The Christmas Edition
Happy Holidays! A time to reflection and look forward - after all, hindsight is 2020.
Last weekend I road tripped to Joshua Tree National Park. Getting out under the clear skies and away from my home/office for a little while was a much needed escape. As long of a year as 2020 has been, it’s reassuring to look upon this ancient, otherworldly landscape and realize that a year is nothing in the sands of time. These enormous rocky outcroppings have stood sentinel for hundreds of millions of years. Against that geologic time scale, our individual existences are humbled.
2020 has been a tough year for most of us, to say the least. But I’d like to share a couple of things that I’m proud of accomplishing.
At Uber, I helped bring the Cornershop integration to life, bundling grocery delivery into Uber’s offerings in a number of North/South American markets. This involved months of planning, clearing regulatory hurdles, and significant engineering effort, requiring the contributions of dozens of talented individuals. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play a central role in the integration, and I learned some incredibly valuable lessons about leadership and cooperation along the way.
In October of this year, I made the leap to Instagram to work on the development of Instagram Reels, a short form video product that competes with the likes of TikTok, Triller, Snap Spotlight, Youtube Shorts, and many others. Short form video (SFV) has been thoroughly proven as a Next Big Thing in social media, and though over 80% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers have watched SFV, the space is still ripe for growth and innovation.
Another venture I embarked on this year with my cousin is related to research he has done on food-based treatment for COVID-19. It turns out that prior studies done on food-based medicine in response to the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak revealed leek as a potent inhibitor of coronavirus replication. Though these findings are still pending in-person studies, it doesn’t hurt to start eating (or taking) leek anyways for immune support, as it’s a simple food with no side effects.
After a foray into the world of supplement manufacturing, we’ve produced and listed leek supplements on Amazon! Reach out to me if you’re interested in a sample or discount. As we eagerly await vaccination, every line of defense we have is valuable.
With this long year drawing to a close, I’d like to call out some of the trends that I think will be of particular importance this coming year, and even this coming decade. After all, we often overestimate how much will change in a year, and underestimate how much changes in ten.
It goes without saying that I’m no expert on these fields and my research basically consists of my own reading and interpretation. Feel free to take everything with a big grain of salt, and hopefully you find some of my musings insightful.
Education is a leading indicator of national dominance (Ray Dalio’s Principles) and one of the most important personal investments one can make. The internet has transformed both access to education and the skillsets necessary to survive.
Remote learning has become a mainstay of 2020 due to the pandemic, but students and teachers have been woefully unprepared so far. With the advent of more specialized software and a better understanding of when remote learning does and doesn’t work, we may see increased utilization of virtual classrooms for specialized learning even after the need for social distancing subsides.
The importance of university education has been endlessly called into question, especially with the role of college dropouts in the tech boom, but it’s still a standard bar for entry to the white collar workforce. As increasingly large classes compete for limited seats in the same prestigious universities, and the student debt bubble grows beyond comprehension, the passion economy begins to offer alternative occupations that challenge the notion that everyone needs a degree.
The passion economy has opened the doors to new ways of earning: “influencing” on Instagram, streaming games on Twitch, amassing plays on YouTube, trendsetting on TikTok. Creatives have their pick of platforms as well: Substack for writers, Etsy for artisans, Patreon for just about anyone with a personal brand. The ubiquity of these nonstandard occupations continues to grow, but will ultimately be battling headwinds of regulation (ie 1099 vs W2 work) and healthcare.
Health and Medicine
As the global life expectancy continues to steadily march upwards, our ability to augment our health and lifespans will begin running into a ceiling of moral issues and regulation. Access to healthcare also remains a depressingly first world (American) problem.
Gene editing will be an area to watch as we continue to expand our understanding of the human genome. With services like 23andMe normalizing DNA sequencing, the logical next step is modification. Though this is fraught with moral and legal concerns today, societal norms may shift in the future, particularly when we could stop cancer, AIDS, and hereditary disorders in their tracks.
Telemedicine is another field enabled by the internet. I remember reading in my 2003 Time Almanac, almost two decades ago, that surgeons would soon be able to remotely perform surgery over great distances with the help of advanced robotics. While latency remains a challenge for intensive procedures, other forms of traditional care will continue to move online - with everything from virtual checkups to remote therapy becoming normalized.
Technology is the driver of human progress, and in fact the very thing that defines our humanity (if you consider the mastery of fire a technology). Though we often take modern conveniences for granted, we really are living in a golden age of information and productivity - though these superpowers come with their fair share of problems. As Louis CK said, “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.”
Fragmentation of attention is inevitable as more and more companies clamor for our limited attention spans.
