Land ownership couldn't exist without violence. Violence to take the land and violence—or at least the threat of violence—to keep the land. Systems have been created to keep that violence to a minimum: courts, property lines, rules, regulations, police, lawyers, deeds, sales, etc. New laws are created to compensate for new abuses: height restrictions, offsets, building permits, etc. But where lawyers fail, sheriffs are there with guns for enforcement.

There is no digital land equivalent[1]. Products like Facebook and Twitter are platforms and the foundation on which you build your parcel is your profile but for the most part it grows without harming others. Your gaining friends and followers and likes and retweets should not detract from other’s opportunity to do so. By and large, the “battles” are between the major platforms themselves. Snapchat innovates, Facebook-owned Instagram clones. Actual violence is avoided entirely.

Violence to claim physical territory is found in nature. Physical territory contains physical resources, physical value. A finite quantity of gold or iron or other precious or raw materials in the ground or above ground resources like soil, plants or animals, but always finite in quantity. Mental territory is unexplored, poorly understood, seemingly infinite. Facebook, the current leader with regard to our current rudimentary understanding of mental territory, is able to use digital images to provoke reactions that generate behaviors—constant photo sharing, for example—altering entire cultures in the process and there’s no end in sight for its potential[2].

For the most part, new mental territory has been exposed by steadily increasing processor speeds, increased connectivity, increasingly faster—and more mobile—internet, and increasingly efficient interfaces. Continually segmenting attention along the way to extract and monetize every morsel. The 24 hours in a day could introduce a more finite scope, but technologies like virtual reality and consumer companies like Oculus, Sony, and Samsung could artificially manufacture “time” by playing through a simulation at 1.5-2x speed[3].

Violence to create and maintain the concept and illusion of land ownership. Appropriating space within people’s minds via mining their attention. Manipulating the experience of time itself. And yet for all that power, the basis of these world shaping ideas is really very small and fundamental; layers seated directly on top of fundamental truths: life and death, attention as identity, and the arrow of time. What’s striking to me is the magnitude of impact created through these different layers because of their proximity to something very fundamental. There is little to no opportunity depth, there is only vast potential upward.

This type of thinking isn’t “solving the problems you have” or “software eating the world” or whatever catch phrases have gained popularity lately—even though you can see shades of both if you squint. The VCs most active in driving the conversations today are unwilling or unable to inspire this level of thinking. For example, compare and contrast Moore’s Law to “software eating the world”. One is driven by a fundamental technological truth, the other is driven by making money. One starts with a tiny observation with endless possibilities upward, the other is a huge flat plane that can only segment on its way down. Why is that? Because a transistor's 0 and 1's are fundamental to our current method of computing and doubling is a natural byproduct of a binary system[4]. Moore simply, elegantly, suggested a timeline for that doubling. Software, on the other hand, is a layer on top of that—an important layer, but still, a layer. It's only fundamental in the sense that the details have been abstracted away so well we don't think about them. Just like how land ownership is a layer on top of violence but, for the most part, the violence has been abstracted away.

In Peter Thiel’s Zero to One he talked about important truths on which very few people agree. He also talked about secrets, how to find secrets, and what to do with secrets while encouraging people to look for those secrets. Given his background and ambitions, his arguments were rooted in the layer of capitalism and thus limited by that perspective. I don’t think there’s a lot of daylight between Thiel’s important truths and what I’m calling fundamental truths—and I encourage you to read or reread Zero to One; but “important” is viewed and framed by what will generate money whereas fundamental doesn’t have that requirement. This distinction allows you to see the world from new and interesting perspectives. For example, perhaps the massively successful iPhone is just the layer that happened to exist as a means for social networks to execute on the idea of attention as identity? It’s possible the modern smart phone might not have any more significance than that. Perhaps the layer that is money—valuations, market caps—might be a terrible, tragic metric for success blinding us all from more powerful fundamental truths? Instead of thinking of ways to refactor existing processes with software to earn some money, perhaps that time would be best spent digging through the layers and searching for fundamental truths.

The next transformational technology won't happen as quickly if everyone is looking the same way at the same things. It won't happen at all if everyone is slicing off chunks of existing markets and chasing the same obvious dollars. It’s dangerously easy to convince yourself and others that you have found something meaningful when you have only met the lowest of standards. It's easy to peel back two or three layers and proclaim you found something fundamental when you are ignorant of the true depth below your feet and don't even bother to keep checking for more layers.

The future will be catalyzed by those exposing fundamental truths and created by those who are willing to thoroughly understand and leverage the power of those truths directly. But those truths will be far easier to find when you are looking for the layers obscuring them from view.


[1] However, there are similarities. While there’s no risk to the Twitter user of permanent adverse possession, there is potential for violence. Bullying and threats if someone is perceived to have undue influence. Because, while there’s no physical restriction on the size of your digital parcel, there is space taken up in people’s minds and costs in terms of their attention spent. Also, you never really own your digital parcel just like how you never really own your land. Every follower you gain and every like you receive benefits Facebook and Twitter more than you which in turn strengthens your connection to that platform. Every improvement you make to your property increases its value which in turn increases your property taxes but also strengthens your claim to that land.

[2] While I am bearish on many specific products Facebook has launched and believe that Snap is a serious existential threat, overall I see the company as the current vanguard with respect toward attention mining and exploitation.

[3] I have generally been of the opinion that AR > VR but where I see VR having a particular advantage is if it can create the experience of time. That alone would be worth the nausea, uncomfortable headgear, and expense.

[4] This would also help explain why “Zuckerberg’s Law” regarding sharing was fundamentally flawed. Human to human sharing doesn’t have a fundamentally binary component.

October 7th, 2016