🌎 You Say You Want A Revolution

Quinn Emmett
January 20, 2023
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"The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."

-- Douglas Adams

Welcome back, Shit Givers.

Our new format continues, and today I'm trying to understand how we got here.

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THIS WEEK

This week, we're going to explore the "revolutions" of my lifetime, how they got us to where we are today, and where they may lead us in the years and decades to come.

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Berlin Wall Save Our Planet sign

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What revolutions went down in your lifetime? 

When I asked myself that question, shortly after reading a think-piece on the almost certainly imminent biotech revolution (also almost certainly copy and pasted from the last 10 almost-biotech revolutions), I first had to ask “Wait, how old am I?”

And then, “REALLY?”

And then, “What does it mean when people say “revolution”?

For these purposes, which are pretty narrow and entirely of my own invention, I don’t mean some single moment in time, unless it was a bellwether for something bigger.

And I don’t mean the revolutions that have necessarily most directly impacted me. When I think “revolution” I imagine a building up of…something…that affected most people directly or indirectly, so that’s the threshold I’ll use here.

The list below is in no way comprehensive, I’m a generalist bonehead who definitely missed some significant items. I am 40, though I feel like I’m 99, so anyways I’m going to use 1982 as my starting point. YMMV.

INI is about looking forward, to understand where we are and where we might be going, so we can build a better today and tomorrow for everyone. But to do so, it’s helpful to look back a little bit to understand how we got here, what’s underway, and what might be brewing, for better or worse.

Because the more we have our eyes on these currents, the more we can strike at the root to influence them.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve broken our revolutions down into three classes:

  1. “Mature” - revolutions that are inseparable from society, now. We understand them, they are very much a part of this world now, we are still feeling the after-effects because they have been a part of the system for long enough.
  2. “In process” - more recent, more nascent, or more gradual revolutions we are still fighting over or struggling with, which we haven’t felt the full effects of yet, or which haven’t fulfilled their intended mission yet for a variety of reasons.
  3. “Next” - revolutions where we can see A to C and can imagine what may come, or not.

They’re listed below according to where I believe they fall into those groups, which is entirely made-up and subjective, and otherwise in no particular order. The length of any single entry, much less compared to one another, is indicative of nothing else other than me working out my own thinking.

--- 

Mature

Berlin Wall/collapse of USSR

I am always entranced by gifs that even semi-accurately show the history of European wars and shifting borders. These people have been at it for a very, very long time. It’s easy to look at the EU and forget how new it really is, and how quickly the whole thing can come apart. It’s easy to walk around Paris and forget that most of it was rubble not a long time ago and occupied by Nazis.

It’s simplistic but revealing to Google “World Cup starting XI if Yugoslavia was still a thing” and feel wistful and forget the terrifying violence and turmoil of what happened there from 1918 to more recently.

To forget how many tens of millions of Soviets died stopping Hitler, how Putin has been trying to pull the USSR back together for decades, how much London benefited from the EU before bailing.

That the Spanish Civil War was a template for WWII, that Germany was two very different countries for as much of our parents lives as it’s been a unified one. 

The world continues to be affected by lingering wounds in Europe, and it seems as if that’s not going to change anytime soon.

AOL CD

The internet

My first memory of the internet is from a quiet afternoon at my friend David’s house. We were eight or nine, and he had just snuck a large tablespoon of horseradish onto my tuna fish sandwich.

After I nearly died, and instead of playing with Ghostbusters action figures under his enormous magnolia tree, we did something different: sat down at his PC and logged onto something called Prodigy, and it was awesome.

The internet is awesome. In the sense that it’s invites “a reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder." It has enabled electronic health records and the Ice Bucket Challenge and GoFundMe and elected the first Black president.

From a cozy cradle at ARPANET, the internet enabled Napster to AIM to email to Facebook to iTunes to webcams to streaming to Google to Tencent and Alibaba and Amazon and telemedicine and and Match.com and Craigslist and DoorDash and Wikipedia and EHR’s and YouTube and Twitter and WhatsApp and other social media apps that sometimes ferment insurrections.

The internet -- and the devices that can access it, which simultaneously became necessary, and thus ubiquitous over time -- has forever changed who we are, how we spend our time, how we build our economies, how we learn, and how we connect. You get it.

The connection part is important, though. Real important. We have to talk about how much the “Like” and “Share” buttons changed human society forever.

They capitalized on our lack of education, gamifying our fear and public interactions, from a distance, through an algorithm that rewarded the most extreme human emotions, building echo chambers, and then mobs, which became factions, calcifying into an electorate that at best refuses to budge, and at worst builds a gallows for a vice president of their own fucking party.

