Nov. 22, 2021

127. How To Innovate

127. How To Innovate

In Episode 127, Quinn wants to know just how the hell “innovation” actually works.

His guest is Christopher Mims, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, who’s spent a career asking big questions about the most pressing technological and societal issues we face, from robot trains to the future of batteries, brain implants, and whatever happens to land in-between.

The thesis: every little bit counts, and it’s more predictable than you think. Or is it?

Together, Quinn and Chris explore the team dynamics of innovation, the “great man” question, the invisible force behind Moore’s Law, and more. 

The bad news: Nobody gets to save the world. The good news: Everyone gets to save the world, a little bit.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Avocado Green Brands, where sustainability comes first. They craft their GOTS certified organic mattresses, pillows, and bedding with natural materials sourced from their organic farms in India, in their own clean-energy powered facility in Los Angeles, where their team shares a singular purpose: To raise the bar for what it means to be a sustainable business. 

Avocado is Climate Neutral Certified for net zero emissions and donates one percent of all revenue to environmental nonprofits through its membership with 1% For the Planet. 

Find out what it means to sleep organic at AvocadoMattress.com.

Have feedback or questions? Tweet us, or send a message to questions@importantnotimportant.com

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Important, Not Important is produced by Crate Media

Transcript

Episode #127

 

Quinn:
Welcome to Important, Not important. My name is Quinn Emmett and this is science for people who give a shit. There's a lot going on out there. Our world is changing and being changed every single day, and you can take part in that change. That's why you're here. I talk to the smartest, most impactful people on the planet to provide you with the inspiration and tools you need to feel better and to fight for a better future for everyone. Our guests are scientists and journalists, doctors, nurses, engineers, farmers, policymakers, activists, educators, investors, business leaders, astronauts, even a Reverend.

Quinn:
If you want to be inspired to find out how to make radical change, hit the subscribe button right now to get even more conversations after this one. More stories and more tools you can use. You can also go backwards, scroll through the feed or go to podcast.importantnotimportant.com. It's write in your show notes to find over 100 evergreen episodes covering everything from clean energy to cancer and artificial intelligence to regenerative agriculture. We've got some starter episodes for you there. And also you can so word by category.

Quinn:
In this week's conversation, I'm going to pull back the curtain on the mysteries of innovation, how it really works, and who really contributes to it, how it can benefit more people, and how more people can be involved in affecting it. My guest is Christopher Mims, a journalist who's beat I love it. It's one that asks big questions about the technological and societal issues of our time. It's a beat that is both evergreen and also very, very timely as you'll see here. A reminder, you can send questions, feedback, or guest recommendations to me on Twitter @Importantnotimp, or you can email me at questions@importantnotimportant.com.

Quinn:
In the face of an escalating climate crisis, what does it mean to do our part? A Little Green is a short podcast series from Avocado Green Brands. Follow along as they demystify the questions many of us find ourselves asking these days and show how we can each challenge the status quo and become climate leaders in our own communities. Protecting our planet will take all of us. So let's dig in together. Find A Little Green wherever you listen to your podcasts or head to avocadomattress.com to learn more.

Quinn:
My guest today is Christopher Mims. Together, we're going to explore and try to help me and you understand how innovation really works, it turns out, across everything from your iPhone to supply chains, and it seems like it's a conversation that's really more timely than it's ever been. So, excited to have Chris here because there's really nobody who follow this stuff more. Chris, welcome.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. Quinn, appreciate you having me.

Quinn:
For sure, man. If you could tell the people real quick who you are and what it is you do.

Christopher Mims:
So, I write a weekly column on technology for the Wall Street Journal, and I've been doing that for seven years. So, I don't cover personal tech, but that means that I'll cover everything from brain implants to nuclear fusion. So, the world's kind of my playground and I enjoy going outside my zone of comfort every week, hopefully.

Quinn:
Sure. I mean, that's the challenge, right? I feel like that is just so directly applicable, maybe the most concise way someone's ever described what I try to do here, which is someone will say like, "Well, can you consult on flood plain maps or reinsurance for this?" I'm like, "No, I cannot, for sure." But I can talk generally and ask questions of these big topics that like you said, challenge myself and get outside my worldview because I try to almost like Neo in the Matrix, the plug in the back of his head and he's like, "I know Kung Fu." I try to get at least a 201, maybe a 301 in every one of these conversations before I have them so that I can be relatively informed. So, that it's a little more of a conversation than an interview per se, but it can be daunting for sure.

Christopher Mims:
There's so much to know. So much expertise in the world.

Quinn:
Yeah. There's so much. Yeah, there's nothing being humble all the time. That's what I tell my kids all the time. I'm like, "Dad spends this whole day going who knows? Who can know?" Awesome, man. Well, I appreciate you sharing that. Chris, we like to start with one a little bit tongue in cheek question, but eventually after some cackling you can get to something relatively profound maybe, but we like to say, instead of telling us your entire life story as wonderful as I'm sure that is, I like to ask Chris, why are you vital to the survival of the species? Again, I encourage you to be bold and honest because who can know, man? Who can know?

Christopher Mims:
Who can know? I mean, I have some wonderful children. So, first and foremost, I think that I'm vital in raising future leaders of America or whatever it is they're going to do. That's number one, frankly. But number two I had a mentor in college who said that the way you find your path in life is at the intersection of what you're good at and what the world needs. And so, as a journalist, I'm privileged to talk to a lot of people. And my goal always is to highlight the things that we should be talking about more and to try to simplify and make them accessible in a way that people can be more knowledgeable and have those conversations.

Christopher Mims:
I'm very privileged to be I think one of the few journalists in America who is given the time and the resources to do that because I've been on every side of the journalistic equation where you're just trying pump out material for clicks. Back in the day, way back in the day when people actually paid by the click, I had jobs as a freelancer where I would get paid that way. I would never want to go back to that. So, being in a position to really dig deep, it's just there every time that I tackle a new issue I feel like I'm either retreading what other capable journalists have done and bringing it to the Wall Street Journal audience because frankly that's a different audience than a lot of other publications that I'm privileged to reach, or I'm just trying to blaze a trail, and get at the things that people in the industry already know, but the public doesn't.

