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Technology as the last refuge of a scoundrel

Marc Andreessen, the billionaire venture capitalist, co-founder of Netscape, and occasional podcaster and blogger, wrote a bizarre post today titled The Techno-Optimist Manifesto, in which he first builds a straw man argument of the present-day’s luddite atmosphere using his best angsty adolescent voice (“We are being lied to… We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology… We are told to be miserable about the future…” all as separate paragraphs; you get the idea), then presents a series of increasingly ludicrous statements about our bright technological future that at the same time glorify the past, creating a Golden Age fallacy Möbius strip.

This is not Andreessen’s first act of incoherence: read or listen to last year’s Conversation with Tyler (Cowen) and his answer to Tyler’s question about the concrete advantages of Web 3.0 for podcasts (spoiler: he couldn’t name any). But that was an impromptu — if easily anticipated — question. Today’s Manifesto should be more baked, one would hope. But one would then be disappointed, as the entire article reads more like a cry for help than a well-reasoned essay. Here are some of the more flagrantly foul bullet points, with my comments below.

We believe that since human wants and needs are infinite, economic demand is infinite, and job growth can continue forever.

This is particularly salient for me after reading Burgis and Girard, and in short: no. Just no. Human desires are infinite, but not all desires are created equal. If your goal is to fulfill every human desire, you are not going to Hell with good intentions — you are intent on going to Hell.

We believe Artificial Intelligence can save lives – if we let it. Medicine, among many other fields, is in the stone age compared to what we can achieve with joined human and machine intelligence working on new cures. There are scores of common causes of death that can be fixed with AI, from car crashes to pandemics to wartime friendly fire.

We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.

A particularly pernicious pair of paragraphs that talks about AI as if it is currently able to save lives (it isn’t), and about people urging caution as if they are murderers (they aren’t). Doctors and biomedical researchers will be the first to welcome AI wholeheartedly into their professions, but that is mostly because too much of their professional time is spent fighting the bullshit that their technocratic overlords — say, IT companies funded by billionaire investors — have wrought upon them.

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 (emphasis his).

The dichotomy is not master/victim, it is master/slave, and the only reason Andreessen would think that 21st century humans are not slaves to technology is that he doesn’t get around much. We can agree that humans are not victims, but then again, no one is arguing that humans are committing crimes against technology.

We believe in nature, but we also believe in overcoming nature. We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.

And yet we don’t go around randomly setting stuff on fire. The tribes whose members did that either got rid of those members or else got extinguished.

We believe in risk, in leaps into the unknown.

Good for you. I believe in managing risk and exploring the unknown before leaping into it.

We believe in radical competence.

All I see is radical stupidity. See: you can put “radical” in front of anything and it makes you seem profound!

We believe technology is liberatory. Liberatory of human potential. Liberatory of the human soul, the human spirit. Expanding what it can mean to be free, to be fulfilled, to be alive.

It is! I was at an airport a few days ago and saw several double below-the-knee amputees who a few decades ago would have had a miserable time but can now walk around like nobody’s business. However, technology making up the difference to something that was there before is one thing — creating something completely new is a different beast altogether. The probability space is vast and full of landmines, and a Manifesto which praises leaps into the unknown without mentioning a single externality is foolish at best, dangerous at worst.

Baldur Bjarnason, who likened the philosophy espoused to fascism. It made me think of Nationalism of the Serbian kind, and a saying from a (far from perfect) Serbian politician that, whenever he heard the word “patriotism”, he’d start looking for his wallet. Well, “technology” is the patriotism of Silicon Valley bros, and we’d better start paying attention to our wallets.

Update: Typos fixed and style cleared up. I also forgot to note one of Andreessen’s more henious acts: naming the dead as Patron Saints of his disastrous cause. I am sure Nietzsche wouldn’t have minded — nihilism masquerading as materialism is right up his alley — but I am not sure how Feynman and Von Neumann would have felt, the former explicitly rejecting to work on the hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller would have been a much better ideological fit — nuking Alaska seems to be right up the Techno-Optimists' alley — but then again I doubt they are self-aware enough to have the person who was the likely inspiration for Dr. Strangelove as the face of their party.

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