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Idea Machines

Oct 3, 2022

Nadia Asparouhova talks about idea machines on idea machines! Idea machines, of course, being her framework around societal organisms that turn ideas into outcomes. We also talk about  the relationship between philanthropy and status, public goods and more. 

Nadia is a hard-to-categorize doer of many things: In the past, she spent many years exploring the funding, governance, and social dynamics of open source software, both writing a book about it called “Working in Public” and putting those ideas into practice at GitHub, where she worked to improve the developer experience. She explored parasocial communities and reputation-based economies as an independent researcher at Protocol Labs and put those ideas into practice as employee number two at Substack, focusing on the writer experience. She’s currently researching what the new tech elite will look like, which forms the base of a lot of our conversation. 

Completely independently, the two of us came up with the term “idea machines” to describe same thing — in her words: “self-sustaining organisms that contains all the parts needed to turn ideas into outcomes.” I hope you enjoy my conversation with Nadia Asparouhova. 


Nadia's Idea Machines Piece

Nadia's Website

Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software


[00:01:59] Ben: I really like your way of, of defining things and sort of bringing clarity to a lot of these very fuzzy words that get thrown around. So, so I'd love to sort of just get your take on how we should think about so a few definitions to start off with. So I, in your mind, what, what is tech, when we talk about like tech and philanthropy what, what is that, what is that entity.

[00:02:23] Nadia: Yeah, tech is definitely a fuzzy term. I think it's best to find as a culture, more than a business industry. And I think, yeah, I mean, tech has been [00:02:35] associated with startups historically, but But like, I think it's transitioning from being this like pure software industry to being more like, more like a, a way of thinking.

But personally, I don't think I've come across a good definition for tech anywhere. It's kind, you know?

[00:02:52] Ben: Yeah. Do, do you think you could point to some like very sort of like characteristic mindsets of tech that you think really sort of set it.

[00:03:06] Nadia: Yeah. I think the probably best known would be, you know, failing fast and moving fast and breaking things. I think like the interest in the sort of like David and gly model of an individual that is going up against an institution or some sort of. Complex bureaucracy that needs to be broken apart.

Like the notion of disrupting, I think, is a very tech sort of mindset of looking at a problem and saying like, how can we do this better? So it, in a [00:03:35] weird way, tech is, I feel like it's sort of like, especially in relation, in contrast to crypto, I feel like it's often about iterating upon the way things are or improving things, even though I don't know that tech would like to be defined that way necessarily, but when I, yeah.

Sort of compare it to like the crypto mindset, I feel like tech is kind of more about breaking apart institutions or, or doing yeah. Trying to do things better.

[00:04:00] Ben: A a as opposed. So, so could you then dig into the, the crypto mindset by, by contrast? That's a, I think that's a, a subtle difference that a lot of people don't go into.

[00:04:10] Nadia: Yeah. Like I think the crypto mindset is a little bit more about building a parallel universe entirely. It's about, I mean, well, one, I don't see the same drive towards creating monopolies in the way that and I don't know if that was like always a, you know, core value of tech, but I think in practice, that's kind of what it's been of.

You try to be like the one thing that is like dominating a market. Whereas with crypto, I think people are [00:04:35] because they have sort of like decentralization as a core value, at least at this stage of their maturity. It's more about building lots of different experiments or trying lots of different things and enabling people to sort of like have their own little corner of the universe where they can, they have all the tools that they need to sort of like build their own world.

Whereas the tech mindset seems to imply that there is only one world the world is sort of like dominated by these legacy institutions and it's Tech's job to fix. Those problems. So it's like very much engaged with what it sees as kind of like that, that legacy world or

[00:05:10] Ben: Yeah, I, I hadn't really thought about it that way. But that, that totally makes sense. And I'm sure other people have, have talked about this, but do, do you feel that is an artifact of sort of the nature of the, the technology that they're predicated on? Like the difference between, I guess sort of. The internet and the, the internet of, of like SAS and servers and then the [00:05:35] internet of like blockchains and distributed things.

[00:05:38] Nadia: I mean, it's weird. Cause if you think about sort of like early computing days, I don't really get that feeling at all. I'm not a computer historian or a technology historian, so I'm sure someone else has a much more nuanced answer to this than I do, but yeah. I mean, like when I think of like sixties, computer or whatever, it, it feels really intertwined with like creating new worlds.

And that's why like, I mean, because crypto is so new, it's maybe. It, we can only really observe what's happening right now. I don't know that crypto will always look exactly like this in the future. In fact, it almost certainly will not. So it's hard to know like, what are, it's like core distinct values, but I, I just sort of noticed the contrast right now, at least, but probably, yeah, if you picked a different point in, in text history, sort of like pre startups, I guess and, and pre, or like that commercialization phase or that wealth accumulation phase it was also much more, I guess, like pie this guy.

Right. But yeah, it feel, it feels like at least the startup mindset, or like whenever that point of [00:06:35] history started all this sort of like big successes were really about like overturning legacy industries, the, yeah. The term disruption was like such a buzzword. It's about, yeah. Taking something that's not working and making it better, which I think is like very intertwined with like programmer mindset.

[00:06:51] Ben: It's yeah, it's true. And I'm just thinking about sort of like my impression of, of the early internet and it, and it did not have that same flavor. So, so perhaps it's a. Artifact of like the stage of a culture or ecosystem then like the technology underlying it. I guess

[00:07:10] Nadia: And it's strange. Cause I, I feel like, I mean, there are people today who still sort of maybe fetishizes too strong, a word, but just like embracing that sort of early computing mindset. But it almost feels like a subculture now or something. It doesn't feel. yeah. I don't know. I don't, I don't find that that's like sort of the prevalent mindset in, in tech.

[00:07:33] Ben: Well, it, it feels like the, the sort of [00:07:35] like mechanisms that drive tech really do sort of center. I mean, this is my bias, but like, I feel like the, the way that that tech is funded is primarily through venture capital, which only works if you're shooting for a truly massive Result and the way that you get a truly massive result is not to build like a little niche thing, but to try to take over an industry.

