AlchemistX: Innovators Inside

E.16 - Mark Pesce: Next Billion Seconds

Published on

August 6, 2021

"Innovators will see the problem and the solution, possibly a full generation ahead of the organization seeing it." - Mark Pesce

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Show Notes

Rachel Chalmers:

My next guest is my very dear friend, Mark Pesce. Mark is the host of the award winning podcast The Next Billion Seconds, a columnist for The Register and the co-inventor of VRML, the standard for 3D on the web and a core component of MPEG4. He's the author of six books, including, VRML: Browsing and Building Cyberspace, The Playful World and most recently, Augmented Reality: Unboxing Tech's Next Big Thing.
Mark was entrepreneur in residence at Incubate Sydney University in 2018. He founded postgraduate programs in Digital and Emerging Media at the University of Southern California and the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. And currently he is holding honorary appointments at both the University of Sydney and the University of Technology
Mark, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Mark Pesce:

Thank you very much, Rachel. Hello.

Rachel Chalmers:

In your vast experience as an observer and participant in innovation, how does change take place?

Mark Pesce:

You know, there is that lovely quote from Hemingway, “How did you go bankrupt? Slowly and then suddenly.” 
And it feels as though innovation sort of works along a similar frame where innovation happens slowly and then it happens suddenly. And I'll give you a case in point. The thing that is most interesting to me or where most innovation is happening right now is in two areas where there was no innovation just 10 years ago. Banking and in automobiles. If you looked at both of those fields 10 years ago, you would say there is nothing interesting here. There's nothing interesting to an entrepreneur, to an engineer, to anyone. And now both of those things are suddenly and precipitously transforming and transforming, of course, all of the rest of the economy with them.

Rachel Chalmers:

The overnight success story that takes 10 years. And so Toyota Ventures shows up with a quarter of a million dollar fund and Google has a head of autonomous vehicles. And all of that is building on 10 years of build up work. So as somebody who wants to create change, where should a person start? What's the role of a large corporation versus an individual founder?

Mark Pesce:

In large corporations, it's always easy to look at the processes that have been done the same way for a very long time, but have become desynchronized from the greater world. You know, and again, to come back to both automobiles and banking, there's an enormous amount of banking that is done the same way it always has been done. Or really since the invention of the mainframe computer in the 1960s. Banking has a certain set of processes that are assumed to be done in a particular way and that there are ways to come in and either radically revise or completely rethink the way those processes are done.
When you do that, it releases transformative energies inside the organization. Once you revisit one process, you basically kick off something that allows you to revisit all of the other processes that it touches. And it becomes, in a sense, almost a kind of ignition where there's a single point of ignition and then it can spread throughout the organization. And the question at that point is whether the organization is prepared to survive that transformation.

Rachel Chalmers:

What are some of your favorite examples of organizations that have survived such a transformation?

Mark Pesce:

I'm not sure if there are any yet.
I don't mean to be really glib about that. I think probably interestingly, although the jury is still somewhat out, I suspect Microsoft is actually going to be a good example of this. When Microsoft was very much based around the idea that we’re selling software that is being sold as a single computer and used by a single user. Now what they're doing is they're selling massive services that are delivered through a cloud framework that can be delivered anywhere to any user on any device. And that does really represent a complete reversal of the original model.
We talk about the tic and the toc between center and edge in computing as being one of the basic heartbeat's of computing. But you don't normally see a business transition across that heartbeat. And it looks as though we have seen Microsoft transition across that heartbeat. We still don't know what that means across the entire organization of what Microsoft is as a business entity because that transformation probably still has a number of years left to run in it.

Rachel Chalmers:

It's a fascinating example that you chose because one of our other guests on the program is Sam Ramji. Who, with his head of strategy, Brian Kershner, was at Microsoft in the 2000s writing papers and yelling at Satya Nadella and saying, “We can't keep fighting open source because open source is going to eat the world.” Sam and Brian left Microsoft believing that they failed. But those arguments stayed with Satya as he ascended through the organization and I think were instrumental in the changes of point of view that he had that led him to acquire assets like GitHub.

Mark Pesce:

You point to something that's really, I think, important for an innovator to understand. It’s that an innovator will see the problem and the solution, possibly a full generation ahead of the organization seeing it. I certainly have seen this in my own work in virtual reality and augmented reality. Where I was talking about things 30 years ago that are really only coming into currency now because some of these systems are catching up to it.
You do have to be prepared if you are the person who is the innovator, who is the farseer, you have to be prepared, I think, to tolerate a certain amount of disappointment. And the fact that you can be somewhere else by the time that your innovation takes root. That doesn't mean that the organization itself has been blind to this. Sometimes they are and they fail precipitously because of it. 
Other times it's again, it's a slow ignition. It takes time for enough things to be going. For enough circuits to be firing for the organization as a whole, which is vast. And at Microsoft it’s unbelievably vast. You're talking about a trillion dollar corporation. This is not something that can move quickly, because if it did, it would knock the world down. When you're talking about something that's pivoting like that, it is going to happen at, to a human scale,  looks incredibly slow.