Christopher Mims:
I mean, I had a conversation with a guy today about electric charging infrastructure and he's like, "You didn't know this, but the last time you wrote about that, there was a map in there, and we've taken that map to every single municipality and state and private enterprise in 24 states to argue for this is why you should allow us to put more charging infrastructure in your state." And I was like, "Fantastic. I didn't know I did that, but you're welcome, I guess."

Quinn:
Yeah, I think so. Yeah, you're welcome. I'm sorry, yeah.

Christopher Mims:
So, yeah, that's just what I'm trying to do every week is just by my ongoing employment, but enlightening and enriching, hopefully.

Quinn:
Yeah, man. I love that and thank you for your service in that endeavor for sure. It's important to... I mean, it's what I feel like we attempt to do a version of here, which is essentially taking a step back, and looking at these undercurrents and these things that are going on, and not just revealing them, but trying to dissect them, and help people at least, like you said, at least be aware of them. It's beautiful when it turns around and someone's like, "We used your map with all the people, all the cities." And you're like, "Okay, great. That's awesome." That's awesome. So, thank you for sharing that, first of all, but I try to think about each time right before we start. I mean, I always have this underlying idea of an urge to I want to have conversations and it's either a specific topic or it's a specific person, or it's the perfect sort of conflicts of them both.

Quinn:
And for this one, it's because of this show, and we're not just climate change or COVID or whatever, it's sort of just the make or break things is our prism. So, I am heavily invested in a number of ways through the show and our work and personally in this idea of innovation, and what that means, and what it requires. And we all are, whether we know it or not. I mean, again, a prop of some of your work, we look at what happens with supply chains right now. It's not just about has Apple partnered with Gorilla on better glass, so your iPhone doesn't break when you drop it. Innovation also requires looking at these massively complex logistics intersecting so many systems, and ports in Los Angeles versus Texas and supply and demand.

Quinn:
It requires innovative question asking about if... Look, turns out COVID was testing something else as well and how we come out of these things. But it's also the GPS we rely on every day, and machine learning, and electric cars, and medicines. I think in these moments we are more acutely aware of this idea of innovation in our life. It can be in personal moments like I've had my best friend died of cancer 10 years ago. And immediately you turn into this sort of fake doctor and researching like, "Oh, these are the best treatments for this and that." And you're trying to get educated on that, and understand how it's changed or how it doesn't. Or you're like, "I haven't upgraded my phone in a few years, but I am a camera nerd. What are the actual upgrades in the hardware, but also the software?" What is an mRNA vaccine? Why is it new? Why did it take so long to get here? Et cetera, et cetera.

Quinn:
There's all these examples from why our elections still use paper ballots to electric car battery density. The point is we're in this really fascinating moment. And the future could possibly look very different from the past, but questions really remain about, and this is what I try to think about all the time about what does innovation mean in the context of progress? Who is doing the innovating? Who's funding it? Who's participating in the conversations? What does progress mean for wider variety of folks? Because the opportunities for societal progress are myriad. So, through all of your work, and when you wrote that specific article talking about the long view of innovation it intrigued me because I want to understand these things for our community, but also to help folks understand where we are, and, and where we're going. So, let me start with this, which is how did you stumble upon this work that was being done to try to, again, understand what innovation is and how it works and how it's worked, I guess, to date through time to get to the point where you wrote about that?

Christopher Mims:
So, you're talking specifically about this paper, but, well, sorry, this effort that came out of MIT just to put this in context for your-

Quinn:
Yeah, please.

Christopher Mims:
... listeners where they looked at a bunch of empirical data about rates of innovation in various technologies, and that is a very squishy thing. It's hard to define. It's very hard to gather data on. But other researchers have very painstakingly spent years gathering that kind of data on 50 different fields of innovation. And then what they did was it's a classic machine learning thing where they're going to train a model on the data that they have, and then they unleash it on... I think now it's more than tens of thousands of different categories of invention and here they're also leveraging more human intelligence, which is that it turns out that the no surprise the US patent office has this incredibly deep and pretty clever Dewey decimal classification system for inventions because if you're an art examiner and somebody comes to you with a new widget, you need to know where to search in the patent literature sure to find prior art. You need to know it's sufficiently new to grant a patent on that.

Christopher Mims:
So, yeah. They took the empirical data on 50 different inventions over time one of which is the microchip and they wanted to examine how does innovation happen, and what they found, and this is... I mean, it's very controversial on Twitter, anyway, where there was this huge debate [crosstalk 00:13:44]-

Quinn:
You can stop there, but yes.

Christopher Mims:
But it was an intelligent debate. It wasn't just people shit posting each other, and one of their findings was that in fields of innovation where there's more than, let's say 100 patents on something, innovation proceeds at a very steady, if not stately pace. And yes, there are individual breakthroughs that speed things up by a few years here or there, but because of the law of compound interest, if you want to ask, what is the rate of innovation that has determined Moore's law, for example? That has been remarkably steady. And of course, part of that is because companies committed to it. But if you look at other fields, energy generation and stuff like that. Across all of them, rates of innovation are remarkably steady on the sort of, let's say the decade scale. So yes, there are spikes where there are breakthroughs, but overall innovation is really a team sport. And when I say team, I mean all seven or whatever it is, eight billion of us are all participating at this point at least over the span of time where they were able to examine it, which I think is about the last 50 to 100 years.

Christopher Mims:
The other thing that they found that people got really riled up about was that this idea that lone geniuses are really responsible for these key breakthroughs. They found this kind of bullshit. Now, there is one exception to that. Every once in a long, long, long time someone invents a totally new category of invention, but that happens way less often than people think because as somebody who's a student of innovation and the history of invention like yourself knows, every innovation you want to dig for, dig through the history of, there's always a much deeper history than people realize. And it's always... It's turtles all the way down. It's people standing on the shoulders of giants, standing on the shoulders of giants, et cetera. Even if you're talking about the invention of calculus or something that.

