What the Techno-Billionaire Missed About Techno-Optimism

By October 30, 2023ISDose
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Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s Techno-Optimist manifesto is correct to say technology can make the world a better place—but misses the mark on so much else.

AS A GENERAL rule, any essay that includes the one-sentence paragraph “I am here to bring the good news” is written by someone who wants to take your money, your vote, or your soul. As far as I know, Marc Andreessen, the browser pioneer and cofounder of powerhouse VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, isn’t running for office. But the Techno-Optimist manifesto he posted this week (it’s a habit with him) is definitely bullish on inflating his already bloated wallet—and narrowing the broad arc of human existence with a relentless pursuit of new and even risky technology.
Andreessen’s bolt from late-stage capitalism’s Mount Olympus—Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road—landed this week to a mixture of kudos and outrage. He posits that technology is the key driver of human wealth and happiness. I have no problem with that. In fact, I too am a techno-optimist—or at least I was before I read this essay, which attaches toxic baggage to the term. It’s pretty darn obvious that things like air-conditioning, the internet, rocket ships, and electric light are safely in the “win” column. As we enter the age of AI, I’m on the side that thinks that the benefits are well worth pursuing, even if it requires vigilance to ensure that the consequences won’t be disastrous.

But Andreessen’s screed isn’t just about how great it is that we humans are a tool-building bunch. It’s also an over-the-top declaration of humanity’s destiny as a tech-empowered super species—Ayn Rand resurrected as a Substack author. “Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man,” he writes. “We believe that we are, have been, and will always be the masters of technology, not mastered by technology. Victim mentality is a curse in every domain of life, including in our relationship with technology—both unnecessary and self-defeating. We are not victims, we are conquerors.” (The italics are his.) If this essay had a soundtrack it would be Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Andreessen might have missed out on making an early investment in Uber, but he’s all-in on the Übermensch. He even cites Friedrich Nietzsche as one of his “Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism.”

Perhaps a better title for this essay would be “The Techno-Billionaire Manifesto,” as it attempts to justify not only an unquestioning pursuit of technology but the late-stage capitalism that provides out-of-whack rewards for the system’s winners—like Andreessen. In his argument, the market-based “Techno Capital Machine” is the infallible generator of merit and production. Never mind the astonishing income inequality that has dragged the world down and fomented destructive political unrest. Money, proclaims Andreessen, is the only motivator capable of producing the giant technological leaps that advance humanity. This will be news to the inventors of the internet, who were civil servants and academic geeks with zero profit motive. In fact, for many years they were adamantly opposed to any commercialization whatsoever.

Andreessen does proclaim that he opposes monopolies and regulatory capture. Maybe he believed that when his browser company Netscape was buried by Microsoft. But that’s a hollow declaration from someone who’s sat on the board of Facebook, now Meta, for 15 years. I’d love to peek at the minutes to see how often he has inveighed against monopoly and lobbying in board meetings.

Andreessen argues that advanced technology creates abundance that lifts all humans. “We believe there is no conflict between capitalist profits and a social welfare system that protects the vulnerable,” he writes. But though he might not perceive it from his home in Atherton, California—the country’s richest zip code—the country he lives in presents a counterargument. While the US has the most advanced technology in the world, the life expectancy of its citizens has dropped. Surely he knows of the homelessness problem in America’s cities, most glaring in nearby San Francisco? He might even have read that the vast majority of average Americans can’t afford to buy a home, and that 40 percent would struggle to cover an unexpected $400 expense. The Techno-Capital machine doesn’t seem to be working for them. But don’t worry—Andreessen cites an Andy Warhol quote celebrating how well our system works because poor people and rich people alike can enjoy a Coca-Cola. Let ’em drink sugar water!

Speaking in the first person plural—without identifying any cosigners—Andreessen writes: “We believe in an absolute rejection of resentment.” Yet the essay oozes with resentment, particularly of the unnamed critics who disagree with him. “We are being lied to,” he charges, using language of the demagogue. Though he doesn’t name any critics, Andreessen warns readers of shibboleths that have been used as part of a “vast demoralization campaign,” many, he says, derived from Communism. (I wonder why Joe McCarthy didn’t make his patron saints list?) What are these despicable terms? They include “sustainability,” “tech ethics,” and “risk management.” Do you endorse “social responsibility”? Must be a commie!

