For years, Marc Andreessen has had so much money he’s barely known what to do with himself. After striking it rich with the founding of Netscape during the ‘90s, he built himself into a mega-investor in a pantheon of Silicon Valley success stories, becoming a kingmaker in the upper echelons of tech. Now, after years of accumulating wealth, he seems to have finally found his life’s next calling: he will be a bold revolutionary—a kind of capitalist Che Guevara—in the struggle to push technological innovation to its utmost breaking point.
For reference, Andreessen just published something he calls the Techno-Optimist’s Manifesto—a 5,000-word document that reads sorta like the Port Huron Statement if it were written by cash-addled businessmen instead of anti-war college students. This manifesto, which is hilarious on its face, offers a radical vision of the future in which unmitigated technological innovation pushes us to become the materially abundant, interplanetary, technological übermensch we were apparently always meant to be. As you might expect, it’s completely and utterly ridiculous.
Move fast and break everything
Andreessen’s newly espoused ideology did not spring up in a vacuum. Instead, it’s part of a broader movement that seeks to take all the guardrails off of technological development and push forward with “progress,” whatever the cost may be. This community, known as the tech “accelerationists” or the adherents of “Effective Accelerationism,” has seen intensifying online interest in recent years. The belief system is a little bit convoluted, but one central tenet is that social change and progress will be driven by an ever-accelerating interplay between capitalism and technology. Key to the movement is an anonymous figure known as “Beff Jezos,” who basically acts as a kind of influencer for the ideology. Jezos and his followers tweet at each other, get into X circles to discuss strategies for progress, and generally seek to spread the gospel of acceleration at all costs. The group has appropriately been referred to as a “cult.”
The Techno-Optimist Manifesto: Andreessen’s bad idea archive
Flipping through the Techno-Optimist Manifesto gives you a good idea of what the tech accelerationists’ worldview looks like, and, as far as I can tell, it goes something like this: in the future, everything will be amazing. People will be able to travel freely throughout the galaxy; everyone will be rich; our lives will be awesome. How will this happen? Through technological innovation, of course! The only problem is that true technological innovation is currently being held up by things like government regulations and ethical concerns. Put another way: considerations of the public good are harming the public good. As soon as we, as a society, do away with these guardrails and accept the twin and ineluctable principles of innovation and capitalism, we will be on the road to manifesting this amazing future.
This, in short, appears to be what Andreessen and his cohort believe. At the beginning of the manifesto, the billionaire tells us that we have been told “lies” about technology. These lies, as far as can be discerned, are that technology can ever be harmful. He says:
We are told that technology takes our jobs, reduces our wages, increases inequality, threatens our health, ruins the environment, degrades our society, corrupts our children, impairs our humanity, threatens our future, and is ever on the verge of ruining everything.
Yes, in Andreessen’s eyes, technology can never be bad. Instead, it’s only ever “the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential.”
Andreessen also says that the techno-optimist movement has “enemies”—not people, but ideas. Those ideas apparently include anything related to “tech ethics,” “trust and safety,” “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” “existential risk” or any other regimen that suggests corporate America shouldn’t spend all its time trying to optimize profits. It is these ideas, along with the dangers of “Communists” and “central planning”—which Andreessen spends a weird amount of time complaining about—that are threatening the future in which we, as a society, achieve the goal of limitless “growth” that accelerationists desire.
Indeed, Andreessen is obsessed with the idea of growth for growth’s sake, in the notion that we can attain, as he puts it an “engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance.” This train of thought leads, inevitably, to unhinged passages like the one below, which typify the utopian aspirations of this belief system:
We believe the techno-capital machine of markets and innovation never ends, but instead spirals continuously upward. Comparative advantage increases specialization and trade. Prices fall, freeing up purchasing power, creating demand. Falling prices benefit everyone who buys goods and services, which is to say everyone. Human wants and needs are endless, and entrepreneurs continuously create new goods and services to satisfy those wants and needs, deploying unlimited numbers of people and machines in the process.
In general, the most distressing thing about the techno-optimist’s manifesto is that it’s basically just a big apology for unrestrained capitalism. Andreessen’s document is a hodgepodge of bad libertarian economics that aren’t based on anything resembling social or fiscal realities but are, more or less, an excuse for bad corporate behavior. In the past, Andreessen has quibbled on his commitment to libertarianism, though I am very much a proponent of the theory that things that walk and quack like ducks are, in fact, ducks. For example, here is one snapshot of Andreessen’s thinking:
Productivity growth, powered by technology, is the main driver of economic growth, wage growth, and the creation of new industries and new jobs, as people and capital are continuously freed to do more important, valuable things than in the past.
Libertarians are political idealists; they really like their theories about how the world works, but don’t feel particularly compelled to back up those theories with factual evidence (sort of like Communists). Andreessen’s beliefs about productivity are a good example. There’s no evidence that productivity growth is tied to wage growth (in the U.S., there’s plenty of evidence of the opposite), or that productivity gains always lead to more employment, or that new tech industries and jobs “free” workers up to do “more important, valuable things” (unless you count job-surfing on LinkedIn after being laid off and doing a little Doordash delivery and Uber dropoffs to make ends meet as a valuable use of time). Andreessen might wish this were the case but that doesn’t make it so. Here’s another example of the same shoddy economic thinking:
We believe the measure of abundance is falling prices. Every time a price falls, the universe of people who buy it get a raise in buying power, which is the same as a raise in income. If a lot of goods and services drop in price, the result is an upward explosion of buying power, real income, and quality of life.