Christopher Mims:
So, this kind of busts these two myths of innovation. One is the sort of, you might call it the great man theory of innovation. Like, oh, we're all waiting around for medicine that just kind of to be transformative. And then the second being that we're dependent on breakthroughs to make things change all that quickly. Really, if you want to look at anything you can measure like computers getting faster, batteries getting more denser, or a million other things. It's kind of happening. It's almost a law of physics or something. It is happening at its own pace because it just requires so many different people and so many different contributions from so many disparate fields. And that was of course their final insight was that the innovations that really advance a field almost always come from outside of it.

Christopher Mims:
So, what has driven the progress of Moore's law. It's really advances in laser technology because that's what allowed us to shrink the features on the chip, which are etched, of course, with a photo lithographic process, which requires light. And that's true for any other field you can name. So, you never can predict where the next breakthrough is going to come from because it's going to come from some totally lateral place. And of course, that is just to conclude here a really strong argument for just general science funding. And that's frankly what the US is really good at. We are better at coming up with new innovations than we are at holding on to the industries that they result, and those tend to get captured by countries that are fast followers and are like, "Oh, you invented the microchip? Great, we're going to subsidize the production of that until we are Taiwan." Or you invented the solar panel. We're going to subsidize the production of that until we are mainland China or the LCD screen going to South Korea on and on and on is a million examples.

Quinn:
Well, it's interesting because on the one hand it's easy to look at that and go, "Okay. I guess maybe just some places are better suited than others for certain parts of this system. Of the pipeline of turning these innovations into realities, into consumer goods, or part of a supply chain, or whatever it might be. At the same time it's interesting to look at and go, because like you said one of the big takeaways if I'm understanding it correctly is like you said, Moore's law, which is about as famous as it gets for this sort of thing. That occurs because it was constantly... Because it adhered to this predictable thing, but that happened because companies had their finger on the scale and were dedicated to that performing in that way. So, it's interesting how there's this idea of like you were saying everything from GPS or mRNA scenes or whatever it might be that there are so many different players who have to contribute to that for that linear line to keep working the way it does. Because there isn't just this one, like you said, this one great man that shows up in and changes the game.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. Because increase in performance of any of these things you can and measure is exponential. It's only up into the right linearly if you're charting this on a log scale. And so, anytime you have exponential growth, that's one of the reasons that these fits and starts of new innovations just gets smoothed out in the end because if you're looking at 100 years of innovation, it doesn't matter so much if a key innovation comes in year five or year 10 once you get to year 80 you're still going to get to roughly the same place.

Quinn:
Sure. And it's I think now of, I mean, there's no better way to pit environmentalists against each other than to talk about climate capture, which is every single net zero pledge, which are mostly bullshit, whether it's a country or a company depends on if you read the fine print, sucking a hell of a lot of stuff out of the air whether it's through trees or machines. And the problem is we know that it kind of works, but it's incredibly expensive and we're nowhere near scaling it. But you could have said the same thing about solar panels not too long ago. It's just that we decided to scale those and innovate on them. And now you find the most optimistic IEA projection from the last 10 years and the real price of solar panels or batteries. Just the cost alone makes them look ridiculous. Makes them look incredibly conservative. And that's not to say that innovation is guaranteed or that scale is guaranteed. Or this thing that we need to do for humanity is guaranteed, but it does imply that it's very... It's hard to take the conversation seriously when someone's like, "It doesn't work. It's too expensive." Without acknowledging the history of how these things and innovation actually [crosstalk 00:21:18].

Christopher Mims:
Right, and let let's project into the future, and let's apply one of the principles that this research discovered. Key innovations come from outside of the fields that they impact most. So, a hypothetical for you.

Quinn:
Please.

Christopher Mims:
I don't know, a couple weeks ago I was talking to Sam Altman, which is not a thing that normally happens, the co-founder of Y Combinator. I haven't talked to him in six years. The only reason he wanted to talk was he wants to talk about the 375 million he just put into this company, which has a totally novel way of doing fusion energy. So, basically they claim that something the size of shipping container, it's this totally novel application, sorry, mechanism could generate I think 50 megawatts of power and that they could get us down to an electricity cost of one cent per kilowatt hour. So, let's say this works or one of the other fusion startups that are out there, and we get tons of, if not free energy, nearly free energy. The original promise of nuclear power, which shouldn't work out because the waste is a problem because the scale is too big.

Quinn:
Sure, sure.

Christopher Mims:
Then what if we then are able to increase electricity production on the face of planet Earth by 10X or 100X or 1,000X without generating additional emissions then carbon capture starts to make sense, then electrifying literally every activity that we have so we can get to actually zero emissions starts to make sense. And now what do we do in the meantime with all of the warming that's still loaded in the atmosphere? Frankly, I'm a little bit bored by some of the conversations around geoengineering because I've been covering this for 15 years or I've been paying attention to it for at least that long, and no one has proposed anything new that I know of beyond the sulfate aerosols high in the atmosphere, maybe cloud seeding. And then every once in a while, you'll get somebody who'll mention the sun shade, [inaudible 00:23:30] or something, which is my favorite because you don't cause a bunch of acid rain or anything else [crosstalk 00:23:36]-

Quinn:
Right, you can turn it off a little quicker.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah, look, if we're going to start mining asteroids within the next 50 years, I don't see why we can't just put some big sunglasses on Earth while we're drawing down all the extra carbon we put in the atmosphere or whatever. The other thing is, we don't know what the future is. Maybe we decide, "Oh, shit, we'd rather spend that money on migrating a few billion people and just living on planet Earth in a different way-

Quinn:
Desalination.

Christopher Mims:
... which is not to be a Pollyanna at all. Because I think that the immediate future is extremely dire for the two or three billion human beings on Earth who basically are eating from a food shed, which is only as far as an ox drawn cart can travel. Those people are truly in a dire situation and I don't want to make light of that. But if you're going to go 50 or 100 years from now, there's so much innovation going on now that it is extraordinarily difficult to project where we'll be, and what we'll be relying on at that point in time.

Quinn:
Hey, it's Quinn. I'll make this quick. Sifting through the news is a slog. Finding the signal in the noise, it's damn near impossible. And if you do, what can you even do about it? I'll tell you what you can do. Literally, every week I'll tell you the most impactful thing you can do. In just 10 minutes a week, you can get smarter, feel better, and make radical change for yourself, your family, your investments, your company, and for the world. Join tens of thousands of other leaders and subscribe to our free weekly newsletter at newsletter.importantnotimportant.com. Get the most vital science news, exclusive analysis, and action steps for free. That's newsletter.importantnotimportant.com or just click the link right in your show notes. Back to the show.

