Reflections on 2019

Published on 29 DEC 2019 by Joe

My experiences this year challenged a lot of my beliefs and initiated some new thoughts. I’m not sure if this is interesting or worth sharing because it completely lacks the context of what I believed before. Well, one of the things I’ve tried to do this year is share ideas more openly.

So, with that, here are some of the things that were on my mind this year:

Russian Revolution

I’ve never been too interested in history, but this year I found a lot of books based around the Russian Revolution and World War II working their way into my reading list. I started with Hannah Arendt and WW2 but I made a turn toward Russia and the decades leading to WW2.

From seeing some of the “bizarre” events of the last few years - e.g. a negative yield curve, a deflationary economy offset by quantitative easing, a surge in populism - I just have a gut feeling that understanding the period of 1890-1940 will be important to understanding the next few decades. Even though the world seems crazy sometimes, not much is really new.

U.S. education tends to, naturally, focus on what was happening in America during this time. And to be fair, there’s a lot. The Cold War enters as simply the next chapter after a series of events that are presented as unrelated. That America focuses on America is not surprising. What struck me as odd was speaking with my German friends who also said they didn’t learn about the Russian Revolution in school. Germany played a big role in the Russian politics that led to the Revolution.

Few people in the West understand what was arguably the most important event of the 20th century. I’m not saying that I do - reading a few books could hardly count as “understanding” - but the Russian Revolution seems either forgotten or ignored.

Speaking of the Soviet Union

It turns out that not everyone in the world thinks it was so bad. This thought is an affront to the worldview of most Westerners.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years in Georgia (the country) and some of the other former republics. Georgia has made attempts to be more European in its politics and American in its economics. I’ve observed that a lot of older people still think the Soviet Union was the greatest country in history.

To understand why, I think it’s important to understand its collapse. From the few conversations I’ve had, the 5-10 years after the collapse were more difficult than the decades before the collapse. For someone living in the USSR, one day they knew who provided their housing, where their food came from, how much they got, and the next day they didn’t. People just had no idea what to do.

It can be easy to forget how long the USSR lasted. When most people think of it, they think of Lenin, the Red Terror, the gulags of Stalin, or Yezhov. But imagine someone born in 1953, the year Stalin died. They were 36 when the USSR collapsed. Prior to the collapse, the USSR launched the first satellite and put humans in space. The decade post-collapse was political and economic turmoil as various regimes emerged and crumbled. For this person, the collapse of the USSR was the single most difficult event in their life. That the Soviet Union represented greatness is not wild.

If we accept the premise that liberal democracy is good, however you define that, then what is the best way to engender its formation in places where one generation wants it and another one doesn’t?

Nothing in this section is practical at all, it was simply a bizarre realization I had this year.

Politics

A lot of experience this year challenged my political anarchism, or at least made me dig deeper. Two books that I did expect to challenge me but not in this way were The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

The Art of Cruelty

In a response to Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Nelson asks if one can differentiate graphic art that produces abreaction and understanding versus that which merely engages our can’t look away craving. I’m not one to be an authority in the art sphere - indeed, I had to look up Francis Bacon when I read it - but her analyses got me thinking about this can’t look away response and how it is used beyond art, namely in tech.

It was pure coincidence that I read The Art of Cruelty a month before The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Most big tech companies use “orthogonal” business models, as in the revenue stream is orthogonal to their product or service. (I’m not sure anymore if I thought of the “orthogonal” usage or if I heard it somewhere.) To take an example of where this could go wrong politically, take the police, which the state, at least in America, has a bad record of providing lately. So most anarchists (at least the Rothbard brand, where I probably IDed a few years ago) would say that private companies could provide a better service because no community would pay for a police force that acts the way U.S. police do. But it got me thinking about the orthogonal business models for police that would emerge, like offering “free” police service that makes a TV show out of police violence? Market approval doesn’t work because if only 1% of the population wants to watch that, it’s a hugely successful business.