Lower prices are always nice, sure, that’s true. But it’s also true that totally unfettered capitalism of the kind Andreessen envisions does not lead to falling prices. Actually, one of the best ways to lower prices on goods (some of them, at least) is to subsidize them through public funding.
Andreessen looks at a time of record corporate profits (and price gouging) and a couple of years of high inflation and says to himself, ‘This is all because we don’t have enough capitalism.’
The libertarian delusion
I hate to keep harping on Andreessen’s braindead economic ideas but, in my opinion, they are the heart of the problem. This is perhaps best illustrated by a passage in the manifesto’s “Markets” section, which reads as follows:
We believe markets are the way to generate societal wealth for everything else we want to pay for, including basic research, social welfare programs, and national defense.
This is one of the most prevalent and destructive delusions of the libertarian ideology: that the marketplace and the private sector are actually better at delivering important services to the public than the government. It’s this belief that has pushed libertarian groups to advocate for big cuts to the federal budget and to support broad privatization efforts that would weaken public institutions and cut off access to important services (you know, like Social Security and Medicare). It’s also, undoubtedly, the same belief that has animated Andreessen’s own quixotic ventures—from trying to “disrupt” healthcare and housing to even trying to create a new city in California that is wholly funded by “private sector money.” Those first two efforts haven’t netted much results. We’ll see how well the third works out (my expectations are low).
Marc, if you’re reading this, I’ll give you a final example of why your faith in the marketplace is so misguided: The internet—you know, that thing that made you and all of your buddies rich—was created (mostly) by the Pentagon and a cadre of state-funded universities. It wasn’t created by the “free market.” It wasn’t created by Steve Jobs tinkering in his Los Altos garage with Woz. It was created by the American war machine, with money from the U.S. taxpayer, the combined power of which has been responsible for more modern technological innovations than every coder in Silicon Valley combined. Arguably, the U.S. tech industry’s entire business model revolves around picking up scraps from the government’s table, trying to find commercial applications for said scraps, then selling them to the American public with fancy marketing. GPS, autonomous vehicles, the personal computer—these were all developed by government-funded researchers, then spun off and monetized by a bunch of cash-hungry businessmen, who took the credit and called it “innovation.”
To be fair, libertarians (especially Andreessen) have been responsible for promoting at least one technological revolution: cryptocurrency. But it’d be hard to argue that crypto—which embodies the libertarian ethic of unrestrained markets and resultant scam artistry—has made the world a better place.
Techno-bullshit and the AI revolution
As an ideology, techno-optimism doesn’t make much sense. But, as a marketing tool, one that can buoy popular interest in new tech products and platforms, it might be a little bit more useful.
Every Silicon Valley gold rush—from the internet to social media to cryptocurrency—has been aided by an accompanying utopian rhetoric that swears the new breed of products will help build a more perfect world. That’s what makes it interesting that the advent of techno-optimism just so happens to be coinciding with the so-called “AI revolution,” wherein a plethora of new products and platforms are looking for a market. The proponents of this so-called revolution (i.e., the giant tech companies that stand to profit most from it) have, for the most part, been at least pretending to handle their disruptive new platforms with some amount of care. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, has been traveling the world, asking governments to regulate his industry (though he clearly doesn’t want too much regulation). Google, Microsoft, and other big names have all been meeting with top U.S. Congressional leaders to discuss what a future federal regulatory framework might look like. In short: these players have been trying to establish a narrative that Silicon Valley doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes it made with social media when it comes to AI—a worthy narrative whether it’s sincere or not.
Not so with Andreesen and his crowd, whose desire to completely take the brakes off technological development and accelerate “innovation” at whatever cost, is clearly antagonistic to even the most basic of regulatory protections. If I were more conspiratorially-minded, I might even be tempted to see this as some sort of broader “Mutt and Jeff” technique deployed by the tech industry in its pursuit of a less constrictive market environment. But, more than likely, it’s just a simple case of mindless capitalist enthusiasm, less one of tactical maneuvering.
The techno-optimists are morons that don’t know dick about how the real world works
Here’s the bottom line: The techno-optimist tribe gives off the distinct impression of people who have been so ridiculously rich for so long that they’ve just completely lost the plot about how the real world works. To be fair, this is an apt description of most of Silicon Valley. These days, if you’re not vampirically using your teenage son’s blood to regenerate your own aging body, or torturing monkeys to death in the hopes of creating the Matrix, or trying to get a belligerent reality TV star elected president, you’re just not winning. The tech industry is fueled by people with bad ideas, and Jezos, Andreessen, and company are just some among many. What makes this crowd somewhat different (and a little more dangerous) is that they’re now writing Unabomber-style manifestos that give some pretense of intellectual legitimacy to their terrible ideas. They’re then using that legitimacy to push for a totally unregulated tech industry that stands to “disrupt” (i.e., potentially destabilize) large parts of society.
This makes it all the more ironic that Andreessen names as one of his so-called “enemies” those who are “disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable – playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences.” Frankly, there’s no better description of the “techno-optimist” crowd—a gaggle of out-of-touch tech bros who think their wealth gives them license to chart a future nobody else wants.