Look at it this way:

It’s one thing if that super drunk guy at your adult softball game tells you there’s microchips in the new vaccines.

It’s another when everything you’ve ever clicked on has led your screen to be a feed of 24 different posts, shared by 3000+ people just like you, liked by 150,000 people you’d have a beer with, that all describe exactly how Brandon put those microchips in there with his own bare hands, probably in the basement of a pizza parlor while Hillary diddled a kid.

We’ll talk about it more below, but if misinformation content farms are a problem now, I cannot imagine the shitstorm we’re going to have to deal with once everyone truly gets their hand on GPT-3, 4, and everything that comes next.

Text in the style of any writer you want, near-perfect (at least perfect enough for an Android Facebook feed) deepfake pictures, audio, and video of Congresspeople actually in pizza parlor basements diddling kids. That’s not great, and I’m not 100% sure what we’re going to do about it.

9/11

So much of today’s landscape can be traced back to that fall morning (which of course stemmed from a laundry list of intersecting causes). My freshman roommate reached up to my top bunk to shake me awake and tell me to come watch the TV in our common room, and nothing was ever the same.

From the Patriot Act, to the War on Terror (trillions spent, millions dead), to the rapid and subsequent formation of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA, and ICE, to mass surveillance, Snowden, and the elimination of privacy as we know it, to drastically reduced immigration, 9/11 was horrifying and tragic.

But not only in how so many innocent people died that day and in the years to come, across the world, but in how the backlash affected every part of our lives as we know it, disabling our ability to appropriately contextualize and pay for real, on-going threats, like, for example, nobody having health care.

The Bund, China

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China

China’s meteoric rise and some very specific choices changed the world forever and will continue to do so, from Tiananmen Square to the One Child Policy. 

Sure, that last one started a few years before I was born, but considering, again, I am somehow 40, and how China’s now very large and very old population — the same population that’s been locked up for three years, was poorly vaccinated, and is now being consequently devastated by COVID — shrank for the first time in a long time this year, the next forty years--

(at least some of which will be helmed by the same increasingly-nationalist dictator who was effectively raised by Mao, who oversaw the peak, built internment camps, a police state, and a vast military, invested trillions in Africa, crushed the valuations and spirit of major internet companies and entrepreneurs alike, and who’s currently overseeing a, um, tenuous real estate market)

--could be very different.

iPhone

The iPhone is here not just because of what the device can do, including but very much not limited to calling people, but also because of how — at the time — a relatively medium-sized PC and music player company called Apple Computer built out a supply chain in China that changed China, and the world.

That supply chain also changed the stock market, and catalyzed an entirely new software landscape, and enabled the devices -- some of which are exclusively used for moving colorful gems around a screen -- to be in as many hands as possible, as profitably as possible.

Where does that leave us? Well, mostly hosting fun but real discussions like “Will an aging and desperate China invade tiny Taiwan for its invaluable computer chips, resulting in America and other countries being drawn into World War III?"

End of smoking

Forget the millions of lives lost to tobacco addiction, the terrible but inevitable lung cancer diagnoses, forget the lies and court cases and settlements.

If you never rode a plane where people smoked, ate a meal or drank beer in restaurants and bars where people smoked, or sat on the lap of beloved grandparents as they actively smoked, it’s impossible to comprehend what a different world we live in now.

Hopefully comparing what was to what is will help you understand some strategies for how we eradicate pollution, plastics, fossil fuels, and forever chemicals.

Fox News

As Boomers grew older, Fox only grew stronger and — together with Facebook — intentionally helped cement birtherism, nationalism, sexism, racism, death panels, Christian fundamentalism, resource exploitation, school vouchers, tax cuts, and war mongering as the backbone of GOP policy, both foreign and domestic, and set the stage for Newsmax, The Daily Wire, and everything to follow.

Facebook/Meta

On the decline now, but it’s all relative. Their reach — and thus, their moat, is impossible to quantify, including a third of the known population, but providing the most powerful echo chambers (and automated reinforcing mechanisms) humanity has ever seen.

Empty college classroom

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Higher education costs

American voters toe the line pretty damn close to the “participated in higher education or not” split.

And while the causes are myriad and, as usual, entirely self-defeating, the prohibitively astronomical cost of higher education is a major reason why a large percentage of voters in red states are so susceptible to dis/misinformation around elections, vaccines, racism, and more.

Higher education is wildly imperfect, and today more than ever fails to pay off for many. But something's missing, and the inaccessibility and devastating loans for those that can attend, only make primary school book banning and school board bullshit so much worse — it’s all so many kids will ever get.

