Modern Meditations: Reid Hoffman
The LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner discusses AI imagery, new nation-states, friendship, and “the storm before the calm.”
It is with a degree of suspicion that some technologists treat the humanities. Where is the rigor in a poem? What is the output of a philosophical tract?
Technology is often (and rightly) viewed as a scientific field. However, one of The Generalist’s fundamental tenets is that it is also a humanistic discipline.
We live in an era of increasingly splendid machines and overpowering intelligences. Creating these marvels undoubtedly requires technical ability, but truly grasping them benefits from a broader understanding. As the technological frontier extends, sprinting out of sight (and beyond our abilities), fields like philosophy, psychology, history, and fiction are becoming increasingly essential.
Few people embody the intersection of techno-humanism as clearly as Reid Hoffman. The LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner is a technologist with a deep, unabashed philosophical bent. He is a builder with a Wittgenstein obsession, a venture capitalist that cites Buddha and Aristotle.
Reid is also at the forefront of some of the most consequential changes happening in the world of artificial intelligence. As well as being a former OpenAI board member, Reid co-founded Inflection AI with Greylock colleague and former Deepmind executive Mustafa Suleyman. In just the past few weeks, Reid has also launched a future-focused podcast, “Possible,” and released a new book, Impromptu, discussing how AI can be used to “amplify” humanity. Both projects are “co-authored” with GPT-4, bringing artificial intelligence quite literally into the conversation.
It is perhaps no surprise, given Reid’s range of interests, and literary, philosophical bent, that I have admired his work for many years. I am thrilled to feature him today – these are his meditations.
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what investors, operators, and founders should know about Reid Hoffman’s meditations.
New nations. The work of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos may someday take humanity to Mars. And yet the possibility of starting a new nation appears further away than ever. Reid outlines the importance of this form of human organization and why there should always be space for a new country.
The treachery of images. Magritte’s famous painting, better known by the phrase it features, “This is not a pipe,” serves as a foil for Reid’s exploration of reality. The questions Magritte raises in his work have only become more pronounced thanks to the advent of AI and associated models like DALL-E and GPT-4.
The practice of friendship. “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom,” Marcel Proust once wrote. Despite the affection we feel for the “charming gardeners” in our lives, many of us treat the experience of friendship as implicit and intangible. Reid outlines how he treats friendship as a practice that benefits from explicit honing.
Pandemic preparedness. We are (mostly) on the other side of the covid-19 pandemic. But are we well-prepared for whatever follows? Reid argues that the societal challenges that arose during the last pandemic could stymie our abilities to manage “covid-20,” and other future epidemics.
The storm before the calm. What to make of our era? Though we live in chaotic times, Reid believes better days are on their way. Future historians may think of our age as the “storm before the calm,” an unstable period that eventually gave way to greater prosperity and peace.
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.
What would you be doing if you didn’t work in tech?
I like building things from scratch, I like allocating resources, and I've spent a lot of time playing Settlers of Catan over the years. So maybe starting a new country. I'm joking, of course – because how do you do that? In fact, right now, thanks to the efforts of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, life on Mars is starting to seem like it could be in the realm of possibility. But a new country, here on Earth, created without military force? That's science fiction to most people!
Which is a shame when you think about it, because innovation is how humanity has always made major progress in a single leap. And yet in this fundamental way we organize human existence and form our identities, we're very static, very backward-looking. There should always be room for another good country. And in the meantime, maybe a more serious answer about what I might be doing if I didn't work in tech is that I find the idea of being the mayor of a city compelling. It's a different way to pursue impact at scale than I've experienced, and it's also a job that is very much grounded in pragmatism and outcomes. You have to find ways to make things work, to work together to put solutions into practice. And that very much appeals to me.
Which current or historical figure has most impacted your thinking?
Reading Aristotle is what initially inspired me to study philosophy and really try to live a purposeful life. But ultimately it's two concepts from Buddha that form a big part of my perspective. "The world is what you make it" and "This too shall pass." The former gives me that quixotic sense of the possible that you need if you aspire to make positive change at scale. The latter provides a sense of detachment that helps me effectively navigate not just adversity and failure, but also success.
What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind about over the past decade?
I didn't become a Silicon Valley entrepreneur because I was deeply immersed in technology. I was a humanist who wanted to elevate the human condition. So for the first half of my career, I thought of myself as an "accidental technologist." Now, though, when I think about any scale problem, my working theory is that any solution to that problem is between 30 and 80 percent a technology solution. That's true for climate change. That's true for social justice. That's true for more equitable access to healthcare and education. And as powerful new technologies like AI evolve, I think this basic principle is only getting more true.
What craft are you spending a lifetime honing?
Allocating capital – financial and human – in pursuit of human elevation is the common theme that unites all my work – as an investor, as a philanthropist, as an individual producing podcasts like "Possible" or my new book Impromptu.
