Why Silicon Valley and thinking like a maker

On why Silicon Valley…

It seems like so many people are talking about leaving San Francisco / Silicon Valley, given how much I complain about the shoddy city infrastructure, I’ve had to answer why I’m still here many times. The short version is I that the same toxic groupthink is what pushes what’s considered “normal” to the edges, and that makes for extremely stimulating conversations and collaborations. But recently I found even better answers from Patrick McKenzie and Marc Andreessen:

Probably the single biggest change in belief I’ve had since joining is that ambition properly harnessed can be an enormously productive force in the world. This is largely informed by working with people who are extremely ambitious and yet well-grounded, both at Stripe and at our customers. There is a great, great difference between “Build a credit card processor? That’s impossible.” and “Build a credit card processor? That probably involves compliance with an enumerable set of regulations and writing a finite number of lines of code.” You want more people in your life who say the second version, probably at most margins.

Relatedly, I think I agree with Tyler Cowen that raising others’ aspirations is an effective way to increase productivity.

One way that Silicon Valley does this at scale is creating a space in the culture for being just a little bit wild-eyed when envisioning potential impact and then, this is important, actually shipping tractable engineering artifacts against the vision.

This is often poked fun of when it is deployed in the service of ends people view as unserious or when done by folks who confabulate. I have probably made jokes like that before. I think I have come to regret them, because they’re also heard by people with serious goals who are scrupulous. The jokes, and the broader culture, discourage those people from trying extraordinarily ambitious things.

Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) on “What Working At Stripe Has Been Like

Couple things notable. It is also my experience that the circle I have around me are both “extremely ambitious” and “well-grounded.” The magic of the valley has been the same this whole time which is that it is the only place in the world where it’s not only okay but encouraged to be “a bit wild-eyed” because “shipping” is also ingrained in the culture.

And then there’s Marc Andreessen.

Marc: And part of it is you should get into a scene. So this is part of it. By the way, this also goes to another kind of view of unfairness right now which is like, okay, why do all the great movies and TV shows get made… why do the vast majority get made in LA.? Like, that’s so unfair to people. There are people who, like, try to make movies in San Francisco, and they’ll tell you like, “It’s so unfair. Like, it’s just so much easier to do this in LA. Like, it should be easy to do this…” We get this in the startup world, like, why are a disproportionate number of startups built in Silicon Valley? Isn’t it unfair that you don’t have equal odds of doing this if you’re in Topeka?

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is, if I’m the indiv– you know, I grew up in rural Wisconsin — like, if the job is to get enmeshed into the system, right, into the network, then basically, what you wanna do as an individual is you wanna get yourself into the scene.

Brian: Yah Tony Hsieh calls them “collision spaces”.

Marc: Yeah. You gotta get in the mix, right. And if you’re not willing to get in the mix, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault, right? Again, as an individual, that’s the

Brian: Because we’re talking about is people who… what did… other than Van Gogh get to paint those paintings and feel that feeling, but his inability to talk to people — the work ultimately, it did him some good, but not nearly the good it could have done him, right? …Emily Dickinson, the same thing.

Marc: Yeah. Look, I’m completely open to the idea that there’s an alternate-universe Brian Koppelman, let’s call him “Krian Boppelman” <Yes!>, who’s a machinist in Albany, New York, who’s got a whole bunch of genius screenplays on the shelf. And, you know, someday he’s gonna die and his kids are goona discover and publish them and we’ll be like, “Oh my god. Look at all these great TV shows that never got made.” Because the world wasn’t enlightened enough to be able to go seek him out. I’m open to the possibility that that person exists… [but] I don’t know what to do with that?

Marc Andreesen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast (transcript)

The point here is that it is unfair that these ecosystems are concentrated and exclusionary, but as an individual, the basic understanding should be that the great work you create has no value if people can’t find out about it. Because people are busy, they’re not going to go out of their way, so it is imperative for the individual to do everything in their power to inject themselves and their work into the mix, and that’s why you have to be in Silicon Valley.

On thinking like a maker…

The media has been calling out tech, which is warranted. Power should be checked and tech is powerful. However, I find that there’s a lack of empathy for the makers of tech and how they are grappling with these complicated issues. Recent long-form interviews with Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg show that these two CEOs are thinking deeply about very difficult problems and I think it’s important to notice that and help move the more productive conversations forward instead. If we could see this level of deep thinking from powerful people regardless of industry, the world would be a better place. But we are not directing the attention to these discussions.

