Modern Meditations: Katherine Boyle
The Andreessen Horowitz GP on American Dynamism, seriousness, population collapse, and memetic power.
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If you only have a few minutes, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about Katherine Boyle’s meditations.
The distortions of nuance. Though nuance is a widely celebrated trait, Katherine suggests its virtues are oversold. Rather than bringing balance to a discussion, the a16z GP believes nuance is often no more than meekness and inaction in disguise. Increasingly, Katherine admires directness and action over highly-gradated thinking.
War for the mind. Informational and technological overloads have put humanity in a state of constant conflict. At every turn, we face people, content, and programs eager not only to capture our attention but truly control our minds. Katherine argues that defending against these forces requires radical action.
Warding off population collapse. A fertility crisis threatens to weaken almost every developed nation, in Katherine’s view. Widespread population collapse could challenge economic and labor systems on fundamental levels. The “work from home” revolution may help alleviate the damage, with early studies suggesting it may lead to larger families.
The age of speed. Katherine expects our age to be remembered as one of astonishing speed. Though future historians may focus on banking crises and catastrophes, the true story of our era may be that of a breakneck technological renaissance that remade the world.
This interview is part of the Modern Meditation series, where we ask the most interesting people in tech non-obvious questions. In doing so, we aim to bring new aspects of their personality and processes to light. Previous editions feature Reid Hoffman, Josh Wolfe, Ann Miura-Ko, and others.
In August 2011, The Wall Street Journal published an article. Written by a venture capitalist, the piece chronicled the rising generation of promising internet businesses. Though the dot-com bust still lingered in investors’ collective memories – not to mention the adjacent catastrophe of the Global Financial Crisis – the writer believed these “startups” could mature into enduring, high-margin organizations.
The piece’s author was Marc Andreessen; its title: “Software is Eating the World.”
Though he could not have known it then, Andreessen’s phrase came to describe and drive the decade’s tech boom. It was invoked, remixed, and repeated until it became a kind of proof in and of itself, something fundamentally true about the world. Why would the startup beat the incumbent? Why would an analog industry be remade in bytes and bits? Because software is eating the world, of course.
It is hard to estimate the value of a meme like Andreessen’s. How many future entrepreneurs were emboldened by those words? How much incremental capital flowed toward the private market, subtly scripted by that sense of promise? Steve Jobs famously remarked that the “most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” In just a few words, Andreessen had crafted a narrative of remarkable power, capable of organizing talent and capital.
This gift for articulation does not come along often. In Katherine Boyle, Andreessen’s firm seems to have a masterful narrator ready to shape the next decade. Though Boyle has been at a16z for less than two years, she’s already coined two theses that have struck a chord, calling for the return of “seriousness” as a national trait and extolling the promise of investing in “American Dynamism.” Both call for a country to reinvent and reinvigorate itself from its psyche to its supply chain. A16z has backed “American Dynamism” as an investable thesis, creating an explicit practice, led by Katherine, to find and finance companies that “support the national interest.”
It feels like a particularly strong fit, given Katherine’s background. Before rising through the ranks at General Catalyst, Katherine worked at The Washington Post as a features writer, commenting on topics like social media addiction and the propaganda techniques of jihadist groups. After graduating with a degree in government from Georgetown, she received a Master’s in Public Advocacy from the University of Galway and an MBA from Stanford. While at General Catalyst, Katherine co-led the Series B for perhaps the “American Dynamism” company of the last few years: Anduril. She remains a board observer for the defense firm.
Katherine is a fascinating, contrarian thinker with sharp, strongly expressed opinions. In today’s piece, she unpacks the power of memes, the danger of nuance, and the impending fertility crisis. Here are her meditations.
What would you be doing if you didn’t work in tech?
I’ve always worked in intelligence fields where getting to new information quickly is a core focus. I had a prior career as a reporter at The Washington Post, so in some ways, I’ve already done what I would be doing in another life. But the commonality of my work has always been understanding networks and having a strong opinion about where the culture is headed. Journalism and venture capital are intelligence trades: despite different outputs, the core objective is discovering ground truth as quickly as possible. So if I weren’t a venture capitalist, I’d probably be working in intelligence. The other constant in my career has been civic duty and love of country – no matter what, I’d be supporting the mission of American Dynamism in some capacity.
Which current or historical figure has most impacted your thinking?
It’s a longstanding battle between Aristotle and Plato, with Plato likely winning in the end. I grew up in a pretty eccentric family where my father had been in the Jesuits for more than a decade before (thankfully!) having his own career change. He never lost his love of ancient philosophy, so Plato and the Socratic method were major parts of my upbringing. As I’ve aged, I realize how lucky I was to have that training as a core part of my childhood.
What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind about over the past decade?
If you haven’t updated your priors in the last few years, you haven’t been paying attention. The greatest shift in my thinking is related to the importance of nuance. I used to think nuance was a sign of a developed mind, someone who had thought through tradeoffs and both sides of an argument. I now mostly see nuance as coded language for a hedge, or worse, an obstructive force designed to obscure truth. This runs contrary to consensus thinking, where a nuanced opinion, paper, or approach to a problem is celebrated as superior. In building companies – or frankly building anything – I’ve mostly found the opposite.
