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Long-Term Thinking in a Start-Up Town (Ep. 381)

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The average American family spends $9,000 per year owning and operating a car that is parked 96 percent of the time. John Zimmer — the president of Lyft — wants to free us from our cars. We talked to him in San Francisco. (Photo: Pxhere)

Recorded live in San Francisco. Guests include the keeper of a 10,000-year clock, the co-founder of Lyft, a pioneer in male birth control, a specialist in water security, and a psychology professor who is also a puppy. With co-host Angela Duckworth, fact-checker Mike Maughan, and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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This week’s episode is a variety show, recorded in front of a live audience. Our guests include the president and co-founder of a huge ride-share company that recently went public, and which isn’t named Uber; you’ll also hear from a futurist, a hydrologist, a microbiologist, and a psychologist with a very interesting side gig.

Stephen J. DUBNER: This week we’re coming to you from San Francisco, with live music by Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra; and, as co-host, would you please welcome the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and the author of Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth. Angela, I understand that you, before you were super-gritty, taught math here in San Francisco. Is that true?

Angela DUCKWORTH: That is a correct statement. I taught at Lowell High School. One thing that’s interesting about math is that unbeknownst to most students, actually, girls get higher report-card grades in math than boys, on average. It’s really a striking advantage. And yet boys are dramatically more confident than girls in that subject.

DUBNER: Good to know. We’ll see if we can extend that stereotype tonight. So Angela, for these live recordings we sometimes play a game called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” where we bring onstage a series of guests from various disciplines, and we ask them to tell us about their work. You and I ask some questions, and ultimately our live audience will vote for their favorite guest — maybe someone they’d like to hear more from in a future episode.

The voting criteria are very simple. No. 1, did they tell us something we truly did not know? No. 2, was it worth knowing. And No. 3, was it demonstrably true? And to help with that demonstrably-true part, we’ve hired a real-time fact checker. He is the head of global insights at Qualtrics, and he’s co-founder of Five for the Fight, the campaign to eradicate cancer. Would you please welcome Mike Maughan. Mike, do have any San Francisco connections as well?

Mike MAUGHAN: So, I do. I grew up in Utah, which is where Steve Young went to college. So interestingly, a lot of us were 49ers fans when we were young, and when we were memorizing our times tables, as we got to seven times seven, instead of just saying 49, everyone would be like, 49ers. When we got to seven times six, we would say “Jerry Rice,” because he was 42.

DUBNER: Wasn’t Jerry Rice number 80?

MAUGHAN: Yeah. Yep. So to harken to Angela’s thing about men having misplaced confidence in their math abilities, we were really sure he was number 42. Big fans out there. Big, big fans.

DUBNER: All right, let’s get started. Our first guest tonight, would you please welcome John Zimmer. John, I’m sure that for those people who don’t recognize your name, they will certainly recognize your job title, so would you please tell us all what you do?

John ZIMMER: I’m the co-founder and president of Lyft.

DUBNER: Can you give us briefly, the origin story of Lyft, which was originally, I know, called Zimride, and I assumed you obnoxiously named it after yourself. But that’s not true, is it?

ZIMMER: That’s not true. I’ve been trying to correct the record for a while. So, Logan Green, my co-founder, was born in L.A. surrounded by traffic, and he hated that. And he started building a solution for himself. He took the bus. He built a car-sharing program like Zipcar, before Zipcar would come to college campuses. And he got the attention of the local transit board. So he got elected as the youngest member ever to the transit board in Santa Barbara County. He was the only person on the board that actually rode the bus. He then went to Zimbabwe and saw people sharing rides out of necessity and got the idea to create a carpooling network called Zimride. So Zimride was named after Zimbabwe.

DUBNER: So John, your firm, Lyft, went public in late March at a share price of $72, which represented at the time a company valuation of about $24 billion. Lyft shares have since fallen to below $60, which represents a decline of more than $7 billion. So John, we are just a humble podcast and public-radio show, but would you like us to buy you some dinner after the show?

ZIMMER: Sure. I’ll take it.

DUBNER: Are you okay?

ZIMMER: I’m doing alright.

DUBNER: Uber, your larger rival, has experienced a similar drop in market cap since it had its I.P.O. several weeks after yours. So the central objection of investors seems to be that both companies are still losing, for now, lots of money, and that investors don’t necessarily see a clear way to change that. So how do you become profitable, long-run?

ZIMMER: So we like being the underdogs, we like when people don’t necessarily see what we see. That’s how we got our start. And so the path is quite simple, there’s two main pieces. One is: rides are profitable in most markets. And then obviously we have to cover our overhead. And so the more rides that we do the more that it covers that which doesn’t scale with the growth.