Jack Dorsey on introducing Edit Tweet:

you could build it such that you know maybe we introduced a 5-second to 30 second delay in the sending and within that window you can edit…

But the issue with going longer than that is that it takes the real-time nature out of it. Then we’re delaying these tweets like when you’re watching UFC or Warriors basketball a lot of a lot of the great Twitter is in the moment just like, you know, it’s the roar of the crowd…

if you’re if you’re in the context of an NBA game you want to be fast and you just want to be in the moment, you want to be raw, but if you’re in the context of considering what the president just did or making a particular statement that you probably need some more time and and we can be dynamic there.

Jack Dorsey on The Joe Rogan Experience

On fighting harassment:

What we are seeing with harassment is I don’t know this person and they’re just coming at me. What they’re doing is that they’re just gaming the system or that we haven’t provided enough tools to ward that off. We’re looking at product fixes like what if you could, being a host, have more control over the replies, who replies, or hide it from your conversation. What does that do for you and what does that do for the experience? It has positives for the author, but it also has negatives in that you’re likely creating more of a filter bubble. We see a lot of the power of Twitter is speaking truth to power. You can imagine some folks you disagree with heavily moderating or having teams of people heavily moderating their own reply space which takes out some of the conversation that might have been enlightening or emboldening to you.

…with the thesis being you tweeted something and you are effectively host of a conversation. Should we give you more controls to curate the conversation to the degree that you want to take it. If we were to do something like that we can only do so by saying, ‘Sam moderated this reply, it’s still here you can see it if you tap this button but you have to do some work to get to it because he has chosen to go in this direction.’

We ultimately believe that we need to measure our success here and I don’t know of another tangible metaphor than health. I know it sounds a little bit abstract and weird right now but we intend to study conversational health and understand what it means in the digital space and what it means specifically for Twitter and share all of our findings.

Jack Dorsey on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast

Mark Zuckerberg on decentralizing authentication on Facebook:

So, the question is if you have a fully distributed system, it dramatically empowers individuals on the one hand, but it really raises the stakes and it gets to your questions around, well, what are the boundaries on consent and how people can really actually effectively know that they’re giving consent to an institution? In some ways it’s a lot easier to regulate and hold accountable large companies like Facebook or Google, because they’re more visible, they’re more transparent than the long tail of services that people would chose to then go interact with directly. So, I think that this is a really interesting social question. To some degree I think this idea of going in the direction of block chain authentication is less gated on the technology and capacity to do that. I think if you were doing fully decentralized Facebook, that would take massive computation, but I’m sure we could do fully decentralized authentication if we wanted to. I think the real question is do you really want that?

Mark Zuckerberg’s discussion with Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School

Zuckerberg on encrypting messages:

Yeah, so, this is a really interesting point, right? So, when people talk about how encryption will darken some of the signals that we’ll be able to use, you know, both for potentially providing better services and for preventing harm. One of the— I guess, somewhat surprising to me, findings of the last couple of years of working on content governance and enforcement is that it often is much more effective to identify fake accounts and bad actors upstream of them doing something bad by patterns of activity rather than looking at the content.

…You can identify a lot of that without necessarily even looking at the content itself. And if you have to look at a piece of content, then in some cases, you’re already late, because the content exists and the activity has already happened. So, that’s one of the things that makes me feel like encryption for these messaging services is really the right direction to go, because you’re— it’s a very pro privacy and pro security move to give people that control and assurance and I’m relatively confident that even though you are losing some tools to— on the finding harmful content side of the ledger, I don’t think at the end of the day that those are going to end up being the most important tools—

Mark Zuckerberg’s discussion with Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School

On curbing misinformation:

So but then you get the question of what’s the cost benefit of allowing that. And obviously, where you can accurately separate what’s good and bad which you, like in the case of misinformation I’m not sure you could do it fully accurately, but you can try to build systems that approximate that, there’s certainly the issue, which is that, I mean, there is misinformation which leads to massive public harm, right. So if it’s misinformation that is also spreading hate and leading to genocide or public attacks or, it’s like, okay, we’re not going to allow that. Right. That’s coming down. But then generally if you say something that’s wrong, we’re not going to try to block that.

We’re just going to try to not show it to people widely because people don’t want content that is wrong. So then the question is as something is approaching the line, how do you assess that? This is a general theme in a lot of the content governance and enforcement work that we’re doing, which is there’s one piece of this which is just making sure that we can as effectively as possible enforce the policies that exist. Then there’s a whole other stream of work, which I called borderline content, which is basically this issue of as content approaches the line of being against the policies, how do you make sure that that isn’t the content that is somehow getting the most distribution?

Mark Zuckerberg’s discussion with Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School

If we were to listen closely and try to answer some of the questions pose by Dorsey and Zuckerberg ourselves, we can gain more appreciation for the difficult job these people have at designing meaningful systems for the rest of us. Maybe some of us can then contribute perspectives to help shape their thinking.

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