Uncharted Insider - October 2021
On the merits of science fiction, on the need for supply-side innovations, on freedom vs. power, and on the forgotten wisdom of seasons.
Welcome to the October edition of the Uncharted Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Uncharted Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.
- Uncharted’s Economic Inequality Initiative is underway. Last week we had Ai-jen Poo address the cohort in a fireside chat and in the coming weeks we will have Edgar Villanueva speak to our cohort.
- Uncharted ventures are everywhere:
- Who Gives a Crap raised $41.5 million
- Tala raised $145 million
- Freefrom received $4M by Pivotal Ventures to tackle intimate partner domestic violence
- mRelief's catalytic economics got the attention of Paul Graham. mRelief turns $1 into $240 of SNAP benefits.
- We’ve been fortunate to get some press in Forbes (here and here), CNBC, and Quartz in the last month about our 4-day workweek, our Economic Inequality Initiative, and deep learning retreats.
On the Merits of Science Fiction
With a name like Uncharted, we consider it a responsibility to explore the fringe ideas, technologies, and solutions that might one day dominate the future. It is startling to be reminded that Barack Obama waffled on the question of gay marriage less than two decades ago, or that some of the topics in The Office were considered acceptable at the time, or that so many technologies that define our day-to-day didn’t exist 15 years ago. Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist focused on the future of the internet, suggests that we might miss the next big thing because it will start out looking like a toy. This seems to be the case for NFTs and other digitally scarce assets. The cryptocurrency prices people are paying for pixels on a screen seems absurd, but perhaps what seems absurd now will one day make total sense. I learned recently that space exploration was largely inspired by scientists reading science fiction and that NASA has been funding science fiction authors to help expand the intellectual horizons of what’s possible. Whether it's NFTs, science fiction, FDA approval of psychedelic drugs, or 4-day workweeks, there is perhaps no topic that captivates my imagination more than how radical ideas become mainstream norms; there is a thrill in the pace of change, a reverence for peculiar but brave visions, and a humility in recognizing how quickly modern ideas become artifacts from a past era.
Ezra Klein said recently on his podcast that one of the most valuable critiques of his show has been that by only exploring what’s politically realistic, he reinforces the existing boundaries of what is politically possible. By pollinating our realism with radical ideas and far-fetched possibilities, we’re able to stretch those boundaries and move the Overton Window. Without exploring the fantastical, we reinforce the likelihood of the status quo, and for those of us who believe the status quo needs an upgrade, this is a lesson in practicing intellectual inclusiveness.
On Supply-side Innovations
I recently read Bill Gates’s book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, and one of the book’s main recommendations is to focus more on government R+D on the supply-side of the equation (e.g. government creating incentives for the commercialization of technologies like direct air capture) than on regulating the market on the demand side (e.g. government imposing a carbon tax). If there is a standard refrain in all conversations about climate change, it’s “we need both,” so this is not an argument for focusing on supply-side innovations and neglecting demand-side regulations, but I do think those of us in the social sector are more inclined to focus on fixing current market failures than to focus on shaping future markets (this article makes a similar point in its critique of progressive policy in the US). I see a few reasons for this:
- Markets are the enemy: Some people take a view that market forces are only to be regulated and reigned in, not shaped and leveraged. The market is the enemy and must be tamed. (Once again, we probably need both regulating and shaping.)
- First-mover disadvantage: The future is an unpredictable place (see section above) and pioneering attempts at shaping it will be messy and full of mistakes. People who are punished for failure will be disinclined to take such risks.
- Well-defined problems: The social sector loves well defined problems rooted in statistics and backed by long-form journalism in The Atlantic. There is more defensibility in tackling a proven, existing problem than in trying to conceive of a future state and navigate around its potential problems. We would rather mitigate quantifiable downside by tackling proven problems than gain exposure to unquantifiable upside by predicting emergent ones. Unfamiliarity creates a barrier to action.
On Freedom vs. Power
There has been a blindspot in our collective consciousness about how power operates in our American society. We struggle to have self-reflective, nuanced conversations about the way power manifests and hides: who has it, how it's conferred, and the byzantine ways it courses through the veins of classes, races, contexts, genders, geographies, and generations. Our struggle to name and speak about power is one of the reasons why I’m glad we’re all spending more time understanding systems of oppression, histories of coercion, and stories of power’s consolidation. Our reckoning around systemic racism is a lesson in the history of power. I hear from many about how we need to shift power, how we need to cede power, how we need to empower.
My biggest personal questions are also around power: as a CEO who holds more power than anyone else at Uncharted, I’ve asked myself is power zero-sum or positive-sum? Can we expand power or is it capped? Can I be a leader that creates more power for the people around me? I’m still seeking wisdom here, but one source I’ve gone to is the trans-activist Alok Vaid-Menon, who posits that we need to seek collective freedom instead of redistributed power. Power has to do with control, they argues, where freedom has to do with healing. Alok is discoverable across many mediums, but I’ve found this podcast with him to be in the top 1% of all content I’ve digested this year. In it, Alok excavates below conversations of structural racism, misogyny, white supremacy, and so many other systems of oppression to explore a set of subterranean, spiritual first principles. If I have a critique of the contemporary DEI conversation, it’s that it often doesn’t go deep enough into the spiritual and epistemological groundings of the movement. Alok does that in beautiful, arresting ways on this podcast and has me reflecting on if we’re fighting for power or freedom or something else.
