Why the top is getting harder to defend
Life traces a hierarchical rhythm. Stronger animals prey on weaker ones, who eat plants, which themselves soak up the bounties of abundant sunlight. The natural world is often perceived as a place of violence and ferocious competition, and certainly documentaries will shift any viewer’s perception that direction. The reality is far more benign, for a durable and stable peace typically reigns in nature. Most of life is not running from predators, but rather eluding them when the brief moment of terror arrives.
That peace is earned, of course. Prey strive not to get eaten, not just by fleeing but also by developing strategies to protect themselves. Species evolve over millions of years to secure niches that counter hierarchical ordering. Prairie dogs burrow, finding safety in the subterranean. Many monkey species live and fly through the trees, protected from the dangers below by vertiginous distance. This multiplication of niches subdivides the hierarchy, maintaining its basic structure but offering advantage to more species.
What’s critical to maintaining the natural order and life’s long peace is the limits of change. Evolution works over eons, not days or hours. Prey, for all of their sprinting, cannot escape their place in the food chain, at least not in the short term. Cross-species cooperation is challenging, and there are no institutions in the animal kingdom coordinating fights against those animals at the very top. Outside of environmental change, apex predators hold their position essentially in perpetuity.
When it comes to human affairs, natural metaphors seep into our analysis with frightening abundance, and particularly with regards to power and dominance. America is the unipolar nation, Google is a hegemonic tech monopoly, Elon Musk is the richest person in the world. Each in their own right a type of apex predator, with the supposed structural dominance that comes with their position in the ordering of human civilization. America spends multiples on defense than all other top nations combined, Google secured $60 billion in net income in 2022, and Musk has tens of billions of dollars of resources at his fingertips (plus a declining social media network). By appearances, these are entities not to be trifled with, where predator and prey are well-established.
The natural world is relatively stable for all of its dynamism and diversity, but the same cannot be said of humanity. Social, political and economic evolution does not take eons, and change can happen with thunderous alacrity. Adaptability is one byword, and nations, companies and individuals can rapidly switch their niche and even strive to the apex themselves. The other byword is asymmetry. Humans can compete with far more than our hands and bodies, using a warren of tools that can make even the weakest individual formidable.
In fact, the position of apex predator is no longer the respite it once might have been. It’s excruciatingly challenging to be at the top and hold on to the perch, and the venomous feeling of humans is to depose that dominant leader as early and as ruthlessly as possible.
The apex predator has become the apex prey, the first target — and often the only target — of all other beings.
That’s why analogies between the natural world and human civilization are so fraught despite their ubiquity. Competition is endemic to human affairs, but the natural world is at once more complicated and wondrous. It’s not competition or cooperation, but rather a balancing that holds ecosystems and the eternal peace intact. Adaptability is hard, and asymmetry is rare. Constraints protect the status quo.
For humans, nearly every constraint can be shorn off for the fight. If America is the dominant superpower, then everyone from Al Qaeda and transnational crime networks to North Korea and China can employ asymmetric competitive strategies. Al Qaeda wielded terror as their weapon, the networks used the fungibility of currency to protect their turf, North Korea built nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare capabilities to defend its terrain, and China developed cheaper and more effective defensive technology like anti- access / area denial (A2/D2) that makes it ever harder for the U.S. to operate with impunity in East and Southeast Asia. America went from the exceptional, indispensable nation to “Are we going to make it?” in about two decades. Apex predator to apex prey.
We see the same refactoring in the corporate sphere, with all sights right now on Google. Here’s a monopoly that might not even reach its antitrust regulatory hearings before losing its business to new entrants built on novel technologies. Google’s search business for a decade had a dense layering of moats, from top-grade and expensive AI talent to huge fixed costs for market entry and an arms race with spammers that ensures that only an extremely disciplined organization could hope to maintain a lead. I am of a certain vintage of VC that the “Google question” was a regular feature of startup pitches (“What would happen if Google did the exact same thing?”) Now, there are dark clouds in those golden skies of advertising riches as the asymmetry of AI innovation rapidly changes Google’s position. Once an apex predator, now teetering.
As for individuals — well, the ups and downs of fortunes and egos is the very chronicle of the human story.
For apex prey, the complexity of maintaining that zenith position is proving too much in this world. America has dozens — billions — of challengers, Google faces fights on every front, and every human leader has millions who would like to and work to depose them. Add in the abundant asymmetric tools and the adaptability afforded by better wisdom, and countering those challenges is nothing short of impossible.
International relations scholars are obsessed with the “international order” and its balances. But is there even such an order when it remains so mercurial? Does an order exist when it’s entirely redefined in just a few years? Today, the theory is multipolarity, that we are headed toward a world of … ferocious competition between multiple major powers who each want to protect a sphere of influence (a wonderful analogue to biological niche).
That’s not an order, but rather chaos. And no one talks about “the international chaos” these days, leaving that for the historical philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who called — ironically — the chaos of politics and human affairs in Leviathan “the natural condition of mankind” and often summarized as “the state of nature.” Yet, it is nature that is ordered and humanity which is bedlam.
Our constant referral to the natural is really a harkening for the long-standing serenity that well-balanced orders of life offer. We want to find our unique niches insulated from the trepidations of the wider world, and place ourselves in a stable harmony. Everyone dreams of being the lion, but increasingly, we also dream of being the gazelle. For today in human experience, all we do is run, run run run — and chaos ensures it rarely matters in the end anyway.
