This is an unusual episode where my old buddy Bill Scannell actually interviews me. Mostly this is a way for people who don’t know me very well to get a sense of who I am and how I think and where I come from. A lot of it’s really about my philosophy and what informs that. Bill does a lot to try and tie that back to how I grew up in Alaska, which may or may not be as relevant as it seems. We don’t really talk too much about projects I’ve worked on, this is just a conversation between friends about, you know, the background, behind a lot of a lot of what I’ve worked on and the things that matter to me, so I hope you really like it.
Bill Scannell is actually one of the most interesting people I know. I met him probably almost 20 years ago at at Cypherpunks meetings. Bill was a spook in the Cold War. He was stationed in Army Intelligence in Eastern Europe doing surveillance and then after that, ended up becoming a war zone journalist and has lived through like seven civil wars with bullets flying over his head. He has got a lot of interesting stories. Most of the interesting stories I know about a living human are about Bill. We don’t get into that too much here. These days Bill is a global strategist. A hacker with a Rolodex.
Want to launch a data haven? Spin-up an international press center in 3 weeks? Get a hacker out of jail? Get the Russian mob off your back? Stop a government surveillance program? How about negotiate with a foreign power over a seasteading misunderstanding? Bill’s your man. There’s a reason why he is on so many people’s speed dial.
It turns out he’s actually really good at interviewing people and I think you’re gonna like the way this came out. So hopefully you enjoy it.
Pablos: Bill Scannell, I am glad we finally get to do this.
Bill: When we became best friends many years ago, I remembered you looked at me, stared into my soul and you said, “How far are you willing to go?” Let me ask you that question.
What did you think I meant by that?
How consequent I was with my ideas. It went into a long discussion about my view of the world, but people are way more interested in your view than mine.
You thought I was asking because I was trying to antagonize you to go further. I was probably asking scared about how far you were willing to go. I’m not sure we had the same impression about that question. I don’t think it’s that meaningful of a question for me because I’m not sacrificing much. My life is good. My worst-case scenario is not that bad and I’m making choices about what to do with my time and attention. It was different than what most people would choose. I don’t think the right question because I don’t know how far I’m willing to go. I’m trying to discover how far I can go. That’s the difference. I’m not goal-oriented like a lot of people are where they’re like, “I’ve got to achieve this or that.” I feel like if I had ever set goals, I would have set them too low and I’ve been able to accomplish a lot more by constantly trying to discover what’s possible. That’s how I think about it.
For people to understand Pablos, the most important thing for them to know about you is that you’re an Alaskan.
Do you think that’s the most important?
I do because there is something about the cold. There’s something about having to ask someone as a small child whether it’s nighttime or daytime.
I was born there, but I think I was an aberration to Alaskans. It depends on what you count. It is an unusual place and the more perspective I get on the world, the more unique and special I think it was. I’m like the first generation to be born and raised in Alaska. There were lots of native Alaskans there and some people from the gold rush and stuff who were there before me. There was such a low population that in some sense it’s true, the first big generation of Alaskans was mine. In some sense, everybody who was there when I was born moved there from somewhere to get away from something or somebody.
It was a harsh environment and not inviting. It is so remote that being in Hawaii would have been closer to the world, even though it’s not technically an island. Those people were a unique class of Americans. They were very independent. You had to work hard just to survive in Alaska and you had to get along with a lot of other strange people. It did have a big effect on me. My world view is different. Having left Alaska, what I tend to find is dramatically less self-reliance in the US. I’ve learned to appreciate those things over time, even though I think Alaskans might disown me. I don’t feel representative of the people that are there.
There is no such thing as a representative of Alaska. People are all different and weird in their own way. There’s an interesting connection for me having chosen to move to Alaska and raise my children there because of meeting people like you, Lance Ahern and others. There’s this quiet solitude rock light thing inside them that lets them drive forward. I’m going to call it technological positivity.
It’s a weird thing to have gotten there because it is not a technology center of any description. The economy there largely has been driven by the oil industry. They’re adopting technology in pragmatic ways, but even that is removed from society because it’s more than 1,000 miles away from where the people are. My dad and everyone’s dad worked in the oil and largely they would commute to the North Slope. That means your dad, once a week, flies for three hours to the North Slope, spends the week there working, and then flies home and stays home for a week. That’s normal up there. Even though you have a sense that your dad works in the oil, you don’t get to see it. I’ve never been to the North Slope. I’ve never gone to see the work environment. It’s not like a tourist destination, but I have a deep sense of it from growing up there. I got a lot of value out of that self-reliance, the general feeling that you could do anything. My parents raised me to believe I could do whatever I wanted. They didn’t try to steer me in some direction.
What I’m trying to get at are two things. One is this technological optimism because without technology, it is impossible to have anything more than a basic existence living and out in Alaska. The second thing is that in your early high school days, you learned that the difference between near and far was three milliseconds.
I guess I always presumed that what happened to me is that probably the most unique thing. I got an Apple ][+. It is one of the first computers you could have at a home in 1979 or 1980. I had my first home computer when was 9 or 10 years old. No one else had any real interest in it and I was able to play with it. It was this bottomless pit of intrigue for me. I learned a lot from it because it was fascinating, but there was no one around who knew more than me for a thousand miles in any direction. I had to learn the hard way and try everything. I feel like I learned about a computer in a unique way because of that but I got enough of a taste from it to always be able to see that it could be useful and it would someday be faster and have more memory.
I didn’t understand Moore’s law at the time, but I knew that more memory would be a big help and eventually we would be able to do that. I didn’t know how much more memory, how soon, how fast or what the cost curve would look like, but I could see that someday it will be faster. Someday would have more memory and it will be useful. I would try to convince everyone of this because I felt like I had the superpower that I could use to do cool things for humans and almost nobody was convinced. I’ve said this a lot of times, the easiest way to understand is I had the Apple II and I also had a skateboard. I probably got more trouble at school for wasting time on the computer than the skateboard because people did not know that this was a thing. Computers were mythical, skateboards were real. It was a strange thing to be a 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old kid in Alaska evangelizing the power of computers and failing largely.
This is where the Alaska part comes in because I lived in Alaska for many years and I watched people and people have to make do. Look at what people can do with duct tape and a couple of cardboard boxes. They hack things together to make it work because they have a job to do whether it be harvesting fish or keeping themselves warm, whatever it takes, and here you are as a kid with your duct tape, skateboard and your Apple II.
I grew up on duct tape and WD-40. Between those two things, you can make anything happen. You got that experience since you lived there much more. In my mind, Alaska looks tamer now because we didn’t have delivery services or you couldn’t order stuff on your phone. You had to go foraging, even if it was to the store. You had to bundle up with all your snow gear and go to the store. It probably wasn’t even open. It could be noon and it would still be dark out going to the store and back. It’s a unique thing. I feel like I got a lot out of it, but probably to get to the bottom of what you’re getting at, what you would call technology optimism came from always being able to see how this computer could be used in ways that it wasn’t being used and it could make things better and more efficient, faster, and cheaper.
It was easy for me to see it, but difficult for everyone else to see it that there was a big gap there. It made me feel like I was living in the future a little bit so I got hooked on that. In some sense, that’s what I have been doing. My entire career is building a greater toolkit of technologies that I could understand and wheeled on one side and then building a greater collection of problems that I could understand and articulate on the other side, and as an inventor in the middle of trying to map them together.
You call it living in the future. I think of it like a fish does not know he swims in water, but you know how to swim in the water.
Maybe, it was not clear that I do.
Yet, you do. You have this weird ability to see beyond the horizon and this is relentless optimism with technology and what technology can bring. It’s not fatalistic or deterministic. You have a positive view.
I was probably in my late twenties before I even knew what the word optimist was or conversely pessimist. I didn’t even have a reason to know those words. Even now, the reason that optimist resonates is because of the way I am. I’m always talking about what’s possible, but I think of myself as a possibilist. There’s a difference because partly optimists have been disparaged a little bit because they often seem like they’re unreasonably bullish about everything, which isn’t the case. I don’t think that things are going to get better, but I believe they could get better. What hangs in the balance is our decision making and our ability to apply ourselves to make things better.
In my life, what I’ve experienced and seen is technology is bringing us the tools to make things better. We’ve done an extraordinary job in my life of applying technology to go after the problems that need to be solved. By no means, are we anywhere close to being done? We’re still at the beginning. There is much potential and every day our toolkit grows because of the invention. Every day we get more and more technologies. Each one of those is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether this changes anything humans have ever done. That’s the fundamental process I’m in, which is to try to learn about new scientific discoveries and technologies, even do products. Ask yourself with each one, “Could I use this to improve a problem from the giant pile of problems?” That’s what I’m doing.
Is that the difference between an engineer and a hacker where you’re not out to solve a problem but you’re out to seek possibilities?
It’s the difference between an engineer and an inventor. A good engineer is trying to know their field and apply it often with best practices in mind and they’ve learned an entire engineering discipline that helps them to do that. I’m a shitty coder. I learned to code by reverse engineering 6502 assembly language on the Apple II. Software development and software engineering weren’t a thing yet. I didn’t go to college. They have a whole system down for writing software that I don’t know. You probably don’t want me writing code on your enterprise software project because that’s engineering. We have trained engineers who can do a good job of that. I’m probably not that guy because I didn’t train to do that.
An inventor is trying to do the mappings the first time. This is often poorly understood and poorly appreciated because it’s extraordinarily difficult to do something the first time. It’s almost miraculous sometimes. Figuring out something for the first time ever is hard, rare, and special. I’m not saying that I’m good at it. I’m saying that it should be celebrated more than it is. In rare cases, we managed to do that. Most of the time, the inventor immediately gets steamrolled by an entrepreneur who takes it and then does it the first 1,000, 10,000 or 1 million times. They’re the ones who managed to get the value of extraction. They’re the ones who get celebrated. They’re the ones we invest in. We’re missing out on how special it is to do something for the first time. We have cases like that when we celebrated musicians sometimes like Beethoven discovered those pieces for the first time. Four hundred years later, we’re still playing them.