And secondly, per-ride, variable costs, things like insurance, are coming down. And will continue to come down. And we have a very clear path to profitability, with $3.5 billion in the bank and we intend to invest that well to get a good return for our investors.

DUCKWORTH: So assuming things do go as expected and you are one day not the underdog, what’s your strategy for maintaining— is that really part of the Lyft identity?

ZIMMER: No, I think that we walked into that— our mission is to improve people’s lives with the world’s best transportation. Cities, unfortunately, have been designed around car infrastructure. And cars are used four percent of the time, which means they’re parked the rest of the time. And American families are spending $9,000 every year owning and operating a car. Americans spend more money on the car that they use four or five percent of the time than they do on food. And to us that doesn’t make any sense. At the same time, there’s job opportunities that are being created by giving other people rides and we think that we are on day one of a very long journey in redesigning cities around people.

DUBNER: So I want to talk to you about autonomous vehicles, because it’s fascinating on a number of levels. Safety, etc. And I guess from your perspective, there is the issue of labor, because I assume that your biggest cost right now is labor, drivers, correct?

ZIMMER: Yeah.

DUBNER: All right. So we’ve been hearing about autonomous travel for a while now, and we’ve seen them being tested pretty successfully for a long time now in different settings. Why is it taking so much longer than— five years ago, the optimists and futurists were promising? What are the biggest barriers right now?

ZIMMER: So mostly it’s technology and then cost. From a technology perspective, we think differently than a car manufacturer. So a car manufacturer thinks about, when can I design an autonomous vehicle that can do every trip type, 100 percent of that trip? For us, we think about, when can we do an autonomous vehicle trip safely for 100 percent of one trip type? And if that trip type is a fixed route, similar to a transit route and we can do that safely at the right cost, then we’ll start building in that way, rather than trying to do it all at once.

DUBNER: Is that similar to what Lyft is doing now in Vegas?

ZIMMER: Yes. So you can get an autonomous car today in Vegas. There is a safety driver. And there are various points, slightly over 10 different locations, that you can either get picked up or dropped off at. So the routes are more known than if it’s just a random destination.

DUCKWORTH: So what impact will Lyft have on culture? Because it really was part of the American—

ZIMMER: The root of that American Dream was freedom. Right? So whenever you see an auto ad, they show you in a car, if you have long hair blowing in the wind. Maybe in a convertible. And it’s amazing. And there’s no traffic. It’s not real. There’s been this dream of cars and freedom that was promised to us by the car. Instead of a $9,000 ball and chain, which the car has become, you can get that actual freedom.

DUBNER: Do you own a car?

ZIMMER: I do. I am a Lyft driver on occasion.

DUBNER: Seriously?

ZIMMER: Yeah.

DUBNER: You sound a little sheepish about the fact that you own a car.

ZIMMER: Yeah.

DUBNER: You are? You’re conflicted?

ZIMMER: Yeah, I feel a little guilty about it.

DUBNER: How often do you act as a Lyft driver?

ZIMMER: At least once a year. I have a tradition every— hey, there’s been a lot going on.

DUBNER: So let me ask you this. Lyft and Uber are one of the most famous duopolies in America right now. Right up there with Coke and Pepsi and the Republicans and the Democrats. Historically, duopolies go in one of two directions. They either compete to death on prices, or they tacitly collude. And I’m really curious how you see the two firms playing out. Do you think there’s room for both? Does one inevitably eat or kill the other?

ZIMMER: Got it. So there’s room for both. And it’s a good thing. Competition to treat drivers well, competition to treat passengers well, that’s good. And that’s happened. That’s played out. But there was a period of time where I woke up, maybe about five years ago, and Uber had raised $3 billion. And we had a lot of money, $100 million. But they had 30 times the capital and they pointed it at us and tried to kill us. We stuck to our mission, taking care of our drivers and passengers. And we’ve been able to thrive, build enough density in our cities to offer a similar E.T.A., which was the critical part, and then to treat both drivers and passengers better so that you get better customer service.

DUBNER: You used to have this pink fuzzy mustache, that was the Lyft thing. And you don’t anymore. And it makes me sad. And I want to know why.

ZIMMER: Sorry. But I’m glad to hear you liked it. We wanted to get people to smile. Honestly, that was the idea. We were creating a new way for people to get around. Historically, your parents told you never get in a car with strangers, and never take candy from a stranger. So we did driver background checks. We did criminal record checks, but it wasn’t normal to get into someone else’s car. And so by putting the pink mustache on the front, it made it a Lyft. It made you notice it. And it created an incredible word-of-mouth buzz, where people would say, “What the heck is that? And now I’ve seen three of them today.” And then people had to talk about it.