Quinn:
Well, I loved this quote and I jotted it down and it's kind of perfect. One of the things, and when you wrote the article, and we'll put that in the show notes and everything. I get these incoming calls again, and I try to turn into the writing of the show, but I do a lot of one-on-one stuff. People, especially since COVID like, what's happening? What the hell is going to happen? Where are we going? Yada, yada, my answer is usually like, "I have no idea, man," but you wrote one of the conclusions of this group of academics is that it attempts to predict the exact nature of the next technological advance are doomed to fail, but their research could help us understand how quickly existing technologies are getting better, and I think that's key, right? Because like you were saying, for so many of these things, if you really try and look at them in an honest way it is turtles all the way down. It's so rare.

Quinn:
I mean, we can talk about fusion all day, that stuff, but it is turtles all the way down. And that's important to understand as we're looking at what are the things we need to do over the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years if we're going to put some benchmarks on some of these net zero pledges. Or as far as discovering new antibiotics, right? You thought COVID was bad? We can talk about that. It is important to understand that a lot of these existing technologies are here because we've scaled them over because they're ready to be built upon. I wonder, do you have any sort of either rote or even out of the box examples of places where existing technologies are getting better, going to keep getting better, and in sort of that predictable way?

Christopher Mims:
Out of the box examples, you say?

Quinn:
Yeah. I mean, either way. Let's sort of put some names on those things so we can understand how those compare to maybe some of these other outside ideas.

Christopher Mims:
Well, I mean, I'll just give you one that's top of mind because I just started reading a book on it. A lot has been made of the potential of so-called synthetic biology and everything from genetically modified organisms that give us more robust food supply to gene drives that make mosquitoes less likely to reproduce, which is going to be super important in a warmer weather world.

Quinn:
We just had a conversation about that with a guy in San Diego who, I mean, I'm not sure if you're aware or where you live, but Los Angeles went from no bugs, move here to it's real bad and that stuff is going to be important.

Christopher Mims:
Right, and a lot of tropical diseases that people in the United States are not used to coping with are on their way.

Quinn:
It's not great.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. So, I think that this is an area where a tremendous amount is and can happen. I think that it is held back by a couple of things. One is we all have some squeamishness about it, but two is I think we're squeamish about it partly because there hasn't been very good go on it. And so, if the only examples you can point to you are seed companies making it impossible for farmers to do seed saving and getting locked into an indenture servitude relationship with Monsanto or whoever because their seeds are sterile after the first time they plant them. That's just not a good precedent for what is the potential of GMOs versus let's put some genes in this rice, so a billion people in Bangladesh and South Asia don't starve to death.

Christopher Mims:
So, I think that there is just... As we saw with the mRNA vaccine, which is one of those great examples of an overnight success that was 20 years in the making. Thank God all of that research was happening before this pandemic hit us. There is so much incredible science loaded in the pipeline in the biotech pipeline because... I mean, I think we live in an age of digital and physical and Silicon technology, and we're used to manipulating those things, but I think it's not well appreciated that we now and more and more have this incredible power to manipulate the other type of meat-based robots and technology that's all around us. It drives me up the wall when people are like, "Oh, I'm so excited for nanotech." I'm like, "You are nanotech. You're surrounded by nanotech. There's nanotech everywhere."

Christopher Mims:
Go down to your local university and ask them what's going on in any of their biology labs. They're all nano technologists. You don't have to wait around for some mystical little Silicon bot to do this stuff for you. We can do this now. We have the technology. We have four billion years of life evolving it for us, and all we have to do is get on the chew-chew train and just ride it. So, I think all that synthetic biology stuff is going to be really, really incredible. And I think people miss it, frankly, because we are so obsessed with looking at our devices and our screens and thinking about the internet and having our Twitter feeds dominated by the likes of Elon Musk and everybody else who's getting venture capital to build out that kind of technology that we just miss all of this other squishier, more complicated stuff.

Quinn:
Sure. And I do, and this is again the goal of these... I think we've actually had two mosquito conversations because one it's the idea of CRISPR is one thing, genetic manipulation's another. Gene drives or however you want to phrase them. That's a conversation that needs to be had and needs to be an inclusive cooperative conversation just like the idea of using CRISPR to eliminate a disease because you need to make sure these conversations include people who are currently affected by it or who might inherit a specific gene, et cetera, et cetera. They are the stakeholders in these things.

Quinn:
The point is the more these conversations we can have, but I also wonder I'm a big fan of Mariana Mazzucato's work. I'm not sure if you're familiar with her. She's fantastic, and it's the idea of this mission oriented approach, and she's got a couple great books, and such on it. To brutally and greatly simplify just one part of it. It's effectively using the moon landing as an example. Okay. How do we reverse engineer go man on moon. It's a black or white outcome, right? So, now you measure all of your people and your systems and your agreements and your processes and your milestones against that. And you build truly cooperative, measurable conversations and processes. I think with everything we're talking about here, the need to fully decarbonize, biotech, the opportunity now with mRNA to eradicate possibly HIV or malaria, universal flu vaccines, whatever, inverted way to solid state batteries, whatever it is, more air conditioning with less of a power draw, there's food waste.

Quinn:
I just wonder if like you're saying we've got all this incredible stuff floating around us. We're so excited about what bullshit VC money is going into hard Silicon. I wonder if incorporating methodologies like these, whether it's at the government level, or corporate level, or whatever it might be into the greater puzzle could be more helpful. Because like you said, it's so funny, every time we interview a scientist, one of their specific action steps that we ask for they're always like, "Tell your Congress people to just vote for more basic science funding," because you're right. That opens up everything. But I also wonder if this mission oriented approach can be helpful-

Christopher Mims:
I agree that being goal-oriented is key. I mean, I would point out that while the US, a major funder of basic research in the United States is the Department of Defense. And what you just described is very close to the model for DARPA, and DARPA gets results. So, I agree, if you have a very particular goal... I mean, sometimes this is why businesses do so much if not innovation, at least commercialization in the US is because they're founded by these people who wake up and they're like, "Hey, I really want to reduce the cost of getting satellites to space by a factor of 100," or I mean I could name 1,000 companies that I've covered over the years and that's great. But yeah, for the basic science, frankly, I think DARPA does a great of job that. That's the reason that ARPA, which is the energy version of that was modeled on that as well. I think that's great.