Rachel Chalmers:

This is where I confess that I'm actually struggling with the accelerator model because it presupposes deadlines. And in some ways, having an arbitrary, artificially imposed deadline is obviously a motivator. But on the other hand, I work with a lot of these entrepreneurs and a lot of these early stage founders. And it is so clear to me that what they need for their creativity to work is time. So the accelerator ends up being an impedance match between the demands of investors who are like, “Give me a return on investment in a reasonable time frame.” and the needs of entrepreneurs who need to be nurtured and given space to explore and experiment and fail.

Mark Pesce:

What we're seeing as a result of that are entrepreneurs getting increasingly canny on developing projects that require a minimum amount of capital to get to enough product market fit that they can work sustainably as a business. While the entrepreneur continues to articulate what they're working on in the longer term.
I feel as though we're not quite done yet. There is a certain kind of venture capital which is bringing in a lot of money at regular intervals to get to particular kinds of, you know, whether it's B2C or B2B marketing growth, bla bla bla bla bla. And that's suited for one kind of innovation, which is more around a sustaining innovation model than around a truly disruptive innovation model. 
Because disruptive innovation is again, something that requires enormous amounts of transformation across enormous amounts of sectors and therefore is probably well suited to being something - Think of the way mushrooms grow in the soil. A few spores grow and then they form this mat underground. And it isn't until that mat is quite well developed that in fact, you get the fruiting bodies, what we think of as the mushrooms popping out of the ground. They end up being an end state rather than actually the beginning of the process.

Rachel Chalmers:

Again, that's a wonderful metaphor because the Mycelium network is basically the tree’s internet. It's how a biome communicates with itself. But coming back to your point about venture capital and how it's structured to produce sustaining rather than disruptive innovation. I just had promoted to me a couple of year old article from the MIT Technology Review called If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich? In which a couple of Italian researchers modeled income distribution and demonstrated clearly that the patterns that we see can be completely explained by chance. The coincidence of talent and wealth is extremely, extremely unlikely. 
So all our claims to a meritocracy are somewhat suspect. Which you and I have talked about a lot. The real twist to this article, though, is that when they looked at the most effective methods for funding science and researchers, they found that the most successful pattern was to give a little bit of money to all of the scientists. That if you were doubling down on scientists who'd had previous successes, you are actually reducing your chances of a successful outcome. So in other words, that's the opposite of how we do venture. I found that really concerning as well.

Mark Pesce:

And it's not that, I mean, venture is a hit space business, too. It's like backing a musician, and expecting that they're going to have a top 10 pop hit. You know, you back enough of them and they will. And so, you know, you wouldn't ever call venture capital gambling, but you would call it placing money down on black and hoping that the wheel comes up black in that sense. 
It's complicated because venture capital is very much around, doing everything you can to mitigate risk. What we're talking about is something that is intentionally lower level, more democratic, more diverse. It’s feeding a whole bunch of things to see what can be spun up into something, feeding a whole ecosystem to see how we can work together. We are probably better at that now than we were 10 or 20 years ago. But because there is a focus on big, because big can preoccupy us, because it can suck the media sphere, it can suck our attention, it can command our attention. It looms larger than it probably should. Particularly when we're focusing on innovation. You always find innovation at the edges rather than at the core, because again, the core is very big. And for the core to innovate, it has to move very slowly. 

Rachel Chalmers:

I don't know who put chimpanzee brains in charge of these life or death issues. It seems like a very short sighted move.
Large organizations like the universities you're affiliated with are also structures created to mitigate risk. How can they foster internal innovation without compromising that core function?

Mark Pesce:

You ask a very good question. I have to say what was really interesting in my work as an entrepreneur in residence at Sydney University was to watch the way those tensions worked out. And they worked at two different levels. They worked out at the institutional level, around. What does the institution do within Electoral property that is theoretically owned by the institution, but created by employees of the scientists, the researchers at the institution?
How do they develop a strategy for that, that gives the creators as much flexibility as possible to be free with that and to use that and to be able to get investment for that versus the desire of the University to get some return on that for their investment?
And so that's one set of tensions. And then there's another set of tensions, which I encountered very much at a coalface. Which is a university professor who is set for life. 
You know, they’re tenure, they’re doing well. They're getting lots of publications. Yet they have an incredible invention. And I see them fundamentally torn between the desire to go out and make this invention in the world and the desire to be able to feed the family and pay the mortgage reliably. And to have the respect of their peers and all of the other things that come with academe. And there's no resolution. These are dilemmas, right? You can't resolve a dilemma. You can only endure a dilemma. And so what you do is you work with either the individual or the institution around their endurance in this. What can they tolerate? What can they tolerate around a given outcome?
And you find both the true worth of the Institution and the individual is revealed in these dilemmas.

Rachel Chalmers:

It's interesting that you touch on a point that's come up a few times in this podcast, which is that an individual's risk profile changes over time or depending on circumstances. There's lots of entrepreneurial minded people in large organizations because they have to send remittances to their family or because they've got a child who has a disability and that doesn't affect their fundamental character as somebody who's incredibly open to innovation and curious and creative. It does mean for me that my mission of making sure that there is space for that kind of innovation and time for those kinds of founders is even more important and mission critical.

