Context, and the Perils of Bullet-Point Wisdom

qubodup-Bullet-silhouette-icon-black-white-800px

A few years ago, while studying Rabbinical commentary by a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, I came across a line that resonated with me quite deeply. It seemed to point me to direction, a sense of purpose, and a new perspective to human existence.  Ecstatic, I phoned a friend in Israel to tell him about my breakthrough. This friend, a US-born businessman, converted to Orthodox Judaism in his late 40s, after a secular Jewish upbringing stateside. He is an interesting mix of worldliness and pragmatic spirituality, despite the rigours of his Orthodox Jewish observances. For about a year, he had followed my studies – more out of amusement than the joy of seeing the Tribe increase. With patience born of experience, he listened through a forty minute soliloquy.

“Nate, if you change the context, they’re just hollow words.”

He went on to explain, that the concept in question was a key responsibility of orthodox Jews that included liturgical duties, matters of observance in terms of Jewish law, and crucially, the application of Orthodox Jewish morals in interacting with the world. While the words themselves would ring relevant to anyone who grappled with complex questions of existence and purpose, my interpretation was no longer faithfully conveying what the sage intended. My friend was right. Though I had read several hundred pages in the lead-up to the line, I had conveniently dropped the entire context at the aha moment. I knew what the Rabbi was advising; in fact, I was critical of most of his exhortations – which were delivered to Eastern European Jewry at a terrible time in their history. This realization was the beginning of the end of my interest in religious commentary. At that moment though, I had been a heartbeat away from proclaiming a profound insight to the world via Facebook.

In the years since, Bullet-Point Wisdom has exploded – catchy sayings flood Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Jalaluddin Mohammed “Rumi” is probably more read in 21st Century than ever before in history – his esoteric concepts of divinity flogged lifeless by nation-hopping trust fund brats and the miserably single. “Listicles” – articles in the form of a list – have emerged as a new class of content with titles such as “seven signs that you’re dating the right man”; “ten signs you’re in an abusive relationship”; or even “seven ways to lose weight now”. These articles offer bullet-point guidance on dealing with complex emotional, spiritual, and worldly crises. This form of content is outrageously popular. Each morning a bunch of usual suspects flood my Facebook and Instagram feeds with their fix of the day. I also receive links to such articles that senders perceive to be relevant to my personal circumstances.

While social media has just made such content ubiquitous, the bullet-point approach has been about for a while. Physicians I know have expressed their exasperation with patients who demand a line of treatment that they saw on WebMD or Wikipedia; fellow Krav Maga instructors complain about students who have been experimenting with fancy but ineffective techniques seen on youtube; qualified fitness trainers I know kvetch about the latest fads that’s affecting their clients’ progress.

Bullet Point Wisdom is dangerous. It almost always lacks context. More than ever, with increasing tools for communication, anybody with a keyboard can ask a question, and anyone similarly equipped can answer. Looking at sites like Quora, it is clear that many people dealing with challenges in areas such as workplace politics, relationships, money, and sexual identity are turning to the anonymity of the internet for answers. The answers, unfortunately, are largely from people out to prove that they are “holier than thou”, and holding the “seeker” in judgment. Also, people who lack the credentials to give qualified advice seek out patterns in their own past and apply the half-baked wisdom of hindsight to the other party’s predicament – this is unwise, ineffective, and in the worst cases, condescending. It can increase one’s emotional burden to be told that the solutions to their problems are simple, and that they just don’t “get it”. With issues like weight loss and health, this advice can be factually incorrect or even harmful. As a secondary consequence, bullet-point wisdom has killed our respect for specialists. Physicians, therapists, physical trainers, and other trained experts are flippantly dismissed in favour of the internet experts at Quora.

“Why are most people broke”? was a question asked on Quora a few days ago. The answers were from scores of holier-than-thou people who claimed to acquired and retained a fortune through astute investing and frugal living. Nearly every answer to the question was a clear or veiled boast of how someone had “made it”. No one even bothered to ask for more information about the question. Was the person posting in despair about the situation of his family or community? Was he desperately trying to find direction to improve his circumstances? Another question by someone who had fallen out of love with a partner had responses full of judgment and condemnation – nary the trace of an answer. This probably has as much to do with the questions asked as the irrelevance of those who answered, but I pity the person who would have to read through those answers – especially in the latter case.

