12 Articles That Changed My Views Over the Past Decade

European Straits #154

Hi, it’s Nicolas from The Family. Today, I’m sharing articles that were published over the past decade and which had a profound impact on me.

Happy New Year 🎉 2010 was the year I joined the tech world, so I’ve had one of the best possible vantage points to see the world change over the past 10 years: that of the tech industry and startup communities. In retrospect, I find that understanding the current paradigm shift is the key to making sense of most things that are happening these days. This is why I make sure to share relevant reading lists as often as possible.

⚠️ When it comes to reflecting on the past decade, don’t miss my latest Sifted column about the three macro-trends that changed the face of European tech over the past ten years: the financial crisis, the rise of Chinese tech, and the backlash against US tech giants. Here it is: The three things that changed the face of European tech.

As for this issue, I’m assuming that at this time of year you have some time to read and you’re looking forward to inspiring ideas and compelling frameworks. So I’ll keep it simple and share the 12 articles that have impressed me the most over the past decade. For each, I’ll add a few words about the author and the context in which I read the article, plus a piece that I wrote about the same topic if you’d like to go further.

The only criteria was for each article to have been published less than ten years ago, so I’m not including older compelling articles that I’ve also discovered during this period, such as W. Brian Arthur’s Increasing Returns and the New World of Business. If you want a longer and looser reading list, you can check out this page; the one below is up to date and was curated much more carefully. Read along  👇

1/ I initially discovered Venkatesh Rao in 2015 through the Breaking Smart series he wrote to build upon Marc Andreessen’s thesis that “software is eating the world”. I started following him but wasn’t particularly curious about his past writings. Then one day a friend shared the following article, which made me realize what an intellectual high flyer Venkatesh is. We’ve since had the opportunity to meet in London and to discuss the big picture through a mix of history, geography, strategy, and entrepreneurial ecosystems. I still frequently refer to this article to explain what a corporation is about and how it became ubiquitous as an organizational form. 

2/ “Software is eating the world”: that’s the mother of all ideas if you want to understand everything with the current paradigm shift. Initially, it was an op-ed that Marc Andreessen published in August 2011 in the Wall Street Journal (it was impossible back then to reach a large audience with a mere blog post). I remember when I read it for the first time, thinking “this is so clear and compelling and useful”. Everyone with whom I’ve shared the article since has had the exact same impression, to the point where I wrote a commentary in French about it. Later on, that idea became Andreessen Horowitz’s official investment thesis, and the op-ed was finally made accessible without having to game the Journal’s paywall. If you read it now for the first time, enjoy; if you already know it, give it another go!

3/ Steve Yegge is a software engineer who ten years ago was working at Google after a long stint at Amazon. Around 2011 he was so appalled by his employer’s inept strategy for deploying web services that he wrote a very long memo to explain why such a platform was important and how it was done at Amazon. The memo was not intended to be released to a wide audience, as it’s heavily critical of Google (and of Jeff Bezos). But Yegge accidentally pushed the wrong button on Google Plus and in an instant the memo was available for the whole world to see. I discovered it that very day because I was into REST architecture at the time. And I read it immediately because it was so deep, so clear, and so funny all at the same time. I then proceeded to translate it into French and I’ve been happy to hear that translation has influenced more than one CTO in the French corporate world. If this is your first time reading Yegge’s legendary “platforms rant”, I really envy you.

4/ I’m sure many of you know about Clayton Christensen. If you don’t, however, he’s a highly respected Harvard professor who designed the theory of disruptive innovation, laid out in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. In 2012, as Barack Obama was running for reelection against Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Christensen published the article below that made me realize that he also had his own theory of economic growth and the role that innovation plays in fostering it. It’s so enlightening that I really wanted to include it in this list. The thesis is simple: corporate finance as we know it rewards “efficiency” innovation that liberates capital and destroys jobs; but what makes economic growth over the long term is “empowering” innovation that employs capital and creates jobs.

5/ AngelList is almost 10 years old, as it was cofounded in 2010 by Naval Ravikant and Babak Nivi. Since then, Naval has become a superstar and VC Twitter’s philosopher-in-chief. Meanwhile Nivi, who left AngelList a few years ago, has somehow stayed in the shadows. But we who were reading the Venture Hacks blog back then know that he’s definitely Naval’s match when it comes to crafting concepts and sharing illuminating thinking. The article below is important to me in many respects. It was the foundation on which Alice Zagury, Oussama Ammar and I built The Family from 2013 onward. It also introduced the concept of the “Entrepreneurial Age”, which I now always use to describe the world we live in. May I add that it’s very short yet it contains multitudes of powerful ideas. I think “seminal” is the right way to describe it and you really should give it a go.