Mark Pesce:

You do find when organizations make room for that kind of innovation, when they create the sandbox for that innovation to take place and they set these people up so that they can succeed, you'll find that when these people succeed in achieving their goals inside the organization, the organization is then unable to take what they've created and bring it back across the sandbox into the organization.
And this is why I find it a huge disappointment. I've also worked with entrepreneurs to help them to encounter and expect that you can't expect the organization to change its stripes, or at least not quickly. This is where you get to another interesting point where the entrepreneur has to decide whether they need to leave to make the innovation work at scale or whether the organization feels like it can let the innovation leave to let it scale. So there's a whole other set of dilemmas. So there's the dilemma around entering into this process. And then there's another dilemma around succeeding in this process.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, reintegration is a bear and it's many, many tiny babies, that's for sure. 
It's interesting that the pendulum moves back and forth. I mean, when I first came to the valley, you know, Sun was literally the center of the universe and it was hard to imagine a computer industry without it. You tell that to kids today, they say, well, “who’s Sun?” And I said, well, go down to Facebook and look on the back of the sign on 1 Hacker Way and you'll see the Sun logo
The reason Zuckerberg leaves it there is because this too shall come. You know, everything that has happened before will happen again. If Facebook doesn't stay paranoid and conscious that companies like it have died, it too will die. So we had this world in which innovation was spun out of the mothership, ragtag bands of engineers raise venture capital and create a new firm, which then goes public or gets reacquired. 
Then we swung over right over the other way to Facebook and Google, giving their engineers 20 percent time and trying to create organizations that functioned like large ecosystems of startups. And now I think you're starting to see the pendulum swing back and people acknowledging that Google's promise of 22 percent time isn't all that and that there is a world outside that the corporate campuses. So I think you are starting to see ragtag bands of engineers wandering the valley again. It's another dilemma. There's no right answer. There's just different options with different engineering tradeoffs. 

Mark Pesce:

I think there's also a growing sense of disappointment that these enormous multi trillion dollar accumulations of capital have become fundamentally conservative. I have to go, “What did you expect? They’re trillion dollar accumulations of capital. The larger the accumulation of capital, the more likely it is to work very conservatively to be itself.”
In some sense, that accumulation of capital is gravitational. So it becomes much, much harder for anything to escape the gravitational influence of a trillion dollars of capital. This is the innovator's dilemma in a nutshell here. That by the time you get to the kind of scale of a Facebook or Microsoft, and this is why Microsoft is so interesting, if they are in fact shedding their skin and changing again or a Google, or we could argue an Apple as well, that they have become fundamentally conservative in their approaches. Would the history of the last 20 years have been different if the universe had been more diverse? This is a coulda, shoulda, woulda. We don't really know. We do know that these organizations are incredibly protective of their core functions because of that accumulation of capital.

Rachel Chalmers:

And like all 90s tech idealists, I would like to visit, at least briefly, the universe where Google didn't kill Google Reader and fundamentally change the open web in doing so.

Mark Pesce:

There's a lot of technology that fell along the way. Would we be better off? Things would be different. All right. We could take a look at an Internet that was more peer to peer based. In some ways, we're getting that now with the rise of digital currencies, which is a peer to peer Internet via a backdoor of the financial system and all of these other things that are going on.

Rachel Chalmers:

With really unfortunate environmental side effects.

Mark Pesce:

Oh, you're talking about Bitcoin. I'm not talking about. Yes, you're absolutely right. Bitcoin is the perfect coupling of the human desire for profit with the ruin of the planet. All right. And it makes a strong coupling between those two. That cannot be a good idea. It is not to say that I am not a big fan of some of the basic underlying ideas behind Bitcoin. 
I will tell you something, Rachel, that maybe you don't know. The VRML specification 1.0 was written by myself, by Tony Parisi, who you also know another friend, and Gavin Bell. Gavin actually went on to have a career and changed his name, Gavin's name. He changed his last name to Andreassen. Does that name ring a bell? 

Rachel Chalmers:

It does. 

Mark Pesce:

Gavin Anderson was the first chief scientist of the Bitcoin Foundation. So it's this very sort of odd set of circumstances. And when I reconnected with him after about sort of 15 years of him being in another orbit entirely, I said, what are you working on? It's like, oh, I'm working to make sure that when we get quantum computing, they won't be able to hack the block chain. It's like it's a good job. Just keep at it.
So it's not that there's not a lot of technical capacity or awareness around these things. We don't want to sort of go down the rabbit hole of Bitcoin being good or bad. But what we want to take a look at is the way that it has brought a whole new sense of what a distributed system is and how distributed systems have strengths and most importantly, how distributed systems have weaknesses, because we've never really gotten deep enough into them before to understand again the dilemmas between centralized systems and decentralized systems. Neither of them are perfect. Both of them have sets of tradeoffs. Decentralized systems will be low energy, ideally, and slow. That's just the way they are there, like the network of the plants. They're talking to each other, but it's slow. Centralized systems are power hungry and fast and probably in terms of accuracy, yeah decentralized systems are going to be accurate, but it's going to be a while before, you know the answer.

