David Orban: Civilization and Technology Are a Positive-Sum Game

Cointelegraph continues publishing interviews with prominent guests of BlockShow Asia 2017[1], that took place in Singapore in November 2017.

David Orban is an advisor to the Singularity University and founder of Network Society Ventures, a seed stage global investment firm focused on innovative startups at the intersection of exponential technologies and decentralized networks. His entrepreneurial accomplishments span several companies founded and grown over more than twenty years.

Investor, entrepreneur, writer, blogger, speaker and thought leader, David has an ability to talk about business planning and technical issues as an ethical philosopher and poet. In an interview with Cointelegraph, David shared his thoughts about roots of power, role of benefit corporations and what Aristoteles has to do with innovative vision.

Cointelegraph: My first question is how do you feel, how do you find the atmosphere today at BlockShow Asia?

David Orban: This is a wonderful conference, very well organized. I am happy to be here. This is my first time in Singapore, so I am excited to discover the little snippets of the local culture and understand how also it relates to Blockchain. The various jurisdictions that are either furthering or slowing down, a rate of enthusiasm around token sales is, of course, a global phenomenon, so seeing how Singapore is also balancing that from a regular third point of view is very interesting.

CT: Did you already found the secret of this Singaporean special liberty of thought and the reason for it to be one of the Asian capitals of fintech and IT?

DO: I am definitely arrogant and immodest, but after 12 hours having been here if I said yes, that would be excessive.

CT: Maybe the first impression?

DO: Yes, on the other hand, definitely, the Western attitude of maximizing the solution space at the cost of a more chaotic search is a very different attitude than not what is happening here where a coherent agenda allows everybody to gather around an objective and it is a different way of finding what works.

CT: And what about the main differences between communities that you discovered while traveling? I know that you’ve traveled so much…

DO: I’m always very provocative. When I have the time, even at the conferences I set up a parallel meeting where we talk about maybe the social or even political implications of decentralization, how the social and economic organization of society or a country will necessarily need to adapt to the realities not only of Blockchain but things like solar energy, or personalized health, self-driving cars, 3D printing – all these things are happening whether governments realize or not. The important factor that differentiates communities is their belief in themselves.

Being provocative in defending innovations

I remember being in a South-American country and we were in a twenty-something story of our skyscraper and people were telling me, “Oh, no-no, solar energy will never take hold here.” I just needed to go close to the window and call them over, point down and you could see all the solar panels on the roofs of the houses. Or I was last week in Greece and the attitude is defiant and angry, but not hopeful because, as I perceived it, they feel that they’ve been reduced to powerlessness and they haven’t found the energy to take things in their own hands yet.

One of the biggest promises of Blockchain and other decentralizing technologies is to empower individuals and small communities to be resilient and self-reliant and really design and invent their own future without expecting a central authority to tell them what to do. So, those that are able to find that power within themselves are, in my opinion, better-positioned in a future where DAC is going to be the fundamental question of adaptability.

CT: What is your academic background?

DO: Mine? I have zero degrees.

CT: Really?

DO: Yes, I studied physics, but I didn’t finish college.

Growing taste for creating future


CT: Ok, so you are just naturally an encyclopedic person. Do you think that the background actually is important while you’re speaking about being perceptive for new technologies?

DO:  Different people have different needs. There are some people for whom a four-year college and a two-year business school is really necessary to require mental discipline, basic knowledge and networks of connections and all of these are for them a part of their future success. For others, it is either not necessary, or actually for some people, actively damaging, because they are very passionate and very creative in ways that interconnect unrelated fields and they hit against the wall of academic specialization that actively persuades them to give up their dreams and not pursue what they think the area where their competence reside. What is dangerous, is that too many countries promise that a degree will lead to meaningful work and guarantee a positive return on the investment and that is just plainly false, especially in the US, where a perverse system basically enslaves people in life-long indebtedness.

CT: Do you think it’s in childhood that we have this inspiration for creating the future? Did you have your dream? Implemented now?

