Nathan Lustig

Three Years in Chile

Three years ago last week, I was in New York getting the last few things together before my trip to Chile. I’d never been to South America, barely spoke Spanish and really had no idea what to expect when I got off the plane. As I waited in the airport lounge at JFK, it still didn’t feel real. It was just like any other of the numerous flights that Jesse and I had taken during our year and a half running Entrustet.

It didn’t feel like we were going to a foreign country that had promised us $40,000 (that we couldn’t verify we’d actually receive), to a place where we didn’t speak the language, 16 hours from home.

Three years later, I’m still here. I’ve spent 27 of the past 36 months in Chile, learned Spanish, immersed myself into another culture, pushed myself out of my comfort zone, made incredible friends, started multiple businesses, taught at three universities, wrote two books and received my permanent residence. It’s been a long road, but after three years, I think I finally pretty much get Chile.

What have I learned over the past thee years? What’s changed in my life and in Chile? And why am I still here? Why did I stay? And what’s next?

It was a big change coming from the US and resettling in Chile. I’m very privileged in that in the US things usually came easily for me. I almost always knew what to say, how to talk my way into and out of situations, all the cool local tricks, the best places to eat, the best parks, the hidden treasures. I knew what body language meant and what each local reference or slang word really and truly meant. It wasn’t very difficult to be successful.

When I first got to Chile, I was completely lost. I could get around the city, order food, get a drink at a bar, but could barely keep a real conversation. I had to concentrate all the time. I wasn’t myself: I couldn’t be the leader that I was used to.

I didn’t know the culture, I didn’t know what slang meant. Even though most people were very friendly, I really learned what it is like to be an outsider. I wasn’t in on the inside jokes, the turns of phrase, longstanding friendships and so much more. It really made me appreciate how hard it must be to be an immigrant in the US. When people say “immigrants should just learn English” I used to think, yea, they should. But it takes a big effort and it’s not as easy I used to think.

Even after three years, I’m still not truly able to express myself perfectly in Spanish. I’m still not fast enough to make the same jokes I do in English. I probably tell half the stories that I would in English. And the ones that I do tell are half as good as the ones I tell in English! It’s really made me realize what it’s like to be an outsider, or at least someone without all of the built in advantages that I’ve been lucky enough to have.

I certainly miss things. First, my family and friends. In the US I lived my entire life in Milwaukee and Madison and was always within 90 minutes of my family and friends. I miss good customer service. I miss good cheese. I miss being able to listen to every conversation that’s going on around me without actually trying. I miss 250 different beer choices. I miss having a yard. I miss telling an awesome joke with perfect timing. I miss top quality, spicy and flavorful food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I miss my bike. I miss going to northern Wisconsin. Kopps ice cream. Watching all of my favorite sports on a big HDTV instead of illegally streamed on my little computer.

chilean beach

But I can get used to many of the small things because Chile really is an amazing country. I love being close to the pacific and the beach. Amazing seafood. Some great new friends. Playing more soccer. Sun 80% of the year. Being close to Argentina for long weekends. Traveling and exploring in South America. Peruvian food. Pisco sours. Going out dancing. Friends that have taken me into their homes, their families. Asados. The metro. Incredible business opportunities. An amazing $7 bottle of wine. Hearing the entire country scream goaaaaaal, when Chile scores. I certainly miss these things when I go back to the US.

As with all things, there are things that I’ll never get used to. Santiago’s pollution, especially in winter, makes the city just a few notches above unlivable. I’ll never get used to the massive amounts of dust. The classism. The Chilean “two dogs meeting” interview ritual. The rigid conservatism and class structure. Price fixing in big businesses. Going to three separate cash registers to buy an empanada. Waiting in long lines. Customer service reps who flat out lie to you. Living in small apartments. My new expat friends leaving every 6-12 months. So many smokers! Massive inequality and the inability for many people to see outside their own bubble of their own experience.

santiago smog

 

Chile’s changed, mostly for the better, since I arrived in 2010. My two favorite changes are the smoking ban in public places, plus the crackdown on drunk driving. Both of these laws have made Chile much more livable. I might not even still be in Chile if they hadn’t passed the smoking ban. It used to be terrible!