Rachel Chalmers:

Eventual consistency.

Mark Pesce:

Exactly, eventual consistency.

Rachel Chalmers:

So it would have surprised our past selves greatly for you to produce Microsoft as an example of how to do it right.

Mark Pesce:

I know!

Rachel Chalmers:

What are some anti-patters you've seen at first hand who have innovated badly and suffered for it?

Mark Pesce:

Intel. Shocking Intel. All right. Shockingly. 
When I was 14 years old, what I wanted to do when I grew up was to make silicon for Intel. That was my goal. I think if I had finished MIT, that would have been the job. I would have gone there and I would have worked for many years and I would have been a different person than I am today and we might not have been having this conversation. And again, classic innovator's dilemma. As soon as the X86 becomes the dominant architecture for computing. As soon as you find the gold mine, you focus on the gold mine and they were incredibly good at the gold mine. They were incredibly good at managing processes until they were no longer good at managing processes, which is sort of from 2015 on.
So you now have a company that is one to two generations behind in process technology, and it's also not so much lumbered with, but is bearing the full burden of a technology platform that is older than you. Close to older than you. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Oh Lord!

Mark Pesce:

Seventy eight was the X86. So there's a whole sort of set of questions there around whether - and intel has never been able to shed this and they know this and they make it better and better and better. They do a very good job at making it better and better and better. The question is, does that mean that this is like Jacob Marley's chains? Has it constrained them to be earthbound that they haven't been able to explore any of the other areas? They've completely missed out on mobile. They've completely missed out on smartphones. They have completely missed out on a whole range of edge kinds of computing because of this. This is the company that ruled the world. 
Again, we get in that time machine, go back twenty years, it's a Wintel world twenty years ago. Absolutely, one hundred percent Wintel world. So, yes, I think in that sense and, you know, there's that whole idea, only the paranoid survive. That's Andy Grove. Until Andy left Intel, they clearly had that core of paranoia and needing to innovate. Eventually they got to the point where, “Well, we’re simply the best. Why would we have to worry about any threat from anyone? We're simply the best.” And that was the thing that brought them down.

Rachel Chalmers:

Very deep historical roots to Andy Grove’s paranoia as well. The very classic sense of a Hungarian man who had evaded the Holocaust by immigrating. Then a company that made itself over as purely American and assured of its own supremacy with predictable results.

Mark Pesce:

And if we'd taken a look at the Intel in 1980. I was using Intel products. I was using 8080s and 8085s in the early 1980s. This is before Intel was what we think of as Intel. They were a scrappy semiconductor company. Yeah, they made microprocessors and it was an interesting thing, but they weren't everywhere yet. They were a scrappy company and there were a number of other scrappy companies beside them in that space. So it meant that there was a lot of fun, weird, interesting architectural innovations, all sorts of things going on there that, yes, got crowded out as things got big and became conservative.

Rachel Chalmers:

When you look back on your career today, what are you proudest of?

Mark Pesce:

Gosh, that is an interesting question, because I haven't had just one career. I've had several different careers. I'm really, really happy with the work that we did at VRML. I am still very, very proud of that. I'm also really proud of the work that I've done as an educator, as a teacher. You know, I taught at USC to help kids understand how digital media was going to be transforming what they were working on. And then by the time I got to Australia, to AFTRS, it was really clear that digital distribution, which we don't even think about anymore because we're just all watching Netflix all day. That was going to change how they considered every aspect of what they were creating and delivering to an audience. 
The thing that I'm happiest about or most satisfied with is that I have been able to both sit in the position of being able to see some of the future and articulate it in a way that empowers people to use that. To participate in that, to not just be overwhelmed by it.

Rachel Chalmers:

It's been lonely, though, because at times you've been five years ahead of the mainstream and swimming upstream.

Mark Pesce:

Or ten.
I mean, the answer is yes. And again, this is why to quote you again, if I'm so smart, why ain't I rich?

Rachel Chalmers:

Because you're talented. That's how we can comfort ourselves.

Mark Pesce:

Well, also because we know that there's survivorship bias around hitting the jackpot.

Rachel Chalmers:

Of course.

Mark Pesce:

You know, on the other hand, I also do get to know and hang out with people who are talented and wealthy because they had the right combinations of skills in the right places and times. I salute them, like the Atlassian twins, who are lovely human beings, as well as now being like ten billion dollars apiece or something. 
So you get to also see how it works and how it doesn't work. I've been in startup land long enough to see such a procession of companies that just didn't quite make it. Failed for whatever reasons. Whether those reasons have to do with the people involved or the idea, or the timing or the climate. Whatever it all is around that. That in some sense you take all of that is a matter of course. I feel as though my timing has gotten slightly better as I've gotten older. I know that this transformation to digital currency is something that's going to take the next decade to fully articulate, which is fine. But on the other hand, I'm also having conversations with large banks today about what they need to prepare because we're talking about, again, multi-billion dollar entities that will need that kind of time. So, in fact, my role as someone who's ten years ahead of the curve is exactly perfect for them, for their planning cycles.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yes. 

