How it all works
If you’ve made it through our first two essays, you might be thinking that all of this sounds like pie in the sky stuff. The question remains: How can we actually achieve something like this together? The team at OSCILLATIONS has labored over the last four years to study the systems that could help us realize our dreams for the future. I’ll now walk you through how we can build this movement and how you, dear readers, can get involved.
Broadly speaking, there are three phases involved in building something responsibly and sustainably at the intersection of technology and entertainment.
The first phase is all about building an audience. If a tree falls in the forest but nobody’s around to hear it, then it doesn’t technically make a sound. Likewise, if a tech company produces a revolutionary new product but nobody knows how to use it or understands the potential value it can bring to their lives, then it isn’t really revolutionary. That’s why the very first thing we need to do is build a cross-platform media brand.
Cross-platform just means that we’re everywhere. We want to be on the media platforms where you spend your time, telling you stories you want to hear. This is the best way to establish an authentic relationship with an audience and raise awareness for innovations on the horizon. We get to share our ideas, and those on board can follow along and contribute to the development and trajectory of our brand, content, and whatever future-looking plans we may have (and we have many). Through a variety of avenues, including podcasts like this one, direct patronage, influencer marketing, branded partnerships, merchandising, content licensing, and other sources of revenue, we can begin to generate income to fund our own creative works for new technologies.
In the second phase, the media brand begins to function like a production studio. OSCILLATIONS aims to build a studio for frontier technologies like VR, AR and BCIs with our global network of artists, scientists, and creative thinkers. If we’re successful, then we’ll have built one of the first ever frontier technology content studios to achieve BOTH sustainable revenue AND a prolific output of creative content tailor-made for an engaged audience. This would overturn current industry wisdom that the only viable ways to make a reliable return on investment in creative frontier technologies are in enterprise.
When investors and VR industry insiders talk about enterprise applications of the tech, they’re describing VR training for a range of professions, from surgeons to military personnel, and they’re describing sales tools, like holographic cars or VR test drives at your local car dealerships. Most investment in the tech is going here because the first companies to come along promising to make amazing movies, games, and immersive experiences for VR and AR didn’t do a very good job making stuff people cared about enough to run out and buy the gear.
We can change that, but it will take time. We’ve got to start making stuff compelling enough to justify buying VR gear and regularly spending time using it. Funding it is challenging since most investors don’t see the returns they’re looking for. That’s why we start with a media brand on platforms people are already using and channel that revenue into funding our own productions.
Of course, media brands and studios have limits to what they can achieve with the thin profit margins of content creation. For one, content is expensive. Well, good content is expensive. Moreover, media brands live and die by trends and the fickle tastes of audiences always on the lookout for something new. This is why our goal is to amass a portfolio of highly innovative artistic content that will redefine the use-cases of creative frontier technologies, giving birth to entirely new genres of art and expression. And this leads us to our highly ambitious phase three.
The third phase leverages the momentum from the first two phases to raise the kind of capital that can fund the research and development required for improving technologies, such as brain-computer interfaces, in ethically responsible ways. This is the phase in which OSCILLATIONS could achieve our ultimate dream: Giving artists, scientists, and creative thinkers a prominent seat at the table in determining how frontier technologies develop and become integrated into our society.
This isn’t rocket science. I hope it's starting to become clear how artists and scientists could actually spark a movement that steers certain technological developments in the direction of a more beautiful and creative future.
Of course, however, there are also some systemic hurdles that need to be cleared. Two in particular are worth calling out here.
Hurdles to clear
SOCIAL MEDIA TRENDS
The first relates to the lifecycle of social media platforms. A new economy has emerged within social media. It’s been dubbed the “attention economy,” and it refers to the ways in which digital content has changed in a world where the production costs have dramatically decreased and platforms like YouTube and Instagram have democratized access to audiences. This is making attention an increasingly scarce resource. Those who are able to secure the scarce resource—that is, those who are able to capture attention—can continue to create, reinvest in, and monetize their projects.