DUCKWORTH: Why did you disband this brilliant marketing move?

ZIMMER: When we did it it was a launch idea. And by the time we were buying tens of thousands, and potentially hundreds of thousands, of large pink furry mustaches it was a bit ridiculous. And we were operating in markets that had rain and snow, and they did not do so well. We were researching different types of materials that would be weather-proof. But it got absurd.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, John Zimmer tells us about Lyft, and its autonomous future, and our autonomous future. Anything you heard that caught your fact checker’s ear?

MAUGHAN: Okay, so I’ve been searching car commercials and you’re right. I can’t find any of that show people in traffic jams. And there are a remarkable number of people in them who have long hair, so well-played on all counts. Interestingly, in three of the first four pictures of male drivers in car commercials on Google Image search, they have mustaches. So it is creepy.

But I’m curious, will different autonomous Lyft vehicles have different personality traits just like different Lyft drivers? For example, could I get an autonomous pickup truck that plays country music, while maybe another is a hatchback that always has N.P.R. on just a little too quietly for you to actually hear?

DUBNER: John Zimmer from Lyft, thank you so much for joining us tonight. Our next guest is the former senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech. He now runs the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Would you please welcome Jay FamigliettiSo Jay, water, I guess, is fairly important to humanity. So tell us something we don’t know about your particular area of expertise, water security.

Jay FAMIGLIETTI: Well, Stephen, most of the world’s accessible or unfrozen freshwater — in fact, about 96 percent of it, is actually invisible. It’s stored beneath the surface as groundwater. That water that we see flowing in rivers and lakes and stored in reservoirs, that makes up only about 4 percent of accessible freshwater.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve led a team of researchers that use novel satellite data to map how groundwater storage is changing, something that was impossible before, and yet is paramount to understanding our global water future. This has really allowed us to make something that was previously invisible visible.

DUBNER: Does your satellite project have a name?

FAMIGLIETTI: It does. It’s called G.R.A.C.E., which stands for Gravity, Recovery, and Climate Experiment. It’s quite novel, in the sense that it functions like a scale. It actually weighs the different regions of the world that are gaining or losing water mass on a monthly basis.

DUBNER: Okay, so what did you learn when you were able for the first time to measure groundwater around the world?

FAMIGLIETTI: Well, we learned, unfortunately, that most of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted at a pretty rapid clip. In fact, over half of the world’s major aquifers are past sustainability tipping points and they’re being quite rapidly drained.

DUCKWORTH: So from a behavioral science perspective, the things that people can’t see— I mean, you can tell them 96 percent of the world’s water is not visible, and it’s being depleted. It’s really hard for human beings to appreciate things that are not in front of them. How are you communicating that broadly?

FAMIGLIETTI: It’s certainly a challenge. That’s part of the reason why groundwater hasn’t been well-managed through the years, because we don’t see it. So we’ve been able to produce maps that show how these aquifers are being depleted. We’ve been able to produce animations. And we use those basic traffic-signal colors, we go from green to yellow to red. And that really works with people, that really resonates.

DUBNER: So that may work with people and resonate maybe for some behavioral stuff, especially individual level. But what has your evidence of depletion done on a policy level?

FAMIGLIETTI: Well, we have contributed to the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in California in 2014.

DUBNER: Now, California was late to the game, though, for statewide water management, yes?

FAMIGLIETTI: Yes, sadly so. So, California was the last state in the United States to adopt groundwater management. It’s tough to give up something that you’ve had free access to for a long time, and California is a big agricultural state. And we grow a lot of food, and it takes a lot of water. So, it was much-needed, because without any kind of groundwater management we would run out of groundwater.

DUBNER: So, can we just back up and get some basic earth science, because I want to make sure that a), I remember what I learned; and b); that what we learned was actually right. Because if I understand what you’re saying, there are kind of two classes of water. There’s groundwater— aquifers, you’re calling it. And then there’s surface water. And most of it is underground. And we were not able to know how much there was in different places until you put your satellite up there, correct? All right so far?

FAMIGLIETTI: Right.

DUBNER: But one thing we learned in earth science is that, well, the Earth’s water supply is replenishable and there’s a finite amount — what you lose via evaporation you get returned in precipitation. That’s what happens for surface water, I gather, but groundwater, aquifer — different story? Not replenished?

FAMIGLIETTI: So I think your teachers taught you well. What you’re talking about really refers to the globe. And so we’re not losing any water, we’re not gaining any water, so we have a mass balance. But in a particular region, say in the Central Valley, not far from where we are right now, we pump a lot of water to grow food. A lot of that water evaporates, a lot of that water runs off, a lot of it ends up embedded in food. And it does not necessarily come back to the aquifer. We don’t destroy the water, it just ends up someplace different.

