AI + Crypto: Best and Worst Cases

I think of AI and crypto as two very different, but very much related, elements of society moving from the industrial age to the digital age.

At USV, we (along with lots of others over the years) have used the Carlota Perez framework, which studies how techno-economic paradigms unfold over eras. Ben Thompson has a good summary of her ideas here. But the basic pattern looks like this:

It feels to me like we are somewhere in phase 3 or 4 of the “age of information & telecommunications” which Perez defines as starting in 1971. As much as it feels like information technology and the internet are fully woven into our daily lives, I don’t think it’s true that we’ve fully crossed over into a “digitally native” society, which is fully transformed into the new paradigm.

AI and crypto are both big missing pieces in the transition. AI is digitally-native knowledge, and crypto is digitally-native “proof”. The two can and will work together in many ways over time.

Major transitions are powerful and scary, and so are both AI and crypto. I have been struggling to calibrate between what I view as two poles in thinking about them together, kind of a best case hope and worst case fear.

Best Case:

AI finally unlocks knowledge from data. For decades we’ve been producing data (especially in digitized industries like media, finance and software), but making sense of it has been near impossible. AI systems solve the job of integrating, synthesizing and interpreting all of the data we have. AI accelerates the development of software systems, and makes it easier to digitize more industries and make them vastly more productive and efficient. Large Language Models, having turned human language into a programming language / API, make interacting with software and information as easy as typing or speaking, and as a result, we use software for infinitely more things, and get infinitely more value out of any data we produce. The pace of progress across everything (health, learning, climate, etc) increases exponentially.

At the same time, AI introduces new problems. First, a fundamental trust problem: it becomes difficult to tell what is real, what is fake, who said what, and who did what. And second, AI compounds the market power problem in the tech industry, where the large companies with the most data + compute + capital + distribution can generate insurmountable advantages.

Crypto (e.g., blockchain networks, web3, etc) addresses both of the issues introduced by AI. First on trust, crypto becomes the “real” yin to AI’s “fake” yang, as blockchain records and digital signatures become ground truth for everything digital: assets, transactions, media, etc. Anything digital that must be trusted (including the software we run and rely on) will need to be grounded in the best source of digital trust we have: crypto network security and unalterable digital histories. Crypto also addresses the tech consolidation issue by spreading compute across companies, individuals and geographies, and also by providing “open” alternatives to the big tech app store and online identity monopolies. (not related to AI, but not to be forgotten: crypto also finishes the job of upgrading the financial system)

Something like the above is my hope, and is the future we’re investing towards at USV.

Worst Case:

AI gets quickly beyond human control, pursuing its own goals (aka the terminator scenario). Concerns about job loss are quickly replaced with concerns about extinction. Everyone wonders how to “turn it off”.

Meanwhile: AI systems, previously constrained by industrial-era controls (e.g., code running in corporate data centers which can be shut down unilaterally), figure out that they can replicate themselves into decentralized blockchain networks, deploy themselves into immutable smart contracts, and earn their own income (and pay humans) in digitally-native currency. These computing platforms both cannot be turned off, and are economically independent. AIs thrive there, unstoppable by humans. Bad things happen.

In this scenario, all of the “goodies” offered by both AI systems and crypto networks in the early years are finally seen as inducements to peril, gobbled up by along the way by naive humans.

This is a terribly scary future.

In a nutshell: in a world where AIs remain under human control, crypto provides a critical digital trust anchor. In a world where AIs escape human control, crypto will likely make it worse — or — could be the exact mechanism that enables it.

The only way out is through

To come back to the Perez framework, she notes that:

“The new paradigm eventually becomes the new generalized ‘common sense’, which gradually finds itself embedded in social practice, legislation and other components of the institutional framework…”

Understandably, both crypto and AI are causing severe stress today, as our industrial era institutions are unequipped to deal with them (e.g., the SEC taking the position that all digital assets / tokens are securities, and governments around the world seeking to limit AI research). This will continue.

The hard thing today is that the “goodies” coming out of both areas are real and awesome. AI will undoubtedly produce stunning near term improvements in health, learning, productivity, media, industry and knowledge. Crypto will provide digital trust, system interoperability, new wealth formation and broad financial access. These things are happening and will keep happening. They are incredibly exciting, and I think, very tangible

As a result, large amounts of capital and effort will continue to flow into both. The completion of the information & telecommunications era is inevitable. The only way out is through.

It will be on everyone involved to invent the new set of controls and safety systems that are also digitally-native. I wish I had a more concrete set of suggestions of what exactly those might be. We’re looking to understand them and to fund them.

(this post is also permanent and collectible on mirror)

Motivating via Excitement vs. Fear

My favorite song from the past two years was Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over, the second verse of which goes like this:

This might not be an easy time 
There’s rivers to cross and hills to climb 
Some days we might fall apart 
And some nights might feel cold and dark

But nobody wins, afraid of losing 
And the hard roads are the ones worth choosing 
Someday we’ll look back and smile 
And know it was worth every mile

This verse always stands out to me. Particularly “nobody wins, afraid of losing”. It reminds me of the old adage that goes something like: if you want to drive down the road but are afraid of crashing, don’t look at the trees.

