Forecasting Futureforming

From eight to infinity.

News: Lux Capital raises its largest venture fund ever with Lux 8

Infinity or ∞ is conveniently a 90-degree rotation of the number 8, a number with a prosperous reputation across the world that also stands for the 8 bits in a byte that symbolizes Silicon Valley. And it’s the prosperity of infinite progress that will drive the world — and also Lux — forward. Today we are announcing our single largest fund to date with the successful closing of Lux Ventures VIII (Lux 8), an early-stage focused venture capital fund with $1.15 billion in Limited Partner commitments. With Lux 8, we will invest in and fully fund the most ambitious founders building hard science and deep technology companies, solving the world’s most pressing problems and futureforming the world we want to live in.

Curious what futureforming is and what we’re going to be up to? Well then, you should read the rest of the Lux 8 announcement.

Forecasting futureforming for the decade ahead

A lighthouse shining in the darkness
The future requires us to shine light in the foreboding darkness. Photo by Nathan Jennings on Unsplash

Well, if you didn’t click through, I’ll give you my definition of Josh Wolfe’s neologism: If terraforming is the transformation of a rock in space into a livable, breathable home for humans, then futureforming is the transformation of our collective foreboding future into one that’s ablaze with individual freedom and progress.

I have been reading and quite enjoying Sarah Bakewell’s new philosophical history Humanly Possible this week, a paean to the open inquiry of humanism over the centuries. One of the recurring themes of humanist writing, even before the rise of the Enlightenment that would enshrine it, is the notion that knowledge was locked away in the prison of the present, and it was only through the light of human faculties that we could vanquish the darkness that surrounded us. As Bakewell writes during the plague years of the Black Death, “… perhaps the most dramatic aspect of that change was in how Petrarch and his successors thought of themselves: their sense of drawing on a lost, distant past to create a path out of the dark.”

This included not just weighty intellectual ideas, but even the font weights of their tomes:

In their copying and writing, Coluccio, Niccolò, Poggio, and others developed a new style of handwriting to reflect their new spirit. Known as the “humanistic hand,” it was based on writing that they thought was from antiquity, though in fact it was none other than the minuscule first developed by Charlemagne’s scribes. Simple and easier to read than the usual medieval hand, it was perfect for readers who could set their own pace and get through many books, rather than having to recite texts aloud, with slow care, at a lectern. The humanists dismissed the more elaborate style as “Gothic,” an insult implying “barbarian” — as in the hordes of Goths and Vandals who had brought Rome to its earliest downfall. Their own rival style said everything about how they saw themselves: reviving old simplicity, sweeping away clutter, and ushering knowledge into the light.

(Ironically, we changed the font of the newsletter this week — if your mail client supports it, that is).

These early streaks of humanistic fervor would eventually lead to classifying history between the Dark Ages of the post-Roman era and the Enlightenment to come, a dichotomy that modern historians have assiduously worked to debunk.

Futureforming back then was about opening the locks of cognitive prisons. It was about lifting the heavy strictures of social life, ending the censorship of new ideas and thoughts like equality, and reclaiming the Greek and Roman canon which had been cultivated and improved upon for centuries before being “lost”.

Bakewell dedicates a chapter and many anecdotes to the extreme lengths that humanistic thinkers during the Renaissance went to seek out specific books and make duplicates of them. Before printing presses and even for many years after them, copies were in extraordinarily short supply. A quality library was extraordinarily precious, and a detour to an abbey or university was worth the perilous journey to reach it. In one case, humanists attempted to raise a sunk Roman ship with the goal of finding original manuscripts in their holds.

It’s an understandable situation — and one that feels all but alien. The idea of copying prolix volumes by hand boggles, as does the intellectual networks and multi-month journeys required to track down a single Greek play whose existence may or may not be real. Today’s darkness doesn’t descend from ignorance and the need for resurrecting the culture of the past, but rather from the waves of infinite information that break upon our thinking. We now really do live in Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel, with the same level of induced lunacy from the volume of volumes that surround us.

If futureforming then was about unleashing knowledge, then futureforming for what’s coming starts with ourselves: how do we cultivate our own sensibilities and reasoning to sift the knowledge that’s constantly thrown our way? How do we develop a moral core to be able to stand amidst chaos and act as a radiant lighthouse guiding the decade ahead?

There’s much work to be done. Take the story this past week of the leaks of U.S. intelligence documents. The leaking of classified documents has happened repeatedly in history, and often with an intentional moral purpose to expose wrongdoing, complacency or corruption. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to inform the American public about the true extent of the government’s duplicity about the Vietnam War. Edward Snowden, who remains a polarizing figure, wanted to inform Americans about the extent that their government was illegally surveilling their communications.

This new leak of documents though holds no moral purpose and is a potted portrait of the nihilism of modern American life. As the Washington Post described through a series of interviews with the leaker’s fellow Discord users:

The dramatic and yet nonchalant presentation also reminded the group that OG [the leaker’s Discord handle] could lay his hands on some of the most closely guarded intelligence in the U.S. government. “If you had classified documents, you’d want to flex at least a little bit, like hey, I’m the big guy,” the member said. “There is a little bit of showing off to friends, but as well as wanting to keep us informed.”


For all OG’s disdain for the federal government, the member said there was no indication that he was acting in what he thought was the public interest by exposing official secrets. The classified documents were intended only to benefit his online family, the member said. “I would definitely not call him a whistleblower. I would not call OG a whistleblower in the slightest,” he said, resisting comparisons to Edward Snowden, who shared classified documents about government surveillance with journalists.