In art, we sometimes get it right, but you can’t name a lot of inventors. People can name Thomas Edison and Einstein. That’s a similar thing. That’s a scientific discovery. Scientists’ job is to discover scientific research is to discover how things work in the world for the first time and that’s amazing. That is why we give them Nobel Prizes and why we celebrate them when they do discover something important. That’s incredibly difficult, hard, long work, and you may spend careers on it without ever discovering anything, but an inventor is different.
Also, they’re words that have been degraded. To call someone a visionary is not a job title.
Inventor isn’t. I’m the only one who has a business card that says, “Inventor.”
There are people who say they are influencers. How can you be an influencer? It’s like being a hand model, but probably a hand model is an actual real thing. You are a visionary. Millions of people have watched you speak either in person or on YouTube. People have paid good money to either hear you speak in person or illegally download the recording.Every day, our toolkit grows because of invention. Every day, we get more and more technologies. Click To Tweet
With the job title, in the US, I get called a futurist. I would probably never say I’m a futurist, that’s sort of something people call you. In Europe, they call me a futurologist, which sounds cooler. That’s another thing where there’s an entire discipline of futurism, which I don’t know anything about. They have pie charts and graphs and the whole system down. They can go into your company and tell you about the future I don’t know. That’s not what I do. A futurist is probably a bad term for me because it overlaps something that I don’t even know about. Envisionary, as you said, that’s not a useful title but without the title, if you go back to possibilist, I’m trying to show with people the way I described technology tools, inventions, new technologies, and new scientific discoveries. On the other side, you get this pile of problems. People need to understand the technologies and they need to be demystified in a way that doesn’t sound like scary, magical stuff. An easy way to understand it is people are terrified of AI because largely Hollywood needs a boogeyman. AI is the new scary thing so they use AI as a catch-all for computers are magical and therefore scary and probably want to turn you into paper clips.
That’s the prevailing narrative around computers. Technology is the new scary, poorly understood stuff that sticks in people’s minds. I’m trying to demystify that stuff. I’m trying to show, “Here’s how AI works. Here are the limits. It’s not that hard to understand. Here’s what we can do with it. Here’s why it’s helpful. Here’s how we could map it to problems.” It is an extraordinarily powerful toolkit that we could use to go after all kinds of problems. Even if we never invent another technology for the rest of our lives, there’s much power in machine learning that we could stay busy for many years. That’s where we’re at now.
I’m glad you called it machine learning because when you say AI, people’s eyes roll to the back of their heads and they think of Skynet, but machine learning is creating an infinite decision tree.
That’s one way to characterize it, but we have this semantic argument all the time about where does machine learning and where does AI begin? Technically, the way we frame it is you have what’s called narrow AI, which includes machine learning and the things that we have now, and then this notion of an AGI or Artificial General Intelligence. That’s something that we think might be equivalent to how human intelligence works. We don’t even have any idea of how humans work. We have some basic ideas about how an AGI will work someday and some people are happy to oversell that to you, but we’re nowhere near it.
One of the big problems we have with the conversation is Moore’s law, which we’ve all lived with and experienced enough that we starting to believe it. What happens is somebody will take that and they’ll draw this curve and say, “Computers are getting faster in an exponential curve.” They’ll plot out here and say, “At this point, they’re smarter than humans,” which to me is saying, “No cars get faster every year, and at this point, you’ll be able to drive to Australia.” That’s not how it works. We don’t know much about brains, but one thing we know is they’re not digital computers. They do not work as our computers do.
One thing you said to me years ago was, “Bill, how fast do you want Microsoft Word to open up anyway?”
We got to the point where Word opens fast enough for everybody. Most of my life was spent staring at a computer with a little window called Progress. It should have been titled go get a red bull because you’re going to need the help to keep from falling asleep while there is no actual progress because computers were slow. No one’s seen that screen in years. Your computer is faster than what to do with it. You don’t even know how many gigahertz is your Mac. No one’s even bothered to keep track anymore because it doesn’t matter. You get a new Mac and it might be the same number of gigahertz. You don’t even know because you don’t care. It’s fast enough. A few of us are pining for a faster computer and I don’t even need a faster computer. I always want it in my whole life.
There was some inflection point that we crossed where we’re no longer computationally constrained, but we’re imagination constraint. That’s a big deal. We, for my entire life, wanted faster computers to be able to execute our vision for what was possible with them. Now, we have such vast, powerful, fast computers we don’t even know what to do with it. That’s scary. It shows humans aren’t keeping up with our potential. We have these tools we’re not putting them to use. It’s an important thing to acknowledge so that you could makeshift in the mindset to think, “Shit, we could be doing more. We could be doing better.” That’s where the rubber meets the road for me because we haven’t talked about it, but that pile of problems is also fast.
That’s what I want to move to in a moment, but I’m thinking about how you talk about the speed of computers. We haven’t touched on the speed of connectivity and how you almost don’t need any place to put anything anymore because it goes to information heaven, and then you pull it down when you need it.
It’s weird how different the world is for us. I think about everything that way now. Certainly, we have a vast amount of competition and memory. We have extraordinarily fast networks to move data to these giant computers. At the end of them, not just microphones and cameras but we have sensors for everything more every day. We’re getting all this data and we’re bringing it back to our giant computers, our networks and we’re able to do incredible analysis. All this is unprecedented for humans. The bottom line is it can help us make better decisions. We have to learn to use it. We have to learn to express our values to it so that it makes the decisions that we would want it to make.
It’s a different world now. I’ve often described this as saying, “For all of human history, we had this incredible innovation methodology called biological evolution. The way that works is that through sex and gamma rays, you make a lot of variations and mutations, and through survival of the fittest, kill off the ones that don’t work. You’re left with the best in class to go create the next generation with. That’s how we were created. That’s how we got here. That’s how you got two eyeballs, opposable thumbs, and the ability to appreciate music. These things evolved capabilities that are extraordinarily amazing. Humans are amazing. Once we got to be apex predator, once we got to the top of that food chain, once we became sentient, we killed off the mechanism that got us here. There’s no survival of the fittest anymore.
You were born and raised in Alaska.
This is why in my mind, that diversity that I have an appreciation for is that all over the world societies have dealt with different cultures, values and each of them has different experiments. Some are good for some things and others are good for others. It’s amazing and beautiful and getting to travel and meet people everywhere, you’ve done it even more than me in some senses. You learn to appreciate that, “Those people are weird. I don’t want to live like that, but it’s amazing and it works for them. It’s totally fine.” I feel that way about Israelis. I am fucking love them. They’re crazy and their whole society is nuts to me. I love visiting them, but I don’t want to live there because I’m not built for it, but it works for them and it’s incredible.
I feel the same way when I’m in China. I feel stuck on something like that when I’m out of Australia. I feel that way almost everywhere I go. It’s like, “This is great but I can’t wait to get back home where my water faucet works absurdly reliably.” That’s the thing that you get to experience when you travel. What I think about it is that when you look at the inflection point, we’re at this point in human history. You’ve got to remember that last 160,000 years, it’s Homo sapiens. The last 400 or 500 years of that is science as we know it, but then the last 100 years is technology from the industrial revolution on. It is accelerating and it is new. We are at the beginning and what I believe it means is we have to learn to evolve with our minds and this is an unproven methodology. We don’t know if it’s going to work. For humans to advance, for us to solve the problems that we have in taking care of 7.5 billion humans, we’re going to have to use our brains and make better decisions. These tools that exist with the technologies that the computers and everything we call artificial intelligence and all these things, big data, machine learning, computational modeling, are tools to help us make better decisions.
The French philosopher, Jean Gebser wrote the at the turn of the last century one of the great mistakes in human history was the enlightenment because that’s when the spiritual became separated from the scientific. When you were talking earlier about, we need to look at problems and apply logic, reason, what we care about, how you talked about different societies and how they have things that work for them.
I’m not a trained philosopher, so you don’t want to hear me comment on the enlightenment and its relative merits and all that. In my mind, for almost anything like any belief system, you can find people overdoing it in one way or another. I’m not here to talk about politics, but I grew up in Alaska. There was one kid in my entire school who might’ve been gay and we don’t know for sure, but he got his ass kicked. There was one kid who was black. It was a conservative environment. My view now is the conservatives shot themselves in the foot because they overdid it by taking an anti-gay stance in those days. They’re over it a little bit now.
Let me talk to you about what I had in mind because you’re a deeply moral person. I know this because you’re my best friend. A lot of technologists will apply science, it’s like Rule 2d20. You’re not like that. You’re willing to make value-based decisions in applying your box of tools to your box problems. I’m going to ask this question again. The French philosopher, Jean Gebser at the turn of the last century, talked about how the enlightenment was a bad thing in some ways, and that it’s separated the spiritual from the scientific. Before that, the Jesuits, everything worked together hand-in-hand, but when you split the two, that became disconnected from what we were building versus what we were.
There’s got to be some truth to that. You do see a lot of people are on one side or the other of that. People who are specifically taking on a spiritualist persona or worldview are often reluctant to engage in understanding problems at a technical level. On the other side, we have people, the technologists that you’re referring to who are trying to build technologies and scientists who are trying to stay out of the realm of things that we can’t explain. For me, the way I see it because growing up in Alaska thing, I feel a grave sense of personal responsibility.
In Alaska, you either take responsibility for making yourself survive. Take care of yourself, your family and earning what you need to take care of that. There’s no one to rely on. You have to do it. You have to be responsible. I feel that strongly for humanity. We made 7.5 billion humans. Making them is the fun part and you’ve got to raise them now. You got to take care of them. You got to get them through school. You’ve got to get them jobs. You got to hold there are hands through cancer and when they die, you need to process that. The everyday life cycle is the total cost of ownership of a human. We have a shit ton of humans in the world.
You could argue that we made too many. I don’t think you want to choose which ones to get rid of. Whoever wants that job should probably be the first to go. We made these people, so we have to take responsibility as a species for taking care of them. Personally, it might make sense to make a few humans going forward. It will be a great thing to work on. That probably goes back to make better decisions, but in the meantime, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to take care of these humans. I feel that responsibility. I’m probably guilty of separating the spiritual side of things from the pragmatic and technical side of things a little bit. To be intellectually honest, you have to be a little bit rigorous and you’ve got to be honest about where to draw the line. For me, it’s drawing that line between the things we understand and the things we don’t understand.