The complex securities of El Niño
This past week, the U.S. government officially declared El Niño, which portends a shifting climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean with worldwide implications. Warmer weather is expected in the American Northeast and Midwest, along with much of the breadbaskets (rice baskets?) of Southeast Asia and Latin America. Drought will strike some regions, and torrential flooding others. Food supplies will be crimped, leading to potentially devastating famines in countries like Sri Lanka, which are already facing heart-rending food security challenges. One analyst analogized it to a terrorism threat.
As we talk about stability and international chaos, climate remains the threat multiplier par excellence. El Niño is a perfect example of this: far from being a well-defined problem with a clear set of solutions, the weather pattern will instead trigger a complex cascade of challenges that will result in dozens of different and variable effects globally. As I described last year in “Warming Hyperthreat”, it’s an enemy that we can't see, but stalks us anyway.
The open question for scientists is the intensity of the heat. So far this year, ocean temperatures are jumping, with no easy explanation on hand. As Scott Dance wrote in the Washington Post:
A steady and remarkable rise in average global ocean temperatures this year is now outpacing anything seen in four decades of satellite observations, causing many scientists to suddenly blare alarm over the risks and realities of climate change. But even those typically aligned on climate science can’t agree on what, exactly, triggered such rapid warming and how alarmed they should be.
In the Pacific Ocean, warming temperatures are to be expected during El Niño — its impacts on weather around the world stem from warmer-than-normal surface waters along the equatorial Pacific. But the extreme warmth extends beyond the Pacific. Record warmth is also occurring in the equatorial and northern Atlantic — and in the tropics, where hurricanes form. “This is totally bonkers and people who look at this stuff routinely can’t believe their eyes,” Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, wrote on Twitter. “Something very weird is happening.”
Some analysts over the years have dubbed global warming “global weirding” for the strange and often random effects that climate change brings to bear on Earth (the name didn't catch on, thankfully). But that "weirding" is really a panoply of threat multipliers — and they are each arriving faster and changing faster than ever before.
- Not exactly novel, but I recommend Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. It’s one of the best-executed video games of all time, and while indeed a sequel to the supremely successful Breath of the Wild, it highlights the pinnacle creative verve of Nintendo. It’s worth the price of a Switch alone.
- Ina Deljkic recommends news from Stanford that “Researchers treat depression by reversing brain signals traveling the wrong way.” “’This is the first time in psychiatry where this particular change in biology — the flow of signals between these two brain regions — predicts the change in clinical symptoms,’ [Nolan Williams, MD] said.”
- Our summer associate Koko Xu recommends two pieces from Anna-Sofia Lesiv, who writes at Contrary Capital. The first is “The Silent Rise of Solar Power”: "Remarkably, solar panels today are actually 10 times better than plants at converting sunlight into energy.” Second, he recommends “The Satellite Renaissance” in Every. "Finally, after years of tinkering with laser communications protocols, NASA will be rolling out its own optical communications systems, which will be able to relay information between satellites and ground stations much faster.”
- Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman loved Benj Edwards’s piece in Ars Technica on “I just bought the only physical encyclopedia still in print, and I regret nothing.” "Although I've warned about AI-generated misinformation on Ars Technica as well, I'm still optimistic that people who are cognizant of these issues can get through the coming decade with factual electronic knowledge at hand. But just in case I'm wrong, a little voice in the back of my head reasoned that it would be nice to have a good summary of human knowledge in print, vetted by professionals and fixed in a form where it can't be tampered with after the fact—whether by humans, AI, or mere link rot. That's appealing to me.”
- Our producer Chris Gates suggests Katrina Miller’s New York Times piece, “A ‘Soda Ocean’ on a Moon of Saturn Has All the Ingredients for Life.” “‘We weren’t expecting this. We didn’t look for it,’ said Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at the Free University of Berlin who led the study. He described the realization that they had found phosphates (chemicals containing the element phosphorus) as a ‘tantalizing moment.’”
- Grace Isford recommends “FinGPT: Open-Source Financial Large Language Models.” The researchers write that “…we showcase several potential applications as stepping stones for users, such as robo-advising, algorithmic trading, and low-code development.” Meanwhile, Koko highlights “Emergent autonomous scientific research capabilities of large language models,” whose researchers "present an Intelligent Agent system that combines multiple large language models for autonomous design, planning, and execution of scientific experiments.”
- A beautiful entanglement of complex security comes from the New York Times, which describes America’s dependence on Russia for fissile material for nuclear power plants. "The reliance also leaves current and future nuclear plants in the United States vulnerable to a Russian shutdown of enriched uranium sales, which analysts say is a conceivable strategy for President Vladimir V. Putin, who often wields energy as a geopolitical tool.”
- Koko recommends Nicole Ruiz’s piece on “How Startup Narratives Form: Frontier Tech Case Studies,” who identifies patterns across different startup sectors and how to counteract common concerns about emerging technologies.
- Finally, in honor of this weekend’s Juneteenth holiday, I recommend Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, an eye-opening book (particularly for Silicon Valley denizens) of the harsh redlining against Black Americans in the Bay Area and across the United States that set back the growth of Black wealth for generations. You’ll never think of Palo Alto’s Foothills Park again, which, after decades of exclusivity, is now open to all.
That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.