Grumpy Old Tech “Optimism”

Marc Andreesen releases a semi-coherent manifesto that reveals a mind that perhaps was never as wide-ranging as we'd assumed

Monday, Marc Andreesen issued a “Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” It is a bizarre rant that feels more like a last gasp of techno-utopianism. And rather than coming across as optimistic, it reads as defensive, angry, bitter — like something a grumpy old man would write.

Maybe Andreesen senses that the days of unquestioned tech domination are ending — consumers are gaining more control, regulators are gaining confidence, and recent technology forays (Web3, AI, blockchain, NFTs) have generally underwhelmed, some with federal charges following. That’s enough to make any tech overlord feel a little frustrated — the peasants are revolting in both senses of the word.

Starting with the words of a conspiracy theorist — “We are being lied to.” — the manifesto makes broad statements that are laughably vacuous to anyone who views technology as a mixed bag, or as a way to create tools for a larger social enterprise we need to be thoughtful about.

Andreesen views tools as ends in and of themselves. Take, for instance, this statement:

Our civilization was built on technology.

Our civilization is built on technology.

Technology is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential.

Well, some of us might consider philosophy, law, science, math, agriculture, medicine, music, theater, or literature as valuable contributors to “our civilization.” Technology has informed some of the history of most of these things to some degree, but usually as tools — to record, transmit, stimulate, fulfill, or explore ideas.

There was little to no “technology” in thinking up special or general relativity. Hybridization of plants was done through simple labeled experiments, with technologies developed later. Animals were domesticated without IP addresses. And humans did just fine before desktop computers and the commercial Internet — in fact, it may be that we were doing better in some ways before so much of our lives got sucked into fiber optic cables, dopamine-reward systems, and revenue-optimizing ML algorithms.

To confirm he is high on his own supply, Andreesen writes this gem:

We had a problem of isolation, so we invented the Internet.

Is this why loneliness has been on the rise for more than a decade? Is this why Noreena Hertz wrote in her excellent book, “The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart”:

[Loneliness is] taking a huge toll on us as individuals and on society as a whole, contributing to the deaths of millions of people annually, costing the global economy billions, and posing a potent threat to tolerant and inclusive democracy.

Ignoring any possibility of downsides, Andreesen also sounds a “trickle-down” theme in his economic ideas:

We believe everything good is downstream of growth.

We believe not growing is stagnation, which leads to zero-sum thinking, internal fighting, degradation, collapse, and ultimately death.

Invoking the image of a shark — “Techno-Optimists believe that societies, like sharks, grow or die” — Andreesen sounds like an evil genius villain in training, a look that is wildly out of step with most trends across many societies, especially after the pandemic and the vulnerability many people still feel in its wake.

Andreesen often can’t see contradictions sitting right in front of him. Populations worldwide are gradually shrinking because of advances in health, disease prevention, and nutrition, meaning there is less pressure on families, particularly women, to produce offspring. At the same time, the resulting prosperity from fewer demands on parents and their resources means more children are getting better educations, have brighter futures, and can fulfill their abilities more reliably.

Andreesen actually adds an enemies list, and includes academia:

Our enemy is the ivory tower, the know-it-all credentialed expert worldview, indulging in abstract theories, luxury beliefs, social engineering, disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable – playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences.

Andreesen is also selectively blind, as Gary Marcus points out in his newsletter response:

No mention of Cherynobyl, the threat of nuclear war, Thalidomide, or frequent mass casualties from automatic weapons, surveillance capitalism, global warming, or misinformation; no nuance about how, historically, technology sometimes has gone wrong, no acknowledgement that airworthiness regulation keeps airplanes unbelievably safe. Nuclear power is mentioned; the threat of nuclear war is never mentioned. Climate change is not.

Kara Swisher was also quick to mock Andreesen:

It’s a weird essay, blinkered and ringing of a person who has lost touch with reality. Speaking of this, in the list of “Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism,” Andreesen suggests we read the works of those listed — and includes John Galt, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. That’s odd, as Ayn Rand herself is not name-checked. It’s akin to telling someone to read the works of John Watson and never mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

There’s a lot to criticize in Andreesen’s post, but the larger picture is the worry. More and more older white males who have become extravagantly wealthy and isolated in Silicon Valley — Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Andreesen — are slipping into solipsism, enchanted by their own, idiosyncratic thinking, charmed by their own success, and indulging in massive doses of the Dunning–Kruger effect.

The world ahead may eschew some technologies. After all, the adults of the future grew up facing the downsides of the technologies these old men imposed on the world as part of a drive to amass fortunes, and with little regard for the effects their technologies had on civilization. Social media adoption is changing, and other consumption habits are bound to shift as options and choices emerge. The digital economy is increasingly built on subscriptions. Behavior, control, and ownership will be powerful non-technological influences on the future of media and technology adoption.

Nobody wore Google Glass for long because it looks stupid and did nothing worth the money.

I’m an optimist, but I don’t see any reason to tie my optimism to technology. I choose to tie it to humans and their gifts, values, and abilities. Technology should serve us, be a tool for us, and as such should be safe, reliable, and easy to use.

Meanwhile, the old guard of Silicon Valley is challenging one another to cage matches, throwing around anti-Semitic slogans, and writing madman manifestos.

Maybe we should have seen this coming when they wanted us to call them “webmasters.”

It seems to have gone to some people’s heads.

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