Mark Pesce:

So the idea in some sense is how do you then align your capability to be ahead of the curve with the gradual way that an organization needs to shift in order to be aligned with that?

Rachel Chalmers:

If you had one do over, what would you do differently?

Mark Pesce:

I would have a lot more patience with the institutions that I was part of.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah.

Mark Pesce:

I will be very clear on that. I chalk this up when I was young to be youthful and impatient, but no, actually, Rachel. It just comes down to, I'm impatient.
Part of being older and hopefully to some degree wiser is to be able to understand that impatience as a search for closure in the world actually doesn't offer a lot of opportunities for closure. So I've gotten more comfortable with the fact that there are not really well closed situations.
But I think when it comes to institutions, I always expected institutions to not be insane. It wasn't until the last decade that I started to understand that all institutions are at some level really dysfunctional families.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yes.

Mark Pesce:

And to not take that personally as a result. I think if I understood that when I was at USC or AFTRS, I would have had a longer term there. On the other hand, I probably am more happy that I haven't just been an academic all my career, that I've been able to sort of dip in. I have these relationships with educational institutions now which allow me to participate in their life and to teach, but without the, I guess, the continuous demands of having to confront an educational bureaucracy all of the time. Which even for people who have dedicated their life to it, is crazy for them. If I had approached those situations with more understanding that that craziness had nothing to do with me, but was just the way an institution is, I probably would have been happier and they would have been happier in those situations too.

Rachel Chalmers:

I don't know if you've seen the show Succession with. Is a thinly veiled parody of the Murdochs, but it's absolutely brilliant in this King Lear way of describing exactly the ways in which institutions resemble dysfunctional families.

Mark Pesce:

Look, how can they not be? They're composed of people. People are frail and broken and fragile. And we are all doing our best all of the time. It's still got to be a mess.

Rachel Chalmers:

Again, who put these chimpanzees in charge of the planet?

Mark Pesce:

Exactly. 
Oh, I don't think we're in charge. I think one reason we're working so hard on climate remediation these days is because we have a growing awareness that we're not actually in charge. We are simply the sorcerer's apprentices.

Rachel Chalmers:

How can you distill all of this experience into a few lessons for our listeners?

Mark Pesce:

All innovation is an intersection between the future and humans. Humans are imperfect and so is the future. We can get very hung up on wanting a utopia of our inventions or utopia of human behavior. We aren't going to get either of those. If we build our systems in a way that acknowledges those weaknesses without playing into them. But simply acknowledge them, then I feel like we're going to be a lot more satisfied with our outcomes. I think that's part of it.
I think another part of it is accepting that even in a time of very rapid change, change is slow at the scales that people expect to see it on, which is massive global transformative scales. Then I think probably the third thing is if everyone were a little easier on themselves and everyone else and if we can remember that, then this ride would probably be easier.
I think another thing - I get an interesting, weird pass as a gay man because I don't have children. At least I'm of the generation of gay men who don't. There's a new generation of gay men who are having children. Bless them.
In that I can invest all of the energy that I would be investing in my children, in helping to make the world a better place. I try to do that not in every single effort, but I certainly do try to do that. I try to make that my intention. And I feel as though all of us who are engaged in producing and whether that's producing the next generation or producing something that's broader than that, want to keep that in mind because that means you're working from love. If we can remember to work from love, then it makes all of the other things that I've just outlined that much easier to do.

Rachel Chalmers:

I do want to shout out to my own lost generation. I grew up in the shadow of the men that we lost to AIDS. And I have in my life, you know, as an activist and as a writer and a creator, for a long time, been very conscious of my queer uncles who aren't there and what they might have taught me and also my own personal responsibility to try and fill that space in the world. Thank you for being one of my gay uncles who who made it through.

Mark Pesce:

When I was in New York last, which was before the pandemic, in the before time. And I gave a talk at the Civic Hall. A young man came up after me. We engaged in this very long conversation. I realized he was fascinated with me because I was an openly gay man working in technology and I was kind of the oldest person that he could find in that category. Which in some sense is depressing to me because I don't think of myself as old at all. I want to come to that in just a second. 
But it was also really heartening because it meant that he was seeing me as an example, which I had never set out to be. I wasn't trying to be anything other than what I am. In some sense that was enough. But it also - I do feel that again and I remember Sondheim did this interview with 60 Minutes probably thirty five years ago, and he said, “Art is the other way of having children.” I see my own work as that approach.
It's the work in the world of trying to leave the world better, trying to help the world manage the transitions that we're in right now. 
Now, to come to this question, I want to come to something else. There's this kind of a number of things that completely obsess me about the future.
So in 18 months, give or take a few days, I will be turning 60, which is inconceivable to me. When we were growing up, that was like, well, you better start planning your funeral because you're not going to be around that much longer! Three of my four grandparents were dead before they were sixty five. Barring some sort of horrible accident, I’m fully planning to make it till at least my mid 90s. So I have sort of 40 more years of road in front of me. I would suspect 30 more years of work because my uncle, bless him, is still going to work every day at 83. He's a famous researcher. He's been fully vaccinated. He's just enjoying it. 
I have all of this time and we haven't built a culture or an economy that understands how to work in those parameters. It expects everyone's going to retire at 65 and they just sort of grow old or take care of the grandchildren. There's lots of interesting things people can do at 65, but I feel as though part of what we can do now is find this different role for contribution that's going to be quite active and it feels like that's part of what my aging process in particular is going to be. What I actually am starting to talk to other people in my generation about, “What does it mean?” Because it feels like a lot of us are feeling the same way. We are so far from being done. In fact, it feels like we're really just getting ready for the main act.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, and it's definitely coming from a space of abundance rather than scarcity. You know, we reach these late middle ages with tremendous good health and energy and insight. And what do we do with this extra time? It's a bonus round.