There are a lot of things we don’t understand and that’s okay. There are possibly entire dimensions to the universe that we don’t understand. One of the problems with what people feel about the scientific community is that they’re a little bit disingenuous or they’re not willing to acknowledge what we don’t know. I want to do that. I want to be honest and say, “There’s a lot we don’t know, but that fact doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for also being honest about what we do know.” When we do know something and we have amazing rigorous methods for figuring out what we do know. It’s irresponsible not to accept the things that we do know into your worldview.
This to me is what makes you the man you are because you’re able to take these alchemy tools or for what most people are pure alchemy and magic. You’re able to explain and bring them into the realm of possibility to deal with problems where people won’t agree on what the problems are.
That’s part of why I’m motivated to do it. If I can take something technical and complicated, which in some sense, it was almost everything to do with computers. Demystify it, explain it in a way people can understand and relate to. Simplify it into layman’s terms and help people get comfortable with it, then it takes the power out of the people who would manipulate it. For example, AI is being used in a mercenary fashion. AI is being used against the people as a notion, not the actual technology. I’m talking about the story of AI because it is the big, scary boogeyman that no one understands. It’s being used by Hollywood in every movie to be the bad guy. It’s lazy and irresponsible, but I also acknowledge those scary stories sell better. That’s why that’s happening. I want to take the wind out of it. I want to take the power out of that story so that AI is no longer the bad guy. These are our tools and we can use that same set of tools to build a better future and not the worst one. If I can show a converse narrative or other possibilities, then it will help people to believe in using these tools to make a better future. If they believe in it, then they could try and work on it. We can succeed in doing it.
The canonical example that sits in my mind was early on, I got to help start Blue Origin, which is the first privately funded space program in human history ever. Before, only governments could afford to have their own space program. In 2001, Jeff Bezos was worth about $7 billion, which was a crazy amount of money at the time. Jeff gave us the mission to figure out what we could do with $1 billion, could we start a space for him? We were researching ways of getting a space. I’m not a space geek, an astrophysicist named Keith Rosema and Neil Stevenson, the novelist are the guys that I was working with who were the real space geeks It was amazing to see how they had grown up reading Heinlein. Jeff, to some extent, grew up reading Heinlein and watching Star Trek. Those provided positive, practical visions of humans exploring space. Heinlein wrote stories about humans go into the moon and an entire generation of nerds grew up reading that.
That’s how we got to the moon because they believed they had at least one story in their mind about how it might be possible, even though it wasn’t all worked out. It was good enough to where they could imagine doing it and put that story together and go solve the technical problems to make it happen. We need positive, practical visions for our future. I challenge you to name one. All anybody has in their heads is horrible stories about how it all goes south. That’s probably, in some sense, be true on the whole. Most humans in all of human history who had a story in their mind about how it gets worse from here, but it’s never been true. There’s never been a moment in history we’re on a longer time horizon, and things weren’t better now than they’ve ever been for humans as a whole. That is a difficult thing to hear head around, but it’s important.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Heinlein and Roddenberry as being the two writers that did it because I’ve read both. I appreciate Heinlein getting us to the moon, but I would never want to live in his world.
I might be overselling Heinlein as a possibilist because he did a lot of dystopian stuff.
I don’t want to live in his fascist society. I would have lived in Gene Roddenberry’s society where everybody works together toward a common good, but hope, caring and positivism in society is one thing. Heinlein got people to the moon. He was able to the technological side of things. I can see how the two of them fit together.
That is a weird thing. I never read a lot of science fiction because I was hooked on computers. It was science fiction in a way, but it was real. I never got to be the science fiction nerd that most of my friends are contemporaries most nerds have some background like that. For me, when people were watching Star Trek, I wasn’t even watching Star Trek. I have this problem as an inventor where every idea I come up with, somebody will say, “It’s like in Star Trek.” I’ll go, “I guess so. If I had watched Star Trek, it would save you some trouble.” There’s a gem in there. I wasn’t watching Star Trek. I was watching Steve Jobs announced what Apple was doing. Those Steve Jobs’ keynotes that are famous now, I was watching his keynotes when I was twelve. He was talking about the Mac. In the late ‘80s, I learned about object-oriented programming from Steve Jobs’ keynote. It’s weird to think that that was my science fiction.
That’s the story of your whole life. You’ve never stopped continuing to explore the unknown in order to pick up the piece of paper, yet people have always seen in you. You’re like a comment. People have seen your tale and have wanted to go along with it, which brings you to Blue Origin and Intellectual Ventures.It’s extraordinarily difficult to do something the first time; that should be celebrated more than it is. Click To Tweet
I’ve been asked about this a lot. For me, I always optimized for whatever the most interesting thing I could do with computers was at any given moment. By the time I got out of high school, I wanted to work with computers, but in colleges, they were teaching the science of computation. I knew a lot of that, but I might’ve been able to learn something if I’d have gone to certain colleges at the time. I could get businesses to buy the coolest new computers and pay me to play with them. I thought that was a dream come true. As I did that, it was rewarding because I would come in, set up this new-fangled computer thing, teach some people how to do their jobs that they’ve been doing for years but with the computer. It’s either that or we don’t need you anymore. I had to have all those kinds of experiences of helping people advance their careers or lose them. I always felt like whatever job I had, I had to do a good job or I wasn’t going to get the next one. I always worked hard. I was trying to prove that I was useful, but also that the computer was useful.
I’ve got to go to different industries and businesses and get the perspective you get from doing that was valuable. I always chose the coolest, craziest project I could find. It didn’t feel like a career. I didn’t feel like I had a backup plan. I also didn’t have a degree. To this day, I probably unhireable for any job that exists. I don’t have a resume. I took that and I would go do new things. The milestones were like by 1994, I was excited about getting people on the internet. The first ISP is what we’ve been creating, 1994 was the first year nonacademic or military people could be on the internet. Mosaic was out. Netscape didn’t exist yet. I would be showing people, “Here’s this internet thing.” They couldn’t get their heads around. No search engine existed yet. It was clunky, but I was excited about it. I started a web development company in 1995. It was probably one of the first ones where people hadn’t even seen a webpage. I was trying to convince them that web pages are boring.
It was too early and I was still in Alaska, a remote spot. I felt more connected than ever because I was on the internet and it didn’t matter that I was in Alaska, but I was also disconnected from the community that would have built significant things on the internet in the early days. In the late ‘90s, I was working on cryptocurrency and that’s when we met. I was working on trying to use and discovered the cryptography toolkit and figured out if we could use that to build things. The cypherpunk was a way to find kindred spirits where we could use the crypto toolkit to create a different internet, to create the future of the internet that would preserve our values. I’m thinking cypherpunks are anarchistic, but they generally share the value of preserving freedom on the internet. By that, no one should get an asymmetric advantage on the network. I should be able to publish and subscribe. I should be able to buy and sell. I should be able to get in the middle of it. I should be able to talk to whoever I want without somebody in the middle. That was a powerful inflection point.
Whit Diffie says it best, to my mind when he talked about the world that he wanted online was the one where George Washington and John Adams could meet in a field. No one would know what they talked about unless one of them either turned trader or was tortured and admitted something under duress.
Whit Diffie, if anyone does know, was a pioneering cryptographer who helped invent some of the most foundational cryptographic. That’s what I’m talking about when I say something new as an inventor. He probably thought of himself as a researcher, a scientist, a cryptographer, or a mathematician, but he figured out for the first time that it was possible to make it an algorithm that could do a key exchange safely online. That’s what we called public-key cryptography. It was a cryptographic algorithm that allowed you and I to exchange the key. All cryptography has something like a password, a key that you use to encrypt a message.
If I’m going to encrypt a message with a Cap’n Crunch decoder ring or some other simple algorithm, you’ve got to have the key to decrypt it, but how do I get you the key? If I had a secure channel to give you the key, I could give you the message. That’s like a chicken and egg problem that is fundamental to the internet. Whit Diffie is the guy who solved that problem the first time. We don’t have a Nobel Prize for cryptography, but if we did, that’s the guy who should get it. What’s cool about him is he is more than being a mathematician. He did go beyond that philosophically to understand the implications of the network. This is in the early ‘80s.
The point is, I was inspired by that vision too. That’s what the cypherpunks were doing is saying, “We have that toolkit. We have that mathematical curiosity in Diffie-Hellman key exchange that we could use to go and create an internet where George Washington could meet John Adams online and nobody can fuck with them.” What people don’t understand about this is that there’s a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Secrecy is something you don’t want anybody to know. Privacy is something you don’t want everybody to know. Those are different. What has been lost along the way is this understanding that the basis has to be anonymous. It has to be private. It has to support secrecy. It has to support privacy. It has to be that way at the bottom level because you can always give it up later. You can always choose to expose the key and always choose to let everybody in on it, but you can’t ever take it away.
In most cases, we failed with this and the architectural decisions made on the internet. That’s one of the frustrating things that we’re living with is we have an internet where it is not possible to preserve secrecy or privacy. It’s because you can’t strap that on later. The whole world, in some sense, has been overexposed. They’re living in a world where they have no privacy or expectation of it. They didn’t choose that necessarily. It’s the only option they’ve got if they’re online. I feel a lot of remorse about that because it could be much better for people. There could be much greater freedom online. There could be a lot less manipulation, which is what’s happening when you lose privacy, you submit to manipulation. A lot of these problems that people are fired up about now. The point being, I got a lot out of that community, which I would characterize as 1 to 200 active brains trying to figure out how we embodied our values of freedom into the protocols for the internet. Most people probably never heard of cypherpunks, but when I look back now, I see some success stories. The early ones were things trying to fight Congress on the things like the Clipper chip and that stuff, but also getting encryption deregulated. Encryption technology was a munition.
Tell us the Jon Callas and Phil Zimmermann story. To preface it, this is why you can buy a jar of peanut butter online if you have your credit.
We talked about the Diffie-Hellman key exchange with people’s eyes probably glazed over. That’s what made it possible to communicate in an encrypted fashion online. Every single time you use the internet, you’re using public-key encryption. You’re probably not using it Diffie-Hellman algorithm. You’re using RSA, which is a different one that came later. That’s more efficient. The point being when you see that little lock in your browser, it says secure. Every time you send your password or credit card number over the internet, you’re using public-key encryption. Even before it was in the browser, a guy named Phil Zimmermann essentially made an email program called PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy.