Increasingly, the great divide in this country is between those who think and those who do. Marc Andreessen recently talked about the distinction as described by James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution, and there we see the results of nuance and how it can be used to distort. Chesterton cited the distinction between doers and thinkers even earlier: what he called the “common man” versus the rational one, with the common man being capable of hope and mysticism, and far more focused on truth rather than consistency. I’ve moved closer to this worldview in the last few years. We don’t need more nuance. We need more action.
What craft are you spending a lifetime honing?
Writing, but my commitment to it ebbs and flows. I sometimes think I started my career as a writer just to force myself into a habit. At the Post, I was based in the features section, where there was heavy emphasis on prose. A great story isn’t just words; it has rhythm and beats and musicality. Tyler Cowen had a great podcast episode with the Irish historian Roy Foster, where they talk about the musicality of speech. You see this musicality in the great essayists like Caitlin Flanagan and Walter Kirn. Their prose reads like a song. So while I still dabble in writing –is kind enough to keep me on deadline at – I’m resigned to being a happy admirer of truly great writers.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
Building a family. Building is a political philosophy – a very noble act. We talk a lot about the virtue of building in Silicon Valley, and for most people, family formation is the deepest and most tangible way in which they’ll experience building something from nothing that outlasts themselves. I see building a family as the real embodiment of the builder philosophy. If you take the job of building a family seriously, it’s not just a group of people who live in the same house but a tribe with a unified purpose and mission. That’s at least what I’m striving for.
What is your most contrarian, high-conviction opinion?
We are in a full-contact, all-out war with forces competing for control of our minds. Not just attention but control. Avoid any expert, meme, substance, or practice – however safe or mundane it may seem – that claims it can improve your mind in a way that invites these forces in, especially permanently. This may seem like a consensus opinion, but in practice, eradicating these forces from one’s life is a daily battle that requires contrarian actions, not just belief.
What piece of art can you not stop thinking about?
Wagner’s Lohengrin, Prelude to Act 1. Or in our house, it’s called “The Sleepy Time Song.” My oldest son is not a good sleeper. In his first year, the only thing that would reliably put him to sleep at night was the Lohengrin prelude. Written as the musical depiction of the Holy Grail descending to earth, it is arguably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. I think about it often, mainly because we listen to it every day. But what has always struck me is the universality of its beauty. The purity of it. Somehow even newborns can identify what is beautiful and what is not.
What trait do you value most highly in others?
Seriousness. It’s a difficult trait to describe, though I’ve written about it here and here. Recently, my partner Alex Rampell shared a video of Orson Welles talking about his first film “Citizen Kane.” It may be the best depiction of seriousness I’ve seen recently.
What are you obsessed with that others rarely talk about?
I used to say defense technology, American Dynamism, and how tech can support the national interest. But to my surprise, Silicon Valley is becoming obsessed with these ideas now, and the country’s better off for it. So here’s a more personal obsession: when I moved from San Francisco to the suburbs of Miami two years ago, I was struck by a simple difference between the two places. In 2020 San Francisco, people were obsessed with yard signs that stated their political beliefs. In Miami, people are just obsessed with their yards. Since moving here, I, too, have become obsessed with my yard. I can talk Bougainvilleas all day, and I prefer that to discussing anything that might appear on a yard sign.
What contemporary practice will our descendants judge us for most?
Probably the wrong ones. I’m convinced we’re unable to truly understand the past, and that we harshly judge our predecessors for things that were relatively benign, while adopting and celebrating some of their most dangerous practices and beliefs. So we’ll probably be judged for something we’re already apologizing for, like eating meat or relying on fossil fuels – movements that encapsulate Current Thing hysteria instead of the real unspoken horrors of our time. I’ll leave it to your readers to decide what the real horrors are.
What risk are we radically underestimating as a species?
Population collapse. We now know that the global fertility crisis will dramatically impact almost all developed nations, with national and geopolitical implications that affect economic resiliency, employment, care for the elderly, etc. My partner Ryan McEntush has a great piece inon the fertility crisis and why we need to correct course as quickly as possible. My view is that this is as much a cultural problem as an economic or technological one, and I’ve written extensively about how working from home might have the greatest impact on family formation. Some early studies post-covid are now showing this positive trend in family formation, but a lot more needs to be done in the policy and cultural realm to support the building of families.
If you had the power to assign a book for everyone on earth to read and understand, which book would you choose?
I think memes and mass culture impact society most, not books. But if I were assigning someone a book just for the pure pleasure of reading it, it would probably be The Divine Comedy, an experience worth having at least once in a lifetime.
How will future historians describe our current era?
I don’t have much faith in historians to describe our era for what it really is. We’ll be reduced to a simple narrative. But here’s what it is: Speed. Acceleration. Dynamism. Everything turned up to 11. They’ll write about inflation, banking crises, great power conflict, political realignment, dis- and mis- information wars, and the great villains of our time. But if we’re lucky, they’ll also mention a technological renaissance unlike anything experienced prior. That’s the story of speed. Wind-against-the-face euphoria. And wow, was it glorious.
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Thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Love the ideas of 'common man' vs rational one (doers vs thinkers) and return to seriousness. Also, very unusual, refreshing and inspiring to see a Silicon Valley leader be immersed in the Western civilization and humanity - Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Wagner and the great Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton. On another matter, I find lots of parallels between her thoughts and those of Peter Thiel around the themes of return of seriousness and Amercian Dynamism.