DUCKWORTH: Where is it going?

FAMIGLIETTI: I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out. No, the truth is when we look at the global maps that we produce, we see that the Northern high latitudes of boreal, North America and Eurasia, and the tropics, are getting wetter. And it’s the mid-latitudes that are getting drier. So there’s a redistribution from the mid-latitudes to the high and low latitudes, and also from the land to the ocean.

DUBNER: Is it like, you guys grow, let’s say, a bunch of zucchini here, and then it gets shipped to Philadelphia, where Angela lives, and she eats zucchini and ends up peeing out the water there? Is that really what’s happening?

FAMIGLIETTI: That’s exactly what’s happening. You’re eating our groundwater.

DUBNER: So the solution is to ban zucchini, plainly.

FAMIGLIETTI: Yeah.

DUBNER: So we’ve been hearing for years that the next wars will be fought not over land, not over oil or diamonds, but over water. So when does that happen, and where?

FAMIGLIETTI: So, it’s actually happening in different ways around the world. A lot of the hot spots for water insecurity are transboundary — they straddle political boundaries. And so the Middle East, of course, is a real tinderbox, and there’s water insecurity problems on the India/Pakistan border and in Bangladesh. And, in South America, there is a huge aquifer there called the Guarani Aquifer that spans the boundaries of Chile and Uruguay and Argentina. There’s small skirmishes that we don’t hear about, and there’s bigger ones that I think will be happening in the future.

DUCKWORTH: So what can individual consumers do to reduce the depletion?

FAMIGLIETTI: Dietary changes are huge. Moving from less meat to more plant-based, would save a tremendous amount of water. That means more zucchini, by the way. Maybe the most important thing we can do is really raise our expectations of our elected officials and demand that they discuss their water policy. What is their platform?

DUBNER: I’d love you to name a couple of countries that manage their water well, and I’m really curious to know when a country manages its water well, how much of that management involves pricing water well, because I’ve been told that America — one thing we’ve done not very well, particularly in California, is price water as the market would price it.

FAMIGLIETTI: Israel does a great job managing its water, monitoring its water. They’ve been pioneers of agricultural efficiency, with drip irrigation and crop breeding—

DUBNER: And desalination, yes?

FAMIGLIETTI: And desalination and sewage recycling. I’m actually not sure about the pricing. But that’s a different thing. When the state owns the water you have a lot more control. Australia is doing a great job with policy innovations, and they’re really progressive about allocations for water for the environment, water to grow food, water for economic growth.

Closer to home, this groundwater problem is huge. The other big aquifer in the United States is the high plains, or the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches north to south across the middle part of the country. And Kansas has turned out to be quite progressive in its management of groundwater. They’ve been able to define very carefully what it means to be sustainable, and they’ve worked to integrate policy and research and education, and even farm extension to get their innovations into practice.

But what we like to say in the water world is that there’s no silver bullet — it’s going to take a portfolio approach of water markets and water trading, and sewage recycling, and desalination, and conservation. And we have a wonderful tap water system here in the United States, and we seem to have forgotten it.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Jay Famiglietti, who worked on an amazing-sounding satellite project that measured global groundwater — does any of this check out?

MAUGHAN: Okay, so much of the things you’re saying can be corroborated. Saudi Arabia, they overused their aquifers. They used to be the sixth-largest producer of wheat in the world, and they went from that to not producing any in 2016, because they fully depleted their aquifers. And because of the aquifer situation — we’re depleting them so quickly that parts of California are literally sinking. There are a few major trouble spots near Merced and Bakersfield that continue to sink as much as two feet per year because of the aquifer depletion. The question is, “what are they sinking about?”

DUBNER: Jay, let me ask you one more question before we let you go. You obviously know a great deal about the overall water situation, the costs and benefits of water, etc.; I feel you didn’t accentuate the doom-and-gloom scenario. So can you just tell us, on a scale of one to 10, where do we lie in addressing this problem generally?

FAMIGLIETTI: We are completely and utterly screwed.

DUBNER: I would’ve led with that if I were you. Well, I enjoyed talking to you a lot up till now, Jay Famiglietti, thank you so much for coming on our show. Would you please welcome our next guest. She is a medical microbiologist who works out of a lab at the University of California, Berkeley and she is the co-founder of a firm called YourChoice Therapeutics. Please welcome Nadja Mannowetz. Nadja, I understand your specialty is the physiology of mammalian fertilization, which is the unsexiest description of sex I have ever heard. So tell us something we don’t know, please.

