A quick survey of the feedback to the latest post from Silicon Valley maven Marc Andreessen indicates that, outside of his bubble, most have reacted with laughter. Saying silly things, which he does throughout, will elicit that kind of response. His Techno-Optimist Manifesto does deserve more than chuckles, if for no other reason than the money and therefore—sadly—the influence he wields in the American business and political landscape. But more than that, he does share kernels of both interesting and worthwhile ideas. The problem is they remain kernels, like immature thoughts of a teenager.
The Manifesto is Andreessen arguing that our progress as a species rests on unleashing the combined power of technology and unbridled capitalism. There are problems throughout, as Lucas Ropek has done a fair job of listing on Gizmodo. A few others that struck me:
- Andreessen doesn’t define progress. That’s important when you label technology the “spearhead of progress”. The closest he comes is “We believe growth is progress”.
- That five-word nut of a statement displays Andreessen’s unwillingness to acknowledge humanity is a part of nature, that life throughout the web of life is essential to our survival, and that the tech-fueled growth of our numbers and our machines have denuded the Earth of vast swaths of life and imperiled all remaining non-human life on Earth. Instead, he counts sustainability, ESG, and social responsibility among his movement’s enemies.
- He willfully fails to acknowledge the American government’s role inventing, fostering, and funding most of the major 20th century technologies we enjoy today, including the medium on which he disseminates his ideas. No mention, either, of the critical investments the Biden administration has made in clean energy, which will undoubtedly lead to both technological and cultural breakthroughs in, for instance, the production and use of green hydrogen.
- The free flow of capital and the efficiency of the marketplace that Andreessen praises is a neat idea, but it never existed. While many, including Adam Smith, dreamed of this concept becoming reality, today the market is an abomination of what he and other free market pioneers ever imagined. Instead, swaths of the market are dominated by overpaid, cartel-like cliques that condemn any form of regulation but demand bailouts when their risky bets faceplant. If Andreessen hasn’t asked for such a handout himself, he undoubtedly knows someone who has.
When I first read about Andreessen’s post, I thought he wasn’t serious, the way the ridiculousness of FTX’s founding, management, and collapse wasn’t serious, it was toddlers playing with sharp utensils until the inevitable outcome. After reading his text, it was clear to me that Andreessen is serious. He believes what he writes. And his writing is serious because of his wealth and because money+half-baked ideas can have dramatic consequences.
The entirety of Andreessen’s post instead led me to another conclusion. He’s not grown up (admittedly a problem he shares with many of the folks now running the world). Yes, his firm passed on the opportunity to invest in FTX, but he and his techno-optimist ilk have supported this kind of pointless, juvenile technology—and the environment in which it wastefully thrived. His manifesto sounds like something I would have written as a barely twenty-something.
Indeed, nearly thirty years ago I did begin scribbling in notebooks about how the combination of technology and capitalism (not the best, but the best we got) could lead us to a better world. Maybe that’s why I find so much of what Andreessen wrote thought provoking and worth pursuing. But coincidentally, of course, I recently touched on how poorly the business world has lived up to even its imperfect side of the bargain in this tech/business relationship. I no longer view capitalism as a route to salvation because capitalism changed. I grew up enough to see and admit that. The techno-optimists did not mature, they put on their blinders.
Compare and contrast Andreessen’s for-us-or-against-us manifesto with David Leonhardt’s nuanced look at how the often inefficient and even bumbling U.S. federal government not only fueled the technology boom others are eager to take credit for, but also routinely invested in innovation and infrastructure that drove America’s 20th century development. One is written by an adult, the other by a man stuck in mental puberty.
We can hope our modern societies learn from and act on Leonhardt’s insights. Sadly, it’s folks like Andreessen who have more pull. Lord help the creatures of Earth, human and non.