It's time to build - if you have the bucks

It's not easy to do big stuff

Art: The Builders, Fernand Leger, 1955

Over the weekend, while I was watering a terrarium with my daughter, cutting up bananas for my son, trying to clean up countless Duplo blocks, printing homeschooling worksheets for Monday, and frantically searching to see which state parks in Pennsylvania were still open for nature walks, Marc Andreessen told me to get building. 

More specifically, Andereessen wrote an impassioned, uplifting post, encouraging his millions of Twitter followers to stop being reactionary, fight legislative and systematic hurdles, and start creating instead of consuming. 

In the U.S., we don’t even have the ability to get federal bailout money to the people and businesses that need it. Tens of millions of laid off workers and their families, and many millions of small businesses, are in serious trouble *right now*, and we have no direct method to transfer them money without potentially disastrous delays. A government that collects money from all its citizens and businesses each year has never built a system to distribute money to us when it’s needed most.

Why do we not have these things? Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard! Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build*.

...

Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

The past month has been the bleakest month in a very long time. A couple weeks ago, I wrote, 

We’re the CEO now, but there is no COO, no driver, no Breitling watch, and no gold-encrusted iPhone. It’s just us, alone in our homes, trying to fight an entire world’s worth of information asymmetry, trying to figure out how and when this thing ends, and, I have to say, so far, the world is winning.  

Reading “IT’S TIME TO BUILD” amidst the doom and gloom of the news media over the past month, and the complete chaos and disorder in the federal government’s coronavirus response was reassuring. 

But I left the essay unclear as to what Marc wanted me to do about any of the problems he pointed out.  Here are some of the things he proposed in the essay:

  • Building more universities

  • Building more futuristic cities

  • Developing advances in education

  • Building more factories in America

  • Developing and deploying delivery drones

  • Building better housing

What can I, personally, do, in the .3 hours of time I have left in the day, that counts as building? 

What is to be done? 

The message of creation versus value extraction is a great one: I wrote about it in 2015 in an essay called “Let’s Work on the Hard Stuff”, where I worried about the state of our healthcare system:

I am not describing my experience to complain about first world problems, or to blame my specific hospital, which I still love and respect for the delivery experience I had there. Most people in the medical profession are doing what they can within the constraints of this massive, terrible monster of a system that we’ve created.

They are all just as exhausted as us - even more so because they work many more unreasonable hours within the mentally taxing confines of a hospital environment - and on top of working those many, many hours they have to deal with patients who are frazzled and terrified and sometimes, like me, just plain annoying. Nurses especially have the hardest job out of anyone I know.

I am simply describing my experience to offer one anecdote of how overwhelming and stressful the American healthcare system can be like for someone like me, a person who is young and without any serious medical problems, who speaks English, who has a job so I’m not worried about paying $200 right away, who has health insurance, who reads up on her own symptoms and serves as a self-advocate, and who has someone to watch her children while she’s going to medical appointments.

If you aren’t lucky to have some of these privileges, the ER experience quickly goes from just scary and annoying to terrifying and traumatizing.

These are all the things I was thinking about as I remembered the snack startup email. Why is it that we are so focused on “fixing the way we snack?” (or the way we get fresh flowers delivered, or the way we do laundry?) Why can’t we instead pool our energy and resources and instead of building monthly subscription boxes, social media apps, optimizing ad networks, tackle the health monster? What would it take to begin fixing at least a little bit of this broken, ugly thing?

And I wrote about it again in 2017, in a post called “Fix the internet by writing good stuff and being nice to people.” 

Creating and building is good. But what can we, as individuals, really do, right now, in the face of this huge crisis/opportunity we’ve been handed?

Sure, maybe we can do newsletters.  After all, Normcore, which runs on Substack, which is funded by Andreessen’s A16Z, creates value from content, generates money for writers, and makes the whole media ecosystem healthier by allowing outsiders to write about things the real media can’t touch.  We can hand-make masks.  

Or deliver groceries to seniors. Or continuing to pay people whose businesses we’re currently not utilizing. Or pick up dinner at local restaurants.  But me, and basically any number of individuals doing this stuff at an individual level will result in precisely nothing. Why? 

Because the things we need to build to combat all these problems are not little things. They are Big Things and Big Things need to be hit with a Big Stick.

Take, for example, masks. It’s absolutely fantastic that there are thousands of people across the country making their own and enough to send to hospitals. They are building. But what’s devastating is that we even have to do this at all, and all because mask factories were relocated overseas 20 years ago. 

Even when materials come in these days, state governments end up having to fight over them. Why? Because of the way our federal government is set up, where it can commandeer equipment from state governments and hospitals who desperately need it, in bidding wars. 

We can fight against small injustices. But there are much larger issues at hand: corporations manipulating laws for their own profits at the expense of small businessesPrivate equityLobbying. How do we fight to build against that? 