Nadja MANNOWETZ: I’m developing the first non-hormonal contraceptive for men.

DUBNER: So first of all, I’m very curious whether the applause is for the non-hormonal or for the men.

MANNOWETZ: For both.

DUBNER: Yeah. So explain why non-hormonal is significant, first of all.

MANNOWETZ: So I think many women in the audience know this, who have been using hormone-based birth control options such as the Pill — hormones, you take them repeatedly, they screw up your whole bodily function. So women have been dealing with side effects that come with hormonal contraceptives for the past 60, 70 years. And all the attempts so far that have been made to develop a male contraceptive, also have been hormone-based. Just think about bodybuilders. They might start taking additional testosterone just to build up more muscles, but then their testes would shrink, so their balls get smaller.

DUBNER: Yeah, we know what testes are here. Thank you very much.

DUCKWORTH: By the way, why is that? It’s kind of in the opposite direction—

MAUGHAN: Yeah. Let’s spend more time on this. That’s great.

DUCKWORTH: I want to know. I’m curious.

MANNOWETZ: So, spermatogenesis, or the production of sperm cells, is driven by testosterone. Testosterone levels, they need to be in a certain range. If there’s not enough or too much testosterone, then spermatogenesis is stopped. Once there are less sperm cells within testes, there’s just less cellular mass. And so the whole little organ— or not so little—

DUCKWORTH: Just shrinks.

MANNOWETZ: Shrinks.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah.

DUBNER: What is the evidence that men are particularly interested in birth control?

MANNOWETZ: So, whenever we talk to young men, they just get super excited. They’re like, “This is awesome. I want to take responsibility in birth control because my girlfriend, my wife, my partner, she just can’t take hormonal contraceptives,” and just, it’s the right thing to do.

DUCKWORTH: So one reason why Stephen may have that curiosity is the evolutionary pressure to propagate. So I think you might be wondering what market appetite there would be for not passing on your genes to the next generation, when we’ve been evolving to do exactly that. I don’t disbelieve you. But how do you reconcile the evolutionary drive to propagate with the contemporary desire to not have a million children?

MANNOWETZ: Just because you are using a contraceptive does not mean you will never spread your genes. You have a tool to time it in a much better way.

DUBNER: So what is the best word for what you’ve worked on? Is it an invention? Is it an application?

MANNOWETZ: Well, it’s medicine. We are a pharmaceutical company.

DUBNER: Okay. So first tell us how it works. Chemically, scientifically, what are you actually doing to make it work?

MANNOWETZ: Okay, so imagine you are a sperm cell and you—

DUBNER: Got it.

MANNOWETZ: And you want to fertilize the egg that’s waiting miles away from you. Not miles, but let’s say it’s 10 inches.

DUBNER: Let’s.

MANNOWETZ: So you are the tiniest cell and you have to travel a certain distance. You need energy to spread love and the genes. And what we do, we prevent sperm cells from producing enough energy. We also prevent them from developing a motility pattern that sperm cells need to push through the protective layers that surround the egg.

DUBNER: So the sperm swim to where they’re going, and then they need to penetrate. Yes? And are those two different kinds of motility modes?

MANNOWETZ: Yes. That switch from motility pattern one to two is initiated by progesterone. So we are identifying small molecules that prevent progesterone from binding to the sperm tail. So sperm will never get into that crazy motility mode, and they just keep swimming. They have no idea that they are so close and so far away.

DUCKWORTH: And just to clarify, it’s the female’s progesterone?

MANNOWETZ: Yes.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, got it.

DUBNER: So when does this happen? When does this medicine come to market, let’s say?

MANNOWETZ: It’s a more than a decade-long process, because we need to get F.D.A. approval. So our first product is actually a female contraceptive that is vaginally administered. It’s also non-hormonal, and you could also say it’s the first female on-demand contraceptive. It doesn’t matter where we go after sperm cells, whether we would do it in a man’s body or a woman’s body. I mean, these are the two places where sperm cells usually are.

DUBNER: I am really curious about whether this discovery has any implications for infertility. If you’ve learned to slow down sperm or make them weaker, can you speed them up or make them stronger for people who are trying to have kids and can’t?

MANNOWETZ: Excellent point. And the answer is yes.

DUBNER: So if this were the first version of non-hormonal male birth control how would the medicine be administered? How often, how long would it last, and I guess, well, when I say how long would it last, is, how reversible is it?

MANNOWETZ: So we know from literature research that it is fairly or quickly reversible. But sure, we would need to do first in human testing to get a very correct answer to that. How regularly would men have to take it? We would think perhaps daily or every other day, because men, they keep producing sperm cells 24/7.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I wonder about getting a guy to do anything every day. Is that possible? Have you considered the sort of behavioral science challenges?

