What can we do with 10 years?
Last week, I introduced this newsletter and the resulting name tracing its roots from the Tronverse, that is the universe constructed around the 1982 film Tron and its 2010 follow-up TRON: Legacy, but the thoughts captured in this edition of the newsletter are the real genesis of deciding that I want to explore technology through this…call it “pop culture” lens.
I have been thinking about what medium I wanted this exploration to take place for almost a year now. I workshopped the ideas with my all smartest friends and contemporaries named some variation of Anthony. Is it a podcast? A YouTube channel? LinkedIn articles? It might be all of those things eventually, but for now, it is a newsletter.
Why a newsletter? I think it is because I believe in the opt-in nature of newsletters. In that spirit, I have not added a single person manually. I want the growth of this, no matter how big or small to be entirely organic.
As I said in the introductory newsletter, the goal here is to frame the way tech is reshaping everything in our world through my interests and experiences, so there will be a lot of references to video games, science fiction, contemporary art, living abroad, and my friends. To protect their privacy, first names only will be used. In some cases, pseudonyms if the name is particularly uncommon.
All of that said, this week we’ll look at how nerding out with my friend Rocky about how underappreciated TRON: Legacy is can tell us so much about what is to come from a world of web3 and metaverse. So fire up your lightcycles and let’s go on this ride…
The Game Has Changed
Let’s just start by saying I love this film. I’ll get downright heretical and say that I like it more than the original. When Legacy debuted, it had been just over 10 years since The Matrix had given me my first real taste of this kind of cinematic grandeur. A largely original story built in a universe that was mostly new to me and I had been chasing that high ever since.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the time in between was a cinematic wasteland. I hit midnight showings of each of Peter Jackson’s masterful versions of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and Christopher Nolan combined philosophy and classic literature to change what it meant to be Batman during that decade. But for everything new that they did, these worlds were not new to me. I was just 6 weeks old when the first Tron had come out and while it is very possible that I had seen the film before, it just didn’t stay with me.
Legacy wasn’t the box office success that Disney had hoped it would be, earning $400 Million worldwide against a $160 million dollar budget. The rule of thumb in Hollywood being that a film needs to make 2x the initial budget to break even but even, but by this point Disney’s expectations were already outpacing that of the rest of Hollywood.
Critics didn’t love it either. It just barely rates as “Fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com coming in at just 51% with the overall sentiment rhyming with the negative reviews that its predecessor received.
"Tron: Legacy boasts dazzling visuals, but its human characters and story get lost amidst its state-of-the-art production design.”
One aspect of the film that was nearly universally praised was the incredible soundtrack composed by Daft Punk and maybe that is what hooked me about TRON: Legacy from the first moment.
Jeff Bridges gravely voice as Kevin Flynn describes this incredible world to his young son Sam at bedtime immediately put me right there. I was Sam. I’ll never be as good-looking as Garrett Hedlund and my Honda CB400 is a far cry from his Ducati Sport 1000 but I was a child again and here was this world of possibility.
The next 2 hours were a glossy blur of neon and fluorescence that seemed to go by all too fast. This was truly an experience crafted for the big screen and that wave of pure cinematic imagination was pouring out at me from a Chinese streaming site on my Macbook Pro.
You see when the film debuted, I was spending my first year abroad living in an (at the time) unknown megalopolis in Central China called Wuhan and would be a couple more weeks before it reach the Mainland cinemas. Of course, when it did I rushed to experience it the proper way and in some ways, I knew I had lessened the experience in having watched it online first but the magic was was still there and I was Sam again.
I would revisit “the grid” from time to time over the next 10 years but when I moved into my newest home in March of 2021 and had a shiny new TV and sound system that I wanted to test the limits of, I heard Flynn calling:
A digital frontier
I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer
What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles?
Were the circuits like freeways?
I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see
And then, one day
I got in.”
Now, what kind of middle-aged midwestern male would I be if I didn’t rush to flex my latest consumer electronics to my closest friends. Enter Rocky. I’ve tuned the subwoofer and the soundbar is set to cinematic mode and I push play. Naturally, I already had the movie queued up but as soon as those first few notes hit, he shouted “I fucking love this movie.”
Rocky being an incredibly talented and creative guy and to whom I carry a great deal of respect, loving this secret guilty pleasure of mine gave me this renewed sense of enthusiasm for the Tronverse and I found myself wanting to know more. So down the YouTube rabbit hole I went, only to find we are far from alone in this view. This video essay puts it better than I ever could:
I realize now as I type this, it might feel to you the reader as if I am taking 10 years to get to my point. We’ve come this far and I have yet to mention web3 or the metaverse. But this edition of the newsletter is the beginning of what I hope to be a long exploration so let’s start this conversation.
10-year timescales frame our world
Whether it is Amara’s Law:
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
Being co-opted by Bill Gates:
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
or it is Ray Dalio’s economic machine theory or the famous Jeff Bezo’s quote:
“I very frequently get the question: 'What's going to change in the next 10 years?' And that is a very interesting question; it's a very common one. I almost never get the question: 'What's not going to change in the next 10 years?' And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two -- because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”
Leaders of some of the biggest companies have viewed their world in these 10-year timescales and had great success doing so. It only seems fitting that as we look ahead to what web3 will really look like and that we try to frame the internet in this way rather than the overly reductive and largely incorrect way that web3 maxis do:
The First 10 years
Now my experience is as a consumer user of the internet, the world wide web, the information superhighway, cyberspace.
The first decade of the internet had plenty of ‘write’ to it. In 1995, I was a freshman in high school and had several web pages strewn across sites like AngelFire and Geocities and I wasn’t alone in this most of my classmates were tinkering with this new form of expression, watching our page counters go up, leaving crude notes in each other’s guestbook. This wasn’t a late 20th century version of the “AV club kids” trope from bad teen movies. It was a new means of connecting beyond our geographic reach to find people with similar interest for pretty much everyone my age.
The nerdiest among us were already online gaming. I got my first taste with Diablo 2 and shortly after entered what we now are calling the “metaverse” through a game called Ultima Online. I’ve got another write-up on that coming very soon, but for now, I’ll keep it in the context of wider consumer interactions.
This era was marked by the rise of Netscape, the increasing dominance of Microsoft, and the return of Steve Jobs to Apple. But in the eyes of most, it was defined by the “dot-com bust” of 1999. So why do I define this decade well past 1999? Because the bust was in no way the end.
As we have established, the dot-com bust didn’t end the internet, it simply shook out most of the hype from the genuine potential. Many of the companies that dominate the digital space today do so as grizzled veterans of the abrupt downturn in 1999 because they used that period as a trial by fire.
Amazon was founded in 1994 and stayed in a lane that didn’t attract competition by focusing on books. The seemingly paradoxical approach of selling books when most of the world saw digitalization as a move away from ink and paper meant that they could quietly discover how this new means of connection would upend consumption.
By the time Amazon had figured it out, even traditional companies with an entrenched foothold in brick and mortar retail world couldn’t compete. I would witness this first hand, starting my career right out of high school in October of 2000 at Gap Inc. Direct: the direct to consumer division of Gap Inc. that was selling the clothing brands Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy online. I will get into that more in another newsletter, but I am too many words into this one for that story.
By 2002, most of America had mobile phones, Apple had used the success of selling colorful web browsing computers to develop a device that would…rock…the consumer electronics world: the iPod. Netscape was bleeding market share to Microsoft internet explorer. Google went from a weird trivial number to being a verb for finding information quickly and blogging was increasingly becoming a thing.
By 2003 the dust had mostly settled from 1999 and broadband internet was becoming increasingly common. Dial-up connections were becoming a thing of the past and the nerdiest among us were moving from 802.11b to g routers for what, at the time, seemed like crazy speeds and coverage areas. I spent a bonus check to get a router that would cover our whole 800 ft2 apartment and buy my first laptop.
At this point, the old habits of “getting online” and “checking my email” were changing from daily rituals to persistent states. Conversations that I was having on message boards were moving to more personally connected websites like Friendster and MySpace. I was playing online games with friends who had moved across the country for college.
But quickly MySpace would give way for Facebook. Call of Duty took a back seat to World of Warcraft, and I would buy my first smartphone. No, not that smartphone. My first was a pretty amazing little device called the HTC PPC-6700:
As you can see in the above, it brought the 2005 internet browsing experience to a handheld device but like many literal translations, it didn’t quite work. The device was great for me. I was able to perform network admin for my father’s law firm from just about anywhere, so as a productivity tool, it was great but as a personal device, it was just a huge chunk in my pocket with passable call quality.
I later got to upgrade to the sleeker form factor in the PPC-6800 but like its older brother, the software just wasn’t ready for a truly mobile experience. The beginning of the end of this 10-year cycle would come on January 9, 2007 when Steve Jobs stepped on stage and showed a device that “would change everything”. And boy, oh boy was he more right than even he could know. With the power of 20/20 hindsight, the only thing I think he got wrong was probably in overestimating the change that would occur in 2 years and underestimating the change that would occur in the next 10.
Apple didn’t invent the smartphone with the iPhone, but it did normalize it. Through brilliant use of graphical skeuomorphism and their “cooler-than-thou” marketing campaigns, they quickly created an entirely new product category and as we moved into the next decade, nearly every consumer technology company got into the category, with varying degrees of success…and what we were calling “smartphones” were morphing from phones with tons of accessories to the digital swiss army knives we know them to be today.
In September 2010, when I first arrived in Wuhan, China I would draw a crowd of onlookers whenever I would grab take my iPhone 3G out of my pocket to look up a mandarin word in the pocket dictionary app that I needed to do basic things like order food that I couldn’t quite remember the name for from my Chinese classes at Ohio State.
By March of 2011 when I slipped down to Hong Kong to take the GMAT and buy the iPhone 4, demand for these devices was getting as big in China as it had for the previous generations in the US and everyone was texting. Though we still called them phones, the reality was quickly becoming that “Phone” was not just an archaic term, it was a rarely used app on my pocket supercomputer.
The hardware was ready and now the software would once again need to catch up to this new form factor. With 4G rollouts taking hold and Apple releasing their iPhone 4S later in the year, a new set of product lifecycles had commenced and society would be forever changed.
To be continued:
I will get better at this as I do more writing but acknowledging that this is dragging along at this point, and realizing that I am nowhere close to where I want to go eventually arrive in connecting TRON: Legacy to web3 and the metaverse, let’s hit the pause button.
Next week, I promise to wrap this up and set the stage for this long conversation on just how true it is that: