Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 182: The future of US power; remote work; incubating deep tech; and more...

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Can the US decouple GDP and global power?

If I had to pick just one thinker as a guide to our era, it would probably be the historian Adam Tooze. Tooze is a writer of extraordinary breadth - somehow he has written the definitive books on the economics of Nazi Germany, the global financial crisis and, now, the coronavirus response. In recent weeks, he’s turned his attention to the future of American power in this must-read essay in the New Statesman. Tooze rejects the idea that the Afghanistan debacle means we’re entering a post-American era. Instead, he says, the US is changing tack as it watches China rise: it now seeks to use its technological dominance to decouple raw economic output from geopolitical power.

The core challenge is that historically GDP has been a close proxy for military supremacy - and China’s sheer size means that the US will inevitably fall behind on this metric. Tooze argues that what we’re seeing is the “militarisation of US economic policy” in policies like restrictions on the semiconductor supply chain and large investments in AI. The goal is maintaining American dominance even as its share of global GDP (likely) falls. This is no small challenge, but, as Tooze says:

For American strategic planners it is easier to imagine reorganising the global high-tech economy than it is to contemplate the US losing its status as undisputed hegemon

Will it work? If I were to pick a second thinker to complement Tooze it would be the political theorist-turned-politician-turned-commentator Bruno Maçães (who, it happens, also has a new book out). Maçães doesn’t doubt the strategy, but questions the US’s competence to execute on it. Maçães’s Twitter feed of late has been a brutal evisceration of the competence of the American foreign policy establishment - a theme he elaborates on in this excellent podcast episode (see also this piece, via Tooze). Perhaps they are both are correct. Tooze says that “At times, the US army can seem like a management consultancy in jackboots” - another group sometimes critiqued for being rather stronger in PowerPoint than in implementation*.

*I know, I know: not all management consultants

Do teams work better without Teams?

Nature has published a large and fascinating study on the impact of the sudden adoption of remote work at Microsoft during the pandemic. The paper uses an impressively rich dataset of the communications and schedules of over 60,000 Microsoft employees, some of whom had worked at home pre-pandemic, most of whom had not. By comparing the behaviours of these two groups the authors are able to estimate the causal impact of remote work on some important measures of collaboration and communication.

I’ve been quite positive about remote work, and particularly the potential impact on innovation as it becomes mainstream (see TiB 116, 117 and 171, plus this piece I wrote for Wired). The results of this study are quite negative, however: Microsoft became less interconnected; patterns of collaboration become more static; and synchronous communication declined. As the authors say, the existing literature suggests that these effects will have a negative impact on innovation and productivity (though the study doesn’t measure these directly).

Nevertheless, I remain quite optimistic for a few reasons. First, Microsoft had an extraordinary pandemic year financially; perhaps it would have been even better without remote work, but this seems an important fact! Second, the study focuses on the first few months of the pandemic. I would expect that most organisations adapted and got better at remote work as the pandemic went on*. Third, as I’ve argued before, I believe this really is an area where “you can make it up in volume”. Even if there are drops in unit productivity, the opportunity to hire and collaborate with otherwise inaccessible global talent is an extraordinary one. I expect that in the long run, it’s this effect that will dominate.

*Diplomatically, the authors don't consider the possibility that the challenge is exacerbated by being forced to use Microsoft Teams...

What does it take to incubate *really* deep tech?

This week's TiB podcast conversation is with Ilan Gur, the CEO of Activate. Activate is a two-year fellowship for entrepreneurial scientists who want to commercialise their research, but whose technology is still a long way off being ready for even the earliest stage of venture capital. There are some similarities with the Entrepreneur First model, though we tend to focus on founders and ideas that are much closer to commercialisation (and our primary value proposition is that we want to be the best place in the world to find a co-founder).

As regular readers will know, how we improve incentives for scientists to work on breakthrough research and how we increase the supply of entrepreneurs are two topics close to my heart, so this was a really fun conversation. Among other things we discuss:

I'm really excited about what Ilan's doing and hope Activate continues to thrive and scale. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Quick links

  1. Humans are unique because... Remarkable adventures in animal tool making.
  2. Beauty is in the eye of the experimenter. Great Q&A thread on the most beautiful biology experiments. And one of the best answers.
  3. The shock of the new? What does automation do to wages? Interesting evidence from the history of telecoms.
  4. Show me the... Not news to my tech readers, but if you've not yet heard about Loot, it might be the most interesting social/tech phenomenon of the year.
  5. "When the World Trade Center falls on you". The best piece I read on 9/11 this year. Plus my annual reminder to (re)read the what's still the best and most moving story about 9/11.

BONUS: I wrote a short piece for Andreessen Horowitz's new publication about the future of expertise, alongside lots of smart and interesting people

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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