[00:08:03] Nadia: It's about arbitrage

[00:08:05] Ben: yeah. Or, or like, or even not even quite arbitrage, but just like the, the, to like, that's, that's where the massive amount of money is. And, and like,

[00:08:14] Nadia: This means her like financially. I feel like when I think about the way that venture capital works, it's it's.

[00:08:19] Ben: yeah,

[00:08:20] Nadia: ex sort of exploiting, I guess, the, the low margin like cost models.

[00:08:25] Ben: yeah, yeah, definitely. And like then using that to like, take over an industry, whereas if maybe like, you're, you're not being funded in a way [00:08:35] that demands, that sort of returns you don't need to take as, as much of a, like take over the world mindset.

[00:08:41] Nadia: Yeah. Although I don't think like those two things have to be at odds with each other. I think it's just like, you know, there's like the R and D phase that is much more academic in nature and much more exploratory and then venture capital is better suited for the point in which some of those ideas can be commercialized or have a commercial opportunity.

But I don't think, yeah, I don't, I don't think they're like fighting with each other either.

[00:09:07] Ben: Really? I, I guess I, I don't know. It's like, so can I, can I, can I disagree and, and sort of say, like, it feels like the, the, the stance that venture type funding comes with, like forces on people is a stance of like, we are, we might fail, but we're, we're setting out to capture a huge, huge amount of value and like, [00:09:35] And, and, and just like in order for venture portfolios to work, that needs to be the mindset.

And like there, there are other, I mean, there are just like other funding, ways of funding, things that sort of like ask for more modest returns. And they can't, I mean, they can't take as many risks. They come with other constraints, but, but like the, the need for those, those power law returns does drive a, the need to be like very ambitious in terms of scale.

[00:10:10] Nadia: I guess, like what's an example of something that has modest financial returns, but massive social impact that can't be funded through philanthropy and academia or through through venture capital

[00:10:29] Ben: Well, I mean, like are, I mean, like, I think that there's, [00:10:35] I think that, that, that,

[00:10:38] Nadia: or I guess it

[00:10:39] Ben: yeah, I think the philanthropy piece is really important. Sorry, go ahead.

[00:10:42] Nadia: Yeah. I guess always just like, I feel like it was like different types of funding for different, like, I, I sort of visualized this pipeline of like, yeah. When you're in the R and D phase. Venture capital is not for you. There's other types of funding that are available.

And then like, you know, when you get to the point where there are commercial opportunities, then you switch over to a different kind of funding.

[00:11:01] Ben: Yeah. Yeah, no, I, I definitely agree with that. I, I, I think, I think what we're like where, where, where I was at least talking about is like that, that venture capital is sort of in the tech world is, is like the, the, the thing, the go to funding mechanism.

[00:11:16] Nadia: Yeah. Yeah. Which is partly why I'm interested in, I guess, idea machines and other sources of funding that feel like they're at least starting to emerge now. Which I think gets back to those kinds of routes that, I mean, it's actually surprising to me that you can talk to people in tech who don't always make the connection that tech started as an, [00:11:35] you know, academically and government funded enterprise.

And not venture venture capital came along later. Right then and so, yeah, maybe we, we're kind of at that point where there's been enough wealth generated that can kind of start that cycle again.

[00:11:47] Ben: yeah. And, and speaking of that another distinction that, that you've made in your writing that I think is really important is the difference between charity and philanthropy. Do you mind unpacking how you think about that?

[00:12:00] Nadia: Yeah. Charity is, is more like direct services. So you're not, there's sort of like a one to one, you put something in, you get sort of similar equal measure back out of it. And there's, I mean, charity is, you know, you can have like emergency relief or disasters or yeah, just like charitable services for people that need that kind of support.

And to me, it's, it's just sort of strange that it always gets lumped in with philanthropy, which is a. Enterprise entirely philanthropy is more of the early stage pipeline [00:12:35] for it it's, it's more like venture capital, but for public goods in the same way that venture capital is very early stage financing for private goods.

Philanthropy is very early stage financing for public goods. And if those public goods show promise or yeah, one need to be scaled, then you can go to government to get to get more funding to sustain it. Or maybe there are commercial opportunities or, you know, there are multiple paths that can, they can branch out from there.

But yeah, philanthropy at its heart is about experimenting with really wild and crazy ideas that benefit public society that that could have massive social returns if successful. Whereas charity is not really about risk taking charity is really about providing a stable source of financing for those who really need it in the moment.

[00:13:21] Ben: And, and the there's, there's two things I, I, I want to poke at there is like, do so. So you describe philanthropy as like crazy risk taking do, do you think that most [00:13:35] philanthropists see it, that.

[00:13:37] Nadia: Today? No. And yeah, philanthropy has had this very varied history over the last, like let's say like modern philanthropy in its current form has only really existed since the late 18 hundreds, early 19 hundreds. So we've got whatever, like a hundred, hundred 50 years. Most of what we think about in philanthropy today for, you know, most let's say adults that have really only grown up in the phase of philanthropy that you might call like late stage modern philanthropy to be a little cynical about it where it has.

And, and part of that has just come from, I mean, just a bridge history of philanthropy, but you know, early on or. Premodern philanthropy. We had the the church was kind of maybe more played more of that, that role or that that force in both like philanthropic experiments and direct services. And then like when, in the age of sort of like, yeah, post gilded, age, post industrial revolution you had people who made a lot of, lot of self-made wealth.

And you had people that were experimenting with new ideas [00:14:35] to provide public goods and services to society. And government at the time was not really playing a role in that. And so all that was coming from private citizens and private capital. And so those are, yeah, there was a time in which philanthropy was much more experimental in that way.

But then as government sort of stepped in around you know, mid 19 hundreds to become sort of like that primary provider and funder of public services that diminished the role of philanthropy. And then in the late 1960s, Foundations just became much more heavily regulated. And I think that was sort of like the turning point where philanthropy went from being this like highly experimental and, and just sort of like aggressive risk taking sort of enterprise to much more like safe because it was just sort of like hampered by all these like accountability requirements.

So yeah, I think like philanthropy today is not representative of what philanthropy has been historically or what it could be.

[00:15:31] Ben: A and what are, what are some of your favorite, like weird, [00:15:35] risky pre regulation, philanthropic things.

[00:15:40] Nadia: Oh, I don't do favorites, but

[00:15:42] Ben: Oh, okay. Well what, what are, what are some, some amusing examples of, of risky philanthropic cakes.

[00:15:51] Nadia: one I mean,

[00:15:52] Ben: Take a couple.

[00:15:54] Nadia: Probably like the most famous example would be like Carnegie public libraries. So like our public library system started as a privately funded experiment. And for each library that was created Andrew Carnegie would ask the government, the, the local government or the local community to find he would help fund the creation of the libraries.

And then the government would have to find a way to like continue to sustain it and support it over the years. So it was this nice sort of like, I guess, public private type partnership. But then you have, I mean, also scientific research and public health initiatives that were philanthropically supported and funded.

So Rockefeller's eradication of worm as a yeah. Public health initiative finding care for yellow fever. Those are some [00:16:35] examples. Yeah. I mean the public school education system in the south did not exist until there was sort of like an initiative to say, why aren't there public schools in the south and how do we just create them and, and fund.

So and then also like the state of American private universities, which were sort of modeled after European universities at the time. But also came about after private philanthropists were funding research into understanding, like why is our American higher education? Not very good, you know, at the time it was like, not that good compared to the German university models.

And so there was a bunch of research that was produced from that. And then they kind of like set out to yeah. Reform American universities and, yeah. So, I mean, there, there're just like so many examples of people just sort of saying, and, and I think like, I, I, one thing I do wanna caveat is like, I'm not regressive in the sense of.

Wow. This thing, you know, worked really well a hundred years ago. And why don't we just do the exact same thing again? I feel like that's like a common pitfall in history. It's not that I think, you know, [00:17:35] everything about the world is completely different today versus let's say 19 years, but

[00:17:39] Ben: in the past. And so it could be different to her in the

[00:17:41] Nadia: exactly that that's sort of, the takeaway is like, where we're at right now is not a terminal state or it doesn't have to be a terminal state.

Like philanthropy has been through many different phases and it can continue to have other phases in the future. They're not gonna look exactly like they did historically, but yeah.

[00:17:56] Ben: That, that's that such a good distinction. And it goes for, for so many things where like, like when you point to historical examples I don't know. Like, I, I think that I, I suffer the same thing where I, you know, it's like you point to, to historical examples and it's like, not, it's not bringing up the historical examples to say, like, we should go back to this it's to say, like, it has been different and it could be different.

[00:18:18] Nadia: Something I think about, and this is a little, it just, I don't know. I, I just think of like any, any adult today in, like, let's say like the, the who's like active in the workforce. We're talking about the span of like a, you know, like 30 year institutional memory or something. Like, and so [00:18:35] like anything that we think about, like, what is like possible or not possible is just like limited by like our biological lifespans.

Like anyone you're talking, like, all we ever know is like, what we've grown up with in like, let's say the last 30 ish years for anyone. And so it's like, the reason why it's important to study history is to remind yourself that like everything that you know about, you know, what I think about philanthropy right now, based on the inputs I've been given in my lifetime is very different from if I study history and go, oh, actually it's only been that way for like pretty short amount of time.

Only a few decades.

[00:19:06] Ben: Yeah, totally. And I, I, I guess this is, this might be a, a slightly people might disagree with this, but from, from my perspective there's been sort of less institutional change within. The lifetime of most people in, in the workforce and especially most people in tech, which tends to skew younger than there was in the past,

[00:19:30] Nadia: Yeah.

[00:19:32] Ben: like, or, or like to put, put more fine on a point of it.

[00:19:35] Like there's, there seems to have been less institutional change in the like latter half of the, the 20th century than in the first, like two thirds of it.

[00:19:44] Nadia: Yeah. I think that's right. It feels much more much more stagnant.

[00:19:49] Ben: Yeah. And I, I think the, the last thing like pull, pull us back to, to, to definitions real quick. So how, how do you like to describe idea of machines to people? Like if, if someone was like, Nadia, what, what is an idea machine besides this podcast? How would you, how would you describe that?

[00:20:05] Nadia: I would point them to my blog post. So I don't have to explain it.

[00:20:08] Ben: Okay. Excellent. Perfect. Everybody.

[00:20:14] Nadia: If I had to, I mean, if I had to sort of explain in short version, I would say it's kind of like the modern successor to philanthropic foundations, maybe depending who I'm talking to, I might say that or yeah, it's just, it's sort of like a, a framework for understanding the interaction between funders and communities and that are like [00:20:35] centered around to similar ideology and how they turn ideas into outcomes is like there's a whole bunch of soft social infrastructure that, that.

To take someone who says, Hey, I have an NDO. Why don't we do X? And like, how does that actually happen in the world? There's so many different inputs that like come together to make that happen. And that was just sort of my attempt at creating a framework for.

[00:20:54] Ben: Yeah, no, I think it's a really good framework. And, and the, the, one of the, the powerful things I think in it is that you say there's like these like five components where there's like an ideology, a community ideas, an agenda, and people who capitalize the agenda. And then and I guess I'll, I'll like caveat this for, for the listeners, like in, in the piece you use effective altruism or EA for short as, as a, kind of like a case study in, in idea machines.

And so it is, is sort of very topical right now. And I, I think what we will try to avoid is like the, the topical topics about it, but use it as a, an object of study. I think it's actually a very good object of study. [00:21:35] For thinking about these things. And, and actually one of the things that I thought was, was sort of stood out to me about it about EA a as opposed to many other philanthropies is that EA feels like one of the few places where the people who are capitalizing the agenda are, are willing to capitalize other people's other people's agendas as opposed to, to like sort of imposing their own on that.

Do you, do you get a sense of that?

[00:22:03] Nadia: Yeah. Yeah. It feels, it feels like there's. Mm, yeah. Some sort of shift there. So, I mean, if you think about. You know, someone got super wealthy in the let's call, Haiti of, of the five, one C three foundation. Like, I don't know, let's say like the fifties or something. Yeah, someone, someone makes a ton of money and like the next step is at some point they end up setting up a charitable foundation, they appoint a committee of people to help them figure out like, what should my agenda?

And they, but it's all kind of like flowing from the donor and saying like, I want to [00:22:35] create this thing in the world. I wanna fund this thing in the world because it's sort of like my personal interest. Whereas I feel like we're starting to see some examples today of sure. Like, you know, there has to be alignment between a funder's interest and maybe like a community's interest.

But in some ways the agenda is being driven, not just by the funder or like foundation staff but by a community of people that are sort of all like talking to each other and saying like, here's what we think is the most important agenda. And so it feels in some ways, like much. Yeah, much more organic.

And it's not to say that, you know, the funder is not influencing that or doesn't have an influence in that. But but I, I sort of like seeing now that there, if, if it feels like it's like much more yeah. Intertwined or like it could go in a lot of different directions. So yeah, you see that with EA, which was the example I had used of like the agenda is very strongly driven by its community.

It's not like there's like one foundation of, of people that are just like sitting in an ivory tower and saying, here's what we think we should fund. And then they just like go off and do it. And I think that just creates a lot more [00:23:35] possibilities for serendipity around, like what kinds of ideas end up getting funded?

[00:23:38] Ben: Yeah. And it also, it also feels like at least to me I'd be interested if you agree with this, it feels like it makes for situations where you can actually like pool capital more easily for for, for sort of like larger projects. Where, when it's, it's like individual. When there's not sort of like a, a broader agenda you have sort of like the, the funding gets very dispersed, but whereas like, if there's, there's a way for like multiple funders to say like, okay, like this is an important thing, then it makes it much easier to like pull capital for, for bigger ideas.

[00:24:19] Nadia: Yeah, I think that's right. Like I think within the world of philanthropy, there's it is just sort of more naturally. Towards zero sum games and competitiveness of funding because there's just less funding available. And because there is always this sort of like [00:24:35] reputation or status aspect intertwined with it, where like you wanna be, you know, the funder that made something happen in the world.

But I agree that when it, the, the, the, the boundaries feel a little bit more porous when it's not just like, you know, two distinct foundations that are competing with each other or two distinct funders, but it's like, we're, there are multiple funders, you know, that are existing, bigger fish, smaller fish, or whatever that are like, sort of amplifying the agenda of, of a separate community that is not, you know, is not even formally affiliated with any of, any of these funders.

[00:25:08] Ben: Yeah. And do, do you have a sense of how, like, almost like what, what are the, the necessary preconditions for that? Level of community to, to come about. Right. Like EA I think maybe is it's under talked about how, like it has, you know, a hundred years of like thinking behind it, of, of before [00:25:35] people really, you know, it's like sort of like different utilitarian and consequentialist philosophers, really sort of like working out, like thinking about how do we prioritize things.

And, and so it's just, I guess it's like, if for, for like creating new, powerful, useful idea machines, like what, what are sort of like the, the like bricks that need to be created to lay the groundwork for them?

[00:26:01] Nadia: Yeah. I mean, you've seen it come out in different sorts of ways. So like for EA, as you said it, I mean, it already existed before any major funders came in. It was for, I mean, first you have sort of its historical roots in utilitarianism, which go way back, but then even just effective altruism itself was, you know, started in Oxford and like was an academic discipline right at, at its outset.

So there was already a seed of something there before they had major funders coming in, but then there are other, other types of idea machines, I think that are where like that community has to be actively nurtured. And it's weird cause [00:26:35] yeah, I mean, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Or I think people tend to. Underestimate, how many communities had a lot of elbow grace put in to get them going, right. So it's like, you need to create some initial momentum to build a scene. It's not like it's not always just, you know, a handful of people got together and decided to make a thing.

I think that's sort of like the historical story that guest glorified, like we like thinking about a bunch of artists and creatives that are just sort of like hanging out at the same cafe and then like, you know, this scene starts to organically form. That's definitely a thing, but right, right. But you know, there's also, yeah.

In, in many cases there are funders behind the scenes who are helping make these things happen. They're, you know, convenings that are organized, there are you know, individual academics or or creatives or writers that are being funded in order to help you. Bring these sorts of ideas to to the, [00:27:35] the forefront of, of people's minds.

So yeah, I think there's a lot of work that can go, it's just like, you know, start anything, but there's a lot of work that can go on behind the scenes to help these communities even start to exist. But then they start to have these compounding returns for funders, I think, where it's like, okay, now, instead of, you know, instead of hiring a couple of program officers to my foundation I am starting this like community of people that is now a beacon for attracting other people I might not have even even heard of that are sort of like flocking to this cause.

And it's sort of like a, a talent, well, in itself,

[00:28:08] Ben: Yeah. To change tracks a little bit. So with, with these sort of like new waves of like sort of potential philanthropists in, in both like the tech world or the crypto world do you have any sense of like risky, philanthropic experiments that you would want to see people do?

Like just sort of like any, any kind of wishlist.

[00:28:32] Nadia: I don't know. I don't know if that's like the role that I am trying to play [00:28:35] necessarily. I mean, I think like personally one area that still feels the way I think about it is I just think about, you know, what are the different components of, of, of the public sector and sort of like what areas are being more or less.