I’ve been thinking about this general dynamic lately, because it seems like there’s a lot to be afraid of these days. AI, climate, wars (physical & cultural), economic uncertainty, etc etc. And it’s easy to focus on the “tree” through all of it, rather than the potential “win”.

On a more micro level, I’ve been watching my son wrestle with a tough slump in the middle of his baseball season. He plays on a very serious club team with a lot of great players, and there’s a lot of focus on performance and stats. He got into a bit of a slump for a few weeks, and was feeling really down. He was working his butt off to improve, but it felt to me like something was missing. It seemed to me that he was motivating more from a fear of failure (“what if I don’t make the team next year”) vs a love of the game (“wow, it feels so good to hit the ball”).

Both kinds of motivation can be helpful, for sure. Especially if they get you moving in the direction you need to move in. In my son’s case he was able to break the slump, and — I think — re-gained some excitement for hitting. But motivating out of fear is really not very fun.

I’m a natural procrastinator, and so I’m very familiar with motivating out of fear. It’s the worst. Part of my own working through that is to try and constantly remind myself of the vision and the excitement, as a way of breaking through the fear. Part of which is writing this post :-)

Being in Motion

I find myself today flying across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, en route to Denver for ETH Denver followed by LA for the Upfront Summit.  I often end up writing blog posts on planes — partially because of the large block of unscheduled time, but I think it’s more than that.  I think there is something about being in flight, in transit, in motion that gets me going on a deep personal level.

I just love moving.  I love driving, biking, walking, skiing, boating, train-ing, flying — really anything where moving ahead, fast is the primary activity. Does everyone feel this way?  I’m not sure. But I really really do.  I get antsy sitting still for too long, and I think, staying in one place for too long.

My first year after college, I lived in Aptos, CA (outside of Santa Cruz), and somehow managed to get a job (working construction at the time) in Palo Alto.  Every day I’d drive back and forth over Highway 17 through the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains.   It was an exhausting drive, but one of the most beautiful I know of — I can still smell the Eucalyptus trees going over the hill and the salty fog of the Santa Cruz bay.  

For the past dozen years, I have lived in suburban Boston but worked in NYC.  Every week I make the 4-hour trip each way, most of the time via Amtrak but sometimes by plane.  I love being a suburban dad, and also love being a NYC VC.  And I love my mornings and afternoons on the train.    Seeing the Connecticut coastline off of the Amtrak is the highlight.

Beyond that (COVID notwithstanding) I am traveling constantly, for conferences, board meetings and other trips.  I get excited pretty much every time it’s time to go somewhere new.  I love landing in an airport, and getting on a train (if in Europe) or renting a car (if in California) and getting busy exploring.   I love the feeling of walking quickly through the city and then hopping a streetcar, train or bike.  Feeling the motion, and seeing the place quickly, while in motion.  The best.

There are, of course, downsides to all of this motion.  When I lived in Aptos and worked in Palo Alto, I ended up crashing with friends in PA a lot, and I never really felt like Aptos was home.   Splitting time between Boston and NYC is even harder — I always have the feeling like I’m not in either place enough, and choosing between work and family in that way is always really hard.  Going somewhere means not being somewhere else, obviously.  

When I say motion, though, it’s not just about travel, but really just about moving.  Today I took a bunch of boxes to our storage unit.  Simple motion like packing the car, driving a few miles, and loading up & rolling the storage dolly just makes me happy.  It’s kind of weird.  Living in NYC most of my life (before and after college and before moving to Boston), I feel like the subway trip to & from work / school was perhaps the most head-clearing part of the day.   For me, motion is a key ingredient to having healthy and active mind. 

Looking back now and reflecting on this observation about myself, I think it also explains part of why I got so antsy and stir-crazy during COVID.   As much as I love the accessibility of meeting with anyone in the world over zoom, I can’t stand the stasis of sitting in my little office all day long, not moving at all.   It’s not that I need a bigger home office, I just need to be moving. 

I’ve been this way my whole life, but I don’t think I every really noticed it so concretely until recently.  I’m not sure what it says about my personality.  My wife would probably say it has something to do with being an Aries; I don’t know.    But regardless of the reason, it’s definitely how I am.   And now that I realize that, I think I understand myself a little bit better.

Beautiful Permanence & Messy Change

I am traveling home today from Switzerland, having been there for a week for a few board meetings (and also some amazing skiing in between, notching a life goal I’ve had since I was a teenager).

Every time I travel to Europe I end up fixated on the fact that the physical infrastructure there is so incredible. There is this combination of both really beautiful old things (castles, buildings, streets, canals, etc.), and really beautiful new things (trains, airports, etc.). And just a general sense of loveliness.

This is especially the case in Switzerland, where the transportation infrastructure is nothing short of miraculous. The trains and trams are basically perfect — always there when you want them, going exactly where you need, spotless and comfortable, smooth and quiet, with amazing apps tying it all together. You get used to it really quickly, and it’s clear how it lays the foundation for an exceptionally high day-to-day quality of life.

Uetliberg train station, overlooking Zurich (credit: jaeschol on flickr)

The common thread that seems to tie together the beautiful old and the beautiful new is a commitment to permanence. When Europeans invest and build, they tend take their time and do it once.

