Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 156: The future of pandemics; the future of art; the future of growth; and more...

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Are pandemics getting scarier? Or less scary?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 I’ve wondered whether we should see it as an unlucky random event or as an indication that pandemics are likely to become more frequent in future. Saloni Dattani has a good piece on the topic this week that argues it’s the latter: there are lots of ways in which human macro-behaviour is changing that makes “zoonosis” (the leap of pathogens from animals to human) more likely, especially factory farming.

This is, obviously, very bad news. When we discussed the cheery topic of existential risk in TiB 110, I noted that Toby Ord’s The Precipice argues that pandemics (including and especially human-engineered ones) as one of the gravest threats to humanity. There is good news, though! In a superb new 80,000 Hours podcast episode, Andy Weber, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense responsible for WMD, argues that we may be on the verge of having the tools to neutralise these risks:

In the world Andy envisions, each morning before brushing your teeth you also breathe into a tube. Your sequencer can tell you if you have any of 300 known pathogens, while simultaneously scanning for any unknown viruses. It’s hooked up to your WiFi and reports into a public health surveillance system, which can check to see whether any novel DNA sequences are spreading through the population. New contagious diseases can be detected within days — long before they run out of control.

That might sound dystopian to some, but Weber is persuasive that mass sequencing and mRNA vaccines can completely change the nature of the risks we face. The episode also includes fascinating segments on nuclear proliferation and the likely origin of COVID-19, so I do recommend the whole thing.

How will “crypto whales” change art?

This week Everydays, a piece of art in the form of a “non-fungible token” (NFT), sold at Christies for $69m. If you’re not familiar with NFTs, the New York Times has a good explainer here or, if you prefer audio, this NPR piece is excellent. The very short version is that an NFT is a digital asset with guaranteed scarcity; Everydays is a JPG file that only one person can own. For a more tech-centric perspective on why NFTs might be exciting, these pieces by Chris Dixon and Alex Danco are good. And I highly recommend this episode of The Good Time Show featuring MetaKovan, Everydays’ buyer, and other NFT luminaries.

Is this a big deal? One school of thought says no: it’s no different from the conventional high-end art market. After all, the reason Salvator Mundi is worth so much is not because it's hard to replicate its appearance - you can buy an extremely close copy for £8 - but because of a verifiable claim to scarcity. Salvator Mundi’s claim is secured by (presumably) expert opinion, Everydays’ by cryptography, but the idea is the same. It’s certainly not obvious that the price of the latter is any less rational than that of the former.

But there is an important difference. When hedge fund billionaires want to signal their status, they've traditionally bought, well, traditional fine art. But here we have a crypto billionaire buying crypto art. Ken Griffin didn’t make Picasso’s reputation (if anything, he borrows from it), but MetaKovan has made Beeple (Everydays’ artist) and, arguably, that of the whole NFT asset class. In that sense, it’s an important moment: if crypto whales (a growing class) are indifferent to establishment norms and determined to be taste makers, the art world may be about to experience a profound shake up. 

Why the end of stagnation could be bad for tech

Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg’s Markets newsletter had a fascinating and provocative section last week on the relationship between monetary policy and the tech boom. You can read a summary here and subscribe to the newsletter here. In a few paragraphs, Weisenthal argues against almost every piece of conventional wisdom on the topic: he claims that monetary policy has been tight, not loose, during the tech boom; that tech stocks have benefited not from QE, but from low growth elsewhere in the economy; and that this era is coming to an end.

You can quibble with that (and many smart people do - pdf), but it’s worth reflection, especially this idea:

When growth is scarce throughout the economy, it stands to reason that investors will pay more for companies that BYOG (Bring Your Own Growth), which aren't dependent on GDP. And so you get your high valuations on software and FANGs and Teslas and Ubers

Weisenthal argues that between a credible commitment to loose money, massive fiscal stimulus and the likelihood of roaring post-lockdown economic resurgence, growth will no longer be scarce - and so tech valuations will fall. 

I don’t really buy that (but maybe that’s because I’m a VC?), but long-time readers will be unsurprised that my first thought is to wonder what impact it would have on talent allocation if true. Patrick Collison had a great interview with Noah Smith last week in which he expresses concern that some (important) sectors might be "structurally inhospitable" to very talented people. That feels right as a diagnosis of the last decade, but I wonder how much might be solved simply with a lot more GDP growth?

Quick links

  1. Innovation in government. UK Government launched an Innovation Fellowship, which looks excellent. And applications for the US's Presidential Innovation Fellowship just opened.
  2. Class act. Some data on the extraordinary entrepreneurial success of HBS's class of 2011 (Class of 2009 is not bad either).
  3. Everything is a partisan issue. Vaccine edition (but don't blame the internet!)
  4. The calls are coming from inside the house. Tech employees think tech is too powerful.
  5. Peak speculation. (Some) indicators of speculative financial activity are at a 20 year high.

BONUS 1: The final part of my Interintellect salon series on "lessons from the Middle Ages" is at 8pm UK tonight, on war and violence. I think there are four tickets left if you want to join.

BONUS 2: The TiB podcast is now settling into a fortnightly rhythm: next week's features TechCrunch's Steve O'Hear; the one after that will be with Samo Burja of Bismarck Analytics.

The bit at the end

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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