Covered right now. And so we see funders that are getting more involved in politics and policy. We see funders that are you know, replicating or trying to, to field build in, in academia. I feel like media is still strangely kind of overlooked or just this big enigma to me, at least when I think about, yeah.

How do, how do funders influence different aspects of the public sector? And so, yeah, there's, there's sort of, well, I don't think it's even necessarily a lack of interest because I, I see a lot of. You know, again, that sort of tech mindset and yeah, I guess I'm more specific thinking about tech right now, but going back to, you know, tech wanting to break apart institutions or tech, sort of like being this ancy teenager that is like railing against the institution you see a lot [00:29:35] of that and there's, you know, a lot of tension between tech industry and media right now.

So you see that sort of like champing up bit. But then it's not clear to me, like what, like what they're doing to replace that. Is it, and, and, and some of that is just maybe more existential questions about like, what is the future of media? Like, what should that be? Is it this sort of focus on individual media creators instead of, you know, going to like the mainstream newspaper or the mainstream TV network or whatever you're going to Joe Rogan, let's say that's relevant today, cuz I just saw.

Mark Zuckerberg did an interview on, on Joe Rogan so like, you know, is, is it like, is that what the future looks like? Is that the vision of what tech wants media to look like? It's not totally clear to me what the answer is yet, but, and I also feel like I'm seeing sort of like a lack of interest in and funding towards that.

So that that's sort of like one area where, and it's sort of unsurprising to me, I guess that like, you know, tech is gonna be interested in like science or [00:30:35] politics. And maybe just sort of tech is not great at thinking about cultural artifacts. But you know, in terms of like my personal wishlist or just areas where I think their deficiencies on the sort of public sector checklists that, that one of them.

[00:30:49] Ben: yeah, no, that's that's and I think the important thing is, is to, to flag these things. Right. Cuz it's like, it's, it's sort of hard to know what counterfactuals are, but it's like, yeah, like like media media as public goods. Does seem like kind of underrated as an idea, right. It's like would, would, I don't know.

It's like, I think Sesame Street's really important and that was, that was publicly funded, right?

[00:31:17] Nadia: mm-hmm and even education is sort of like a, a weird, like, I mean, there's talk about homeschooling. There's talk about how universities aren't, you know, really adequate today. I mean, you have like the, you know, one effort to, to [00:31:35] build a new university, but it feels. I don't know, I'm still sort of like waiting for like, what are like the really big, ambitious efforts that we're gonna see in terms of like tech people that are trying to rebuild either, you know, primary, secondary education or higher education.

I just, yeah, I don't know.

[00:31:53] Ben: Yeah, no, that, that that's in a great, a great place. Like it does not feel like there have been a lot of ambitious experiments there. In terms of right. Like anything along the lines of, of like building all the, the public schools in the south. Right. 

[00:32:06] Nadia: Right. Like at that level and this actually, I mean, this is like, and I think you, and I may not agree on this topic, but like I do genuinely wonder, you know, at the same time, we're also iterating at the same time you have these, you know, cycles of wealth that come in and, and shape public society in different ways, on like a broader scale.

You also have the, you know, a hundred year institutional cycle where like, Institutions are built and then they kind of mature and then they, they start to stagnate and, and die down. What have we learned from like the last a hundred [00:32:35] years of institution building? Like maybe we learned that institutions are not as great as they seem, or they inevitably decline.

And like, maybe people are interested in ways to avoid that in, in other words, like, you know, do we need to build another CNN in, in the realm of media? Or do we need to build another Harvard or is maybe the takeaway that like institutions themselves are falling out of favor and the philanthropically funded experiments might not look like the next Harvard, but they're gonna look like some, yeah, some, some sort of more broken down version of that.

[00:33:05] Ben: Ooh,

[00:33:06] Nadia: I don't know. And yeah. Yeah. I don't know.

[00:33:10] Ben: sorry. Go, go ahead.

[00:33:11] Nadia: Oh, I was just gonna say, I mean, like, this is, this is where I feel like history only has limited things to teach us. Right. Because yeah, the sort of copy paste answer would be. There used to be better institutions. Let's just build new institutions. But I think, and I think this is actually where crypto is thinking more critically about this than tech where crypto says like, yeah, like, why are we [00:33:35] just gonna repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Let's just do something completely different. Right. And I think that is maybe part of the source of their disinterest in what legacy institutions are doing, where they're just like, we're not even trying to do that. We're not trying to replicate that. We wanna just re rethink that concept entirely. I, I feel like, yeah, in tech, there's still a bit of LARPing around like, like around like, you know, without sort of the critical question of like, what did we, what did we take away from that?

Maybe that wasn't so good. What we did in the past.

[00:34:04] Ben: Yeah, well, I, I guess my response just is, is I think definitely that. That institutions are not functioning as well as they have. I think the, the question is like, what is the conclusion to draw from that? And, and maybe the, the conclusion I draw is that we need like different, like newer, different [00:34:35] institutions. And I feel like there's different levels of implicitness or explicitness of an institution, but broadly, it is some way of coordinating people that last through time.

Right. And so, even what people are doing in crypto is I would argue building institutions. They just are organized wildly differently than ones we've seen before.

[00:35:00] Nadia: Yeah. Yeah. And again, it's like, so the history is so short in crypto. It's hard to say what exactly anyone is trying to do until maybe we can understand that in retrospect. Yeah, I mean, I don't know. I, I think like there is just like some. Like, I feel like there's probably some learning from, from open source where I spent a lot of my brain space in the past around like, it was just like an entirely different type of coordination model from, from like centralized cozy firms.

[00:35:34] Ben: Yeah.

[00:35:34] Nadia: [00:35:35] And like there's some learning there and, and crypto is modeling itself much more after like open source projects than it is after like KO's theory of the firm. And, and so I, so I, I think there's probably some learnings there of like, yes, they're building things. I don't know. I mean, like in the world of opensource, like a lot of these projects don't last very, like you don't sort of like iterate upon existing projects.