It’s time to build software that eats the world

And, finally, there is the system that Andreessen himself now plays in: venture capital in technology, which has sought to grow, make money and eat the world, at the expense of everything else. You could argue that A16Z portfolio companies like Slack, Digital Ocean, IFTTT, and Instacart have brought intrinsic benefits to humanity. And they have. Instacart provides all my groceries these days. I can work remotely thanks to Slack and, as a result of Slack, Microsoft Teams. Facebook, also an A16Z alumn, is now where many people find part-time work, facemasks, and stream live events.

But the amount of misery these companies have inflicted in their path to profitability has been enormous. Starting with the small things, like Imgur and Reddit turning into platforms that are almost unusable, to Keybase’s problems with boosting user growth by offering crypto (no doubt due in part to some encouragement from A16Z, which is all in on crypto lately) , to even one of the most treasured sites online, StackOverflow, becoming impossibly hard to keep afloat with the backpressure from VC investment demands. Instacart, as wonderful as it is, has still not delivered safety supplies or hazard pay to its drivers.

But the company wasn’t prepared to process orders from the entire workforce at once. Instacart confirmed to WIRED that it had capped the number of orders that can be placed each day at an unspecified number of thousands. Once that day’s “inventory” is gone, the kits get listed as out of stock until the company opens up more. There’s no waiting list workers can get on—they have to keep checking carrotswag.com to see if pre orders are open again. The spokesperson says Instacart needed to slow the pace of orders coming in so that each one could be validated as coming from a real Instacart shopper, and so that duplicate orders could be deleted. The spokesperson said the company has an entire team dedicated to this process, but did not specify how many people are working on this issue.

 (And, of course, VC culture has ruined even coffee.)

What are we, the people, supposed to make of an essay that is asking, nay, demanding that we build while at the same time ignoring what that the author has previously built - or, rather, invested in, has created as many, and maybe more, societal problems as it’s solved? The situation online as a result of many of these startups is so bad even the inventor of the internet doesn’t like it anymore. 

What’s the real problem? 

I am a big fan of systems thinking. I’ve used it to examine neural networks, Saudi Arabian funding of American startups, and Ring.  The theory behind systems thinking, is basically that any given ecosystem has interconnected parts and each part affects all the other parts in numerous ways, controlled through “bounded rationality”, which means that each part of the system doesn’t understand what the other parts are doing and therefore can only act on the limited information it has.  (BTW, here’s a great book on systems thinking. )

The more I think about it, the more I think the real problem is not that we’re not building things. We’ve built plenty as a country - The Hoover Dam, nuclear plants, the internet, and the reputation that to come to America and live here is opportunity. 

The problem is that, over time, we’ve actually built too much. The systems have become too big for people, as individuals, to work through.

Take for example housing:

In housing it's not complacency either. Take San Francisco. Why isn't San Francisco outcompeting Singapore at skyscraper building? It's illegal to build. Okay, but why? After all San Franciscans do want more housing, it's not just the tech bros who rant on twitter about it. Once it is possible to build those gleaming skyscrapers, the US does not do bad compared to other countries, the need for national flagellation here is rather moderate. So here it's not that the real estate developers are lazy and complacent, it's that the political structures of, in this case, San Francisco, are captured by a politically organized minority who does not want density and skyscrapers. 

Or, how about the coronavirus response? What can we, as individuals do to help, other than stay home? That does a lot. But what about the masks? The other PPE? The tests? How long do we wait for them to work through the system? Look, this is one lab that’s looking to get tests, 

Kristi Noem, of South Dakota, said that her state’s public-health laboratory—the only lab doing COVID-19 testing in the state—had so much trouble securing reagents that it was forced to temporarily stop testing altogether. “We, for two weeks, were requesting reagents for our public-health lab from C.D.C., who pushed us to private suppliers, who kept cancelling orders on us,” she said. In order to get her public-health lab the reagents it needed, Noem said, “we had to get a little pushy with a few people.”

How do we make sure all the states have these supplies, when there? And especially considering each state and each micro-region is at a different place in the curve? 

And how do we get back to work? Apparently, we have to do all these things: 

Businesses need to rethink their workplaces to minimize contacts between people. Telecommuting should continue for those who can do their jobs at home. This will allow others who can’t work from home to work in a less crowded environment. At workplaces, the number of workers on shifts should be reduced and spaced out. Meetings should be held remotely or limited to a handful of people. Common areas where people congregate should be closed. Nonessential business travel should be curtailed. If an increase in infections occurs, we’ll need to scale back.

As a result, the solutions that end up emerging in these systems are not the best answers, but the results of the individuals who are so far above all of the fluctuations that they know how to manipulate these economic and political systems in their favor. For example, there’s Elon Musk. And then, there’s Larry Ellison.

