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How, What, and Where to Build

How, What, and Where to Build


In which I shamelessly draft off Marc Andreessen’s It’s Time to Build essay and suggest an approach to how, what, and where to do the building. I also have a framework I call the builder’s cone to think about it in a useful historical context.

1/ If you’re in tech, you’ve probably read Marc Andreessen’s essay It’s Time to Build (ITTB). It’s the first serious public thing he’s written in nearly a decade, after his 2011 WSJ op-ed, Software is Eating the World (SWEW).

2/ As most of you know this site and newsletter, Breaking Smart, came out of work I did with a16z on that idea, so obviously this new essay from Marc is of high personal interest to me, since it is in some sense, an important sequel.

3/ I thought I’d do this episode partly because a new generation of people in technology seems to have no idea who Marc is, and assumes he is just another VC, and that this is just another shallow take from the VC thought leader crowd that you can dismiss casually. Whether you agree or disagree with Marc, dismissing this essay casually is honestly just not a smart thing to do, so I want to try and give you a bit of an appreciation for it before diving into what I want to add to it.

4/ For those of you unaware of the history, Marc developed the first graphical web browser back in 1992, Mosaic, which later turned into Netscape. Later he also founded one of the first cloud computing companies, Opsware, with Ben Horowitz who later became his cofounder in a16z. This is basic history which I personally think everybody working in tech or reporting on it should just know.

5/ Something I don’t expect everyone to know is, he’s also a huge reader, and as you’ll know if you’ve talked to him, or follow him on Twitter. For every seemingly casual thing he says, he usually has 3 books and 10 papers he can cite. So even if you don’t agree with things he says — and I often don’t — it’s worth taking him seriously. He tends to present his thinking in a deceptively casual way, but there’s always more depth behind it than you would guess from a quick glance.

6/ Now for this essay. Like most things Marc says, I agree broadly with his argument. If you’re an engineer, with any experience at all in building things, it’s kinda hard to see this essay as anything other than tautological. I mean of course building is good. That’s the starting point if you’re in technology. The devil is in the details.

7/ I do tend to have somewhat different ideas from Marc about what aspects of building/doer culture are the important ones, and in general trust markets a little less, and state institutions a little more. He and I have had a productive ongoing conversation about this stuff for almost 7 years now.

8/ There’s a lot you can argue with in the essay, for example, his characterization of right and left attitudes towards building, but I’m not going to get into that, since plenty of others are doing that. And if you want critical views of the essay, there’s no shortage out there, and of course some of them make good points, while others are just shallow bits of the techlash. It’s what you’d expect for an essay like this in 2020.

9/ What’s interesting to note is that unlike the SWEW, ITTB has had a very divided reception, which to me is an indication of the stage of the historical building cycle we’re in more than the specifics of what Marc is arguing.

10/ In particular, In 2011, when he wrote the SWEW essay, we had just moved from what I call the alternatives stage to the disruptions stage. Now we’re moving from the disruptions stage to the macro-rebuilding stage. Marc has offered an answer to the question when to build on a grand scale, which is obviously now, or very soon, after the first response to Covid19 is behind. What I want to do is build on what Marc wrote, no pun intended, and talk about how, what, and where to build.

11/ So here’s the theory. Building goes through cycles, with different kinds of building required at each stage of the cycle. Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital is a good framework for thinking about these.

12/ As it applies to building, the Perez model can be thought of as 4 stages. In the first stage you build tools, in the second stage, you build alternatives to existing things. In the third stage, you disrupt existing things via a bunch of isolated disruptions. In the last stage, you do a whole sale macro-rebuilding from foundations on up.

13/ Somewhere along the way, there’s usually a big disaster, so you can link each complete building cycle to its disaster. The last two were linked to World War I and World War 2, this one is obviously linked to the pandemic.

14/ The disaster doesn’t always happen at a set phase of the cycle. For example, in WW1 it happened late in the disruption phase, when the macro-rebuilding was just starting. For example, asphalt roads being built for cars, which were disrupting horses.

15/ For WW2, it happened a little earlier, towards the end of the alternatives phase. For example, Chevrolet had pioneered an alternative to the Ford style one-size-fits all inflexible mass manufacturing. Disruption continued through the war, and the macro rebuilding happened in peacetime, with the Marshall Plan as part of the war reconstruction for example.