What big trends are you seeing? What insights have you had? What are some major learnings in the last month in your work? One of the most powerful ways we can learn is by 1) gleaning the insights from those around us, and then 2) compounding those learnings over time. Simply share any big ideas or learning using this link, and I’ll select a few to publish in the next Insider so this community can continue to compound learnings from each other.
This insight below is from Adam Bendell, CEO of Toniic. You can reach Adam here.
When we frame our motives for positive impact as "redress of imbalance" we will always come up short. Success implies "fixing all the problems", achieved only if new problems aren't inadvertently created by our efforts or emerge independently while we are at it. We know we will never get there, and the process of aiming for restoration leaves us withered. We sense unseen principles guiding the systems we seek to influence, and like a mechanic we may race around turning dials seeking improved functioning of the ancient design. Perhaps it's working flawlessly as designed. And still we are unfulfilled, getting little succor from gnawing on rocks.
An alternative is to aspire to beauty. Instead of seeking fairness, justice, and a level playing field, our aspirations soar. We tap into the ancient wordless pull towards the beautiful. We let ourselves wallow in the mud of first principles until an intuition emerges. A simple and elegant solution from which more has been subtracted than added. What is created is greater than what has ever been. What emerges delights the senses, is aligned with the deepest principles, and has universal appeal. It is beautiful. In nature, music, visual arts, gardening, literature, architecture, poetry, the human body, and everything we see and touch, the heart hungers towards beauty without knowing why. Beauty expresses the pinnacle of creativity and appreciation.Magnetizing our effort towards discovering beauty instead of fixing what's broken seems a much more durable, inspiring and rewarding motive -- and is more likely to yield breakthrough solutions. This insight was prompted by the book "Beauty - The Invisible Embrace" by the late Irish poet, priest, and philosopher John O"Donohue.
Can you help?
- Do you know Noorain Khan at the Ford Foundation?
- Do you know anyone at Stripe working in CSR or the impact space broadly?
- Do you know Marla Blow at Skoll Foundation?
- Who do you know who has been extraordinarily successful at corporate sponsorships? We want to learn from them.
What I am reading
- What is the future of Chinese communism and capitalism? The geopolitical implications of China’s long-term bets and what it means for America. Here.
- An agenda for policy makers from the VC Andreesen Horowitz on the future of the internet and web 3.0 technologies. We live in an internet age of centralized power where major tech companies dictate terms. The future will be decentralized with distributed power. Here.
- The internet promised us that it would democratize who gets to speak, but the bigger problem is the way it has shaped what we hear. How everyone is becoming a celebrity in the digital age and what it means for our communities and psychologies. Here.
- A conversation with Richard Powers (author of The Overstory) on our relationship to trees, the natural world, and the delusion of selfhood in an interconnected world. Here.
What I am writing
I am expanding my writing beyond this monthly Uncharted Insider by writing additional posts and reflections here on my Ghost site (it’s similar to Substack). Here is one post I’ve written in the last month:
- The social sector is not ready for the metaverse and a digital future. Here.
October is the month to notice the trees in our lives. A few days ago, I was on a walk in my neighborhood and I came upon three trees in a row. The first had a full canopy in the early stages of transition: greenish yellow leaves, still plasticy and rich with chlorophyll. The next tree was a fiery amber hue, its crown fully intact, its leaves crisp and papery but still clinging tightly. The final tree was already half bald and midway through its release, some dark burgundy leaves waving loosely above and others crunching beneath my feet. A few more gusts of wind would strip it bare.
Somehow we understand seasons in the lives of plants but not in our own lives. We know how trees bud and then bloom and then shed and then stand naked, but somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that we need to live year-round like a tree during its June ascent: vibrant, strong, full of blossoming life. Why do we resist the seasons in our own lives but embrace the seasons in so many things around us?
I’ve been reading all these articles about how the American workforce is burned out and exhausted, and I wonder if burnout is partially due to our rejection of the idea of seasons in our own lives... the way we continue to find ourselves in situations that demand the June version of ourselves and don’t permit any October version (let alone a February version). I hope we can give ourselves the permission to be seasonal creatures and let the people around us bud and bloom and release and hibernate on their own timing, and that we can cheer them on, especially when their leaves turn and fall and it’s time for them to lie in wait, in anticipation for the next start, whenever that might be.
As always I welcome your feedback and ideas.
Another year around the sun,
One quick thing to note: This is not the official Uncharted newsletter; this is just a monthly letter from me, drafted straight out of my inbox every month.
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