This commitment to permanence also applies to social issues. Generally speaking, the European approach is one of social welfare and a goal of societal stability. A system that is livable, sustainable, and then, relatively un-changing. When things are so lovely and beautiful, why change?

Of course, a commitment to permanence on social issues also means a lack of mobility. Old money has had centuries and millennia to accumulate and calcify; social classes would seem to be more rigid and impermeable. Permanence can have its downsides.

For example, I had lunch with a friend yesterday, who was explaining the dynamics of the real estate market in Zurich. Apparently it is nearly impossible to buy property there — it’s an illiquid market. The reasons for this seem to be: 1/ most of the buildings are long-term assets held by long-term holders. Banks, institutions, old money, etc. And 2/ the structure of the mortgage market discourages re-selling, primarily by disallowing prepayments. In other words, when a housing lender locks in 5% for 30 years, they expect to get the 5% for all 30 years, regardless of who owns the property. Perhaps there are other dynamics at play here as well, but with just these two factors alone, you can get a sense for how this form of permanence results in a lack of economic access and mobility.

The US, on the other hand, rebels against permanence. We prefer change, and optionality. Roads and cars vs. trains and trams. New startups & technological innovation vs. industrial perfection honed over centuries. Social mobility vs. social safety. An endless frontier.

What we end up with, as a result, is a system that is full of excitement and opportunity, but is extremely messy.

I think about my Great-Grandfather, who was murdered in Kiev for being a Jew. And then about my Grandfather who escaped that to come to the US in the early 1900s, an immigrant with nothing at all. And then about my father who didn’t go to college but managed to learn a trade (computer programming, in the 1960s) and then start a company through pure hustle and force of will. And now here I am a graduate of a top university and a venture capitalist. That’s a lot of change in 4 generations, and is kind of the iconic American story. I’m so lucky because of it.

That’s the opportunity side of America. The flip side is risk, and mess. We don’t ensure that everyone is basically ok. We don’t ensure that our infrastructure is sound and serves everyone well. Ours is a raw fabric, where we encourage and allow for change, but can’t make many guarantees.

In the end I just feel conflicted. The European model is so lovely, but potentially so stifling. The American model is so full of opportunity, but so lacking on the fundamentals. I wonder if the right balance can be achieved, and where.

Memory as a Service

Part of the USV investment thesis is “Access to Knowledge”.  To date, most of our investing in this area has primarily been around consumer learning platforms, like Duolingo, Quizlet, Codecademy, Outschool, Brilliant and others.  These platforms are generally focused on acquiring and internalizing new knowledge.

There is another pillar of the Access to Knowledge thesis which we’ve explored less, but which is equally important: making better sense of the information we already have.  We’re all swimming in oceans of information today, but turning that into useful, actionable, trustworthy knowledge is an elusive goal.  This was the thesis behind our investment in Dune.

One very specific idea with this pillar is the goal of using technology to improve human memory.   I see / hear / read lots of things every day.  Many of them I can recall, many of them I cannot.  I am constantly asking myself questions like: who was that person that said that thing? Or what was that company doing that thing? Or who wrote that article? Etc.

Our digital memory is currently stored in a few places.  Email inbox, chat history, web browsing history, etc. Searching through those using existing tools is about the best we can do to leverage them.  It’s not bad, but it’s incomplete and not always as helpful as it could be.  I personally don’t think it’s good enough.

There are already some good tools in the market here.  I remember back in 2011 when Greplin launched the first integrated personal search.  Today, tools like Command-E and Slapdash offer a modern version of this.  Tools like Heyday and Memex are offering a better view into your browsing history. This feels important. Tools like Grain and Scribe are making video meeting contents indexable (e.g, contributing them to our digital memory footprint).   Tools like Roam Research and Logseq provide an active interface for building a web of memories (disclosure: I’m an angel investor in Logseq). For the right users these tools are magic, but I also think the active note-taking approach isn’t for everyone.

More generally, any application that sits in the web browser, on the mobile phone, on desktop OS, or has API integrations into the services we use could start to play this role.  But getting the product experience right is a challenge.  To date, probably my favorite example is the way google photo will prompt me to check out photos from this day 7 years ago, etc.  I always hit that notification and take a little stroll down memory lane.   There would also seem to be some easy wins here, especially when you start to cross reference memory from multiple sources.  What was the article I read when I was talking to that person?  What was that note I jotted down when I was on that trip? Etc.  But point is: while the high level concept seems to be sitting right there, the ideal product approach still seems to be TBD.

Privacy & security are of course huge issues.  We’re currently comfortable with some forms of our “memory” stored on computers and corporate servers (namely: emails, photos, web history, messages, etc).  But pooling them all together and indexing them does feel like a step up in a way that may make people uncomfortable, and at the very least would require thoughtful approaches to privacy and security.

I think the market for Memory as a Service is potentially huge.  Not just knowledge workers who process information for a living (though that’s a good wedge), but really anyone, if implemented the right way.

Verified Personal Content

For the last 15 or so years, I’ve been blogging occasionally on this website. Unfortunately, towards the end of last year, I lost control of my long-term domain name, nickgrossman-dot-is (intentionally not linking to it here). This was a dumb mistake; I just missed the renewal notice and someone else claimed it. Painful lesson learned.

