This past weekend was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the iPod, which not only quietly started the remarkable Apple renaissance but also ushered in a new era that would eventually subsume everything, including us. 

The iPod anniversary is a good reminder that the arc of time is long and invisible. It is appreciated only in time itself. In the immortal words of Steve Jobs, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” 


When iPod launched, digital music was a mess. Napster had awakened us to the potential of digital and online music, but the dream was a nightmare. The music industry hated Silicon Valley. (It still does.) You had to buy compact discs, rip them and then put those files onto your devices. These digital music players had exotic names — iRiver, Rio, and Creative Labs, for example. I had them all. I hated them all, though iRiver was pretty awesome for its time. We were so close, yet so far. Against that backdrop came the iPod. 

The day iPod launched — October 23, 2001, a share of Apple would have cost you 33 cents. On Friday, October 22, 2021, a single share of Apple cost a whopping $148.69. Talk about a butterfly flapping its wings! 

Apple share price since the launch of iPod on October 23, 2001.

On the day of its launch, I wasn’t paying much attention. Like millions of other Americans, I was grieving for our nation. It had only been just a few weeks since the September 11 attacks. An MP3 player wasn’t my top priority — and I didn’t even write about Apple. CNet News reporter Connie Guglielmo recently shared her recollections of the launch day. Jobs touted 1000 songs in your pocket — on a 5-gigabyte hard drive. 


Despite his marketing bluster, Apple as a company was skating on thin ice. It still was losing money. Sure, Jobs had managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat and prevented Apple from keeling over with cute yet underpowered but popular iMacs and iBooks. It needed a way for folks to be interested in the Mac. I certainly wasn’t. Internet — browsers and broadband — worked much better on Windows. I used a ThinkPad for all my non-official work. My job gave me an aging PowerBook that could barely open Microsoft Word and QuarkXpress simultaneously. 

By the end of 2001, I had acquired an iPod and was grateful for my work-issue PowerBook. It was an excellent way to rip music from my vast CD collection and load it onto the iPod. It was clear that in time, I would switch to the Mac family. In a way, this was the ultimate objective of Apple: convince fence-sitters like me to become Mac people. 

Apple wanted Mac to be at the center of a digital lifestyle. Mac was your digital hub. Jobs would repeat on every occasion. It would be a place to get your music, your photos, your home videos, connect to the Internet, and all the other things. Maybe knowingly (but more likely unknowingly), Apple had made a device that made it easy for normals to understand and embrace our then-new century’s big idea: the abstraction of our physical life into the digital domain. 

The iPod was about quickly abstracting physical music. Digital cameras were abstracting photos and, by extension, thus, memories. Six years later, with the launch of the iPhone, this abstraction would become even more extreme. Fast forward to now: we have abstracted cars and mobility itself, money, restaurants, television, cinemas, medical devices, information, friendships, romance, and even coaches who used to help us with our serves and backhands. Even the phone itself is nothing more than just an app — only to be used when video calls don’t work. What’s more, the iPhone abstracted the iPod itself.

The digital hub that was supposed to be Mac is the iPhone (and its much more widely adopted Android brethren.) It is everything around which our life revolves. 


In the case of both iPod and iPhone, one can’t underscore the importance of the early adopters. In its first holiday season, Apple sold 125,000 units. There were many doubters — after all, both iPod and iPhone weren’t perfect when they launched. They were a work in progress. But if you believed, you could see the potential. (Check out this Great interview iPodfather Tony Fadell.)

Both iPod and iPhone needed specialist stores and three revisions to become mainstream hits. Even the Apple watch needed three revisions to find its footing — no different than various editions of Windows or any other technology product. 

In February 2002, I pitched an idea to Duff McDonald, one of my editors at Red Herring magazine. I wanted to do a short piece called — iPoddery! (In case you were wondering, I did write a short piece, about three paragraphs.) I had noticed that whenever I walked past another person wearing the white headphones that came with the iPod, there was a look of recognition, a silent smile, and a nod. As if we all were part of a secret club. 

The white headphones were like the Louis Vuitton logo, the Gucci’s horse-bit loafer, and Chanel’s double CC. Jobs knew how to create lust for its products. Technology was becoming fashion. It was becoming life and lifestyle. In the two decades since the iPod’s launch, Apple is now a $2.46 trillion-dollar company. 

I have been a sucker for iPod Shuffle. It was my favorite iPod form factor.


Reminiscing about the iPod, I couldn’t help but think about two events around its launch whose impact we would appreciate only in time. The events of September 11, 2001, would take America down a path that would place unimaginable stress on our economy, society, and most importantly, our place in the pantheon of nations. 

On a more personal front, frustrated by working for a magazine that wrote about technology but worked on an analog time scale, I threw myself into the nascent idea of blogging and started my blog. It was clear as a day to me: the Internet was increasing the metabolism of our society. Information was going to move at the network’s speed. Yet, the media industry at the time was trapped in the Mad Men era. That decision would eventually lead me to where I am today. 


Like the iPod, Steve Jobs was right about one more thing: “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

October 24, 2021. San Francisco

My first introduction to Azeem Azhar was over a decade ago when he was in the early innings of his entrepreneurial journey. His career has evolved, and the technology world now knows him for his excellent newsletter, Exponential View. He recently authored a book with a similar name: “The Exponential Age: How the Next Digital Revolution Will Rewire Life on Earth.”