Christopher Mims:
And then I think you have tons of investors now who have more money than anything because there's just so much sloshing around who are ready to kind of make these risky bets as well. Like, I mentioned, Sam Altman's like, "I'm going to put $375 million into one startup. That's huge. That's a super high risk thing for a single investor to do. So, yeah, I agree. It should be goal-oriented in that way-

Quinn:
But I also... Go ahead.

Christopher Mims:
.. but basic science also gets us the grist that [crosstalk 00:35:29]-

Quinn:
Sure. And it doesn't need to be black or white by any sense. But there is like you're saying, DARPA does give results. It has forever. I mean, half the things in my office right now have roots in DARPA turtles all the way down, no question. And you can try to fight against that or try to fight against, we didn't need the space shuttles. It's like, "Well, now you have Uber, so you're welcome." So, it's interesting to me because it doesn't have to be black or white, but we have these. And I often thought of, again, and I went to a liberal arts college where there was nine people in the class and just ask a bunch of questions, and higher education certainly has its pros and cons these days.

Quinn:
But I often thought about this idea of how do we reframe some college majors as instead of just political science or religion or whatever into water scarcity, and then what all the different elements that you need to take to go into that? Identifying these larger societal problems. Again, whether it's Jimmy Carter chasing, and he's like, "I'm going to eradicate Guinea worms." Or we're looking at malaria and you can pay two bucks and it saves the life and bed nets, and you've got these highly effective things and they're great, but we've got the basic science on one hand, and now how do we apply this mission philosophy to identify a societal thing and just go after it.

Quinn:
The reason I, as much as it excites me, when I think about how are we going to do that with decarbonization, which is this humanity wide goal is we had a humanity wide goal this year, which was to inoculate the entire population of the planet, and we're kind of not doing that. We've been stuck at four billion people unvaccinated for a couple months now. And that I guess gets into less about the technological innovation and more about humanities and aid instincts to go, "What does investment really mean, and how are we going to apply it, and to go to the top who benefits from innovation? What does progress really mean? And if we couldn't pass this specific test, how are we going to apply that to some of these other things?

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. And I mean, let's be clear, religion, philosophy, et cetera, are cognitive technologies. And I mean, good luck trying to change human nature, but we are flexible as a species. I do think that we could probably spend a lot more time thinking about how do we build better cognitive technologies and ways to organize ourselves. I mean, I feel like during the Obama years there was a little bit of that where people were like, "Oh, have you heard that behavioral economists have this whole concept of nudging people into doing the right thing?" That's fine but we are still the same people who not so long ago were wearing animal pellets and making human and animal sacrifices on the solstice. We are still very much ideologically driven beings. There's always a war for ideas going on and probably we need more people willing to fight that battle in a conscientious way.

Quinn:
Yeah, who knows? But it's so funny, you make such a good point and this ties back to innovation, and four billion years of evidence, and this and that because the dawn of the industrial age really not so long ago. It's literally like Peaky Blinders, and we have both made incredible advances in innovations along that timescale. We fuck the place up pretty good along the way. There's been some enormous trade offs, but it's interesting because when you say we're not so far off from animal pellets. Chronologically, we're really not. And so, you empathized a little bit with these primal instincts, and programming that we have to act a certain way and protect ourselves and our family and our investments or whatever it might be to hoard lifesaving vaccines during a pandemic, whatever it might be. But we are on the cusp of the receipts coming due for, for a lot of these choices we've made. And so it does require less nudging at times and more... Again, you hate to throw the word regulation out there because it'll just piss people off, but we have to make some better choices.

Christopher Mims:
Well, by the way, I think that that's a complete myth. People love regulation. I don't care who you are. There's 10% of the political constituency of the world is actually a diehard libertarian, but liberal, conservative, I don't care what your political orientation is, they all love regulation. It's just they can't agree on what direction they want to regulate things in. And that's why bipartisanship is so hard. But to get back to the earlier point you were making, yeah, we're more sophisticated than ever. There was this thing that happened called the enlightenment. It can feel some days like we're backs lighting from that. But I do think that we do need more people articulating new sets of values about how we sort of conduct ourselves as global citizens and how we use all this power in this technology and ways that better our life.

Christopher Mims:
Maybe I'm an idealist, but I still think that rationality can help orchestrate that. It's not actually organize people. As much as I get annoyed by his antics I think one of the really brilliant things about Elon Musk is that he is constantly just trolling the world into making the things happen that he wants. I mean, he's a little bit Donald Trump in that way. He's also just kind of an amazing meme lord, and manipulator of people's ideologies, but we're not going to... I don't think we're going to calmly and rationally convince people to do the things that are required to make life persist on this planet in the face of climate change. I think it's going to be a lot messier and it's going to require a lot more sloganeering.

Quinn:
For sure. We definitely need better and more sloganeering. There's no doubt. We've been pretty bad at that for a while. I mean, but like you said, there is a reason folks Donald Trump and Elon Musk for all their very many pros and cons, how many corporate and government leaders throughout history have basically been either one of those, but haven't had fucking Twitter, and this is the super fun fact.

Christopher Mims:
What would Rockefeller do if he'd had Twitter or [inaudible 00:42:12] for that matter?

Quinn:
I mean, it's the ultimate don't meet your heroes kind of thing. I mean, I'm from Colonial Williamsburg. You can idolize some of these things as much as you want, but it turns out most of these guys, not great, but complicated. They did some great things and that's why focusing less on people and more on ideas, and what progress means to more people is probably helpful.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. What if Alexander Hamilton had Twitter? Would we have gotten the Federalist papers or would he have just whipped up people on social media?