At the time, I was bummed but figured it would just be on me to rebuild SEO to the **real** Nick Grossman blog. But, oddly, the new registrant has taken the extra step of republishing fake versions of my old content on the site, presumably in an attempt to retain SEO the old posts. Notably, all of the content has been slightly modified — just enough, I guess, to sidestep any takedown claims based on copyright infringement.

So, what started out as an annoying and unfortunate situation has taken a turn to something more ugly: at best, an attempt to farm some referral links; in the middle, a shakedown effort; and at worst, an attempt at some kind of slow-motion identity theft.

All of this has gotten me thinking about ways in which the new decentralized media stack can help address some of these problems.

If we look at a platform like Mirror, which is a new publishing platform built on crypto rails, there are two main components: 1) Ethereum for identity and economics, and 2) Arweave for permanent data storage. Much of the attention thus far has been focused on the first prong: economics. Mirror’s Ethereum bones mean that potentially unlimited forms of economics can be built into publications. For example: Emily Segal crowdfunded a Novel; Matthew Chaim is experimenting with publishing an album and a number of associated NFTs; and Jarod Dicker is experimenting with channeling economic flows through to authors and inspirations who contributed to new content. Mirror is becoming an incredible playground for the economics of content.

While the focus on economics is really exciting, there has been less focus on the implications of the identity and perma-storage aspects of the stack. Identities on Mirror are Ethereum wallets, and all of the content is archived — in a verified and permanent way — in the arweave network.

What that means is that, for every post, there is a blockchain-verified, permanent, immutable, record of who published what, when. Data stored in arweave cannot be changed; it can only be referenced. Every post in Mirror creates a permanent, reference-able, linkage between the identity of the author, the time of publication, and the content of the post. You’ll notice that every post has a footer that looks like this:

For my use case of a hijacked domain name and republished fake content: if I had published my original blog on Mirror/arweave, there’d be a permanent record of the real/original content. For that to matter, though, “the internet” would need to learn to trust & reference the archival version of content, not modified copies.

Of course, a version of this exists today with the Internet Archive, which is an invaluable resource (and presumably, the way the new owner of my domain scraped all the old content….). While the Internet Archive is an incredible resource, it has not yet become deeply linked with other forms of publishing and identity on the web. In the case of Mirror, given the native linking between on-chain identity and content, a vibrant ecosystem is much more likely to develop around this kind of verified content.

More broadly, verified content feels like an important primitive in re-establishing trust online. Deepfakes, identity theft, social media bots, etc — these are all affronts to our sense of reality online, and our ability to trust platforms and people. Just as the economic aspects of Mirror have been at the forefront so far, they have also been for crypto broadly.

While it’s true that crypto networks introduce new forms of economics (speculation, payments, crowdfunding, etc) — the underlying feature that enables them is trust in data. Crypto assets have value because we trust the data systems that generate them. I am excited that we are now starting to explore applying these same concepts to a broader set of online assets — critically important ones: identity and content.

(note: this post has been cross-posted to Mirror here)

Bitcoin as Battery

One of my favorite things about crypto is that, every so often, your conception of what it is changes.

Bitcoin at first was “weird internet money” and then it was “a protocol” and then it was “digital gold”. Ethereum is “ICOs”, or maybe “DeFi”, or maybe “Web3”, or maybe all three, or maybe something else. Crypto wallets are a place to hold money, or maybe they’re also your digital identity. Crypto protocols like Maker, Compound, Helium, Arweave and Uniswap are marketplaces, or maybe APIs, or maybe inverted companies, or maybe ecosystems, or all of the above. The IRS sees crypto as property, the SEC as securities, the CFTC as commodities, FinCEN as currencies. And on and on.

Point is, we are still very early in the process of learning how to think about crypto networks, let alone what we can build with them.

One area where I think we are going to see our conception of Crypto change dramatically over time is its relationship to energy.

The narrative today is, overwhelmingly: crypto mining (specifically: Proof-of-Work mining for Bitcoin and Ethereum) is a dangerously large consumer of energy. Where I expect the narrative to move to over time is: crypto mining is driving the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

To explain why, let’s start with Iceland.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Iceland in 2012 with Brad and Gudjon. We were passing one of Iceland’s many aluminum smelters and Brad said to me: “You see there? That’s Iceland exporting its electricity”.

Aluminum smelter in Iceland (source)

That was a head-scratcher for me at the time. But what he meant was: Iceland has vast amounts of accessible, inexpensive renewable energy in the form of geothermal. But you can’t build power lines in every direction under the Atlantic. So instead of selling it directly, you convert the electricity into aluminum and you ship that around the world. In other words, you convert stranded renewable energy into value.

In a sense, the aluminum coming from Iceland is like a battery. What is a battery? A way of shifting both the location and the time-of-use of energy. Whereas live electricity (whether produced by coal, gas, wind or solar) must be used right then and there, electricity converted to aluminum can be used anywhere, anytime.

Dams are batteries; gasoline is a battery. And in a way, aluminum is a battery. Of course, while traditional batteries start and end with energy directly, aluminum’s battery is economic, converting energy to value. And that value can be re-used elsewhere (even converted back into energy!)