What is your most contrarian, high-conviction opinion?
Contrarianism is always very context-specific, especially in the age of the internet, where any belief, no matter how esoteric or off-putting, finds a constituency. So I'll answer within the context of Silicon Valley, since that's the context where I'm most known. In Silicon Valley, I'd say that my high conviction that government is critical to a well-functioning society is a fairly contrarian position. And to be even more specific, I believe government is particularly necessary for creating the conditions that lead to well-functioning markets and economic prosperity. In many ways, America has been an entrepreneurial outlier because of a wide range of policies, norms, and conditions that arise out of good governance.
What piece of art can you not stop thinking about?
I've always loved René Magritte's 1929 painting "The Treachery of Images," aka "This is not a pipe." Art has always been more than just a way to objectively document or reproduce or reflect the world. It has always been a lens on the world, a specific way of thinking and seeing the world. "The Treachery of Images" explicitly articulates that fact, both pictorially and textually. On the one hand, Magritte goes out of his way to fool your eye into believing in the reality of his image-making. It's a very photorealistic rendition of a pipe that he paints. But he also situates the pipe's surface "reality" against a blank background. It's literally floating in space, in a way that real pipes can't do. Plus, there's the emphatic textual disclaimer: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," or "This is not a pipe."
To me, Magritte is not only saying, "Don't believe this image." He's saying, "Don't believe photography and its claims of authenticity either." And then he's also saying, "Don't believe language either, even at its most declarative." Because why should a series of words, which are even more abstract than Magritte's image, have such power to undo the image's claim to authenticity? The word "pipe" is less inherently pipe-like than Magritte's depiction of the pipe. So what's absolute? What's real? It's all just a construct.
Nearly a hundred years after Magritte painted it, "The Treachery of Images" seems more relevant than ever to me as we attempt to make simulated environments like the metaverse increasingly realistic, as we deploy the text-to-image capabilities of tools like DALL-E and the image-to-text capabilities of tools like GPT-4. It's all still language games, but the languages, and the games, are getting more complex.
What are you obsessed with that others rarely talk about?
Friendship is a major part of my life, so that means it's also something that I want to talk about and learn from. Whereas I think most people tend to view friendship as more of an experiential and even unspoken phenomenon. It's something you feel, something that just evolves naturally. It's not something you sit down and explicitly try to analyze and improve.
For me, though, a friendship isn't really a true friendship unless we talk about it with explicit intention. Why does it exist? What do we get from it? How do we think we can make it better?
To a certain extent, it may seem ironic to treat friendship in such an intellectual or even scientific way. But I look at it like this: if friendship is, in fact, a big part of your identity and a key way that you find purpose and meaning – and it definitely is those things for me – then don't you and your friends owe it to yourselves to be explicit and intentional about this foundational aspect of your life?
What contemporary practice will our descendants judge us for most?
How little resolve we've shown in establishing food and shelter as basic human rights. From a production standpoint, food insecurity is a very solvable problem. Globally, we already produce more food than is needed to adequately feed everyone on the planet. Obviously, efficient distribution can be challenging, but in part, I think we don't do better because of zero-sum mindsets and the idea that providing free food to people on an ongoing basis would somehow upset the moral balance of the universe more than letting people starve to death. I hope this changes sooner rather than later because making major progress on these challenges is not only necessary but also doable and a great way to create a shared sense of purpose and unity on both national and global levels.
What risk are we radically underestimating as a species?
Let's say covid-20 emerges. And let's further say it's actually not even as lethal as its predecessor. Because of the fatigue we have from dealing with covid-19, and its emergence as both a Culture Wars challenge as well as a public health and economic challenge, I actually think we could have worse outcomes with this less lethal version. So now imagine if covid-20 is actually significantly more lethal than covid-19 was. How do things turn out then?
If you had the power to assign a book for everyone on earth to read and understand, which book would you choose?
If this is a one-shot opportunity, then I'd probably want to pick a book that has a proven track record for timelessness and universality – in other words, something that I believe could make a lasting impact on the greatest number of readers. So I think I'd choose Victor Frankl's account of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, Man's Search for Meaning. Originally published in 1946, it's a book that readers continue to find relevant, decade after decade, because of its emphasis on how, even in circumstances of unimaginable suffering and inhumanity, where despair is a perfectly rational response, we can still find ways to be resilient and resourceful. The key is to maintain hope for the future and a sense of purpose that goes beyond the alleviation of our own suffering and is instead enmeshed in the human connections and relationships that give our lives meaning.
How will future historians describe our current era?
As a devout techno-humanist, my strong conviction is that they'll see this era as the storm before the calm, a time when, prompted by major technological advances, we fully embrace the fact that cooperation, collaboration, dynamism, and change are much better drivers of security and prosperity than tribalism and conflict.
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