First Principles | The cost of an idea is the courage to break away - Hindustan Times
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First Principles | The cost of an idea is the courage to break away

Dec 25, 2022 01:54 PM IST

While the internet made everything democratic, it also has become a place where the marginal cost of placing an idea or opinion in the public domain is zero

Good ideas are getting difficult to find and returns on investments that a generation of investors have gotten used to, are on the verge of a reset. As the year winds down, conversations with thought leaders across technology, investing and the sciences reveal a few dominant themes of what lies ahead.

While the writing was on the wall, few were willing to bet against convention. (needpix.com) PREMIUM
While the writing was on the wall, few were willing to bet against convention. (needpix.com)

Consider ideas to begin with. To create new ones requires new skills. While this is true of each profession, let’s dissect technology jobs. The most recent data indicates that there are a little more than 24 million software developers in the world currently, their numbers are growing. By 2030 there are likely to be 45 million developers globally. But there is a problem here and it has to do with the half-life of knowledge — the time it takes before half the knowledge in a particular domain gets redundant. This idea is derived from basic chemistry and is used to compute the time it takes for a radioactive substance to decay.

At the end of 2021, the World Economic Forum (WEF) had estimated that the knowledge of a technology worker will halve every four years -- unless they upgrade. When the math is done, if 50% of the current numbers of workers upgrade, only 12.5 million engineers will be relevant by 2025. Given how things are, the deficit is expected to grow and by 2030, current estimates have it the world will be staring at a deficit of 85 million software engineers.

Such deficits can be extrapolated to other domains as well. In medicine for instance, the half-life of knowledge has gone down to 73 days. It means a graduate is outdated even before they pass. The media business is worse still because it morphs by the minute. The half-life of a post on Twitter is just 24 minutes while a digital marketing campaign begins to trail off in just 12 hours. All these have second order consequences. If every professional is doing just what it takes to stay afloat, how do you take time out to create good ideas? How did things get here?

The Taiwan-based analyst Ben Thompson has the most nuanced pointer. While the internet made everything democratic, it also has become a place where the marginal cost of placing an idea or opinion in the public domain is zero. The incentive to go with the “tribe” is high and, therefore, he argues, the marketplace has degenerated into one where only the consensus view matters.

Consider the most important debates of our times such as #MeToo or the #GreatResignation since 2020. While these are morally tenable issues, the big question is, how many people actually thought these questions through? Thompson’s research suggests very few did. This is because the easiest thing to do for most people, across all domains is to go with the most popular opinion. This, he writes, is because “it is easier to search on social media or search engines and stick to the tribe. To have a point of view on something that goes against the grain requires a certain moral valence.”

While this sounds hopelessly despondent, it need not be. A Bengaluru-based angel with 14 investments in his portfolio who chooses to remain unnamed, spoke about his decision to exit the space and deploy his money in passive instruments such as bonds and blue-chip stocks. Interest rates will go up to tame inflation rates and bonds will come into vogue is a hypothesis he has held since 2019. But the headlines or many of his tribe don’t think it is the right narrative.

“An entire generation grew up in a low-interest rate regime. So, the price that they are ready to pay for equities and startup investments is very high. But in a high inflation, high interest world, the price investors will pay for companies is far lower than what folks are used to.”

While the writing was on the wall, few were willing to bet against convention. It requires a “moral valence” as Thompson put it. On his part, the former angel investor says he sleeps happier even as the world teeters on the edge.

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