Where services like Netflix and YouTube have done a great job at commanding our time in larger increments, apps like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok exist in the small moments - any time we pick up our phones (say, to check on the progress of a food delivery) we’re liable to spend a few seconds catching up on our feeds as well.
It’s hard to imagine that our time and attention can be fragmented much further. This is one example of a zero sum competition where few will win. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see greater re-bundling, as consumers tire of constantly context switching between multiple apps.
Regulation is coming into the spotlight again as Facebook and Google come under anti-monopolistic scrutiny. Internet companies have the tendency to push against consumer rights and interests, as technology companies expand vertically and horizontally in search of greater profits. Regulation will serve as necessary pushback to this potentially out-of-control growth, trimming or limiting the capabilities of technology platforms before they cause undue consumer harm.
Artificial Intelligence is purported to be either the greatest threat to humanity, or the next step in the evolution of our species. Whatever your opinion, there’s no arguing the fact that artificial intelligence thoroughly surrounds us already. As machine learning continues to expand in power and accessibility, it’s only a matter of time before the next leap forward occurs, bringing us closer to superhuman intelligence and productivity.
Brain-computer interfaces: the melding of man and machine. I’m personally extremely excited for this eventuality, as is Wait But Why in his coverage of Neuralink. To think decades ahead about the possibility of surpassing our biological limits, it seems inevitable that we’ll augment our knowledge with some kind of digital uplink. Pulling back from that science fiction just a bit, we may soon see brain computer interfaces in medical applications as a sort of neural prosthetic, allowing people with certain disabilities to live a greater semblance of a normal life.
Augmented and virtual reality are exciting to me as the next major platform. While smartphones have gone just about all the way in bringing the digital world with us, we have yet to make great strides into the digital world. Though accessible, seamless consumer AR/VR experiences still feel years away, this field also demonstrates exciting possibilities for education and healthcare.
Crypto is becoming increasingly important as an alternative store of value, but I’m still dubious on its effectiveness outside of the digital scorekeeping use case. In 2017 the crypto boom saw entrepreneurs attempt to apply crypto to just about everything, and it’s hard to say that anything stuck. I think crypto will continue to appreciate in value, but its utility is capped. While crypto definitely has strong applications to some existing real-world use cases, it’s harder for me to see it as a platform on which a generation of new products can be built, the way brain-computer interfaces or even augmented reality would allow.
Space exploration is truly, as Star Trek puts it, the final frontier. SpaceX and a crop of billionaire-backed companies are making great strides, but the value prop of launching humans to Mars still pales in comparison to cleaning up our home planet. I think space exploration is an exciting tentpole that will always inspire our collective imagination, but unlikely to provide much more than novelty to the majority of people in the near future.
Slowing and even reversing the effects of climate change requires the full attention of our species, if we are to have a habitable planet in a hundred years. Heat waves, snow storms, and forest fires are just a leading indicator of trouble to come. Change needs to happen at the scale of national government regulation and significant corporate action.
The sustainable generation, distribution, and storage of electricity will lead our way to a sustainable future. With steady advancements in photovoltaic efficiency, solar is cheaper than ever. However, given the long time horizon to positive impact, the impetus to invest in renewable energy will come in the form of government regulation and incentives. We (voters, shareholders) need to push for bigger carrots and sticks to make the transition successful.
Battery technology is critically important to the usefulness of electric appliances (I use that term as broadly as possible - phones, cars, and everything else included) and batteries have changed little, fundamentally, from when they were first invented. An exponential increase in battery efficiency is needed to thoroughly wean our civilization off fossil fuels. QuantumScape ($QS) has been running up lately on this promise.
Electric vehicles are more in vogue than ever, thanks largely to the efforts of Elon Musk and Tesla. Did you know that the electric vehicle made its first debut in 1890? Though gasoline proved more useful at the time, the narrative may be flipped in this coming decade. As more states and nations mandate electric vehicle adoption, fuel-powered vehicles may be a thing of the past sooner than we think.
The politicization of just about every issue in the American media has led to the highest levels of divisiveness on recent record. However, the biggest issues facing everyday Americans need bipartisan support to address. Meanwhile, the transgression of basic human liberties collides with the social media generation.
Radicalization of political parties isn’t unique to the United States, though it has played out in a big way in the 2020 elections. As major political groups become unable to see eye to eye, issues that should have bipartisan support have proved divisive and deadlocked in Congress. I’m cautiously optimistic that politics will once again hold the interests of common men and women to heart, but it will be an uneasy path to get there, particularly as urban and rural demographics shift towards liberal and conservative extremes. The proliferation of social media echo chambers has contributed to this phenomenon, and for all the backtracking efforts Facebook has made in terms of content moderation, the damage is already done. See also, America is a Sick Giant.