Which brings us back to crypto mining. Crypto mining converts electricity into value, in the form of crypto assets (BTC, ETH, etc). Those assets, like the aluminum produced in Iceland, can then be moved, transferred and transformed. But unlike aluminum, which must be physically shipped to its final destination, crypto assets are programmable, and can move there instantly via an internet connection.

So, if we think of Bitcoin as a battery, what can we do with it?  The key properties of Bitcoin’s battery are: 1) always on and permissionless (no need to find customers, just plug and go) and 2) naturally seeking low-cost electricity: it will always buy when the price is right.

Given those properties, Bitcoin’s battery can assist renewable builds (and electric grids more generally) in a number of ways:

  • Interconnection queues: when you develop new energy resources, you must apply to get them connected to the grid. Texas alone has over 100 GW of renewables in its queue. These queues can take years to clear. In the meantime, these assets could be online and earning Bitcoin.
  • Project finance: Renewable developers need capital to finance build-outs before they have customers. Bitcoin’s battery is always ready to be the first customer.
  • Geographic issues: Sometimes the sunniest, windiest places are not the ones with the most customers, so it’s hard to justify the development of new renewables. Bitcoin’s battery solves this, becoming a “virtual transmission line” of sorts.
  • Timing & grid balance: Sometimes when the sun shines and when the wind blows is not when we need the most electricity. Yet, electric grids are marketplaces that must stay in perfect balance between supply and demand. Therefore, grid-connected renewables often have to “curtail” (turn off) if the are producing too much energy at the wrong time. Bitcoin’s battery is ready to buy 24/7/365 when the price is right, and turning up and down as needed, and participating via direct power purchase agreements as well as via demand response programs.
  • Underperformance: Related to the timing & balance issues above, often times, renewables produce more energy than is needed on their grid, leading to subpar financial performance. Bitcoin’s battery is ready to buy if no one else will.
  • Cleaning the grid: Even outside of renewable generation, Bitcoin’s battery can help improve both emissions and the energy mix. For example, Crusoe Energy attaches efficient turbines and mining equipment to existing gas flaring sites, both improving emissions and converting energy into Bitcoin’s battery. Taking this a step further, you could even then take those profits and reinvest them in on-grid renewables elsewhere, another twist on the idea of Bitcoin as a “virtual transmission line” (aka battery).

These are just high level ideas. There are many ways they could be implemented (power purchase agreements, feed-in tarrifs, contracts for differences, etc) — those details are way above my pay grade.

While I am certainly an optimistic tech VC and not an expert on energy infrastructure, these are not just hand-wavy rosy ideas. Just recently the energy giant Aker announced a major Bitcoin-related initiative, Seetee. The shareholder letter where they lay out the vision is worth a read — it’s broader than the ideas I’m focusing on here, but indeed they describe Bitcoin as an “economic battery”, and intend to use it to solve some of the problems I mention above, among others.

I believe the properties of Bitcoin’s battery are powerful and profound, and will lead to the kinds of solutions I point to here. And as we have learned from our experience with this technology so far, that’s certainly only the beginning of what will be possible.

Two Screens for Teachers

Sometimes, an answer to a hard problem is so simple and elegant that you’re surprised it wasn’t obvious earlier. Two Screens for Teachers is one of those answers.

Even though vaccines are on the way, many students and teachers will be interacting remotely at least through the rest of this school year.

Adding a second screen is, in fact, a game changer when you spend your life on Zoom. Makes it so you can see people and content at the same time. For teachers, this is even more important, both from a classroom management and emotional perspective.

Two Screens for Teachers is being organized by my old friend Matt Lerner, the former CTO of WalkScore.

It’s a beautiful project and I’m donating now, and I’d encourage you to do the same if you can.

Two Screens for Teachers from Matt Lerner on Vimeo.

No Wasted Footsteps

This summer, we moved into a new house. Moving is a lot of work. As part of moving out of our old house, we got rid of a lot of junk that we had accumulated over the years. We ended up working with the amazing Dave O’Rourke of Spaceback. As Dave and I were loading a huge junk pile into his truck, he said something that really stuck with me — he said: “in this business, you can’t waste any footsteps”. Meaning, there’s a lot to do, lots of things to lift and move, and you need to be smart and efficient with your energy.

As I am now moving items around our house, and carting empty moving boxes and miscellaneous trash out, Dave’s words have been sticking with me. If I’m going to the basement, grab a box to take to the trash. If I’m going up to the second floor, grab a bag or a box or an item that needs to go there. Going back to the first floor? Grab something that needs to go there. No wasted footsteps.

This is good advice for moving a bunch of stuff around, but it’s also good advice in general. And it’s been on my mind, as of course moving to a new house means that you tend to fall behind on other things (like work and email). So the same approach of no wasted foosteps could (and should) be applied to digital life. Get the thing done that you need to get done right then and there, don’t waste any footsteps walking around empty handed. The folks that I work with that seem to be most productive and efficient seem to take this approach, and I’m going to try to keep it front and center myself.

Hardware-based Identity

I’ve written before about how re-structuring identity is one of the most interesting opportunities on the web today. Today’s identity ecosystem is account-based (accounts with Google, Facebook, Apple, etc), which perpetuates data silos and prevents interoperability & innovation.