Obviously, some creators take advantage of this by catering to the lowest common denominator. Their content is designed for shock value, controversy, or stupidity. Other creators, however, have been able to take a completely different approach by demonstrating unique talents and rising to the top of niche online communities. In doing so, they’ve provided real value to those communities. Not only do they serve as inspirational role models, instructors, and innovators, but they’ve sparked global exchanges with the diverse creatives leading other online communities.
Clearly, these aren’t your stereotypical influencers; they’re the creative drivers of the renaissances happening across the arts that we’ve discussed in our first two essays. Social media platforms are directly responsible for enabling these renaissances, empowering artists to forge new career paths and collaborative opportunities.
But there was a problem: social media platforms weren’t making any money in their early days, even if they were connecting communities and starting to add value. Facebook has investors, and YouTube and Instagram were purchased by companies interested in their profit potential. To solve this monetization problem, in recent years these platforms have done a bait ‘n switch. Social media companies have to walk a line between staying “cool” and keeping users on their platform on the one hand, and on the other, making money for their investors or parent companies.
What does this all mean? Well, if you’re not paying for a subscription, then the main product is your data. Social media platforms started making money by selling your data to advertisers or using it to entice third party apps to build on the platform. These advertisers and apps could then know all about you and try to sell you things.
Remember Cambridge Analytica? It happened right around the time when we learned that hacker trolls were using Facebook to influence the 2016 election. As if that wasn’t enough of a PR nightmare, it was exposed that Facebook was making our data available, without our explicit consent, to companies like Cambridge Analytica which didn’t have our best interests in mind. Facebook users were enraged.
Before the whole Cambridge Analytica fiasco, you might recall that scrolling your social media pages felt quite different than it does today. As I illustrated in the first essay in this series, my own social media algorithms encouraged organic, natural discovery of new artists, creative influencers, cool new upstart makeup artists and fashion designers, and niche communities all over the world. What a sweet, distant memory. Of course, the memory is contaminated by our knowledge that our data was being commodified in ways that escaped our notice, but at least our feeds weren’t polluted by ads.
Now data privacy concerns are commonplace, so social media platforms have had to find less controversial ways to make money. They found two.
First, in 2018, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was going to prioritize your immediate friends and families and groups—the much exalted new PR strategy to try and reverse the damage done to its image and popularity. It turns out the focus on groups just led to more hate groups and radicalization. Some reports showed that 60% of people joining hate groups on social media were directed to those groups by algorithms. Oops. The prioritization of family didn’t help make Facebook cooler or more fun, either, because it turns out nobody much cares what grandma made for brunch.
The second thing they did was this: instead of providing your data directly to third party apps and plugins, they now sell space on your newsfeeds to advertisers, and they use your data to optimize for which ads you see. To most social media users, this isn’t much better. While it might be better from a PR standpoint, it’s not so great for a social media platform’s “cool factor.”
So what we’ve seen over the last five years or so is a shift from what marketers call “organic connection” to what they call “paid connection.” This is the difference between algorithms that feed you content based on your personal tastes and things you like—content from creative influencers and upstart creators doing cool stuff that you care about—to platforms that feed you content from brands and companies who have paid for you to see it. The social platforms are getting crowded with hate speech, the random and mundane things grandma is doing today, weird clothing brands and cheap garbage from fly-by-night Shopify stores, and content producers with budgets large enough to pay to be seen or enough brand awareness to attract the platforms. We see far far less of the inspiring stuff that attracted us to these platforms in the first place.
The business model is still there for influencer marketing and branded partnerships, but the shift from organic to paid attention and connectivity makes it harder than it was six years ago for individuals and brands to reach, let alone build, an audience. The platforms don't work the way they used to, so we have to be less passive and more active about how we use them and train the algorithms toward the kind of world we want to see.