There are way more foreigners in Chile now compared to 2010. When I first got to Chile people asked us incredulously “why are you here???” Now it’s fairly typical to see foreigners in parts of the city. Rents have gone up 30-100%, depending on neighborhoods. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the ban. There’s been a micro brewery renaissance, with a huge increase in of good beer. People seem to be more accepting of foreigners. Chile has become much more livable over the past three years.

Business-wise, from 2010-2013, the startup scene is completely different. While there were a few successful Chilean startups and entrepreneurs prior to Startup Chile, the program really has changed the mentality in the country. In 2010, people would ask me what I did and when I answered that I had my own business, they’d ask “where do you work” again, then look at me as if I were homeless. Now its cool. Probably too cool. I worry that the country has been sold a narrative of startup rockstars, heroes, gurus and celebrities that when the first round fails might ruin entrepreneurship in the country.

Asech, the Chilean entrepreneurs association, should be the model for the rest of the world. They are a lobby group that pushed through a law that allowed companies to register online in one day, for free. Before it cost $2000+ and took 2-3 months. They’ve convinced banks to let entrepreneurs open bank accounts, which was nearly impossible before. There are way more coworking spaces. More chilean startups and some incredible opportunities.

But there’s still not much funding. Not many Chilean success stories. Big companies and established players still crowd out entrepreneurs. The people with money still generally have an aristocratic yet provincial, anticompetitive attitude that seeks to divide up the riches and keep their place in the economy, not create new innovation and grow the economy. And the new rich still isn’t thinking bigger. The government isn’t helping much by allowing anticompetitive banks and large companies to gouge consumers and price fix.

I used to socially liberal and be very free market: I believed that if you just got government out of the way, economies will work. After being in Chile for three years, I’m even more socially liberal and still generally believe in getting the government out of the way, but my zeal has been tempered.

In Chile, I’ve seen what happens when there’s little to no competition and the government doesn’t really enforce price fixing or monopoly laws or just doesn’t have big enough penalties to stop basically institutionalized price fixing and corruption by large companies. Along with tax structures that benefit those in power to keep their wealth, and be extractors, sucking out wealth from society, rather than creating new, innovation and expanding the economy for everyone.

I have a better realization of what its like to try to move up in the world and how hard many people work for little money. I see what a problem inequality is and can be. People are physically, mentally, emotionally divided. The rich live physically separated from the rest, consuming different entertainment, different food, different clothes, everything. They never meet and talk, which causes misunderstanding, jealousy and a lack of empathy. This phenomenon is happening more and more in the US and I don’t want it to happen after I’ve seen what its like in Chile.

Overall, coming to Chile has been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much about myself and about the world, made great friends, learned spanish and gotten to explore an incredible country and part of the world. I’m currently teaching entrepreneurship at three universities and working on a two projects that I think have the potentially to be very interesting over the next few months. I don’t know what my future really holds, but I’ll always be thankful that Jesse and I took the risk to come to Chile back in 2010.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped me in Chile, helped me learn about myself and this great country. I couldn’t have done it without you all. A final thanks to my parents, who haven’t demanded that I come back yet.

Siren Servers: Why Are We Ok With Giving Away Our Data?

Note: Jaron Lanier is one of the most important thinkers in our world right now. Most of the ideas in this post are from Lanier’s book Who Owns The Future. Anything in quotes is directly from Lanier.

The most powerful entities in today’s word are those that have the most data and the most powerful computers to crunch this data in a meaningful way. They are the “gargantuan cloud computer services that are concentrating wealth and influence in our era.” Whether they are “national intelligence agencies, the famous silicon valley companies with nursery school names, the stealthy high finance schemes and others,”…”they use their gigantic corporate repositories of information about our lives for huge benefit by a super-rich few.” So says Jaron Lanier in his book Who Owns The Future.

