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Shortly after World War II, U.S. State Department official George Kennan wrote an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs advocating a strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union. It became the foundation of U.S. Cold War foreign policy.

We seem poised for a new era of containment. Only this time, the power to be contained is not military or political, but economic. The theatre of conflict is not heavy industry, but information technology. And the object of containment is not Russia, but China. There is, however, a big problem. …


A really important paper (or technically extended abstract) by Christian Catalini, Ravi Jagadeesan, and Scott Duke Kominers was posted last week. It goes to the heart of the choices facing the blockchain community today. It’s short (6 pages) and equation-free, so it’s more accessible than most technical or economics papers.

The authors are affiliated with Calibra, Facebook’s subsidiary associated with its Libra cryptocurrency initiative. Calibra funded the research. The conclusions are, unsurprisingly, consistent with Libra’s design. It’s no accident the document was released the same day as the Libra announcement. That said, it’s not a Libra document; it’s an academic paper. …


People in the technology world love the word, “disruption.” Though widely mis-used, the concept draws valuable attention to the fact that change is sometimes discontinuous. Nassim Taleb’s idea of the black swan similarly resonated because it emphasized that the present is not always a good guide to the future.

The most important potential disruptor in the world today isn’t a technology or a company. It’s a country: China. Over the next few decades, China could alter the foundations of the longstanding world order. Those of us in the West need to consider this possibility. Not just in the naïve sense of “countering the Chinese threat.” …


It’s two big innovations and one promising idea

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Image: Luca Florio via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

These days it’s hard to avoid pronouncements about how cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology could change everything (or at least, create massive wealth). Yet there’s an equally loud chorus labeling them a massive scam, useless, and dangerous. And a surprisingly large audience still doesn’t understand what’s going on. One big reason for the confusion is that we’re not all talking about the same things.

The truth is that there isn’t a blockchain phenomenon to be for or against. There are three.

The three communities share a basic set of design principles and technological foundations — but the people, goals, and prospects are almost completely distinct. Those involved don’t help much by sniping constantly about which is the “real” movement. …


(Originally published June 8, 2018 on LinkedIn)

An amazing chart from Morgan Stanley, cited by the Financial Times, sheds new light on the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency phenomenon. As is usually the case, good data and good stories are mutually reinforcing. The chart alone doesn’t tell us why things are happening, or even entirely what things are happening. Instead, it helps understand what events in the real world were significant. And offers evidence to support hypotheses, whether about the past or the future. …


There is a comment attributed (almost certainly incorrectly) to Albert Einstein, in which the great physicist was asked to explain how radio works:

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.

Bitcoin and the blockchain can be explained similarly.

To understand Bitcoin, first you need to understand traditional “fiat” currency issued by governments. …


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(Cross-posted and revised from Facebook)

Has anyone seen a good recent financial analysis of Uber? I’m sure private equity investors and Wall Street analysts have built models to evaluate whether to invest (now in private offerings, or later after the IPO). Is there anything publicly available?

Everyone points to Uber’s huge fund-raising numbers and rapid growth. But as the old saw goes, if you’re losing money, you can’t make it up on volume.

A company with massive growth still isn’t a valuable — or even viable — business if it’s not profitable today and future revenues don’t scale faster than future costs.

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For the moment I’m not asking whether Uber is good or bad for society. Nor am I evaluating the economics of ride-hailing or the sharing economy in the abstract. I’m just considering Uber’s business prospects, based on what we know of its finances. …


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I’ve been thinking about what I would be thinking about, if I were thinking about gamification right now.

For context, I teach a massive open online course on gamification, which is the application of digital game design techniques to business and social challenges. I co-wrote a book on the topic. I’ve been an advocate for the value of game thinking in business and beyond. But I haven’t done much gamification work lately.

Partly, I’ve been concentrating on my other research areas (blockchain, big data, and telecom policy at the moment). And partly, I’ve been focused on how the country is going to hell. It’s hard to get excited about making things fun and solving ordinary business problems when our fundamental freedoms and the Rule of Law are under siege. Yet I can’t help seeing a glimmer of a connection. Gamification surely isn’t the answer to Trump. In some ways it contributes to the problem. But I think it has something useful to teach.

I view gamification as an architecture of motivation. Done right, it’s a hybrid of art and science in the service of humanity. Architecture is about buildings that are beautiful, functional, and safe. Buildings fail when any of those is ignored. Gamification fails when it’s just about fun, or habits, or rewards, or competition, or behavior change. …


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I spent yesterday with my wife and son at Gettysburg, site of one of the most significant battles of the Civil War. I’d been there before, but as with so many other things, the present circumstances in America cast experiences in a new light.

What was so striking was how clearly those at the time, and afterwards, saw the significance of those three days in July 1863 on the outskirts of a Pennsylvania farming town. You hear in in the journals of the combatants, in the scrupulous records and copious memorials that started not long after the end of the war and never stopped. …


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Let me tell you the story of a dead-end technology.

It starts with a middling college student, who writes a crude application in order to learn about Windows development. He employs a technical approach that makes it drop-dead easy to steal music rather than paying for it. The app turns into a huge fad… until his company, his competitors, and thousands of their users face a crushing wave of successful copyright infringement lawsuits. Shortly thereafter, big companies using traditional technology take over the market.

Now let me tell you about a technology that could just change the world. It has a long history of development in the world’s great research labs, both corporate and academic. It tackles a fundamental challenge of networked computing, which explodes in importance as the internet grows. Today it’s widely used, although mostly behind the scenes. Microsoft relies on it to deliver games efficiently to the XBox, for example, while the U.S. State Department funds products employing it to circumvent censorship by repressive regimes, and IBM just launched a system using it to provide severe weather alerts during disasters. …

About

Kevin Werbach

Wharton prof, tech policy maven, digital connector, pesctarian, feminist. Co-author, For the Win; author, The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust.

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