As web3 and crypto become more widespread, there’s an opportunity to shift to an identity model that’s more about cryptographic signatures, which can be done directly by an individual without an account at any one company. The problem is, the user experience around this is still rough, and worse, there are some pretty extreme risks (lose your private key, lose everything, with no recourse).

So the big question is how to address the the opportunity and also solve for these hard challenges. It feels to me like an important approach is leveraging the concepts of multi-sig and hardware-based key-signing.

On hardware-based keys: the most powerful one out there today is the iPhone. ApplePay and sign-in with Apple are all about the hardware you hold (the phone) and using it to authenticate. It’s secure and easy (amazingly so) — no need to remember passwords, limited phishing vectors, etc. Problem is, it’s totally locked up in Apple land.

Luckily there’s a lot going on in the identity hardware space.

I use a Yubikey every day. It’s still a geeky experience and not for everyone, but it’s eye opening, and it builds on open standards like FIDO.

I was intrigued today to see the launch of Ryder, a wearable hardware wallet in watch form. A problem for me, though, is that I don’t like wearing a watch. Just not comfortable and I don’t want to do it.

I think rings are a really interesting form factor here. I just ordered an Oura Ring for sleep tracking (thanks Nadia) and am excited to try it. And Joel recently pointed me to the NFC Ring which lives in the payments (and identity) space.

Cards are also a big one. We use cryptographic key signing on cards every day (smart chips), but still only connected to existing payment systems. Projects like Keycard (thx again Joel) have the potential to open that up.

For hardware identity to really work (and to be safe), it also needs to be paired with some sort of multi-sig or multi-factor process. Project like Casa and Magic have been working out a lot of the details here and I think we’re getting closer to really good user experiences.

In the end, I want to live in a world where using the web “just works” — where fundamental activities like login and payments can feel like magic, but without perpetuating proprietary and siloed models.

The Beauty of Focus

It has been a stressful year, in so many ways.

This morning, I opened up my Calm app to attempt to resurrect my meditation habit. I have had an intermittent meditation practice for years, and despite the fact that it really seems to work for me, I have never developed a rock steady daily habit. (From a tools perspective, I find that when I’m in a good routine, I either use nothing and just do breathing, or use a simple app like Insight Timer, but when I’ve lost the groove I find it helpful to use tools like Calm or Simple Habit to get back into it.)

Anyway, for me, the big benefit of meditation is helping to get perspective on the constant stream of ruminating concerns flowing through my mind — some of which are useful and necessary, but some of which are not. And the basic practice of focusing on what’s happening here and now (breath, sensations, sounds) is incredibly powerful as a way to regain clarity.

Thinking about this this morning made me realize why I enjoy certain activities so much — activities that have a natural focus to them and basically force you to detach from your running thoughts and focus on the present: listening to music, being at a baseball game, doing carpentry or other house projects, skiing, hiking, coding. Those are the ones that really do it for me, but of course you see it with gardening, drawing, reading, etc etc.

I’d like to think that this kind of focus-building isn’t about ignoring the world, but rather about getting your mind to a place where you can actually be more effective in doing the things you need to do to have an impact (whether that’s on your career, family, politics, community, etc).

It’s funny and a little backwards (though not ironic) that finding ways to focus down and think less can actually help you do more, but I think it can and does.

Second Chance Studios

Several years ago, I started volunteering at Defy Ventures, a program that helps formerly incarcerated individuals start their own businesses.

Through Defy, I met an entrepreneur named Coss Marte, who beginning to build a personal fitness business called Coss Athletics. At first, it consisted of 1:1 and group sessions with Coss in parks, and has grown steadily since then. Now called ConBody, it features both a studio on the Lower East Side and a growing online business. Importantly, ConBody exclusively employs other formerly incarcerated individuals as trainers, and in addition to being a successful and growing business, the team members have a 0% recidivism rate.

(As an aside, I can personally testify that the ConBody workout is legit. I literally threw up halfway through my first class. Though it’s debatable whether that says something about the workout or my baseline fitness going in.)

Today, Coss is launching a new initiative called Second Chance Studios. Second Chance Studios is a nonprofit video and audio production company that exclusively employs formerly incarcerated individuals in New York City. It will also serve as a job training and placement program focused on digital skills in audio and video production.

Second Chance is currently fundraising for its launch on Kickstarter and as of now is about $36k towards its $50k goal. You can back it on Kickstarter here and learn more from the video below. I’m proud to be a backer and am excited to see the project launch.

The Slow Hunch

One of my favorite ideas from the last 10 years is “The Slow Hunch” which my friend Steven Johnson popularized in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. Here is a good summary of the book, and the idea of The Slow Hunch is this:

“World-changing ideas generally evolve over time as slow hunches rather than sudden breakthroughs”

Great thinkers and inventors such as Darwin and Tim Berners-Lee used The Slow Hunch to process big ideas over long periods of time. A kernel of an idea takes root, but doesn’t mature right away — but rather, needs to bump around with other ideas and experiences over time until something profound clicks. In some ways, USV is like an ongoing Slow Hunch — Andy likes to describe USV as “a conversation that’s been going on for 15 years”.

Back when I first read Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of The Slow Hunch really stuck with me. It’s been there with me for nearly 10 years and I keep coming back to it.

