For God and 'The Network State': The crypto elite's endgame – Protocol

For God and 'The Network State': The crypto elite's endgame – Protocol

Blockchain Crypto Market Technology
September 18, 2022 by Coinvasity
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Balaji Srinivasan’s “The Network State” isn’t just a thought experiment — it’s a blueprint that, right or wrong, will inform how powerful tech leaders interact with governments for years to come.“The Network State” has undeniable appeal among some of the most powerful figures in tech. A man walks down the street in San Francisco and
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Balaji Srinivasan’s “The Network State” isn’t just a thought experiment — it’s a blueprint that, right or wrong, will inform how powerful tech leaders interact with governments for years to come.
“The Network State” has undeniable appeal among some of the most powerful figures in tech.
A man walks down the street in San Francisco and thinks to himself, “You know what this city needs? A higher concentration of tech people.”
Balaji Srinivasan would accuse that man of thinking too small. What the world needs, Srinivasan contends, is an entire nation of tech-oriented individuals — “subscriber-citizens,” as he calls them. These people will connect over the internet, accumulate real-world assets, pool their land and eventually bargain for recognition as a discontiguous sovereign nation. Their public records will be written on the blockchain, an invention future generations will come to view as being “on par with the beginning of written history millennia ago.”
This group will form the world’s first “Network State” — a concept Srinivasan calls “the sequel to the nation state.”
Critics have long accused technologists of harboring world-dominating ambitions. “The Network State,” which Srinivasan published on the 4th of July, articulates these ambitions in plain, unapologetic terms. The “State” is dying, he writes, having served its function displacing God as the leviathan of the 20th century. We have now entered the era of the “Network,” and the conflict between the dying State and the emergent Network will come to define this moment in history.

Whatever you think of this prediction, “The Network State” has undeniable appeal among some of the most powerful figures in tech. Marc Andreessen endorsed Srinivasan as producing “the highest rate of output per minute of good new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met.” Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin said, “[W]e’ve started new currencies … ‘The Network State’ shows us how to start new cities and new countries.” And Coinbase co-founder Brian Armstrong confidently proclaimed, “Balaji will be right about ‘The Network State.’”
A Twitter search for “network state” brings you to a near-endless wall of discussion among true believers. They are almost all men. Some have “.eth” appended to their usernames. Approximately one in every 20 sports a Bored Ape avatar.
Srinivasan presides over this digital domain as a philosopher king, dispatching 280-character edicts on topics ranging from transhumanism to effective altruism. After completing a doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford, he went on to co-found four companies, lead a16z’s expansion into biomedicine and blockchain and serve as CTO of Coinbase. These credentials — as well as his Twitter following of nearly 700,000 — place him in a rarified cohort of Silicon Valley thought-influencers that includes Naval Ravikant, Chris Dixon and Paul Graham.
This positioning is precisely why “The Network State” is so important: It isn’t just a thought experiment, but a blueprint that, however right or wrong, will inform how powerful tech leaders interact with governments for years to come. Srinivasan instructs technologists to treat traditional nations as a collapsing impediment whose demise ought to be accelerated to make way for a superior alternative. But if “The Network State” is a technologist’s dream, it also suffers from a technologist’s blind spots: The humanities become “grievance studies departments,” religions are reduced to utilitarian organizing principles that can be swapped wholesale for cryptography and our understanding of the past becomes a straightforward battle between “technological truth” and “biased, noisy” written history.

In Srinivasan’s view, the United States is controlled by the media — in particular, The New York Times, which makes no fewer than 59 appearances in his book.
The media establishment, Srinivasan claims, embodies left authoritarianism, consisting of a “woke” ruling class that also includes professors, activists and bureaucrats. He draws on Curtis Yarvin’s idea of the Cathedral for this conception of power. But where Yarvin, a right-leaning monarchist often associated with Peter Thiel, considers the ruling class a permanent fixture that simply needs reform, Srinivasan believes the world would be better off without it. Journalists, he writes, are “fundamentally just dogs on a leash, hit men for old money, assassins for the establishment.” Bureaucrats, he adds, get off on wielding state power over others, while status-obsessed academics preside over their “grievance studies” fiefdoms.
This establishment fears the disruptive power of technology, and especially decentralization, Srinivasan claims. Because the establishment wants to “turn back the clock on all those things that have disrupted their political control,” the legacy media rails against technology and wishes it could “jam social media and the internet back into the garage.” This bias is supposedly an open secret occasionally admitted in unguarded moments, as when a New York Times op-ed called for Big Tech to share a greater portion of ad revenues with local newspapers.
Media and political elites will never get along with tech types, he says, because there’s a psychological difference between “people who focus on what is true” and “those who care about what is popular.” Srinivasan of course identifies the media and political elites as being fixated on popularity over truth, not his sphere of VCs who clamored over one another to invest in Juicero, WeWork and Theranos. This oversimplified distinction is especially surprising coming from Srinivasan given his frequent citations of Stanford philosopher René Girard. Girard, recently popularized in Silicon Valley by Peter Thiel, stipulates that it is in human nature to “desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”