Ellison Island 

 If you work in tech, Ellison is one of the best-known colorful characters in the industry (aside from, who is, no surprise, a personal friend of Musk’s and has also rubbed shoulders with Andereessen. )  He was raised in the Chicago suburbs by adoptive parents, and then he left school and went to Silicon Valley to prove himself. 

While there, he came across an interesting paper, called “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks”, by a gentleman named Edgar C. Codd at IBM, that inspired him to work on relational databases. 

It’s unclear whether Ellison actually wrote any of the code himself, but he drove the vision - the sales versus the execution.  Oracle took off, and Ellison became ridiculously rich. Along the way, he developed a reputation for being harsh, irascible, and larger-than-life. Oracle, with Ellison at the helm, has been interesting. And by interesting, I mean extremely litigious, aggressive, and known in the data world as being a big, hulking, expensive behemoth software that people couldn’t wait to get rid of. (Until AWS came along.)

Anyway, a few years back, Ellison stepped down as the CEO, only to become the CTO, and focus on his other ventures, such as launching a new sailing competition, and buying a Hawaiian island

Over the past eight years, he’s spent at least half a billion dollars on a Hawaiian island, Lanai, that he has turned into a laboratory for health and wellness powered by data. “Wellness is our product,” says Ellison, speaking as if the secret to good health is achieved through processing bytes of raw data—which, for Ellison, it is. He named his wellness company Sensei, the Japanese word for “master,” and the sensei in Sensei, according to Ellison, is (you guessed it) data.

Along the way, Ellison offered to help the government build a database after 9/11. (Which is only fitting, given that the CIA was Oracle’s first customer.) And, when coronavirus came calling, he offered, once again, to insert himself into the picture.

His plans for Lanai and Sensei had originally revolved around creating a data-driven health utopia, powered by clean energy, that could serve as a global prototype. But as with the rest of the world, the coronavirus was prompting a dramatic real-time shift. Within days, Ellison and President Trump were on the phone. Neither side will say who initiated the conversation.

Within a week, Ellison enlisted an undisclosed number of Oracle engineers to work with Agus, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies to create a database for the country’s coronavirus cases. Doctors will register every COVID-19 case being treated with a medication on the Oracle-built website. The system will then send daily emails, to the doctor or the patient, to ask for a progress report on symptoms. As of press time, the team was working to get over legal hurdles and was hopeful the project would launch imminently.

The project is now launched, and exists here. Almost as soon as it came out, it was hit with an Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information center, an organization that is so pro-privacy that it makes the EFF look like Facebook. 

There are a number of things that strike me about this letter, but, in addition to the article about Larry, it only serves to entrench my beliefs that what we have right now is a system where it is enormously hard to build meaningful technology, heck, meaningful anything, unless you are very, very big and very, very connected, and very good at breaking through the entire system to get to the people at the core who can affect the change. 

In an April 3, 2020 press briefing, HHS Secretary Alex Azar confirmed that Oracle is establishing a web portal (COVID19.Oracle.com) and platform that gathers real-time information from healthcare providers and patients about experimental drug treatments for COVID-19.5And on April 5, 2020,President Trump stated, “And this week, Oracle, a great company, donated a new web portal —Larry Ellison, amazing guy —and platform to the government to gather real-time data on how patients are responding to the various new treatments.And they have a very sophisticated site, we’ll be learning a lot from Oracle.”

Will this project work? Very, extremely hard to say given that there is no insight or transparency into it. But it sure looks like Building Things.

So what? 

Not only are we small, we’re exhausted, worried, broke, and, for some of us now, very, very sick. We might all be inspired to come out of this starting a business, but we’re coming out of this thing like out of a forced collective trauma where we pause to pick up the pieces, not pick up the phone and start making calls to governor’s offices and - God forbid - start making dashboards

Sure, it’s great to build. But building too much is actually what got us here. 

So while the readers truly inspired by “It’s Time to Build” are out there with huge construction cranes, there also needs to be a separate set of people, less noticeable but just as important, holding chisels, to chip away at the systems we’ve built - the legal hurdles, political systems, large swaths of government that are ineffective, and VC-based technologies and startups that don’t do any of the actual building but only get in its way. 

If you build on uneven ground, when an earthquake comes, all of your buildings will collapse. So, when this holding pattern we’re in ends, and we get back out into the world of action, we have to think about where it makes sense to build, and where it makes sense to raze everything to the ground, first.

But first, I’m going to give my kids to my parents, let them envelop all of us in an all-encompassing hug, and then, finally, take an hour-long nap. 

What I’ve been reading lately:

  1. It sucks, and it’s going to get worse.

  2. Account of Whole Foods worker during Covid

  3. No surprise, women are doing more now

  4. Why we need Flask, with illustrations

  5. Old Hollywood blooper reel

  6. Q&A with Waymo

  7. Damn this was something


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.