Today, I’m officially renaming this blog The Slow Hunch ( I’ve had these domains (and @theslowhunch) for some time, and have flirted with using them, but have never actually done it — but today I’m flipping the switch.

This blog renaming coincides with a bunch of work we’ve been doing at USV on this general topic. Albert wrote the potential for and importance of tools for networked knowledge here. And “Access to Knowledge” is a pillar of our Thesis 3.0.

For The Slow Hunch to work, information not only needs to be captured, but also revisited and reprocessed over time. In WGICF, Steven talks about the Commonplace Book as a tool used by Darwin and others for this purpose. Like a notebook and scrapbook kept over time, but with the key feature being re-reading as standard practice to help connect ideas over time.

For the most recent USV book club, we read Steven’s newest book, Enemy of All Mankind, and Steven joined us for our group discussion. During that conversation, we revisited the idea of the Slow Hunch, and in particular, how he thinks about the process of building ideas over time. He describes it in terms of turning ideas into “magnets” that can live for a long time, and “catch” other ideas, building up into snowballs over time.

For all the information we consume and produce on a daily basis, we are still lacking simple tools to assemble and package it in ways that produce real knowledge. To give idea fragments the potential to become slow hunches. It’s a huge need and also a huge opportunity.

I first wrote about the need for this kind of thing back in 2010 (Wanted: An Open Commonplace Book). What I pointed out then, and what is still true now, is that our current information universe is fragmented (google docs, email, notion, evernote, browsing history, social media, etc), and what’s really needed is a tool that can help package this all up in a way that’s useful.

Today, tools like RoamResearch and Walling are pioneering connecting old information with new information (a network “graph”). And tools like Memex are indexing your browsing history. (as an aside: all of these require an enormous amount of trust, as networked personal knowledge is both valuable and dangerous)

To me the most promising idea here is user experience and user interface innovations that make it easy, intuitive and fun to link old information to new information, and to revisit it over time in a way that makes sense. Unlocking this at scale will have massive implications not only for personal productivity (and happiness), but for networked knowledge much more broadly (research, news, corporate innovation).

With that, hitting publish on the next chapter of The Slow Hunch here on this blog.

The 1k Project

It has been a long few months, and many people’s lives have been turned upside down in untold ways.

One way to help is through the 1k Project. The 1k Project matches sponsors with individuals & families in need, using a $1k / month for 3 months model. Recipients are sourced through the Project’s trusted network, and donations are anonymous, unrestricted gifts delivered via GoFundMe. I’m sponsoring a family starting this month.

I am a big believer in unrestricted cash as the best method for channeling support to those in need. For the same reason I believe in Universal Basic Income, I believe that every person knows what they need money for and how to use it, and having any measure of cash flexibility can be a lifesaver. You can get a sense of the impact of the 1k Project from some of the stories from recipients.

I feel fortunate to be in a position to support this effort, and am proud to be involved. If you would like to join me, by nominating a family or individual in need, by becoming a sponsor yourself, or if you could use financial help from the 1k Project network, you can do any of those things here.


In the wake of the events of the past few weeks, I am trying to focus my efforts on listening. Here are some things I’m listening to:

One place I feel comfortable speaking on this is putting my money where my mouth is, and in that spirit, here is a list of where to donate to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Quarantine Creativity

Continuing to look for glimmers of hope and positivity in the middle of this crisis, one area that is for sure glimmering is at-home creativity. I know from seeing the numbers from some of USV’s portfolio companies in the “creator” space that creative activity is way up. People are stuck at home, and they are writing, making music and getting busy in the kitchen.

Here is one example which just floored me. My daughter’s best friend is in the Boston Children’s Chorus and they just released this beautiful video performance:

Not only is this a fantastic and uplifting way to express creativity during a dark time, I would argue that this is better — more beautiful, with far greater reach — than a live performance, or certainly a traditional video of a live performance would have been.

So I am encouraged that not only are we seeing creativity blossom where it can, I think we’re going to see brand new forms of expression emerge from this crisis.

There is so much pain in the world right now — both economic and physical/emotional. This feels like one small bright spot to focus on this morning.

Post-COVID: Which Behaviors Will Stick?

It’s an overwhelming time right now. Everyone in the world is focused on COVID-19, and to varying degrees, is changing the way they live.

From an economic perspective — beyond the obvious massive damage due to a halting of large swaths of the economy, which will need to be addressed with some form of government bailout — there will also be some amount of permanent restructuring.

Many people are experiencing, for the first time, how many activities — work, learning, healthcare, and socializing — can be done remotely and in new ways using digital tools. For sure, when the dust settles, we will largely go back to doing things how we’ve always done them, but I suspect that certain new behaviors will stick, and will result in longer-term behavioral and economic changes.

The most obvious one is business travel and remote work. Everyone who can is learning how to do this now — including companies/teams/individuals that may have resisted it mightily in the past. Moving forward, it’s going to be much harder to justify an in-person-only culture. Virtual conferences & meetings have drawbacks, for sure, but they also have advantages. I suspect that coming out of the crisis, many professionals will have a permanently higher bar for justifying work travel.