That was the first practical tool that people could use to communicate securely on the internet. That was a big undertaking for the cypherpunks to try and evangelists using PGP. That was largely a disaster because it wasn’t usable and it was a pain in the ass and you had to love being a nerd to use it. That was unfortunate. If you look at LinkedIn, there are jobs for UX engineers. UX is User Experience. That didn’t exist in those days. UX wasn’t invented in those days. PGP failed to catch on in a big way. Unfortunately, but had a lot of great ideas about how to use cryptography. Unfortunately, Phil Zimmermann didn’t use Diffie–Hellman key exchange. He used the RSA algorithm, which had been patented. The RSA algorithm was then owned by a company called RSA. The RSA company wanted to profit off of this because they saw it as being a fundamental thing that we would need on the internet and they were right.
They tried to sue Phil Zimmermann and keep PGP from being shared freely with everyone. We had the view that encryption should be free to everyone. PGP ended up with a lot of problems because of that, but independently, it had a different class of problems, which is that the public-key encryption, the encryption used to encrypt the messages. That was strong algorithms that nobody knew how to crack. The US government had classified that type of encryption as a munition. It was as illegal to have a strong cryptosystem as it was like owning a nuclear warhead. They were classified the same way. We saw this as a big problem because if it was illegal to have it and to use it, then we weren’t going to be able to build the internet of the future that we were imagining where you could securely communicate online. We had to fight Congress and in some sense fight the NSA to get that changed. We eventually won. In the late ‘90s, we won what we called the Crypto Wars with the US government. These days, strong crypto is still classified, but it’s been declassified except for seven countries that you’re not allowed to send strong crypto to. If it’s still illegal, no one pays attention to it.
Tell the story of how they got PGP out because this goes to your whole thing about toolkits and using the human mind.
I didn’t have much to do with this, so we can get somebody to tell the core details. We’ll get lucky if someone will talk about it someday. It was illegal to export strong crypto. Cypherpunks, in those days, we would go offshore whenever we were working on cryptosystems. We used to go meet up in the Virgin Islands or other places in The Bahamas where there was outside the US jurisdiction. If we invented a crypto technology, it would be free of encumbrance by the US government. We couldn’t send the PGP code outside the US without violating the munitions regulations. ITAR is the name of the regulation for weapons, International Traffic in Arms Regulations. What they figured out is we couldn’t say code, but we could publish a book because that would be free speech. Cypherpunks printed out all the code for PGP in a book, all the source code, which we were trying to make it open source anyway, but there was not a legal pathway. It was thousands of pages of code if I remember correctly. We now had a book. Thanks to the US government First Amendment has strict freedom of speech laws. That’s been well protected.
We classified our code as speech. We printed a book with the code in it and then flew it a thing to Amsterdam or Germany, and scan it in. That was a way to get the PGP code out of the US out into the world so that the whole world could use it. There were analogous things for other types of crypto in those days. The point we’re trying to make is that the cypherpunks were pioneering and creative. In some sense or another, they did a lot of the early thinking on what it would take to architect for freedom on the internet.
After the Crypto Wars and PGP, a lot of people don’t know this, but cypherpunks made another big success because one of the things that happened online is people started to use MP3s for music instead of CDs. With an MP3, what was cool is you could have your computer play the song. Most people didn’t have enough bandwidth to send them anywhere at first, but then, as you got faster internet connections, people started to share their music online. There’s a lot of legitimate reasons to do that, but the law hadn’t caught up and the record industry was caught with their pants down. What happened is people started sharing music and the record industry panicked and thought that they weren’t going to make any money anymore. They started trying to sue anybody or their own customers whenever you shared music. It seems more black and white now than it was. At that time, I could buy a record and I could record it to a cassette tape and give that to a friend. That’s legal.
I could buy a record and share it around with whoever I wanted. I could buy a CD and loan it to you. You could even make a copy of it onto a tape and give it back. There was a tax on every blank tape and every blank CD to cover that. The record industry started behaving poorly. They start to get pissed off about people sharing music. They started to retaliate against their own customers. There was a website called Napster, which was famous in those days. It was a file-sharing system where you could go online. My computer would tell the Napster server what songs I had and then other people who were searching for those songs could download them from me, but the Napster server was a central point of failure and it was killed by an illegal attack. The record industry sued Napster into oblivion.
That server going away made the Napster service go away. Cypherpunks were able to architect a distributed replacement for Napster called BitTorrent. It doesn’t have a central server. It’s headless. There is no central thing to attack. The record industry hates it. Its bandwidth increased and the movie industry started to hate it, but they couldn’t shut it down. We saw it as an important capability for the internet was to be able to level the playing field. The real use case for BitTorrent was to make it so that anybody could afford to host large files. There are lots of non-infringing large files. If you wanted to share a video of a soccer game or something, in those days, it would’ve cost you a lot of money to have a server and pay for the bandwidth for everybody. Only Microsoft and Apple could afford to do that at the time.
BitTorrent was a democratizing technology, made it possible for anybody to share a huge amount of data. The entire industries hate it, but they’ve never been able to shut it down because BitTorrent is a decentralized protocol. It’s using the crypto toolkit to make it possible for people to share data online at that scale. It did create a big problem for an industry that was used to using distribution as their business model. BitTorrent, in some sense, was another success for the cypherpunks. It’s important to point out that we were essentially fighting the notion of the centralized protocol. Before the internet, we had online services like AOL or America Online. It was a huge centralized network. You could subscribe, you could connect, you could talk to other people on it, but AOL controlled everything. They controlled who you could talk to. They controlled what you would say. There were like Big Brother monitoring every communication. It wasn’t private that you couldn’t transact evenly. Buyers and sellers had to be approved. You had to be approved to be a seller. To be a publisher on AOL, you had to pay them. It was asymmetric. We saw that as evil. Cypherpunks had nothing to do with this, but the reason the internet won over AOL was a decentralized protocol.
TCP/IP is decentralized. There is no central switchboard for the internet. That’s been eroded over time by a bunch of bullshit, but essentially the reason the internet went wild and global is that it was decentralized. All you had to do is find somebody who was on it to connect. Over time, we believe the decentralized protocols would win out over these centralized authoritarian type services. Step one was BitTorrent. That’s our first real win is a decentralized protocol for cypherpunks. Step two is what we believed was that we had to preserve people’s ability to use the internet anonymously. Some other cypherpunks developed what were called anonymous remailers. That was a way to communicate anonymously online. They’re not popular anymore. Things have advanced beyond that, but we’ve built remailers in the late ‘90s and for a decade after that. The use case for that was like, “What if you need to report a crime, but you would be exposing yourself to risk if you did?” I used an anonymous remailer to report a crime. Somebody I knew had stolen a bunch of equipment and I reported it to the police without them knowing. He was a friend of mine. I didn’t want the guy to find out I was the one who ratted him out. That’s the use case, and then there are much worse situations that we’re trying to solve.
Eventually, what to this day exist, the cypherpunks invented the onion router, which was a way to make and use something similar to the architecture for anonymous remailers to make it possible to surf the web anonymously. That’s called Tor and it exists on a large scale online now. Anyone can download what’s called the Tor Browser. You can search the web anonymously and you can’t be tracked by the server. They can’t tell who you are, where you are. At any given moment, you could talk, you could say your name, you could give up your email address, but if you don’t, you can use the web mostly anonymously. That’s not just for criminals. It’s the thing that turns out to be important for people who might get in trouble for what they are doing on the internet. There are different jurisdictions with different ideas about what’s cool. What we believed was that nobody should get to decide what’s cool and not cool for everyone. What you get for free when you build the onion router and the Tor Browser is to get the dark web. It is the same technology that made it possible to surf the web also made it possible to publish and host websites anonymously.
If you’re using the dark web, you can make a website and no one on the internet could tell where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. You have to be careful not to give yourself up, but the important reason, people associate it with selling drugs and all this stuff. There was a lot of press about the website called the Silk Road, which was an early kind of eBay on the dark web that people were using to illicit stuff. You got to remember what’s illicit in one jurisdiction might not be in another. It’s probably not as unilaterally evil as people imagined, but I am not defending the Silk Road. What I’m defending is the notion of anonymously providing those services. The use case for these is you have people living in authoritarian regimes and jurisdictions where they don’t have freedom, and we don’t even know what’s going on there.
If you’re a journalist, a human rights activist, or trying to get the story and figure out what ways people are being abused or manipulated. In America, we believe in free speech. Most of us do. We believe it should be a fundamental human right. We’ve signed treaties with lots of other countries acknowledging that. To be able to keep track of whether that right is being honored or not, you need people to be able to report on what’s happening. The use case in the minds of cypherpunks, a lot of times for these things is, “We’ve got people in places where the internet is being monitored by a not particularly benevolent government and everything you do could be liability or risk for you.” If you get caught reporting on, the concentration camp and the neighborhood next to yours, you’re going to get a knock on the door and you’re going to get sent to that concentration camp. We’re trying to preserve these freedoms that map to real human values about civil liberties and human rights.
Unfortunately, you can’t get one without the other. What people don’t fundamentally understand is that you could use the dark web to sell drugs, but you could also use it to save the lives of people who are being oppressed and in a country where the government controls everything. I’ve been to these countries and you have too. I think of both the Tor Browser and the dark web as wins for cypherpunks. There’s one more, which people don’t realize, but cypherpunks made Bitcoin. There’s a lot of public mystery around who made Bitcoin. I’m not going to try and clear that up, but you got to understand, there are few people on the planet who could have made Bitcoin. That thinking goes back decades and it’s built on decades of financial cryptography work and a long conversation about what was needed.
Bitcoin is another milestone. We have hundreds of cryptocurrency protocols that have been built over time. I’m not trying to claim any responsibility for them. Let’s make it clear that I had nothing to do with any of them. What I’m saying is that’s the community that has done all the thinking around cryptocurrency and why we need it, why it’s important, and how it needs to be architected to preserve those same freedoms. What we believed was that every currency in human history was subject to a centralized attack like the Napster server. Every currency in human history has a mint that prints more money whenever they feel like it. That can inflate or deflate your currency. They don’t play by the rules. You don’t know who’s printing more money when, and you’re using it for your livelihood. That’s true for hundreds of currencies around the world or a little less than that now.
