🌎 What We Learned This Year

Quinn Emmett
December 12, 2022
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Welcome to my 2022 INI Wrap-Up. INI Replayed? Please, someone come up with a better name.

Related: my Apple Music 2022 Replay was entirely predictable.

Encanto

And yes, haters, I use Apple Music instead of Spotify, because:

  1. I held out on streaming for a long, long time
  2. It’s infinitely easier for my family to all be on one ecosystem
  3. My neighbor DJ Reflex has upgraded much of what was lacking at Apple. The playlists are fantastic.
  4. No company is perfect, and certainly not Apple, but they do (sort of) pay artists twice what Spotify does, and as a “creator” (ugh) and union man, I’m all for it.

Anyways! As previously discussed, weekly news is taking a backseat here as we wind down the year, prepare for next year, and spend more time reading, thinking, and generally being with family.

In the meantime, my take-aways from 2022 follow below: it was by all accounts (and this is certainly not an all-accounts type post, I definitely missed a lot) it was an uneven year, filled with progress and heartbreak alike. 

My hope and plan is to keep building together on the good, and pushing back against the forces of darkness that seek to hold us back.

Privacy please sign

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Beep Boop

For years, we were promised sci-fi level health treatments, from personalized medicine to eradicating cancer. We're still on our way, but biology has been a tougher nut to crack than any of us ever imagined.

For years, consumers were the ones worried about data privacy (or were we?). More of us are, but the receipts came due much sooner than we thought. 

Ethics & privacy

In a year where Dobbs happened, and international cybercrime became more prevalent and sophisticated, companies who built their businesses on tracking, harvesting, storing, and often selling your data, are the ones scrambling.

It would be easier to list the companies, industries, hospital systems, school districts, and vital infrastructure not affected by cybercrime, so please just understand that IT departments everywhere are baseline underprepared.

No one wants to be the bearer of “uh, we’re being held hostage” news, but increasingly, that’s part of the job, whether you’re a hospital administrator, an assistant superintendent, or public utility worker.

Post-Dobbs, period tracking, location tracking, and even mental health apps and services are suddenly liable for some very specific data around where you’ve been and why.

Will all of these instigate a new model of “only track what you need”? I have my doubts -- entire industries are based on your sweet, sweet data (and usually, how it interacts with mine).

Similarly, the tracking “pixels” that underpin the entire internet, and most notably, Facebook’s, have come under fire for following vulnerable patients and tax-filers around the web, bartering their data away to relatively insecure buyers.

Where once IoT security was lax, now every location, health, stock tracking, social app and service should be scrambling to either get way more secure or offload the data they do have. They don’t need it in the first place, and now red states will demand it in a court of law so that an embryo can one day buy a gun without a permit or waiting period.

Does that mean electronic health records and smart water pipes are a mistake? I don't think so, and I hope not, but we need something like zero-trust policies to be the default when getting them connected.

Does it mean fewer new-fangled “telehealth” apps and services going forward? Maybe? I hope not, actually. Telehealth has been helpful, and successful, if inequitably accessible, but we can do much better. Building out mobile infrastructure, and writing and passing flexible but rigorous legislation around data collection can open up access to far more folks. More interoperable health records that are end to end encrypted (like your iMessages and now, photos) can make the entire system more useful.

I’m not saying of course that Silicon Valley is pivoting to profits -- oh god no -- but the next period tracking app should require many more diligence questions than it did twelve months ago.

GPT

GPT gets in just under the wire, with so much more to come. The platform is profoundly impressive, so confident, and often so, so wrong, which is what makes it dangerous. To date, the machines do not cite their sources, and their creators increasingly have very little understanding -- outside of what data was scraped -- how and why an algorithm answers the way it does.

There's already been a revolution in how GPT and other tools like it produce and cite artwork and artists, but it's not perfect. For years, we've fought over copyright policy, and now the whole thing got thrown in a blender overnight.

Web3

Much to the chagrin of many people in my life, I endeavor to consider most questions with nuance, so here goes:

Bitcoin still sucks (nuance!), but Ethereum successfully migrated to proof of stake, reducing the coin’s climate impact by a reported 99%.

Otherwise -- crypto is in shambles, from market valuations to money laundering to security, which...was one of the main selling points?

To be fair: Does the underlying concept of the blockchain have a best-case scenario of being helpful? Sure! Are there smart, curious people working diligently to make it useful to real people? Of course!

Re: nuaunce -- Some cool and actually useful use cases for blockchain/crypto/web 3, like smart contracts, etc, will probably rise from the ashes to salvage the whole premise. There's zero guarantees, but there's possibility.