Here’s the big idea I want to highlight: You cast a vote for what you want the world to be like every time you subscribe to something, like something, or share something.
This is both good and bad. It’s just as easy to click “like” or spend time engaging with things that reflect true creative potential as it is with things that reflects our baser nature, and the fact that our feeds are now overwhelmed with ads doesn’t make it any easier. As Dani said in the last essay,
“The double-edged sword of being human is that we are continually shaped by our environments. When these environments reflect the darker sides of our nature, the darker sides of our nature are reinforced. We see a lot of that on social media right now. Conversely, when they reflect our creative potential, they inspire us to think in new ways.”
In other words, humans are shaped by their environments, and social media enables us to disproportionately shape those environments. This will either majorly empower or tragically cripple us.
And that’s why it’s time we started thinking about the social impact that our votes have in aggregate. It’s time to start voting for a better world with our attention. It’s time to think about who our attention benefits and who we patronize with it.
Maybe you can see, now, where I’m going with this. If you’re someone who has discovered OSCILLATIONS content because you have an interest in our themes of art, science, knowledge, beauty, human potential, creative technology, and building a better future, we’re asking for you to upvote these themes. We need to develop the habit of liking, sharing, subscribing, and participating. This takes so little effort and doesn’t come at a cost to you beyond the few moments of attention you could have spent elsewhere. This is the kind of traction that can attract resources to power a movement.
That brings us to investment capital, the second systemic hurdle. If the law did not prohibit it, OSCILLATIONS would prefer to be fully owned by its network of artists, scientists, and supporters. As it stands though, we can’t sell ownership in our company that way. If all we wanted to do was start a media brand and make cool art, we could simply ask for your support on Patreon. But what we want to do is much bigger than that. We want to create an opportunity for real, true-blooded artists, scientists, and creatives to steer the direction of how the technologies of tomorrow develop. We want to make sure that the future of art, entertainment, and consumer technology is beautiful, democratic, and empowering for creatives and their communities. And we want to build that future with you.
This will take institutional capital. That’s why OSCILLATIONS isn’t just connected to the worlds of art, science, and frontier technology. We raised early investment that connected us to the venture communities in California, Chicago, NYC, and elsewhere.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, we have yet to meet a venture capitalist who zealously believes in the hype-y PR language about “changing the world” or making “bold, brave investments in the future” on their websites. The conversations that happen over coffee, cocktails, and behind closed doors are far less inspirational or aspirational. If we put the punch down and do a little real talk, we have to admit that the incentives in venture capital encourage the backing of trendy ideas that replicate previous ways money has been made, rather than more aspirational ideas that could actually make the world a better place.
A lot of what gets funded is related less to the value of an idea and more to whether that idea is trending. When a company comes around and successfully pitches something like VR to a prominent groups of investors, it triggers a gold rush of dumb money, many VCs will want to have something in their portfolio representing that category. We’re talking less about real value and more about perceived value, or how well moneyed people can be duped into seeing value where little to none exists.
What’s more, the growth model of venture capital is completely backwards. Venture capital has to make 10x returns on its investments because most of its portfolio companies will fail. Behind the bluster it’s just raw math. VCs need to find explosively growing companies they call “unicorns” to make up for all the startups that go bust and, by law, they need to do it in less than 10 years. But paradoxically, upstarts often fail because of the pressure to be 10x companies in such a short time frame.
This backwards model often leads to a kind of pump-and-dump incentive for VCs. The system encourages investors to back ideas that are simple, trendy, or similar enough to other ideas that have been funded. The primary goal is not to produce a good product or add value, but to increase the perceived value of a company so that it can attract more investment, be acquired by a larger company, or go public on the stock exchange with an IPO, which offloads the risk to the average Jill and Joe on mainstreet hoping to beat inflation with a modest stock portfolio or a retirement account through their employer.