As of now, the image we have is of a 21-year-old National Guardsman who posted images of classified documents just to prove that he had access to classified documents. There is no moral foundation here, no Enlightenment project to free imprisoned knowledge. They were uploaded because they could be uploaded.

That’s the innate nihilism that we have to futureform. We must all have a directional sense of progress, that the future is malleable and isn’t stagnant, and it is our actions daily and in aggregate across the years that will hone the compass of humanity.

Then we need to move beyond the cultivation of ourselves to the cultivation of the wider world. How do we want to futureform what we see around us? How should our cities change, our food systems, our infrastructure? How should medicine adapt given our shifting understanding of the human body and health? How should we incorporate the development of AI into our labor markets, our daily lives, and into our entertainment? How do we develop the world to account for climate change and the increasing claustrophobia of our dwindling verdant lands?

There are two needs here. One is the reenergizing of fundamental research in the hard sciences that have been waylaid first by the rise of complex, quantified finance in the 1980s and 1990s and then by the software boom of the 2000s and 2010s. Our best minds should find discoveries on the frontiers of human knowledge both rewarding intellectually, and equally rewarding economically. For all the abundance of knowledge, there’s still much we don’t know, particularly in domains like biology where the complex systems of the body remain arcana for empirical scientists.

But then, as those discoveries arrive in the years ahead, we need to cultivate them in our own lives and society the way we want them. Technology doesn’t just materialize into our futures, but can be placed there much more deliberately than how we have approached it recently. That doesn’t mean yelling “stop” at AI, but it does force us to ask about responsibilities and duties: where should technology end and humanity begin?

Bakewell writes later on about meliorism, which derives from Latin for “better”:

Discussing [George Eliot]’s meliorism, her biography Rosemary Ashton defined it as “the belief that the world is neither the best nor the worst of all possible worlds, but that it may be improved up to a point, and suffering alleviated, at least in part, by human effort.” Or, as Voltaire’s biographer Theodore Besterman wrote of his subject: Voltaire ”asserted that the human condition can become better, and invited mankind to do something about it.”

That’s where futureforming and terraforming depart. Terraforming is about recreating the paradise of Earth on other worlds, whereas futureforming is about directing us to a better one of the infinite future worlds that potentially await us. We won’t just arrive at our destination, but instead must navigate the treacherous waters of the years ahead, assuming — of course — that there’s any fresh water left and we don’t need to terraform Earth in the first place.

Podcast: “There are more astronauts alive than there are perfumers”: the complex supply chains of scents

Alex Wiltschko and Danny Crichton on the “Securities” podcast
Alex Wiltschko and Danny Crichton on the “Securities” podcast. Image by Chris Gates via DALL-E

While the natural world is fecund with a dazzling diversity of smells, the landscape of scents in our daily lives is far less organic. A handful of tightly-held fragrance companies and an extremely small guild of perfumers carefully craft the scents that go into every product we purchase, from the scent of clean laundry in our detergents to the orchestrated beauty of scents that make up a modern perfume. Our memories are — without too much exaggeration — controlled by roughly 600 people globally.

Returning to “Securities” for our second of two episodes on the science of smell, CEO and founder of Lux-backed Osmo Alex Wiltschko talks about the dynamics of the fragrance industry, the incredible scale of land required to make scents today, how perfumers perform their craft, the endlessly complicated supply chains of these products, why we have so few alternatives to natural scents, how climate change is causing dramatic shifts in ingredient prices, and finally, a bit on the future of green chemistry.

🔊 Take a listen

Lux Recommends

  • While we are on the subject, I really enjoyed Voyager VC’s piece on “The Decade of 1,000-Year Floods.” “Areas that are submerged and lead to rotting organic matter will produce methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Bursts of vegetation during wet years create the fuel for forest fires in hot, dry years.”
  • Tess van Stekelenburg highlights a new working paper from a group of researchers trying to improve the quality of GPT-4’s outputs regarding chemistry, which they dub ChemCrow. “ChemCrow not only aids expert chemists and lowers barriers for non-experts, but also fosters scientific advancement by bridging the gap between experimental and computational chemistry.”
  • Shaq Vayda recommends a podcast (and a pithy tweet summary) with current Biogen chairman Stelios Papadopoulos on his extraordinary life from 1960s radicalism to the frontiers of biotechnology.
  • I recommend Alex Murrell’s diatribe on the The Age of Average. “So, there you have it. The interiors of our homes, coffee shops and restaurants all look the same. The buildings where we live and work all look the same. The cars we drive, their colours and their logos all look the same. The way we look and the way we dress all looks the same. Our movies, books and video games all look the same. And the brands we buy, their adverts, identities and taglines all look the same. But it doesn’t end there. In the age of average, homogeneity can be found in an almost indefinite number of domains.”
  • Finally, a provocation from last month in The Atlantic by Jerry Hendrix on “The Age Of American Naval Dominance Is Over”. “Everywhere I look, I observe sea power manifesting itself—unacknowledged—in American life. When I drive past a Walmart, a BJ’s Wholesale Club, a Lowe’s, or a Home Depot, in my mind I see the container ships moving products from where they can be produced at a low price in bulk form to markets where they can be sold at a higher price to consumers. Our economy and security rely on the sea—a fact so fundamental that it should be at the center of our approach to the world.”

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.