Gwern's review of The Media Lab

Well-done bit of technological investigation & prognostication, now dated & historical. Enough time has passed since 1988 to enable us to judge the basic truthfulness of the predictions & expectations held by the dreamers such as Nicholas Negroponte: they were remarkably accurate!

If you aren't struck by a sense of déjà vu or pity when you read this book, compare the people at the Media Lab with contemporary works like Cliff Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, & you'll see how right they were.

The sad thing is noting how few future millionaires & billionaires grace the page of TML - one quickly realizes that yes, person X was 100% right about Y happening even when everyone thought it insane, but X was off by a few years & jumped the gun & so Z was the person who wound up taking all the spoils. I read it constantly thinking 'yes, you were right, for all the good it did you' or 'not quite, it'd actually take another decade for that to really work out'.

"If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" The lesson I draw is: it is not enough to predict the future, one has to get the timing right to not be ruined. To borrow from my LW comments (1/2/3):

A good idea will draw overly-optimistic entrepreneurs to it like moths to a flame: all get immolated but the one with the dumb luck to kiss the flame at the perfect instant. (How many payment startup were there before Paypal? How many social networks before Facebook? How many search engines before Google?) How can you catch a falling knife?

Many 'bubbles' can be interpreted as people being 100% correct the future - but missing the timing (Thiel's article on China & bubbles, The Economist on obscure property booms, Garber's Famous First Bubbles). Consider the ill-fated was the investor right to believe that Americans would spend a ton of money online such as for buying dogfood? Absolutely, Amazon (which has rarely turned a profit & has sucked up far more investment than ever did) is a successful online retail business that stocks thousands of dog food varieties, to say nothing of all the other pet-related goods it sells. But the value of stock still went to ~$0. Many startups have a long list of failed predecessors who tried to do pretty much the same thing, & what made them a success was that they happened to give the pinata a whack at the exact moment where some cost curves or events hit the right point. (Facebook is the biggest archive of photographs there has ever been, with truly colossal storage requirements; could it have succeeded in the 1990s? No, & not even later, as demonstrated by Orkut & Friendster, & the lingering death of MySpace.) You can read books from the past about tech visionaries & note how many of them were spot-on in their beliefs about what would happen (The Media Lab is a great example, but far from the only one) but where a person would have been ill-advised to act on the correct forecasts. Or look at computers: imagine an early adopter of an Apple computer saying 'everyone will use computers eventually!' Yes, but not for another few decades, & 'in the long run, we are all dead'.

Examples of this pop up all the time. I watched impressed recently as my aunt used the iPhone application FaceTime to videophone with her daughter half a continent away, & though about how people were disappointed by the failure of videophones in the '90s & previous & then concluded that perhaps people didn't really want videophones at all - but really, it looks like the videophones back then simply weren't good enough! & I've noticed geeks express wonderment at the Oculus Rift looking like it'll bring Virtual Reality to the masses, & won't that be a real kick in the teeth for Cliff Stoll or Jaron Lanier (who gave up VR for dead ages ago & has earned his daily bread being court jester to the elites & criticizing them)?

Smartphones are an even bigger example of this. How often did I read in the '90s & early '00s about how amazing Japanese cellphones were & how amazing a good smartphone would be, even though year after year the phones were jokes & used pretty much solely for voice? You can even see the smartphones come up again & again in TML, as the visionaries realize how transformative a mobile pocket-sized computer would be. Yet, it took until the mid-00s for the promise of smartphones to materialize overnight. I was reminded of this recently reading an interview with Eric Jackson:

Q: What’s your take on how they’re [Apple] handling their expansion into China, India, & other emerging markets?

A: It’s depressing how slow things are moving on that front. We can draw lines on a graph but we don’t know the constraints. Again, the issue with adoption is that the timing is so damn hard. I was expecting smartphones to take off in mid 2004 & was disappointed over & over again. & then suddenly a catalyst took hold & the adoption skyrocketed. Cook calls this “cracking the nut”. I don’t know what they can do to move faster but I suspect it has to do with placement (distribution) & with networks which both depend on (corrupt) entities.

Or to look at VR; a recent The Verge article on VR took a historical look back at past efforts, & what's striking is that VR was arguably thought of back in the 1950s or so, more than half a century before the computing power or monitors were remotely close to what was needed for truly usable VR. The idea of VR was that obvious, it was that overdetermined, & so compelling that VR pioneers resemble nothing so much as moths to the flame, garnering grants in the hopes that this time things will improve. & of course, the money was largely wasted, because researchers can spend arbitrary amounts of money on topics without anything to show for it. Scott Fisher:

"I ended up doing more work in Japan than anything else because Japan in general is so tech-smitten & obsessed that they just love [VR]. The Japanese government in general was funding research, building huge research complexes just to focus on this. There were huge initiatives while there was nothing happening in the US. I ended up moving to Japan & working there for many years."

