Scott Adams talks with Naval Ravikant

by Yule Heibel on February 14, 2019

On February 12, 2019, Scott Adams held a Periscope with Naval Ravikant. It’s available to view (or listen) on Periscope, podcast, and Youtube. It’s long, and wide-ranging. I listened when it came out, and today I decided to re-listen and take some notes. Normally I wouldn’t post these notes to my site, but I know there are one or two people who read me here, and it will be easier to get them to skim through my notes than to convince them to listen to the whole interview.

Haha, stealth information sharing!

I really do recommend listening to the interview itself, because obviously I will be leaving things out, maybe transcribing them wrongly, and it won’t necessarily be crystal-clear where and when I’m editorializing (although I’ll try to indicate, whether through parentheses or brackets, when I am). At any rate, without further ado, my notes:

After a preamble (introduction, etc.), the first topic: news today. Scott points out that the news isn’t really the news anymore. Naval adds that the internet commoditized the distribution of facts, and so the news just became entertainment. (There’s more, and you can listen for yourself if this is your most salient topic.)

What about experts? This is a question Scott has wrestled with: when to trust the experts? Naval replies that the foundation of science is doubt, and that scientific things must be falsifiable or independently verifiable, and they must be able to make very narrow and risky predictions. That’s different from other domains (like politics). You don’t do science by consensus; that’s the domain of politics. The hallmark of science is you make a scientific claim, I can verify that claim, and there’s no moving of goalposts allowed. This is all based on Karl Popper’s precepts.

Scott asks whether climate science meets that test. Naval answers that he doesn’t talk about climate science because it’s become political. He does go on to cite Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s emphasis on the precautionary principle: we only have one planet to mess with, so let’s err on the conservative side (caution) and not mess it up. (Hear, hear.) Another problem, Naval points out, is that today there are people with “climate scientist” in their titles, so they’re incentivized (in a non-science way) because their livelihoods are at stake (i.e., it’s political for them). Ergo, Naval says, stay out of that fray. He adds that he’s also disheartened that worries about climate change are all about these global “solutions” versus local solutions (localism) (that is, it’s all about fixing things at the global scale right now, instead of focusing on the local solutions of environmental stewardship). Right now we’re being asked to risk the world economy on still-invisible and arguably far-off global scenarios of doom. He’s also pessimistic on global government solutions: “I’ve never seen governments save the world.”

“Economics is the study of opportunity costs,” Naval adds, citing Nick Szabo and his ideas on Pascal’s Scam. Incalculable probabilities lead to emotion and instinct, not science; people decide on “climate science” according to which political party they belong to. Right there you can see it’s not science, but politics. Right now you’re also not even allowed to have a conversation about it, which tells you right there that you’re out of the realm of science because science is about DOUBT

What’s the solution? Is it greener technologies? Yes, and / but…

Next comes the sentence that convinced me I should relisten to this conversation and take notes, because this bit was just so wide open, like a bird’s eye view compared to slogging through blades of grass along with the rest of the ant colony: “The history of the human race is extracting more and more power from the natural environment, and delivering it where we need to.”

“The history of the human race is extracting more and more power from the natural environment, and delivering it where we need to.”

Let that sink in. Everything we’ve done has basically been about extracting more and more power from the natural environment, and delivering it to where it’s needed: burning oil and coal, developing lasers, on and on. Going forward, however, we need to become much smarter about this; I’m now editorializing and adding to what I heard. The extraction economy can only take us so far before we hit a wall, which is kind of what the climate change concerns point to: the precautionary principle would say, find another way. That other way is through biomimicry, that is, using nature as a model for how to do the thing we want to do, because nature of course does all the things all the time. My favorite go-to person for a layperson-friendly explainer on biomimicry is Janine Benyus, whose book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, blew my mind in 2002. ( <– end of editorializing)

The discussion of using nature as a model leads to discussion of fusion… Is it possible or just “the flying car of energy,” Scott asks. He adds that he knows of at least ten legitimate startups which are working on fusion now, so…? Naval replies that fusion will definitely work; it already works in nature. It’s now just a question of when. And the engineering will work, too; but we haven’t done enough iterations. Airplanes, motorcycles, steam engines… all these things failed, blew up, and didn’t work at first, but through iteration, you eventually get there. The problem is that a few outlier disasters have shut down nuclear iterations.