Do things have to be like this? Of course not! The world is ready for more sophistication and meaning. All we’re asking is that venture capital live up to its own rhetoric and values around building a better future by taking risks on new ideas. It’s on the VCs to direct resources to better places, because they have the power to either add real value or litter the world with useless, hype-driven, or disruptive apps. As one of the most successful VCs of all time, Marc Andreesen has recently said, we don’t need to break, we need to build.
If VCs start optimizing for adding real value, then some of that building will be in green energy, infrastructure, techno-powered complementary currencies, medical advances, responsible artificial intelligence, and social media that brings out the best rather than the worst of us. At OSCILLATIONS, we submit that one of these projects should focus on creating more beauty and meaning in the world. We need strong business models and technologies that empower creative artists and thinkers.
What we need from you
Here’s the great news. We don’t need moneyed interests to care about any of these things. Sure, it would be nice, but luckily for us the only thing investors need to see is traction. So again, the habit of curating our social media, training the algorithms, and actively upvoting the things we want to see more of in the world is all that needs doing. With this momentum, we can attract the attention of institutional capital that can be put into service of making the world better. The institutions with capital can thank us later for the good PR they get for all the ethical work our community does.
For this reason, media consumers actually have significantly more power than we might realize. And that’s energizing for those of us who feel relatively powerless in this crazy world. If we build a large, engaged community, it will be trivially easy to find the support we need to fashion a more beautiful and creative future for media, entertainment, and technology.
To illustrate what we could achieve together and how it would differ from what we see in the world today, let’s do a little thought experiment. Consider what success looks like to the beneficiaries of the current systems. The current systems favor a very narrow range of talents, personalities, and cognitive abilities. When we think of the newly-minted millionaire class of the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, what typically comes to mind is the engineer trope: pragmatic to a fault, socially awkward or deficient in empathy, and with basic, bourgeois, pop-culture tastes. His or her partner (but usually his partner), the pitchman or pitchwoman (but usually the pitchman), was business school or “b-school” educated at an Ivy League that their tigercopter parents guided them to attend. They know how to schmooze and have all the ingroup identifiers to talk people like them into gambling a paltry six or seven figures into their new platform idea that’s going to completely disrupt logistics, or ecommerce, or overpriced and on-demand snacks served by robots.
These engineer and b-school founders are the types of people swimming in billions of dollars in speculative capital, and sometimes, if they’re lucky, swimming in their own liquidity events. They take that liquidity and become investors themselves, selecting the same kinds of ideas, advanced by the same kinds of people, to perpetuate the cycle. It’s no wonder, then, that almost all “disruption” looks the same: some cutesy company name, a bubbly logo, and a pastel colored website with an unconvincingly mature Helvetica font that belies the company's childish office culture.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no reason to believe that artists, scientists, and radical creatives with visions for a more beautiful, meaningful world cannot also play this silly game to win. Such a win would be a win for all of us. Why? Well, let’s now imagine what similar kinds of success would look like for us.
If a global network of the world's hardest working artists, scientists, and creatives received the same kind of vote of confidence from investment capital, you would see very different ideas about how to put that capital to use. That capital would be put to service in creating the kind of value that John F Kennedy, Sergie Diaghilev, Beverly Sills, and John Adams spoke about in the quotes I read in the first of these introductory essays. This kind of value is meant for society, for you.
Imagine if a company in the tech industry were to go public and, instead of engineers and upper-middle class b-school kids becoming millionaires overnight, it was hundreds of artists and scientists from all corners of the world and walks of life. I’m surrounded by these artists and scientists, and I can tell you what they would and wouldn’t do next. They wouldn’t buy a penthouse in Miami or an Italian sports car. They wouldn’t pay off their starter wives in a divorce settlement and spend the rest of their days on a cocaine and scotch-fueled alpha male ego trip. Rather, they would pursue their passions, dreams, and ideas. And because they would pursue these lifelong passions, dreams, and ideas with a huge amount of resources, we should expect to see a degree of brilliance we can’t even imagine because the world has not yet witnessed such a monumental windfall for artists and scientists. Isn’t it time that it should? Aren’t we due for another Renaissance?