But tech and media are both competitors and close partners, we’re told. Watching mainstream outlets post stories about Big Tech is like “seeing Coke attempt to gain market share from Pepsi by ever meaner blog posts,” Srinivasan said in 2020. He also argues that, as the power of the U.S. government has declined, the media has shifted from appealing to government authority to instead appealing to Big Tech. He sees this behavior exemplified in media calls for deplatforming or content moderation.
Srinivasan’s hated “establishment,” then, doesn’t exactly fear technology, which can be used as a tool of coercion, but instead decentralization specifically. The ultimate goal of the American establishmentarian, as he sees it, is to use the State as “a club to coerce people (for their own good of course), to maybe get a little budget along the way, and to finally ‘change the world’ by changing the policy.” Decentralization threatens this process, he says: “People of the Network start by thinking about getting a piece of the network to call their own,” meaning the primary goal of the technological progressive “is to build — and for no one to have power over them.”
Srinivasan has a habit of giving the Network credit any time technology produces desirable outcomes while assigning blame to the State for everything else. With San Francisco, for instance, the city government bureaucrats managed to “turn the city into a hellhole” by using the power of the State. They pulled this off “despite how competent the tech founders of SF were on the Network.” Fortunately, Srinivasan tells us, remote work and the resultant “techxit” gives the people of the Network a chance to fight another day — eventually in the first Network State, which will serve as “a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup, or a clean slate.” So the reader is meant to believe that whatever went wrong with San Francisco, social media and so on does not have to do with tech or technologists, but with everything that came before them.
The Network State will be tech’s first chance at “something new without historical constraint.” If this sounds utopian, that’s because Srinivasan insists it can be: Rather than arising from a violent colonization of indigenous people, the Network State will simply crowdfund new territory as a “peaceful mechanism for territorial expansion.” Rather than file tax reports, income will be earned and recorded on the blockchain, leading to full transparency. Instead of holding coercive democratic elections, subscriber citizens will vote on-chain and effortlessly abandon the state if they so desire.

Srinivasan even imagines competition between Network States will be akin to “the same way people left Blockbuster for Netflix,” such that the more innovative state inevitably wins out.
The Network State Image: Courtesy of Balaji Srinivasan and Aar Aalto
Altogether, this is supposed to allow people to “opt-in to build their own vision of utopia.” Srinivasan doesn’t seem to see the potential for this to devolve into anarchy. He rightly identifies the social contract as requiring compromise, but then goes a step further by declaring all forms of compromise bad. If your cannibal neighbor decides to join a Network State with legalized cannibalism, it may be his version of utopia, but it makes neither for a safe neighborhood nor a functioning society.
“The Network State” takes a “cloud first” approach that allows Srinivasan to ignore these more pragmatic real-world problems. There’s a potential counterargument that a cannibal society would never gain recognition from the diplomatic community. If that’s true, though, then why would the global diplomatic community recognize any other Network State? And if there is in fact a diplomatic restraint on Network States, then it precludes Srinivasan’s free-market model for competition between Network States.
One might ask why the U.S. or China — or any country, for that matter — would be willing to cede parcels of land to a group of blockchain enthusiasts.
After all, not all forms of land ownership are equal. When you own land within the U.S., for example, you still pay property taxes and must abide by U.S. laws. Your ownership is contingent on the continued existence of the U.S. — your taxes fund the military that deters foreign invaders, not to mention the water that flows through your pipes, the police that patrol nearby streets and the construction workers paving the surrounding roads.

Traditional nations would likely be particularly wary of these blockchain enthusiasts given their explicit aim to topple the existing world order. Mind you, these are nation states that collectively spent $2.1 trillion on militaries last year, which doesn’t even include government spending on programs with indirect military applications. If a “subscriber citizen” physically living in Russia or Brazil decides to join a Network State and renounce their citizenship, what is the Network State going to do if Russia or Brazil says, “Thanks, but no thanks”? And why wouldn’t a country say no, as it would mean giving up income tax and any territory owned by those citizens?
In the face of all these challenges, Srinivasan maintains that “a startup society with five million people worldwide, thousands of square miles of (discontiguous) community-owned land, and billions in annual income would have indisputable numerical significance.” This significance, he says, will let the society bargain for national sovereignty and acceptance into international organizations such as the United Nations, African Union and European Union.
Instead of engaging directly with these tricky questions, Srinivasan evades them by insisting Network States only need to win a war over minds. Encryption, he claims, will eventually prevail over state violence because secure communications “means nothing less than the ability to organize groups outside state control, and thus a diminution in the power of states to control.” Once founded, the Network State experiment can ensure its continued existence through a “historical/moral critique of the present system that delegitimizes State violence against them and allows the experiment to continue.”
In the end, Srinivasan struggles to provide compelling reasons for why the Network State can or should exist. The legions of true believers in the upper echelons of the tech world don’t seem particularly concerned by these questions. Even as we’ve experienced somewhat of a crypto winter since the book’s July publication, Srinivasan’s appeal has only continued to grow. Next week, he’s set to headline the Urbit confluence in Miami.

Still, there are a few limited critiques from within. Buterin, for example, wrote a favorable review but warned that poorly constructed Network States would only serve the interests of the wealthy. “Chaos Monkeys” author Antonio García Martínez — whose hiring at Apple sparked an employee backlash — said deeper convictions are needed to build a new nation, even as he said Srinivasan describes “a de facto reality that’s only accelerated with the post-COVID crackup.”
Altogether, “The Network State” is sure to have a significant impact on the future, even if the actual implementation of its ideas doesn’t go far. The power of the book therefore doesn’t necessarily reside in its feasibility, but its appeal.
Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He’s based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.
Flavrs has raised funds from Andreessen Horowitz and several celebrity chefs.
“Households today are spending one hour and 30 minutes to two hours … figuring out what to cook each day. We’re going to turn that into a game where you can do that in an enjoyable way.”
Sarah (Sarahroach_) writes for Source Code at Protocol. She’s based in Boston and can be reached at sroach@protocol.com
We’ve all stumbled on foodtok, or the side of TikTok inundated with recipes. But rather than hoping the algorithm keeps foodies there, two former Google leaders launched an app for watching food videos and buying the ingredients for those recipes right from the app.
Former Google engineer François Chu and Alejandro Oropeza, YouTube’s former global head of creator marketing, launched Flavrs earlier this week with the hopes that users will use the app as a dedicated platform for finding recipes, learning how to cook them and buying the necessary ingredients. The platform has raised $7 million in seed funding from support from Andreessen Horowitz, Wellington Access Ventures and celebrity chefs including Eric Ripert.
The platform looks almost exactly like TikTok. At the bottom of each video, there’s a fork and knife icon that users can click for a recipe. And through an Instacart integration, users can buy ingredients right from the app. “We’re very proud of that unique intersection of beautiful food-related content, a product that’s been built around user needs for food and commerce,” Oropeza told Protocol.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
At what point during your time at YouTube, or after leaving, did you come up with the idea for Flavrs?
I worked for Google and YouTube for about nine years. And the last of that was leading global creator marketing, which was a really interesting experience because it allowed me to work very closely with some of the world’s largest content creators and understand what they needed. It was a great experience in terms of understanding creator needs, motivations and, before the “creator economy” was even inked as a term, to be part of the economy. I was also an advocate for creators within YouTube for a long time working very closely with the CEO in trying to focus more aggressively on its creators.
During the pandemic, I did a bit of soul-searching, and food was always my passion. And so after I left YouTube, I was exploring ideas together with François [Chu], who is [Flavrs’] co-founder and CTO. We both had a shared passion for food. I had a background, which was mostly about content, technology and food. He had a lot of experience with shopping, consumer experiences and a lot of product development. And when we got together, we found this white space of creating a standalone platform where foodies can find other foodies and people they love through content and where the whole experience is built for food.
What were some of the challenges you faced to get investors on board?
Securing funding as a Latinx founder when only 2% of total venture capital funding goes to Latinx founders [is difficult]. There are very few people from the Latinx community that are founder CEOs of a company, so that was an additional challenge. And both François I did not grow up in the U.S. Both of us are immigrants. I don’t think we necessarily have the immediate plug-and-play network that a lot of people in this industry have to just call up their friends and get funded.

But on the flip side of that, investors saw a couple of things that made them really interested. The first is the size of the market, the size of the opportunity, content around food and commerce around food, which are each individually very large businesses. The second thing that was interesting is the quality of the founding team. We both had a very strong product-founder fit, because we had the combination of the things that we needed to build this business: understanding of the food space, technological experience in some of these large content platforms and specific creator economy experience. And so we were building the product that we had, in some ways, already built before in different places.
We ended up getting funded by Andreessen Horowitz, which for all intents and purposes is probably the best consumer VC out there. Connie Chan, who’s the partner who led the round, had written a lot about this space that we were already building in. Some of the pieces were a very natural fit for her business and our business. So examples of that include vertical-specific social networks, or the idea that very passionate users in a handful of spaces really want something that’s built for them, in our case, a vertical food-specific platform was one thing that she really was bullish on and that we were bullish on.
The second thing is shoppable video or social commerce, or the notion that people want to see something visually on social media and want to do something about it, another area that Connie and Andreessen had been very bullish on. The third one is the sort of commerce side of this, which is really interesting and has in many ways been influenced by Chinese consumer experiences where, you know, in many respects some of the cutting-edge stuff on consumer social happens in China or in Asia before it happens in the West. And so we were also very inspired by that.
What’s the biggest lesson that you learned in your time working on content creation and with creators and how are you incorporating that lesson into Flavrs?