Civil rights is a seemingly never-ending struggle, as Black Lives Matter was thrust into the spotlight this past summer. For all the efforts of civil rights leaders over the centuries, we still live in a society plagued by systemic oppression and unequal access to basic freedoms and necessities - healthcare, education, and social mobility. While violent riots are unproductive displays of force, the source of this energy is a deep sense of frustration and unfairness - a force tapped by Gen Z and channeled through social media. The struggles are not unique to America either. The next revolution may not be televised, but it will be livestreamed.
Our Financial World
Money makes the world go around, and 20% of all USD in circulation was “created” in 2020. Modern Monetary Theory is being put to the test. Meanwhile, ordinary people are generally awful at managing their own finances, making them easy prey for corruptible institutions.
The US dollar’s position as global reserve currency is necessary for the stabilization of the global economy in the wake of COVID-19 economic shutdowns, but the rate at which money is created (testing the boundaries of Modern Monetary Theory) will inevitably put a strain on its reserve status. Inflation hasn’t taken hold yet, but it seems like a matter of time before low interest rates and money creation devalue the dollar beyond a breaking point.
China assumes the mantle? It’s hard to say which world power could step up to the power vacuum, though China looks to be in the lead. However, its checkered relationships with other world powers lend uncertainty to that possibility. Without a clear successor, the US dollar remains the “gold standard”.
There is no alternative (TINA) purports that, because of low interest rates, equities are the only place to make a consistent return on investment, which further drives up the prices of said equities. Perhaps responsible for the 2020 stock market rally, it’s impossible to say when this bubble will pop, but I personally think there’s a ways to go. The $1 trillion market cap, previously unheard of, might even be normalized. Consider how unicorns ($1 billion+ startups) have gone from a rare breed to run-of-the-mill in a matter of 10 years.
The democratization of financial tools is one promising trend for the historically underserved. Technology companies like Robinhood (investing), Square (business management + cash management), and Affirm (personal loans) all offer everyday people access to powerful financial services for little or no cost. However, these services have a predatory side as well, potentially tricking the financially un-savvy into risky or unsustainable positions. As much as the playing field is evened by technology, education and regulation will prove equally important to ensure a fair game.
There are two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle.
- Jim Barksdale, cofounder of Netscape
Ever since I came across this quote this year, I seem to notice it everywhere I go. Sometimes it does feel like every “new” service is just a rehash of some functionality that existed before. Human civilization has been around for millennia, so how many of our services are truly, truly new? Most companies, even “technology” companies, really solve for the same issues we’ve collectively had for ages: we want to eat, we want to go somewhere, we want to meet someone.
While some technology provides us truly novel solutions to these problems, most solutions are “bundling” existing solutions into convenient packages, or “unbundling” convoluted packages into specialized components.
I’ve spent a lot of time following the stock market this year, especially after the excitement of the flash crash and recovery. And while there’s seemingly little rhyme or reason in what makes a stock hot, it’s clear that winners have a clear bundling (or unbundling) nature. Just look at Tesla; to justify its sky high price-earnings ratio, Tesla bundles all kinds of promises into one: electric vehicles, self-driving capabilities, a network of cars-for-hire, even the car as a node of a vehicular operating system. This is a superb bundle. In China, WeChat is seen as the mobile operating system for everyday life - the ultimate bundle.
Conversely, a company like CloudFlare offloads the burden of setting up content delivery infrastructure from other technology companies with its highly specialized solutions - a powerful unbundling of common functionality.
In an abstract way, I think this bundling/unbundling thesis applies to pretty much everything. A unique problem isn’t really a unique problem, it’s a unique bundle of problems. And so there must be a bundle of solutions, existing or novel, that solves it.
Whatever the future has in store, it’s unlikely that the challenges we face will be unique on the time scale of all humanity. Climate change is a threat, but humanity has collectively survived ice ages. Societies have survived coups, revolutions, famines, plagues, and much more - sometimes all at the same time. The lessons from our past will continue to help us make sense of our future, even in times uncertain as these.
Whatever 2021 has in store, whatever unique bundle of twists it throws our way, I’m confident that we’ll be able to collectively work through them. The magic of the internet is the effortless access to knowledge we have collectively been granted. With time, dedication, and an internet connection, anyone can be an expert on any subject. This connectivity is what gives me hope for humanity’s future, and I’m happy to be alive at this point in history to witness it.
I hope you and yours are enjoying the holidays and catching a break before the new year. Have a Merry Christmas and stay safe - see you in 2021!