The best place to develop and iterate with any kind of nuclear energy is extraterrestrially, as …on Mars. Mars is really good for scientific experiments. (So that’s what going to Mars is about…)

So are you confident that fusion will be solved in an engineering sense? Naval replies that he’s not as confident as he’d like to be, primarily because there are too many major regulatory impediments. In “normal” technology (I’m putting words into his mouth), the adoption cycle of shipping something every couple of years holds; but it isn’t working as a model for the development of nuclear / fusion. Then there’s the problem of having to raise huge sums of money, too. Furthermore, you also need to be located somewhere that’s close enough to send the energy to, should you succeed in developing fusion technology. (Recall that “extracting more and more energy from nature” is half of the equation; the other half is “delivering it to where it’s needed”… So, if you’re developing fusion power in the desert for safety reasons, you might be too far away to deliver the energy to consumers). Naval adds that he thinks that a “Manhattan Project” sized effort could perhaps get us there. But you also have to get the private sector involved.

Next up, the future of cryptocurrencies. There are lots of unnecessary and sketchy ones out there. But… Bitcoin and its kind can function as an insurance against malfeasance by governments. It’s one good reason to continue with cryptocurrencies.

Scott asks Naval about his (Scott’s) “Government-in-a-Box” (GIAB) idea, and the role of cryptocurrencies in that. (The GIAB is a whole ‘nother bag of ferrets: imagine a failed state that could “hire” a temporary government (GIAB), a kind of neutral “Switzerland”-type entity, that could come in and clean things up, impartially, while the country gets its bearings. Search through Scott Adams’s other Periscopes for an extended discussion of this.)

So, what about the role of cryptocurrencies in a scenario like that? Naval replies that the US dollar has value because the US government accepts it as a form of paying taxes. If another government took crypto as a way of paying taxes (with the GIAB model), it could work there. He then riffs on (to my mind whimsical) “national-scale retirement scheme”: let’s say a government rolls out the infrastructure to adopt cryptocurrencies; it would choose a good but lesser-known version. However, it buys up 20% of it, and then declares that it’s legal tender in that country. At this point, people will want to buy into the remaining 80% of that cryptocurrency because (if I understood this correctly), the currency is legal tender and they realize other countries will follow suit. At this point the cryptocurrency then becomes REALLY valuable, and your country’s citizens can retire on the 20% your country owns because you just got all this wealth…

Scott asks if there’s a version of this which could pay off the US debt? Not really, according to Naval. (Listen to the convo for details.) The worst case scenario with the debt is inflation.

Next they get into the immigration debate. Naval points out that the problem here is you have privatized gains and socialized losses. Some people gain from immigrants coming across the border, others lose. Tech industry might gain, ditto farm owners in California; and politicians might “import” voters. But all the other burdens get socialized. How to rectify this?

Here Naval rolls out another scheme, no less …daring than his ideas for cryptocurrencies in Scott’s GIAB proposal. Just cut everybody in on the action, he suggests. Give every American citizen an extra passport. Then each citizen can choose who can come in (on that 2nd passport). (What follows is a bit of what I call futurismo, a scenario around a market forming around these passports, which acquire a dollar value once that happens. So once the dollar value has accrued, you then know what the costs and benefits are of letting an immigrant in. The net effect is that we could literally “sell” America …and each retire on the proceeds…) The best side effect of this scheme, according to Naval: good governance, because the value of passports would immediately go down with bad governance, so bad presidents et al. would be voted out. (I’m not libertarian enough to get into these kinds of market scenarios, but I have to admit it’s an interesting idea. Definitely different than the usual scenario of doing the same thing over and over again with the same lousy results… But, aiaiai, it’s too heady for me.)

