The Overton Window 🚪

Synthetic Biology: May it be done?

In the United States, new regulation is often a lagging indicator of an industry’s growth. Legislators tasked with creating policies must walk a fine line between encouraging innovation and enforcing guidelines that promote safety and sustainability. For nascent fields, it’s not uncommon for policy makers to take a “wait and see” approach that relies on applying existing regulatory guidelines. In the event that the new technology poses novel risks, these guidelines can be ambiguous or lacking.

Synthetic biology has captured the public imagination due to the promised impact on our lives. The CRISPR baby phenomena became worldwide news and evoked strong emotions from groups on both sides of the aisle. The public’s emotional response, combined with the rapid pace of advancement, creates a unique challenge for governments seeking to impose regulatory structure.

Move too slowly, and governments risk public backlash. Apply forward looking restrictions to mitigate this risk, and you may lose key breakthroughs to other nations.

For policy issues that have a strong moral or emotional component, I find the concept of the Overton window to be extremely helpful. The Overton window describes the public’s current sentiment about a particular topic as a range of possible options. This in turn shapes the policies that are likely to gain support from the majority of constituents in a democracy.

The Overton window was originally used to describe the value of think tanks to their customers in the 90’s, but has gained traction as a useful way to consider the range of policy options available to politicians. The value of this concept is understanding that there are a range of options, and attempts to pass legislation outside of the window must be coupled with a marketing or public awareness campaign to sway popular interest.

Put another way: The Overton window describes whether or not an idea is “in fashion” at a given time.

Public opinion can shift, but policies tend to have a stabilizing effect on cultural norms and behaviors. If topics are banned, there will be less investment and fewer economic opportunities for people to get involved. This does not necessarily prevent further advancement, but it will limit the intersection of people who are both interested in the topic and also willing to circumvent legal guidelines.

Conversely, if areas completely lack regulation, they may be seen as too risky for large institutional investors looking for stability. This was the case with cryptocurrencies, a field that is just beginning to enter maturity and dealing with its own public perception problem.

If you’re reading this, it means you have your own perception of an Overton window. Consider your current beliefs about policy; how many of your opinions were reached as an independent conclusion? The media is incredibly effective at drawing the boundaries of the window, leaving room for “choice” only within what is considered as socially acceptable.

As the applications of synthetic biology move increasingly from research to commercial applications, companies need not only consider the competitive landscape, but the cultural consequences. This poses an additional barrier to entry for companies in this space: not only do they need to execute, they must also convince the public that what they are doing is within the Overton window.

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📚 Reading

A look at the value of decentralization in online applications from Chris Dixon

In short: the value of crypto-networks comes from the transparency of how decisions are made, in a way that can’t be matched by traditional corporations.

PayPal acquired Honey, a web browser extension, for $4B

This is a great sign for other browser extensions that provide value, including MetaMask and myriad developer tools.

What is the common theme among geniuses? PG argues that an obsessive interest is required, but it needs to be in the right areas.

A new essay from PG is always something I will include in this newsletter. If you’re going to read one long form article today, it should be this one.

A candid statement from the Chancellor of a university on the First Amendment as applied to a racist professor.

The First Amendment protects everyone, including racists and people who don’t share your viewpoint. This poses issues for centralized platforms like Facebook and Twitter who are caught in the middle of the current political cycle.

A wonderful example of how neural nets can help you get over writer’s block.

If you haven’t had a chance to play with a modern language model, I highly recommend checking out the interactive tool created by the Daniel King.

My favorite example of a NN-generated prompt is:

“The black stone was aching from the rain.”

Can’t you just imagine the rest of that chapter?


💎 Quote

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

~Gautama Buddha


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