Nadia Asparouhova is currently researching what the new tech elite will look like at nadia.xyz. She is also the author of Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software.
We talk about how:
American philanthropy has changed from Rockefeller to Effective Altruism
SBF represented the Davos elite rather than the Silicon Valley elite,
Open source software reveals the limitations of democratic participation,
& much more.
(0:00:00) - Intro
(0:00:26) - SBF was Davos elite
(0:09:38) - Gender sociology of philanthropy
(0:16:30) - Was Shakespeare an open source project?
(0:22:00) - Need for charismatic leaders
(0:33:55) - Political reform
(0:40:30) - Why didn’t previous wealth booms lead to new philanthropic movements?
(0:53:35) - Creating a 10,000 year endowment
(0:57:27) - Why do institutions become left wing?
(1:02:27) - Impact of billionaire intellectual funding
(1:04:12) - Value of intellectuals
(1:08:53) - Climate, AI, & Doomerism
(1:18:04) - Religious philanthropy
Dwarkesh Patel 0:00:26
Today I have the pleasure of talking with Nadia Asparouhova. She is previously the author of Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software and she is currently researching what the new tech elite will look like. Nadia, welcome to the podcast.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:00:45
Thanks for having me.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:00:47
Given what's been happening with SBF this is perfect timing. How much do you think SBF was motivated by effective altruism? Where do you place him in the whole dimensionality of idea machines and motivations?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:01:02
I know there's conflicting accounts going around. Just from my character study or looking at SBF, it seems pretty clear to me that he is inextricably tied to the concepts of utilitarianism that then motivate effective altruism. The difference for me in where I characterize effective altruism is that I think it's much closer to the finance Wall Street elite mindset than it is to the startup mindset, even though a lot of people associate effective altruism with tech people. To me that puts SBF squarely in the finance crowd much more so than startups or crypto and I think that's something that gets really misunderstood about him.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:01:44
I find that interesting because if you think of Jeff Bezos, when he started Amazon, he wasn't somebody like John Perry Barlow, who was just motivated by the free philosophy of the internet. He saw a graph of internet usage going up into the right and he's like, “I should build a business on top of this.” And in a sort of loopholey way try to figure out, what is the first thing you would want to put a SQL database on top of to ship and produce? And books was the answer. He also obviously came from a hedge fund. Would you place somebody like him also in the old finance crowd rather than as a startup founder?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:02:22
It's kind of a weird one because he's both associated with the early computing revolution, but then also AWS was what kicked off all of the 2010 startups. And I think in the way that he's started thinking about his public legacy and just from his public behavior, I think he fits much more squarely now in that tech startup elite mindset of the 2010s crowd more so than the Davos elite crowd of the 2000s.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:02:47
What in specific are you referring to?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:02:49
He's come out and been openly critical about a lot of Davos type institutions. He kind of pokes fun at mainstream media for not believing in him and not believing in AWS. And I think because he spans across both of these generations, he's been able to see the evolution of how his earlier peers function versus how the second cohort of peers that he came across function. But to me, he seems much more like the startup elite mindset.
I can back up a little bit there. What I associate with the Davos Wall Street kind of crowd is much more of this focus on quantitative thinking, measuring efficiency, and then also this globalist mindset. I think that the vision that they want to ensure for the world is this idea of a very interconnected world, the United Nations kind of mindset and that is really literally what the Davos gathering is.
Whereas Bezos from his actions today feels much closer to the startup, Y Combinator, post-AWS kind of mindset of founders that made their money by taking these non-obvious bets on talented people. They were much less focused on credentialism and were much more into this idea of meritocracy. I think we forget how commonplace this trope is of the young founder in a dorm room. That was really popularized by the 2010s cohort of the startup elite of being someone that may have absolutely no skills, no background in industry, but can somehow turn the entire industry over on its head. And I think that was the unique insight of the tech startup crowd.
When I think about just some of the things that Bezos is doing now, it feels that he identifies with that much more strongly of being this lone cowboy or having this one talented person with really great ideas who can change the world. I think about The Altos Institute, the new science initiative that he put out where he was recruiting these scientists from academic institutions and paying them really high salaries to attract the very best top scientists around the world. That's much more of that kind of mindset than it is about putting faith in existing institutions, which is what we would see from more of a Davos kind of mindset.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:05:16
Interesting. Do you think the kids of today's tech billionaires will be future aristocrats? That they'll be tomorrow's Rockefellers? That effective altruism will be an elite aristocratic philosophy.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:05:30
Yeah, I kind of worry about that actually. Within the US, we were kind of lucky in that we have these two different types of elites. We have the aristocratic elites and we have meritocratic elites. Most other countries basically just have aristocratic elites, especially comparing the US to Britain in this way.
In the aristocratic model, your wealth and your power is conferred to you by previous generations. You just kind of inherit it from your parents or your family or whomever. The upside of that, if there is an upside, is that you get really socialized into this idea of — What does it mean to be a public steward? What does it mean to think of yourself and your responsibility to the rest of society as a privileged elite person?
In the US, we have this really great thing where we have the American dream, right? Lots of people that didn't grow up with money can break into the elite ranks by doing something that makes them really successful. And that's a really special thing about the US. So we have this whole class of meritocratic elites who may not have aristocratic backgrounds, but ended up doing something within their lifetimes that made them successful. I think it's a really cool thing. The downside of that being that you don't really get socialized into — What does it mean to have this fortune and do something interesting with your money? You don't have this generational benefit that the aristocratic elites have of presiding over your land or whatever you want to call it, where you're learning how to think about yourself in relation to the rest of society. So it's much easier to just kind of hoard your wealth or whatever.
When you think about what are the next generations, the children of the meritocratic elites going to look or what are they going to do, it's very easy to imagine them just becoming aristocratic elites in the sense of, they're just going to inherit the money from their families. And they haven't also really been socialized into how to think about their role in society. All the meritocratic elites eventually turn into aristocratic elites, which is where I think you start seeing this trend now towards people wanting to spend down their fortunes within their lifetime or within a set number of decades after they die because they see what happened in previous generations and are like, “Oh, I don't want to do that.”
Dwarkesh Patel 0:07:41
Well, it's interesting. You mentioned that the aristocratic elites feel that they have the responsibility to give back more so than the meritocratic elites. But I believe that in the U.S. the amount of people who give to philanthropy and the total amount they give is higher than in Europe where they probably have a higher ratio of aristocratic elites. Wouldn't you expect the opposite if the aristocratic elites are the ones that are inculcated to give back?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:08:11
I assume the figures about Americans giving back is spread across all Americans not just the wealthiest.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:08:19
Would you predict that among the top 10 percent of Americans, there's less philanthropy than the top 10 percent of Europeans?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:08:31
Sorry, I'm not sure I understand the question.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:08:37
Does the ratio of meritocratic to aristocratic elites change how much philanthropy there is among the elites?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:08:46
Yeah, here even among aristocratic elites we have much more of a culture of institution building or large donations to build institutions, whereas in Europe, a lot of the public institutions are created by the government and there's this mentality of — Private citizens don't experiment with public institutions, that's the government's job. You see that pervasively throughout all of European cultures. When they want something to change in public society, they look to the government to regulate or change it.
Whereas in the U.S., it's much more choose your own adventure and we don't really see the government as the sole provider or shaper of public institutions. We also look at private citizens and there's so many public institutions we have now that were not started by the government, but were started by private philanthropists. And that's a really unusual thing about the U.S.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:09:39
There's this common pattern in philanthropy where a guy will become a billionaire, and then his wife will be heavily involved with or even potentially in charge of the family's philanthropic efforts. There's many examples of this — Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Prisiclla Chan, Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna.
What is the consequence of this? How are the causes and the foundations of philanthropy different because of this pattern?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:10:15
The problem is that what even is philanthropy is changing very quickly. That pattern has probably been true in recent history, in recent decades. That wasn't true in say late 1800s, early 1900s. Carnegie and Rockefeller were the ones that were actually doing their own philanthropy, not their spouses. So I'd say it's a more recent trend. But now I think we're also seeing this thing where a lot of wealthy people are not necessarily doing their philanthropic activities through foundations anymore. And that's true both within the traditional philanthropy sector and the looser definition of what we might consider to be philanthropy, which I kind of more broadly want to define as the public facing actions of elites.
But even within traditional philanthropy circles, we have the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which is how people traditionally house all their money in a foundation and then they do their philanthropic activities out of that. But in recent years, we've seen this trend towards LLCs. Emerson Collective might have been maybe the first one to do it. And there was Steve Jobs' Philanthropic Foundation. And then Mark Zuckerberg with the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative also used an LLC. And since then, especially within tech wealth, we've seen that move towards people using LLCs instead of 501(c)(3) because it just gives you a lot more flexibility in the kinds of things you can fund. You don't just have to fund other nonprofits. And they also seed donor advised funds (DAFs) which are this hacky workaround to foundations as well. The point being that this mental model of one person makes a ton of money and then their spouse directs these nice, feel good, philanthropic activities, may not be the model that we continue to move forward on.
I'm kind of hopeful or curious to see what a return to the Gilded Age style of philanthropy looks like. We've had so many new people making a ton of money in the last 10 years or so, we might see this return to the Gilded Age style of philanthropy where people are not necessarily just forming a philanthropic foundation and looking for the nicest causes to fund, but are actually just thinking a little bit more holistically about — How do I help build and create a movement around a thing that I really care about? How do I think more broadly around funding companies and nonprofits and individuals and doing lots of different kinds of activities?
I don't really think philanthropy is about altruism. I think the term philanthropy is just totally fraud and refers to too many different things and it's not very helpful. The part that I'm interested in at least is what motivates elites to go from just making a lot of money and thinking about themselves to them thinking about their place in broader public society. And that starts with thinking about — How do I control the three arms of the public sector: media, academia, government? And we think of it in that way a little bit more broadly where it's really much more about maintaining control over your own power, more so than this altruistic whitewash (unclear). Then there's so many other creative ways to think about how that might happen.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:13:49
That's a really interesting way of thinking about what it is you're doing with philanthropy. Isn't the word noble descended from a word that basically means to give alms to people? Like if you're in charge of them, you will give alms to them. It might have been another word I'm thinking of.
But in a way yeah, a part of what motivates altruism is influence and power, not even in a necessarily negative connotation. Having that put square front and center is refreshing and honest, actually.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:14:29
I really don't see it as a negative thing at all and I think most of the writing and journalism and academia that focuses on philanthropy tends to be very wealth critical. I personally don't feel wealth critical at all. Again returning to this mental model of aristocratic and meritocratic elites, aristocratic elites are able to encode what they're supposed to be doing in each generation because they have these familial ties. On the meritocratic side, if you didn't have any language around altruism or public stewardship, then you need to kind of create that narrative for the meritocratic elite or else there's just nothing to hold on to. So I think it makes sense to talk in those terms.
Andrew Carnegie, the father of modern philanthropy in the US, wrote these series of essays about wealth that were very influential where he talks about this moral obligation. I think even though it was ostensibly about giving back or helping lift up the next generation of people, the next generation of entrepreneurs, I think it really was much more of a protective stance of saying, if he doesn't frame it in this way, then people are just going to knock down the concept of wealth altogether.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:15:50
That's really interesting. And it's interesting in which cases this kind of influence has been successful and where it hasn’t been. When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, has there been any counterfactual impact on how the Washington Post has run as a result? I doubt it. But when Musk takes over Twitter, I guess it's a much more expensive purchase, we'll see what the influence is negative or positive, but it's certainly different than what Twitter otherwise would have been. I guess control over the media is a bigger meme now.
Let me just take a digression and ask about open source for a second. Based on your experience studying these open source projects, do you find the theory that Homer and Shakespeare were basically container words for these open source repositories that stretched out through centuries? Do you find that more plausible or less plausible given your study of open source?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:16:49
Dwarkesh Patel 0:16:51
The idea is that they weren't just one person, it was just a whole bunch of people throughout a bunch of centuries who composed different parts of each story or composed different stories.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:17:02
The Nicolas Bourbaki model. Same concept of a single mathematician who's actually comprised of lots of different people. I think my conclusion would actually be the opposite. We think of open source as this very collective volunteer effort and use that as an excuse to not really contribute back to open source or not really think about how open source projects are maintained. Because we have this bystander effect where someone's taking care of it, it's volunteer oriented. But in reality, it actually turns out it is just one person.
Maybe it's a little bit more of a Wizard of Oz type model. It's actually just one person behind the curtain that's doing everything and you see this huge grandeur and you think there must be so many people that are behind it. It's one person.
I think that's undervalued. I think a lot of the rhetoric that we have about open source is rooted in the early 2000s starry eyed idea about the power of the internet, and the idea of crowdsourcing, and Wikipedia and all this stuff. And then in reality, we see this convergence from very broad based collaborative volunteer efforts to narrowing down to single creators. And I think a lot of single creators are the people that are really driving a lot of the internet and a lot of cultural production today.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:18:21
Oh, that's super fascinating. Does that in general make you more sympathetic towards the lone genius view of accomplishments in history? Not just in literature but just when you think back to — How likely is it that Newton came up with all that stuff on his own versus how much was fed into him by others around him?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:18:40
Yeah, I think so. I've never been a big great founder theory kind of person. My true theory is that ideas are maybe some sentient, concept, or virus that operates outside of us and we are just the vessels through which ideas flow. In that sense it's not really about any one person.
But in terms of, where does creative effort come from? I do think a lot of it comes much more from a single individual than it does from wisdom of the crowds. But everything just serves different purposes, right? Because within open source, not all of open source maintenance work is creative. In fact, most of it is pretty boring and that's the stuff that no one wants to do. And that one person kind of got stuck with doing and that's really different from who created a certain open source projects, which is a little bit more of that creative mindset.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:19:44
Yeah, that’s really interesting.
Do you think more projects in open source would be better off if pull requests were closed and feature requests were closed? You can look at the code but you can't interact with it or its creators anyway. Should more repositories have this model?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:20:09
Yeah, I definitely think so. I think a lot of people would be much happier that way.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:20:13
It's interesting to think about the implications of this for other areas outside of code, right? Which is where it gets really interesting.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:20:25
That's basically what spurred the writing of my book, because I was like, “Whatever's happening open source right now…”
You start with this idea that democracy is great and we should have tons and tons of people participating. Tons of people participate and then it turns out that most participation is actually just noise and not that useful. It ends up scaring everyone away and in the end, you just have one or a small handful of people that are actually doing all the work while everyone else is kind of screaming around them. And this becomes a really great metaphor for what happens in social media.
After I wrote the book, part of the reason I went and worked at Substack was because the model is kind of converging from Twitter being this big open space to suddenly everyone is retreating. The public space is so hostile that everyone must retreat into smaller private spaces. So then group chats became a thing, Substack became a thing. And it just sort of feels realistic, right?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:21:15
That's really fascinating. The Straussian message in that book is very strong.
But in general when you're thinking about something like corporate governance, there's a big question. And I guess even more interestingly, if you think DAOs are going to be a thing, and you think that we will have to reinvent corporate governance from the ground up, there's a question of — Should these be run like monarchy? Should they be oligarchies where the board is in control? Should they be just complete democracies where everybody gets one vote on what you do at the next shareholder meeting or something?
This book and that analysis is actually pretty interesting to think about. How should corporations be run differently, if at all? Does it inform how you think the average corporation should be run?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:21:59
Yeah, definitely. I'm not a corporate governance expert, but I do feel we're seeing a little of this backlash against shareholder activism and extreme focus on DEI and boards and things like that. We're seeing people starting to take the reins and take control again because they're like, “Ah, it turns out that doesn't really work so well.”
I think DAOs are going to learn this hard lesson as well. It's still maybe just too early to say what is happening in DAOs right now. But at least the ones that I've looked at, it feels there is a very common failure mode of people saying, “Let's have this be super democratic and leave it to the crowd to kind of run this thing and figure out how it works.” And it turns out you actually do need a strong leader, even in the beginning.
And something I learned from open source projects is that it's rarely the case, if at all, that you have a project that starts leaderless and faceless. Usually there is some strong creator, leader, or influential figure that is driving the project forward for a certain period of time and then you can kind of get to the point when you have enough of an active community that maybe that leader takes a step back and lets other people take over. But it's not like you can do that on day one. And that's an open question that I have for crypto as an industry more broadly. Because if I think about what is defining each of these generations of people that are pushing forward new technological paradigms, I mentioned that the Wall Street finance mindset is very focused on globalism and on this efficiency quantitative mindset. You have the tech Silicon Valley Y combinator kind of generation that is really focused on top talent and the idea of founder mindset, the power of individuals breaking institutions, and then you have the crypto mindset, which is this faceless leaderless, governed by protocol and by code mindset, which is intriguing to me. But I have a really hard time squaring it with what I’m seeing. In some sense, open source was the experiment that started playing out, 20 years before then. Some things are obviously different in crypto, because tokenization completely changes the incentive system for contributing and maintaining crypto projects versus traditional open source projects. But in the end, humans are humans and I feel there are a lot of lessons to be learned from open source. They also started out early on as being very starry eyed about the power of hyper democratic regimes and it turned out that just doesn't work in practice. And so how is Crypto going to square that? I'm just very curious to see what happens.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:24:41
That raises an interesting question. You've written about idea machines and you can explain that while you answer the question, but do you think that movements can survive without a charismatic founder who is both alive and engaged? Once Will MacAskill dies, would you be shorting effective altruism? Or if Tyler Cowen dies, would you be shorting progress studies? Or do you think that once you get a movement off the ground, it can survive on its own?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:25:08
Yeah, I think that's a good question. I don't think there's some perfect template, each of these kind of has its own unique quirks and characteristics in them.
Let’s back up a little bit. We were talking before about traditional 501(c)(3) foundations as vehicles for philanthropy, what does the modern version of that look like that is not necessarily encoded in institution?
And so I had this term idea machines, which is this different way of thinking about turning ideas into outcomes where you have a community that forms around a shared set of values and ideas. Progress studies is an example of that, or effective altruism is an example. Eventually that community gets capitalized by some funders, and then it starts to be able to develop an agenda and then actually starts building operational outcomes and turning those ideas into real world initiatives.
Remind me of your question again.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:26:06
Once the charismatic founder dies of a movement, is a movement basically handicapped in some way? Maybe it'll still be a thing, but it's never going to reach the heights it could have reached if that main guy had been around?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:26:20
I think there are just different shapes and classifications of different types of communities here. I'm just thinking of different types of open source projects where there’s not one model that fits perfectly for all of them.
I think there are some communities like effective altruism where the community has grown so much that if all their leaders were to, knock on wood, disappear tomorrow the movement would still keep going. There are enough true believers, even within the next order of that community, that it would just continue to grow.
Whereas maybe certain smaller or more nascent communities that are much more oriented around a charismatic founder are just a different type where if you lose that leader, then suddenly the whole thing falls apart because they're much more like cults or religions.
I don't think it makes one better or worse. The right way to do it is probably Bitcoin, where you have a charismatic leader for life because that leader can't go away and can't ever die, but you still have the North Stars.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:27:28
It is funny. A lot of prophets have this property where you're not really sure what they believed in so people with different temperaments can project their own preferences onto him. Take somebody like Jesus. You can be a super left winger and believe Jesus stood for everything you believe in and you can be a super right winger and believe the same.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:27:52
I think there's value in writing cryptically. Curtis Yarvin has done a really good job of this, intentionally or not, where his writing is so cryptic and long winded. It's like the Bible where you can just kind of pour over endlessly — What does this mean? What does this mean?
You're always told to write very clearly, you're told to write succinctly, but in a weird way, you can be much more effective by being very long-winded and not obvious in what you're saying.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:28:20
Yes, that actually raises an interesting question that I've been wondering about. There have been movements that have been focused on “community building” in an explicit way, effective altruism is a good example of that. And then there's other movements where they have a charismatic founder who doesn't really try to recruit people. I'm thinking of somebody like Peter Thiel. Once every year or two, he'll go on a podcast and have this really cryptic back and forth. And then just kind of go away into a hole for a few months or a few years.
I'm curious, which one do you think is more effective? Given the fact that you're not really competing for votes and the absolute number of people is not what you care about. It's not clear what you care about but you do want to have more influence among the elites who matter in politics and tech as well. What are your thoughts on those kinds of strategies? Explicitly trying to community build versus just kind of projecting out there in a cryptic way.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:29:18
Somewhat being cryptic myself, I favor the cryptic methodology. You mentioned Peter Thiel and the Thielverse is one of the most influential things. It is partly so effective because it is hard to even define what it is or wrap your head around that. You just know that every interesting person you meet somehow has some weird connection to Peter Thiel.
But I think this is sort of that evolution from the 501(c)(3) foundation to the idea machine. Implicit in that this switch from — used to start the Nadia Asparova Foundation or whatever. It had your name on it and it was all about — What do I as a funder want to do in the world? And you spend all this time doing this classical research, going out into the field, talking to people and you sit and you think, “Okay, here's a strategy I'm going to pursue.” And ultimately, it's very, very donor centric in this very explicit way.
Within traditional philanthropy, you're seeing this backlash against that. For example in non-profit land, you're seeing the locus of power moving from being very donor centric to being community centric and people saying, “Well, we don't really want the donors telling us what to do, even though it's also their money.” Instead, let's have this be driven by the community from the ground up.
That's maybe one very literal reaction against having the donor as the central power figure. But I think idea machines are maybe the more realistic or effective answer. Without the presence of a funder, a community is just a community. They're just sitting around and talking about ideas of, what could possibly happen? They don't have any money to make anything happen.
Really effective funders are good at being subtle and thoughtful. No one wants to see the Peter Thiel foundation necessarily. That's just not the style of how it works but you meet so many people that are being funded by the same person. Just going out and aggressively arming the rebels is a more a distributed, decentralized way of thinking about spreading one's power, instead of just starting just starting a foundation.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:31:34
Even if you look at the life of influential politicians, somebody like LBJ or Robert Moses, how much of it was calculated and how much of it was just decades of building up favors and building up connections in a way that had no definite and clear plan, but you're just hoping that someday you can call upon them in a Godfather way.
By the way, this is also where your work on open source comes in, right? There's this idea that in the movement, everybody will come in with their ideas and you can community build your way towards what should be funded. And yeah, I'm inclined to believe that it's probably a few people who have these ideas about what should be funded. The rest of it is either just a way of building up engagement and building up hype, or maybe just useless.
What are your thoughts on it?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:32:32
I decided I was very much a tech startup person and not a crypto person, even though I would very much like to be one, because I'm like, “Ah, this is the future. And there's so many interesting things happening.” For the record, I’m not at all down on crypto, I think it is the next big movement of things that are happening. But when I really come down to the mindset, I am in that top talent, founder, power of the individual to break the institutions mindset. That just resonates with me so much more than the leaderless, faceless, highly participatory kind of thing.
Again, I am very open to that being true. Maybe I'm wrong on that. I just have not yet seen evidence that that works in the world. I see a lot of rhetoric about how that could work or should work. We have this implicit belief that direct democracy is somehow the greatest thing to aspire towards. But we see evidence over and over that it just doesn't really work.
It doesn't mean we have to throw out the underlying principles or values behind that. I still really believe in meritocracy. I really believe in access to opportunity. I really believe in the pursuit of happiness. To me, those are all very American values. But I think where that breaks is the idea that that has to happen through these highly participatory methods. I just haven't seen really great evidence of that working.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:33:56
What does that imply about how you think about politics or at least political structures? You elect a mayor, but no participation. He gets to do everything he wants to do for four years and you can get rid of him in four years but until then, no community meetings. What does that imply about how you think cities and states and countries should be run?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:34:17
I have some very complicated thoughts on that. Everyone has the fantasy of — Wouldn’t it'd be so nice if there were just one person in charge? I hate all this squabbling. It would just be so great if we could just have one person who has exactly the views that I have and put them in charge and let them run things. That would be very nice. I do also think it's unrealistic.
Monarchy sounds great in theory but in practice just doesn't work. I think there is no perfect governance design either in the same way that there's no perfect open source project designer or whatever else we're talking about.
It depends on what your population is comprised of. There are some very small homogenous populations that can be very easily governed by a small government or one person because there isn't that much dissent or difference. Everyone is on the same page. America is the extreme opposite in that angle. And I'm always thinking about America because I'm American and I love America. Everyone is trying to solve the governance question for America and we're an extremely heterogeneous population. There are a lot of competing worldviews. I may not agree with all the views of everyone in America, but I also just don’t want one person that represents my personal views.
I would focus more on effectiveness in governance than having just one person in charge. I don't mind if someone disagrees with my views as long as they're good at what they do, if that makes sense. So I think the questions are, how do we improve the speed at which our government works and the efficacy with which it works? There's so much room for improvement there versus changing the actual structure of our government.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:36:27
Interesting. Going back to open source for a second. Why do these companies release so much stuff in open source for free? It's probably literally worth trillions of dollars of value in total and they just release it out for free. Many of them are developer tools that other developers use to build competitors for these big tech companies that are releasing these open source tools. Why did they do it? What explains it?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:36:52
I think it depends on the specific project, but a lot of times these are projects that were developed internally. It's the same reason why people spend all this time writing long posts or papers and then just release them for free. Why not put everything behind a paywall? The answer in both cases is probably that mindshare is a lot more interesting than your literal IP. You spend all this time creating content for free and putting it out there because you're trying to capture mindshare.
Same thing with companies releasing open source projects. A lot of times they really want other developers to come in and contribute to them. They want to increase their status as an open source friendly company or company or show, “Here's the type of code that we write internally.” and showing that externally. Recruiting is the hardest thing for any company. Being able to attract the right kinds of developers or people that might fit really well into their developer culture just matters a lot more. And instead of doing that with words they’re doing it with code.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:37:57
You've talked about the need for more idea machines. You're dissatisfied with the fact that effective altruism is a big game in town. Is there some idea or nascent movement, other than Progress Studies, where you feel this could be a thing but it just needs some charismatic founder to take it to the next level? Or even if it doesn't exist yet. A set of ideas around this vein where it is clear something there is going to exist. Is there anything like that you notice?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:38:26
I outlined a couple of different possibilities in that post. I think progress studies is probably the largest growing contender that I would see right now. I think there's another one right now around the new right. That's not even the best term necessarily for it, but there's a shared set of values there that are maybe starting with politics, but ideally spreading to other areas of public influence. I think those are a couple of the bigger movements that I see right now.
And then there's smaller stuff too. I mentioned tools for thought in that post. That's never going to be a huge idea machine but it's one where you have a lot of interesting, talented people that are thinking about the future of computing. And until maybe more recently, there just hasn't been a lot of funding available and the funding is always really uneven and unpredictable. That to me is an example of a smaller community that just needs that extra influx to turn a bunch of abstract ideas into practice.
I think there is just so much more potential to do more. I wish people would just think a little bit more creatively because I really do think effective altruism becomes the default option for a lot of people. Then they're kind of vaguely dissatisfied with it and they don't think about, “Well, what do I actually really care about in the world and how do I want to put that forward?”
Dwarkesh Patel 0:39:53
Yeah, there's also the fact that effective altruism has this very fit memeplex in the sense that it's a polytheistic religion where if you have a cause area, then you don't have your own movement. You just have a cause area within our broader movement. It just adopts your gods into our movement.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:40:15
Yeah, that's the same thing I see with people trying to lobby for effective altruism to care about their cause area but then you could just start a separate cause. If you can't get EA to care about it, then why not just start another one somewhere else?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:40:28
It's interesting to me that the wealth boom in Silicon Valley and in tech spheres led to the outgrowth of philanthropy but that hasn't always been the case even in America. A lot of people became billionaires after energy markets were deregulated in the 80s and the 90s and the hub of that was the Texas area. As far as I'm aware, there wasn't a boom of philanthropy motivated by the ideas that people in that region had. What's different about Silicon Valley? Or do you actually think that these other places have also had their own booms of philanthropic giving?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:41:11
I think you're right. I would make the distinction that being wealthy is not the same as being elite. So yeah, there are definitely pockets of local markets of wealth, like Texas oil or energy billionaires, that tend to operate in their own sphere. A lot of them will be philanthropically active, but they only really focus on their geographic area.
I think this is part of the question of what forces someone to actually do something more public facing with their power? I think that comes from your power being threatened. I would say that's one aspect of that. Tech has only really become a lot more active in the public sphere outside of startups after the tech backlash of the mid 2010s. And you can say a similar thing kind of happened with the Davos elite as well and also for the gilded age cohort of wealth.
Everyone in Silicon Valley was kind of sequestered off and just thinking about startups and thinking to themselves that tech is just essentially an industry, just like entertainment or whatever. And we were just happy building over here. It was only when the panopticon turned its head towards tech and they had this onslaught of critiques coming from mainstream discourse where they went, “Oh. What is my place in this world? If I don't try to defend that, then I'm going to just lose all that power.” So I think that the need to defend one's power can prompt that action.
The other aspect I'd highlight is I think a lot of elites are driven by these technological paradigm shifts. There's this scholar, Carlotta Perrins, who writes about technological revolutions and financial capital. She identified a few different technological revolutions over the last hundred plus years that drove this cycle of — A new technology is invented. People are working on it in this smaller industry way. And then there is some kind of crazy public frenzy and then a backlash. After that, you have this focus on public institution building. But she points out that not all technology fits into that. Not all technology is a paradigm shift. Sometimes technology is just technology. I think a lot of wealth might just fall into that category.
My third example is the Koch family because you had the Koch brothers, but their father was actually the one who initially made their wealth and he was very localized in how he thought about philanthropy. He had his own family foundation. It was just that Texas billionaire mindset that we're talking about — I made a bunch of money. I'm going to just do my local funder activity. It was only the next generation of his children that then took that wealth and started thinking about how do we actually move that onto a more elite stage and thinking about their influence in the media. You can see there's two clear generations within the same family. One has this local wealth mindset and one of them has the more elite wealth mindset. You can ask yourself, why did that switch happen? It's clearly about more than just money. It's also about intention.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:44:51
Yeah, that's really interesting. It's interesting because if you identify the current mainstream media as affiliated with that Davos elite, then there is a growing field of independent media that is a new media. But you would not identify somebody like Joe Rogan as being in the Silicon Valley sphere, right? I guess these startup people don't have that much influence over them yet.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:45:27
I think they're trying to take that strategy. You have a bunch of founders Palmer Luckey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Brian Armstrong that will not really talk to mainstream media anymore. They will not give an interview to The New York Times but they will go to an individual influencer or an individual creator and do an interview with them. When Mark Zuckerberg announced Meta, he did not grant interviews to mainstream publications, but he went and talked to Ben Thompson at Stratechery.
It fits really well with that mindset of — We're not necessarily institution building, we're going to focus on the power of individuals who defy institutions. And that is kind of an open question that I have about, what will the long term influence of the tech elite look like?
Human history tells us that eventually all individual behaviors kind of get codified into institutions but we're obviously living in a very different time now. And I think the way that the Davos elite managed to really codify and extend their influence across all these different sectors was by taking that institutional mindset and thinking about academic institutions and media institutions, all that stuff. If the startup mindset is really inherently anti-institution and says we don't want to build the next Harvard necessarily, we just want to blow apart the concept of universities. Or we don't want to create a new CNN or a new Fox News, we want to just fund individual creators to do that same work but in this very decentralized way. Will that work long term? I don't know. Is that just a temporary state that we're in right now where no one really knows what the next institutions will look like? Or is that really an important part of this generation where we shouldn't be asking the question of “How do you build a new media network?”We should just be saying, “The answer is there is no media network. We just go to all these individuals instead.”
Dwarkesh Patel 0:47:31
Yeah, that's interesting. What do you make of this idea that these idea machines might be limited by the fact that if you're going to start some organization in them, you're very much depending on somebody who has made a lot of money independently to fund you and grant you approval. I just have a hard time seeing somebody who is a Napoleon-like figure being willing to live long term under that arrangement. The people who have this desire to dominate and be recognized, who are probably pretty important to any movement you want to create, will want to go off and just build a company or something that gives them an independent footing first. And they just won't fall under any umbrella.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:48:27
Yeah, Dustin Moskovitz, for example, has been funding EA for a really long time and hasn't necessarily walked away. On the flip side, you can see SBF carried a lot of risk because you end up relying on this one funder and the one funder disappears and everything else kind of falls apart.
I don't have any preciousness attached to the idea of communities lasting forever. If we're trying to solve the problem of what did not work well about 501(c)(3) foundations for most of recent history, part of it was that they're just meant to live on to perpetuity. Why do we still have the Rockefeller Foundation? Why does that even exist? Why did that money not just get spent down? And actually, when John D. Rockefeller was first proposing the idea of foundations, he wanted them to have a finite end state. He wanted them to last only 50 years or 100 years when he was proposing this federal charter, but that federal charter failed. And so now we have these state charters and foundations can just exist forever.
I think if we want to improve upon this idea of how do we prevent meritocratic elites from turning into aristocratic elites? How do we actually just try to do a lot of really interesting stuff in our lifetimes? It's very counterintuitive because you think leaving a legacy must mean creating institutions or creating a foundation that lasts forever and 200 years from now, there's still the Nadia Asparouhova Foundation out there. But if I really think about it, I would almost rather just do really, really, really good, interesting work in 50 years or 20 years or 10 years, and have that be the legacy versus your name kind of getting submerged over a century of institutional decay and decline.
If you have a community that lasts for maybe only 10 years and it's funded for that amount of time, and then it outlives its usefulness and it winds down or becomes less relevant, I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing. Of course, in practice, nothing ever ends that neatly and that quietly.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:50:44
Yeah. Who are some ethnographers or sociologists from a previous era that have influenced your work? Was there somebody writing about what it was like to be in a Roman Legion? Or what it was to work on a factory floor? And you're like, “I want to do that for open source.” or “I want to do that for the New Tech Elite.”
Nadia Asparouhova 0:51:02
For open source, I was definitely really influenced by Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom. Elinor Ostrom was looking at examples of common pool resources, fisheries or forests and just going and visiting them and spending a lot of time with them and then saying, “Actually, I don't think tragedy of the commons is a real thing it's not the only outcome that we can possibly have.” Sometimes commons can be managed perfectly sustainably and it's not necessarily true that everyone just treats them very extractively. She just wrote about what she saw.
And same with Jane Jacobs looking at cities as someone who lives in one. She didn't have any fancy credentials or anything like that. She was just like, “I live in the city and I'm looking around and this idea of top down urban planning, where you have someone trying to design this perfect city that doesn't change and doesn't yield to its people, and it seems completely unrealistic.”
And the style that both of them take in their writing is very… It starts from them just observing what they see and then trying to write about it. That's a style that I really want to emulate. Or just just talking to open source developers. Turns out you can learn a lot more from that than just sitting around thinking about what open source developers might be thinking about.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:52:25
I have had this idea of shadowing people who are in a random position just to understand how the world works. They don't have to be a lead in any way. Say a person who's the personal assistant to somebody influential. How do they decide whose emails they forward? How do they decide what's the priority? Or somebody who's just an accountant for a big company. What is involved there? The line manager at the local factory. Just random people. I just have no idea how these parts of the world work and I want to shadow them for a day and see what happens there.
Nadia Asparouhova 0:53:05
This is really interesting because everyone else focuses on the big name figure or whatever, but who's the actual gatekeeper there? I've definitely found that if you just start cold emailing people and talking to them, people are often surprisingly, very, very open to being talked to because most people do not get asked questions about what they do and how they think and stuff. So you want to help them realize that dream.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:53:33
So maybe I'm not John Rockefeller in that I only want my organization to last for 50 years. I'm sure you've come across these people who have this idea that I'll let my money compound for 200 years and if it just compounds at some reasonable rate, it'll be the most wealthy institution in the world, unless somebody else has the same exact idea. If somebody wanted to do that, but they wanted to hedge for the possibility that there's a war or there's a revolt, or there's some change in law that draws down this wealth, how would you set up a thousand or 500 year endowment? Would you just put it in a crypto wallet? If having the most influence in 500 years is the goal, how would you go about that organizationally?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:54:17
I'd worry much less. The question for me is not about how do I make sure that there are assets available to distribute in a thousand years? Because I don't know, just put it in the stock market. You can do some pretty boring things to just ensure your assets grow over time. The more difficult question is, how do you ensure that whoever is deciding how to distribute the funds, distributes them in a way that you personally want them to be spent?
Ford Foundation is a really interesting example of this. Henry Ford created the Ford Foundation shortly before he died and just pledged a lot of Ford stock to create this foundation and was doing it basically for tax reasons. He had no philanthropic interest or anything like that. It's just this is what we're doing to house this wealth over here and he then passed away. Son passed away, and the grandson ended up being on the board. But the board ended up being basically a bunch of people that Henry Ford certainly would not have ever wanted to be on his board. The Ford Foundation ended up becoming hugely influential. I have received money from them so it's not at all an indictment of their views or anything like that. It's just much more of — you had the intent of the original donor, and then who are all these people that suddenly just ended up with a giant pool of capital and decided to spend it however they felt spending it. The grandson at the time famously resigned because he was really frustrated and was just like, “This is not at all what my family wanted.” and basically got kicked off the board.
So if I had a thousand year endowment is that is the question that I would figure out — How do I make sure that whoever manages that endowment actually shares my views? But also, how do I even know what we need to care about in a thousand years? Because I don't even know what the problems are in a thousand years. And this is why very long term thinking can be a little bit dangerous in this way, because you're presuming that you know what even matters then. Whereas, figure out the most impactful things to do is just so contextually dependent on what is going on at the time.
There are also foundations where the donor writes in the charter, this money can only be spent on X-cause or whatever, but then it just becomes really awkward over time because they're spending money on lighthouse keepers or something like that. And this is just not a thing that actually really should be the main focus anymore.
I don't know. I think I would probably try to figure out a way to somehow select for thoughtful people. I wonder if a committee with short appointment terms, that can run a contest or something to determine who gets to run this money or distribute this money every generation or something like that. I don’t know. I’d have to come up with something pretty crazy like that. But yeah, I think that would be the biggest challenge.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:57:17
Yeah, I just started reading the book about the Ford Foundation. I haven't gotten that far but it's so fascinating.
That raises an interesting question. There is the problem of value drift in charities, but it's a very particular kind of value drift. There's famously Conquest’s second law, that any institution that is not constitutionally and explicitly right-wing becomes left-wing over time. And this seems especially true of NGOs and charitable organizations. What's the explanation? Why does Conquest's Second law seem true in this arena?
Nadia Asparouhova 0:57:52
I’d have to ask Curtis that. [Laughter] I think we can observe that that is maybe what is happening, I don't think I have an amazing answer to that. My best guess if I had to come up with an answer is I think that there's a set of pacifying social values like democracy, peace, and freedom, that are very hard to disagree with so there's always this natural drift towards that.
There is a strong intellectual conservative movement but I think people that love nuance, where there is no there is no mindless playbook that you can use, the answer is not always direct democracy or peace or whatever. If that's not your guiding star and you are actually interested in a fair bit of nuance, you're not going to really run institutions and I say that as someone who is much more on the nuance side. But I think the trade off of that is it just doesn't necessarily have mainstream appeal always because you don't have these really simplified messages. If you think that Institutions need to have simplified messages that they pass on to people and those simplified messages work much better when they're things that make people feel good about themselves, you're always going to have that kind of word drift more or less.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:59:39
Yeah. It's like the two monarchs problem of, you need somebody who's a good director, but then you also need him to be able to appoint somebody who's a good director.
