The billionaire space question

In Silicon Valley having first mover advantage is all-important. Companies like Uber, Facebook, PayPal have succeeded in part by growing quickly enough to shape the terms of the industry and way of business.

As the world looks skyward to the billionaire’s race for space, there is a fear that these companies will use their first mover advantage to fundamentally shape what space looks like.

And of course, what this means for a US-China, or West-China struggle for technological primacy is another issue entirely.

“The question for Bezos, as for the public, will be whether we’re on the road to space colonies in orbit or a corporate colonisation of the stars.”

Full story here.

‘Where are the tech elites in talking about the public good?’

This comment on the difference between the mid-20th Century American titans of finance in the post-war world and the tech elite of Silicon Valley stands out.

Zachary Karabell, an investment guy with experience in China, has written a book called, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, which traces the story of one bank and its role in the rise of the American century. (Source here).

Speaking of the US bankers, Karabell said:  

They believed that it was their duty literally to attend to the public good because they understood they couldn’t beggar the commons endlessly but their fortunes and the fortunes of society were ultimately linked and therefore they had a responsibility to make sure that everybody thrived ultimately — because they kind of knew that they couldn’t unless everyone did.

That then extends to the world at large after World War II.

The whole point of the Marshall Plan and creating this post-war architecture…was to fight communism. But it was to fight communism because the belief that capitalism and an open market was a better system to achieve human freedoms and affluence.

And that if you didn’t help [these things] develop they were going to collapse and therefore you were going to be a peril.

Serving and self-serving, serving and self-serving were so intimately and ineluctably interwoven.

And today, where are the tech elites in talking about the public good? And talking about public service?

It seems to be their version of public services is massive private philanthropy on the one hand and some belief in the utopian potential of what they’re doing to break the cycle of human suffering and need.

And maybe that utopian vision will prove to be true, but right now it does seem like that they’re sort of absent.

I think particularly of Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Peter Thiel.

There seems to be a communitarian notion of – ‘Can we engineer this new reality? If so, how cool would it be?’ But notions of public good fade away in the glow of their particular imagined, and often unaligned and contradictory, utopias.

In the communitarianism impulse of millennial Silicon Valley, I’m not sure a conception of a public good beyond the notion of user/customer is even present.

China-US tech competition: J.D.Vance

Author J.D. Vance – yes, of Hillbilly Elegy fame – made a comment in an interview that neatly laid out the issue with China and technology, one that has ramifications for Australia.

J.D. Vance (CC City Club of Cleveland)

“One of the really worrying things that I think about from a macro perspective is, if you invest in a real technology enterprise, one of the things you have to be worried about is that, when that company hopefully goes global and scales, it may have the very thing that makes it a good investment just stolen by the Chinese.”

“And in that world where we’re worried about investing in real technology companies because we’re terrified that the Chinese are just going to steal it, we’re not going to have as much technology innovation.”

“That means we’re not going to have as much productivity growth.”

“And ultimately, that means we’re not going to have as many people with good American jobs who are building and creating those new technologies. So I think that China is the threat.”

Vance, who works in venture capital, hits on a point that really illuminates the nature of long term techno-competition with China. As it stands China’s technology policy can dissuade companies and investors from expanding into new areas or moving up the food-chain of innovation. Why do it, if it’s just going to be stolen by China?

One feature of the Cold War was the considerable ignorance of the rival bloc’s technology. Today, the arc of China’s modern rise is to use the internet to hack and download things that aren’t available through the open market or through forced-technology transfers. So the technology a Western company makes is likely to be stolen and sold right back to Western countries – partially or in full.

Of course, this effect alone doesn’t account for the lull in innovation the US and West has experienced. There has also been a laziness and lack of adventure, not to mention the effects of the seductive lure of free trade ideology in recent decades. But one of those effects in a globalized, free-trade market, is what Vance describes so well.

The US is just waking up from this. Joe Biden, while recently espousing industrial policy, observed that “we’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years than we saw in the last 50.”

The comment from Vance points to the long-term landscape of competition between free democracies and China. How do you plan and invest if at any time, you’re precious IP is swiped and copied? Western inventions, governments and investors must prepare for innovation in a world, where this thievery is the new normal. How can they be successful?

For Australia, the more it diversifies its economy away from commodities and education and into technology, the more this problem will emerge. In fact, the higher the food chain of tech development Australia’s goes, the more it will come into conflict with China’s privateering industrial policy.

Mark Zuckerberg like James Halliday from Ready Player One – and that’s the problem

The film Ready Player One portrays a future when the real-world is so unpalatable, people prefer to live in a virtual reality created by the late, all-powerful founder James Halliday.

The story, set in 2045, came to mind while watching Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testify before US Congress on Wednesday.

Who controls what you see? (Image: Pixabay)

As Senators asked questions about what exactly this platform – which gave Russia access to American hearts and minds – was doing to the country, Zuckerberg kept referencing the awesomely humble beginnings of the company.

Like in the film, questions of the platform’s merits were answered by the earnestness of the founder’s personality.

Swap Halliday for Zuckerberg and the concept of the inventor-god ruling over his subjects has eerie parallels. In the film and the real world, any political question is subsumed by the personal.

“I believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg assured. Facebook began in his dorm room at university, he said, a point he kept repeating.

The film is fun but the vision of one tech whiz lording over the imaginations of the masses is, from a political perspective, frightening and repulsive. It’s a world where users hand over their autonomy to a platform with no process for these people to come together and make their voices heard.

Ready Player One is just entertainment. But it’s telling that a depiction of a tech world is founded on such neo-feudalism.

Unfortunately, Facebook represents a kind of neo-feudalism built around Zuckerberg’s vision. And it appears to be running headlong into our shared reality, the one with rules, rights, and real-life consequences.

Read the rest here at The Age.