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”.

Icelandic case studies for foreign investors
An aluminum smelter in Iceland

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 (www.theslowhunch.net). 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.

Listening

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.

Bird by Bird

Sometimes things can get overwhelming. Tasks can seem too big to even begin.

This, of course, is not true. Every journey begins with a single step, etc.

My wife recently pointed me to this great passage by Anne Lamott which puts it yet another way:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Bird by bird.

I like that.

Cryptographic Identity

Last week I wrote about the inherent tension between data portability and privacy, and suggested that one solution would be an exportable “privacy context” that could travel with ported data. Such an approach, however, would require a notion of identity that is broader than a single account at a single company. Rather, it would require the linking of one or more “proprietary identities” (i.e., accounts at tech companies) with some type of “cryptographic identity” (private key) that really “belongs” to that person and represents them in a more holistic and permanent way.

This is not a new idea. Since at least 2017, both Keybase and Blockstack have enabled social media users to attest to a linkage between social accounts and a cryptographic identity. Here’s what it looks like on Keybase, and here’s what it looks like on Blockstack. Neither Keybase nor Blockstack are currently promoting this routine front & center, as it is admittedly a geeky thing that appealed (back in 2017) to identity explorers, but not to mainstream consumers.

But today, we are starting to see some new signs of life on this pattern, and I think we may be nearing some drivers that have the potential to bring it to mainstream scale. They are:

1/ Fun. It may be that some sort of social game figures out a way to bring crypto identities mainstream. For example, 2100 is a project that popped last fall, which let people issue tokens corresponding to their Twitter accounts. Interesting idea, though it seems to have lost some steam, at least for now. Another project that’s looking to connect crypto assets / identity to social identity is Roll, which lets anyone create “social money” connected to their social identity. You could imagine this taking off with social media influencers with large audiences, who are already super good at finding ways to commercialize their online presence.

Combining fun and money can be powerful. And from that, I think some of the more principled / architectural components will become more obvious and valuable over time.

2/ Privacy & Security. Speaking of Keybase, where they have focused more recently is secure, encrypted messaging, as a consumer use case building off of the core infrastructure. Related, are two separate projects called “Dmail” — dmail.io and dmail.online — the former lets you encrypt emails that you send across unsafe channels (like Gmail or any other email client) and the latter is a full system for sending private emails. One of the things you get with a cryptographic identity is the ability to encrypt and sign messages. It makes sense that this will be at the the center of a driving consumer use case. Privacy is more of a mainstream feature every day, and it can’t just be Apple that provides it.

3/ Compliance. Compliance is where this post began, thinking about coming regulations around data portability, interoperability and privacy, and where I’ll end it. While I don’t expect that we will get direct guidance towards cryptographic identity from regulators, it may be that cryptographic identity becomes clear as part of various compliance solutions.

For example, all payments systems need to comply with so-called Know-Your-Customer (KYC), Anti-Money-Laundering (AML) and sanctions rules, including the so-called Travel Rule which requires that both senders and receivers of funds verify identities. On the surface, cryptographic identities are digital bearer assets and would therefore seem to be at odds with formal identity systems. However, it may be that we come to use cryptographic identity components (e.g., blockchain accounts, digital signatures, or even non-fungible tokens) in creative ways to satisfy some of these requirements, vs. traditional methods employed by companies like Persona, Alloy and others today.

To tie it all together: In this week’s “On the Brink” podcast, Nic Carter and Matt Walsh from Castle Island Ventures talk with Balaji Srinivasan about social media handles as property, which potentially combines both the “fun” and “compliance” angles discussed here. It does feel like your online identity, whether it’s a bitcoin or a twitter handle, is a form of property and should be treated as such.

Data Portability and Privacy

Earlier this week, I spoke at a Justice Department / Stanford conference about antitrust issues in the tech sector. Our panel included Patricia Nakache from Trinity Ventures, Ben Thompson from Stratechery and Mark Lemley from Stanford. If you are interested you can watch the whole thing here:

The main point I tried to make was that cultivating the development of blockchain and cryptonetworks is actually a critical strategy here. Regular readers will know that I don’t shut up about this, and I held to that on the panel. This point is painfully absent in most conversations about market power, competition and antitrust in the tech sector, and I will always try and insert that into the conversation.

To me, blockchains & crypto are the best “offense” when it comes to competition in the tech sector. Historically, breakthroughs in tech competition have included an offense component in addition to a defense component (note that the below only focuses on computing, not on telecom):

Credit: Placeholder / USV

The “defense” side has typically included a break up (US vs. AT&T) or some kind of forced openness. Examples of forced openness include the Hush-a-phone and Carterfone decisions which forced openness upon AT&T. Several decades later were the (ongoing) battles over Net Neutrality with the ISPs. The discussion about data portability and interoperability brings the same questions to the applications / data layer.

Data portability & interoperability are important for two reasons: 1/ because they focus on a major source of market power in the tech sector, which is control of data (“break up the data, not the companies”), and 2/ because they represent a category of regulatory interventions that are just as easy for small companies to implement as large ones, unlike heavy approaches like GDPR that are easy for big companies to implement but hard on startups.

That said, when you dig into the issue of data portability, there are some hard problems to solve. I don’t believe they are insurmountable, but I also believe they haven’t been resolved as of yet.