Next question is, do you think this new funding for science and thinkers is going to lead to a resurgence of the gentleman's collar category? Or has the nature of science just become too different and science has just gotten much more specialized now that that's no longer possible?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:00:29
Within the realm of science specifically, the gentleman scientist era, the Charles Darwin type era, feels a little bit bygone in the sense of there was a lot of low hanging fruit then. Science is just so much bigger today. It is funded in a completely different way that is unrecognizable from where it was before. When people talk about problems in science, they like to romanticize the past, “Why can't we just have it the way that it was 100 years ago?” That's probably true for any institutional problem. There's usually good reasons why we don't run the way they did before. I always try to think about, “How do we actually take the conditions that we're in right now and come up with something new?”
That being said, even if we don't have a return to the gentleman scientist as default way of doing things in science, there's a ton of room to go from the current model of how science is funded and the extremely constrained environments that people have to work in, to giving people a little bit more academic freedom and a little bit more creative freedom to experiment.
Science doesn't really have any easy answers. I spent a bunch of time trying to understand it this summer. Government funding of science became a thing right around the middle of the 20th century after World War II. The way that science ran before then was that there was very little government funding and very little involvement. Now the fact of the matter is that most of it is government funded and that just means it's a completely different kind of ballgame.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:02:24
Yeah. But I guess then for public intellectuals, especially if you're making content that is tech adjacent, there's a change in funding from it's no longer Kevin Kelly's 1000 true fans, but more like one tech billionaire who likes your work and who will write you a check to investigate it for a year. What is the consequence of that kind of change in that you have much more concentrated sources of funding, in terms of what areas one can focus on and one does focus on, and the ways in which they engage with their audience and publish their content? What impact does that have?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:03:04
I'm pretty excited about that. I can only really speak within my relatively narrow tech and tech-adjacent creator world, but as someone who's been independently or weirdly funded in a lot of ways for a while now, it feels like that was extremely uncommon when I started and now I meet a lot of people that are like me. I don't know if that's just because I am meeting more people like me or if that's really a shift. But five years ago, even it was hard to identify a lot of people with that kind of situation. I think it's really cool.
People talk about — How do we bring back the Medici's? How do you bring back this model of patronage? It's already happening in a lot of ways. It's just that people don't talk about it unless they’re being funded on Patreon or have Substack subscriptions or there's some very legible way to point out how they’re making money. There's so many people that are just being quietly funded that just don't talk about it. I do actually think the model of patronage is very alive and well right now. It's just not super obvious.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:04:12
How do you think about the value of doing podcasts or writing essays? Should we just be writing code and digging ditches and doing something else that is more legibly useful to society? How do you think about what is the value of this?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:04:34
I only know how to do a handful of things in this world so I feel I should be doing the thing that I cannot help myself but do all the time. I don't have a very rosy relationship with writing to be perfectly honest. I hate writing. Writing makes me crazy. I don't find it to be enjoyable. It's always enjoyable once it's over but [unclear] that is a little miserable. You would think, why do you do this thing that makes you miserable? It's the thing I know how to do. I don't think there's anything glamorous about it. I don't think there's anything special. It might not be the best thing to do. There's probably more impactful things I could be doing with my time. But it's the thing I have to do and I think everyone should just be doing the thing that they absolutely have to do, whatever that is. It would make me happy if everyone in the world was just leaning into their obsession. So that's my obsession.
I don't know how you think about it but when I think about my own impact, I want my ideas to be heard by people that I think can do something about them. So in other words, I care much more about quality than quantity. I'm not very active on Twitter. I don't really focus on needing to reach some kind of mass mainstream audience. When I published my book, I told myself, the people that need to hear about how open source works are people that work at tech companies, software developers that use open source software. It mattered less to me that this needs to be a book that an airport bookstore would print. With essays and stuff, it's much more important to me that people whose opinions I care about, read it. I make my essays public because I hope everyone reads them. But when I think about how do I measure my impact? It's not how many page views that I get on an essay. It's more of who ended up talking about it and are those people that I wanted to talk about it? And I think people really undervalue that.
My personal pet peeve is that founders are always talking about building and that startups are so important but what are all of them doing in their free time? They're reading books, they're reading essays, and then those books and essays influence how they think about stuff. It is a very indirect influence. You can't have one mouth saying, the only important thing in the world is starting startups and then at the same time, talk about the cool new book you read at a cocktail party. Both those things are important in different ways.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:07:18
Yeah, I totally agree. I don't want to repeat myself, because I talked about this on my Byrne episode but we were talking about Robert Caro's books and one interesting thing is this guy was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize before he wrote The Power Broker. He was a top tier investigative journalist. Can you imagine crunching the numbers as a top tier investigative journalist at the peak of your career and you're like, “You know what would be a good use of my time? I'm going to spend the next seven years, in almost poverty, writing about this one guy who had a lot of influence in New York. I'm going to talk to any person who had conceivably even been in the same room as him or had been indirectly affected by his policies in any way. And I'm gonna do that obsessively for the next seven years.” There's no way the number crunching would get you there but it's probably been one of the most influential books in terms of how urban governance is done. Presidents have praised and read the book and said it changed how they think about politics. It is the kind of thing where you wouldn't have gone to that conclusion just from thinking about it beforehand and this is the most effective thing I could do.
Nadia Asparouhova 1:08:29
Dwarkesh Patel 1:08:30
You had this recent post about climate tribes that was really interesting, especially the addendum. I have noticed this tendency of writers to hide the most interesting thoughts, in footnotes and addendums. I'm curious why that is? It might be because your most interesting thoughts are digressions that you feel you have to take out the main text.
But anyways, what I thought was interesting is that you were comparing climate doomerism to other kinds of doomerism that are yet to become fully mature. And I am wondering what are your predictions about the different tribes that will emerge when thinking about AI, as both capabilities grow and as public awareness of those capabilities grows?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:09:19
Oh, gosh. I think it's definitely just too early to say. I know that sounds a cop out, but I don't want to say things that I don't feel confident about. I had these different tribes that are influencing the climate discourse today, there's some parallel version of that for AI more broadly.
Right now, I feel AI safety gets really constrained to MIRI or something very, very specific. I imagine as AI becomes more widespread and more people have experiences with it and have opinions on it, then that might lead to other philosophies forming around that. The MIRI mindset is equivalent to the doomer tribe that identified in climate where that is one specific tribe, but there are a lot of other people that are really interested in climate that don't feel doomery at all, even though that's the most flashy, media friendly version of it.