There are a number of different things you could accomplish with the cryptocurrency, but chief among them is that you could make a decentralized currency and nobody can fuck with it. That’s the real milestone that Bitcoin crossed for us for the first time. Before that, we had a zillion cryptocurrency protocols, but we always had a centralized mint and that feels dirty to cypherpunks. It feels wrong because that’s a centralized point of attack. If the currency is going to be strong, it can’t be subject to humans mucking with it because humans are unreliable.
The beautiful thing about Bitcoin is it has proven the decentralized protocols win over centralized services. The entire nation-states fucking hate Bitcoin. They wish they could make it go away because it’s devaluing their currencies. That’s what’s beautiful about it. You can’t make it go away. Everyone’s tried to game it. Certainly, there’s been a lot of bad actors and a weird show with Bitcoin, but it’s proven that the decentralized currency has a place in the world and it’s allowed for an extraordinary proliferation of different use cases for transacting that wasn’t possible without it. We’re at the beginning. We could talk more about that, but Bitcoin is the latest success of cypherpunks.
In the history book of the future, I’m hoping the cypherpunks get a chapter because there were some amazing thinkers there. I’m not even one of them. The truth is I’m influenced by some of these guys and they look fringe wackos to the rest of the world. Guys like Tim May who we lost had a huge effect on me. Most of the people whose names are highly correlated with cypherpunks, I learned a lot from all of them, even the ones I disagree with and some of them have poorly behaved. Some of them probably can’t get an endorsement, but intellectually, it was a wonderful experience for me. I learned a lot from that and the archives are public from the cypherpunks list. The other thing is we could have incredible intellectual discourse in public view with all kinds of random people who didn’t like each other. I wouldn’t use it as an example of people being respectful necessarily because there is a lot of hostile discourse as well, but it was good solid intellectual discourse. At the end of the day, what mattered every time was whether you were technically right. Being technically right in that community wins out over everything. I learned the value of that discourse. I got a lot out of that.
When I lived in South Africa, I grew up in an urban area. Being in South Africa when I was younger going out to the bush, one of the first things that I was told was that the bush is neutral. It’s not going to help you. It’s not trying to kill you. You grew up in a neutral environment. When I hear you talking about the cypherpunks, it sounds like you’re talking about this neutral thing that could be used for The Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse or to save a country from a dictator.
My experience has colored my view a lot that these things are neutral. The bush isn’t trying to kill you, but you may die. It’s your job to make sure you don’t. In Alaska, it’s the same thing. I could die to walk into the school in the morning. I’m not an unreasonable threat. I have friends who did die walking to school. It’s a harsh environment and things go haywire. I have that view. If it’s not clear already, I feel strongly about this. Every single technology is a tool. A hammer is a tool that I can use to build you a home or smash your head. Artificial intelligence is no different. Everything in between. Some people will argue with me on this, but I believe these are tools for humans to exact their values into the world and that we got to be responsible for getting clear about what those values are, articulating them, and using the technology as tools to build the world that we want.People need to understand the technologies and they need to be demystified in a way that they don’t sound like scary, magical stuff. Click To Tweet
I’m going to take that view to the grave. I don’t think I’ll be convinced otherwise, these are tools. Some tools are controversial. I listed everything. The cypherpunks built is controversial. Those are tools. What I would say is to go figure out how to use them to build the world that you want to solve the problems that you care about. Don’t sit, bitch and moan about how other people are using them. This is a fair fight. These are democratized tools. That’s another thing that covers my perspective is that the tech industry has lost its way and it gets a lot of shit, but that’s because they’ve been doing dumb stuff. The tech industry is busy largely making iPhone apps to have weed delivered to dorm rooms and dumb shit like that using drones. It’s not actual tech. I have to figure out some way of articulating that what I’m talking about is actual tech. A lot of it has been fully democratized.
There are kids living in South America, South Africa, and South Korea and they got the same computer that I do. They have the same technology that I do, the same programming languages, database, and entire toolkit that I have is available to all of them. It’s not fair. You can say I had better access to education earlier start and all those kinds of things. The tools themselves, a lot of them are democratized in the sense that everybody gets access to them. I know it’s not fair. Your kid in South Africa, you’ve got to play soccer quite a bit, which I didn’t have to do, but you could be a computer nerd and learn as much about a computer as I did. We see that all the time. Those kids run circles around me now.
One of them went to the moon.
This is interesting because we know Mark Shuttleworth from back in the day. He was a South African who worked on cryptosystems on the internet trying to make encryption in web browsers and things and ended up getting rich selling a company. He’s a guy who was a computer nerd like us when he was a kid in South Africa. I don’t know the whole story. I’m sure that there are a lot of ways to paint the picture that we’re a product of our environment that made us smart. The truth is one of the cool things that’s I’m proud of is that computer technology doesn’t care about you, but it’s made itself accessible to people everywhere. I never had somebody to teach me about computers. I had to learn the hard way, trial and error. Kids these days, every kid on Earth can get to YouTube with the exception of those authoritarian regimes. You can learn almost anything you want on YouTube. If you’re a coder these days and you get stumped, you’re like, “Why doesn’t my Python library compile on this version of Linux with these conflicts?”
Type that into YouTube and you’re going to see somebody with a video explaining the answer. It’s insanely easy to learn to code now. For most of the tools, you can get the same access to them that I can. I’m wildly bullish and we don’t stop to celebrate that often. We’re fixated on inequality and the problems that do exist, that we’re not stopping to celebrate how far we’ve come? How incredible it is that these things can happen? I love it. That was one of the things I’ve spent some time trying to travel to these other countries and show them how we think in Silicon Valley help them to hopefully not to say that we’re right or that they should copy us, but that they at least understand what’s worked for us so that they can do better. Hopefully, they will. That’s what we need.
When you talk about being a technology optimist years ago, you went and hung out with one of my sons for a little while. When I came back to him, I asked him, “What’s the most important thing you have learned?” He said, “You drive a computer.”
That is one of the things that’s hard to overstate. People have been beaten over the head with this, but when I was a kid, there was one computer chip, a CPU in my house, in my neighborhood. You could find another one in the next neighborhood over where there was like some old person who got a bunch of money and had no wife or kids and spend it all on an Apple II like me. Now, we’ve proven that a computer is a fast, cheap, scalable, reliable way to add a bunch of features to anything. In my apartment where we are now, if I try to add up the number of things that have a CPU more powerful than Apple II, there’s probably no less than 1,000 in this apartment. It would not be an exaggeration for an average home to have a thousand computer chips equivalent to that at least. Not to mention my Apple Watch is a fucking supercomputer compared to a Cray from 1982.
What he’s referring to is almost every product in the world has become a computer. I’m looking at an iPhone, a GoPro, a Smart TV from Samsung, a PlayStation, a Sonos, or a Mac. Every one of those things is a computer. Here’s a Sony camera, Alexa, and that air filter over there in $20 says it has a million times the processing power of my Apple II. Computers have gone everywhere. One of the ways I cheated as an inventor for a while was to look around and say, “We’re having computers gone yet.” A lot of times, you look around what’s left where there’s not a computer chip. There will be one. There’s no place where we’re not going to put a computer chip. You’ve seen that progression. It’s in the electronic lock on your door, in the light bulb, in everything except your fork. Imagine what would happen if you had a computer chip in your fork and you might get some ideas. That kid was seven then, and I probably tried to help him see that a car used to be made by the auto industry, making an automobile. Now, a car is an iPhone with wheels. It is true for Tesla, but essentially it’s true for every car.
That has paid off. It’s worked in making everything dramatic. I remember when I was a kid in Alaska, we had this game called Padiddle. If you saw a car with a headlight burnout, then you would smack the ceiling in the car and whoever hit the ceiling first got the point for that. It was common and rampant that the headlights were burnt out. In Alaska, in the winter, it’s dark for 23 hours a day so you get a lot of opportunities to play this game and everything’s far away. You drive a lot. In a single evening, I could go to the movies and dinner and back with friends, I could get a score in over 100 cars with a headlight out. After reading this, let’s see if you can find a single car with the light out. That’s not because of computer chips, but computers helped us. The headlight in your car comes from a computational model in a CAD system. That’s been through CFD. That’s a Computational Fluid Dynamics modeling that knows exactly what the air cooling is, what the temperature range is going to be, what the materials have been tested. We know exactly how long that filament can burn for. We can put the exact perfect mixture of halogen in there. Everything about it has been improved by computers.
When we talk about technology and I’m disparaging iPhone apps and enterprise software, but we’re at a point where the technology from computers is bled into everything else. When we talk about advances in biotech or nuclear reactors or whatever, all of it inherits the superpowers that computers gave us. If we’re securing cancer, we’re doing it on computers. With CRISPR, editing your DNA, those breakthroughs were possible because of computers. In our lifetime, there’s no question that the computer has been the most valuable technology going forward. It probably will, at least for the rest of our lives. That will continue to be true, even though there are amazing other fields. I’m big on computers, but things like CRISPR are amazing. We’re going to be able to do a lot to help humans now that we have CRISPR, but we’re at the beginning of learning how to do that.
You’re an optimist about this. You don’t say CRISPR with the Frankenstein sound in your voice. You don’t talk about chips and things being a bad thing, like, “It’s going to tell me I need more electrolytes.”
I want to know when I need more electrolytes. That is what Pablos craves. For example, CRISPR gives us the unprecedented ability to edit the DNA in cells, in living creatures, in humans. We could use CRISPR to change your eye color, but we could also possibly use CRISPR to go edit out the genetic predisposition you have with Alzheimer’s. We don’t know how to do that yet, but we have to learn because we have a lot of DNA. We don’t know what all of it does and it’s complicated. It’s a lot of data and we’re at the beginning of figuring out all the places we can go with it. There’ve been cases already where CRISPR has been used to cure people of terminal cancers. I got to emphasize that. If you had that technology, imagine somebody’s going to pay people to figure out how to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, leukemia, and every other fucking thing that kills. There are 3,000 things that can kill you. Those are technical problems with humans. Not in our lifetime, but eventually we’ll solve them all.