As for borders, Naval points out that we must have secure borders. He’s all for legal immigration. But most countries do sensible merit-based immigration, not simply follow a policy of letting those in who happen to show up first.

Scott wants to know whether Naval has heard any good arguments for open borders? Answer: No. Try to define “country” without using the word or concept of “border,” he says. Your body is a border; your house is a border. You can’t have things without borders. Also, it’ll never happen multilaterally (i.e., all countries everywhere suddenly declaring borders obsolete). And “open borders” unilaterally would be a disaster. 

Briefly back to the futurismo extra passport idea: you could have something like a leveraged buyout! … (Uh, hell, no!) Naval points out that journalistic trolls are no doubt already generating clickbait hit pieces out of the points he’s making!

Naval thinks clickbait “journalism” sites will eventually go out of business, and that we’ll end up with maybe two legitimate news delivery services (AP / Reuters model), with a long tail of legitimate journalists, and some opinion sites.

Scott brings up his idea of how he thinks the internet is creating a kind of god-like general entity with human aspects: Twitter is like the mind; Facebook like friends and family; Instagram, your visual sense, and so on. Naval agrees that an artificial general intelligence (AGI) is more likely to be an emergent property of the internet, rather than something we create in a lab. Cryptocurrency, e.g., gathers resources for itself. Another example could be that autocorrect will eventually auto-correct not just for spelling, but for sentiment. At some point, the internet will be completely controlling our lives, which is already happening for some workers, like Uber drivers (sounds dystopian to me…). The internet will create the AI in a borg-like fashion…

Scott asks, who is running the country right now? We have a political system; the politicians get voted out (or in). But who influences the voters?
Naval replies that politics has typically been mass media and votes; but the last election blew that out. It’s all happening on social media now. Referring once again to Nassim Taleb, Naval points out that the most intolerant wins (in the sense that they dominate and shape discourse). But if you go even further back, you see that “it’s the people with their thumbs on the scale” who really influence things at a deep level: the people writing the algorithms that control the distribution on social media.

Naval thinks that it’s a very dangerous place for Facebook and Twitter to be in. Twitter, he suggests, could be a very powerful (good) entity, but only if it becomes a protocol, and not an application. Right now Twitter is a protocol underneath for delivering messages; a software app that you run on your screen; and it’s a media company (Naval cites “the whole ‘Moments’ thing,” and the way it feeds you news, deplatforms views and people, gives blue check mark verification, etc.), and that this should actually be three separate things, because Twitter the protocol can survive forever, but if you bundle it with Twitter the media company, it’s only a matter of time before the politicians say, “Wait, you choose the next president? Well then we gotta control you. If you have that level of control, then we get to have that level of control on you.” He adds, “So I think Twitter’s got a short period of time to go to being an open unbiased protocol, let people build their own apps and media companies on top that can filter or censor or reject or promote. Because otherwise, you cannot have a monopoly on the news, especially if you’re overtly outwardly influencing it and you’re an editorial team. I just don’t think a democracy will stand for that.” (Edit/update: check out this 2+ minute excerpt from the talk.)

What about a government oversight over algorithms, Scott wants to know. Would that work? Naval answers, no, because “any process you create will become a honeypot to be captured. The only way out is just to decentralize it. So Twitter the protocol should accept a message from anyone to anyone etc., and people can choose what app and media editor to run on top of it.”

What about the thorny question of “the health of the conversation(s)”? Naval replies that there’s no objective definition of same. What about the problem of fake news? Answer: block lists.