16/ For the Covid19 pandemic, the disaster has hit in roughly the same part of the cycle as it did in World War I, just as the disruption wave was going to give way to the macro rebuilding stage anyway.

17/ So what’s happened is: what I called the dessert course of software eating the world has coincided with a big disaster, and accelerated the process. I covered this in passing, in last week’s article on Pandemic Time, but I want to get at it more directly here.

18/ There’s two other things to think about in relation to this building cycle. The first is how individuals change, and the second is how society as a whole changes. I like to think in terms of 4 degrees of change depending on the phase of the building: reorient, revalue, resituate, and regenerate, that apply to both individuals and society.

19/ In reorienting, you change your mental models, for example realizing that digital media tools can do what paper printing can. So you wrap your mind around different tools. Like the graphical web browser, which Marc invented, rather than the printed book.

20/ In the revaluing phase you start valuing different things, for example, you value instant publishing and live conversations with readers more than the cachet of a brand-name publisher behind your book. So you build an alternative: blogs instead of books.

21/ In the resituating phase, you change how you exist in the world. For example, calling yourself a blogger instead of an author. You’ve created a new role in the world.

22/ And finally, in the regeneration phase, you change on the inside, you internalize the external label/role you’ve taken on. Like Doctor Who.

23/ Now here’s the thing, entire societies can go through this same kind of transformation. For example, in the WW1 cycle, the identity of the typical American changed from farmer to factory worker as the country urbanized, and America itself went from thinking of itself as an agrarian backwater playing second fiddle to Europe to a technological superpower. The self-image of the entire nation changed. Subjective transformation.

24/ Now what’s the upshot of all this. Here’s the thing, if you make a graph with x-axis being how deeply you as an individual are changing, and the y-axis being how deeply society is changing, it gives you a two-dimensional space where individuals can be ahead or behind society, and being matched with the times, or not.

25/ The ideal case is when the two are somewhat balanced, or when the individual is changing slightly faster, but not too fast, relative to the rest of society. The balanced case is the diagonal line, x=y. So for example, you and society are reorienting at the same rate, or revaluing at the same rate.

26/ Below that line, the individual is changing faster. The sweet spot is a cone slightly below the diagonal, which I like to call the builder’s cone. If you are too far ahead of society, too far ahead of the curve, you might be too early, and turn into a frustrated visionary.

27/ Or worse, you might end up going to the dark side and using your ahead-of-the-curve status to exploit others through profiteering, because it’s easier than building. Being too far ahead of that curve creates that tempation.

28/ Above the diagonal line is of course much worse, which is why I have represented it as a red zone. If you’re changing much more slowly than society as a whole, you get this left-behind feeling, and develop a deep sense of being exploited. Like people left behind in the 80s by Reagan’s deregulation. You develop resentment and what political scientists call ressentiment.

29/ So putting it all together, the sweet spot for builders is to be changing slightly ahead of society at large, and working at the right phase of the building cycle. So right now, we’re obviously in a macro-rebuilding phase that’s gone way past simple disruption.

30/ You should be thinking at that scale of ambition. Like Marshall plan scale, or foundational rebuilding phase, based on the logic of software eating the world. You should be reading about those periods of history to get an idea of how to proceed.

31/ I’m going to close with a bit of personal advertising. For those of you who want to take up Marc’s call to build, as you may know, the original essays of Breaking Smart were based on his software eating the world essay, and you can read them online or as an ebook.

32/ I also have an online recorded workshop based on those ideas, that you can sign up for. It’s based on live workshops I conducted in 2015 and 2016, plus some extra material. I’m thinking of adding a new recorded session on these ideas about building in the next few weeks.

So that’s it for this free episode/issue of Breaking Smart. For those of you just signed up for this newsletter, or had it forwarded to you, Breaking Smart is a weekly subscription newsletter where every week I send out either a free or a paywalled issue exploring some aspect of technology and the future. The free issues are podcast episodes or short essays on a current topic, and the paywalled ones are either an installment of one of my longer projects, or a stand-alone special topic essay. Right now, I’m working on two such longer projects, a book about time called The Clockless Clock, which has one chapter already published, and an essay collection called The Great Weirding, the first essay of which will go out next week, hopefully.

Ribbonfarm Studio
Ribbonfarm Studio