Mark Pesce:

I mean, the thing is, it's only a bonus round because our parents and our grandparents didn't get to see it, whereas our children will just accept it. And what we will be doing is setting the pattern for them. That's what's really interesting around this is in the sense that even if I don't have biological children, I can help establish life patterns that mean that this last quarter, probably the last third of my life, I lived around a pattern of that kind of growth and abundance and opportunity that then becomes the thing that is your real memorial.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, that gives me a lot to think about. 
We touched on the pandemic. How do you think it's going to affect us in the long term?

Mark Pesce:

Among the close friends that I'm talking to here, who I've been sharing my thoughts with all along, what we understand now and for listeners, you are in America and I am in Australia. Which, of course, is the complete role reversal because there was an exchange of bodies that you went to America first and then pretty soon after that, I went to Australia.

Rachel Chalmers:

The quantity theory of sanity.

Mark Pesce:

Yeah, well, we certainly preserved the cosmic balance here.
What I know is that America has had a very different pandemic than Australia. In Sydney right now on this day, which is the 23rd of June when we're recording this. There were 10 cases recorded yesterday and the entire city is going bananas because this is the largest number of daily cases that we've had in six months or something. 
Parts of the city are being shut down to the other states. You know, we've taken it all very seriously. We've basically practiced almost accidentally an elimination strategy rather than an eradication strategy. So no one has died of COVID in this calendar year, in Australia. That means that the lived experience of the last 18 months is entirely different here in Australia than it has been in America or in Europe or in Canada. That's broadly even more true for New Zealand than it is for Australia.
I am now - terrified is not quite the right word, but I am now dealing with the fact that when I go back to America and right before we came on to record this, my sister sent me a lovely email saying, “Look, all your aunties and uncles are flying to California for my 83 year old uncle’s birthday, which is next week. Then we're going here and da da da da.... And, you know, life is getting back to normal in America because everyone's been vaccinated.”
Bless you, because we're still in the middle of that here.
And it feels as though there's a real desynchronization that's going to be at a cultural and experiential level between our nations now. That wasn't there because there was this constant flow of people before this. People are always coming and going. You didn't think anything about it. I’d be like, “I'm going to be in town next week, Rachel, let's go have coffee.” And you’d be like, “Sure!” 
It was a matter of course, and that has been interrupted. And it's not going to be back to normal again for at least another six months and probably well into next year, because Australia, again, is so slow being vaccinated and is practicing an eradication strategy. So I feel as though there's a cultural divergence that this is a bifurcation moment here between the culture that you guys have there. And I'm worried that when I get there, it will feel much more alien than it did the last time I came to visit. And that when you come here, because you have lived through it there, it will feel much more alien than the last time you came to visit.
But that said, the upside of this is that the pandemic has shattered a lot of business as usual models. So the whole work from anywhere model, work from home model. The thing I want to point to, because no one's been pointing to it yet. It’s what happened to education, because the Prussian model of education where everyone's staring at a teacher in the front of the classroom broke. It completely broke. Zoom did not fix that because it was not a model that can be replicated that way. 
It requires physical presence with the teacher. But it turns out that's only because of a presumption of a certain way to educate the child. I think what we need to do is now take a very close look at all of those assumptions, because if we can all work from everywhere fairly effectively, and that's not true for frontline workers, I completely agree. There's a certain class of office workers who are completely able to start working from everywhere and they were greatly advantaged in the pandemic. We need to take a look at how we're educating children so that they can have the same kind of flexibility that we want to see in the workforce now so that there's no sort of difference there.

Rachel Chalmers:

That's a whole extra conversation that we should have at some point. But I do want to ask, given everything that's on your plate, given everything that's been happening in the world, how do you manage burnout?