Google & online advertising in general

Nothing against Yahoo or AltaVista, but Google’s PageRank algorithm changed how we produce, organize, and search for information more than any innovation since the printing press.

And now, all these years later, as your mobile Google search results page is comprised entirely of ads, it’s clear that quarterly revenue growth at all costs means the best result isn’t always what you’re going to get.

To be clear, I’m not against online advertising. I’ve sold plenty of it, and even bought some, too. Advertising on both Google and Facebook (and later, Amazon) paved the way for millions of small businesses to differentiate themselves, to target and drive local traffic and more broadly — together with Shopify and bags of cash from VC’s — fuel a new DTC industry and maybe crush brick and mortar retail juuuuust a little bit.

Chernobyl sign

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Chernobyl

Nuclear power has always been a little bit complicated to handle waste-wise, and a lot bit wildly expensive to build, but Chernobyl and Three Mile Island a few years before didn’t help cement it as safe. At least, in the imaginations of many.

Which is too damn bad, because — despite the complications of nuclear waste, and the implications of an actual full-on nuclear meltdown — nuclear energy is measurably as safe as both wind and solar.

Citizens United v. FEC

I can't even think about this without getting consumed by rage.

This single decision made the Federalist Society a fully operational battle station and helped to secure -- through billions in dark money — minority rule for people who genuinely do not care if you live or die, as long as they get to profit through (and from!) your suffering.

The cloud

Up until the year I barely graduated from college, starting a tech company meant finding space for, buying, and maintaining your own servers. And then, in success, growing your collection, somehow.

In hindsight, it feels extra prohibitive. AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure changed all of that, enabling anyone to come online with a few clicks of the mouse, and on the other hand, scale we couldn’t comprehend in 2006. Oh, and it also made Amazon profitable, finally. 

Obama wall mural

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Obama

As someone who was Obama's superfan for quite a while, and who is now, with time and perspective, somewhat less so, the revolution Obama kickstarted was/is less about his profound racial and personal impact, than other downstream effects.

I’d even argue — perhaps poorly — the cascading effects of the Obama revolution are less about Obamacare’s impact, or even how he helped scale solar, than his campaign and administration’s use of social media to target and communicate with voters, which was used to, shall we say, detrimental effect in 2016.

On the plus side: The legions of young people who worked for him who went on to found political startups or run for office themselves. 

The bull market

The 2010’s bull market, the longest in history, paired with effectively 0% interest rates and an unheard amount of competition-stifling M&A, supersized a collection of 6 companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google/Alphabet, and Microsoft) you use every single day, whether you know it or not.

Together, those companies (FAANG + Microsoft) represented at times almost 25% of the S&P’s total market cap, which is insane. If it’s not already obvious and I’m sure it is, please note these companies are all completely dependent on one another. Please also note that these enormous companies have collectively laid off almost 50,000 people in the last few months.

In process

Indian children

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Extreme poverty

While the population has grown by 3.5 billion people since I was born, which, wow, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty (approximately less than $2 a day) has dropped from about a third to just 12%-15% or so. That’s incredible, credit to the UN for committing to it and then…doing it?

Most of the gains have been in China and India, where an urban existence with free elementary school and health checkups drew hundreds of millions out of brutal rural existence and meant even more were born into far more reliable circumstances.

Of course it’s all relative and 15% of eight billion people is still over a billion people living on less than $2 a day, right now, with raging inflation, and there’s still huge parts of Africa (and China and India) living on less than $5 a day. But let's call it progress and keep adding to it.

Rodney King/George Floyd/Breonna Taylor/Ahmaud Arbery/how many others/maternal health/COVID deaths/real estate/education/Black Lives Matter

The cruelty is the point (see below). We've got a very, very long way to go.

Koch brothers/Contract with America/Tea Party/Trump/Post-Trump

Combined with Citizens United, higher education costs, 9/11, and the internet, the through-line of everything above, funded by the Kochs and others, has eradicated any sort of social capital or shared trust in each other, to say nothing of the institutions we all rely on to, you know, have roads and stuff.

Will House Republican in-fighting hamper the cause? Hopefully! Will the 2022 midterm results force candidates to back off draconian abortion laws? I have no idea.

One thing that isn’t going to change anytime soon is the immense, nearly untraceable billions going into far-right campaigns at every level. 

Abortion

This country is further away from bodily autonomy than we’ve been for quite some time.

Today, your very personal and very extensive digital data can reveal whether you’re menstruating or pregnant, and even if you’ve visited an abortion provider.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses are scrambling to understand whether their state will punish them for providing you care, as pregnant people are forced to carry and give birth to babies in an obscenely wealthy country that provides piss poor maternal health.

