Riva-Melissa Tez is one of my favourite people on the internet. She studied Philosophy at UCL before digging deeper into technology and engineering, and starting the Berlin Singularity.
She also co-founded Permutation Ventures — an early stage VC fund which focused on AI startups and, most recently, worked with Jim Keller at Intel as Senior Director for Strategic Technology Initiatives.
At nineteen, Riva-Melissa started Notting Hill toy shop R.S. Currie & Co. She continues to pursue interests in her fields of interest which include philosophy, technology and finance. Here’s her story…
Newnham: Can you tell me about your childhood — what were the events/experiences which shaped you?
Tez: I grew up poor — some years in a homeless shelter with my mother.People like to pity me but I look at my childhood and think of all the stuff I learned and feel immensely grateful, to be honest. Probably some sort of blatant survivor bias happening here…
Getting caught up in the government system while young, particularly the poverty-welfare-housing cycle rooted my distrust of the state. There’s methodology behind keeping the poor poor. Wealthy progressives have no idea.
Newnham: You once wrote, “We live in a world that rests on an assumption that we can fathom what is possible and what is not. Yet history has shown us that the impossible often becomes possible, and that the dreams that seem out of our reach become very real. Everything on this earth, every one of humanity’s achievements is simply a manifestation of how high we have previously aimed. What’s the grandest vision that humanity can aspire to? Well, it starts with how big you are willing to dream.”
…which I thought was equally wonderful and should be read to every student. What’s your view on education and how can we reform it?
Tez: State schools crush individuality because greatness is a threat to social order. The best thing about Covid was people taking their kids out of these terrible schools, even if only for a year. I met privileged nine-year-olds in California who were on antidepressants and educating me about their trauma. These schools are poisonous.
Some friends and I have been brainstorming a micro-school for our future kids in LA. Education needs to be way more hands-on. We want our kids to have a science lab and a workshop and study all the Great Books.
Newnham: You have had a varied career. How would you describe your work?
Tez: I waitressed as a teenager, then lied about my age to sell outdoor sinks at a trade show which generated my first real paycheck. I co-founded a toy store during university and then moved to Berlin and got into tech. My first project was a children’s app and then a venture fund in SF. I met Jim Keller in 2017 and went to work for him at Intel, which I left last year.
I got into tech because I wanted to make money to support my family but also because it was the pragmatic application of philosophy. How can you care about Descartes and not brain-computer-interfaces?!
My career path is varied but also a mess. Our startup in Berlin would never have survived in the US, and I was too naive to co-found a VC fund when I did. These projects however got me in the room with amazing people which was enough.
I’ve said this before but I don’t get how people have one career in their lives. Imagine having one life and just doing and talking about one thing for all of it? I gave myself the whole of 2021 to figure out what I want to do next.
Newnham: How has your background in philosophy helped you in your career?
Tez: Philosophy is cool because it provides the toolset for analyzing your beliefs and formulating arguments which are foundational to everything. Well at least, it should. My friend
runs a philosophy research institute in Oakland, and his friendship has been more valuable to me than my philosophy degree. We speak regularly and I think of him as an epistemology coach.
The nice thing about the world is that it is a constantly running experiment to test hypotheses on. That’s also what is cool about finance. If you have a theory, you can find a corollary investment and test it. Losing is another data point to refine your model of the world.
Newnham: You have talked previously about suffering from imposter syndrome — where does it come from for you and how have you overcome it?
Tez: It’s funny because, looking back, I think I was just actually an imposter. Coming to Silicon Valley in my early twenties and being interested in longevity, neurotech and AI generated a bunch of speaking opportunities. It used to be rarer to be an enthusiastic female in these areas. But largely, I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I have decent knowledge of a lot of things but I’m an expert in nothing. There’s value in this however because a shallow understanding of lots of things can occasionally discover interesting overlaps. I was immediately fascinated by AI because it combined a number of interests — neuroscience, technology, computing, epistemology, philosophy, behaviorism etc.
I used to talk about having imposter syndrome because I think I was embarrassed to say I didn’t know something. I realize now that being comfortable with not knowing stuff is the driving force behind being able to learn… anything? I’ve purposefully made it a habit to ask someone to define something in a conversation if I don’t immediately grasp it, even if I fear looking dumb. The older I get, the more stupid I feel.