For context, data portability is the idea that a user of a tech service (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc) should be able to easily take their data with them and move it to a competing service, if they so choose. This is similar to how you can port your phone number from one carrier to another, or how in the UK you can port your banking data from one institution to another. Both of these examples required legislative intervention, with an eye towards increasing competition. Also, most privacy regimes (e.g., GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California) have some language around data portability.

Where it gets more complicated is when you start considering what data should be portable, and whose data.

For example, within tech companies there are generally three kinds of data: 1/ user-submitted data (e.g., photos, messages that you post), 2/ observed data (e.g., search history or location history), and 3/ inferred data (inferences that the platform makes about you based on #1 and #2 — e.g., Nick likes ice skating). Generally speaking, I believe that most type #1 and type #2 data should be portable, but most type #3 probably should not.

To add to the complication is the question of when “your” data also includes data from other people — for example, messages someone else sent me, photos where I was tagged, contact lists, etc. This was at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where individual users exporting their own data to a third-party app actually exposed the data of many more people, unwittingly.

I’d like to focus here on the second category of complications — how to deal with data from other people, and privacy more generally, when thinking about portability. This is a real issue that deserves a real solution.

I don’t have a full answer, but I have a few ideas, which are the following:

First, expectations matter. When you send me an email, you are trusting me (the recipient) to protect that email, and not publish it, or upload it to another app that does sketchy things with it. You don’t really care (or even know) whether I read my email in Gmail or in Apple Mail, and you don’t generally think about those companies’ impact on your privacy expectations. Whereas, when you publish into a social web platform, you are trusting both the end recipient of your content, as well as the platform itself. As an example, if you send me messages on Snapchat, you expect that they will be private to me and will disappear after a certain amount of time. So if I “ported” those messages to some other app, where, say, they were all public and permanent, it would feel like a violation – both by me the recipient and by Snap the platform. Interoperability / portability would change that expectation, since the social platform would no longer have end-to-end control (more like email). User expectations would need to be reset, and new norms established. This would take work, and time.

Second, porting the “privacy context”: Given platform expectations described above, users have a sense of what privacy context they are publishing into. A tweet, a message to a private group, a direct message, a snap message, all have different privacy contexts, managed by the platform. Could this context be “ported” too? I could imagine a “privacy manifest” that ships alongside any ported data, like this:

# privacy.json
{
  "content": "e9db5cf8349b1166e96a742e198a0dd1", // hash of content
  "author": "c6947e2f6fbffadce924f7edfc1b112d", // hash of author
  "viewers": ["07dadd323e2bec8ee7b9bce9c8f7d732"], // hashes of recipients
  "TTL": "10" // expiry time for content
}

In this model, we could have a flexible set of privacy rules that could even conceivably include specific users who could and could not see certain data, and for how long. This would likely require the development of some sort of federated or shared identity standards for recognizing users across platforms & networks. Note: this is a bit how selective disclosure works with “viewing keys” in Zcash. TrustLayers also works like this.

Third, liability transfer: Assuming the two above concepts, we would likely want a liability regime where the sending/porting company is released from liability and the receiving company/app assumes liability (all, of course, based on an initial authorization from a user). This seems particularly important, and is related to the idea of expectations and norms. If data is passed from Company A to Company B at the direction of User C, Company A is only going to feel comfortable with the transfer if they know they won’t be held liable for the actions of Company B. And this is only possible if Company B is held accountable for respecting the privacy context as expressed through the privacy manifest. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “data controller” and “data processor” in GDPR, but recognizing that a “handoff” at the direction of the user breaks the liability linkage.

Those are some thoughts! Difficult stuff, but I think it will be solvable ultimately. If you want more, check out Cory Doctorow’s in-depth look at this topic.

Proof of Transfer (PoX)

Last week, the Blockstack team formally rolled out their proposal for a new mining mechanism for the Stacks blockchain called Proof of Transfer (PoX). In addition to the blog post, you can read the full PoX white paper and the Stacks Improvement Proposal (SIP-007) that details the idea.

PoX is a way of building new blockchains on top of existing Proof-of-Work blockchains like Bitcoin. The Stacks blockchain has always been built on top of Bitcoin, but has thus far used a proof-of-burn (PoB) mining mechanism, which, while benefitting from Bitcoin’s security, requires burning BTC. Whereas PoX requires a transfer of BTC rather than a burn. This has the added benefit of creating a mining incentive pool denominated in Bitcoin.

At a higher level, one of the coolest aspects of cryptonetwork and blockchain technology is composability — the idea that crypto assets and protocols can be freely interconnected in almost any way imaginable, without barriers or permission. Every (public) blockchain, asset, and smart contract is a de-facto API that can be hooked into, built upon, and extended.

This may seem like a minor feature, but I believe this is a breakthrough characteristic. Today, we are seeing this play out most vividly in the DeFi space, where protocols like Maker, Compound and Uniswap interconnect to build new financial products. What Blockstack is doing with PoX brings this approach further to the Web3 / data space. Ultimately, I believe that this approach will enable a broad explosion of not only tech infrastructure but new experience & features, both for consumers and businesses. Zombies eating Kitties is just the tip of the iceberg.

It feels like consumer development in Web3 is moving slowly, and by the user numbers it is. But composable innovation is compounding, and the work that’s going on right now is creating the tools & patterns for what will certainly be huge, exponential leaps in functionality and experience over time.