The fight continues.

India

The almost-most-populous country in the world — and soon to be among the top four economies — is stepping up into the spotlight.

As tens of millions of young English-speaking and very online Indians pack up and move to massive cities, as the country industrializes and provide an outside investment alternative to China, many of its citizens will enjoy healthier living standards than ever before.

But it’s getting hotter, and the reliance on coal and pollution from industry and transportation haven’t abated, endangering just as many as sought relief from parched (or flooded, or both) farmlands. Decarbonizing while managing growth will be a struggle, so compensation from wealthy countries to build with clean power and clean transportation is essential.

Will Apple and co untangling themselves from China create enough jobs to satisfy even a fraction of those folks? Not on their own, of course. And what about the 75% of women who don’t do paid work? What’s the plan, Stan? A long-delayed census would help the government, corporations, hospitals, and relief agencies understand where and how people, and how many people, to plan for.

Fruit wearing condoms

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HIV

We have made so many strides to reduce HIV cases across the world. Yet almost 100,000 kids in subsaharan Africa die every single year from the virus. But only half of those diagnosed even get treatment, because case reduction efforts have mostly focused on stopping transmission, and for obvious reasons, kids don’t spread it as much as adults. COVID set so many global vaccination efforts back and HIV is among them.

ESG

ESG is bullshit but only because aren’t incentivized — yet — to standardize it. To define and then agree on what ESG means, or even just E, or S, or G, much less to devise sticks to punish companies and fund managers who don’t aim for…something.

Could there be, will there be a better alternative? Does a complete lack of standards but need to burnish reputations among retail investors set the stage for massive greenwashing? Of course!

And yet — GOP “profits over politics” arguments are lazy and reductive for a million reasons, including the fact that a never-ending string of real-world climate disasters means your investments, for example, or millions of insurance policies suddenly called in, and the profits that make them go up and to the right are going to be in question.

Is managing risk not a fairly important part of a company’s mission? Is following consumer trends, or pivoting into massive new markets, not advantageous? What about staying one step ahead of new regulations? Can I interest you in an entirely new power sector?

Investing, as they say, is not just about capital appreciation, but also capital conservation.

Processed food

This is here in “In process” not only because processed food was and probably continues to be the leading cause of obesity in America — they were basically the foundation of the 90’s food pyramid — but because (I think) — we’re starting to push back.

You can debate "food as medicine" all you want, but we’ve been very clearly ignoring the lingering, opposite effect — food as a societal cancer, eating US from the inside out, for my entire life.

Net zero

Short but sweet: We know we need to get to actual zero emissions, but “net zero” has become the most dangerous corporate and governmental mantra on the planet, as the aforementioned complete lack of standardized terminology required to build regulatory and private investment carrots and sticks keeps the bullshit carbon offsets (and emissions) flowing.

LGBT rights

11 steps forward, 7 steps back.

As more people try to carve space for themselves, we are still unable to take our foot off the pedal, to stand down while a bunch of fuckers continue to seek to take that space away, people who just seem flagrantly uninterested in the simple act of letting someone define for themselves who they are and who they love.

Marijuana

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War on drugs/marijuana decriminalization/opioids/psychedelic treatment

Holy shit, we just drink so much in this country.

For my entire life, we have encouraged and celebrated alcohol, often to the extreme, marrying it with football to make indulgent drinking and violence our national pastime (I was no bystander for a very long time).

Meanwhile, we imprisoned millions of people, including a couple generations of Black men, for marijuana possession, denying children of fathers and fathers of voting rights and worse when — in the very limited research we’ve been allowed to do on the schedule 1 drug — we're pretty sure cannabis on the whole is at least less harmful and less addictive than alcohol (it's a very low bar).

The tide is turning but messy, as every state veers off in its own direction on the path from decriminalization to legalization and retail sales and taxes, with justice and equity at the forefront of (most) efforts.

Hopefully more research opportunities and data open up in the years to come -- as is underway with psychedelics, which could become an absolutely vital tool for treating depression and PTSD, and minimizing the distribution and use of opioids.

Machine learning/artificial intelligence

Machine learning has been a part of our lives for a decade now, infiltrating every app and service, from games to mortgages, insurance policies to climate models, policing and spyware. Most businesses simply do not operate without it in some capacity, even if that’s limited to categorizing business lunches in Quickbooks.