Alright, I think you get the point of the thought experiment.
Let’s return to the steps it will take to get there. It’s going to look a lot like a media brand at first. Think something like Red Bull, Cirque du Soleil, Disney, Pixar, Nintendo, rolled into one modern media technology company. We start with podcasts, social media, publications, and collaborations with other aligned brands, collectives, and institutions. Success in this arena will allow us to produce more ambitious content, such as virtual and augmented reality art with brain computer interface capabilities, which in turn will allow us to fund the research and develop for innovating a new genre of democratized creative expression by developing the technology ourselves.
Your attention alone can fund this ambition and you, dear readers, will be the first to enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Hopefully you can now envision how early success would allow us to build our own technologies. This is important, and I really want to take a minute to stress and highlight this, because the future of these technologies depends upon how well you receive what I’m about to say.
Brain computer interfaces and virtual and augmented reality are currently being developed by the technology companies that make their vast sums of money by selling your personal data to advertisers or selling advertisers space within your online profiles. Whoever develops the intellectual property around these technologies will be able to have a very large say in how they work. We risk much by allowing these companies to be the sole source of well-funded research and development in these frontier technologies.
OSCILLATIONS believes that artists, scientists, philosophers, and the general public should have a say in the development of these technologies and the ownership laws that evolve around them. We believe these technologies should align with our values as a society. We believe the world will be a better place if a global network of artists and scientists, answering to an engaged public platform that holds us to our word and our own extremely high standards, is at least a partial owner of the intellectual property behind these technologies. Put another way, the technology that reads your mind and constructs new worlds from your thoughts and feelings is, inevitably, going to be developed and, very likely, owned by that developer. Would you rather it be a large, unaccountable tech company with an army of lobbyists and lawyers, or a global network of dedicated artists, creatives, academics, and idealists?
There has never been more opportunity and ability for a community to make an impact in some way. Our way is to empower artists and scientists to create with new technologies by leveraging business models never before applied to the development of these technologies. We have a chance to take things that exist in the world—tech, entrepreneurial pathways, and global channels of creative expression—to build something truly unique. We need it. We need more good in the world. We need more hope and more meaning. We need to take these precious sparks of human potential and nurture the flame.
We seem to be losing hope in the potential of science to answer big questions and of technology to improve our lives and enrich people equitably. We’ve lost faith that social media can connect us in positive and non-invasive ways. We roll our eyes at the narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness of current economic incentives and venture-scalable business models.
At risk of sounding like a broken record: It doesn’t have to be this way. Science has never been closer to answering questions that could drastically improve the quality of civilization and the lives that play out inside of it. Technology is not synonymous with an endless stream of mobile applications of questionable merit and value to society. New creative technologies are here, and they could be developed in ways that inspire rather than frighten. Social media can empower artists, scientists, and creative technologists. It can be a tool that we average citizens can harness to make the world better.
Since you’re reading our introductory series, you get to really come along for this ride. We’ve just laid out all the things we care about: modern life, hope, meaning, value, knowledge, identity, consciousness, equality, policy, technology, the arts, entrepreneurship, values, ethics, philosophy, science, and culture. We want to hear from you. We want to know what you think about what we’re laying down here. We want to build something you can believe in. We’re out here building networks in technology, academia, media and entertainment, and the arts. We’re doing the work of lining up the dominos and studying the systems to make this happen. We’re laying the foundation that we can all build on. We’re ready to dedicate our lives to make this happen. I’ll leave you with my absolute favorite quote, from playwright and activist, George Bernard Shaw.
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
We’re here to serve artists, scientists, technologists, investors, society, and you. Most importantly, we’re here to serve dreamers: those of you out there who refuse to believe that we’re witnessing the decline of civilization, and that our most beautiful expression of human potential and civilization lies ahead of us.