If you want users and eyeballs, you need content. And if you want content, you need content creators. For a long time, content creators were undervalued by a lot of these large platforms. And the biggest lesson is you have to be creator-first, you have to be creator-centric, you have to build the platform together with creators on day one, you have to understand their needs, you have to work with them. In our case, I’m very proud to say some of these guys have been with us since before we had the product. We shared the vision and they decided to get involved because they believed in what we were doing. So if you are building in this space, you need to work for and really engage often with content creators because they are at the center of everything we do.
If you have content creators who are passionate about a specific space, and we give them a product where they can create the best content and monetize it in better ways than incumbents, that in itself is valuable.
Every platform wants to win over creators in some way. What role does Flavrs have in this ecosystem?
It’s been well proven that consumers have attention for more than one platform, especially those that are very passionate about a specific space. A relevant example is Twitch. Twitch is a great platform for livestreaming and gaming. And that is true, despite the fact that there are other established platforms that have large trenches of gaming, livestreaming content and world-class products. The thing that makes any of those platforms, the niche vertical platforms, different and the thing that will make Flavrs different is the community. If you have content creators who are passionate about a specific space, and we give them a product where they can create the best content and monetize it in better ways than incumbents, that in itself is valuable.
We intend to coexist with some of the existing incumbents, of course. But because food is such a high passion point for people who live to eat, then you’re going to love Flavrs, because you’re going to have the people that you love creating content. You’re going to have an app that understands your tastes, you’re going to be able to shop for the stuff that you see, and most importantly, you’re going to be able to connect with other people. That is actually the mission of the company, to connect the world through food to bring people together through this amazing universal human experience where we all have to eat. If we’re successful, we’re going to have people across different continents talking to each other, not about politics, not about what they disagree on, but the best way to cook pasta or the best restaurant in New York or in Mumbai or in Mexico City.

When I’m thinking about looking at content, I always think of endless scrolling. How do you anticipate Flavrs will change the user experience and get people to act on content and buy ingredients?
We’re already seeing two distinct behaviors for some users who have been testing the product in the early days. One is more about consuming content. People probably come to the app, you know, three, four or five times a week just to watch stuff. And when they watch stuff, people tell us it’s meditative. It’s relaxing, you’ve made them hungry, it made them happy. There is a part of just watching stuff, maybe three to five times per week.
There’s another occasion for families where people have to meal plan. We think there’s an occasion, once or twice a week, where families are going to go in, they’re going to watch a bunch of videos as they already do, and they’re going to say “shop shop shop shop shop.” And then within 10 minutes, they would have built the family’s meal plan.
So the first use case is more about entertainment. The second use case is about utility. And we think that utility is what’s ultimately going to differentiate us. Households today are spending one hour and 30 minutes to two hours in the U.S. figuring out what to cook each day. We’re going to turn that into a game where you can do that in an enjoyable way.

Sarah (Sarahroach_) writes for Source Code at Protocol. She’s based in Boston and can be reached at sroach@protocol.com
Dimitri Dadiomov is the CEO and Co-founder of Modern Treasury, a San Francisco-based company that builds payments operations solutions and offers tools that automate the full cycle of money movement—from payment initiation, through approvals, to reconciliation—and are accessible through web application or API. Dadiomov previously worked at LendingHome where he ran product for all investor channels, including retail, institutional, and a dedicated LendingHome fund totaling over $1 billion invested annually.

In the future, all payments will begin and end in software. In their annual report, McKinsey writes:
“As payments become integrated into broader customer journeys [i.e., software], the sector’s boundaries have naturally expanded … payments as a discrete experience is disappearing. The payments industry now encompasses the end-to-end money movement process, including the services and platforms enabling this commerce journey.”
Already, software-integrated payments are ubiquitous. Consider how we travel: to pay for transportation, we rely upon rideshare software companies, Uber and Lyft. We book lodging with software platforms, AirBnb or VRBO. We order delivery through Postmates and Doordash, and take-out through Toast or LevelUp. In each case, payments are so tightly embedded within a software workflow that we forget it’s even there.

Software-integrated payments are the fastest growing vector across the payments industry as entire industries and workflows digitalize. Global Payments noted that 60%-70% of new clients come from software channels. The industry is expected to grow to $230 billion in new revenue by 2025—an increase of 922% from 2020. It’s a $7 trillion dollar opportunity.

Software-integrated payments are the result of two converging internet trends: the evolution of software and the digitization of financial services. It’s changing how we distribute and interact with financial products and services.
In 2011, Marc Andreessen famously wrote in the WSJ that “software is eating the world.”
He argued that we’d reached a turning point in software innovation. Internet adoption had achieved a critical mass; digital infrastructure and software programming tools had reached a level of maturity to foster widespread innovation.
In the years since, software growth has exploded, delivering new experiences and replacing manual workflows. Under the surface, entire industries are being remodeled by software. Restaurants use software systems to manage operations and improve margins. Property management companies use software to engage tenants and manage properties. Hospitals have implemented software to undergird all patient interactions. Even construction, freight, and logistics companies now use software to drive coordination and efficiency.
Rapid payments advances have accompanied this software innovation. As Andreessen was writing his essay in 2011, payment facilitators (payfacs) had emerged to help companies seamlessly accept payments. Payfacs created the operational infrastructure to enable marketplaces and software applications to easily incorporate payments. The emergence of software marketplaces such as Uber, Lyft, AirBnb, and Etsy pulled this model forward significantly.

To paraphrase Credit Suisse: “Software is eating the world, and payments are taking a bite.”
For developers, integrating software and payments unlocks opportunities to create more engaging, compelling, and ultimately useful products and applications. To give a couple examples:
Historically, software-integrated payments have centered around cards, as the alignment inherent in card networks (e.g., the rules, the standardization, the shared incentives) has fostered innovation and joint investment. Nevertheless, this innovation is expanding. As software development continues across the economy—industries such as insurance, real-estate, education, logistics, lending, healthcare, and financial services—software companies are now incorporating bank payment rails (e.g., RTP, ACH, wire) as well.
As a new payment flow, software-integrated payments have distinct characteristics and needs. And these needs are simply not well-served by the available banking infrastructure today.

Our founders felt these gaps first hand at LendingHome, building a software marketplace for real-estate borrowers. They connected the software platform to the plumbing of the banking system. And were overwhelmed by the tooling and infrastructure required to make this translation work.
In particular, they saw that payments—while important—was just one component of the digital experience. They also needed:
Due to the speed of transactions, this could not be managed manually.
Outside of the sheer growth of this industry, this convergence of software and payments matters because it has a profound impact on financial services. Software has become the front-door into our financial lives: the “new bank branch.” Activities that once took place in person or over the phone—getting a loan, making a payment, investing in a security—now occur entirely within software. Covid has only accelerated this trend. To remain a part of clients’ financial lives, banks need to play well with software.
In addition, the convergence of software and payments has ramifications on our payment habits. As an example, as software expands, we expect to see a tender shift towards the bank payment rails, such as ACH and RTP. After all, when I have an established relationship with a software offering, there’s less of a need for the payment intermediation offered by the credit card rails.
At Modern Treasury, we built a platform to complement banks’ existing products to help them prepare for a future led by software. We’re here to help them future-proof their business so that they can participate in and lead in the next phase of financial services.
To learn about our bank partnerships program, please reach out to banks@moderntreasury.com.
Dimitri Dadiomov is the CEO and Co-founder of Modern Treasury, a San Francisco-based company that builds payments operations solutions and offers tools that automate the full cycle of money movement—from payment initiation, through approvals, to reconciliation—and are accessible through web application or API. Dadiomov previously worked at LendingHome where he ran product for all investor channels, including retail, institutional, and a dedicated LendingHome fund totaling over $1 billion invested annually.

In a state with a $100 billion surplus, concerns over cost and technical lift tanked a bill that would have brought affordable housing into the digital age.
California could have created an affordable housing database — but it didn’t.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol’s chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol’s fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
Sheela Gunn-Cushman has been dreaming of something like a Zillow for affordable housing since at least 2014, when she began her own search for a place to live in California that she could afford. For Gunn-Cushman, who is blind and living with cerebral palsy, the arcane process was particularly grueling.
It started with having to take public transit — which, of course, costs money — to every housing complex she wanted to apply to. Once she navigated her way to a complex, usually in an unfamiliar neighborhood, she’d often be met with a paper application, which is required by law but which, as a blind person, she couldn’t read. Sometimes landlords would agree to email the application to her, only to send a picture of the document, preventing her screen reader from parsing the characters on the page.
Once she managed to submit an application, it was more than a year before a unit would become available. Luckily for Gunn-Cushman, her contact information and employment status stayed the same throughout that year of searching; otherwise, she would’ve had to repeat the process just to update her application.“You’re just throwing enough stuff at the wall to see if it sticks,” Gunn-Cushman said. “You put yourself in front of a zillion wait lists and wait.”

This year, California had a chance to change all that.
A new bill, AB 1961, sought to bring the state’s affordable housing application process into the digital age by requiring California’s Department of Housing and Community Development to build an online database that would list available affordable housing units throughout the state and let people apply for them online. The bill sailed handily through the state assembly; not a single member voted against it. It received a similarly unanimous response in the Senate Committee on Housing.
But despite bipartisan support, neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the legislature included funding for the database in their budgets. The concern, according to people who worked on the bill, was that the cost — about $19.4 million upfront, plus $20 million a year to maintain — would be too high and the technical lift too challenging. And so — in a state with a $100 billion budget surplus, a glut of tech talent, a dire housing crisis and the nation’s biggest homeless population — AB 1961 quietly died in August.
The California State Capital building stands in Sacramento, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Some of the nation's most powerful governors, including California's Gavin Newsom, said they would form regional alliances to coordinate reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus outbreak subsides, setting up a potential clash with the president, who says that he alone has that authority. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images AB 1961 died quietly in August. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
For housing advocates and the bill’s sponsor, Democratic assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, the outcome constitutes a major missed opportunity for the tech capital of the world to invest in technology that meaningfully improves people’s lives. “It’s so obvious the system is broken and not working,” Gabriel told Protocol. “It’s such a simple way to leverage the power of technology to make government more efficient.”
Gabriel first heard about the need for a portal like the one proposed in AB 1961 from the Residents United Network, a grassroots group of people who have experienced homelessness and housing insecurity. The group, which is affiliated with the nonprofit Housing California, holds an annual brainstorming session called There Ought to Be a Law, and last fall, the idea for an affordable housing database rose to the top.

Such databases already exist or are in development at a local level. San Francisco has its DAHLIA database, which Google’s design team helped develop. The Bay Area Housing Finance Authority is working on a portal called Doorway, which will include listings from the nine Bay Area counties. But given the deficit of affordable housing in the state, people searching for units often have to travel beyond any one city’s or region’s borders. Gunn-Cushman, who eventually landed in Oakland, said her housing hunt took her as far as El Dorado County, nearly three hours away.
You put yourself in front of a zillion wait lists and wait.
“It was given to me as an idea: What can we do to make it easier to apply for affordable housing?” said Amber-Lee Leslie, a legislative advocate on land use and finance at Housing California. “I thought the most expansive path would be to try to find a legislative champion to pursue this as a bill.”
Gabriel introduced the bill in February and says he found widespread support among colleagues. His office worked closely with the Department of Housing and Community Development, soliciting its feedback as the government body that would have to implement the law if it passed. But while department leaders understood the need for such a tool, according to one legislative aide, there were concerns from the start about the technical feasibility of maintaining such a database and keeping it up to date.
Department spokesperson Nur Kausar said HCD doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
The concerns weren’t just coming from the Newsom administration. Leaders of other regional housing authorities were also hesitant about the state taking on such a massive project before more local approaches had proved successful. “It is a very complex endeavor, and it might make more sense to allow the local and regional efforts to figure out the kinks,” said Rebecca Long, director of legislation and public affairs at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which runs the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority. “It could be the opposite of economies of scale. There could be real inefficiencies in having a statewide and regional system.”

Los Angeles, CA - August 24 Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, is flanked by LA mayoral candidate Karen Bass, right, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, as he visit a Homekey site on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) Neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the legislature included funding for the housing database in their budgets. Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Long also worried about the costs of running the portal, which the Senate Appropriations Committee’s analysis suggested could cost $20 million a year to operate.
Long, apparently, wasn’t alone in her concerns. As the governor and the legislature were finalizing their budgets this year, neither included funding for the database. It was little surprise, then, when the bill ultimately died in the state Senate Appropriations Committee.
Leslie of Housing California said she understands the “sticker shock” but believes the estimates put forward by the legislature were high, in part because so much of the predicted cost was dedicated to spreading the word about the portal’s existence. Those costs, she said, would taper off in time. And if anywhere can afford this kind of investment, it’s California, she argued. “In our view, that’s a drop in the bucket when you think of the impact that could really revolutionize the way people access housing,” Leslie said.
Gabriel agreed. “Is that a significant amount of money? Of course, but when you put it in context of our budget in the state of California and put it in context of the need and benefit … I think it was well worth the cost,” he said.
Even though the bill ultimately failed, both Leslie and Gabriel said they’re encouraged by how far it got on its first pass through the legislature. And that may not be its last. Housing California plans to push for the bill to be brought back up in the next legislative session, and Gabriel said it’s “something we’re going to keep working on.”
Of course, the portal itself wouldn’t solve the problems with California’s affordable housing market, which is estimated to be about 160,000 homes short.
In 2020, the state passed a law that eases some of the impediments to affordable housing development, and two more recently passed the legislature. That legislation could help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing, Leslie said, but it won’t make it any easier for Gunn-Cushman and others to actually access it. “We’re working on policies to make it easier to develop housing, to build new housing,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a no-brainer that we should have a platform to make it easier for folks to find and apply to the housing that is available.”

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol’s chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol’s fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
Dylan Field still agrees with his January 2021 tweet: “Our goal is to be Figma not Adobe.”
“We can start to bring these capabilities Adobe has onto our platform, make them web based, make them collaborative and start to address different markets that we’re not even serving right now and didn’t even have the ambition to serve before.”
Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She’s a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school’s independent newspaper. She’s based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.
Ollie Barker was on a call with his design team at payroll company Pento when the Adobe-Figma acquisition news broke. At first, Barker thought it was a joke. As the team realized it was real, the mood on the call grew grim.
“We joked that we were all going to start wearing black,” Barker, who’s based in England, said. “I’m hearing all these jokes over here now that we lost the Queen last week, and we’re losing Figma this week.”
Figma has been a constant companion to designers over the past few years, exploding in popularity over the course of the pandemic. The browser-based software made UX/UI collaboration seamless. Plus, under the leadership of CEO Dylan Field, Figma made a point of relentlessly connecting with customers — Field’s conversations with users eventually led to collaborative whiteboard product FigJam.
Adobe, while the stalwart in the design industry, was clunkier when it came to collaboration on its Creative Cloud products. The company has a reputation for mistreating customers when it comes to canceling subscriptions. Prices for Creative Cloud kept increasing. “There was a joke that if you lived in Australia, it was cheaper to fly to the States to buy the software and stay for a holiday and then fly home, than it was to just buy the software in Australia,” Barker said.

Given this context, it’s unsurprising that design Twitter was ablaze in the wake of the announcement. The news is divisive to say the least, and people have been posting memes galore. Michael McWatters, director of product design at HBO Max, said the deal makes sense to him, though it is surprising that the startup with the “Adobe killer” mantra was now going to become part of Adobe. He shares designers’ concerns about what this means for Figma’s customer strategy.
“While I love some Adobe products, Adobe has taken some particularly cavalier approaches towards their customers, in my opinion,” McWatters said. “Whereas Figma has always been particularly customer-centric.”
From the outset, Figma had ambitions to unseat Adobe’s design tools. But it built a very separate identity. Users quickly found Field’s tweet from January 2021 asserting that “our goal is to be Figma not Adobe.”
“We want to retain our identity, our community, our brand, our platform,” Field told Protocol in an interview after the acquisition news broke. “I don’t necessarily disagree with myself in January 2021. I also think it’s kind of funny that people are amplifying it so much, but that’s Twitter.”
Field hasn’t had time to delve through all the memes yet (he stayed up late and then woke up early when he heard that news of the deal had been leaked). But he’s seen some good ones. “This is standard for designers, they’re very creative, they’re very funny,” he said. He knew going into the deal that it would ruffle some people’s feathers. But he firmly believes it’s best for Figma users.
“It’s unfortunate that people don’t see that quite yet, but also it’s to be expected,” Field said. “I went in knowing that this might be mixed in its reception, to put it mildly.”

Figma’s price tag is $20 billion, so clearly that’s a hefty incentive. But Field is most excited about scale, using Adobe’s resources and expertise to reach more users. Like many, he grew up using Adobe and the chance to help reinvent its software is inherently exciting. He’ll report to Adobe’s chief business officer of digital media David Wadhwani, whom Field met through Greylock, an investor in Figma.
“We can start to bring these capabilities Adobe has onto our platform, make them web based, make them collaborative and start to address different markets that we’re not even serving right now and didn’t even have the ambition to serve before,” Field said.
The transition from scrappy startup to subsidiary of an older, bureaucratic tech giant is a tricky one. You have different incentives; you’re a part of a larger ecosystem. One fear is that Figma’s innovation might stagnate inside a big corporation like Adobe. Field said he’s determined to keep Figma’s autonomy and to continue to build and iterate. He wants employees to retain that scrappiness: “No one else is gonna do this for me,” Field said. “I gotta do it myself. And if I want to see some change, I have to push for it.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the user tide will turn for Figma. As of now, there will be no changes to pricing. Field said there aren’t plans to introduce Figma to the Creative Cloud; the focus is on how to bring Adobe’s capabilities into Figma. It’s unclear what will happen to Figma-rival Adobe XD.
“While we have been reducing our investment in XD, we will continue to support it,” an Adobe representative told Protocol. “We are excited about Figma’s vision for the future of product design and the potential of our teams coming together to benefit our customers. After the transaction closes (expected in 2023), we will share more information.”
Barker hopes Figma will stay out of the Creative Cloud, and that Figma truly will stay autonomous. In the short term, it’s unlikely anything will change. But it’s entirely possible that users will move on to the hotter, shinier tool in the long term, especially if their beef with Adobe remains. McWatters said he’s been through five or 10 different design tools in his career. Anything is possible.

“I don’t think that you make a $20 billion purchase necessarily to destroy a product,” McWatters said. “Maybe this is an opportunity for Adobe to look at what Figma is doing well and bring some of that thinking to their other products.”
Update: This story was updated on Sept. 16, 2022, to include a response Adobe sent Protocol after this story was published.
Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She’s a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school’s independent newspaper. She’s based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.
Many teams rely on Slack to talk about work and banter with colleagues. Some founders say it’s so distracting and overwhelming that they’re ready to ban it.
Some founders are finding that Slack’s more a distraction than anything.
Can your team get by without Slack? Some founders say they’re considering it. The emoji-filled messaging tool is integral to many of our work lives, but some tech leaders are ready to walk away.
“It’s just distracting and overwhelming,” said Flo Crivello, founder and CEO of the virtual office software maker Teamflow (arguably a competitor of Slack). “It’s got this insanely genius engagement loop where we keep re-engaging with each other. We keep pulling each other back into Slack.”
Crivello stirred up a conversation on Twitter last week when he posted that he was “strongly considering banning Slack at Teamflow,” and that he at least planned to give each of his engineers a “monk week” — no Slack, email or meetings — once a month. Already, he aims to limit meetings to two hours per week for engineers.
It’s not just competitors who are coming out against Slack. Roger Kirkness, co-founder and CEO of the e-commerce startup Convictional, told Protocol last year that his team didn’t use any messaging apps because their tendency to interrupt deep thinking made them “the enemy of working memory.”