I am about halfway through the book and admittedly should have finished it sooner, but it has triggered my thoughts, and as a result, I have to pause, think, make notes and restart. It will be a while before I get to review the book, but for now, here is a short interview conducted via email and Google Docs with Azeem. 


Q: From a layman’s perspective, what is Exponential View? 

A: Exponential View is a newsletter charting the impact of this major techno-economic-political transition that we are going through. It started life in 2015 as a simple newsletter to help me learn. We were (and still are) witnessing the collision of general-purpose technologies in the fields of computing, energy, biology, and manufacturing. Each of these was improving — on a price/performance basis — very quickly, more than 10% per annum. Silicon chips have improved at around 40-45% per annum for several decades. And startup should destabilize (and then help redefine) our ways of doing things. 

EV investigated these trends from a technical, startup, and social perspective. Exponential View is the thesis that emerged from this activity: that technology and societal changes are intertwined and that now more than ever, we need to understand those interrelationships. 

Q: What is the link between the newsletter and the book? How are they similar and different? 

A: The newsletter helped me learn about some technologies that had emerged while I had been heads down for seven years running a startup. Through reading blogs, academic papers, investment decks, and talking to founders, I started to figure out what I thought was going on. The newsletter is a flow of material framed by my overarching thesis, which developed over time. That thesis is largely presented in the book. The book is a finished product, a thesis, an argument that is a guided tour of what our near future might look like. 

Q: In writing the book, what were some of the insights that surprised even you? 

A: When I analyzed why technologies got faster, I was surprised that there were few frameworks that connected the idea of learning-by-doing (which is a key pillar) with the impact of standardization and the growth of networks (of all types). In my analysis, all of these play a role in accelerating technical development. 

Most interestingly, I expected to address the book more to technologists — to help them better understand the nature of the technologies they develop, to provide some economic, social, and historical context to their work. But as I did more research, I concluded that the book needs to be equally addressed to people outside of the technology domain who need to be much more to “level up” their understanding of the technologies of the Exponential Age. 

Q: Switching gears, where I am based (Silicon Valley), we have become too accustomed to product-oriented innovation. Better SaaS, better streaming, or just better note-taking apps — what do you make of this product & feature-focused innovation? 

A: It is one way of achieving some form of innovation or breakthrough. And we shouldn’t ignore the power of the OODA loop to help us discover and iterate against a local maxima. I think it’s an essential part of the toolkit. In an ecological or evolutionary sense, building on previous technologies has also been the story of technology. 

I suspect that the appeal of these standardized playbooks, applied with a bit more ocher or teal or beige, is that capital understands the risks it is taking. That clarity of the risk-reward tradeoff frees up resources, the businesses grow, and we hear about them.

When I researched 14,000 individual startups funded between 2012 and 2020 for a report on ClimateTech last year, far and away, the most important hub for climate tech investments was the San Francisco Bay Area. So while you may feel that there is a product monomania in Silicon Valley, there does appear to be a diversity, including deeper tech companies.

What may be commonplace in Silicon Valley could be a business and political culture: of growth at all costs, of exporting innovation without regard to local contexts, of particular ways of conceptualizing an opportunity. 

Q: Does [this culture] mask or distract us from thinking about the future and opportunities differently, rather, more bravely, for the lack of a better word? 

A: Yes, I agree it might well do that. Technologies that emerge from the interaction of humans and humans have embeddedness in their experience and present. And that will get expressed in the things that matter, that shape those products, for all their global use, Facebook and Twitter remain American products, with a particular hue. It’s a hard thought experiment to ask whether a Swedish or Indian, or British version of the same products could have succeeded globally, and if they had, what would they have looked like? 

I’m excited that of the 170 cities with one or more tech unicorns, only 42 are in the U.S. The diversity of innovation will be very good for the breadth of innovation that emerges. The post-Covid world of increasing remote work might allow for, in specialist areas, a global talent pool. Such a global talent pool might support hyper-specialist expertise, allowing for even further innovation. 

Q: What does the near future look like? What are some of the key trends that will shape that future?

A: I wrote my decade predictions in an essay at the end of 2018. Largely, they hold up. Climate change is the most important trend. 

Equally, the technologies of the Exponential Age in computing, biology, energy, and manufacturing will continue to get cheaper and cheaper. This will make many areas of activity currently uneconomical, economical. Cheap solar electricity will create a market for hydrogen and synthetic fuels. Great computation will enable better ML methods to allow us to design sophisticated microorganisms in silico before deploying them in the world to fix nitrogen with a lower energy cost than the Haber-Bosch process. 

And yet, these technologies will be destabilizing. They will upset the status quo and shift power away from certain actors and towards others. This destabilization process could increase national and civil conflicts, disadvantaging in some fundamental ways many groups or simply creating political unrest as others feel a lack of agency. This last trend may be the one that punishes us for any technical progress, so figuring out how to put humanity’s hand on the tiller that guides the direction of their technologies needs to be a priority.

October 24, 2021. San Francisco.