Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 116: The political consequences of remote work; communal genius; how markets obscure history; and more...

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The business model of communal genius

Packy McCormick has a very good long essay on “scenius” - that is, communal genius, or small groups of people who end up having a disproportionate impact on the world. This is a long-time interest of mine, partly because it’s a good shorthand of what we’re building in my day job. Back in January, my friend Arnaud and I curated a curriculum and started a reading group on the topic to look at some of the most striking examples, from the American Revolution to the Manhattan Project.

McCormick’s stated mission is to find ways to “conjure” scenius and he lays out an interesting framework of the common foundations of particularly productive groups: emergence from catastrophe; competition; place-based ritual; and tolerance for novelty (He also discusses Kevin Kelly’s related thoughts, laid out here).

I’d add that it’s worth pondering the implicit business model of scenius. For scenius to flourish, people of extraordinary ability need time and space to work on projects that may not yield immediate value. Historically, that’s required some sort of concentrated wealth: patronage (the Renaissance; universities), monopoly (Bell Labs; Google X) or government (Apollo, Manhattan Project). Excitingly, there may now be a more scaleable alternative: distributed patronage. Models like Patreon and InterIntellect (profiled in the essay) may open up possibilities for many more scenii, as Li JinAlex Crompton and others have noted. That’s an uplifting prospect. 

The political consequences of remote work

One consequence of coronavirus is that companies are running a forced experiment in remote working - and some are finding that they like it. Facebook, Twitter, Square and Shopify, among others, have announced that they will allow employees to work from home permanently. If this heralds a broader shift - according to this study, >50% of US workers can work from home - it will have enormous political, economic and social consequences.

One of the most interesting is the impact on worker power. We’ve talked before about the growing power of talent, particularly in large tech companies. It’s possible, though, that remote work could reverse that. In an excellent discussion, Can Duruk argues that remote work acts as an abstraction layer that allows companies to think of employees as their contributions - which in turn makes it easier to get rid of them (The parallels between this idea and Steve Randy Waldman’s new essay on markets, discussed below, are interesting).

It’s worth placing this in the context of the famous elephant chart, which we’ve discussed before: over the last 30 years Western working class incomes have stagnated, while those in developing countries and among the rich have accelerated. Remote work effectively exposes a new group to international competition - knowledge workers. Given that remote work pays local rates, this will likely depress (some) Western middle class incomes. Some argue that the original version of this trend brought us post-2016 populism, so there could be profound political impact as the elephant continues to plod up the income curve.

How markets "launder history"

Steve Randy Waldman has a fascinating critical essay on the functions of markets. As I’ve said before, I’m broadly sympathetic to neoliberalism, at least in the sense that Sam Bowman defines it, but it's important to engage with the critics of ideas you like, and Waldman is one of the smartest (His piece on “predatory precarity” was one of the best pieces I read last year). 

Waldman suggests the pandemic might end neoliberalism’s dominance, and explores four functions of markets that new ideological regimes will have to wrestle with. It’s hard to summarise these briefly - so do read the whole thing - but he labels these: (a) Hayekian information processing (we discussed this back in February); (b) “naturalising" of economic outcomes and reducing conflict; (c) “flipping the incentives” for utilising resources (think Uber, Airbnb and even, Waldman argues, jobs); and (d) “laundering history”.

This last one is especially interesting. Waldman says that markets obscure the provenance of goods and make them fungible. When we buy an iPhone, we don’t know - or usually care - how it was made. Apple could switch out its entire supply chain and this would be invisible to the consumer, as long as the in-store transaction completes. In this sense, markets act like APIs for demand (just as remote work acts as an API for work contributions). They’re hugely powerful abstractions, but hide what Waldman calls the “ethically squeamish” trade offs that deliver prosperity. Waldman doesn’t claim to have a concrete alternative, but it’s a critique worth dwelling on. 

Quick links

  1. Against competitive advantage, and other stories. An interesting list of "semi controversial" investing beliefs (See also: What would you ask your favourite investor?)
  2. Against fine particulate matter. Extraordinary statistic on the cost of pollution (more here).
  3. Better Science. José Luis Ricón has a typically excellent annotated reading list on "fixing" science.
  4. Are we winning or losing? Probably the best discussion of coronavirus I've come across so far, courtesy of the 80,000 Hours podcast.
  5. Current affairs? What does the world look like viewed entirely through air currents? Beautiful image.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford