The Media That Helps Azeem Azhar Make Sense of Complexity
“In the last few years, something distinctly different has been happening in the ways that technologies come to market, and come into our lives,” says London-based entrepreneur, analyst, strategist, and investor Azeem Azhar. He would know: A tech-industry veteran, Azhar has founded companies that were later purchased by Amazon and Microsoft, reported on the internet for The Economist, and launched a popular tech newsletter and podcast called Exponential View. (Last year, he discussed the present-day role of the smartphone, among other digital-related issues, as the guest on Ep. 56 of our At a Distance podcast.) Azhar cautions against the speed with which innovations such as artificial intelligence, automation, and big data emerge—which, he believes, is faster than people can adjust to the changes they impose—in his forthcoming book, The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics and Society (Diversion Books), out next week. With clarity and insight, he outlines new ways of thinking about technology, alongside concrete suggestions for how to prevent it from further fracturing society.
Curious as to how he hones his expertise, we recently asked Azhar about his media diet. While its subject matter, such as philosophy and geoengineering, might sound intimidating, most of the outlets he prefers survey their topics in language that’s strikingly simple to understand—a kind of fuel, perhaps, for Azhar’s own straightforward prose.
How do you start your mornings?
Normally I start my morning with a 10K run, listening to music that matches my intended stride rate. It’s a bit boring, but if you like repetitive beats, it’s good.
Then, the day will often start with a glance at Twitter, like so many people, and when I sit down to actually work, I’ll systematically—I’m very mood-driven—work my way through things I want to check in on. I subscribe to a lot of media: I’m a paper subscriber of twenty traditional magazines, and probably the same number of newsletters. If I’m feeling [technological], I might read the Scientific American; if I’m feeling traditional mainstream, I’ll pop onto The New York Times or the Financial Times.
What are your go-to podcasts?
I often listen to [the venture capital company] Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Podcast, and also to The Book Review podcast from The New York Times. There’s a wonderful show called Talking Politics that I regularly pay attention to, too. Another one I really recommend is Philosophize This! Each episode is a superb monologue delivered by its host, Stephen West, who takes you through the great thinkers. I can’t remember a time when I listened to somebody who did such a great job of explaining [the ideas developed by] people like John Rawls, Isaiah Berlin, or Hannah Arendt. He’s absolutely fantastic.
How about books?
I’m currently reading three books. One is called About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks, by David Rooney. Another, The Code Breaker, is by Walter Isaacson on Nobel Prize–winner Jennifer Doudna. It’s all about the gene-editing [technique] CRISPR, and Isaacson tells the story really well. He managed to get people to talk about the competition and rivalry around CRISPR’s development. I’m also reading The Planet Remade, which is all about geoengineering. Its author, Oliver Morton, is a superb writer. He writes for The Economist and could be writing literature as well. The book is very easy to read.
Which newsletters do you subscribe to?
This is a difficult one, because so many of these people are my friends. One I love is SemiAnalysis by Dylan Patel, because he goes into this breakdown of the semiconductor industry, which is pretty fabulous. I also like Bill Bishop’s Sinocism. It focuses on China, which I pay a lot of attention to. And there’s this great one called Age of Invention by a guy called Anton Howes, who’s a historian of inventors; and one from two young investors, Climate Tech VC, about climate technology.
Any guilty pleasures?
Currently, on the media side, it’s this fantastic Twitter handle called @NoContextBrits. Its author is absolutely brilliant, and has managed to capture the zeitgeist of Britain in a way that speaks to people of every dimension, background, and geography. It’s very, very funny, and takes a witty view of Britain and British culture. It also touches some sensitive subjects, but does so with great tact.