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What decentralization is good for (part 3): growth

Picking back up the series on what decentralization is good for (part 1, part 2), today I want to focus on one of the most exciting aspects of decentralization: growth.  

In this case, when I say “decentralized”, what I really mean is “open and non-proprietary”.  The two often go hand-in-hand.

Ok, so why are open, decentralized systems especially good for growth?  When a technology is open (anyone can use, extend, modify, build on) and decentralized (no one party or company is in full control), it has the potential to spread like wildfire, for exactly those reasons.  Since it is free to use without restriction, permissionless innovation is possible — meaning anyone who feels like it can pick it up and run.  And because open, decentralized systems reduce platform risk, developers can feel comfortable building on them with less of a risk of getting the carpet pulled out from under them.

When this works, it works really well. Many of the technologies we use every day — like HTTP, SMTP, WiFi, USB and Bluetooth — have become ubiquitous precisely because they are open, nonproprietary and decentralized in nature (in addition to being useful!). 

Everyone knows that it’s safe to build to the Bluetooth standard without platform risk.  And what that means is that anyone, no matter what company they are with, or what country they live in, has the potential to grow the platform.  This kind of omni-directional growth is really only possible with open, un-owned, decentralized technologies.  

Often times, however, a single company drives the development of these open, un-owned, decentralized technologies.  For example, the General Transit Feed Specification is on open data format that powers most of the public transit industry. As I have written about before, this standard came to market in large part because of Google’s initial efforts, and was then adopted and grown by a large community of others (including our work at OpenPlans back in 2009-2012). Or, to go farther back, we can look at the role that Mozilla/Firefox played in bringing modern web standards (includuing Cascading Style Sheets) to market.  Or to today, and Apple’s and Google’s role in bringing USB-C to market (of course, Apple does not have the best track record on this topic).  The point is, it can be difficult for open, nonproprietary, decentralized technologies to take off — they need some sort of catapult.  Historically that has come from companies with some self-interest — this has been a good thing (generally speaking).

Today, in addition to companies driving open technologies, we have the potential to use cryptocurrencies to drive initial adoption.  We seen this work to great effect with Bitcoin, Ethereum and other platforms, and while the specific mechanics are still being explored and experimented with, the basic concept is clear: we can use cryptocurrencies and tokens to bootstrap new open, non-proprietary, decentralized technology platforms.  It doesn’t work every time — and we will no doubt continue to see a parade of flameouts — but when it does work, it has the potential to work in a massive, exceedingly rapid, and global way.

Changing your life

Just about 10 years ago, I had a migraine that lasted two weeks.  I have never been in such pain; even an ER visit and a morphine drip didn’t touch it.  Then, 6 months later, I had a stomach pain that just wouldn’t go away.  Finally I went to the hospital, and it turned out that the stomach pain wasn’t indigestion, and the migraine wasn’t a migraine; both were actually blood clots.  

And so I embarked on a multi-year journey to try and figure out why the clots were forming.  In the end, after dozens and dozens of tests and weeks in various hospitals, we came up empty — and as a result, I have been on blood thinners as a precautionary measure ever since.

For me, it was the first time I ever dealt with a chronic condition. I had had plenty of injuries before — mostly broken bones and other sports-related injuries — but I’d never dealt with anything internal, and never anything… permanent.  Not a welcome feeling.

I would say it has taken me close to 10 years to really internalize this. I have resisted it.  Not only is the blood clotting a problem in itself, but the medicine causes its own problems — specifically, constant risk of over-bleeding.  In other words: if I don’t take my medicine, I’m at risk of clotting up, and if I do take my medicine, and something happens (like a car crash or bike accident) I’m at risk of bleeding out. My wife put it pretty succinctly the other day when she said: “Anyone could fall down the steps, hit their head and die. That means you need to be more careful than everyone.”   Ugh.

Being more careful than everyone has never been my strong suit, and really just isn’t in my nature. But truth is, that’s how it has to be, and I need to deal with it.  

Here is the funny thing about making life-changing… changes.  On the one hand, it feels lousy, unfair, and like missing out.  On the other hand, when I think about the people I know who have done it, I am the most proud of them.