The siren server business model is to suck up as much data as possible and use powerful computers to create massive profits, while pushing the risk away from the company, back into the system.  The model currently works by getting people to freely give up their data for non-monetary compensation, or sucking up the data surreptitiously.

Lanier continues:

All these schemes are quite similar. The biggest computers can predictably calculate wealth and clout on a broad, statistical level. For instance, an insurance company might use massive amounts of data to only insure people who are unlikely to get sick. The problem is that the risk and loss that can be avoided by having the biggest computer still exist. Everyone else must pay for the risk and loss that the Siren Server can avoid.

Siren Servers suck all data and a vast majority of profits, putting traditional businesses out of business and concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a small, elite few. Instead of paying people in dollars for their data, siren servers pay them in candy or lower front end costs. They convert industries that used to have a bell curve distribution into industries that have winner take all, star systems.

compensation in siren server world

Some examples:

  • Instagram – Takes your data in exchange for taking photos, putting filters and sharing them.
  • Twitter – Takes your data in exchange for connecting with friends and reading the news.
  • Foursquare – Your location data in exchange for restaurant reviews and social networking
  • Facebook – Takes your data in exchange for being able to brag about yourself and stalk your friends.
  • Amazon – Give us your reviews for free and purchase data and we’ll give you lower upfront prices.
  • Huffington Post, Medium – Give us your content for free and we’ll give you “exposure.”
  • Google – Use gmail, google docs, search, browser, android, blogger, youtube, calendar, google plus for free, in exchange for using your data.

All of these services then take your data and use it to concentrate wealth and power for themselves.

Put another way, what is Facebook worth with zero users? Zero dollars. But Facebook has 1.1b users and is worth $110b. All 1.1b users create monetary value for Facebook whenever they add a friend, post an update, add a photo or like a page. But the vast majority never see a dime.

So who gets monetary compensation on Facebook? Zuckerberg, who controls the entire company. The small group of VCs who invested. The public shareholders. And maybe a few million people who have businesses that run on top of Facebook. So if Facebook is worth $0 with 0 users, why do only a tiny percentage of people actually get any monetary compensation from Facebook?

Short term, the model works. Brilliantly. The company makes huge profits and eliminates competition from the marketplace, and gives people a useful new service. But long term, as more and more industries go to the siren server model, and more compensation is pushed off the books, how do people have income? How do they survive? In the internet age, fewer people are getting financially compensated for their actions that have real monetary value to others. We’ve designed technology to push value off the books for more people. See the candy graph above.

Fine you say. Facebook is just entertainment. But what happens when Google perfects the driverless car? Or a software company is able to write an algorithm to perform surgeries? Or take care of people in nursing homes? Or clean city streets? Or even write most basic computer code? All these software companies are able to perfect these tasks by watching real humans perform the task hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times. Once they get the data for free or cheap, these future Siren Servers will be able to sell their software for money and take over the market, pushing monetary compensation to an elite few and eliminating the old industries.

There was always creative destruction and new industries have always replaced old ones. But the difference today is that we’ve decided to allow our inputs to be compensated with candy, rather than money and that these servers are now powerful enough to transform industries from what used to be a bell curve shaped distribution to a winner take all, star system.

Our decision to give our data away for candy instead of money to companies that push risk away from themselves and have little to no skin in the game is producing massive inequality and unemployment, eliminating the middle class. It paints a bleak picture of our future unless we change.

What do you think?

If you’re interested in reading more, pick up Jaron Lanier’s two books, You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future, or list to one of his podcasts.

How The Future Might Look

favela luxuryOver the past few months I’ve been forming a thesis about where the world is heading. Much of my thinking comes from seven important books. Two of the most important authors who have influenced my thinking are Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Jaron Lanier. Many of the ideas that follow are theirs. And when Taleb’s and Lanier’s ideas intersect, you get very interesting hypotheses.

I’ll be expanding on my thinking over the next few blog posts, but I’ll start with some of the important ideas  that I think are at the core of where the world is heading. Understanding these ideas will be very important  if you want to succeed in the world going forward, or if you want to try to influence or change our future.

