Hello all. Long time no speak.

Things have been very busy with my consultancy, so I’ve been neglecting you all – apologies.

One of the things that I’ve been encountering (and enduring) constantly in my consulting work is people’s (mostly ill-informed) prognostications on AI. It feels like half of people have adopted some catastrophic doomster position, fearing economic collapse at best or humanity being fed into the insatiable maw of some paperclip maximiser at worst. The other half seem to be deluded optimists for whom the post-scarcity land of milk and honey is just around the corner.

I realised, among all this hubbub, that I hadn’t really taken stock of where things were at. I wrote a fair bit about AI in 2020–22, as things were clearly about to kick off, but have steered clear of it since then – partly out of fear of being bucketed in with the bandwagon-chasers, and partly because things seemed to be evolving every day.

Now it feels like the dust is beginning to settle, and so I’ve taken a step back to think about where we’re at. I’m not invested, emotionally or financially, in AI either succeeding or failing. I suspect that’s true for a lot of you too. So what are sensible, neutral, nuanced people like us supposed to think about AI? Wonder or washout? Hitting a wall or just getting started? This week’s long read is about just that.

Hope you enjoy it,

This week’s article

Taking stock of AI progress

We’ve lived with generative AI for a couple of years now. Has it fulfilled its promise or fallen short of our hopes?

Click here to read the article »

This week’s four interesting links

Nicholas Saunders: hippy, capitalist, guru, grocer

Before this excellent profile by Vittles’ Jonathan Nunn, I had no idea that the same person founded Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, and Monmouth Coffee – the first being enormously commercially successful and the latter two having utterly transformed British food culture. His impact is inarguable, but his curiosity as a character is fascinating too:

“Even now, it’s hard to pin down exactly who Saunders was, not least because he was so many things at once: a hippy, a capitalist, a pioneer, a property developer, a drugs advocate, a social inventor, a greengrocer, a visionary. Yet a consistent philosophy guided everything he did: he believed, above all, that information should be wrested from gatekeepers and made free for people to use. ‘He didn’t just make information available, but made you feel like anyone has the capacity to go and do it,’ [Neal’s Yard Dairy co-founder Randolph] Hodgson recalls. ‘He lit a fire inside people.’”


Vice made the fatal mistake of trying to grow up

Vice, the irreverent and offbeat magazine and publishing empire, announced last week that it was shutting down. Harry Cheadle, who wrote for Vice for years, gets to the heart of where they went wrong:

“Vice’s founders, [Cory Doctorow] wrote, ‘built a massive, highly lucrative media empire on [young people’s] free labor. … Whatever problems Vice had, they weren’t problems with Vice’s workers—it was a problem with Vice’s bosses.’

“Doctorow meant to be scathing, but if anything he was too generous. Vice was only ‘highly lucrative’ in the sense that it had a lot of money sloshing around. It had a big fancy Brooklyn headquarters, a dozen or more international offices, and hundreds of people on the payroll, some of whom would fly around the world to report from conflict zones. As it grew, it founded a record label and an ad agency, acquired smaller media companies like Refinery29 and i-D, and had TV shows on MTV and HBO before getting its own cable channel. The company even bought a bar and started brewing its own beer, called Old Blue Last, which tasted like the tail end of a long night out. During one holiday party, co-founder Shane Smith handed out envelopes to employees containing $1,500 in cash.”

“In ditching its original identity,” Cheadle writes, “Vice gained respectability but couldn’t make respectability work for it.” That’s about the shape of it. The path from counterculture to mainstream culture is well-trodden, but most often ends up in a messy compromise that pleases no-one. #

How Davos works

Andrew Curry takes apart The Browser’s lightly fictionalised version of the annual World Economic Forum shindig at Davos. “The descriptions of how Davos works seem to have been written by someone who knows more about it than is completely good for them.”

“The Circle was a handsomely-upholstered comfort zone for people who had already changed the world, not necessarily for the better, and now wanted to cover their tracks. The Doc’s special genius, and the gift which he looked for in his staff, was to create an atmosphere of free-thinking debate while ensuring that everybody understood the limits of that debate and that no White Badge member was ever publicly embarrassed or deeply offended.”


In 1970s Ireland, pubs briefly replaced banks

In 1970 the staff at Irish high-street banks went on strike for six months. Ordinary punters found themselves unable to cash cheques or withdraw money, living as they did in those pre-ATM days where all transactions had to be performed in person.

So local pubs and shops stepped up to fill the need:

“Pub-goers would bring their salary payments into the pub and convert them into cash from the register, often hanging out for a few pints afterward. While nobody knew exactly when the strike was going to end, pub owners were generally optimistic and willing to trust that their regulars’ checks would be honored post-strike.”

The actions by pubs kept the economy afloat and saved countless local businesses. It was possible for them to play this role because they had many of the same qualities that a small-town bank would have, namely knowledge of their customers’ creditworthiness and strong social connections to enforce obligations:

“At this point, pubs were arbiters of actual loans. Pub owners also often had a reasonable idea of their patrons’ level of income, net worth, and reliability in paying bar tabs, putting them in what could be seen as an even better position than a bank lender to evaluate the overall risk profile of a borrower.”