Quinn:
Right. No, 100%. I mean, there was a point where he was like, "I don't know, maybe we should have a king." Yeah, we can dig into that. They're complicated dudes, but it also makes me think of coming back to this, the nullify nullifying of the great man theory through this research is like... And all this money floating around like we were saying, and how that could be repurposed. I wondered when you're a VC or an angel investor or whatever corporate VC looking, and there's these standard boxes you try to check when you're deciding if you're going to make an investment. It's like, how big is the market? Does this person have market fit? Is there a product at all? Is this a founder with passion who gets it? Yada, yada, and I just wonder how much do these "general founders" actually not have as much of an impact as your standard investors might really think because it seems like through the research that it's going to keep going no matter what. Maybe slightly different in smaller scales along the way, but it's like booking at California's collection of 90 degree days every year. You've got ups and downs, but over time it's like this.

Christopher Mims:
Sure. But I mean, if innovation is comprised of many, many people working together, and making new breakthroughs on their own and building new companies, the impact is cumulative. So, you should still be a founder. You should still be an innovator. You should still be an investor because it is the aggregate of all of that activity that ultimately makes a difference. The bad news is nobody gets to save the world. The good news is everyone gets to save the world a little bit. So, I think it's a shift of mindset. We're all raised on a certain type of Western individualism and superhero movies and all that bullshit, and you just have to get a little more zen about it and be like, "I am a tiny cog and a giant machine, but I better perform my role." It's more of a collectivist mindset, but I just think that's actually how civilization works.

Quinn:
Hey, everyone, it's Quinn. Have you ever looked around your job and thought, "What are we even doing here?" If you've ever wanted to take your skills to more impactful work to do world changing work, let me tell you, now's the time. With just one click, you can find a job that does that work at importantjobs.com. Important Jobs is for journalists, students, engineers, software developers, accountants, designers, nurses, research assistants, people who want to work in clean energy, consumer products, health tech, agriculture, and artificial intelligence. And if you work for a company or organization already doing that work, you can list your open roles at Important Jobs for competitive rates and get them in front of our entire community. Reinvigorate your career on the front lines of the future at importantjobs.com. Back to the show.

Quinn:
One of my biggest frustrations with the movement to slow the climate crisis is just the overwhelming prevalence of gatekeepers. And I understand and empathize with people who've been doing this for a long time. The OGs who are like, "We need to do this, this, and this, and nothing else." The world has changed. We haven't done those things for the most part. We've done some things. Robinson Meyer wrote about the green vortex that's been working in the background. There's other things we need to do, but there's other things that are newly available. But I think about like you were saying, everyone has to do their little bit. It's not just one of the big arguments is it's not personal actions. It's only systemic shit that matters. And other people are like systemic shit-

Christopher Mims:
I got to cut you off because I've been thinking about this for a decade, and I think we're actually at a turning point. I think that entire debate is moot. You can just put it in a pine box, and toss it off your ship into the ocean.

Quinn:
I couldn't more excited.

Christopher Mims:
Here's why, the things that are actually going to make a difference to saving the planet are already out of the hands of all those gatekeepers and all those environmentalists. So, all the innovations that are coming, all the investment, that is in the hands of people like the CEO of Ford motor company who's like, "You know what, I'm finally going to commit to get Americans to buy electric trucks. It's in the hands of the people who are building out the charging infrastructure. It's in the hands of the investors who are arm wrestling the US into getting more offshore wind. It's in the hands of the innovators who are building nuclear fusion.

Christopher Mims:
While all those people are having debates on social media and Twitter and gate keeping each other I'm fine with that because good, go fight amongst yourselves, keep each other busy, and just stay out the way while the grownups do the actual work. Now, that's a very dismissive way to phrase it. But what I mean is there are different phases in the transition between a social movement, and a full civilization wide technological movement. You need all of these dyed in the wool people who have been very Cassandra style ringing the alarm bells about climate change and everything else for the longest time to get the initial ball rolling of innovation and incentives. And let's not forget that activists have done amazing things like gotten Nixon of all presidents to create the EPA. The Clean Water Act is one of the best things that's ever happened in this country.

Quinn:
To everybody.

Christopher Mims:
People don't even know it because rivers aren't catching fire anymore, and we just get to take that for granted. But that was a thing that used happened before the Clean Water Act, and/or all of the incentives for electric cars, and all the big loans that came out of the government, which allowed a company like Tesla to exist in the first place. Tesla wouldn't exist if they hadn't gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loans nor would all of these companies, car companies be working so hard on rolling out electric vehicle if California, and then federal car emission standards weren't just twisting the screws more and more to the point where they looked at their fleets and they're like, "We cannot continue to sell vehicles unless a significant portion, and eventually all of them are electric because there's no other way to meet these emission standards. We can't do it with internal combustion engines."

Christopher Mims:
And now you have these promises that are being made at COP and Glasgow. Who knows if those will amount to anything? But we're already at the point where the most valuable energy company in the world is in Spain, and it's a renewable energy company. And Exxon mobile is shrinking and saying, "We're going to get into the carbon capture and storage business." All that started initially because of all these gate keeping environmentalists. At this point, they can just go whatever, pet their comfort animals, and eat their fake meat, and everyone else, the rest of the society whether they will admit it or not is adopting their ideology.

Christopher Mims:
They won. They won. Fake meat is at Burger King now. You can buy an electric F150. Today, you can get on the waiting list. There's a million other things that are happening because people are like, "Oh, shit, we can make money at this." And look, I know a lot of people are waiting for the socialist revolution, but until that happens, the engines of capital are groaning into action, and trillions of dollars of capital is being deployed to make this happen. Whatever all those other gatekeepers want to say about it.

Quinn:
I do... Look, I fully agree, the momentum is there. You can now buy, I mean, literally in the last 18 months, seven different versions of plant-based chicken nuggets that are fucking fantastic. How long have I been waiting for that? That's great. I dropped meat 10 years ago and it was awful. It was truly awful, and now it's just like, "Yeah, they're really great. And I eat so many of them because my kids are really obnoxious."

Christopher Mims:
Yeah, because you're being an early adopter because you're the one who showed those companies, there is an audience for this, and now your belief will spread not because you convinced anybody else to believe as you believe, but because it's available, and it's affordable, and it's delicious.