Abe Winter, founder of the early-stage book meetup app Klerb, doesn’t have a need for Slack because he’s only working with two colleagues at the moment, both freelancers. But in 2018, Winter wrote a blog post criticizing Slack as allowing “your worst people to overwhelm your best” by interrupting and distracting them.
Since writing that blog post, Winter told Protocol that he’s been diagnosed with ADD and started taking medication and working on time-management techniques. These days, he would likely be “less prone to being drawn in” to distractions on Slack, he said.
“That simultaneously makes me wonder if I was reacting to having undiagnosed ADD in the workplace, or if Slack is giving teams ADD — like, the inability to do forward planning, only being able to do work reactively,” Winter said.
The challenge is that Slack has bad “message discipline,” Winter said, which leaves users needing to read every message in a channel in order to monitor it for information that might be important to them. It’s particularly challenging for users who may have a harder time ignoring certain stimuli.
Slack’s VP of product, Ali Rayl, has admitted that overwhelm is a real problem when it comes to the product, and the company is constantly iterating to improve. “What have we done with the visual presentation of Slack activity that’s making people stressed out?” Rayl asked in a June interview. “How can we change that visual presentation to just lower the temperature a little bit?”
Spokesperson Lauren McDevitt pointed out in an email to Protocol that the app is customizable to different work styles. Users wanting a quieter experience can pause notifications, set Do Not Disturb hours and limit the channels shown in the sidebar. Emoji reactions allow users to quickly mark the status of a project without having to write a reply-all message, McDevitt said.
Last month, senior accessibility manager Sommer Panage told Protocol that the company is dedicated to making a product that works for everyone. “‘How could someone else experience this?’ is the No. 1 question we ask.”

It’s hard to deny that as far as messenger apps go, Slack is fun to use. But that might be what makes it so dangerous for productivity.
Amal Dorai, a partner at Anorak Ventures who spent over six years at Microsoft after it bought his collaboration software startup, LiveLoop, said there’s an upside to Microsoft Teams’ relative unpleasantness. (He hasn’t used Slack in a work context.)
“What that did was limit how much people use it,” Dorai said. “People get in and get out. You need to send a message to someone about some service being down and you send it. You don’t go and hang out and talk about your weekend and stuff.”
Teams’ “charmless nature” is likely unintentional on the part of Microsoft, Dorai said, and a byproduct of Microsoft’s focus on selling to the enterprise, where buyers prioritize productivity above all.
Slack can be used both as a real-time chat tool or as something closer to email, where an immediate response isn’t expected. Advocates of both asynchronous and real-time, synchronous communication have critiques of Slack, though.
Crivello, whose product allows teams to move their own avatar around a virtual office while visible to colleagues on video chat, said the “pendulum has swung too far on the side of async,” but that he prefers email to Slack as an async tool. Async limits relationship-building and slows down communication, he said.
Vivek Sodera sees Slack as more of a synchronous tool. As the co-founder of the $30-a-month email tool Superhuman, Sodera said he’s “very much bullish on asynchronous comms.” (Shawn Wang, head of developer relations at Airbyte, has pointed out that Slack can discourage a culture of internal documentation, which is especially crucial for teams that operate more asynchronously.)
Sodera agreed with Crivello that Slack is “a massive distraction.”
“It’s like the digital water cooler,” Sodera said. “In the early days, it was fun, pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic, it’s become so exhaustive in terms of one’s own time, productivity, well-being, etc., because there’s just this constant need to get back to people.”

But is it so bad to be the digital water cooler? Now that many teams don’t see each other in person often, Slack is a major way that colleagues stay connected, banter and get to know each other personally.
For Sodera, the difference is distraction. In the office, colleagues may chat around the water cooler for a few minutes, then return to their desks and get back to work, he said. Slack can continue to be disruptive because “it’s on all the time.”
In December 2020, Sodera’s co-founder Rahul Vohra wrote about how Superhuman had reformed its use of Slack, which had made the team “less thoughtful and more stressed.” Among the rules: Only use Slack if the message needs a reply within three hours and takes 30 seconds or less for the recipient to process.
On Twitter, Crivello suggested his own product as an alternative, though he told Protocol that his team still uses Slack because it “started with it initially” before building Teamflow’s own messaging tool. His team still uses Slack for both work and fun (sharing memes, for example).
One advantage of Slack is its insularity, Crivello said. Unlike email inboxes, which fill up with both internal and external messages, Slack is “less noisy” because messages don’t come in from outside the team. But it’s still too noisy for Crivello, who said email “has a lot going for it.”
“I wish there was an email [account] that was like, ‘This is only your internal email. It’s an email that only your internal team can reach out to,’” Crivello said.
For those who aren’t convinced they should Slack, it may still be worth trying a “monk week,” or at least turning off notifications from time to time.
“We didn’t have Slack, we didn’t have email, when we put a man on the moon,” Crivello said.
Update: This story was updated on Sept 16., 2022, to clarify that Teamflow is a competitor of Slack.
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