6/ Remember when residents of San Francisco demonstrated against those buses moving Google employees up and down the Bay Area? Well, I first heard about them by reading this very long article below by Kim-Mai Cutler. I remember it clearly—where I was, what I was doing—because I had to stop, sit down, and read it right through to the end. It explains so much about today’s economy, why inequalities are rising, and what social challenges we now have to tackle. It’s effectively a roadmap for rebuilding our social contract, and indeed it was a key inspiration for writing my book Hedge. Kim-Mai has left journalism and is now a partner at the VC firm Initialized, but she’s still the world’s best specialist about the housing crisis in the Bay Area. You should absolutely follow and read her work.

7/ This is another article that blew my mind. Adam Davidson, a veteran journalist who has since moved on to graver topics (like Trump’s corruption and a coming book about the passion economy), wrote it near the end of 2014. It made me realize one very important thing: the more entrepreneurial the economy, the more risks individuals are exposed to. And what happens when people are exposed to so many risks? They need a proper safety net! Needless to say, this article that I quote all the time was another source of inspiration for writing my book Hedge. It’s also a great piece of journalism that introduces real-life characters and makes you realize the profound impact that fast-paced innovation has on our daily lives.

8/ I’ve already written about the influence that Tim O’Reilly has had on my thinking ever since I entered the tech world. But if I remember correctly, two of his articles in particular made me understand things that I had previously missed. One was Open Source Paradigm Shift, which was published in 2004 and thus couldn’t be included in this list. The other was the article below about the rise of tech companies such as Uber and Airbnb and the consequences of that rise on many things: production, consumption, organizations, and work. It comes with Tim’s unique perspective, that of an insider who remains able to embrace a critical and forward-thinking point of view. And it’s been written with the mastery of the former classics student that he is. 

9/ Many articles have convinced me that the empowerment of women is one of the most important political trends of our time. But this one by author Rebecca Traister is an outlier. It introduces readers to her book All the Single Ladies, which puts forward a powerful argument supported by thorough research: more and more women are single in the US; and as single individuals, they’re developing a political identity that didn’t exist before and that could move elections and institutions way further than we realized was possible. I know that Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton just a few months after the article was published doesn’t exactly make the case for women taking over politics. But if you read the article now, you’ll realize that it still stands and explains so many things about our world and where it’s headed.

10/ I’ve discussed economist Mariana Mazzucato’s work many times in the past, including here and here. However, I always find it difficult to share her ideas with others as she doesn’t write and publish nearly enough for my taste. Yes, she’s published two books, both important. And you’ll find many articles by others, almost all of them in praise of her vision of the state’s role in creating value. But there are exceedingly few articles in which she herself sums up her big idea in a straightforward manner: that the state plays a key role in fostering innovation and that pursuing missions focused on solving “wicked” problems is the best approach to do so. For this reason, I’m always sharing or quoting the same article below, and I’m very happy to include it in this list.

11/ This list is in chronological order, and we’ve now passed what appears to be a pivotal 2016. It means that the articles that have impressed me are more about politics, and with a darker feeling to them. The one below is by journalist and historian Anne Applebaum. It appears to be focused on a niche topic—political polarization in today’s Poland—but I assure you that it reveals and explains many things that are going on all around the world: the anger that’s consuming everyone these days, and the impact that anger has on personal relationships and our day-to-day interactions. When I read the article, I myself recognized the reason why I’ve lost many friends due to politics these past few years. And what Applebaum describes is unbearable in two respects: first, it makes it unbearable to use social media (hence the fact that I practically deserted Facebook two years ago); second, we could be on our way to liberal democracy being overwhelmed by the rising anger and wiped out by the political polarization amplified by social media. Really, it’s an absolute masterpiece.

12/ And now on to the same topic, the future of democracy, but this time even darker (if that was possible). Here historian Christopher R. Browning, a specialist of the Holocaust, discusses the parallel between the rise of Hitler and that of Trump. I know that it sounds far fetched and that you’re already thinking, “Godwin”. But really, read the article and then reflect: it’s about how Hitler was initially installed as a puppet chancellor by the Prussian ruling class (the Junkers) who were interested in one thing only, crushing the labor movement and putting an end to social unrest fostered by socialists. What those people didn’t realize is that Hitler had two things: an agenda for the nation (which I’m not sure Trump has); and an acute sense of how to assert power (which I think is a trait shared by Trump). I’ll let you discover Browning’s conclusion as to the future of American democracy, but let me just give you a hint: it’s not good, and, again, technology explains a big part of the story that’s unfolding before our eyes.

From Lisbon, Portugal 🇵🇹