Death will be a solved problem. We’re going to have other problems created by that. We’ll talk about that some other day, but those are technical problems and they can be solved, but there’s a market for that. People don’t want to die. People don’t want their family members to get sick and die. There’s a reason to go develop those things. I’m sure some people believe that there’s also a reason to weaponize it. I could also use CRISPR to make a pathogen that targets anybody who’s not a blue-eyed blonde, and ends their life. That’s a sickening idea. Who’s paying somebody to work on that when you could be working on curing Alzheimer’s? There’s always this low-grade murmuring of suspicion and fear. I’m sure it leads to all the conspiracy theory thinking that people have, but the way to try to steer yourself out of that thinking is to look on a longer time horizon.
At the beginning of nuclear weapons, it was easy to paint a picture of that. I grew up on the frontlines of the Cold War. Alaska was going to be the first one to get nuked. We had drills in school for what to do when the nukes came. I have a deep-seated Cold War in me. It was easy to paint a picture that the whole world is going to blow up and it will be done. That was what we believed was imminent. It has happened yet and less likely now than it was then. I’m sure that the same thing happened with the invention of manmade fire, the wheel or the internal combustion engine, all these kinds of things. They do get weaponized and people do use them to gain asymmetric power but on a longer time, horizon. Humans tend to get these things under control.
You once said to me that a car can be used to mow down people, but that doesn’t mean you start tearing up the interstate.
The car is the most dangerous thing, but they’ve gotten safer in my lifetime. They’re dramatically safer now that we have more of them. The overall death count has gone down, but the death count per capita certainly has. They can use it as a weapon at any moment. I’ve driven probably a million miles in my life. At any moment with one flick of the wrist, I could steer in oncoming traffic and kill. Somebody might kill me. That was a problem. I could hit a pedestrian, unlikely to kill myself or to kill them. I never do it. I never got around to it. I never wanted to do it. That’s true apparently for every other driver with rare exceptions. You could take a gun away. That’s fine, but you’re not going to stop people from having a weapon and hit a car.
Let’s talk about The Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse because that understanding that allows you to be the technical optimist that you are. The drugs, the mafia, these four things that are out to get you, the boogeyman.
They’d probably change. It’s got to be more than four. I might be cheating because I haven’t had any of those problems directly, not to disparage anyone who has. I give people total freedom to do what they got to do. Everyone’s situation, I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had to deal with the kinds of adversity that almost everyone has. All the people I like, they’re interesting. I’ve not only survived some adversity but managed to thrive in spite of it. I have a deep appreciation for that. You go to do what you got to do to and take care of yourself and your family, but presuming that you’ve done that, then the job is to figure out how do you contribute more than you consume? The national parks view of humanity, how do you leave things better than you found them? I don’t want to be the person to judge any specific human on whether or not they’re contributing more than the number of jewels that they’ve used up in their lifetime. I don’t think it’s valuable to judge individuals that way. What I do think valuable is to take the responsibility yourself to ask that question, like, “Am I going to leave the world better than I found it?”
It doesn’t matter what religion you are, what your spiritual beliefs are to accept that. That’s a good start. If you can do that, then you can go look for ways to do it. If you wanted to get good at it, part of why we share these conversations is I’m hoping people can at least learn the toolkit that I’ve learned to help with that. In the lab, we would take on some of the biggest problems in the world. I worked for Nathan Myhrvold for twelve years. What we were doing was finding ways to invest in an invention because we believed that’s where you get the new superpowers, but nobody was investing in it. That’s a weird thing. People didn’t realize that.
We have scientific research, which is about discovering how the world works. Increasingly, scientists make a name for themselves by more and more narrowly defining their expertise so they can be the world’s leading expert in the left ventricle of the mouse brain or whatever. If you have less competition, you can be number one. That’s how they do it. It’s important to work, but it’s not an invention. At the other end, you have entrepreneurs and businessmen who are trying to create products and services that map to the market and make some technology relevant, but in between is invention. That’s where you get something. It’s where you take the output of scientific research. You map it to a problem and solve it for the first time. We figured, “We’re going to need a lot more problems solved, so let’s figure out how to invest in the invention.”
What we found was that’s done with crazy hair in a garage with a DeLorean. It’s haphazard in the spare time of somebody who has a day job, an engineer or a scientist. We started trying to find ways to invest in the inventors. I got lucky I got hired to be one. I got hired by Nathan to build the lab and work on invention projects there. We were relatively free of the same commercial constraints that people would have in other companies. In a lot of places, you only get to invent a faster, cheaper version of whatever you did. If you’re a Hewlett Packard, you’re going to invent a faster, cheaper Inkjet printer. You’re probably not going to invent whatever comes after inkjet, but I got the freedom to do that. I could go to work on inventing the next generation of technology. That particular business is haphazard. You’re going to be wrong almost all the time. You’ve got to think of it like a hits business. That’s why Hollywood makes a zillion movies and hopes one of them turns out to be an Avatar.
In a hits business, you’ve got to get a lot of shots on goal. Most inventors, if they’re lucky, savvy and know what they’re doing, and can file 2 or 3 patents a year on their own inventions. That not enough. In our lab, we aim for a batting average of one. That means for every invention that we file a patent on, we had a thousand ideas that we didn’t. For every invention that we get a patent on, we have a batting average of one. We had teams of inventors. We became the biggest patent filers in America on our own inventions, about 500 patents a year. Out of that, we’re hoping one of them pays for all the failures. That’s haphazard. You can’t do that on a small scale, so we have to do it at that large scale in order to get the hits, to pay for the failures. It works though at that scale
You’ve done the world of service and millions of people have heard you speak. To my mind, for every million people who hear you speak, there is a certain percentage that will scratch their chin, and an even narrower or percentage that eventually saves the human race.
If I can get to enough people, maybe. I started to feel like the speaking was possibly not going to have the effect I have hoped for because a lot of my audience, there were executives, CEOs and people already had successful careers. I might be able to entertain them, but the odds of me deeply affecting their work seemed low. Whereas every day, I get an email from younger people all over the world saying, “I finished my degree. I want to do something that matters. I’m excited about technology. I don’t know what to do. Can you teach me how to hack computers? Can you teach me how to hack into my ex’s email?”
I’m hoping that with the show, we can share some of these conversations, the things that I’ve learned can go have a further life. It’s fine if it’s not a good match for people, but what I’m trying to do is in my life, part of how I’m cheating as an inventor is I’m looking around trying to find the smartest, most interesting people I can go pick their brains. I want to learn about every new technology, especially with computers out. All I’ve been doing for many years has been learning what’s new. It would be tough for you to catch up to me if you’re starting now because I’ve been learning what’s new since you were born.
That gives me a deep sense of perspective when something’s new. If somebody does something new with the computer, I can understand the entire scope of it in minutes or as you’ll see hopefully in some of these conversations. I’m going to pick the part, somebody’s understanding of what’s new, a new technology, new discovery, new invention, and I’m going to start drawing pathways and connecting it to everything else I know and say, “What about this? What about that?” That’s my process and it works well for me. I’m thinking that if I can share that for people who don’t get the same access to smart people that I do, that can have a bigger effect as you’re describing.
Hacking with duct tape to hacking an Apple ][+ to hacking a mission to put men in space.
The lab is where we got to do it because that was a good example of taking the mindset of a hacker, which I’ve famously described for years the same way, which is if you think about how people’s minds work, anyone you know if you get a new gadget and give it to your mom or your grandma, she might say, “What does this do?” You can explain to them, “It’s a phone mom. iPhone says on the box.” That’s how that story ends. When you give that gadget to a hacker, the question is different. “What can I make this do?” They’re going to flip it over, take out all the screws, break it into a lot of little pieces, but then figure out what we can build from the rubble. That’s the mindset of a hacker and it’s markedly different than what you see in most people you know. Those people are important. That mindset is important because they’re good at discovering what’s possible. That’s where you get all the new superpowers. That’s where you get all these new capabilities.
Somebody has to figure it out first and we have to support those people. I understand you might not want to hire them. There are a lot of risks. They don’t follow the rules. They don’t pay attention. They’re ADT. They’re running in circles. There they look like a risk to you, but you can’t hire them. That explains why a lot of companies suck at innovation because the more successful an institution is, a business, an industry. It could be healthcare, education, democracy, religion, the bigger and more successful it is, the more evolved its immune system is, the job of the immune system is to suppress risk. The thing that looks like the risk is anything new. We can’t expect our successful institutions to innovate. Change looks like a risk to them. This is why in Silicon Valley, we solved this problem. We solved it because in the ‘80s, every big American company had an R&D department. Research and Development job was to invent the next generation of technology for the company.
They kept getting their butts kicked by two guys in a garage with no money, no resources, no time, but they had the mindset of hackers. We learned from this. In America, we shut down R&D, but we replaced it with M&A, Mergers and Acquisitions. Their job is to watch all the startups. We fund all the startups. We invented venture capital to fund them. We’ve got thousands of startups. Each one of them thinks of it as a million-dollar experiment. We’ve got a million-dollar experiment. We’re going to run thousands of those. When one of them spikes, mergers and acquisitions. M&A buys it up, takes it to our global marketing, manufacturing, distribution, all the things that a big company good at.
That’s a way to have a relationship with innovation. That’s the paradigm. We’ve been mis-selling innovation to big companies trying to convince them that they’re going to be more innovative. They’re not. We didn’t hire CEOs because they’re good at trying crazy new experiments. We hired them because they’re good at doing the same damn thing every quarter. If a big company needs to innovate and they all have been told they’ve got to innovate or die, the way to get them there is to say, “You need to do figure out how to have a relationship with innovation.” You might not want to hire those hackers, but you might want to hang out with them once in a while, go out to lunch, play some Counter-Strike.
Keep an eye on them and then figure out when one of them has something good and then learn to cooperate. They’ll need that. Every startup needs partners.