The Taleb Distribution – 99/1 instead of 80/20

The Pareto Distribution, better known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For example, in most businesses 20% of clients will generate 80% of the income, 20% of clients will generate the most customer service requests and so on. Taleb argues that we’re moving to a 99/1 distribution, away from 80/20. This shift has profound implications for our economy and society.

Little to No Skin in the Game

Entities are using big data and big computers to create businesses that introduce risk into the system, but don’t actually take on any of the risk. Instead they radiate it out to everyone else, taking all the benefits and leaving others with the downside. Think big banks, healthcare marketplaces, Facebook, outsourcing firms.

Siren Servers

Lanier coined this term to describe companies that use strong computers to suck up data and make money solely on information asymmetry, that have no skin in the game, radiating out new risk into the system. This new business model breaks with old entrepreneurial traditions: now the winners win solely because they have the strongest, fastest and most powerful computers, not because of innovation or value add. It’s arbitrage.

Strongest servers used for control

Whether its from governments like the US and the NSA or strong, overbearing policing, or large companies like wall street or web giants, the strongest servers will use their power to exert control.

Much of this control isn’t really done by algorithms, but people believe in technology, rather than humanism. For example, online dating sites claim they have an algorithm that matches people based on compatibility. In reality the algorithm “works” because it throws lots of people who want to get married together. Marriages are bound to happen. But people believe its the computer and give up control.

De Facto Monopolies

As power and money concentrate around the most powerful computer and radiate risk away from themselves, they create de facto monopolies. For example, Amazon automatically lowers its prices if there is a lower price anywhere it can find, then raises it if there isn’t a lower price anymore. They do this because they have the best data and the most powerful servers. They are willing to take a low or no margin on an item until you go out of business.

Amazon is not stopping you from starting a competitor. But you cannot compete on price. What used to be a monopoly is now just good business and competition. It’s moving toward a de facto monopoly. I expect this to happen in other industries.

Meritocracy used to excuse pretty much anything

As things go to 99/1 and de facto monopolies arise that radiate away risk from people who have little to no skin in the game, the winners will use merit and hard work to justify their outsized rewards. Since these companies are not using traditional, overt anticompetitive practices, the winners will justify their gains by meritocracy: anyone could have done it. It will be used to justify the commoditazation of work and the elimination of traditional levees.

Non Monetary Compensation

Facebook with 0 users is worth $0. Facebook with 1.1b users is worth $122b. It needs our free data to function. Yet its controlled by one guy and only a tiny percentage actually involved get monetary compensation. The rest get the equivalent of candy. The new bread and circus.

Taken one step further, in ten years robots are doing most basic surgeries. All benefits accrue to the software company that created the software. How’d they program this software? By watching real doctors perform hundreds of thousands of surgeries. But do these doctors get any compensation from the new data driven robots that needed their data to create the program? No. This will repeat across most industries.

Shrinking Markets

In a 99/1 world, where information is free and people aren’t paid for their data inputs, and as technology, powerful servers and de facto monopolies begin to emerge, markets will begin to shrink. These technologies cut out the middle men and people needed to do work. Sounds great and it is short term, but at scale, only the powerful handful have any monetary compensation and the rest have candy and no money to live, let alone purchase the winner’s goods.

Massive Inequality

The world will look more like South America, with massive physical, emotional, economic divisions between haves and have nots. In South America the top few percent almost never come in contact with the rest of the population, besides in service jobs. They don’t have the same culture. They don’t eat the same food. Follow the same sports. Watch the same tv shows. See the same movies. It might as well be two different worlds. Without a common experience, the haves lose empathy for their fellow man.

The metafication of everything

Everything we do is now broken down into tiny data pieces, mixed up and then put in a schema. Barriers go down, but we lose context. Do we lose truth with the lost context?

I understand this post sounds bleak and is very incomplete, but I don’t think all is lost. I’ll continue expanding on these ideas over the next few weeks in additional blog posts, including some ideas on how we can get off this track, and if we can’t get off the track, what some of the best strategies might be to survive in this type of a world.

Please add to the discussion.