Andreessen professes to be open to criticism himself, repeating physicist Richard Feynman’s line: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” But if you disagree with Andreessen about AI’s untrammeled beneficence and suggest we proceed with caution due to ethical risks or a fear that algorithms will snuff out humanity, he literally accuses you of a capital crime. “Any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder,” he writes.

To me, the abiding mystery of Andreessen is … what happened? When I first met him in the mid- 1990s, he was a joyfully energetic lad from the heartland. He told me that he hungrily consumed the first issue of WIRED, sensing a connection with this tribe. (WIRED back then was all-in on optimism, too, though it did not say its critics were murderers.) The young Andreessen struck me as supremely self-confident and a very fast talker, earning the permanent enmity of my transcriptionist. (Astonishingly, as years went on, he gained verbal velocity.) But despite his intensity there was a welcoming joie de vivre to his conversation. Now he is a billionaire triumphalist extolling the genius of an anarcho-capitalist system that provides people with iPhones and autos but denies health care and homes to millions. Solving those problems would seem our worthiest goal. But like other like-minded tech moguls, he instead dreams of having billions of humans living in outer space.

Yes, I’m a techno-optimist—but in lowercase. I will cosign one of the vital questions Andreessen raises in his essay: “What world are we building for our children and their children, and their children?” Our solutions are very different.

Time Travel

Oh, for the days when Marc Andreessen was a cheeky young engineer with big plans and no enemies list. In 1995, I wrote that he was riding atop an emerging power shift that would see the internet topple the established pecking order of legacy media. My New York Times Magazine story, “How the Propeller Heads Stole the Electronic Future,” seems obvious now, but was news to many readers.

If you want an arbitrary date for the burial of the 500-channel dream, Aug. 9, 1995, will do just fine. On that morning, the public had its first crack at buying stock in the year-old Netscape Communications Corporation, which makes software that helps people navigate the Internet and set up “sites” that Net surfers can visit. What happened next is already the stuff of high-tech legend. The offering price of $28 per share shot up within minutes to a vertiginous $75 until finally settling at $58, a price that valued the as-yet-profitless company at well over $2 billion. A month later, it was trading at about $53.

The initial news reports focused on the instant millionaires at Netscape, including a 24-year-old computer programmer, Marc Andreessen, who emerged from the stock offering with that all-important first $58 million. But the real significance of the event was not that another bunch of propeller heads had joined the ranks of the super-rich. Aug. 9 marked the moment when Wall Street finally realized what had been becoming increasingly apparent to computer users: a set of highly technical but reliably standardized communications protocols known as the Internet had established itself as the real key to the electronic future. That future would be made not by silver-haired telephone- and cable-company executives in Denver, New York and Washington, building an empire around a golden goose called pay-per-view television, but by companies like Netscape and their customers.

Ask Me One Thing

Richard asks, “What’s your best guess of how the future of work will look in 10 years?”

That’s a tough question, Richard. It’s hard enough to guess what work will look like in a decade. Darn near impossible to know what the future of work will look like then.

OK, I’m messing with you. You want to know what work will actually be like in 2034. I’m no expert, but I can make some guesses. I think that the white-collar set will come to cherish time in the office with colleagues and want to spend time working together in one physical location. But not for five days a week. Partial work-from-home is here to stay, as is the option for remote work, at least for “A” players who employers want to keep happy.

I think that remote meeting technology will cross the chasm from its current janky state to an experience that feels like people are actually in the room together. But I don’t expect people to wear VR headsets to simulate an office experience where they can spontaneously interact with colleagues. Even before the pandemic, people sitting inches from each other would wear headphones to deflect chatter, and they’d communicate with people in the same row of desktops via Slack. Who wants to be interrupted when you’re at home?

The biggest changes might come from AI technology, as new generations of multimodal chatbots allow us to produce more. But the work we perform will not necessarily be better. Because AI is not as creative as we are, work products may be more mundane and predictable. There will be great opportunities for those who manage to get efficiency from AI, but still bust through barriers with surprising and authentic approaches to their work. See you in the office in a couple of decades!

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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Guest Author: Steven Levy

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