Other than saying — as more people interact with AI I imagine there will be more philosophies emerging there, I think it's still too early to say what that will be. AI is still a big mystery box to me right now. It's there, but I don't really know what's inside.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:10:49
Having studied these different sorts of doomerisms, has it always been true that smart, talented people tend to get a lot of meaning by working on things that are seen as existential catastrophes? Or is that a property of tech adjacent areas or modern tech adjacent areas? How unique is this sociological phenomenon?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:11:21
Yeah, I think it is pretty new and that's why it's kind of gnawing at my brain a little bit. I think it's really new. Last five-ish years new. I tried to track this a little bit and I'm not super confident about it, but there's this one theory around — We used to have shared, broader narratives that were actually doomer-esque. We had the World wars. We had the Cold War. And super smart, talented people that need to be pointed in a direction somewhere, they are going to go work on those kinds of problems and there's a shared understanding that we really are saving our country or protecting our country by working on these different things.
After the Cold War, we don't have these deep existential threats anymore so we have to find them somewhere else. And that's when environmentalism became much more alarmist, whereas in the past, it was this niche social cause, it became much more “we need to save the planet.” Coming out of World War Two and just manufacturing chemicals, suddenly people are just grappling with the after effects of that. But that doesn't explain the last five years or so, where it's not a weird activist-y thing to work in climate, it can even be a very boring thing for people to work in climate, but it's all connected to this idea of — this is the most important thing I need to be working on.
I think in the absence of having some bigger narrative that is all consuming for everyone, you have to make your own meaning somewhere. Again, we talked about writing, I have no defense as to why I write all day. It's just what I have to do. I cannot defend it as the most needle moving thing in the world or whatever. I don't really relate to this need to have a doomer narrative. There is no doomer narrative attached to why I write, I just write because I think it's important and I have questions I want to answer. To me, that is how I define impact. To me, that matches my model of what I think is the most impactful thing in the world. If I didn't have that model, then yeah, maybe I would try to say, “Okay, what is the most impactful thing to be doing in the world that is external to my own personal curiosity?” And I think that's where those doomer narratives come from.
I did bury in another footnote at the end of this question. If we think of the early 2010s or something, there's this other grouping of industries that is not doomer-esque but also attracts smart, talented people. You have advertising, trading, and playing video games. There's some shared set of skills across all those different industries or practices that attracts smart, talented people. Why do so many smart, talented people just go into trading? And I wonder if there's some other similar gravity well effect there that is also attracting smart, talented people into climate, maybe from a different crowd. But I wonder before the last five years, maybe that was where everyone was dumping into? I don't really know.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:14:49
Do you have some general theory of what these gravity wells for talent are? What connects trading to climate?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:14:59
I don't know. Maybe they're different crowds. That's why I just stuck it in a footnote because I was lazy and I was like, “I don't know what to do. I need to put it somewhere.” There's just something about all these sorts of industries where, if they were starting with a blank slate, they could be doing anything and for some reason, they just all end up in these non obvious places. Why are there so many people that end up in trading? It's just so specific when you really think about it. And then same with climate where, depending on how literally you take climate doomer predictions, but if you don't think the world is going to end in 30 years, then why is everyone so focused on this one specific thing when they could be working on lots of different things?
In both cases, it feels they kind of flop in there somehow. I did put in that addendum about what is the shape of a doomer industry? I think one of the under-discussed aspects of it is that it is adjacent to some kind of commercial opportunity. The reason why everyone doesn't just go off and work on global poverty is because there's no money to be made in working on that. But if you think about misinformation and the threat of deep fakes or something upending democracy, or you think about AI safety, or climate, or whatever, they are adjacent to commercial industries where you can actually make a real salary and feel relevant to the business world or whatever, or to all your peers, while still also working on the social cause area. I don't know if that helps at least somewhat. And probably the simplest, non-overthinking it answer for why it is that advertising and trading attracts people is just because you can make a lot of money in it. And that's simple.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:16:47
I have one theory about trading and video games that connects them. Byrne Hobart, funny enough in another footnote, in a blog post about SaaS products or something says that one of the positive things about finance might be that it gives a venting for talented people who just like to play zero sum or negative sum games. Otherwise they would have been used up in a war but since there's no wars, they would be doing something else destructive in our world. And if we can just put them in front of a trading screen and make them get the microsecond efficiency of some equity market better, it's better than anything else that could be doing with that mentality.
Nadia Asparouhova 1:17:31
I like that. There's some parallel with this for content creators too and I will cringingly put myself in that category. It's also this grouping of people where they are kind of just bodies in a room. Again, myself included. That's what I'd be doing if not this. At least there's a way to kind of make money in this but it's a much more amorphous and non-coherent industry than trading, but different set of people.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:18:00
Yeah. One philosophy that is not in any of these influential idea machines in Silicon Valley is religion. They've been some of the most important ideas in history and yet somehow they've had very little influence in terms of what kinds of things the new elite is funding and paying attention to. Do you think that will change? Or have we just had a complete change in terms of what kinds of ideas get promoted?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:18:35
Yeah, TBD. The new right is bringing at least some of those underlying Christian religious values back. Maybe they're not literally funding churches or something. But asking, how do we bring Christian values back to public society? I think there's a lot going on there, even if it's not explicitly called religion. Among elites that are explicitly religious, how are they encoding those values into public institutions? I think that is sort of happening on that front.
I also just think, if we take a broader view of — how does religion factor into our day to day life? I feel people ask this question more than they need to ask it. Everyone just says, “Oh, people aren't religious anymore. They're not going to church. They need to find meaning. How do we create new religions today?”
I feel like people are religious. They're just religious about different things. And that was one of my conclusions with climate. In the early 2000s, you had Michael Crichton criticizing environmentalism as a religion and saying it's distracting people from the science and, maybe we shouldn't treat environmentalism as religion, we should really get back to the science. Whereas 20 years later, I think it just is a religion for a lot of people. Why not just lean into that? That is how people are finding meaning, that is how people are finding community. There's a religion. We may not literally have actively practicing Christians in America or something and, there's the question of what else does religion need to fulfill that it's not through something like climate? But I also think that religious practice is very active and around us everywhere. I don't think I don't think that's sad or bad. I think that's just how it's evolved.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:20:41
Yeah, interesting. Okay, final question. You have a great blog post about shamelessness as a strategy. What are you most shameless about in public? What is your most shameful strategy?
Nadia Asparouhova 1:20:55
Ooh. I don't know. Oh, man. I wish I had a really good juicy answer. We have to ask someone else that knows me what I am most shameless about in public.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:21:09
I guess one property of being shameless is that you don't even realize it's shameful. You're so shameless you can’t even keep track of it that way.
Nadia Asparouhova 1:21:17
Just the fact. Yeah, I'm sure I have something. I think I'm a very shameful person. [Laughs] Yeah, you're gonna have to ask a friend to tell you what I'm most shameless about.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:21:41
Sounds good. Okay, Nadia, thank you so much for being on the podcast. Tell people where they can find your blog, your Twitter, anywhere else that they should look for you.
Nadia Asparouhova 1:21:54
Dwarkesh Patel 1:22:04
Awesome, Nadia. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for coming on.