One blazing summer day, we saw a billboard plastered with a promise: soon enough, it said, you could watch video clips on your phone. This was 2005, and at that exact moment I said:
“Why would anyone want to see clips on their tiny Nokia screen, when they can watch it on, you know, a TV?”
Oops. Who would have guessed, back then, that within a few years, the combined market capitalisation of just five companies – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – would account for 10% of the entire US stock market’s value?
My lack of vision was partly due to old-fashioned ignorance. The internet was young, and niche industry news spread whisper-like on the digital grapevine. But, paradoxically, overblown tech coverage seems to have brought us full circle. Ignorance is the outcome not of too little news, but of too much.
Not that you need this much news. As Charlie Munger – Warren Buffett’s longtime investment partner – explains, what you actually need is a fact-hanger:
“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.”
This article offers a bare-boned “latticework of theory”: a short, three-part list of information sources, which keeps you up-to-date with the tech sector in a structured way – and with minimal effort.
By no means am I promising you’ll become the next Charlie Munger. (Why would you believe me if I did?) However, this method will banish the unnerving fear, that you’re somehow missing out on what’s really going on.
1. How tech makes money
We pay lots of attention to companies that are successful now, but hardly any to asking how current tech titans are setting up the next big thing. These guys do the opposite:
Ben Evans, a former telecoms analyst, joined Silicon Valley’s VC firm Andersson Horowitz (nicknamed a16z) in 2015. He publishes a popular weekly newsletter, which is short, on-point and worth anybody’s time. But the big prize is his blog archive (he still posts, but rarely), which elucidates the difference between making something work and making it sell. My 2005 sceptic self would have appreciated reading Not even wrong – ways to dismiss technology.
Stratechery, which eyes tech through strategy-tinted glasses, is the other one to keep up with. Easy enough, as its author, Ben Thompson, only publishes about once a week. (Additional, pay-walled content awaits eager fans.) Tech’s Two Philosophies gives you a feel for the strategy theory, and the AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner analysis showcases how it becomes applicable.
2. How tech wins hearts
Neatly defined, economics is the study of choices. Thus, a tech company’s success has everything to do with why people choose to engage with its products, or – through “network effects” – are pushed onto that choice.
Differently put, behavioural economics is darn useful.
The Undercover Economist, written by best-selling author and FT columnist Tim Harford, keeps a keen gaze on current research in the field. This post, for example, looks at why cheap innovations are better than magical ones.
Still, humans spectacularly suck at both predicting the future, and recalling how rarely they get it right. Therefore, when thinking about growth and scale, it’s handy to keep a checklist nearby of where you might get it wrong, like these ten rules. (Charlie Munger uses a similar system, which he refers to as mental models). These rules are the brainchild of Hans Rosling, whose book Factfulness – wildly endorsed by Bill Gates – has become a runaway bestseller.
Finally, it’s easily forgotten that technology is not always embraced through free choice. In China, government intervention plays an unusually big role in shaping the country’s tech sector, and the environment in which tech firms operate. Ignoring this dynamic is risky, especially in light of the swashbuckling success of China’s internet giants: already, nine of the world’s top 20 internet firms are Chinese. So I recommend following Lu Gang’s TechNode’s Daily Briefing, which highlights domestic Chinese tech news.
3. How tech combusts
When challenged by the US Senate on whether Facebook is a monopoly, Mark Zuckerberg’s choice response was: “it certainly doesn’t feel like it to me!” This statement, viewed by some as coy and evasive, could also be taken at face value: tech success is slippery stuff.
Understanding how empires fall, then, is just as important as watching their rise. Sure enough, Charlie Munger is a big pom-pom waver for studying the past:
“I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself.
Nobody’s that smart.”
The problem, of course, is as old as time itself: everyone’s smarter in hindsight. Keeping tabs on the zeitgeist in real time, for a sense of where things might go wrong, is much harder. How is one to sum up so many talking heads? Luckily, Verge writer Casey Newton will do it for you. His daily newsletter, The Interface Revue, crunches the media conversation on tech into digestible form.
I concede, reluctantly, that I’m just as likely to make foolish mistakes today as I was a decade ago. But, to me, the real risk of aloofness is not getting it wrong.
It’s not getting it at all.
Technology has always been a Darwinist, culling force shaping everyday lives. Automobiles, initially an alternative to the horse carriage, accelerated to become the only option available. In this evolutionary process, it’s us – the users – who’re tasked with adapting; we change our behaviours, our environments, even our values.
But nowadays, technology seems to eradicate choices faster than ever before. In a flash of an eye, retail is moving online, services are becoming automated, algorithms do determine which information you’re shown. With the pace of change this quick, keeping up with the tech sector is no longer just optional.
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