A lot of times you just build a new project and then eventually try to get people to like switch over to that project. So it's like these much shorter lifespans And so I don't, I don't know what that looks like in terms of institutional design for like the public sector or social institutions, but I just, yeah, I don't know.

I think I just sort of wonder what that looks like. And yeah, I do see, like, there are some experiments within sort of like non crypto tech world as well. Like I was just thinking about Institute for progress and they're a, a policy think tank in, in DC. And I think like one of the things that they're doing well is trying to iterate [00:36:35] upon the sort of, you know, existing think tech tank model.

And like one of the things that they acknowledge better than maybe, you know, you go to ano you go to a sort of like one of the stodgy older think tanks, and you're like, your brand is the think tank, right? You are like an employee of that place and you are representing their brand. Whereas I think my sense, at least with Institute for progress is they've been a little bit more like you are someone who is an expert already in your.

domain. You, you already have your own audience. You're, you're someone who's already widely known and we're kind of like the infrastructure that is supporting you. I don't wanna speak on their behalf. That's sort of like the way I've been understanding it. And yeah, I mean, so, you know, even outside of crypto, I think people are still contending with that whole atomization of the firm, cetera, etcetera of like how do you balance or like individual reputation versus firm reputation.

And maybe that is where it plays out. Like to my question about, you know, are you trying to build another media institution or is it just about supporting like lots of in individual influencers? But yeah, [00:37:35] just, I wonder like, are we sitting here waiting for new institutions to be built and like, actually there are no more, maybe we're just like institutions period are dying and like that's the future.

Or yeah, at the same time, like they do provide this sort of like history and memory that is useful. So I don't know.

[00:37:51] Ben: yeah, I mean, like, it sounds to me like, there's, there's, I mean, from what you're saying, there's like a much more sort of subtle way to look at it where there's, there's like a number of different sort of like sliders or spectra, right. Where it's like, how. I don't know, like internalized versus externalized, the institution is right where it's like, you think of like your like 1950s company and it's like, people are like subsume themselves to it.

Right. And that's like on some end of the spectrum. And then on the other end of the spectrum, it's like like, I don't know, like YouTube, right. Where it's like, yeah. Like all like YouTube YouTubers are like technically all YouTubers, but like beyond that [00:38:35] they have no like coordination or, or real like connection.

And like, and like that's one access. And then like new institutions could like come in and, and maybe we're like moving towards an era of history where like the, like just there is more externalization, but then like, sort of like explicitly acknowledging that and then figuring out how to. Do a lot of good and like have that, that sort of like institutional memory, given the, a world where, where like everybody's a brand

[00:39:09] Nadia: Yeah.

[00:39:10] Ben: that it, it seems like it's, that's not necessarily like institutions are dead.

It's just like institutions live in a different like, like are, are just like structurally different

[00:39:23] Nadia: Yeah. Yeah. Like, I, I, I wondered, like if we just sort of embrace the fact that maybe we are moving towards having much shorter memories like what does a short term memory [00:39:35] institution look like? I dunno, like maybe that's just sort where, right. You know, like I try to sort of like observe what is happening versus kind of being like, it should be different.

And so like, if that just is what it is then, like, how do we design for that? I have an idea and I think that actually get to like part of what crypto is trying to do differently is saying, okay, like, this is where we have sort like trustless and where we have the rules that are encoded into a protocol where like, you don't need to remember anything like the, the network is remembering for you.

[00:40:03] Ben: Yeah, I'm just thinking, I, I haven't actually watched it, but do you know the movie memento, which I

[00:40:09] Nadia: Yes,

[00:40:10] Ben: a guy who has yeah, exactly is short term memory loss and just like tattoos all over his body. So it's like, what, what is the institutional version of that? I guess, I guess like, yeah, exactly.

That's that's where the, the note taking goes. 

[00:40:25] Nadia: Your.

[00:40:27] Ben: yeah, exactly. So sort of down another separate track is, is something that I've noticed is like, [00:40:35] I guess, how do you think about what is and is not a public good? And I, and I asked this because I think my experience talking to many people in, in tech there's, there's sort of this attitude that sort of everything can be made like that, that almost like public goods don't exist.

That it's like every, like everything can, can sort of be done by a, for profit company. And if like you can't capture the value of what you're doing it might not be valuable.

[00:41:06] Nadia: Yeah, that's a frustrating one. Yeah, I mean like public goods have a very literal and simple economic definition of being a, a good that is non rivals and non-excludable so non excludable, meaning that you can't prevent anyone from accessing it and non rivals, meaning that if someone uses the public good, it doesn't diminish someone else's ability to use that, that public good.

And that sort of stands in contrast to private goods and other types of goods. So, you know, there's that definition to start with, but then of course in [00:41:35] real life, real life is much more complex than that. Right. And so I, I noticed there was like a lot of, yeah, just like assumptions. I get rolled up in that.

So like one of the things. Open source code, for example in the book that I wrote I tried to sort of like break apart, like people think of open source code as a public. Good. And that's it. Right. And, and with that carries a bunch of implications around, well, if open source is, you know, freely accessible, it's not excludable.

That means that we should not prevent anyone from contributing to it. And that's like, you know, then, then that leads to all these sort of like management problems. And so I kind of try to break that apart and say the consumption of open source code. Like the, the actual code itself can be a public good that is freely accessible, but then the production of open source, like who actually contributes to an open source community could be, you know, like more like a membership style community where you do exclude people.

That's just, you know, one example that comes to mind of like how public goods are not as black and white as they seem. I think another, like assumption that I see is that public goods have to be funded by government. And government has again, [00:42:35] like, you know, Especially since mid 19 hundreds, like been kinda like primary provider of public goods, but there are also public goods that are privately funded.