What about someone becoming the most influential blocker? Wouldn’t that person have outsize influence? Naval thinks that if that happened, it would at least happen in a competitive that way: you’d be competing in an open market place. (There’s that fundamental libertarian free market belief again; my old Marxist indoctrination, while mightily faded, still kicks in at this point… I just wonder whether a free market can provide the rails and brakes necessary during rapid acceleration and change; can it? Perhaps it can. But I see the danger of centralization lurking within a belief in one-ring-to-rule-them-all, in this case truly free markets, and would prefer to see how local control is guaranteed …and valued. Always back to value. I worry too much, perhaps, even whilst I’m inclined to listen to wild ideas.)

Capitalism, Naval adds, works because of competition. Today the algorithmic machinations are hidden, it’s just a small editorial team working unaccountably, with their thumbs on the scale. If Twitter doesn’t manage to change, there will eventually be a blockchain-based version of this protocol that will replace Twitter. There are at least a dozen Twitter clones in development that use blockchain.

Questions and discussion around credibility and influence comes next. Listen to the convo for details. Briefly: Every day that passes it gets easier to get distribution and to build your audience. Naval talks about PewDiePie in this context.

Credibility, he elaborates, comes from your ability to predict the future correctly, conjoined with your influence and your ability to convince people that you predicted the future correctly. It’s a combination, of influence and predictive power.

What are your thoughts on Universal Basic Income (UBI), Scott asks. Is UBI inevitable because of the world of robots or whatever, or is it the worst idea ever? Naval thinks that there is a version of it that works, but it’s in the form of free services. Technology can create massive abundance, and it’s literally just a lack of knowledge that holds us back. We can get to a world where, e.g., your cell phone is free, but it’s not because the government gives it to you, it’s free because Google gives it to you, because their robots want you to watch their virtual reality show or whatever else that is accessible through that phone.

But if you just get free money you have no meaning. Look at trust fund kids, e.g. The problem with UBI and any kind of straight cash transfer is that it’s a slippery slope into socialism, he adds. And, according to Naval, the slippery slope is not a fallacy; it’s just how humans work. (At this point you see that Scott seems to disagree.) If you can just vote yourself free money, Naval explains, it begins with the 99% voting themselves money from the 1%; then the 98 from the 2, the 97 from the 3, and so on, until it ends with 51% voting themselves all the money from the bottom 49%, at which point you have a complete economic meltdown. There’s no bottom to that; you end up with Venezuela.

Instead, education should be free by now. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on stuff you can learn for free? It’s really just matter of credentialing. Eventually education delivery will be too cheap to meter – and that will be the UBI. No one today with a Computer Science degree (no matter where from) is looking at UBI as an outcome. Knowing how to manipulate robots is the modern equivalent of reading, writing, and arithmetic. So we’re dealing with the last generation which doesn’t know “how to read,” and they’re the ones saying, “how are we going to make a living, we don’t know how to read, and the economy is switching to a white-collar economy”: but it’s just a one-time transition that needs to take place. It’s not something we should wreck our economy forever around. 

Scott wants to challenge Naval on the slippery slope: he says that it is an illusion. Everything naturally will go on forever until there’s a reason to stop. Yes, inertia, e.g., Naval concedes. Scott continues: We’ve had lots of democracies, so why haven’t the poor voted themselves all the money so far? It can’t be because of the slippery slope, otherwise it would have happened already.

Naval replies that it hasn’t happened because until now the US has been a republic, not a direct democracy. And republics slow things down. The elites also have a lot more power in that system. The founding fathers feared mob rule just as much as they feared tyrants. But now, as TV and media came along, and the presidency having a lot more power because it’s the most visible office, which in turn has given it more and more power. And every time a Democrat or a Republican was in power, they consolidated more and more power into executive actions, with media complicity. (Oh yes, on this. I recall going out of my mind when all the mainstream media beat the drum for invading Iraq. Criminals.) It used to be the case, Naval says, that the President couldn’t go to war without Congressional approval, but now it happens that we do go to war without Congress’s approval. Two hundred years ago the President also couldn’t talk to millions of people by going on TV; now obviously that happens (not to mention that he can tweet to millions). So, we’ve become much more of a direct democracy: billionaires running for office, media dissemination, executive orders, etc. all conspire to circumvent the republican form of government. Naval thinks all this will lead to greater nationalism on the left and communism or socialism on the right. (?? Really? He lost me there.) We’re “degenerating into direct democracy.” (Edit/ update via Twitter: Naval writes, “BTW, I spoke too quickly at one part and muddled up nationalism and socialism on right and left. Of course I meant greater nationalism on the right and socialism on the left.”)