MANNOWETZ: I think if we compare a college kid with a 45-year-old married husband, then I think we are talking about opposite people. But, but we would love, to create a culture where fathers would talk about their sons— about a method of birth control, rather than daughters just exclusively talking to their moms.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Nadja Mannowetz has been telling us about a fascinating discovery, and a series of events that lead to contraception for men, and it’s non-hormonal. Tell us what you found.

MAUGHAN: So a few things. You’ve talked a little bit about sperm swim strokes. Researchers at U.C.L.A. found that there are four different ways that sperm swim. In addition to the two that you talked about; one, which is most common, is this head forward dash toward the egg. Four to five percent of sperm swim in curved tracks like moving along a slinky. A smaller percentage just swim willy-nilly. We all know a few people that got born from one of those. You know what I mean?

I think the worry that some have is that evolutionary biology is so powerful that the sperm may figure out how to break through this and adapt and survive. For example, I don’t know if you’ve seen this amazing movie Jurassic Park. But we worry that we know how this ends, and everyone’s going to get pregnant anyway.

DUBNER: Thank you, Mike. And Nadja Mannowetz: thank you so much for joining us tonight.

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DUBNER: Welcome back to Freakonomics Radio Live. I’m Stephen Dubner. My co-host is Angela Duckworth. Our live fact checker is Mike Maughan. And we’ve got live music tonight from Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. Would you please welcome our next guest. He is executive director of the Long Now Foundation. Alexander Rose. Alexander, welcome. Let’s start with a, a simple question: what is the Long Now foundation and what are your goals?

Alexander ROSE: The Long Now Foundation was started a little over 20 years ago by mostly technologists here in the Bay Area, who, at the time we were realizing that the technological pace was really driving most decisions, rather than the amount of time we actually need to solve problems. The notion was to get people to think about the long term and to identify projects that are worth doing over that time span. And computer scientist Danny Hillis, who’d been building some of the fastest supercomputers in the world out of M.I.T., he thought, well, what if I built the slowest computer in the world? And his thought was, a 10,000-year, all-mechanical, monument-sized clock as a kind of icon to long-term thinking.

DUBNER: And that’s what you’re actually beginning to build, or building? In western Texas?

ROSE: Yeah, well, most of the machinery is actually built here on the West Coast, and very close to here in the Bay Area is where we do all the assembly and testing, and then it gets shipped out to West Texas.

DUBNER: And it’s meant to last 10,000 years, correct, the clock?

ROSE: And keep working for 10,000 years, yes.

DUBNER: And is it meant to be primarily a symbol of long-termism, or is it meant to start a conversation about what time means, etc.?

ROSE: Yeah, the idea is to challenge your thoughts about time, and there’s a lot of ways you could do that. We could have a white paper that talks about this. But what we were trying to do is create something on a mythic scale that’s kind of the Grand Canyon but for time. A large art piece in the desert that is a monument to long-term thinking.

DUCKWORTH: Some psychologists think that the ability to prospect into the future, to create mental simulations — movies in your head about what could happen if I do this, but what would happen if I instead did that — that is actually what makes us uniquely human. And that no other animal on the planet does it quite as much as we do, quite as far into the future. How have you wrestled with this?

ROSE: So really, we’re working in the place of myth and storytelling. What you do is, you open up options for the next generation, and you trust the next generation. Most systems in place right now are becoming less trustful of that future. And by definition, the next generation always is going to have more information. They’re going to have vastly better ways of making a decision about their present than we do about our future. So it’s odd that we don’t trust them to do that.

And you look at something like the Bill of Rights, which is this very short document of principles that’s one-and-a-half sentences each. And all of that was meant that each generation would interpret it into the future. Whereas you look at a modern law, like the health care bill, let’s say. Twelve hundred pages. The goal of that whole thing was to make sure nobody would ever interpret it in a different way in the future than we were in the present. And I think those are the kind of mistakes that we make, and we want to call out. If you were making decisions that reduce the decision-making power of the future, you’re probably doing it wrong.

DUBNER: I want to ask you a question based on what you just said. I don’t know if it’s a challenge or a corroboration of what you just said, honestly, as I’m thinking it through. But on the surface, it seems like a great idea to encourage long-term thinking, prima facie, yes. Especially for problem-solving. But as history shows, most predictions about the future generally turn out to be wrong. In part because technologies come along that we couldn’t have anticipated.

So I think about food production, where the smart money, 50, 80, 100, 200 years ago, was always saying, “If the global population reaches another billion, there’s no way we can grow enough food for everyone.” And yet, we continue to surpass that. So I do wonder about the potential downsides of a certain kind of long-term thinking, in that the solutions that might seem sensible today might in fact be useless in the future, depending on what technologies emerge that we can’t anticipate.