But for now, many of the VC’s who plowed tens of billions into the ecosystem and more importantly, the individuals suckered into get rich schemes (sorry, “decentralization”) are down. Way, way, way down.

TikTok

Maybe a fountain of creativity, with little financial incentive for creators, barely held in check by off-shore poverty-stricken moderators, and ever a national security sieve? Maybe? No one seems to want to actually do anything about it, except Facebook, who's racing to duplicate as much as they can.

Twitter

And then there’s Twitter -- everyone’s favorite hateful cesspool that is also an invaluable tool to so many, including me.

Of course Twitter had a gazillion issues before Elon ruined it further, but there were also many, many awesome folks trying to make it safer, better, and more useful to those of us who appreciate and benefit from the platform and connections it has so uniquely provided.

Fine folks, in fact, who were mostly fired or made to feel unwelcome by an egomaniac’s bullshit and blissful misunderstanding of how even the app store works, who has now confirmed himself to be the insecure bigot many non-fanboys warned us about.

Again, maybe, just maybe, the world’s richest man, who helped to commoditize space launches and dragged cars into the electric future -- through hard work, lies, and horrific labor conditions -- can find a way -- despite instantly catering to conservative Nazi’s -- to help Twitter make real money, to grow, and be a safe place to express your views and respect the views of others, with less hate speech, less violence, less climate and pandemic disinformation, and less insurrections, all while furthering his own little culture war, and all at the same time, but -- good luck.

One thing is clear, and that's how power works: you can't call yourself a centrist, and then buy an invaluable if imperfect "social" network, use it to ridicule and belittle public health officials, explicitly mock transgender and nonbinary folks, tell people to vote Republican days before a midterm, and further COVID misinformation.

You're not a centrist, then, you're not a reactionary, you're not another voice on the platform, and I'd say you don't even get to call yourself an activist at this point. An activist is move the needle. You've moved the fucking needle. His entire campaign is the personal vendetta of a wildly self-conscious serial liar, exercised through a show of naked and enormous political and social power, intentionally used to save his investment, ferment hate, and cause pain.

Putin protest sign

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Climate

Speaking of the need to do everything everywhere all at once -- let’s talk climate mitigation and adaptation.

Why?

IRA, CHIPS, and Putin

Well, we blew right past 1.2c, but also, by the skin of our teeth -- which, boy, I’m not super interested in knowing the history of that metaphor -- passed historic climate action dressed up as industrial policy, with a side of environmental justice.

Of course it's not enough, and of course there were fossil fuel giveaways, but none of these have been in our wheel-house the past few decades (see: crumbling bridges, slow trains, prohibitively expensive subways and nuclear plants, etc). I’m excited!

So how did IRA, CHIPS, and Putin change everything?

I don’t have to explain to you friends that we need to electrify every automobile and building on the planet, electrify heavy industry everywhere, build a hugenormous amount of new clean power generation, replace existing fossil fuel power with clean sources, build hundreds of thousands of miles of HVDC lines to carry it all, and short-term and long-term batteries to store it for when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow -- all while un-redlining cities and reducing marginalized people’s long and intentional exposure to deadly air pollution.

Again, you get it.

Great news: IRA addresses many of those -- on the industrial level, and consumer level, even if the latter doesn’t really kick in until next year. Already, new EV and battery plants, and charging infrastructure are underway across the country -- and mostly in red states, which should prove to be a fascinating political experiment once actual jobs are created, as perhaps (I said perhaps) a bulwark against those states tipping further into an inescapable deep red pit of despair.

CHIPS is obviously relevant because new cars (and heat pumps, and phones, and everything) are basically computers.

And while US companies are very good at designing microchips, the best chips in the world are (well, until last week, kind of) exclusively made on an island the size of Maryland and Delaware smashed together, the same island whose invasion could trigger World War III at any given moment.

To build a cleaner future, we need to make our own chips. The bipartisan (I know) CHIPS effort gets that underway, but this is what FEW UNDERSTAND: CHIPS also goes much further, authorizing billions for research into bleeding-edge climate tech.

Think about it this way: IRA is designed to get us to 2030, and the fruits of research from CHIPS should hopefully kick in shortly after. It'll take a while and has no guarantee of success, but we are rectifying a wrong: inventing cool new shit and then failing to build a domestic industry on top has been our MO for a very long time, and simply cannot continue.

