by Marc Andreessen
These are my thoughts on the The Techno-Optimist Manifesto which made the web's techno news headlines recently.
It's an ideology quite the opposite of the Communist Manifesto, which I also read recently.
Both promise us a much better life. They just get there by going in opposing directions. Neither of them seem to have much basis in actual reality in my opinion.
This whole intro is a lie. We are not being told any of these things. We are told to be weary of thechnology, to treat it with respect. With great power comes great responsibility.
Indeed, except I didn't realise the technology flag had been lowered.
Hmm... I agree with a lot of this. But he misses some major points.
We have a problem of poverty, so we invent technology to create abundance.
Abundance for some, but at the moment this abundance is being wasted by the few rather than put to good use for the many.
We believe this is why our descendents will live in the stars.
The question is, can we live in the stars before we use up all the resources on the planet. We haven't yet turned the corner on wasting resources.
Markets prevent monopolies and cartels.
No they don't. Plenty of monopolies in the world, also in the free capitalist world.
We believe markets are an inherently individualistic way to achieve superior collective outcomes.
You can believe that. Some people believe the earth is flat. It doesn't make it true. Where's the evidence for such a statement.
We believe the ultimate moral defense of markets is that they divert people who otherwise would raise armies and start religions into peacefully productive pursuits.
Only if the spoils of the markets are fairly distributed. Not the case at the moment.
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.
Why would we need social welfare programs if the markets actually worked?
Why would we need national defense, if we were living in the stars?
We believe a Universal Basic Income would turn people into zoo animals to be farmed by the state.
This I kind of agree with.
Man was not meant to be farmed; man was meant to be useful, to be productive, to be proud.
Hmmm, useful to whom? Productive for what? We were not meant to be anything, we simply are.
Being proud, without being arrogant, probably helps though.
There are a lot of valid points in this section. But since he is saying markets support the welfare state, then they must be taxed and regulated, otherwise how will this support work. Not quite the free markets he is intending. Or else we understand different things in "free markets".
The Techno-Capital Machine
Whole section reads like a description of Iain M Banks' Culture Series.
Of course that is science fiction and doesn't have to deal with the limited resources on planet earth. Nevermind the limits of physics and the physiology of our bodies.
I can't help feeling that "accelerationism" as he calls it, doesn't quite lead to what he thinks. Acceleration tends to stretch things. If you are not careful, the link between those at the front doing the pulling (the few super rich), and those at the back being pulled along (the poor), risks breaking. We could end up living in an Elysium style "utopia".
Intelligence is inate. But being smart needs high quality education. Limiting high quality education to the rich, as is increasingly happening now, means the compound effect of "intelligence * education" is being woefully exploited. Since intelligence is inate, it is equally spread through the population. But when only one segment of the population gets to use that intelligence, you are missing out on an awful lot of intelligence.
A lot of this chapter was like "what is this guy on":
as people form symbiotic relationships with machines into new cybernetic systems such as companies and networks;
Of course AI can and is beneficial, but only because it is powered by human intelligence.
Fully agree with the point made on energy consumption in this section. We're not going to develop as a civilisation by using less energy. He also makes the point that using 1000x more energy does not need to be bad for the environment. I agree with that too.
But then he says the current solution is nuclear fission. Whilst I don't disagree, I do think we need to urgently look beyond that technology.
He raises the prospect of nuclear fusion. Hopefully he is right on this. It can't come soon enough.
We believe technology is the solution to environmental degradation and crisis. A technologically advanced society improves the natural environment, a technologically stagnant society ruins it.
Whilst there are other ways in which an advanced society can ruin the environment which are not addressed by him (eg plastic pollution or habitat destruction), when it comes to energy, this is very true.
This is the post-scarcity society of Iain M Banks culture series, which I already mentioned previously.
The rest of this section makes sense, although I never like it when people are referred to as resources, even if they are "ultimate resources" in this case.
Not sure we could support 50 billion people on planet earth, but if the age of abundance leads to a lack of need for material goods, maybe it could. But we would still need to eat and drink! And I hope we would not end up, perhaps even voluntarily, as batteries powering the matrix.
Not Utopia, But Close Enough
Fair enough, although this section doesn't really say anything concrete.
Becoming Technological Supermen
Nothing particularly outrageous here. All fairly obvious, but then couched in weird wording:
We believe in the romance of technology, of industry. The eros of the train, the car, the electric light, the skyscraper. And the microchip, the neural network, the rocket, the split atom.
We believe in adventure. Undertaking the Hero’s Journey, rebelling against the status quo, mapping uncharted territory, conquering dragons, and bringing home the spoils for our community.