Mark Pesce:

It is funny you ask that, because I am coming out of a period of burnout, because I worked very, very hard. Because I do a lot of work as a public speaker and a lot of that's now online, although more and more of that, at least in Australia, is face to face. It's going back and forth as the weather changes with respect to the pandemic. There are periods of time when I work very, very, very hard. Last week was one of those periods and I did a big piece of work for the Department of Industry here in Australia because we had a big day-long AI seminar. 
I was the emcee and I was running panels all day for that. It was five hours on camera continuously, something I've never done before. It was exhausting. So exhausting that when I got to Monday and Tuesday this week, I was still exhausted. It's now Wednesday here. I'm coming out the other side. I have learned how to give myself space and to leave the days after that unpacked. So at the level of physical burnout, you learn how to regulate and you try to make sure that things are not too packed up as a result of that. I think in terms of the kind of burnout that you get, because what you're feeling is almost worthlessness, is that that is an invitation for you to go find something that you love, that you're interested in, that you fall in love with, and feel you need to change. Between the two of those, you can find a creative balance that will ward off burnout. But burnout is a symptom. It is not the thing itself.

Rachel Chalmers:

That's what the horses have always been for me, a hard reset. You cannot persevere right when you're on a horse because the horses don't like it.

Mark Pesce:

Exactly.
And I'll get in the pool and I'll swim in the pool. Right. Because it's that hard reset. When you're fully in your body, you can't be sort of in your head when you're swimming because you'll drown.

Rachel Chalmers:

And as introverted nerds, the temptation to just be fully a brain in a jar is ever present. And physical activity is one of the few things that really pushes it back. I do think, though, that that burnout is cumulative and that coming off this year of all kinds of vicarious and second hand trauma has made everyone more brittle than we used to be. And it's something that we need to build into our expectations of one another.

Mark Pesce:

I heard this described as post pandemic stress disorder the other day. I thought that was a brilliant way of putting it. I think that there's going to be a lot more of it in America than there has been in Australia simply because the experiences have been so different. But I also know that because Victoria was so locked down last year for 111 days during the major lockdown, that they are experiencing it very differently. When they hear there's going to be a five day lockdown, they lose their minds because it brings up that memory.
Part of what we have to understand around that is everyone's journey through this process has been different and some people are a lot more traumatized than others. You won't know this until something happens and they're reacting how we would say disproportionately, but for them who are simply reacting to what they experienced as the trauma.
It would be lovely to hope that this is an opportunity for a national moment of psychoanalysis around this. It's funny because the series that I'm now madly watching is In Treatment.
The series 4 on HBO. Because so much of the subtext there is around everyone dealing with their own pandemic issues, their own pandemic traumas as well. So I'm listening to the Americans talk to themselves about it. I mean, yes, we're having that conversation here, but our stories are not nearly as, I think, as intense or as formative as they are in America.

Rachel Chalmers:

And the added wrinkle is that San Francisco had a very different pandemic from even the rest of California. We had a population that had a very high level of faith in our extremely competent public health officials, and we have come through it comparatively unscathed compared to every other major metro. So our relations, even with our folks in Los Angeles, are very different. Our experiences of the pandemic have been very different.

Mark Pesce:

And for a population that still has a lot of immune compromised people walking around in it too, I think they were always very conscious of that and therefore reacted appropriately to that.

Rachel Chalmers:

I think that's true. I've heard that line drawn a couple of times, but it's absolutely the case that San Francisco General and UCSF were the forerunners of dealing with the AIDS pandemic and were unusually well placed to manage another pandemic in the same generation. Fauci, of course, originally made his name as one of the warriors against AIDS.

Mark Pesce:

We're not fully - we're in the perry pandemic now. We've not excited yet. We're sort of still in this period of time. And I mean, we're clearly not exiting. Things are quieting down a little bit. Although the Delta variant may come along and eat us all, we don't really know.
I feel as though that's important for us to note is that as much as we want to repress or suppress the knowledge of the pandemic, because we've had enough of the horror and we don't want to keep that horror too close to us because it will be immobilizing. I think we want to remember that if we're suppressing, we're doing it consciously. We're doing it so that we can get other work done, but not because it's gone away.

Rachel Chalmers:

And that points to something very difficult, both about the tech industry and about Australia and America and the Anglosphere generally, which is that we don't know how to deal with the traumatic elements of our past. We don't have healthy ways of managing the weight of our history. And it's something we have to learn somehow.

Mark Pesce:

I have to say the thing that has been the most encouraging to me in the 18 years that I have been here has been watching a new generation of Australians be very different about our history. I own that history now because I am an Australian. And the way that we're talking about - I mean, a poll was released just last week shows now a majority of Australians favor removing Australia Day.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yes.

Mark Pesce:

Because it's the day of white colonization of Australia and therefore is very complicated. That indicates that people are now understanding the depth of it. Even if we don't have - we haven't fully plumbed everything that's happened. And I think you're right. There's a whole other way of talking about histories around that.
There's a sensitivity to it that was not at all present, as you know, when I arrived here. One of the beautiful things about this season of In Treatment is the way that it's dealing with Black Lives Matter by kind of only barely pointing to it, but by simply putting a black analyst, a black woman analyst into the power seat and letting her speak. That it's this complete refiguration of, “OK, this is a completely different and proper way of actually addressing what's going on here.” It's not the only way to do it, but it is a way to have this conversation in a way that is amazing.
And I look at these things and I go, “OK, these are amazing.” They're not enough, but they are amazing. And we can praise them and encourage them and use that as a basis to move into the bigger conversation that you're pointing to.