Meanwhile, Germany’s in a bit of a pickle. You see, Germany helped scale solar back when it was very, very expensive. That’s great. What’s not great is how they also tied themselves to Russian gas along the way, complicating their 2022 reaction to Putin's war.

Russia has spent much of those years fucking with Ukraine, but things got official in February of this year, and now Europe is almost a year into a war everyone swore would never happen again -- but again, has also seemed inevitable for quite a while?

The War For Electrification

Months into sending a bazillion rocket launchers to Ukraine, the Biden Administration issued new National Security Strategy docs that define domestic climate work as “key to our international credibility, and to getting other countries to up their own ambition and action.””

That's not too different from how the military itself has been talking about climate change for years, but now it's policy. We spent much of the last decade talking the talk, with very little federal-level walking the walk. But starting in 2023, through billions and billions of subsidies and rebates, we’re bringing it home.

Not everyone's excited about that. Despite a new steel agreement with long-time partners in the EU, French President Macron’s comments last week indicate a bloc less than enthusiastic about this wanna-be WWII/Cold War ramp-up that paints innovation and significant public participation in building new industries from scratch as an “America First” national security mandate.

This, Europe proclaimed, with Russian nukes on their doorstep, is not the time for more isolationism (after Trump's tariffs) -- despite American missiles and LNG shipped out the door every day. Not the time for EU-based manufacturers to be lured to these purple mountains by enormous subsides, not the time for a trade war. Biden swears we’ll stay partners, but will he even be president to see much of it through? Unclear.

The EU isn’t alone in their worries: The strict domestic EV and battery rebate requirements in particular have worried the hell out of South Korea, the country behind two of the world’s most popular EV’s, which may not qualify for the new incentives without domestic materials and production.

South Korea and Europe aren’t the antagonists here, of course. Putin and Xi are. Just look at how Biden and co eviscerated China’s AI hopes.

Frankly, I’m not sure we had a choice. We straight up don’t have most of the metals and minerals necessary to build a clean future -- Russia and China do.

If 2010-era efforts at cooperation didn’t get climate action done, than a return to arms race-style framing -- conveniently coupled with war in Europe and Xi’s autocratic ambitions -- was the next logical opportunity to spur industrial climate action, and a relatively stable geopolitical future.

Permitting and Transmission

On the energy production front, permitting reform and a transmission revolution are still up in the air. Senator Manchin tried to pass some reforms, coupled with pipelines and offshore drilling leases that pissed off generally everyone, mostly because we really need permitting reform, and staking it to a bill that blatantly further endangers marginalized people is dumb.

The game is simple: deploy existing scaled technologies as fast as possible, with environmental justice as the primary concern. Investors mostly get it, even if they're loathe to be the first to completely disconnect from the power system of old.

A very brief and overly-simplified reminder because this section is long enough, my god: we can build a gas pipeline overnight because those are approved on the federal level, but electricity transmission is up to the states. We have to fix this, and fix it now.

(Dr. Volts Dave Roberts covered transmission extensively last year, you can get a degree in transmission here)

Elderly man getting vaccine

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COVID

What’s left to say?

Global vaccine equity remains nearly unchanged, as demand has dissipated.

And where once this whole thing was advertised in the US as a pandemic of the unvaccinated, a pandemic that predictably killed the historically marginalized at two and three times the rate of white counterparts, the circumstances and marketing have changed quite a bit over the last year.

Tens of millions of people, and especially the elderly, have refused to get new bivalent boosters, or really any boosters at all, and viruses did what viruses do and 300-500 Americans are still dying every single day.

I used an alien invasion metaphor to describe what that means here.

While the historically marginalized are just that, trapped in a variety of racist systems that make their exposure and choices both wider and narrower than mine could ever be, what’s profound about millions of white people and the elderly not getting any boosters is that for them it’s a choice.

We can talk about both sides of the disinformation marketplace all day -- and we should -- and we can celebrate the enormous step-change that is mRNA vaccines, but either way you slice it, what we got is a public health failure, and the normalization of a new top-five leading cause of death.

Please don’t forget all of the second-order trappings that come with this anointment -- the children left without caregivers, the frontline workers required to deal with it, and if you want to do the math, the economic effects of an extra 150,000 people dying every year.

But deaths aren’t the whole game. Most people still don't die from COVID, which says a lot, if 150k are going to die.

Long COVID

Long COVID research is well underway, if criminally underfunded. Funding for any kind of COVID mitigation and adaptation continues to drop, as do mandates -- the newest military funding bill strips the vaccine mandate right on out.

