Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 184: The Exponential Age; how to give away $100m; the future is woke; and more...

Welcome new readers! Thoughts in Between is a newsletter (mainly) about how technology is changing politics, culture and society and how we might do it better.

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How to navigate the exponential age

This week’s TiB podcast episode is one of my favourites of the year so far: a conversation with Azeem Azhar about his book Exponential (which I highly recommend). Azeem is an entrepreneur, investor and the creator of Exponential View, a newsletter and community dedicated to understanding the future. Exponential’s core thesis is that (some) technology changes exponentially but our institutions adapt only linearly, if at all. The resulting “exponential gap” creates a series of societal challenges, from inequality to climate change, that we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with.

My favourite chapter in the book is on the future of cities and how changes in technology might uproot a lot of what we take for granted about the politics and economics of urban agglomeration (There are obviously some links to our previous discussions of remote work and its impact on innovation). In addition to this we talk about:

I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

What's the best way to give away $100m a year?

I've written before about whether the venture capital model - i.e. the willingness to see a very high failure rate in search of truly extraordinary returns - can be applied to philanthropy (See TiB 4, 127, 160). I've been skeptical for the simple reason that in VC the winning bets pay for the losers, because the inputs and outputs of VC are measured in the same currency: cash. The same isn't true in philanthropy (though the fascinating idea of impact certificates might be a partial solution). Nevertheless, there's been a lot of innovation in this space, such as the excellent Charity Entrepreneurship - a sort of Entrepreneur First for altruistic impact.

What's missing though, at least according to Ben Todd, co-founder of 80,000 Hours and one of the leading figures in the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, is innovation at the other end of the scale: altruistic "megaprojects" that can absorb at least $100m of funding each year and have potential for enormous impact. See this thread. Ben's point is that there's at least $40bn of charitable funding for EA projects but that the funding gaps in the top EA charities are far smaller than this. The missing piece, Ben suggests, is more nonprofit entrepreneurs with the ambition and skill to build organisations that need a "Tiger Global of philantropy".

So what is the most effective way to give away $100m a year? Ben's thread prompted this discussion, which is full of ideas. Some of the most interesting include filling the gap in nuclear arms control research (did you know that the Macarthur Foundation until recently provided around half of all private funding for this, but has recently stopped?); taking over the US private prison system; eliminating disease-bearing mosquitoes; and building a system for detecting and stopping pandemics. Perhaps the last two meet the bar, but I can’t help but think that the ambition level could still be raised: what would the Elon Musk of philanthropy do?

History is unkind to most of us

A useful question to ponder periodically is what mainstream beliefs today will seem horrifying to our descendants. Throughout modernity, the answer has never been “none” and, indeed, wholesale social change often happens impressively quickly. If you’re interested in this question, I highly recommend this conversation between libertarian economist Tyler Cowen and (very) left-wing Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan (see also TiB 13). It’s the most striking podcast episode I’ve listened to for some time: two intellectuals at the top of their games whose world views and foundational assumptions are so different to be at the very limits of mutual comprehension.

Once you’ve listened, it’s worth reading Cowen’s commentary here and especially here - and even breaking the golden rule and reading the comments (Puzzlingly, Marginal Revolution is perhaps the world’s best blog, but has the worst comments section). I’ve sent this episode to numerous people and it seems to function as an ideological Rorschach test. I suspect that most TiB readers will be somewhat more sympathetic to Cowen than to Srinivasan (as am I), but I also suspect that Srinivasan is more likely to end up on “the right side of history”.

I think about this through the lens of my day job, talent investing. Chris Dixon likes to say of tech that “What the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone will do… in ten years”. The equivalent for ideology is that whatever consensus elite undergraduate beliefs that seem most out of kilter with the outside world today will be mainstream within a generation. Noah Smith made the link between talent and ideology in this excellent 2017 thread. I’d also note the deep compatibility between ultra-progressivism and consumer capitalism as evidence of its adaptiveness (“Corporations can be woke but they can’t be anti-capitalist”). Cowen, as it happens, has a recent column that argues “wokeism will win” and is sanguine. Many won’t be, but over a long enough timeframe, we’re all Girondins.

Quick links

  1. TL;DR. GPT-3 can now read and summarise books.
  2. Uncommon prosperity? Interesting take on what's really going on with China's recent policy reforms (including the attacks on tech)
  3. That's your Lot. Fascinating paper on the real life destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah ("temperatures exceeded 2000 °C")
  4. One careful owner? Terrifying thread on lost nuclear weapons.
  5. Globalisation is very old. Beautiful evidence of Viking - Abbasid Caliphate trade

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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