1517 Summer Community Newsletter
Escape from Capivity
Happy August and welcome to our new, fresh, crackling 1517 newsletter. Also, check out the new vibe at our new website–which also has lots of easter eggs :)
I hope we didn’t startle you! You received this letter now because you interacted with us in the past (maybe at a hackathon?), and you used to receive our old letter via Mobilize. Like most of the Internet lately, we’ve decided to migrate our newsletter over to Substack. Forgive us for the interruption and unsubscribe if you don’t wish to receive our updates. Hey, no hard feelings! We’ll publish about one per quarter and they’ll contain news about events, job openings, and our musings for the quarter, as you’ll see below. For more frequent updates, follow us at @1517fund on Twitter.
A Philosophy of the Future
Most thinking about the future devotes its attention to averting catastrophe. What, if anything, can we do to reverse global warming? Or, how the hell can we control that pesky superintelligent computer? Assessing the likelihood of these different existential risks has become synonymous with the future itself. In the last year at an alarming rate, I have heard acquaintances tell me that they have decided not to have children because they can’t imagine bringing children into this world. The likelihood of future irredeemable suffering is just too high. It is as if we have become the land of a thousand Noahs, but not one of them thinks the Ark worthwhile.
Is a new philosophy of the future needed? Well, I’m not quite sure what the old philosophy was. If the old was about the cost-benefit analysis of different future technologies, then I agree that the subject is exhausted. And exhausting. Debating the risks of artificial intelligence may clarify views, and even set wise policy in place, but it’s not inspiring.
In Russ Roberts’s new book, Wild Problems, I recently came across a list of pros and cons that Charles Darwin made about whether or not he should get married. I think it shows how weak cost-benefit analysis can be when it comes to thinking about our own personal future and the decisions we make. Imagination is often weaker than we imagine. Darwin was 29 when he wrote his list, fresh off the HMS Beagle, and at the beginning of his sterling career, which he wanted to protect from domestic duties. He scribbled the list for and against marriage on the back of a letter to a friend:
This is the Question
Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — better than a dog anyhow.– Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. — but terrible loss of time. —
Better than a dog anyhow! And that was a reason for marriage. Now for those against:
Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
In the end, Darwin decided to marry, only six months later. He had 10 children with his wife, who was with him till he died in 1882. By all accounts, it was a loving partnership. And Darwin certainly ranks among the greatest scientists of all time. Maybe among the top three. So it all worked out. But given how bad some of his reasons for and against marriage were, it’s a wonder he made a good choice at all. It raises a curious question: How can we run a cost-benefit analysis with expected utility calculations when we are blind to what the future might be in its fullness? It’s hard to know how to weigh all the variables. Or, as Darwin makes clear, to even know what the variables are. Darwin was struggling to imagine how he would feel about these experiences in the future. But, in truth, he had no idea. His reasons are also general and could apply to anyone. Shouldn’t he consider who his wife would be? On a personal level, when we think about the future, we’re subject to a form of blindness–what will bring about the good life cannot be known entirely in advance. It is, as Roberts describes it, a wild problem.
I sometimes wonder if a similar blindness clouds our judgment when we think about the future as a whole. Not just for our personal lives. Like Darwin, we grope around for reasons for and against certain technologies. And, though it’s all pretty abstract, to some extent this reasoning and balancing are useful. But perhaps a philosophy of the future shouldn’t be so much about the reasons for and against certain developments as about the future we want to see or the people we want to become. It should begin with our aspirations rather than our fears.
“Sir,” C-3PO alarms us in The Empire Strikes Back. “The possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.”
To which Han Solo doesn’t respond, hold on while I run the expected value calculation. No, he says, “Never tell me the odds.”
What We’re Reading & Watching & Listening To
Balaji Srinivasan has been a friend to 1517 for a long time. Some of you might remember his talk at the Vegas Thiel summit back in 2014. Balaji also came to give a prescient talk at our big celebration to honor the 500th anniversary of the night Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in 1517. As is his wont, Balaji was very prescient at our Assembly in 2017, giving a talk on the foundations of what has become known as Web3. You can watch that talk here.
