The guy is a technical genius, a zillionaire (and deservedly so), and a risk-taker who puts people like me to shame.
But he’s also wrong about the role and meaning of AI and tech.
Last week, Andreessen published an orgiastic paen to the glories of technology entitled The Techno-Optimist Manifesto. He then went to Washington, DC to help Senator Schumer’s panel of senators figure out how to use their VCRs.
Here are three of the biggest falsehoods in his argument:
First, and perhaps most notably, he falsely sets up his argument as a battle between technologists and those who oppose its use. He claims that “captured people” suffering from “a witches’ brew of resentment, bitterness, and rage” have spent the past six decades waging “a mass demoralization campaign” based on “zombie ideas” that have their roots in Communism and “speech control and thought control.”
Wow, I hate those guys, too. The only problem is they don’t exist, which renders his artificial dialectic faulty, both logically and historically.
Asserting regulatory oversight over technology innovation, not to mention social norms and expectations, is not the same thing as opposing it. We passed laws so that kids couldn’t be put to work operating new industrial machinery. The latest car models got safer because they had to include seatbelts and speed limits were imposed on their operation. Rigorous testing and certification means even breakthrough drugs need to be reliably effective for the vast majority of their users.
For centuries, societies have had their technologies and regulated them, too.
In fact, the interplay between public policy and sentiment and technology innovation has been an enabler of innovation. Government investment created the foundation for the Internet and rallied businesses to invent the space program (and then apply its discoveries). Investor and consumer desires for more sustainable business models is prompting a new generation of innovation on energy and communications.
Andreessen’s manifesto starts with the claim that “We are being lied to” and then sets up a strawman that clearly enrages his inner Howard Roark. And then he goes on to tell a lie.
Second, he says this:
“We believe that there is no material problem — whether created by nature or by technology — that cannot be solved with more technology.”
Andreessen seems to be making a distinction between problems that technology can fix and those that are created by people or their institutions, and are thereby outside the scope of his argument.
Only there’s no such distinction. People make choices, whether sensible or idiotic, that prompt both problems and opportunities for technology. Early on, we wanted to do things in the evenings which made darkness a material problem. We choose to live close to one another which created the material problem of disease. Individual desires for fame and enrichment drove innovation in mass production technologies.
Taking people out of the equation creates a false sense that technology innovation operates in a vacuum.
Further, every problem that technology solves usually creates economic, political, and social problems, some foreseen and some not. Early industrialization in the UK slashed the prices of garments and other goods but put generations of women out of work and left them home without the capacity to properly feed their children. Fossil fuel use created a utopia of movement and productivity but filled the air with carbon that is slowly boiling the planet.
And then there are the technology innovations that solved no problem whatsoever, other than making money for its innovators. Social media is a great example, as it has given us more entertainment options in exchange for creating a generation of young people who’re emotionally troubled and encouraging the bitter tribalization of communities.
Andreessen sees in these so-called solutions the opportunities for more technology solutions. It’s kind of a perpetual make-work philosophy.
The thing is, like sex, everything in the world is about technology except technology.
Technology is about intentionality, experience, side-effects, true costs and, yes, morality. It’s part of the solution to problems that people have created or encountered when its context and implications are considered. Otherwise, it’s just a recurring problem masquerading as a solution.
Third, Andreessen describes something he calls “The techno-capital machine” and waxes poetic about it being “the engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance.”
I think he’s saying that the machine is a combination of technology innovations for meeting human needs that get vetted by the marketplace yielding goods and services that prompt more innovation (so the system is self-referencing and renewing).
It “…makes natural selection work for us in the realm of ideas” despite the opposition of “Communists and Luddites.”
There’s lots wrong with his idea, starting with his mistaken belief in the capacity of markets to operate fairly and transparently. They don’t. Markets are like sporting events: The rules and criteria for judging performance limit their function to those attributes. It’s why environmental impacts were never calculated when it came to business results; as “externalities,” the market never vetted the true costs.
There’s also really uneven access to information, especially in private markets and the VC funding world in which Andreessen operates. In a sentence, they see what they’re looking for and nothing else.
Markets are absolutely important components of assessing ideas, but they’re not foolproof and therefore not exclusively responsible for it.
Strangely, he also believes that his techno-capital machine “…may be the most pro-human thing there is” and that “all the machines work for us.”
This is only true in the most abstract sense, or if the “us” he’s referring to are his fellow technologists who make their zillions from selling it.
Machines do stuff for us but always at a cost. Sometimes that cost is overtly expressed in a purchase price. Many more times it is invisible, like when our privacy is violated and monetized.
AI is turbocharging the cost side of this equation, as sensors capture our behaviors so that smart machines can replace us at work or subtly nudge us into opinions and purchase behaviors without our conscious consent.
This is all the stuff of true miracles and I’d be the last person to say that we shouldn’t invent or use technology. Tech makes my work possible and has already saved my life.
But Mark Andreessen’s POV on technology is that it’s a free radical that needs to be thrown at humanity in order to challenge us to adopt it and thereby improve our lot. He sees it as the agent of change and not its tool. It’s also how he continues to make zillions of dollars.
He’d be the last person I’d call to DC to lecture senators on the false choice between tech innovation and political/social oversight.
There aren’t two sides to the argument, contrary to what his manifesto claims.
There’s just one side.
[This essay appeared originally at Spiritual Telegraph]