Scott ask, “but we’re also completely changing who’s in charge because of social media etc., so wouldn’t it also depend on whether the balance of the sentiment on the internet is pro- or anti-socialism?” Naval replies that, yes, and this goes back to the people with the thumbs on the scale… The people writing the algorithms have an inordinate amount of power as to where everything ends up.

Next, Scott asks about the future of education, and whether the film or studio production model, which entails putting together a team, then disbanding, will gain traction. He wonders whether online training could go that way.  Naval thinks that, yes, it will get better. The best teacher will be teaching everybody in the world about his/her topic. Why would a student go to the #2 for it if the #1 is available (online)? You should want to consume the best of any media. You can see it with use of Youtube, he adds. We’re in the YouTube phase of education, and eventually we’ll get to the Netflix phase of it.  When the internet touches a business, it tends to go from a group of medium sized competitors and producers who are separated by geography and regulation into being one or two or three gigantic  aggregators …and a huge long tail. So journalism will end up there. A group of giants, and a huge long tail with everyone in the middle gone. You see this across the board (in other industries). The same way in teaching: you’ll see 2, 3, 4 gigantic schools which actually produce the content and the tests for accreditation, and then you’ll see a long tail of tutors. 

Philosophical question: What is the biggest illusion of life, for average people? What are they suffering under that are the biggest obstacles for them? Naval: the largest illusion is “meaning.” That anything matters. You’re gonna die, so everything is relative to that. The other one is free will: a separate you making decisions is a hallucination. The illusion of reality – maybe it’s a simulation. Not like “the matrix,” though. There’s no “real world” “above,” it’s not just one level above, there are multiple levels up (or down?). You’re actually just an NPC. You’re just “made of the stuff of the world.”

Scott: If you’re in a simulation, you don’t have to “write” the bits that aren’t observed / seen. Naval: the universe is maximally efficient. You don’t bother rendering or creating things you don’t need. The universe won’t bother creating or rendering things if there’s no one there to see it. Scott: You’d also make sure that people can’t see what they’re actually made of. Naval: Yes, you just disappear. Every formal system ultimately rests on belief. There are only three ways to resolve the belief question: circular reasoning; axiomatic reasoning; and infinite regression. All three are sophistry, loopholes. Even science at the bottom of it rests on belief.

Scott: Are you religious? Naval: God is just a fancy word for existence. God has to be the entire universe. Existence itself is the whole thing. Scott: Is God more in our future than in our past? (Moving toward greater understanding?) Naval refers to Buddhist principles. Truth, by definition, is what actually exists. We create borders around ourselves; and we’ll always judge the external world as imperfect. The “why?” question eventually is answered axiomatically.

Next, a discussion of how behavioral patterns tie back to our evolutionary history / hardware (as it were: embodiment?), which affects our understanding of meaning. “Human nature is all about evolution.” But: there’s a struggle between what the individual wants and what society wants. I.e., you can’t completely tie evolutionary reasons, which decidedly affect our individual decisions, with societal reasons, which somehow seem to be differently configured (due to massification?). Your “head” (your individuality) will be telling you to do one thing while the group (society) is sending you in a different direction. The modern struggle is to become a kind of psychological and physical ascetic because our biological underpinnings, based on there not being a surfeit of stuff, is undermined in an age of plenty, so-called. Naval cites the example of a friend who does a “dopamine fast” because we (at least we in the West) live in a world of dopamine surfeit.