This above example is political, but the same problem exists in the interplay of tech and state. These ideas have challenged my thoughts about the role of the state. I don’t know the answer or where I stand. I’ve tried to think about this more from first principles than specific examples. I think it has to do with trust boundaries. If technology can put trust into the hands of formal logic, then it can remove a lot of functions that historically have belonged to the state. The challenges are (a) redefining the role of the state, (b) making sure that the trust boundary actually moves into verifiable and transparent logic, and © making the role shift take place peacefully (see: interest in Russian Revolution).

Somehow a book about art set me down this path.

The Age of Surveillence Capitalism

Surviellance Capitalism got me thinking in a different way. In the first third of the book, Zuboff is hard on libertarians, especially Hayek. Or, at least, on the usage of his philosophy by big tech companies to allow them untrammeled access to our data. But at the end she seems to come around and defend Hayek, or at least argue (and I agree) that Hayek’s philosophy is based on a uniform distribution of ignorance while Google and Facebook are trying to concentrate information.

But I was surprised to find her book based more around psychology and sociology than politics, technology, or economics. It’s fitting that right in chapter one she quotes Erik Erikson:

The patient of today suffers most under the problem of what he should believe and who he should be or become; while the patient of early psychoanalysis suffered most under inhibitions which prevented him from being what and who he thought he knew he was.

Zuboff continues:

The first modernity surpressed the growth and expression of self in favor of collective solutions, but by the second modernity, the self is all we have.

So, the book comes down to this:

  • People are malleable and unsure of themselves,
  • but, the self is all we have,
  • and, a few corporations have an enormous amount of information and the ability to control the information that people see.

This combination gives a small group the edge to exploit this malleability to shape behavior in a way that benefits them.

The book’s battle takes place between B.F. Skinner and Hannah Arendt. Skinner’s definition of behavioral psychology denies the existance of a “self,” and Arendt says that this idea denies the “right to the future tense”.

Arendt is the hands-down winner on the page, but the book’s call to action does not inspire hope. The book did, however, change how I think about technology w/r/t “you are the product” (you are the raw material) and it provides a useful framework to understand the current tech industry.

Back to Russia

Circling back to the Russian Revolution and why this event is so relevant today, Richard Pipes:

Lenin derived his economic ideas from reading certain contemporary German writers, notably Rudolf Hilferding, who held that advanced or “finance” capitalism had attained a level of concentration at which it became relatively easy to introduce socialism by the simple device of nationalizing banks and syndicates. Thus, while intending to uproot the entire political and military apparatus of the old, “capitalist” regime, Lenin wanted to retain and use its economic apparatus.

The quotes around “finance” are Pipes’s and they are fitting because, now, you could easily change that to “information” and it’s an aposite desctription of the current tech industry, which is already more or less integrated into the political system. This tech concentration will be challenged, so I think the political question comes down to, How will people organize in a world where information can travel between any people without gatekeepers, and how will the previous gatekeepers react? I don’t know. I’m still opposed to arbitrary power structures like the state as it exists now. That said, I think states or collectives do have a role in the future of social organization, but that their role will hopefully be in a much different form than today.

I think a fitting way to end this section is a quote from Rudolf Rocker (via Noam Chomsky), which puts me somewhat at peace with the idea that anarchism is on the right track:

Anarchism is not a fixed, self-enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contact with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. The less this natural development of man is influenced by ecclasiastical or political guardianship, the more efficient and harmonious will human personality become, the more will it become the measure of the intellectual culture of the society in which it has grown.

Balance

And now for a big tack: that elusive work-life balance has been mostly work for the last few years.

I know how it happened. I went one hundred percent into cycling in 2014 when I signed a contract with a team based in England and quit my “real” job in Denver. Since then I spent two years focused on cycling, two years focused on trying (and failing) to start businesses, and one year focused on building Polkadot at Parity.

The nice thing about being entirely dedicated to one thing at all costs is that it gives you an easy framework to evaluate every decision. The bad thing is that it entirely defines your identity and self worth. This tends to wear one down, emotionally.

I was talking with my friend Chris about some of our mistakes from our cycling days. None of our regrets were about training or racing; they were all about how we framed cycling against the rest of our life. When I signed with a semi-pro, European team, I thought that I had accomplished this despite all the other commitments in my life, e.g. a full time job. Now that I can focus entirely on training and racing, I will be able to do so much more, I thought. That turned out to be a huge disaster. Other life obligations were actually the guard rails that compelled me to optimize my training schedule.

