inequality” in Silicon Valley changes how people think about giving
  • The impact of Effective Altruism on tech philanthropy
  • … and more
In praise of tutors
We’ve talked a lot about “genius” in Thoughts in Between. In fact, with my friend Arnaud, I ran a whole reading group on the topic - and this piece on the tragedy of lost genius is perhaps the TiB edition I go back to most often. In the last year, lots of my favourite writers have been thinking about this theme in one form or another. Rohit Krishnan wrote this piece on the mythology of genius in popular culture and real life. Scott Alexander wondered why genius seems to run in families (a more subtle question than perhaps it sounds). And Holden Karnosfy asks “Where is today’s Beethoven?”. One common pattern across these is the feeling that genius may be in decline today. I’ve been meaning to write about this and then this week another TiB favourite, Erik Hoel, published this provocative piece, Why We Stopped Making Einsteins.
Erik’s thesis is simple: the internet ought to have unlocked an extraordinary flourishing of genius; it hasn’t; and the reason must lie in education (you can disagree with any of those premises, of course, and lots of people have). What’s changed? Erik argues that a strikingly high proportion of the geniuses of the past were tutored - not in a remedial sense or to pass a particular exam, but as their primary form of education. The essay is full of examples, from Marcus Aurelius and Voltaire to Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill. It’s hard to quantify this hypothesis, but it is consistent with Bloom’s 2 sigma problem, a well known result that suggests that tutoring can be remarkably effective.
The problem, of course, is that tutoring is expensive and inaccessible to most. Erik briefly considers the possibility that technology might “swoop in to the rescue” - he points to this interesting paper - but concludes that by the time we have personalised AI tutors we won’t need human geniuses. I’m not sure about this. It seems quite plausible to me that some very-much-pre-AGI version of GPT-n (maybe n=4, maybe even 3!) could do quite a lot of work here. I’m also - if you’ll forgive a rare EF portfolio plug - bullish on “smart tutoring” platforms like Lingumi. But then I am a techno-optimist. So I will leave you with Erik’s beautiful, more pessimistic, and - I hope - false penultimate paragraph:
In turning education into a system of mass production we created a superbly democratic system that made the majority of people, and the world as a whole, much better off. It was the right decision. But we lost the most elegant and beautiful minds, those mental Stradivari, who were created via an artisanal process
Quick links
  1. Life is beautiful. Modern life as Renaissance paintings, nickel trading edition. Excellent.
  2. Whither code? Impressive set of examples of games and applications that can be built using GPT-3 entirely with natural language.
  3. All mine(d). Striking images of the amount of gold, copper and diamonds actually extracted from various enormous mines. Quite extraordinary.
  4. A Sumerian dog walks into a bar… Superb thread on deciphering jokes in dead languages.
  5. Inquiring minds want to know. What is actually the “greatest thread in the history of forums”? Some very amusing answers.
How you can help
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. If you got this far, you probably enjoyed it, so I’d love you share it with a friend or two. And please do follow me on Twitter.
If you have comments, questions or suggestions, feel free to hit reply.
Until next week,
Matt Clifford
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