ROSE: Long-term thinking can be weaponized. I think the worst historical example of this is the Thousand-Year Reich. And I think we’re even seeing some of the ways that policy is being done around women’s bodies right now, is around taking rights away from a future generation. And that’s— you’re not trusting that future. So it’s less about trying to plan for that future than it is to trust that people in the future are actually going to do a better job than you are.

DUBNER: I understand the Long Now foundation is based in a bar?

ROSE: Yeah. It’s become one of the top first-date bars in San Francisco. It’s kind of, Tinder date, Tinder date, Tinder date, all the way down the bar.

DUBNER: Talk about the opposite of long-termism, though.

ROSE: We could have some kids coming.

DUBNER: Hey Alexander, I know you’re not gonna be around in 10,000 years, unless you know something that I really don’t know. But do you think that Lyft will be profitable by then?

ROSE: I took a Lyft here, so that’s a good sign.

DUBNER: Alexander Rose, thank you so much. It is time for our final guest tonight. Would you please welcome Phillip Hammack. It says here you are a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. You are also the director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Lab there, at U.C. Santa Cruz. Correct? And I also understand that you are the founder of Fog City Pack, which is a family of gay men who identify as puppies.

Phillip HAMMACK: This is correct.

DUBNER: And honestly, I didn’t think this evening could get any more interesting, but it did. And I mean, dayenu, it would have been enough without this. But, I’d love to know, first of all, what’s your pup name and where does it come from?

HAMMACK: My name is Pup Turbo. I was named Turbo by the man that I was in a relationship with, in which we engaged in a practice called puppy play.

DUBNER: What is puppy play?

HAMMACK: So puppy play involves human beings taking on the traits and mannerisms of puppies. And we do it as a way to express affection with each other and to role play within a relationship.

DUBNER: Is it always private? Is it sometimes public?

HAMMACK: It can be either, actually. The public version actually involves large groups of people, usually gay men. And we get into the headspace of being a puppy by putting on particular gear. For example, we have muzzles and we have other types of gear. We have tails. I have a tail, actually, that wags. It’s cute. And we get on all fours and we kind of do what you would see dogs doing in the park, playing with chew toys, playing fetch. There are people in the community that role play as dog owners, or what we call handlers or trainers.

DUBNER: So is puppy play a subset of, a category of B.D.S.M.?

HAMMACK: Yes. It emerged from the larger B.D.S.M. community. That is correct. And it turns out that if you’re new to kink, the puppy play community is a great way to start, because it’s a very nurturing way of doing B.D.S.M.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what is kink? Can I ask that?

DUBNER: You just did.

HAMMACK: You just did. And I can answer. Kink — we should clarify, is really about play. It’s, it’s about role play, and it’s about play with power and role dynamics in that regard. If you think about the relationship between a dog owner and their puppy, it’s one of sweetness, of caring, of love. And so, on the scale of B.D.S.M.-style relationships, it’s a really soft way of doing B.D.S.M.

DUBNER: And does it relate to your academic work?

HAMMACK: Absolutely. So puppy play is just one very small part, I think, of this much larger umbrella of intimate diversity that’s happening in the 21st century. And truly I’ve come to believe it’s actually a revolution in how we think about sexuality and how we think about gender and relationships.

DUBNER: What would you say have been some of the most noteworthy changes lately regarding sexual identity in the U.S., overall, especially younger people?

HAMMACK: So my research actually is focused on L.G.B.T. youth, so, high school-age youth. And we wanted to look at what the experience of L.G.B.T. teens is in different kinds of settings. So we’re here in the Bay Area working with teenagers here, as well as in the Central Valley. I was really interested in what that different experience might be like in those settings.

And I was totally blown away by the fact that it was very similar across these settings. Even though the settings themselves are very distinct. I mean, the Central Valley is historically more hostile toward sexual and gender diversity, whereas the Bay Area is historically much more supportive. I just kind of figured we would see patterns that kind of matched onto that. And instead what we saw was this incredible explosion of new vocabulary around sexuality and gender among teenagers.

One of the activities that I have the students do is, on the first day of class, before they’ve even seen the syllabus, just name out any sexual identities you can think of. And I would put them on the board. When I first started teaching the class, in 2010, it was everything you would think: gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight. The basics. By 2015, I mean, only five years later, suddenly I was filling three entire chalkboards with new labels. I had one section of the chalkboard called the Google section, which were terms I didn’t know what they meant.

DUBNER: When you filled up three chalkboards worth of categories, was puppy play part of that?