After about two and a half years, I completely burned out on cycling.

I am trying to apply this perspective to my current job. The truth is, I totally love what I’m doing. Nobody is forcing me to work so much; relative to all my options it is usually what I want to be doing.

Part of this has to do with living in Berlin. It’s my first time living in a big city. Also my first time living away from any sort of mountains. I moved here under the same reasoning that I moved to Europe to cycle in the first place: Berlin is where to be for blockchain. I do like the energy, the international culture, and I’ve made a lot of friends here.

But I definitely miss living in the mountains. And silence.

This heads-down mentality has been such a part of my life for the last ten years that I almost forgot about how fun life was when I first moved to Colorado and was skiing, riding my bike, and still getting plenty of work done. I had a desktop computer at my first job, so I was unable to work outside of the office.

I know that if I were still in my twenties, I would continue with blinders on. Knowing myself a little better now, and loving the projects that I work on, I want to make them more sustainable. It can be a tricky balance because I enjoy going all-in on something; the feeling of committing to and creating something original is energizing. I want to preserve that but also have the guard rails to prevent burnout. Luckily, it’s still early. I know that if I stay in Berlin like this indefinitely, then I will burn out in a few years. I don’t know the answer yet, but trying to figure out this balance and thinking about what changes I can make have been on my mind this year.

Asking for Help

Something I’ve tried to do this year is ask for help when I need it in a direct way.

The best part is that you can really go to anyone. I’ve gone to old friends whom I haven’t talked to in years to almost complete strangers. For example, someone I saw give a presentation at a conference. I approached her after her talk and said that I had been struggling with some things she was talking about and asked if she could help me. We had a call set up for the next week.

It also works the other way. In the last year, I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of indirect requests, like, “Email me, maybe we can do something together,” which always seemed like code for, “I want you to do something for me, for free.” One of my best memories this year was from a conference in May when I was walking out the door and someone ran up to me. She said, “I saw your talk, I’m doing my master’s thesis on blockchain, can we set up a call so I can ask you some questions?” It was so flattering that I probably annoyed her by offering to help too often.

Experience

For several years I was slightly jealous of my friends from college that went right into startups. I worked in a “boring, corporate” job. But now that I am in a startup, I’ve come to appreciate the experience of having worked in a larger corporation with colleagues who had 30+ year careers there.

ULA had just been formed out of a Lockheed Martin / Boeing merger; talk about two glaciers colliding and trying to change shape. But I was hired at an interesting time (2008). After the Cold War ended, the U.S. aerospace industry stopped hiring. Fast forward twenty years and most of the aerospace workforce was about to retire.

In an effort to avoid the loss of all the knowledge that came out of the space race, most aerospace companies started hiring new college grads at a steady rate. Almost everyone I worked with was either over 50 or under 30. There was a strong culture of mentorship and passing on their experience.

This all sounds a little hand-wavy because it is. Experience doesn’t check a box like other skills. I was a shock and vibration analyst. I could create finite element models and run simulations on them just like anyone else. But another analyst with the exact same check-box skills, but who was there when Challenger exploded, would add completely different value to an organization.

I think that a lot of the value comes down to knowing yourself. Knowing when to trust your intuition. I think about this a lot in my current work - when to keep digging into a question or when to accept an answer. Mistakes are hard (sometimes impossible) to recover from so I’d like to dig into everything, but complex systems are just too big to understand fully and you have to choose.

Something that has come with age (can I say that at 33?) is the recognition of when I’m not in a state to do my best work and knowing what to do to get there. It might mean taking a day off, which is hard when you’re addicted to work (see Balance), but doing your best work can be as simple as recognizing when you aren’t able to do your best and coming back another time.

One thing that has been surprising to me is that I find my experience in cycling to be deeply relevant to a lot of work in engineering. Polkadot is too big to fit in my brain, and the broader blockchain industry is chaotic. A bike race is also far too big to fit in my brain. I still have to make a constant stream of decisions about how to use my energy and time.