Does he even realise that he is the status quo?
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.
We believe in greatness. We admire the great technologists and industrialists who came before us, and we aspire to make them proud of us today.
And we believe in humanity – individually and collectively.
Fair enough, but please: "apex predators"? If we're not careful we will saw off the branch we are sitting on as we climb up the tree of technological greatness.
We believe in ambition, aggression, persistence, relentlessness – strength.
Sounds more like greed to me.
We believe in merit and achievement.
Merit is great, it's unfortunate that we increasingly live in a world where merit doesn't really figure much. And no, money does not equal merit.
We believe in embracing variance, in increasing interestingness.
Again, it's unfortunate that our technological progress is making the whole world look identical. Identikit streets, shops and so on.
And freedom of thought is great, but how come then people are obsessed with a few "great" educational institutions. Where's the variance in everyone thinking like a Havard student.
We believe in radical competence.
What does this even mean?
We believe extrinsic motivations – wealth, fame, revenge – are fine as far as they go. But we believe intrinsic motivations – the satisfaction of building something new, the camaraderie of being on a team, the achievement of becoming a better version of oneself – are more fulfilling and more lasting.
Phew, he's not a complete capitalist then. Easy for someone to say who lucked into their first billion.
We believe technology is universalist. Technology doesn’t care about your ethnicity, race, religion, national origin, gender, sexuality, political views, height, weight, hair or lack thereof. Technology is built by a virtual United Nations of talent from all over the world. Anyone with a positive attitude and a cheap laptop can contribute. Technology is the ultimate open society.
Yes, technology is inclusive, if used correctly. Of course AI giving the job to the white guy rather than the black one is not fair or inclusive. It is simply following what it is trained on, subjective and biased decisions overwhelmingly made by white folks.
And of course, there are still many people without even a cheap laptop. Probably over half the world's population.
We believe in the Silicon Valley code of “pay it forward”, trust via aligned incentives, generosity of spirit to help one another learn and grow.
This is not the silicon valley I observe through the media. Maybe in reality it really is like this. But I doubt it.
We believe America and her allies should be strong and not weak. We believe national strength of liberal democracies flows from economic strength (financial power), cultural strength (soft power), and military strength (hard power). Economic, cultural, and military strength flow from technological strength. A technologically strong America is a force for good in a dangerous world. Technologically strong liberal democracies safeguard liberty and peace. Technologically weak liberal democracies lose to their autocratic rivals, making everyone worse off.
This is a fair point, if you consider the competing civilisations on this planet. I would rather we end up living in a democracy rather than an autocracy or dictatorship. But autocrats are currently making great use of technology to win their battles. Let's hope they don't win the war.
We believe in fulfilling our potential, becoming fully human
So we are not currently "fully human"? If anything technology will make us less "human" with implants, replaced joints and who knows what enhancements in the future. I refer back to the Culture series...
The Meaning of Life
This section is true enough, but it hides behind this statement:
Techno-Optimism is a material philosophy, not a political philosophy.
If this philosophy doesn't care about the politics, it then also doesn't have to care about the consequences of its theories. Which is quite handy, because everything has consequences.
The main theory being that technology makes things better, on averge. This is probably true, but not better for everyone and not equally so. There are always winners and losers.
Which leads to a big failing of this techno-optimist manifesto. It doesn't address the losers. It doesn't even address that there are losers. That is conveniently someone else's problem.
It starts off so well:
Our enemies are not bad people – but rather bad ideas.
Then not so much goes downhill from there, but falls off a cliff. Pretty much any idea which doesn't fit into this guys pretty narrow world view is his enemy. Terrible.
Finally, it takes on an almost missionary view:
We believe we must help them find their way out of their self-imposed labyrinth of pain.
The biggest enemy of progress are not all his enemies, but uniformity of thought, of philosophy, of ideas. If we all signed up to this guys manifesto, I am not sure things would turn out well for all of us. Certainly not in the short term, and there might not be a long term.
Nothing particularly wrong or earth shattering in this concluding chapter.
Our civilization was built on a spirit of discovery, of exploration, of industrialization.
I would argue, that above all else our civilisation was built on a spirit of cooperation. You don't get any of the above without cooperation.
What world are we building for our children and their children, and their children?
A world of fear, guilt, and resentment?
Or a world of ambition, abundance, and adventure?
I don't think anybody really argues against building a world of ambition, abundance and adventure. The issue is around the ideas that enable us to do this.
Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism
This is a list of like minded persons, about half of whom are dead and one is fictional. They therefore cannot consent to being a patron saint of this manifesto. Just saying...