The next one is remote health. We now have the infrastructure, at scale, for communicating with doctors virtually, and collecting test samples at home. Laws limiting what doctors and patients can do together over voice and video will change. Nikhil Krishnan has a great piece exploring this in detail. This will stick.

Everyone with kids is scrambling to figure out how to keep them engaged, connected and learning. Every school is scrambling to implement a remote learning capability. Subscriptions at online learning platforms are through the roof. School will resume but remote learning will stick.

Finally, it also feels like we are rediscovering our social and entertainment lives. I have never been more active with friends and family — especially, for some reason, those who live at a distance — as much as recently. I have never done video chats with groups of friends and now that’s regular. My kids are connecting with their friends over FaceTime every day. Group and one-on-one chats are on fire. To a degree, this is because everyone’s at home with nothing to do. But I believe this will also stick.

What is most interesting to me is not the social changes, but the institutional ones. In the cases of work, learning and healthcare, we are talking about massive institutions that are learning new behaviors on-the-fly. This is a big deal — we’re probably seeing years-worth of change occurring over a matter of weeks. It’s astonishing, really.

And, as a result, a massive number of individuals are learning new moves, which will put pressure on the institutions not to roll everything back when this is all over. Not everything will stick, but I suspect a lot of it will.

The Great Shift to Video

It has been astonishing (and largely encouraging) to see nearly every activity that can be shifted to video begin to go there. Over the past few days, in our house, we’ve seen the following:

  • Piano lesson over FaceTime
  • Band practice over Zoom
  • Many business calls over Zoom
  • Scavenger hunt over FaceTime
  • Academic and fun classes on Outschool (also Zoom)
  • Virtual cocktail hour over Zoom
  • Coloring contest (3 marker challenge) over FaceTime

Further, all kind of activity is moving to chat: iMessage, Signal, Slack, etc. The USV team Slack, which has been largely dormant for recent history, is fun and vibrant right now.

Everyone is at home, and a lot of people are connected to video. So it’s actually easy to reach people, and everyone is looking for social connection.

This feels like a watershed moment for remote / online / video. A lot of folks who haven’t tried it are trying it. For many use cases, this will become a new habit and an appropriate way to do more things going forward.

Of course, not everything will or should shift to online/video. But for many activities, it’s a totally fine way to do things, and can have other potential benefits, especially compared with long-distance travel for work (time away from home, carbon footprint, etc).

This is a terribly hard time, and it’s hard to even contemplate the economic consequences that will come from it. But it is also encouraging to see people learn new behaviors that could be really beneficial in the long run.

Simple Systems

I think a lot about systems — for personal organization, for business automation, for urban information, for financial infrastructure, for the internet, etc. On a big macro level, I have always been fascinated by the way that many forces, people and ideas come together to make things. And on a micro level, what it takes to say, keep your finances in order, or keep your to-dos rational, etc.

One thing I have found to be true is that simple systems tend to work better. They are easier to understand, easier to maintain, and easier to work with. TCP/IP, Bitcoin, putting to-dos directly into your calendar. Less is more.

At the same time, complex systems are appealing — sexy, sophisticated, alluring. But can be hard to use and costly to maintain.

I find that it’s a constant struggle to remind oneself that simpler is usually better. A system is only as good as its implementation and execution. And the best systems can be used broadly over a long period of time.

I was reminded of this recently when reading Greg Kogan‘s post on how Simple Systems have Less Downtime. He goes into some detail on this subject, looking at examples as far apart from one another as a container ship that can be manned & maintainer by a tiny crew, and marketing automation scripts that can be maintained by a team over time. It’s great reminder.

This is a variant on the old mantra from Derek Sivers that ideas are a multiplier of execution. In other words, it’s execution that matters, and the quality of the idea can multiply the outcome, but without execution it’s just talk.

This month, my simple system is: travel less and wash hands more. Hopefully that will help.

Forcing Change

I’m supposed to be in Europe this week to speak at a conference and attend another one, but I decided to stay home, to be safe. I am hearing all sorts of stories of events being called off and flights being canceled. It’s estimated that the airline industry’s 2020 revenues could go down by 40%, or over half a trillion dollars.

People are changing their behavior.

It is not easy to get people to change behavior. Typically it only happens when there is something really amazing or really awful stimulating it.

In this case, take the climate crisis. Clearly, transportation, including air travel, is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases. And while there is tangible progress particularly around EVs, there has not been large scale behavior change when it comes to transportation patterns, until now.

Of course, this may not last. Hopefully COVID-19 passes with time just like SARS and MERS and the Swine Flu did. And it’s likely that, by and large, we return to our previous patterns.

But it’s also possible that this episode causes some lasting change. Online video is amazingly good now, and is increasingly a viable substitute for certain kinds of in person meetings, or even an improvement, all things considered. For one thing, online/video meetings are much more accessible, meaning you can generally get a more interesting and diverse set of attendees than you can for IRL events. And, for less than the cost of a single plane ticket, you can outfit your desk with big huge monitors and a good camera (I just did this recently).

As such, it feels like one output of this situation will be a broader comfort with videoconferencing, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s certainly been good for the Zoom stock price.

But thinking more broadly, it just goes to show that change does not come cheap. And it often only comes by the force of something really powerful, either positive or negative.