What will be interesting in the coming weeks is for you to be talking to people about how we get past this M&A business where competition is simply crushed. The biotech area is probably one of the best examples. When you looked at where the DIY bio movement was years ago, flourishing. There is one company in Cambridge, maybe two.
I don’t understand what happened there. Do you?
It comes down to a bigger fish eating a smaller fish.
Was it Meredith who did her own DNA extraction with a salad spinner code in 2002? Do you remember that?
There were people doing things years ago. I saw a man years ago make a USB-powered electron microscope for under $200.
We’ve done that a few times with cathode-ray tubes from televisions. They’re not good electron microscopes, but you can do it. The biohacking thing, I wasn’t paying attention, but I presumed it had been flourishing. You’re saying it’s not. I don’t understand that. It’s unfortunate. The truth is we’re not nearly at the scale of creativity, hacking and flourishing that we should be. It’s a real disappointment in some sense that I feel like the internet of the ‘90s was better than the one we have now. That’s sad because we were fantasizing about was when the world would have the same rich experience that we did online.
We have everyone online or closer to it and ubiquitous 24/7 access for everyone with streaming video. It’s not a better experience. I remember the internet in the ‘90s seemed magical because whatever fringe wacko you are, you could find people who were excited about the same things as you. You could feel normal. I felt normal for the first time in my life because I could hang out with computer nerds. That wasn’t a thing in Alaska in the ‘80s and ‘90s. By getting online, I could find them. It’s like, “Not only are you a computer nerd, you’re excited about cartography. It’s amazing.”
I did have 1 or 2 other friends in Alaska who became cypherpunks and followed that stuff, but that was rare. What I imagined was like, “This is awesome.” If you’re disabled in any way, shape, or form, if you’re a man minority of any kind, oppressed or otherwise, in my mind when I think minority, I think a minority of one. That’s what matters. I believe in individuals. I believe anyone should be free to be who they want to be. They should feel supported in that way. I was one of them. I was a lonely computer nerd who was excited about stuff that nobody else was. I found my tribe online because I was physically isolated from that. I could have moved to San Francisco but didn’t at that time as a kid.
I felt a power in that. I feel like it was the right thing and the world should do that to allow people to be who they want to be and do what they want to do. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the way people would describe their experience online now. That’s a disappointment that I have. That maps to what you’re saying about biohacking haven’t taken off. When I started going to DEF CON, that’s the biggest hacker convention in the world. It always has been. It had 200 people, maybe 300. Now pushing 30,000. It’s amazing because those are people who found a tribe for whatever faults. I’m not trying to say hackers are the best role models or something, but we found a tribe and we were able to find each other and it’s grown a lot.
I don’t even go to DEF CON probably most of the time. There are hacker conventions for niches within that. That’s cool. Kids are finding each other on TikTok doing the dances that they think are cool. I don’t think they’re cool. I have different ideas. It feels sad that to the extent that that is working, but we’re not celebrating it or trying to vilify everything. I do think that there should be much more creative potential in these tools that we’re realizing. I don’t know if that’s partly that we celebrated entrepreneurs who got rich instead of the ones to move the needle on what’s possible. That’s probably part of it. These kids think they want to be Mark Zuckerberg and I have a hard time figuring out what he invented.
When you talk about invention and when we look at the Valley, I think of internet speed and getting things done in Silicon Valley time. Nowadays, the discussion is always about stickiness in keeping people in places. Between stickiness, how is your toolbox? How is the duct tape, the Apple II and the optimism?
You got to remember that these are all moving targets. I’ve lived through enough to know that in my soul. I was addicted to email in 1982. That’s far back. I learned to manage that addiction. I remember vividly in 1996 or 1997, I had a modem hooked up to my computer at home and half of my life easily was online. I checked my mail, go out to lunch, came home, checked my email. There wasn’t any. I was addicted. I had to check it. Nothing was happening. It was like, “Reply.” I would, but that was where my society was and their conversations were there and I was hooked on it.
It was like that probably up until about 2003, 2002 when I got my first Sidekick phone. I had a thumb board where I could read them. Before that, I had phones that could get an email. That was bad, but the Sidekick was the first one where I could read and write an email on the go. It was free. I could go out into the world and I didn’t have to go home to check my email anymore. I saw a whole new world. It was a flight for me, but I was still addicted. The psychic was great because it was a Zippo lighter. It had that mechanical action. You could flick it open. If you hear bling and you’d flick it open and look at spam, delete, close it, put it back in your pocket. I did that probably every 90 seconds.
Around the same time, in the late ‘90s, we had ICQ. Before that, I even had IRC, which was Internet Relay Chat. We had online chat rooms. I had chat rooms on mainframes in the early ‘80s. It took off in the ‘90s. We had Internet Relay Chat and we could have chat rooms. We could chat with people and you felt like you were missing something when you weren’t there. With IRC, we had instant messaging. You can message people all over and it felt amazing. You felt connected to your friends all the time. I don’t even know that now. At least a dozen messaging tools on my phone that work 24/7 instantaneously globally will do a translation. I can talk to them.
I don’t feel connected to my friends with them the way I did with IRC and ICQ, which was the first instant messenger. There’s a Spanish stringer since then. I don’t understand why that is because there were moments in time when I felt like I could open it up. It would show you who was online. You’d chat with whoever’s online. If I grabbed my phone now, I don’t even know who I would chat with. It’s not like that for me. It could be that I’m older and I have different friends and a different vibe. That could be it. What I think about it is along the way, I learned to tame those instincts that were addictive. I’m addicted to email and instant messaging. I had to do a twelve-step program with a couple of two-day follow-ups and I had to get that under control.
Do we have to think of these things as enticements that require us to rise to the challenge of internalizing these tools, play with them, abuse them, go nuts, overdo it, figure out how much is it adding to your life and how much is it subtracting? Like sugar and cocaine, you got to come up with an answer in the middle of somewhere and say, “That was probably too much cocaine, but I need another chocolate chip cookie.” You figure out what the right level for you is and you get that under control. We’ve had to deal with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and everything else. That personal responsibility needs to be the majority of the conversation about how we internalize these technologies and it’s zero.
We’re back to Jean Gebser and separating the technology from the spiritual and the responsibility and the ability of tools to do things.
I have no idea what you’re talking about, but that sounds like it’s possibly of philosophers.
You are a moral person. When you look at these things, you go, “I need to take personal responsibility for taking all these dopamine hits every time somebody gives me a like.” You’re not saying, “Those marketing bastards, we need to go and put them on against the wall and shoot them.”
The deal is a lot more straightforward. People are pretending like they didn’t know that. When is the last time you wrote a check and send it to Google or Facebook? If you can’t remember sending Facebook a dime or even putting your credit card number on your Facebook and you use it every fucking day. If you’re not the customer, you’re the crop there. Facebook spending billions of dollars to make a good product. Is the metric for a good product? Do you like using it? They’re making you better and better so that you’ll still be using it. You choose to use it, but you can choose not to. That’s within reason for you to choose not to. Some of these things are important. You’ve got to use Gmail for work and that thing and whatever, but you can still figure out like, “How do I use Gmail at a reasonable level where it doesn’t destroy my life and I still play with my kids?” What is important is to take personal responsibility for these things. There is an argument going around, especially with the release of The Social Dilemma. I don’t want to get into it too deeply because I have a lot of animosity about the way people are using this issue to create a lot of fear.
They’re looking at this and saying, “This is different. This isn’t like sugar, alcohol and cocaine. This is worse.” The way I see it, we’re not able to wield a lot of power against you. If you don’t use them. I don’t use Facebook and you don’t use Instagram. I’m not saying to absolve them of responsibility. I know Facebook is making a dopamine machine. I know Instagram is making a dopamine machine. I learned that I’m better at managing my addictions because I’ve had more practice, but those things don’t ruin my life. I was able to get them under control and I do use them and they add a little bit of value and I use them in the way that they do and sometimes overdo it a little bit. Sometimes I don’t use it for months, but I figured out how to make the tools that add value to my life.
Not to say that they aren’t doing sinister things when they lie. We should hold them up against the ropes for that when they lie, but I don’t think most of the time they’re lying. The deal is clear. You’re going to give us all the fucking data you possibly can and we’re going to give you these amazingly addictive toys. That’s the substrate, but I think that they also choose the wrong path. I’m a big aversion to monocultures. Facebook somehow thinks they’re going to figure out how to set the knobs so that they can steer clear of everyone in the world’s sensibilities. It’s wrong. Different cultures have different values. They think different things are important at different levels. They’re all right.
That person in China has a different sensibility about surveillance than I do. I don’t want their choice. It’s not right for me, but that’s their choice and that’s what they want. That’s what they’re happy with. They’re comfortable with it. That’s cool. That’s their thing. For me and for Americans are not okay. We chose something different. They got a different thing going in New Zealand, North Korea, and Brazil. That’s okay. That’s about food. It’s about what you do with your time. It’s about education. It’s about what matters in business. It’s about whether or not you take a fucking siesta. That’s different cultures. We need them all to do different things. Facebook wants to impose one set of values on the whole world. They want to decide exactly how many boobs I get to see, how big it can be, and how much of them I see whether or not this doctor to a woman or man.
If you like this boob, we’re going to bring this, but if we were living in a society where there’s discernment because you don’t have to use it. If you choose to use it, you’re continually dopamine up.
They’re trying to train me around which boobs I should like, and that’s not okay. What’s Facebook should have done, and I intend to advocate for this because whether Facebook gets it right or the inevitable post-Facebook thing, which I’m hoping is a decentralized protocol that does what Facebook does. All you got to do is put the knobs in my hand as a user. Let me dial-up boobs or dial down boobs and beheadings, cuss words and hip-hop lyrics. Give you those knobs. Ninety-nine percent of users will never touch them. They’ll leave them right where Facebook set them by default and that’s okay. It would absolve Facebook of all responsibility for setting those knobs. That’s the right move. They should give me that control in their product and they’re not willing to do it. It’s the wrong choice for humanity, for Facebook and history. It’s got to be possible for them to make plenty of money and still give me the knobs so that I can tune that feed but they won’t let me.
Maybe there is no spoon. They don’t need to give you the knob. We have discussed this before with your toolbox. You don’t have to ask anyone for a knob.