Defining freedom: You can measure it by how much it’s defined by someone else’s schedule, when you have to get up, not have to use an alarm clock to get up, etc. That’s physical freedom, but there’s also self-actualization freedom and freedom from your own thoughts.

Scott gets back to an issue over which Buzzfeed roasted him; he asks, do kids stay home longer these days because of the iPhone? That is, does the phone give you access to so much stuff that you have no need to leave the house? To which Naval responds, “the real basic universal income is cannabis and video games,” before adding, “obviously tongue in cheek.” Gets a big laugh. He speculates that the next generation is going to have to learn to conquer the perils of abundance: too much food, too much information, too much narcotic stuff (alcohol, dope, etc.). How to control and manage and break addictions will be a big deal, even more so than going out and doing something. 

Scott: I wonder if we’ll get to the point where your DNA will predict what kind of addictive personality you have. Are we already there? Naval: We’re already there. He goes on to describe that, in human history, it was the pessimists who survived. (“Only the paranoid survive” [Andy Gove]?) But in modern societies (because we have so many options available to us?) optimists to a lot better now. (Perhaps because they’re more willing to make themselves open to opportunities, to seek out unknowns, etc.?) But still, people with the DNA to resist addictions will do better. Naval then goes on to describe his own addictive personality, but it’s the flip side of an obsessive personality aspect. In other words, it might be the two sides of the same coin, and therefore having an obsessive personality that wants to dive deep into a topic – into many topics, anything that’s of interest – is also undeniably a plus.

Next, a discussion of consequences of those who knowingly give someone an addictive drug if they know the person who’s getting the drug has an addictive personality. Naval thinks that ultimately it’s better if you know that you have or don’t have an addictive personality. (Disagreement re. consequences: Scott wants death penalty, Naval not.)

How about a discussion on risk management, specifically around the issue of attaching blame to victims for getting themselves in trouble with, say, provocative clothing? (No, they’re not talking about women wearing mini skirts …we’ve moved on to MAGA hats. This is the world we live in…) Clearly, Scott posits and Naval agrees, it’s the attacker who is to blame for any violence or harm that ensues, but lately there have been discussions around blaming the victims (“you shouldn’t have worn the MAGA hat!”), and this is wrong (just as blaming a woman for getting raped because she wasn’t “modestly” dressed is wrong), but what about managing one’s risk, Scott asks? (This is something Camille Paglia is also on about often, and rightly so. The world is dangerous, she asserts, and to demand personal safety wherever and whenever you go into to the world is childish.)

Naval doesn’t want to get into those topics because they’re in the domain of politics, and politics is power without merit (not sure I heard this correctly; there was some sound distortion). He adds, “You can’t put reasons under anything political.” People just make up their minds on who they hate and who they like, and so there’s no justification or reason for anything there: it’s contradictions and hypocrisy galore, with everyone living in their own movie. This is not based on reason, there’s no reality underneath. In real life (and here, Naval echoes Paglia), you do risk management all day long. He goes on to cite personal examples of growing up in a rough part of Queens, e.g. But in the domain of politics, he adds, you can’t talk about common sense; it’s a domain where sense-making doesn’t apply. (This reminds me so much of my Marxist – or Maoist, or both – thesis advisor telling me that “common sense” is a myth, and not just any myth, but a “bourgeois” myth-invention…) 

Wrap up: Naval wants Scott to write a book on hypnosis. “I’ve seen your girlfriend.”

And what about reading: a list of what to read? It varies too much according to time and phase of life, Naval objects, before saying that he likes science fiction and then rattling off a bunch of titles in that genre, along with titles in philosophy and other genres. He calls Hesse “Hesh,” which of course bothered me. But he made a great great great point in recommending that one read all the originals. Primary sources for the win.

Same goes for learning a topic. Take math: the day that you start to rely solely on memorization because you no longer understand the concepts underlying what you’re learning, you’ve lost it. Build on a solid foundation. If you have to rely on memorization or rely on the opinions of others, you need to stop and backtrack.

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