Albert Wenger at Gel 2016
What will be the next big thing? That is the question that Albert Wenger, Partner of Union Square Ventures, constantly gets asked. His answer (paraphrased):
When people ask what’s next and expect answers like virtual reality or robotics, I don’t really like those types of answers — they focus on the technology and undermine what are going to do with it.
Technology has progressed at an exponential rate over the last few years. The photo below captures how game console graphics have become photo-realistic over the last 20 years.
We are also reaching a society of zero marginal cost — the era where production of additional units are little to no cost after the fixed costs have been covered. We once had to drive to a game store to buy the latest game in cartridge form. Now we can now have immediate access to thousands of games on our devices — most of which are free.
Albert explained the progression of how scarcity has taken on different forms throughout civilization. During the Paleolithic period, food was the scarce resource for hunters and gatherers. During the Neolithic Revolution, innovation in agriculture made land scarce — it opened a wide range of new possibilities for people everywhere.
“How do we get from the industrial age to the next age?”
This shifted scarcity from food to land. This, according to Albert, is largely what sparked 8000 years of war over land — much of which we still face today. From there we entered the enlightenment age, a precursor to the scientific age, which led to the Industrial Revolution, which has shaped how we think about consumption and production.
Albert’s premise is that greed and a hunger for land acquisition in the Agrarian age has led us to the current state of divided nations. This historical theme suggests that our nature to conquer is deeper than land and food acquisition. Was Nietzsche right — that our will to power lies in strength, independence, and dominance? Do all animals (humans included) strive for conditions that allow us to achieve the maximum feeling of power?
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Albert went on to explain that we are on the verge of a new revolution — with attention being the scarcity. He’s not the only one — American Economist Herbert A. Simon saw the rising problem of information overload and wrote about it in an essay from 1971:
“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”
Albert went on to explain that the zero marginal cost society offers universality, the shifting away from a capitalistic model to a model based on person to person connection. Great examples of this can be found in products like Wikipedia, Skillshare, Meetup, and AirBnB. These products work well because they allow us to share knowledge and resources in an open and transparent way. Now that attention is more scarce than ever, we will have to become even more vigilant and conscious of the things we invest our time in. Just think of all the irrelevant content (ads/click bait) that is in between us the things we come to the internet for.
“There is enough clothing and housing for everyone. It is not a question of do we have enough. The question is one of distribution.”
Albert goes on to explain how attention is scarce on two different levels:
Scarcity on a personal level
How much time do we spend thinking about the important questions — who am I? Why am I here on earth? To riff on the ideas of the legendary Marshall McLuhan, have we taken the time to question how modern media is shaping our language, our perceptions of society, and what our contribution ought to be? When we are using devices and mindlessly indulging in click holes, how receptive are we to accepting these messages as facts and truths? How easily swayed are we on the internet? How set in our beliefs are we when looking at radical or absurd ideas? Have our brains become the RAM of the cloud — constantly processing and never storing information?
Albert suggests that we remain busy as a society to keep ourselves from answering the deeper questions in life. Technology does a great job of keeping us seemingly occupied with a having a good time. I believe we are missing out on important moments that will allow us to understand our place in the bigger picture. In short, I agree with Albert’s perspective that we keep busy to avoid facing these questions. Technology/entertainment platforms offer easy options with less of a cognitive load and more instant gratification than contemplation or self-discovery.
Scarcity on a collective level
Albert then made a great point in revealing how we think about problems as a society — take the environment for example. There are many people who are mildly concerned about the state of environment, but how many are actually solving these problems? To what extent are we willing to shift toward habits that contribute to a unified consciousness of environmental responsibility? With the introduction of a multitude of digital leisure activities such as Instagram or cat videos, have we collectively missed the fact that animals are going extinct 1000 times faster than ever before? Or that China has a serious pollution problem? Are the causes of our environmental negligence rooted in our nature to increase production and consumption? Have we really been blinded by cat videos and media of the like?
A world after capital
In this attention economy, what kinds of tools do we need to navigate and create meaningful experiences in it? What do we need to realize in order to contribute to the progression of humanity? And how might we get there? In his book, World After Capital, Albert identifies three types of freedom that we will have to become increasingly aware of as we enter this age:
We must let everyone meet their basic needs without having to hold a job. This way, we can double down on automation and enable everyone to participate in the knowledge loop.
What would it take to empower nations to the point of economic freedom? I believe there would have to be a mix of top-down governmental policy changes and and grass roots community initiatives — a union of business, logistics, and humanity. To sum this up in a quote from Albert’s talk, “There is enough clothing and housing for everyone. It is not a question of do we have enough. The question is one of distribution.”
We must remove boundaries to learning knowledge, creating new knowledge based on that and sharing this new knowledge.
In this age of information sharing, you would imagine that scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs would adopt a model of universality in solving the world’s problems. While this is partly true, industries are also safeguarding information more than ever before. The effects of modern copyright and patent schemes hinder what innovation could be. Companies like like 18F and Github are beginning to embrace the information sharing, but there are still a host of product companies who are behind the curve . Most recently, Google’s patent ensures that companies will not mimic the door of their autonomous vehicle. This is a complex topic, but there must be a better solution that would benefit humanity and not just large companies.
On the broader scope of information sharing, there are have been many who have made attempts to release guarded knowledge into the world to educate humanity at zero marginal cost. Aaron Schwartz, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden are a few that come to mind. They have all made great contributions to our society.
Innovation, at its core is the merging of new ideas/information, industries, and people. If we don’t make information free and accessible to all, it will be incredibly difficult to solve new problems.
We must free ourselves from scarcity thinking and its associated fears that impede our participation in the knowledge loop.
While all freedoms are important, psychological freedom is paramount to living out any of the above freedoms. This is the freedom that Mandela gained during his 27 years in prison. This is the freedom that Dalai Lama speaks and writes about about. This is the freedom that Bob Marley sang songs about.
If we wire our brains so that we are constantly grounding our emotions, reactions, and decisions on these fleeting notifications and updates, will we ever reach a point of arrival — to clarity, peace of mind, and the present moment?
Albert left the audience with the question “How do we get from the industrial age to the next age?”
My immediate response is that it will take many advocates across many different disciplines to align on the change they want to see in the world. Like any every era in history, we are fighting a battle. We are fortunate to live in a country that has a healthcare/education system, job opportunities, and (relatively) clean water. But this battle is a psychological one — I believe, at times, the enemy is in the mirror. We have to set the example and make the necessary changes in our jobs, our habits, and personal lives to gain these freedoms. Maybe even create our own personal manifestos like the Lone Ranger did.
And to build onto that, I have found that western values lean more toward a linear accumulation of accomplishments, short term satisfaction, and material assets — as opposed to the eastern philosophy which focuses on more aspects self-discovery. I think some cross-exploration could be helpful in finding ways to pursue and contribute to the above freedoms.