HAMMACK: It was. And that totally blew my mind. Because—

DUBNER: And it didn’t come from you.

HAMMACK: It did not come from me. By the way, my favorite on that list was sapiosexual, which means attraction to the trait of intelligence.

DUBNER: We got a room full of them tonight.

HAMMACK: But what I realized is that young people were really using entirely new vocabularies and labels. And so for example, in that study, I found that 24 percent of the young people I worked with were identifying as gender non-binary, so neither male nor female, and 71 percent were identifying with a— what we call a pluri-sexual identity label, which means pansexual, bisexual, or queer, attraction to multiple genders. This was among the L.G.B.T. community. But that’s a real sea change from my generation, where the only options were really very binary.

DUCKWORTH: So the nature of categories is that they are qualitatively distinct, and if you’re in this category, you’re not in that category. And if you’re filling three chalkboards now and there are more chalkboards in the future, is it possible that there will not be any categories? That we won’t identify with any of these labels at some point, because there is the plurality of them, and that the boundaries have been blurred sufficiently?

HAMMACK: That’s a wonderful question. I do think what will happen is, we will get away from this idea of normality — or normativity, as we sometimes call it — and instead what we’re going to embrace is radical diversity and radical authenticity in how people experience their lives. And what I mean by radical authenticity is simply that people are now able to really embody what they feel on the inside, in the way they present themselves externally, in the way they want to conduct their relationships, in the way they want to be in the world.

I tell my students, this is one of the best times to be straight, because— they’re shocked. Because heterosexuality is opening up like never before. We’re finding that more and more people are identifying as mostly straight.

And by the way, this is not just women. About 10 years ago, there was a lot of research on sexual fluidity, indicating that women seemed to shift labels with great frequency. Now, their original research didn’t actually contain a comparative sample of men, so they didn’t know. But the assumption was, historically, men just choose a camp, gay or straight, and that’s where they stay. However, really exciting new research is showing that men are now just as likely to potentially— not only change sexual identity labels, but they’re also more and more comfortable with engaging in some kind of same-sex contact, and that not meaning they’re gay, or necessarily even bisexual. So they can say, “Hey, I’m heteroflexible.”

DUBNER: I have a question, Phillip. It’s more of a statement, really. So 60 million households in the U.S. have a dog as a pet and only 47 million have a cat. I interpret this as proof that dogs are superior to cats. Is that true?

HAMMACK: I’m a little biased. I have to admit.

DUBNER: Phillip Hammack, I thank you so much for telling us something we definitely did not know. And can we have one more round of applause for all our guests tonight? It is time now for our live audience to tell us who their favorite guest was tonight. Let’s remember the criteria: Did they tell us something we truly did not know? Did they tell us something that was worth knowing? And was it demonstrably true? So, who’s it going to be?

  • John Zimmer, with Lyft and our autonomous future?
  • Jay Famiglietti, with invisible water made visible?
  • Nadja Mannowetz, with a male birth control pill?
  • Alexander Rose, with the view from 10,000 years out? Or
  • Phillip Hammack, with a new kind of puppy love?

DUBNER: Okay, the audience vote is in. Once again, thank you so much to all our guest presenters. And our grand prize winner tonight, for telling us about her male birth control pill: Nadja Mannowetz. Congratulations. And to commemorate this victory, we’d like to present you, Nadja, with this Certificate of Impressive Knowledge. It reads, “I, Stephen Dubner, in consultation with Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan, do hereby attest that Nadja Mannowetz told us something that we did not know, for which we are so, so grateful.” That is our show for tonight. I really hope we told you something you didn’t know. Huge thanks to Mike and Angela, to our guests, to Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. And thanks especially to all of you for listening this week and every week to Freakonomics Radio. Good night.

*     *     *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace; we had help this week from Morgan Levey and Dan Dzula, and Nellie Osbourne. Our intern is Daphne Chen. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author of Grit.
  • Mike Maughan, head of Global Insights at Qualtrics and co-founder of Five for the Fight.
  • John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft.
  • Jay Famiglietti, hydrologist, professor, and executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Nadja Mannowetz, medical microbiologist and co-founder of YourChoice Therapeutics.
  • Alexander Rose, executive director of the Long Now Foundation.
  • Phillip Hammack, psychology professor and director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Lab at U.C. Santa Cruz.

RESOURCES

  • “Consumer Expenditures – 2017” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017).
  • “Groundwater: The Resource We Can’t See, but Increasingly Rely Upon,” by Graham E. Fogg (Trend, 2019).

The post Long-Term Thinking in a Start-Up Town (Ep. 381) appeared first on Freakonomics.

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