The Insider - September 2023

On the flight to quality, satellite internet geopolitics, and people-pleasing leadership

The Insider - September 2023
Photo by baikang yuan / Unsplash

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Welcome to this (late) edition of the September Insider. Thank you for your patience.

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On the flight to quality

In commercial real estate, a “flight to quality” takes place when users and investors shift to the highest quality properties, due to an upheaval in the market (like the one caused by the recent move to remote work). From commercial real estate to venture capital to online content, flights to quality are everywhere. In early stage venture capital, new market dynamics like higher interest rates are translating into less capital deployed, with only the highest-quality startups capable of attracting funding. In digital media, the upheaval of generative AI has created a glut of online content. In the past, content was generated at the speed of human creation. Today, that’s no longer true. Experts predict that in two years, 90% of online content could be “synthetically generated.” As cultural and technological advances blow past the previous limits of what it took to start a new company or generate content, we are entering a new moment—a moment when the oversupply of everything is forcing us to get better at making choices about what’s truly worth our time, attention, and capital. 

I’m personally excited about this phase of the cycle: a flight to quality nurtures a new type of curatorial intelligence that is different from traditional forms of intellectual or emotional intelligence. When everything is possible and available, an edge is gained by those who can practice the work of attention curation. A flight to quality is a movement comprising equal parts pain and courage: it means resisting the gnawing fear of missing out on all the articles we didn’t read, all the opportunities we let pass us by, all the people we could have connected with. Instead, the movement summons the courage to choose again and again that narrow, artisanal life that is the remnant left behind after a million “no’s”, marked by exceptional, original taste.

On satellites

Things are getting crazy 200 miles straight above us in low Earth orbit. In the next two decades, nearly every human on Earth will access the internet via satellites (versus today, when 95% of the world’s internet passes through 200 undersea cables). Due to technological advances and innovations like reusable rockets, satellite internet costs 100x less than it did 15 years ago. Now, companies like SpaceX, which manages the Starlink internet service, are launching satellites at a break-neck pace. SpaceX has launched over 4,500 satellites since 2019 and has applied for licenses to launch 40,000 more (by 2030, experts predict there will be 60,000 satellites in low Earth orbit). Already, one in every two satellites orbiting the earth is a Starlink satellite, and Starlink has been essential to communication for those in remote places and in conflict zones: Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, told The New York Times, “Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication infrastructure now.” 

Both companies and countries are racing to catch up as satellite internet becomes a tool of national security and geopolitics: China plans to send up a constellation of 13,000 satellites, has banned Starlink over the mainland, and disapproved of Starlink providing service in Ukraine (conceivably because cutting off undersea internet cables might be a pre-invasion immobilization strategy if China were to ever take Taiwan). The US, the EU, and other global alliances are recognizing that controlling satellite internet is an issue of urgent national security, and militaries are beginning to train missiles up at the satellites of their enemies. One study by Chinese scientists found that an atomic detonation in low Earth orbit could lead to the paralysis of the world’s satellite internet.

I sometimes wonder if we’re fully conscious of how quickly the tectonic plates of technological infrastructure, like internet access or semiconductors, are shifting beneath our feet and cleaving along the lines of geopolitics. Where there is invisible technological infrastructure propping up a global economy, there is immense vulnerability.

On people-pleasing leadership

For the leader with people-pleasing tendencies, one of the most challenging questions is one that Esther Perel recently asked on a podcast: Are you leading people or are you trying to please people? I have often mistaken the two, calculating the effectiveness of my leadership with the self-serving fuzzy math of wanting to be liked. It’s possible we consider ourselves far better leaders than we actually are when we dismiss any brand of leadership that makes space for conflict, confrontation, or prolonged periods of discomfort.

David Shore, a professor of organizational development at Harvard, says “managing change is about upsetting people only at a rate that they can tolerate.” This is supremely hard to get right. The people-pleasing leader won’t upset people at a fast enough rate and things won’t change. The hard-charging leader will upset people at too fast a rate and the people will leave. I’m not sure I’ve ever reached this elusive Goldilocks zone of leadership. It requires the dissonance of both deep sensitivity to the human consequences of upsetting your people, along with  enough detachment from those human consequences to allow the necessary, low-grade discomfort to persist. The most enlightened leaders, I believe, are often the most patient: they’re not anxious to escape the discomfort in themselves or in their team, but rather are capable of standing firm in that lonely and necessary liminality.


What I am reading

  • A beautiful and dynamic piece of storytelling about the perils of scientists working to study melting ice sheets in Greenland by The Washington Post.
  • Is AI a threat to the writing process, or will new tools enable writers to explore ideas more rigorously? The New Yorker.
  • What the data says about how remote work has influenced urban downtowns, working women, and remote productivity. New York Times
  • The winding path to prominence of OpenAI. The long backstory of Silicon Valley’s rising star—and what it means for the future. WIRED.
  • Tesla’s search for its next factory is running up against water politics in Mexico. The clash of economic development and water scarcity foreshadows manufacturing in the age of climate change. Rest of the World.
  • Digital short: This short, fictional film explores what could happen when perfect AI chatbots replace messy humans as our community of supporters. New Yorker.

Something personal

Some of the best hours of the year show up on the slow afternoons of backcountry trips after a strenuous hike or paddle. You’ve arrived at camp, set up your tent, unfurled your sleeping bag, and changed into cozy clothes. The afternoon is young, the sun still high, and your snacks finally accessible. The group breathes a collective exhale after navigating unfamiliar terrain, and with no temptation to retreat to your airplaned devices, some of the most delightful and formative conversations can spin up out of nowhere and linger for hours. But then the sun will ease west and the temperature will drop, signaling it’s time to add another layer and go pump clean water for dinner. If you know, you know, I guess.