I remember when my uncle, who passed away a few years ago, had a health scare and abruptly quit drinking and smoking (after many years of doing both pretty seriously). I was maybe 14 at the time, but I remember being so impressed by the way he took the reigns and just did it.  He knew he needed to, and was almost gleeful and proud about taking a hard right turn towards his health (and for his family).

An entrepreneur I know recently made a huge concerted effort to exercise, lose weight, quit drinking, and doubled down his focus both on his personal relationships and his company.  He is thriving, big time.  I see an effort like that and I am like, damn, that’s awesome.  It takes courage and dedication to make changes like that.  But it is so beautiful.

Another friend was in a bad place with his marriage. After close to 10 years and three kids, he and his wife finally divorced.  After some time, they are both better off and have things going in a new way, on a more solid foundation.  He, in particular, seems so renewed and rejuvenated.  Almost like being healed from a sickness.

It feels like it often takes a big shock, of some kind, to make these kinds of changes.  I will never forget another time, back in 2008 — I was dealing with a challenging situation at work, and wasn’t dealing with it well — ruminating, avoiding.  I remember sitting in the doctor’s office, watching my son’s ultrasound, and seeing and hearing his heartbeat for the first time.  Right at that moment I resolved to deal with the situation head on because, shit, I was undoubtedly responsible for important things and didn’t have time to fuck around.

There is something about that feeling of being forced to make a big change that ultimately does it.  Without that, it is often just too easy to let things be as they are, and to continue sliding through.

So, to everyone out there who is mulling a major change that has the potential to fix something important in your life; I hope to give you just the smallest bit of extra strength as you consider it.

Leading vs. following

Last night I went to see RAIN, a Beatles tribute band, with my friend and neighbor Jeff.  If you haven’t been to one, tribute bands/shows are kind of odd: on the one hand, typically technically/musically perfect (the tribute band can play the entire catalog of the original band flawlessly); and on the other hand, the vibe is strange: it’s a band pretending to be a band, so it doesn’t have any original energy or punch.

As I was watching the show I kept thinking about this.  What is the difference between being a Beatle and being a musician that can play the Beatles catalog perfectly, in character?  

Perhaps the answer is obvious, but it still got me thinking.  I believe the answer is part creativity and part risk.  Creativity because, of course, half of being the Beatles is actually inventing the music, not just playing it.  Probably more than half the challenge.

And on risk: playing new music, music that has not been played before, or “digested” and understood by the general public, is hugely risky.  People won’t “get it” right away, or worse may simply hate it (whether on the merits or just for being new and different).

On a broader level, it got me thinking about the difference between being a leader and a follower.  Once the creative work is done, and the opportunity is de-risked, it is relatively easy to look at something and copy the execution.  But it takes creativity and balls to do it on your own the first time. 

This applies to all things — music, art, writing, a startup, investing, restaurants, etc.  I have seen it particularly first hand in the startup and investing world, where a “lead” investor not only has the foresight and conviction to back an early team, but they have the leadership to bring other investors along. 

Courage and conviction are contagious.

What decentralization is good for (part 2): Platform Risk

Continuing on the theme of what decentralization is good for, this week I would like to focus on one of the most powerful drivers in the near-term: Platform Risk.

Platform Risk is is the risk that the tech platform that you build your product/app/business/life on will become a critical dependency, will become unreliable, and/or worse, will screw you in the end. 

Here is a post from a few years back that details many different flavors of platform risk, many of which are benign, and some of which are malicious. And here are some examples, to make it more concrete:

This is not to say that any of these acts are necessarily illegal, or even immoral.  But if you are investing serious time and money — especially dropping everything to build a business on a platform — these kinds of risks are of grave concern.

So, what does decentralization have to do with platform risk?  When the platform is a protocol (i.e, decentralized) rather than a company (i.e., centralized), the rules of engagement are known up front and can’t change on a whim or because of a business decision.

If we think about the original internet protocols (TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP, FTP, SSL, etc), they are a set of networking, communications and data exchange protocols that ultimate form the platform we know of as the web. While there are certain forms of platform risk on the web (e.g., stability, speed, security), the web on the whole has become a very stable and reliable platform, generally absent of the flavors of risks detailed above.  

Cryptonetworks (i.e., public blockchains and cryptocurrencies) combine the architecture of the original internet protocols with the functionality of today’s corporate applications platforms (data management & transactions).  While there are still major issues to solve before these systems collectively become a mainstream platform, they are gaining major adoption from developers in large part because developers are so keenly aware of platform risk, and see cryptonetworks as a type of platform they can trust.  

As an illustrative example, let’s compare downloads of the Truffle framework (a popular dev tool for Ethereum):

source: Truffle Dashboard

… with the price of ETH over the same time period:

source: Messari

Developers are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to platforms.  And at the moment, they are pointing to the desire for platforms with less inherent risk, more reliability and more trust.

Unlocking a new skill

Over the long weekend, I spent a bunch of time with my kids doing outdoor cold weather activities. I love the winter, and I love winter sports — there is something about being outside on a cold, sunny day that gets my blood moving and makes me feel great.

Those who have read this blog for a while may know that a few years ago I got the ice skating bug and have been working on my skating and learning to play ice hockey.

This past weekend, while skating with my kids, I had a breakthrough moment — the elusive “backwards crossovers” that I wrote about back in 2016 finally made sense, both to my brain and to my body. It’s like that moment in Night School where Kevin Hart finally manages to make sense of the jumble of mathematical symbols:

It was amazing: somehow I managed to slow things down, connect my brain and my body in the right way, and the move that I just couldn’t master for so long suddenly made sense.  It was absolutely a combination of body and mind — understanding it the way as well as feeling it the right way.  

This is not a post about ice skating.  But rather about the magic that happens when you finally unlock a new skill.  It is an amazing feeling, and not something we get to feel every day. 

I think there is something particularly important about doing it to get it — it’s one thing to read about something, or watch videos, etc — but nothing substitutes for getting out there and trying it (and falling a few times along the way).  This is a lesson I keep reminding myself of whenever I’m trying to learn something new.

What decentralization is good for (part 1): Resilience

Recently, Simon Morris, a long-time BitTorrent exec, wrote a provocative series of posts on the nature of decentralization, in the wake of BitTorrent Inc’s acquisition by TRON.  They are relatively short and a good read:

  1. Why BitTorrent Mattered — Bittorrent Lessons for Crypto
  2. If you’re not Breaking Rules you’re Doing it Wrong
  3. Intent, Complexity and the Governance Paradox 
  4. Decentralized Disruption — Who Dares Wins?

There are decades’ worth of experience here, which are absolutely relevant for anyone and everyone working in the area of cryptocurrencies, cryptonetworks, and decentralized computing today.

In the second post in the series, Simon makes the argument that the killer feature of decentralized systems is rule-breaking:

“While a decentralized architecture can be effective at routing around a variety of different failures in a network, the type of decentralization that was achieved by Bittorrent (and by Bitcoin for that matter) has enabled routing around rules.”

While there is undoubtedly a strong dose of truth here, I think it is a dangerous place to stop.  There is already a narrative that cryptocurrencies and decentralized systems are for pirates and criminals, but if we focus on that alone, we risk missing the more important characteristics and properties of decentralized systems.  It’s a little bit like saying the original internet is only good for porn and copyright infringement, and stopping there.

For today, let’s focus on one key aspect of decentralized systems — a characteristic that was fundamental to the creation of the original internet protocols: resilience.

I like this definition of resilience: “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”.

For example: decentralized mesh networking is resilient to centralized telecommunications going offline in the case of a disaster (as happened in NYC during Superstorm Sandy).  USV portfolio company goTenna was founded out of the Sandy experience, and now serves a wide customer base of first responders, law enforcement and military who desperately need communications that are resilient to traditional network failure.

Or, decentralized HTTP/DNS (e.g., IPFS) which is resilient to infrastructure failure and censorship, as demonstrated by IPFS’s republishing of wikipedia in Turkey during internet censorship there.  IPFS, generally, is a major improvement to content addressing on the web, adding substantial resilience by detaching physical location from the logical address of content.

Or, a simple example that Joel typically uses: the Bitcoin network has had 100% uptime for 10 years.

These are real, important properties.  Remember, the original internet protocols were designed so that the network could withstand nuclear and other major attacks.  Many centralized systems trade convenience for fragility, and resilience is a real, valuable property.

Coming up, I’ll look at other important properties of decentralized systems: platform risk, security, and innovation.