The real total (still growing) of those affected by some form of Long COVID is just wildly difficult to decipher, much less agree on: lingering symptoms are varied, as is their severity, and how and why the virus causes some symptoms in some people, others in...others, and for many, none at all.

None of this is new to viruses, but we’ve got a very long way to go.

So, cases are growing again, winter is here, as is the flu in a very real way. Subvariants continue to play king of the hill, if only for a moment, and thankfully with less drastic change over the past few months than in previous years.

Keep an eye on your local wastewater readings and be safe out there.

Farmer using fertilizer

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Food & water

It’s impossible to disconnect food and water from climate.

Droughts in East Africa, northern Europe, the Mississippi, and the American West among others were balanced out by straight biblical floods in China and elsewhere, crippling crops, transportation, and more.

And just in time for, you guessed it, war in Europe. Food prices skyrocketed this summer almost everywhere as exports were and continue to be curtailed out of both Russia and Ukraine, and fertilizer prices followed the same trend.

Farmers and migration

So across the world, small-holder farmers are suffering -- “margins” aren’t great to start with when the bulk of your yield goes to feeding your family.

And so climate migration continues to grow. You can’t stay where you are if you can’t feed yourselves, and if there’s no water to drink.

Even in the US: the west coast is drenched this week, but long-term desertification seems  the most likely scenario, as the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers and California deltas continue to dry up, reducing allotments to farmers. California is revisiting tainted groundwater and desalination, and Utah's having a hard look at the one crop that absorbs half their water supply, but tradeoffs will be likely and painful.

Diet

The western diet continues to be an own-goal, with an expected 750,000 US deaths in the coming year from diet-based preventable disease.

We keep learning more and more about what our heavily processed, meat and diary-heavy diet does to us, what it does to the planet, what mono crops that mostly go to biofuels and feeding cows does to the soil, and about the alternatives like the Blue Zones diet -- and yet!

Massive systems change is required, we’ve got our incentives backwards -- breaking up a largely ineffective (at best) FDA is steps one through sixty-three.

Supreme Court building

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Health & medicine

Thanks to COVID lockdowns and then (you guessed it) more disinformation, “normal” childhood vaccine rates plummeted the past two years.

And because the west doesn’t care all that much about an outbreak until it’s landed at La Guardia, monkeypox was a real thing for a while. Polio’s bounced around again, and as previously noted, RSV and the flu have tormented the very young and the very old.

What's coming

On the other hand, immunotherapy continues to make progress in fits and starts, even “vanishing” cancer in some trials; we piloted ground-breaking obesity treatments; kind of revived some dead pig organs; challenged long-held beliefs about Alzheimer's; improved thought-to-speech tools; applied machine learning to drug discovery; and the pedal is to the proverbial metal to test and scale up more mRNA vaccines and monoclonal antibodies for legacy diseases like the flu, malaria, and more.

All of this are very cool, if most will fail — that's just the way it goes. What we have to is be hyper-focused on productizing and scaling the ones that do, and building equitably accessible and affordable industries on top of them. We can't just "discover" shit, the result of some scientist's 7000 grants coming to fruition. We have to build the new world, from soup to nuts.

Abortion

Meanwhile, going backwards, a Supreme Court with zero ethics requirements and mostly appointed to lifetime terms by a criminal who lost the popular vote made seeking an abortion a nightmare scenario for millions of women, and if you need me to justify for you how complicated and dangerous a "normal" pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum period can be, much less to a rape victim, tween, or someone who simply can't afford paid leave or childcare, or ALL OF THE ABOVE -- you're probably subscribed to the wrong newsletter.

Lastly, basically everywhere around the world except Africa, populations are aging and birth rates are plummeting (though Japan (Japan!) of all places is on the up and up).

Housing

Housing, you say? I didn't know where else to put this because it applies to every section, but it's pretty straight forward. We need what has been described by some smart folks an "unimaginable" amount of new housing across America. It will provide shelter to adults and children, build wealth, help folks who want to have more kids afford to do so, live near family, cut commutes and pollution, and just so much more.

Conclusion

All in all, we continue to transition into a very different world from the one we grew up in. The youth vote more or less saved democracy in America, which -- to be crystal clear -- they should not have to do. But here we are, with another fighting chance.

2022 set in motion some incredible stepping stones to a better world, but dark money, perverse incentives, and good old fashioned bigotry and racism held back systemic change that could make for radically and more reliable air, water, shelter, power, food, medicine, and more. 

I'm looking forward to 2023 in a real way, and I'm excited to share my perspective and some exciting plans with you soon.

Have a great rest of the week. Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit.

— Quinn


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