Newnham: How would you say the internet has impacted humanity?
Tez: The other day I bought a vintage Prodigy (the band) T-shirt that just says ‘FUCK THE INTERNET’ with a link to their website underneath, which pretty much encapsulates my philosophy.
I hate the internet because it has become a centralized simulation that the whole world plugs into. Our cultures, once distinct, have become homogeneous. One world taste = one global market. Platforms like TikTok are deliberately making teenagers morons. World War III already exists, but this time it is a cultural war and it is happening on the internet. Why would anyone send people to battle when you can build a platform, capture a foreign audience and reduce them to pathetic imbeciles?
But just like the Prodigy T-shirt listing their URL, I also love the internet and couldn’t live without it.
Crypto and Web3 are cool because the aim is to, “Give people the tools to organize themselves,” (a quote from Galen, CEO of Urbit that I like.)
Newnham: Crypto, NFT, DeFi,- what areas are you most excited about and why?
Tez: Thanks to decades of corruption and bureaucratic creep, nation states are becoming mafias which extort their ‘citizens’ in exchange for crappy services. Their stronghold rests on fiat currency. One day our descendants will look back and wonder how we put up with any of this. Governments are too big and bloated and it’s time for a new paradigm.
“Give people tools and let them organize themselves” is true here too. How can the USA provide a framework for 300M+ people? We need new ways for people to choose the economic and cultural systems that they want to belong to. I invested in a charter city company called Praxis recently because those guys get it. The incentives of society need to align with the flourishing of the individual. We should be citizens of a city DAO that we are allowed to exit from.
NFTs are fun and people are underestimating the space if they think it’s just about ‘expensive jpegs’. You’re glancing at the beginning of the redefinition of identity and ownership in the digital age
If you play around with DeFi products, it drills home how much we have put up with when it comes to shitty financial services in traditional banking.
Newnham: Favourite books, writers, thinkers, inventors?
Tez: Nietzsche because he’s one of the few philosophers who challenges his readers into action, like an intellectual Viagra. It’s subjective, but I find how he thinks about the world, and man’s place in it, to be relatable.
Benjamin Franklin, a true savant, humbly recognizing his place in the larger framework of human progress and weeping that he had been born too soon. His letters make me cry.
Mike Ma, the only contemporary writer who has any balls whatsoever. If you mixed Bukowski and Nietzsche you would get Mike.
Ayn Rand — I used to spend my time trying to defend her to critics. But the truth is, she’s writing for a specific audience. If you get Atlas Shrugged, then you really fucking get it. If you don’t, that’s OK. I re-read Atlas at least every two years, and I learn something new every time.
Newnham: What does a post-pandemic world look like?
Tez: A little more stupid than before it started
Newnham: How will cancel culture impact collective intelligence?
Tez: Cancel culture is a PSYOP. China is sending nukes around the world and US researchers are fighting over how to make math less racist.
Newnham: You have previously shared this Atlas Shrugged quote:
“We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” she whispered.
“No, we never had to.” ― Ayn Rand
What does this quote mean to you?
Tez: The two scenes in Atlas Shrugged where that line is said are, in my opinion, the most critical moments of the whole book. Then reading Rand’s letters one day, I found that she had felt the same. She does a better job at describing the meaning of the lines than I ever could — “
Newnham: What do you believe that most others don’t?
Tez: Everything is a scam. Literally fucking everything. Jim taught me that.
Newnham: What are you most proud of?
Tez: Financially supporting my family and optimizing their health.
Newnham: What keeps you up at night?
Tez: Health issues of loved ones, scientific research being too slow, aging not being targeted as a disease, cultural decline, every single thing about the US government, all the unbridled financial corruption, how everything is fake, my place in the larger world and what actions I should be taking, how much I fucking hate entropy, too much….
Newnham: If you were to write a book — what would you call it and what would it be about?
Tez: I’ve started writing a few, but I haven’t had the discipline to finish them. One is a sci-fi novel and another one is philosophical non-fiction.
I go through phases of writing. The last 18 months I have found it hard to write. I find writing very emotional.
Newnham: If you could offer a younger Riva one piece of advice, what would it be?
Tez: Do it all, feel it all, even more and even harder