Marc Andreessen on Availability Cascades
The Current Thing takes over
An availability cascade is what happens when a social cascade rips through a population based on a more or less arbitrary topic — whatever topic happens to be in front of people when the cascade starts.
…Does this new liquid peer-to-peer online availability cascade environment explain “the Great Weirding” that so many people feel, including me? I would say yes.
Is this all going to intensify further in the years ahead? Most definitely. Strap in. This is the most normal and placid things are ever going to be, the most innocent and naive we are ever going to be. Things are only going to get stranger from here, as availability cascades whip through the experiences of our lives with ever greater fury.
What are some good examples of availability cascades? I would say: “meme stocks,” such as GameStop; Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s death; coverage of the rise and fall of SBF; preferred pronouns; the Tea Party; the Arab Spring.
I would define an availability cascade as a phenomenon possessing a high ratio of short-term attention relative to long-term significance.
The Beatles were not an availability cascade. Herman’s Hermits were.
Milton Friedman’s monetary theory was not an availability cascade. Stephanie Kelton’s Modern Monetary theory was.
Chess and Scrabble were not availability cascades. Pong and Pokemon were. [UPDATE: Should have written “Pokemon Go”]
Back in the twentieth century, availability cascades were controlled by gatekeepers. I think of Walter Cronkite on the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. In those days, you could not have an outsider availability cascade entrepreneur with the power of Donald Trump or Jordan Peterson or Greta Thunberg.
In the field of economics, MIT was a gatekeeper. Paul Samuelson. Stan Fischer. Fischer decided who would have a career as a macroeconomist and who wouldn’t. Fischer’s students became central bankers around the world. The latest is Kazuo Ueda, the new head of the Bank of Japan.
One important factor limiting information cascades today is that we are fracturing into subcultures. The most popular television show today reaches nothing like the proportion of households who watched I Love Lucy or MASH. See Benedict Evans, slide 49 (pointer from Tyler). So nowadays most information cascades are contained within just one subculture.
Just within Silicon Valley, there is a libertarian subculture, a progressive subculture, an Indian diaspora subculture, a start-up subculture, an AI subculture, and more. Then widen your lens to view all of the other parts of America and their subcultures. Then widen your lens further to include the rest of the world.
Most availability cascades sweep through only one or two subcultures, without ever touching the rest. Only a tiny fraction of cascades sweep through a large fraction of subcultures.
Availability cascades today are especially ephemeral. In a Martin Gurri world, political eruptions are fleeting. We don’t have a temperance movement, a labor movement, a Civil Rights movement, or an anti-Communist movement. We just have pop-up protest demonstrations with no agenda or effective organization.
Ultimately, human society cannot live by availability cascades. We cannot operate with mobs surging this way and that, with no anchor to reality. People with strong values and clear focus on truth will eventually matter.
Substack referenced above:
Paul Samuelson claimed economists had finally determined how economies worked.
…There was one authoritative model, all-seeing and all-explaining. By twirling the right fiscal knob-settings, and pulling the right monetary levers, the priesthood of planners could fine tune a previously unpredictable world economy.
But models were at best retrospective approximations, quickly rendered obsolete…
While Samuelson steered the information cascade toward technocratic economics, Munger says that Austrian economists raised fundamental doubts.
The problem for the Austrian perspective is that the politically perceived need for a model to represent the aggregate economy and capture the effects of policy interventions is overwhelming. Austrians hold that the very idea of the synthesis “macro model” is incoherent. For one thing, the level of aggregation required to define the variables—GDP, employment, price level—rules out any identifiable vectors of cause and effect, because production, capital, and jobs are not homogeneous things.
Small and unimportant quibble. Pokemon Go, the phone game, was the availability cascade. Pokemon the franchise is supposedly the highest grossing media franchise of all time. Higher than Star Wars, Marvel, and even Mickey Mouse. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1257650/media-franchises-revenue/
I'm not sure the subculture thing is actually as relevant. For instance, can you imagine Black Lives Matter causing English soccer players to take a knee before the internet. Or more tellingly those murals of George Floyd in Kabul. I'm struck by the complete and total reach of elite culture.
Of course the greatest example is COVID, where everyone had a complete freak out at the same time. I'm thoroughly convinced a non-internet COVID would not have resulted in the freakout we got.
As to emphermalness I think it depends. Even if BLM is no longer popular, Biden is still writing equity into every government program. The email signatures of my colleagues still have pronouns in them, and I wouldn't be surprised if misgendering someone had HR implications. COVID is "over" but I'm still asked to wear a mask in medical settings and we are still dealing with the inflation caused by the lockdown spending.
Like a wave crashing on the shore that recedes, it leaves things behind.