Indeed, this would have around the Japanese boondoggle the Fifth Generation Project (note that despite Japan's prowess at robotics, it is not Japan's robots who went into Fukushima / flying around the Middle East / revolutionizing agriculture & construction). All those 'huge initiatives' and...? Don't ask Fisher, he's hardly going to say, "yes, all the money was completely wasted, we were trying to do it too soon". Researchers in general have no incentive to say, "this is not the right time, wait another 20 years for Moore's law to make it doable", even if everyone in the field is perfectly aware of this - Palmer Luckey:

"I spent a huge amount of time reading...I think that there were a lot of people that were giving VR too much credit, because they were working as VR researchers. You don't want to publish a paper that says, 'After the study, we came to the conclusion that VR is useless right now & that we should just not have a job for 20 years.' There were a few people that basically came to that conclusion. They said, 'Current VR gear is low field of view, high lag, too expensive, too heavy, can't be driven properly from consumer-grade computers, or even professional-grade computers.' It turned out that I wasn't the first person to realize these problems. They'd been known for decades."

And Lanier implies that Japan alone spent a lot of money:

Jaron Lanier: "The components have finally gotten cheap enough that we can start to talk about them as being accessible in the way that everybody's always wanted...Moore's law is so interesting because it's not just the same components getting cheaper, but it really changes the way you do things. For instance, in the old days, in order to tell where your head was so that you could position virtual content to be standing still relative to you, we used to have to use some kind of external reference point, which might be magnetic, ultrasonic, or optical. These days you put some kind of camera on the head & look around in the room & it just calculates where you are - the headsets are self-sufficient instead of relying on an external reference infrastructure. That was inconceivable before because it would have been just so expensive to do that calculation. Moore's law really just changes again & again, it re-factors your options in really subtle & interesting ways."Kevin Kelly: "Our sense of history in this world is very dim & very short. We were talking about the past: VR wasn't talked about for a long time, right? Thirty-five years. Most people have no idea that this is 35 years old. Thirty years later, it's the same headlines. Was the technological power just not sufficient 30 years ago?"...On the Nintendo Power Glove, based on a VPL dataglove designJL: "Both I & a lot of other people really, really wanted to get a consumerable version of this stuff out. We managed to get a taste of the experience with something called the Power Glove...Sony actually brought out a little near-eye display called Virtual Boy; not very good, but they gave it their best shot. & there were huge projects that have never been shown to the public to try to make a consumable [VR product], very expensive ones. Counting for inflation, probably more money was spent [than] than Facebook just spent on Oculus. We just could never, never, never get it quite there."KK: "Because?"

JL: "The component cost. It's Moore's law. Sensors, displays... batteries! Batteries is a big one."

Michael Wolfe offers some examples of this:

Facebook - the world needs yet another MySpace or Friendster except several years late. We’ll only open it up to a few thousand overworked, anti-social, Ivy Leaguers. Everyone else will then join since Harvard students are so cool. Dropbox - we are going to build a file sharing & syncing solution when the market has a dozen of them that no one uses, supported by big companies like Microsoft. It will only do one thing well, & you’ll have to move all of your content to use it. Virgin Atlantic - airlines are cool. Let’s start one. How hard could it be? We’ll differentiate with a funny safety video & by not being a**holes. …iOS - a brand new operating system that doesn’t run a single one of the millions of applications that have been developed for Mac OS, Windows, or Linux. Only Apple can build apps for it. It won’t have cut & paste. Google - we are building the world’s 20th search engine at a time when most of the others have been abandoned as being commoditized money losers. We’ll strip out all of the ad-supported news & portal features so you won’t be distracted from using the free search stuff. Tesla - instead of just building batteries & selling them to Detroit, we are going to build our own cars from scratch plus own the distribution network. During a recession and a cleantech backlash. …Firefox - we are going to build a better web browser, even though 90% of the world’s computers already have a free one built in. One guy will do most of the work.

Thiel (Zero to One): "Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them."; this is precisely the opposite of reality: Bill Gates was not the first & only Gates, he was the last Gates; many people made huge fortunes off OSes, both before & after Gates - you may have forgotten Wang, but hopefully you remember Steve Jobs (before, Mac) & Steve Jobs (after, NeXT). Mark Zuckerberg was not the first & only Zuckerberg, he was the last Zuckerberg; many people made fortunes before him - maybe Orkut didn't make its Google inventor a fortune, but you can bet that MySpace's DeWolfe & Anderson did well. & there were plenty of lucrative search engine founders (is Jerry Yang a billionaire? Yes.)

Certainty is irrelevant, you still have problems making use of this knowledge. Example: in retrospect, we know everyone wanted computers, OSes, social networks - but the history of them is strewn with flaming rubble. Suppose you somehow knew in 2000 that "in 2010, the founder of the most successful social network will be worth at least $10b"; this is a falsifiable belief at odds with all conventional wisdom & about a tech that blindsided everyone. Yet, how useful would this knowledge be, really? What would you do with it? Do you have the capital to start a VC & throw multi-million-dollar investments at every social media until finally in 2010 you knew for sure that Facebook was the winning ticket & could cash out in the IPO? I doubt it.

It's difficult to invest . There is no convenient CMPTR you can buy 100 shares of & hold indefinitely to capture gains from your optimism about computers. IBM & Apple both went nearly bankrupt at points, & Microsoft's stock has been flat since 1999 or whenever (translating to huge real losses & opportunity costs to long-term holders of it). If you knew for certain that Facebook would be as huge as it was, what stocks, exactly, could you have invested in, pre-IPO, to capture gains from its growth? Remember, you don't know anything else about the tech landscape in the 2000s, like that Google will go way up from its IPO, you don't know about Apple's revival under Jobs - all you know is that a social network will exist & will grow hugely. The best I can think of would be to sell any Murdoch stock you owned when you heard they were buying MySpace, but offhand I'm not sure that Murdoch didn't just stagnate rather than drop as MySpace increasingly turned out to be a writeoff. In the hypothetical that you didn't know the name of the company, you might've bought up a bunch of Google stock hoping that Orkut would be the winner, but while that would've been a decent investment (yay!) it would have had nothing to do with Orkut (awww!); illustrating the problem with highly illiquid markets in some areas...And even when there are stocks available to buy, you only benefit based on the specifics - like one of the existing stocks being a winner, rather than all the stocks being eaten by some new startup. Let's imagine a different scenario, where instead you were confident that home robotics were about to experience a huge growth spurt. Is this even nonpublic knowledge at all? The world economy grows at something like 2% a year, labor costs generally seem to go up, prices of computers & robotics usually falls... Do industry projections expect to grow their sales by <25% a year?

But say that the market is wrongly pessimistic. If so, you might spend some of your hypothetical money on whatever the best approximation to a robotics index fund you can find, as the best of a bunch of bad choices. (Checking a few random entries in Wikipedia, maybe a fifth of the companies are publicly traded, so... that will be a pretty small index.) Suppose the home robotic growth were concentrated in a single private company which exploded into the billions of annual revenue & took away the market share of all the others, forcing them to go bankrupt or merge or shrink. Home robotics will have increased just as you believed - keikaku doori! - yet your 'index fund' gone bankrupt (reindex when one of the robotics companies collapses? Reindex into what, another doomed firm?). Then after your special knowledge has become public knowledge, the robotics company goes public, & by EMH, their shares become a normal investment.

Morgan Housel: "There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, 3 emerged on top, 2 of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and a winning investment are two different things."(Is this impossibly rare? It sounds like Facebook! They grew fast, roflstomped other social networks, stayed private, & post-IPO, investors have not profited.)

Because of the winner-take-all dynamics, there's no way to solve the coordination problem of holding off on an approach until the prerequisites are in place: entrepreneurs & founders will be hurling themselves at an obvious goal like social networks or VR constantly, just on the off chance that maybe the prerequisites just became adequate & they'll be able to eat everyone's lunch. A predictable waste of money, perhaps, but that's how the incentives work out. The first person to try at the right time may win the lottery; Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus, sold to Facebook for ~$2 billion):

"Here's a secret: the thing stopping people from making good VR & solving these problems was not technical. Someone could have built the Rift in mid-to-late 2007 for a few thousand dollars, & they could have built it in mid-2008 for about $500. It's just nobody was paying attention to that."
(At the margin, compared to other competitors in the VR space, did Luckey & co really create $2b+ of new value? Or were they lucky in trying at the right time?)It's a weird perspective to take, but we can think of other technologies which may be like this.

Bitcoin is a topical example: it's still in the early stages where it looks either like a genius stroke to invest in, or a fool's paradise/Ponzi scheme. We see what looks like a bubble as the price inflates from ~$0 to $130 as I write this, which look like a bubble - yet, if Bitcoin were the Real Deal, we would expect large price increases as people learn of it & it directly gains value from increased use, an ecosystem slowly unlocking the fancy cryptographic features, etc.

Or take niche visionary technologies: if cryonics was correct in principal, yet turned out to be worthless for everyone doing it before 2030 (because the wrong perfusion techniques or cryopreservatives were used & some critical bit of biology was not vitrified) while practical post-2030 say, it would simply be yet another technology where visionaries were ultimately right despite all nay-saying & skepticism from normals but nevertheless wrong in a practical sense because they jumped on it too early, & so they wasted their money.

When a knife drops, a fraction of a second divides a brilliant save from an emergency-room visit. The 'bleeding edge'.