The Octopus Card

I am in Hong Kong this week for Blockstack‘s Decentralizing the World Tour (more on that in a forthcoming post).   I arrived yesterday and have been exploring the city a bit.

The first observation is how awful the air quality is.  Holy cow.  This report from Plume Labs (snapshot from the time when I took this above photo of the skyline) tells the story:

While the air quality has made it a bit difficult to get around (no views, but more importantly, you just start to feel sick after a while), something else here has made it tremendously easy to get around: the Octopus Card.

The Octopus Card is a reusable, contactless smart card used for payments throughout Hong Kong, which most importantly works for nearly all modes of transportation.  Yesterday, I traveled by high-speed train, subway, streetcar, bus, tram and ferry, and used my Octopus Card to pay every time (it also works in some, but not all, taxis).  

It is hard to overstate how much of a convenience this is, especially to a visitor to a foreign city.  I traveled by seven different modes of public transportation yesterday, and had zero cognitive overhead trying to figure out tickets, rates, etc.  It is really liberating and makes exploring a new city so easy and so much fun.

Similar systems exist in other cities (Oyster Card in London, UPass in Seoul).  It really makes the city so much more accessible, both for residents and for tourists.

Experiencing infrastructure like this makes me realize how broken and unusable most of the US equivalents are.  Imagine if you could pay for a train, subway, bike, and ferry in NYC using one system?  It is a shame we can’t make investments like that work (by and large) — the closest is perhaps EZPass, which in the American tradition works for cars.

Managing digital addiction

USV’s book club book for this month is Drug Dealer, MD, by Dr. Anna Lembke, Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford Hospital – so we have spent a bunch of time recently talking about addiction.

It is not a stretch to hypothesize that we, as a society, are at a moment of heightened addiction, generally speaking. Binging on Netflix, checking phones constantly for emails and “likes”, playing Fortnite, vaping, pills, etc. There are a lot of forces pulling us towards a pattern of repeated short-term, immediate “highs”.

I worry about all of these forms of addiction, particularly for my kids, who are just entering the “danger zone” where the combination of access to things and social pressure starts to cause problems — for example, what’s happening with vaping, starting in middle school, is surprisingly powerful and terrifying.

Naomi, who proposed the book, invited Dr. Lembke to join us yesterday for our discussion, which was fantastic.  In addition to talking in depth about the causes and treatments for opioid addiction, we spent some time talking about digital addiction — screens, games, etc.

I cannot at all claim that I am good when it comes to managing screen addiction, but we have done a few things around our house that I think are helpful, so I thought I would mention them here.

1/ No devices in the bedroom — no phones, computers, or TV allowed. I charge my phone on a dresser across the room from the bed.  This serves double duty of forcing me to get out of bed to turn off the alarm.

2/ Meditation.  Meditation seems to me to be the most obvious antidote and counter-force to addictions of all kind.  For this reason it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is surging in popularity right now. Meditation not only focuses the mind, helping to shed the the static, but it also helps build that muscle to resist the moment-to-moment impulses that are so common with digital addiction.

3/ Physical activities.  As much as I can, I try to engage in completely “analog” physical activities, especially with my kids.  Sports (playing, coaching), projects in and around the house.  Skiing, while expensive and hard to do a lot, is probably my favorite, as it’s really an extended digital vacation.

4/ Read physical books.  Whether I’m reading before bed, or reading in the living room around my family, I try to read in print form.  Or, worst case, if I am reading something digital around my family, I prefer to do it on a tablet rather than my phone — this is a subtle difference but I think it really does change the social dynamic (you are more “there” and others can see what you’re doing).

Zach was telling me yesterday that he sometimes does “no social media Saturdays”, which I like. I don’t do that formally, but I definitely do orient my weekends around non-digital activities as much as possible.

One area I would like to work on is not keeping my phone with me when I’m in the house, especially when I am with the family. I often keep the phone plugged in and charging in the kitchen, which helps, but is not 100% the norm.

I am also trying to do this without making a lot of rules for the kids around screen time.  I prefer to get them to enjoy non-digital activities, rather than hold out screen time as some sort of prize if they abstain for long enough.

As anyone who has dealt first-hand with addiction knows, it is an awful thing, that can destroy people, relationships and families.  So given that there is so much ambient opportunity for it these days, I think it’s really important to try and be proactive around it.

Nick Grossman

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