140 Characters vs Red, White, and Blue Space Jockeys

James, my highly-esteemed Biz vs Dev co-host, published a blog post about a consistent point of discussion–frivolous projects versus legitimate projects.

I responded via email. He insisted I made a blog. Heeeere’s a blog!

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” - Peter Thiel

James, I can distinctly hear your voice while reading your post (which is vital!).

Yes, the problems that aren’t 140 characters are the really hard ones. But we now have to make that be the sexy thing. We have to make solving hard problems sexy. Not merely venerate the glamour of starting something, toiling away and figuring out how to A/B test your way to tricking people into briefly using your substitutable product, and then celebrating yourself with a ticker tape parade (peppered with jet planes whose systems you don’t comprehend, no less).

When Twitter first started, it wasn’t remotely so ambitious. It was adopted by those in need in a capacity likely never imagined by its founders. But this is an anomaly.

If we’re busy with the value of doing something that is mere centimeters beyond a comfort zone, we will eventually collectively redraw that line and absorb it. When praise is lavished on those whom merely stick out a toe, subsequent copycats emerge. More folks will then see these minor excursions as feasible and will take a quick uninspiring stab.

That’s the tragedy of a copycat. Once upon a time, they might’ve dreamed. Clearly, they’re able to execute to some degree, even if it’s not along an unpaved road. But for now, they’ve relegated themselves to feasting on their neighbors’ original succulent thoughts.

Once we’re in the land of tiptoeing copycats, soft infrastructure to support said folks in their feeble pursuits (doublespeak: “innovative” and “disruptive”) will develop and set off subsequent rounds. This is amoebic progress.

When reimagining something, you need all of your energy and gumption to charge through the viscous unknown. Slowing down from the friction of exploring something so new and undefined is inevitable. But it’s these drag races with the unknown as your stubborn parachute that render you capable of exploring more, disregarding any status quo, and forcing those interested in creating a copycat culture uncomfortable. And you want to make them uncomfortable, because by doing so, you demand a higher caliber from everyone. You’re telling them to support you, and those around you, in building something vast and unprecedented. You can copycat an ephemeral messaging app, but good luck on a mission to Mars.

Let’s ponder macro-level outlandishness. Once upon a time, the country was united in advancing its intellectual pursuits (read: the Apollo Effect/ Sputnik Effect). It may have had something to do with that Space Race thingy. Certain societal values were catalyzed and took precedence. Although it was for war/ Americans-wagging-their-cocks-at-the-Reds purposes, the race temporarily allowed for a wide-range of technological advancements that solved problems that reached far beyond just getting a red, white, and blue space jockey on the moon. NASA is responsible for a slew of other technological innovations. Ditto with the defense forces (e.g. the internet). A bunch of smart people working together with considerable support (morale, respect for their field, and, of course, both the manifestation and precursor of the two, funding) can’t do us wrong. We need more of this and more of them.

Just look at China and India competing over Mars.

Saving lives–improving our understanding of existence–on Earth (and off, see below) is a matter of pouring money and effort into research and development (and the precursors thereto, including values, education, training, and support thereof).

Another argument that can be made here: as a species, we have a survival-oriented imperative to gtfo the planet. Otherwise, we can always be wiped out in one fell comet swoop. Then will it really matter how much “innovation” your ad-tech company is creating?

Big problems are the ones that need tackling. If we focus on supporting a man-made civilization ecosystem (for instance, the modern Western economy), we’re inherently moving away from solving broader issues. As it’s constructed now (and it’s so crucial to constantly remember that it is merely a construct and not physiological truth), our current dynamic encourages refinement of inconsequential minutiae. We’re making morsels of progress in the wrong direction because we’re supporting the wrong view (wrong here defined as exploitative, unsustainable, short-sighted, and not compassionate).

If we continue with the thought experiment that our grandest mental conjuring is colonizing other planets, then we’re effectively preserving all of the planet’s evolutionary history by transplanting our ecosystem onto a different planet. That’s saving way more than just human lives. That’s preserving and transplanting several billions of years of evolution on this planet (‘trans-planeting’?). We could show a morsel of respect (and awe) to this time scale. We’re its product, not its center. And as George Carlin so uncomfortably stated, we’re not really trying to save the planet–we’re trying to save ourselves; the planet is juuust fine without us. Rather than grimacing at the discomfort that our time here is fleeting and existentially meaningless, we can rejoice in the knowledge that we’re the result of myriad natural forces that are perpetually outside of our mental capacity to grasp. We’re free to tarnish it, but it won’t care. It’ll keep gently slogging away as it does, as it did. We little accidents should only be so lucky to see through where existence might take us.

There’s a slow shift approaching, though. One grand bit of thinking that came out of Google X is that you can’t just think 10% better to solve dilemmas; you have to start your thinking at 10x better. That means that everything you already know has to be reinvented, which, surprisingly, makes matters easier. You’re not shooting for marginal improvements, because you’re depending on an existing framework that can’t support something so divergent. Instead, you just create something new.

When considering massive scale survival/colonization, profit (hopefully) goes out the window. Adherence to the dominant business philosophy of adulterated capitalism should, theoretically (read: idealistically) diverge from survival. One of the arguments against a rapid mobilization of eco-friendly behavior (versus ego-friendly) is that it will disrupt our way of life. Meh, so will extinction.

There’s an unprecedented amount of additional effort/work that goes into colonizing something that isn’t just a few thousand miles away by boat (which, admittedly, was also tough; hat tip to the ancestors). By contributing to that/building out such an infrastructure/changing societal values and pursuits, you are inherently saving lives on Earth. Everything you do will affect everyone here. Especially if you can get folks out of stagnant/hackneyed modes of thinking on an overarching scale.

Pockets of focus on vital problems and massive dreams do exist. I just hope we’ll choose to celebrate them instead of frivolities, even if that means waiting longer for validation’s dopamine rush.