Like, you know like roads can be funded through public private partnerships or privately funded. So it's not just because something is a public good. Doesn't say anything about how it has to be funded. So yeah, there, there is just sort of like, and then, yeah, as you're saying within tech, I think there's just because the vehicle of change in the world that is sort of like the defining vehicle for the tech industry is startups.

Right. And so it's both like understandable why like everything gets filtered through that lens of like, why is it not a startup? But then, you know, as, as we both know, kind of minimizes the text history, the reason that we even, you know, got to the commercial era of startups and the startup. Era is because of the years and years of academic and government funded research that, that led up to that.

So and, and then, and same with sort of like the open source work that I [00:43:35] was doing was to say, okay, all these companies that are developing their software products, every single one of these private companies is using open source code. They're relying on this public digital infrastructure to build their software.

So like, it's, it's not quite as clean cut as especially, I mean, by some estimates, like a vast majority of let's say, yeah, any, any private company, any private software company, like, you know, let's say like 70% of their, their code or, you know, it's, it varies so much between companies, but like certainly a majority of the code that is quote unquote written is actually just like shared public code.

So it's, you know it's, it's not quite as simple as saying like public goods have no place in, in tech. I think they, they still have a very, very strong place.

[00:44:16] Ben: Yeah, no, and it it's, it's also just, just thinking about like, sort of like the, the publicness of different things, right? Cuz it's like, there are for profit, there, there are profitable private schools. Right. And yet, [00:44:35] like I think most people would agree that. If all schools were, were for profit and private I mean, yeah, I guess separating out like the, the, like, even if schools were for profit and private you would prob like, it would probably still be a good thing to have government getting money into those schools.

Right. Like even like, I, I think people who don't like public schooling still think that it is worthwhile for the government to give money towards schools. Right.

[00:45:12] Nadia: Mm-hmm

[00:45:13] Ben: Is that

[00:45:14] Nadia: Yeah. And, and this is a distinction between, for the example of education, it's like, you know, the concept of education might be a public. Good. But then how is education funded might, you know, get funded in different ways, including private.

[00:45:27] Ben: yeah, exactly. And, and, and I. Yeah. So, so the, the, the concept of education [00:45:35] as, as a public good. Yeah, that's a, that's a good way of putting it and there's like, but I, and I think, I guess there, there are, there are more I guess think fuzzier places where it's like, it's less clear whe like, to what extent it's to public good, like like I think infrastructure maybe one where it's like, you, you could imagine a system where like, everybody just like, who uses, say like a sewer line buys into it versus having it be, be publicly funded.

And I think like research might be another one.

[00:46:11] Nadia: I mean, even education is if you go far back enough, right? Like not everyone went to public schools before. Not everyone got an education. It was not seen as necessarily something that it was something for like privileged people to get. It was not something that was just like part of the public sector.

So yeah, our, our notions of what the public sector even is, or what's in and out of it is definitely evolved over the years.

[00:46:32] Ben: Yeah, no, that's a really good point. So it's, [00:46:35] it's like that again is like, that's, that's where it's complicated where it's like, it's not just some like attribute of the world. Right. It's like our, like some kind of social consensus,

[00:46:45] Nadia: Great.

[00:46:46] Ben: around public goods. And, and something I also wanted to, to talk about is like, I know you've been thinking a lot about like the, sort of the relationship between philanthropy and status and I guess like, do, do you have, like, what's like. Do do you have a sense of like, why? Like, and it's different for everybody, but like why do people do philanthropy now? Like when you, when you don't have like a, a sort of like a, a reli, excuse me, a religious mandate to do it.

[00:47:21] Nadia: I actually think, yeah, I think this question is more complicated than it seems. Because there's so many different types of philanthropists you know, The old adage of, if you've met one philanthropist, you've met one philanthropist. And so motivations [00:47:35] are, I mean, there are a lot of different motivations and also just sort of like, there's some spectrum here that I am still kind of lack and vocabulary on, but like a lot of philanthropy, if you just look by the numbers, like a lot of philanthropy is done at the local level, right.

Or it's done within a philanthropy sort of local sphere. Like we forget about, you know, when you think about philanthropy, you think about the biggest billionaires in the world. You think about bill gates or Warren buffet or whatever. But like, we forget that, you know, there are a lot of people that are wealthy that are just kind of like that, that aren't part of the quote unquote global elite.

Right? So like I, yeah, one example I have to think about is like the, the Koch family. And and so we all know the Koch brothers, but then like, They were, they were not the original philanthropist in their family. Their father was, and their father was originally, I mean, they had a family foundation and they just kind of focused on their local area doing local philanthropy.

And it was only with the next generation that they ended up sort of like expanding into this like more global focus. But like, yeah, I mean, there's so much philanthropy. That is, so when we say, you know, like, what are the motivations of someone of a philanthropist? Like, it, it really [00:48:35] depends on like who you're talking about.

But I do think like one aspect that just gets really under discussed or underappreciated philanthropy is the kind of like cohort nature of at least philanthropy that operates on a more like global, global skill. And I don't mean literally global in the sense of like international, I just mean like, I don't know what the right term is for this, but like outside of your yeah, like nonlocal right.

[00:48:59] Ben: Yeah.

[00:49:00] Nadia: And yeah, I don't know. That feels unsatisfying too. I don't really know what, what, what the term is, but there is a distinction there, right. But yeah, I think like, well, yeah, I don't know. I don't know what the right term is. But like I, the, the ways in which, so like, you know, why does a, why does a philanthropist?

I, I think I have one open question of like, why, what makes a philanthropist convert from kinda like the more local focus to some expanded quote unquote global focus is one question. I think like when people talk about the motivations of philanthropists, they tend to focus on individual motivations of that person.

So, you [00:49:35] know, the classic answer to like, why do, why do people give philanthropically? It's always like something like about altruism and wanting to give back or it's, or it's like the, you know, the, the edgy self-interested model of like, you know, people that are motivated by, by status and wanting to look good.