Now, more than ever, this world needs expertise. Human existence is increasing in complexity each passing day. Doctors spend more time than ever studying. Even lawyers and engineers have to turn to super-specialization to thrive. Unfortunately, with easy access to superficial information on almost any subject, anyone can proclaim themselves an authority.

It’s unclear what the future of expertise will be. 50 years from now, will your doctor speak your symptoms into a smartphone app, that will draw up a prognosis and line of treatment? Will we receive legal advice from a text message bot?

Crucially, and this is scary – will we ever again have insightful, compassionate, and objective advice to life’s questions from people who understand the importance of context?

ICOs: Venture Capital for Mere Mortals

womanmoney-800px

An Initial Coin Offering (“ICO”) is a method by which entrepreneurs raise money via cryptocurrencies. In the typical ICO, a company floats a proprietary digital token on a network such as Ethereum and accepts Bitcoin, Ether, or another cryptocurrency in exchange. These new tokens represent either shareholding or participatory privileges in the fledgling business. Ethereum has been a game changer for such enterprises, having served as a platform for most issuances.

These ICOs represent the beginning of a fundamental shift in how high-technology businesses are funded. In the past four decades, angel investors and venture capitalists got behind great ideas and funded them. Private equity funds then took up the gauntlet in second stage funding and ran to the IPOs. By the time these companies listed on stock exchanges and shares made their way into the hands of individual investors, the venture capitalists and the private equity funds had locked in massive returns on capital. Few individual investors could hope to match the kind of profits that early investors generated. Well, one could certainly invest in a Private Equity fund, but in most regulatory jurisdictions, you would need about a million dollars to join.

The game is changing. Today, lay investors with a rudimentary understanding of how Cryptocurrencies work have the opportunity to make early-stage investments with as little as USD 100. The ICO revolution puts early-stage investing and its profit opportunities within the reach of ordinary investors. For instance USD 1,000 invested at Ethereum’s ICO in 2015 would today be worth USD 230,000!

There are risks though. Venture capitalists are high risk takers, and are comfortable with the possibility that their entire investment in a particular company may be lost. Even Private Equity funds, though somewhat more conservative, play similar odds. For an individual investor with a focus on capital preservation, this may be a poor thesis on which to build one’s retirement portfolio, but this does offer a credible and low-cost opportunity to add some high-reward risk to a conservative portfolio.

The fraud risks are immense. Information on internet directories suggests that the time of writing, there are over 100 companies at various stages of the ICO process. Naturally, performing adequate due diligence on these is a huge challenge. The only resources that investors have are the LinkedIn profiles of the principals of these companies and a webpage that contains information about the supposed product. As the frenzy kicks up, it is entirely possible that fraudsters conduct an ICO and divert the proceeds. The decentralized nature of Blockchain enterprises will make such fraud impossible to investigate or prosecute with the current state of Law, as investigative agencies lack jurisdiction across international borders.

Regulatory risks abound too. Though multiple governments are warming to cryptocurrencies, these are largely considered to be a fad among technology enthusiasts. As interfaces with the traditional financial systems increase and cryptocurrencies become more influential in moving markets, the possibility of stronger regulation increases, and “investments” in these tokens may be challenging to liquidate.

The biggest risk though, is that most Blockchain startups are based on arcane concepts that are beyond the understanding of the average person. While these systems and platforms represent engineering genius, as a utility, they are irrelevant to 90 per cent of the world’s population. Furthermore, many of these projects are conceptualized and executed by young and passionate entrepreneurs. While their technical skills and intentions are beyond doubt, it remains to be seen if their business skills are up to the mark in riding the wave of disruption that they are about to unleash. Browsing through these ICO Prospectuses (or white papers as they’re called), it’s obvious that most of them are aimed at solving fundamental problems related to service delivery, financial inclusion, and even healthcare – however, whether these platforms will actually make the change that they envision is up for debate.

Cryptocurrencies, as an asset class, have delivered outstanding returns in what seems to be blowing into a bubble. Thankfully, newer digital assets such as Ether, Gnosis and Aeternity tokens have a functional aspect that will add fundamental value to them as time passes. For instance, Bitcoin has notional value like paper money, and there is a possibility that the currency will collapse once mining it becomes unprofitable. Conversely, Ether is the sole mode of payment of transaction fees for a growing number of applications on Ethereum. As these apps increase in number and grow in user base, the fundamental value of Ether will increase.

In conclusion, if the idea of owning a piece of a high-potential technology business is appealing to you, looking up ICOs may be worth your time.

Start your Cryptocurrency journey by buying Bitcoin via Unocoin