The logical progression is that we can build. Let’s use Instagram as an example. What does Instagram do? It gives me an app on my phone where I can scroll and look at pictures. I can see when other people like my pictures. That’s it. You got filters, comments, and some other shit. It’s a fucking simple app. Facebook and Instagram centralized service. How hard would it be for us to make a decentralized protocol that does the same thing as Instagram, or is the same thing as our Facebook feed? I contend not only does the technology already exist, it’s already been built at least dozens of times, but it has failed to garner user adoption. It gives us the knobs. It’s ad-free. It’s open-source. It’s decentralized. Anybody could use it and we’re still using Facebook. I’ll give you examples.
There’s one called Mines. There’s one called Mastodon. The one that Jimmy Wales called WikiTribune Social. These are decentralized or open-source platforms where you can do all the same things you would do on Facebook, but users have not taken responsibility for choosing to use an alternative platform that preserves their own values. They’ve surrendered their own values to Facebook, Facebook’s profit motive, Facebook’s dopamine machine. It’s the wrong choice. You could say, “I can’t switch from Facebook to Mastodon because none of my friends are on Mastodon. Fine, take your friends.” How many friends do you have? It isn’t the 2,700 people who you’re friends with on Facebook. You don’t fucking need them. They’re assholes who are posting about somebody you don’t want to vote for anyway. Get rid of them. Take the seven friends who care about who got your back, who babysit your kid, who drive you to the hospital. Take your actual friends and go to Mastodon. You could choose that. That’s how I think about it. These things are complex and I’m trying to distill hyperbolic advice that’s good.
To me, this is about demystification because what is missing here, on one hand, you have a bunch of people using dopamine machines or using the dopamine machines for evil. You then have this layer of people, the sub-Pablos crowd around the world who will listen to you talk and not sagely and feel good because they heard you speak. What they can get from you is you demystifying these things so you can give them some power to make some decisions. All of a sudden, the dark web will be called the dark web. It’ll be called happy salvation web or Disney web.
It’s not dark, it’s an enlightened web. That’s the goal and hopefully, we’ll get to dig into these things in future episodes. I have an idea for how to make an Instagram killer that could work so hopefully we’ll pick that apart.
Do you take Bitcoin? Essentially, no Cypherpunks have any skin in Bitcoin. Why is this?
It’s obvious. We’re Cypherpunks. We’re not currency speculators and the people who got rich on Bitcoin are largely currency speculators or a modern version of that, gamblers and opportunists. I’m not interested in that. We go to Vegas every year for DEF CON. I don’t think I’ve ever gambled once. It’s not what I’m into. Probably some story like that as similar for most other people like me who were around. I’m guessing I am one of the first 50 or 100 Bitcoin wallets on a floppy disc somewhere. I’ve no idea because I was mining to test it. I probably have millions in dollars in Bitcoin.
You are slow.
You got to remember I had a 5,000 core supercomputer.
I was only getting one every few minutes like, “Why am I doing this?” Certainly, my machine is getting too hot.
It was like, “Fuck it, my machine is getting too hot. I’ll shut it down.” I don’t even know the password and can’t get to get those Bitcoins. One of my friends in today’s price is pushing a $100 billion worth of Bitcoin on wallets that we don’t know that he doesn’t know the password to. His mining rig is half mining, half cracking trying to cross this off password. Eventually, if we can crack the password on the wallet then we self-fund the rest of our crazy ideas. It is what it is. I don’t have a lot of respect for the Ponzi schemes and things that have compost Bitcoin. That’s given cryptocurrency a bad name, but what I’m happy about is that it attracted a generation of coders to the crypto toolkit. That is exciting because it means as they imagined and create apps, protocols and services of the future, that will be a normal part of their thinking. You can see it happening first with blockchain, even though blockchain is 1 of 100 things in the crypto tool kit and the newest one in some sense. We don’t even need blockchain for a lot of stuff. We need the other tools that are there. We need people to think about designing things differently.
When people hear blockchain and they think it AI, it’s a mystery, it’s electrolytes. I tell them the same sentence again and say database. I don’t need blockchain.
At some point, you get tired of engaging at that level. At least Bitcoin, there’s nothing like making people into billionaires that attract attention to technology. I got to acquiesce to that. None of my other ideas for getting people excited about technology have been business successful.
We knew that all this was going to do was to build a bunch of hydroelectric plants for no reason. We should have been invested in any way. We would have been in early on the pyramid.
It’s true. There are many ways that could have made money with my hindsight.
I didn’t take that job in 1986 with Microsoft in the marketing department.
I’m glad I didn’t, but it is true that we’re not as rich as those other assholes that we could have been, but I do sleep well. There’s possibly one thing worth covering, which oddly we didn’t which is I had a unique experience with Nathan at the lab. For people who don’t know Nathan Myhrvold, not so much outside but he’s famous in tech for being the first CTO at Microsoft. Microsoft bought a company and started a software company in 1986. Nathan is a smart guy. He’s a physicist. He was trained as a physicist and he ended up working for Stephen Hawking. For some reason, he got into software and ended up at Microsoft doing all the Windows and all that stuff in those days. Nathan is a polymath’s polymath. I’ve been in the room with Nathan when we had all different kinds of scientists, oceanographers, paleontologists, entomologists, nuclear physicists, computer scientists. I’m a computer hacker collectively. It doesn’t matter what scientist you are.
It’s hard to keep up with Nathan. It’s an extraordinary mind that is unique. Probably people who are not that many people know Nathan, but I’d say the ones who do probably think he’s the smartest living human. It’s partly that because he’s got such an agile mind that can go all the way down to bits and atoms. It can go all the way up to interplanetary and world domination schemes. It can across Biology, Paleontology, Physics, and all these things. It’s inspiring. I’m unusual, but even for me, seeing Nathan’s ability to think at any scale was influential and inspiring to me. What it meant was that when we took on problems, almost immediately jumped to the Global scale. What’s the actual scale of this problem in the world?
Whenever we started to look at what kinds of inventions, technologies, solutions could we bring to it, it meant we would back out from there do the arithmetic. The math you learn in elementary school to add up, is this solution going to move the needle at that scale? You’ll get wildly different answers doing that than what most people are getting. That helped me a lot. I had a head start because of living with Moore’s law, you go through this process. I remember one time when I was married, I put a hard drive on the table and told my wife, “Look at that. That’s a one terabyte hard drive. It’s a thousand gigabytes.” She’s like, “I remember when you put the one-gigabyte hard drive on the table and told me it was a thousand megabytes.”
The difference is for guys like Nathan and to some extent me but not as great of an extent, we had to train ourselves to believe that in a few more years, I’m going to put it hard drive down one petabyte hard drive. That’s hard for people to believe in their heart of hearts. Intellectually, they get it, but to live with that assumption and have it drive your thought processes, being able to think of those exponential scales, Nathan’s a good example of that. I learned a lot about solving big problems from that.
There was much talk about education over the years, but it’s always about what we want to prepare the children for the future of tomorrow. It always seems to involve, “We need to be teaching eighth-grade math in fifth grade. We need to add more vitamin D to vitamin D,” but you’re an optimist. You’re a technologist. We are all living in the future. Where is that arc? Can you give the people at home an idea of what that looks like?
I have a daughter. That’s probably the main way I think that through. I’m not a role model parent. She’s way more in charge of her education than I am. I’m trying to talk her into dropping out so that we can go travel the world since we don’t have to be anywhere except Zoom calls. She won’t do it. She’s like, “I want to stay in school and finish.” I’m like, “We could be traveling, going to a cool place and doing Zoom from anywhere. Why do you want to do it from Seattle?” I don’t know what her math skills are. They’re better than mine already. That’s weird. I’m not great at math. I didn’t get a lot of math education. I learned math on the job. I’m good at math. Being in eighth grade, she’s being taught harder math than I could do on my own. I could make it Mathematica do it, but I couldn’t do it. Do I worry that she going to be prepared for the future? Does she understand how to question things? She doesn’t take the shit. I tell her for granted, she doesn’t even believe some of the stuff I tell her like, “Why not? I’m a genius and you’re a kid.”
She’s not taking that. That’s probably a good sign. There’s what skills I have. I’m forced to memorize the names, dates and phone numbers from history. All the capitals of the United States, the name all the presidents. I had to memorize that shit, Washington, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison. She’s got Wikipedia in her pocket 24/7 since she was six years old. She doesn’t need to know Van Buren. She needs to know how to look him up, learn about what relevance he might have to whatever she’s doing at any given moment. There’s a different thing. She’s in a world where on YouTube she can look up and learn how to do anything overnight that’s known how to be done. There’s a tutorial and also a bunch of bullshit. She might use that power to learn how to braid hair. She might use that power to learn how to paint her Nike Air Force Ones. She’s using it for things that are idiotic, but when I was thirteen years old, I was on a fucking skateboard in Alaska learning nothing useful. I wouldn’t take it back. I want her to turn out in different ways from all the other kids and then I’ll be satisfied.
One would be an agency and the second one you mentioned or implied discernment.
That’s where the rubber meets the road. I don’t try to make her feel like I’m going to take care of her for her whole life. I’m like, “You figure it out.” She needs to figure it out because I’m going to die probably assassinated by an audience or on impact. Hopefully, after she gets out of high school and I can get into skydiving and riding fast motorcycles. Thanks. We should wrap this up.
It’s great. It is my pleasure.
Is there anything else?
What will make this an interesting show is what has always made our conversations interesting is that we’re both willing to not be the same as the smartest guy in the room.
I want to be in a room where everybody is smarter than me, except one guy. I could show how smart I am by picking on him.
That’s important. That’s the only way that you go forward.
It’s worked for me and I ended up in rooms with smart people. I learned a lot that way. I’m hoping that we can bring that to a bigger audience.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- Bill Scannell
- Blue Origin
- Intellectual Ventures Lab
- Tor Browser
- Mark Shuttleworth
- Nathan Myhrvold
- WikiTribune Social
- Lance Ahern
- Keith Rosema
- Neal Stephenson
- Jeff Bezos
- Whit Diffie
- Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange
- Lucky Green
- Jon Callas
- Tim May
- Jimmy Wales
- Anonymous Remailers
- The Dark Web