Generative AI, from text to pictures to voice and soon video, will have cascading effects throughout the economy and society, politics, writing, movies, and marketing, as the algorithms and data behind them become normalized commodities, built into the fabric of our devices and production, wonderfully helpful in some ways, massively disruptive in others. How will we respond?

#MeToo

Among the few positives gleaned from social media includes the up and down effort to finally, actually rein in and punish powerful and abusive men.

Has it been wildly successful? Of course not.

Has it provided for some justice? For sure.

Is the patriarchy dead? Not quite, but we just keep going.

Uvalde

ABC News

Mass shootings

I don’t need to say too much here. It’s fucking inexcusable and doesn’t happen anywhere else. Recent federal efforts are overdue and helpful, but a drop in the goddamn bucket, and can't bring any of these kids back. State and local elections mean everything.

End of coal

While my own region of the country is still relatively coal heavy — about 20% of our power over the past year — the astonishing reduction of coal power paved the way for a “bridge fuel” fossil gas industry that’s, yes, reduced overall emissions and pollution exposure, but has never been profitable, brought forward a shit-tone of methane, and forestalled renewable power.

We keep going.

Katrina and disaster relief

Hurricane Katrina set the stage for our new era — climate-fueled disasters, from more and more dangerous hurricanes and typhoons, to wildfires and drought and atmospheric rivers, and the support required to recover from them.

New relief NGO’s like World Central Kitchen are flexible and necessary, operating on the same frontlines over and over again, as FEMA flounders and insurance companies struggle to understand and define who gets coverage, and where, and for what.

We argue over the costs of mitigation while short-term recovery costs soar, in isolation and aggregation, to say nothing of long-term rebuilding in zones most likely to be affected over and over.

Next

Iceberg

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Sea level rise

If you’re new here or just generally unaware, which is understandable, deep breath:

Sea level rise is very real, it's happening, it’s happening faster that we predicted every time we check, and — with our current understanding and technology — is one (overwhelming) climate impact we sadly cannot put back in the box.

Near-term mitigation is underway and necessary in many coastal areas, however costly, as even sunny day flooding becomes more frequent, prominent, and destructive. But long-term adaptation means honestly reconsidering where we live and build, threatening some of our most cherished places, towns, and cities.

Africa

Across 54+ countries and states, Africa’s century is coming fast.

With an overall population that may include an astounding 40% of the world’s population by the end of the century, massive western cities like Lagos and hundreds of smaller cities are growing so fast no one can keep count. Energy poverty is still endemic, and on the other side of the continent, drought threatens the livability of countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

Massive loans from China’s Belt and Road Initiative provided for huge infrastructure gains, including roads and railroads and entirely new ports, and the jobs to build and service them have lifted millions out of poverty.

But as China stops cutting checks, massive projects get cancelled, imports fall, and the debt trap grows, China’s influence will mean something very different.

Cooperation and reliable transportation among neighboring countries will be essential in the decades to come to grow continent-wide trade and relieve the effects of a warming planet.

Biotech/mRNA/AlphaFold

Finally, the revolution that’s always around the corner. Despite horrific on-going vaccine inequity, mRNA COVID vaccines saved billions of lives after decades of trying to make them safe for use. What’s next? Already development is underway on versions to tackle Epstein-Barr, the flu, cancer, HIV, and more.

Will they all work? Probably not. Will some change the world? Fuck yeah! Is that the way science works? Yep!

Again, I’m a huge fan of what’s here and what’s coming but we simply cannot leave behind the basic public health principles and practices that got us here and made life so much better for so many — from hand washing to trusted community health clinics.

We need healthier, more affordable and more accessible foods, clean water and air, better and safer treatments for cancer, vastly more housing, a half a million more nurses and 10x nurses and doctors of color. 

Without those, nothing else matters.

COVID and so many other revolutions above have shown us that for biotech and CRISPR to work, or even public health or wellness or however you want to phrase it, we absolutely have to rebuild — and in some places, build for the first time — a fundamental layer of trust between among each other, and especially between providers and those in need of care.

We have to regulate what we can and should — from food and water and indoor air to supplements and cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies — while expanding accessibility and reducing the costs of clinical trials, and of lab work, to remove bottlenecks in funding for both basic sciences and long-shot ideas, and to help students, adults, and politicians understand how the scientific process actually works.

That's it.

I mean, that's clearly not it. I'm sure I left out a lot. But I'm going to pretend this email platform has some sort of very strict word count thing and call it a day. 

Rethinking how we think about today and tomorrow is going to be a key for building a better today and tomorrow, and that process isn't always going to be clean or easy. Thanks for reading and for all of your feedback every week.

Have a great weekend, and thanks for giving a shit.

Quinn

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