DO: In kindergarten, my favorite book was The Adventures of the Carbon Atom and I’ve always been passionate about science fiction and one of my beliefs is that we are, all of us, time-travelers. One minute per minute we are going to end up in a place that we have the power to choose, so we shouldn’t complain if we end up somewhere that we don’t want like. We should actively together design desirable futures and we have the power to do so.

CT: What is the power? What is the key to power?

DO: The planets orbiting around the Sun don’t know what they are doing. They are blindly obeying natural laws. When a wolf catches a rabbit, the consequences of that single act in the ebbing and flowing of wildlife populations are not foreseen – neither by the wolf, nor the rabbit. Humans are capable of stepping up, modeling the world, and then looking at the model of the world and making decisions about what we do and how we do it. And that is a huge difference.

Waking up the Universe in yourself

The Universe took 13.7 bln years to evolve a behavior like ours. That is a huge power. We are the universe that is waking up. We are the universe that is capable of observing itself. That power comes with proportional responsibility. We are certainly transforming the planet and we’d better realize that we are already doing geo-engineering, so we’d better do it with our eyes open, knowing what we are doing rather than pretending that we are not doing it. Soon, as we are colonizing with our robots other planets, we will start doing what we are doing here elsewhere in the solar system and outside, and it is going to be very exciting and would complex in wonderful questions.

CT: What does actually push you to pursue innovative vision? Is it the desire to understand, to control, to influence the future or something else?

DO: I am an opportunist in a sense that, driven by curiosity, I leverage the synchronicity of the moments finding valuable connections between things that others, maybe, don’t feel are connected. Like today, at BlockShow Asia I spoke about what are the relationships between artificial intelligence and Blockchain. These are two originally unrelated fields, but still their intersection can be extremely interesting and valuable. I aim to leverage organizationally, technologically, and very important, financially generating the returns that are needed to my firm from a financial point of view, but exercising extreme control is actually reducing the potential positive outcomes. Since I do believe that civilization and technology are a positive-sum game, allowing for this variation is itself, in my opinion, necessary.

CT: Very interesting. Actually, I’m still a little bit confused, because I see your background of physics and you speak very rationally and all you tell is so well structured, but still you use a lot of philosophical approach, and it is interesting. Do you consider yourself more rational or maybe conceptual?

DO: Sure. Aristoteles induced in the medieval copiers of his ideas – a mistake that we are still suffering from. Dividing approaches into rational from those that are more emotional is wrong, actually, contro-productive. Our emotions are themselves a product of what we are, and one and another are not contradictory or opposite. They are the same thing. It is the same with physical sciences or humanistic fields like philosophy. They are not opposite. They are both needed.

Very clearly this can be seen in those organizations where from the top a clear moral responsibility and ethical responsibility is forgotten. The fanatic pursuit of growth or profit cannot and must not occur at the expense of stakeholders, the market, and laughably, really, cannot happen at the expense of natural laws.  

Creating intrinsically ethical organizations

So, when a car maker says, “Oh, there are pollution or fuel economy regulations that we must not only respect, but exceed,” and the engineers obeying that order from the top say, “Well, this is impossible, but we must do that, so we must cheat,” it is horribly mistaken and what the meaning of a corporation is. We are adapting to a world where this actually cannot happen.

On one hand, because the net present value of the proven reserves of oil companies incorporated into their share price is ridiculous. If those proven reserves were extracted and burned, civilization would collapse, so there would be no stock market to trade their shares, so they should be shorted. But we have now the legal structure to create organizations that are intrinsically ethical in their behavior. These are called benefit corporations, and benefit corporations clean their charter, declare that they will not maximize profit if the expense of that behavior is damaging employees, vendors, customers, clients, shareholders, or the society in general. More and more companies adopt this kind of legal framework, and my investment firm as well, Network Society Ventures is a benefit corporation in that sense.

CT: My last question – I am collecting the list of interesting reading from our speakers and guests, would you recommend something that inspired you recently or maybe before, for the Blockchain community in Cointelegraph?

DO: Certainly. Maybe this was already mentioned to you, I would not hesitate recommending Homo Deus by Harari which is a very well written, very crisp vision of the future and our challenges as we redefine what it means to be human in the XXI century.

CT: No, there are no repetitions today and you haven’t repeated anyone.

Thank you very much!