Quinn:
Yeah, and that's what matters. I mean, I do empathize with... Again, I reframed how we look at things here as we call it, science for people who give a shit about a year and a half ago because there's just more people who do everyday people for a huge variety of reasons. You have already been directly touched by COVID or climate or whatever it might be, or you're invested in clean energy, whatever it is. So, we're the home for that shit. But there are so many... As much as the levers have been pulled, and so many of these things are because of the long time OGs and gatekeepers have been doing it. Thank you. You can just enjoy this now. Yes, we need to move faster, and yes, we need to do more. And yes, there's predatory delay from the last of the fucking oil and coal barons who are throwing their last money at lobbying.

Christopher Mims:
Right. Like Manchin literally owns a coal company in West Virginia and is blocking the next bill that we're supposed to get, which is supposed to be Biden's big climate action bill. There is substantial irony and tragedy in that.

Quinn:
Yes, 100% [crosstalk 00:52:01]-

Christopher Mims:
Those are the gatekeepers you got to worry about

Quinn:
Oh yeah, no for sure. And that's the thing is we have to overcome those, but I do empathize and want to constructively help those people who are new to this thing who are just like, "What the fuck do I do?" And it's hard to say the wheels are in motion, it's happening. Just enjoy your fake chicken nuggets. It's like, they do want to have a role in this thing and they do want to participate. And a lot of them will become founders or academics or fucking journalists or writers or designers. And my answer usually when people are like, "What can I do? Is, well, Chris what can you do? What are your passions? What are your skills? What are those things?" Because we do need those things, and you do need them on the local level. Like Los Angeles finally voted.

Quinn:
I mean, fucking finally voted two weeks ago to put a buffer in between new oil drills and schools and houses. And you're like, "We just did that?" But also it's only the new ones. There are so many that are still going literally next to black kid schools in Los Angeles. They have horrible asthma. They don't sleep at night. It's hotter, yada. And so, I do think those sort of, again, to use the word collective actions matter because your personal actions don't really do shit on the system level except to make you feel a little better. It is the actions that will build momentum to add up to building those buffers, to buying more fucking Teslas, which now makes Ford go like, "All right, I guess we'll make an F-150," and also, by the way, make it seemingly awesome. And now you've got tons of pre-orders. That shit does matter. So, I am interested in getting this new generation to use the most leveraged ways to affect those fixes whether they're societal, technological, or whatever it might be.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. And by the way, the best way to get leverage is to be incredibly focused and not overly ambitious. I think that we live in a time where we're saturated by media and calls to pay attention to this issue or that issue or whatever else. But the moment where we shut out the 99% of calls for our attention, except for the one thing that we are truly really passionate about and feel we can make a difference in terms of that's when you gain real power because whatever that issue is, it doesn't matter how narrow it is. I'll give you one quick example. I'm actually wearing a shirt right now. You probably can't see it, but it's Glen to the good witch. This is a shirt. This was a fundraiser, and it is for a trash wheel, and most people don't know what a trash wheel is because it's a local thing. I live in the Mid-Atlantic on the Chesapeake.

Christopher Mims:
There was this one eccentric inventor and there was actually a great, I think CNET documentary about him. He was like, "There's all this trash flowing into the Baltimore's inner harbor. How can I deal with this?" He's not especially technically skilled, but he is very stubborn. And he invented this thing that it's powered by currents and solar power that uses renewable energy. It sits at the mouth of all these rivers that go into the various harbors around here. And it just literally has a conveyor belt that just sucks up trash and dumps them into these big dumpsters, which are then emptied periodically. And these things have intercepted, I think over their past five years now, there's four of them, millions of pounds of trash to the point where you can walk around my part of the Chesapeake now, and there was noticeably less trash, and it was this one dude's weird tilting at windmills 20 year quest, but he was focused enough to make it happen. And then pair with an organization that gave him the grants.

Christopher Mims:
This is not radical technology. It's just that this guy was like, "Let's take what we have and apply it intelligently to this problem." And now people all over the world, cities all over the world are like, "Will you build us a trash wheel? And we'll put it here in Ecuador and this and that other things." And it's like, wow, we have this huge problem with ocean trash. This guy came up with a workable solution. It's mechanically not complicated. That's one of its virtues, but he had that focus. And now this guy could not single handedly, but through his actions eventually eliminate the Texas size specific garbage patch once all that stuff finally sticks.

Christopher Mims:
So, I could give you 100 examples like this because I talk to people like this all day long, but when someone focuses on whatever issue they care about, whether it's gender equity, or racial equity, or education, or women's access to adequate healthcare, or any of these technological things we're talking about, people can make a huge difference because most of us are just trying to survive. And if we care about things at all, as humans, I think our great weakness is we feel this incredibly strong drive to keep up appearances and be like, "Well, I know the correct language to use in this social context so I can appear to be enlightened." But it's like, cool. But what have you actually done for the disempowered group whom you are trying to not offend with your choice of words in this moment? I feel like most people just spend most of their time, even if they care about this stuff just trying to maintain appearances instead of trying to do something of substance.

Quinn:
No fully. And I empathize at any given time I can probably name, and forgetting all of this work. I probably know two friends of friends with a fucking GoFundMe for medical bills. We're all being pulled in 10,000 different directions because so many of these systems are fucked. So, I do empathize with this idea of what can I do? I'm supposed to do everything. And being scattered I can tell you day to day with three kids, it's not helpful. You don't get shit done. Focus really does matter. And the good news is like when I say to people, "Okay, so Chris, what can you do? What are your skills, your interests, your passions, or what did you in seventh grade science? That matters because also there's already incredible people in groups who are doing that one specific thing, and you can either fucking donate to them or volunteer with them or join them, whatever it is, and use that leverage because they already probably some of these best practices and ways to get in there.