Rachel Chalmers:

Of course, I had the mirror world twin of that experience where I did not really understand the United States at all until I understood that there is no America without the descendants of African slaves. That is both the founding sin and the saving grace of this nation. And more recently, I've had the same realization with respect to the indigenous people of this country. Turtle Island was here before it was the United States and is still here in many important ways.
Mark, what is the best of many, many ways for our listeners to connect with you or to follow your work?

Mark Pesce:

So you can drop by the website, which is MarkPesce.com, which I try to keep updated with all of the podcasts and the articles and all the things that I'm doing now. I've written a book called Augmented Reality: Unboxing Text Next Big Thing. If you're interested in the ways we want to think about augmented reality and there's a little bit about how it works, but the ways we want to think about it when it's at scale and when hundreds of millions of people are wearing these spectacles, that will also be very sophisticated surveillance and bio sensing systems. And what that might mean, have a look at the book. 
And then, of course, there's my podcast, The Next Billion Seconds, which you can find on pretty much any podcasting app. And This Week in Startups Australia, which is going to be more interesting, I think, to the Australian listeners than the global listeners. But you can also hear what's going on here, because again, in the 18 years I've been here, Australia went from having approximately zero startup community to quite a lively, thriving one. And I've been able to document a lot of that story across the nine series that we've been doing it.

Rachel Chalmers:

Is there anything else I should have asked you?

Mark Pesce:

In some ways, I've already covered that. I always like to talk about what is obsessing me. What about the future is obsessing me right now. And again, I've pointed to digital currencies and I do really feel... Let me just go off on a bit of a rant about this.
One of the things that I've started to see unambiguously is that in the world of the 2030s, and it's going to happen again, unevenly distributed in some places before this, the idea of value and the idea of code will be two sides of the same digital coin. They've been considered separate entities right now. They're kept on separate sheets. They're done in separate ways. But the idea of value as a thing and the idea of code as a thing are going to become fundamentally inseparable. And that has implications for a lot of things, not just for the finance sector, although it's going to start there. And what we think of as the finance sector is going to look so weird, so different in 10 years time that we're going to wonder how we got there. We're also going to wonder what the world was like before that, which in some ways we can take a look at the world pre-web and go, that was interesting. How did that work?

Rachel Chalmers:

Even those of us who lived there don't really remember how it worked because it didn't in a lot of ways.

Mark Pesce:

We just passed the anniversary of the first international conference on the World Wide Web in Geneva. ‘94, I was there and there's no documentation. There's a Web page with four photos on it because there were no digital photos in 1994 and there was no web to make a note of the event. I mean there was and it was at CERN and that's where they put it. And there's sort of like five pages commemorating this epochal event in the history of the web. So yes, you take a look and there's the before time. And in some sense, we aren't documented or only documented quite poorly or quite officially. And then we're in the hyper documented era of everything we have now.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, even then we thought that we were extremely online and we were for the time.

Mark Pesce:

We were exactly. And how little we do.

Rachel Chalmers:

It's been an absolute delight. Thank you so much. It's been too long. We would love to have you on again soon.

Mark Pesce:

And I would be delighted to join you. Thank you so much, Rachel.


Contact

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References

Mark Pesce on Twitter

Mark Pesce on LinkedIn 

MarkPesce.com

The Next Billion Seconds - Mark’s own podcast and on Twitter and LinkedIn

This Week in Startups Australia - Another Podcast Mark does

The Register - A global online enterprise technology news publication in which Mark is a Columnist

VRML - A standard file format for representing 3-dimensional interactive vector graphics co-invented by Mark, Tony Parisi, and Gavin Anderson (who was the first chief scientist of the Bitcoin Foundation). VRML is a core component of MPEG4.

Mark is the author of several books including, VRML: Browsing and Building Cyberspace, The Playful World and most recently, Augmented Reality: Unboxing Tech's Next Big Thing

Incubate Sydney University - Where Mark was Entrepreneur in residence 

University of Southern California and Australian Film, Television, and Radio School - Where Mark founded postgraduate programs in Digital and Emerging Media

University of Technology and University of Sydney - Where Mark hold honorary appointments currently

Sam Ramji - A previous guest on the show and a previous employee of Microsoft 

Satya Nadella - CEO of Microsoft

Mycelium - Used as a metaphor for the corporation

MIT Technology Review, If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich? - An article referred to by Rachel

Sun - A huge Silicon Valley Company that is no more. The Sun logo is now on the back of the Facebook sign

Google Reader - A program referred to by Rachel that she wishes was still around today

X86 - Dominate in computing

Jacob Marley - A fictional character Mark refers to

Andrew Grove - The third CEO of Intel

8080s and 8085s - Intel microprocessors Mark was using in the 1980s

Succession - A thinly veiled parody of the Murdochs, with a King Lear feel to it

Sondheim - Writer of the West Side Story

Department of Industry - Mark did an event with

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