December Newsletter: 2021 in Review

December Newsletter: 2021 in Review

Summary:

  1. Reflection on 2021 – Beginning of Infinity
  2. Pondering payments and VR in 2022
  3. Most read posts this year

Beginning of Infinity

David Deutsch’s book “The Beginning of Infinity” is the one thing that influenced me most in 2021:

  • I reviewed it here.
  • For a podcast interview with David Deutsch and Tyler Cowen, listen here.
  • For long form analysis by Naval and Brett, see here (Part 1, Part 2).

Deutsch lays out a highly optimistic case for technology, progress and human advancement. He rejects the idea of de-growth, i.e. that consuming less is the only future for humanity, and makes the case that humanity can only survive through the continued growth of knowledge, the economy and technology. There is no turning back from progress, other than to towards a demise such as that as the people of Easter Island.

Deutsch is against hampering free thought. His ideology is also anti-conservative and I see his writing as a rebuttal to over-use of the precautionary principle. He favours a more curious, experimental and error correcting* approach to life, society and technology. One might call this “technology progressivism”. Concretely, what this means is embracing things like virtual reality worlds, biotechnology improvements (implants, supplements etc.), space exploration and life extension. So, in short, my philosophy has shifted a little further from Nassim Taleb, and a little more towards David Deutsch – although there is a lot that both would agree on. Deutsch’s technology progressivism seems to me a somewhat scary but significantly better alternative to technological regression or authoritarianism.

A close second for influence on me in 2021 was Steve Koonin’s book Unsettled. It’s about human-caused climate change and I referenced it in a blog on the same topic. The book, and my subsequent study/digging, changed my false perception of a recent and widespread increase in extreme weather events. My overall view is that reducing carbon emissions is important and worthy of significant mindshare, but not necessarily more than systemic risks such as cyber attacks/failures, pandemics (enough said 😂), or nuclear/chemical attacks. Further, climate alarmism can create an atmosphere of fear and technological regression, even though technology is responsible for the progress we have made so far (e.g. declining emissions in high GDP countries) and critical to progress that lies ahead.**

*Regarding “error-correcting”: Deutsch would say it’s not just about which government is best, but about whether you can change out a government without warfare/calamity if it’s bad one. As a very specific example, he views first-past-the-post electoral systems (as in the UK) as superior to proportional representation (as in Ireland or Israel), where a small minority (the coalition partner) have a disproportionate say that makes a full government change-out difficult.

**To be clear, regulation and/or government initiatives have played a positive role in progress to date on reducing CO2 emissions. It is difficult to parse out the relative contributions of technology versus government or even public versus private initiatives (as private initiatives exist within a public sphere of governance). It is easier, though not always simple, to parse out approaches that are pro-growth/ideas/technology versus anti-growth/ideas-technology.

Pondering Payments and Virtual Reality in 2022

Just as many of us regularly use Zoom, I see us moving – at least in part – to virtual reality meetings by the end of 2023. Virtual reality meetings are still a bit clunky (I recommend this interview with Meta’s Nick Clegg and the Financial Times) but will improve quickly.

All that is needed for VR is your mobile phone and a cheap headset (and maybe some cheap controllers, if you want to capture hand movements/gesticulation) and you can (in theory) log-in to a meeting as a moving avatar. There isn’t a big hardware hurdle to achieving this for a vast majority of the world’s population. Zoom is already planning to integrate VR. Even in today’s clunky format, VR meetings feel more present than looking at a four by four of people on zoom. So, I’ll be trying to make use of VR within the companies I’m involved in building – maybe thinking of buying team members headsets.

The other thing I’m thinking about is payments. Today, Mastercard and Visa – two companies with among the highest gross profit margins in the world – dominate global payments. They operate private payment networks that function very well (albeit with some drawbacks, like 1-3% fees for merchants to receive payments, or the need to have a a piece of plastic – real or virtual – with 16 numbers on it). The question in my mind is whether open source payment networks can supplant Visa and Mastercard?

Such a payment network won’t be Bitcoin (too slow) or Ethereum (too expensive)**, but maybe there can be an open source network supporting many digital currencies (dollar, euro, etc.) that does work out. Celo.org is one such open source network and it has very low fees and quick transactions.

There is no guarantee that an open source network will win out. Indeed open source networks often suffer from a lack of private incentives to fund marketing and also having good usability for a broader audience (the latter being a significant issue with crypto for the mass market). For open source networks to succeed, there will likely need to be strong privately run companies offering a good user experience built on an open source back end.

Side note: To a degree, this kind of vision probably overlaps somewhat with what Elon Musk tried to do at X.com, which was to build a full service bank. That company merged with Paypal, which is successful today, but largely relies on MasterCard and Visa payment rails. Supplanting Visa/Mastercard and legacy payment systems is hard, but probably not impossible.

**While the main Bitcoin and Ethereum networks are too slow and expensive for high transaction throughput, there are secondary layers that allow low cost and speed, with amounts eventually being settled back to the main layer. So, I don’t rule out that those secondary layers could provide open source payment networks of the future (or maybe the primary layers find ways to speed up, like Ethereum 2.0, but I think that will take time).

Disclosures: I [unpopularly] own some Meta stock (formerly Facebook) as well as Bitcoin, Ether and Celo. I don’t own Tesla stock.

Most Read Posts this Year

And here are the five most read posts I had during 2021. Keep in mind that posts from earlier in the year are at an advantage, just because they’ve been available for longer.

  1. Alfa Laval Acquires Sandymount Technologies. The beer concentration technology business I spun out of MIT and was sold in December 2020 to Swedish company Alfa Laval.
  2. Quotes from “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington. A lot of people reading this, I assume because of Black Lives Matter and related tragedies in the news.
  3. Simple Weight Lifting to Build Strength. I’m still going steady on the weight lifting. It helps me a lot to feel good.
  4. More Passive Investing without Index Funds. At some point I’ll likely move away from owning Berkshire Hathaway (since Buffett won’t be around for ever) and Store capital stock (incidentally, the CEO stepped down in 2020 and now another founder is running it). The obvious choice would be for me to move to index funds, but this article provides some counterpoints for why lots of index investing is probably bad for the overall system.
  5. I tried out a COVID antigen test for myself – an article from Jan 8th 2021. I predicted antigen testing would be widespread in Ireland and the US by around April of 2021. For a time in mid-2021, I re-rated downwards my view of the usefulness of anti-gen tests because the vaccine roll-out happened much more quickly than we thought would be the case. However, since the vaccine has not proven fully effective against variants (although certainly it is very helpful and recommended), most governments have adopted widespread anti-gen testing. Ultimately, my heuristic here is that cheap tools that provide added – even if imperfect – information quickly are typically beneficial in cases of high uncertainty. If anything COVID has shown us that we too readily discount uncertainty.

That wraps up 2021. I think it’s been just over a year now I’ve been doing this newsletter. The newsletter is up to about 500 subscribers, from about 50 this time last year. Please do let me know what you liked or didn’t like. Cheers, Ronan