I don't, I feel like those answers, they don't, they're not like they're just not fully satisfying to me. I think there's. This aspect of maybe like, like a more like power relational theory that is maybe under, under discussed or underappreciated of if you think about like like these wealth generations, rather than just like individuals who are wealthy you can see these sort of like cohorts of people that all became wealthy in similar sorts of ways.

So you have wall street wealth, you have tech wealth, you have crypto wealth. And and you know, these are very large buckets, but you can sort of group people together based on like, they got wealthy because they had some unique insight that the previous paradigm did not have. And I think like, [00:50:35] there's sort of like, yeah, there are these cycles that like wealth is moving in where first you're sort of like the outcast you're working outta your garage, you know, let's use the startup example.

No one really cares about you. You're very counterculture. Then you become sort of like more popular you're you're like a, but you're still like a counterculture for people that are like in the know, right. You're showing traction, you're showing promise whatever, and then there's some explosion to the mean stream.

There's sort of this like frenzied period where everyone wants to, you know, do startups or join a startup or start a startup. And then there's sort of like the crash, right? And this is this mirrors Carla press's technological revolutions and, and financial capital where she talks about how technological innovations influence financial markets.

But you know, she talks about these sort like cycles that we move in. And then like, after the sort of like crash, there's like a backlash, right? There's like a reckoning where the public says, you know, how, how could we have been misled by this, these crazy new people or whatever. But that moment is actually the moment in which the, the new paradigm starts to like cement its power and starts to become sort of like, you know, the dominant force in the field.

It needs to start. [00:51:35] Switching over and thinking about their public legacy. But I think like one learnings we can have from looking at startup wealth now and sort of like how interesting it is that in the last couple years, like suddenly a lot of people in tech are starting to think about culture building and institution building and, and their public legacies that wasn't true.

Like, you know, 10 years ago, what is actually changed. And I think a lot of that really was influenced by the, the tech backlash that was experienced in, in 2016 or so. And so you look at these initiatives now, like there are multiple examples of like philanthropic initiatives that are happening now.

And I don't find it satisfying to just say, oh, it's because these individuals want to have a second act in their career. Or because they're motivated by status. Like, I think those are certainly all components of it, but it doesn't really answer the question of why are so many people doing it together right now?

Not literally coordinated together, but like it's happening independently in a lot of different places. And so I feel like we need some kind of. Cohort analysis or cohort explanation to say, okay, I actually think this is kind of like a defense mechanism because you have this [00:52:35] clash between like a rising new paradigm against the incumbents and the new paradigm needs to find ways to, you know, like wield its influence in the public sector or else it's just gonna be, you know, regulated out of existence or they're gonna, you know, be facing this sort of like hostile media landscape.

They need to learn how to actually like put their fingers into that and and, and grapple with the role. But it it's this sort of like coming of age for our counterculture where they're used to, like tech is used to sort of being in this like safe enclave in Silicon valley and is now being forced or like reckoned with the outside world.

So like that, that, that is one answer for me of like, why do philanthropists do these things? It's we can talk about sort of like individual motivations for any one person. In, in my sort of like particular area of interest in trying to understand, like, why is tech wealth doing this? Or like, what will crypto wealth be doing in the future?

I, I find that kind of explanation. Helpful.

[00:53:25] Ben: Yeah. That's I feel like it has a very like Peter Turin vibe like in, in the good way, in the sense of like, like identifying. [00:53:35] like, I, I, I don't think that history is predictive, but I do think that there are patterns that repeat and like that, like, I've never heard anybody point out that pattern, but it feels really truthy to me. I think the, the, the really cool thing to do would be to like, sort of, as you dig into this, like, sort of like set up some kind of like bet with yourself on like, what are the conditions under which like crypto people will become like start heavily going into philanthropy. Right. Like,

[00:54:09] Nadia: Yes, totally. I think about this now. That's why I'm like, I'm weirdly, like, to me, crypto wealth is the specter in the future, but they're not actually in the same boat as what tech wealth is in right now. So I'm almost in a, like, they're, they're not yet really motivated to deal with this stuff, because I think like that moment, if I had to like, make a bet on it is like, it's gonna be the moment where like crypto, when, when crypto really faces like a public [00:54:35] backlash.

Because right now I think they're still in the like we're counterculture, but we're cool kind of moment. And then they had a little bit of this frenzy in the crash, but like, yeah, I think it's still.

[00:54:44] Ben: for tech, right? Or 2000.

[00:54:46] Nadia: Yeah. And even despite exactly. And, and, and despite the, you know, same as in 2001 where people were like, ah,, you know, it was all a scam.

This was all bullshit. Oh, sorry. I dunno if I could say that. 

[00:54:57] Ben: Say that.

[00:54:57] Nadia: But then, you know, like did not even, like startups had a whole other Renaissance after that was like not, you know, far from being over. But like people still by and large, like love crypto. And like, there are the, you know, loud, negative people that are criticizing it in the same way that people criticize startups in 2001.

But like by and large, a lot of people are still engaging with it and are interested in it. And so, like, I don't feel like it's hit that public backlash moment yet the way that startups did in 2016. So I feel like once it gets to that point and then like, kind of the reckoning after that is kind of the point where crypto wealth will be motivated to act philanthropically in kind of like this larger cohort [00:55:35] kind of way.

[00:55:36] Ben: Yeah. And I don't think that the time scales will be the same, but I mean the time scale for, for that in tech, if we sort of like map it on to the, the 2000 crash is like, you know, so you have like 15 years. So like, that'd be like 20 37 is when we need to like Peck back in and see like, okay, is this right?

[00:55:56] Nadia: It's gonna be faster. So I'm gonna cut that in half or something. I feel like the cycles are getting shorter and moving faster. 

[00:56:01] Ben: That, that, that definitely feels true. Looking to the future is, is a a good place for us to, to wrap up. I really appreciate this.