Now Balaji has published a book called The Network State. Technology has helped entrepreneurs launch new companies and currencies. Will it help them start a new nation? Balaji thinks so. You can read my review of his outstanding, incendiary book at City Journal. As Balaji says, perhaps America ends not with a bang, but a printer.
Zak finally read A Canticle for Leibowitz after years of friends recommending it to him as, “essentially, it’s what you believe in.” Technology and civilization are revived from the ashes of nuclear apocalypse by a group of monks in the Utah desert. Not exactly an uplifting book but definitely something that goes against the grain of our typical conceptions of technology, apocalypse, and tradition.
Danielle has been getting into something that she thought she always hated, running. She’s especially obsessed with Zone 2 heart rate training and has been enjoying the Extramilest Show. She also recently listened to Larry Arnn talk about how Hillsdale college builds character and agency in students and really resonated with how he talks about education. Lastly, this podcast episode about direct patronage hosted by Amanda Palmer is a total hell yeah – check it out!
Our Companies Are Hiring!
As part of our website redesign, we’ve also updated our jobs board. Now searchable by role and company, it’s a slick tool to help you start your career or open your next chapter. Check it out here.
We’ve expanded our team. Haylee Johnson joined 1517 this past March as our chief of staff. Haylee combines a love for action and execution with a passion for our mission, so much so that it feels like she’s been a part of the team for years. Be sure to say hi to Haylee at our upcoming events.
We’re also piloting a new operative role with 1517. Operatives are our agents in the field who love to help makers make and the builders build. They’re the weirdo magnets who love to observe others, spot the unique, and empower them with resources. Nancy Zuo in LA and Max Efremov in Austin have joined on as our first operatives. Keep an eye out for social events hosted by Nancy and Max.
Do you love spending time in fringe groups, building communities, and connecting people? We’re looking to hire more operatives. Operatives are off the beaten path, have nontraditional characteristics, and are magnets for unique makers and scientists. 1517 will offer you a stipend to be your authentic weird self while meeting and introducing us to those you meet along the way – makers, founders, renegade scientists, bohemians, rebels, poets, artists, pranksters, weirdos, quirky thinkers, etc. Let us know if this sounds like you.
We’ve also brought on board some advisors in residence. Harry Gandhi, Stacey Ferreira, and Alex Schwarzkopf are all from our 1517 Fund I portfolio. They’ll be helping the 1517 community with their startup expertise, their hard-won wisdom, and from time to time, with diligence. We’ll be publishing some great essays from them as well, which we’ll keep on our Substack home page.
Who’s going to Burning Man? Danielle will be out there this year and doing her rangering thing. She’d love to see you!
Danielle and I will be at Hack the North in Waterloo, Canada. September 16-18. Let us know if you’re in the area and want to meet up!
I will be leading a discussion on risk and uncertainty in Munich, Germany on September 24. You can sign up for that workshop here.
On November 8th, we’re going to throw a party in New York City for the launch of my new book! (More below.) Let me know if you’d like to come and I’ll throw you on the invite list.
And on December 2nd in Austin, Texas, we’re going to host The Santarchy Ball. During the day, we’ll have talks by philosophers and utopians on startup societies, new cities, and what a world of opt-in / opt-out governance might look like. Then at night, we’ll have a fun holiday party. Email me if you want to be on the invite that goes out!
Today’s Grande Finale
I wrote a book during Covid lockdowns. It’s a behind-the-scenes account of what we do at 1517 and how that relates to bigger themes like breaking out of our current stagnation. Here are some of the blurbs:
“Part adventure tale, part manifesto, Paper Belt on Fire is a battle cry for anyone who ever dreamed of wresting power back from corrupt institutions—or of nailing the truth to the cathedral door.”
—Peter Thiel, author of Zero to One
“Michael Gibson has spearheaded a recent revolution in education, and how to turn it into true learning and achievement. Paper Belt on Fire gives an inside look at how this was accomplished, the people behind the story, and how and why America can do better.”
—Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation and professor of economics, George Mason University
“Paper Belt on Fire is both an indictment of failing institutions and a behind-the-scenes adventure about the mischief-makers fighting to renew America’s dynamism.”
—Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz
Have a great rest of your summer!