Quinn:
But like you said, like the trash wheel, I mean the news last week there's a young black woman who's now I think in high school, but she's in college now. She used beats to develop sutures that change colors when they're infected because 30% of deliveries in 88 African countries, maternal deliveries end up being infected, and you're like fucking beats? That's it. But you just never know. She's not going to scale that. But there are so many organizations that are like, "Wait a minute. Oh, my God. Holy shit." And that's that little point that matters because there are people that care, there are people that really focused on those things, and it does matter. I mean, this is the opportunity of having so much shit that we need to fix and that we can fix because of the time and everything that's gone into these innovations is that you can apply yourself in a huge variety of ways. But like you said, sort of picking those things, making sure they're measurable, and that they matter, and that you give a shit about them is what's going to make you actually have some application to your... Whether it's your fury or your passion.

Christopher Mims:
Right. Sometimes that's a completely abstract thing. So, I mean, I just listened to an interview with, I think her name is Lily Singh, and she is a self described creator. She's a creator and a comedian on YouTube. She's not going to solve world hunger, but what animates her is she's like, "I grew up watching movies and TV where there was nobody who looked like me, and now people come up to me all the time, and they're like, my little sibling thinks it's totally normal that you're famous and you're doing movies and all this other stuff as a result of her YouTube fame. And now I feel like I'm no longer invisible." So, wholly for her. Her thing that she decided to focus on that animated her was representation and her vehicle was becoming a creator. I think it's easy to be like, "Oh, people who are just making videos all day long for YouTube, that's frivolous. What's the point?" But no, she's actually made a big impact by her own account.

Quinn:
100%, 100%, and the flip side of that is America has for all the incredible... If you look at the top 10, 25, whatever companies on the S&P or NASDAQ or whatever it might be, I mean, how many of them are headed up or were founded by immigrants, but for whatever reason, we've stopped doing as many of those green cards and the research. And you're just like, but it's so important for people to see those people. Whether they're running YouTube videos or whatever it might be. It does matter. So if that's your thing, then that's great. Again, find your thing that you can do and do well, and apply it, and it'll matter. I want to get you out of here. I'm going to ask you one question we ask everybody, Chris. I mean, first of all, thank you for your time and your expertise. I feel like this could be a four hour conversation, but what is a book you've read this year, can't say your own, that has opened your mind to something you hadn't considered before, or has actually changed your thinking in some way. We've got 100 plus books up on our bookshop list, and we'll throw it on there.

Christopher Mims:
So, actually the book that I just... There's a bunch because I'm an avid reader, but one that I'm really, really loving that I feel like has not gotten nearly enough attention. I think it's because it just came out, but this one I think is a super hit. I'm predicting this is going to be one of the most influential books of the next 10 years. So, you heard it here first.

Quinn:
Please.

Christopher Mims:
It's by an academic and also gift writer named Beth Shapiro, and it's called Life As We Made It. And here's what's unique about this book. She is an expert in ancient DNA who successfully articulates the following thesis, we should get elbow deep in doing everything we can with biotech to preserve life on Earth, our own, and that of the many species that we now have the power to manipulate because there's really no such thing as nature because we've been manipulating it for tens of thousands of years. And as an ancient DNA specialist, she has the receipts to prove it.

Christopher Mims:
So, she takes you on this wild journey from 100,000 years ago to potentially 1,000 years in the future, and she totally sticks the landing. She's not just some random, know nothing journalist like me. She's been studying this for decades. So, this is the best introduction to, and I think almost rallying cry for our future on Earth as masters of synthetic biology. It'll change your mind. This book will change your mind no matter what your beliefs systems are because there's so many unorthodox conclusions in it that she really buttresses quite well.

Quinn:
That's amazing. I'll throw it in the list. I will immediately read it and probably email her to come on the show right after.

Christopher Mims:
She would be a great guest, I'm sure.

Quinn:
But that's amazing. I mean, look, of course, things can be... You don't have to go too far down the Monsanto, Wikipedia hole to see that things can be done in a negligent, poor/worse way than they should be done in a huge variety of ways, but [crosstalk 01:03:51]-

Christopher Mims:
You can use nuclear power to eradicate a city or you can use it to create carbon free energy. It's up to you.

Quinn:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, we're humans, we're going to fuck it up, but we can all also do incredible things. It's like how I feel when we talk about, I'll never buy GMO foods. I hate to break it to you, but corn didn't used to look like this.

Christopher Mims:
That's one of her first examples. It's a great example.

Quinn:
Yeah, it didn't used to look this. Vegetables used to be this and that. It's like, sorry, it's been happening this entire time. That's just what we do, and that's what we've done. And also that's why we have rice that's more available to way more people than used to be. But the point is I'm interested and I'm going to dig into it, and I'm very excited. It has eight Amazon reviews. So, we're going to bump that up. That's very exciting. Well, listen, man, I can't thank you enough for your time today. This has been fantastic. We might have to do another one at some point, but thank you for all your work you do. Can you give a shout out to where folks can find you online, but also with the journal and such?

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. I mean, just go to mims.club is my universal-

Quinn:
That's amazing. Hold on.

Christopher Mims:
That's my redirect. I think right now it redirects to my book, mims.club. I need to-

Quinn:
Wait, can we give a real plug for your book, too? Because we touched on it a little bit.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. So, my book is called Arriving Today From Factory to Front Door: Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. It's about eCommerce, it's about supply chains. It's also about automation and the present and future of work. So, if you're interested in any of those topics, hopefully the price to the book is worth it for you because it's a bunch of different chapters on all these different subjects.

Quinn:
Definitely, we'll put that in the show notes and on book club list as well. I mean, again, folks, it's like how we were all trapped in our living rooms for a year. If you didn't think science was affecting your life, it does. And if you didn't think these supply chain issues are affecting your life, try ordering your Christmas presents later than next week, and you'll discover that you should probably read Chris' book. That's awesome. Mims.club is just, goddammit, that's great. That's really great. So, we will have everybody follow you, and hound you, and check everything out. So, thank you for your time, man. I really, really appreciate it. And yeah, we'll do it again sometimes soon.

Christopher Mims:
Yeah. Looking forward to it.

Quinn:
Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dishwashing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.

Brian:
You can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @Importantnotimp, just so weird. Also, on Facebook and Instagram @importantnotimportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. And if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple podcast. Keep the lights on, thanks.

Quinn:
Please.

Brian:
And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website importantnotimportant.com.

Quinn:
Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day.

Brian:
Thanks, guys.