From Peter Radford The machine makers are restless! There’s quite a debate going on about something called “techno-optimism” which roughly translates as anything technological is good and will, inevitably, make us all much better off. That it makes fortunes for its owners is of secondary importance. The debate has emerged as a result of the publication of Marc Andreesen’s ‘Techno-Optimist Manifesto’, a strange and rather long paean to the many virtues of technology and the much more abundant vices of the dullards like you and me who do not innovate or break things on a regular basis. We are, apparently, a bunch of softies incapable of moving civilization forward and we thus rely on the virility of our superiors like Andreesen and Peter Thiel who have, collectively, saved us from the
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from Peter Radford
There’s quite a debate going on about something called “techno-optimism” which roughly translates as anything technological is good and will, inevitably, make us all much better off. That it makes fortunes for its owners is of secondary importance.
The debate has emerged as a result of the publication of Marc Andreesen’s ‘Techno-Optimist Manifesto’, a strange and rather long paean to the many virtues of technology and the much more abundant vices of the dullards like you and me who do not innovate or break things on a regular basis. We are, apparently, a bunch of softies incapable of moving civilization forward and we thus rely on the virility of our superiors like Andreesen and Peter Thiel who have, collectively, saved us from the endless drudgery implied by life in a low-tech world.
Andreesen we might recall was the inventor of Netscape. More recently he has become a financier. So he no longer innovates — he simply pays for other people to do the inventing. That this might move him out of the virile crowd and in amongst us softies appears lost on him.
We don’t need to spend much time on what Andreesen actually says. None of it is novel. It is a mash-up of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and other heroes of the far right. The point being that those of us with a slightly more cautious attitude to the onslaught of technology have become a blockage against the march of humanity towards a technology mediated utopia. What is striking is how right wing economics with its single-minded reliance on markets, facilitates and enables the extremism of people like Andreesen. Indeed, the two lines of thought, technology as inevitably good, and markets as inevitably correct and efficient, share the same fatal flaws of deliberate naivety and an obdurate unwillingness to engage society as a whole.
To a modern ear the manifesto sounds distinctly dated. Nowhere is there a mention of the many downsides of technology that we currently struggle to overcome. Indeed, the manifesto sweeps gloriously and rapidly past such problems. They are, apparently, signs of weakness and exist only in the minds of “stagnationists” or de-growth advocates. Anyone who wants to slow the heady advances of technology are all swept into one big bucket of inconsequential naysayers.
I am aware of the oddity of suggesting that Andreesen, who regards himself as cutting edge, might sound rather dated. He seems not to have lived through the transition of the Internet from those early days into its present version dominated by rent-seeking behemoths like Google and Meta who, far from being the plucky market price takers posited by Andreesen, give their primary products away in order to create advertising opportunities from which they profit mightily. He seems not to be aware of the downsides of social media. He ignores the abundance of nonsense, lies, and general chaos that permeates platforms like Facebook. And he steadfastly scorns anyone mentioning climate change.
He might think he is educated in market theory, but like many of his ilk, he has a difficulty grasping what an actual, real-world, market looks like. The simplicity of his vision sits well, I am sure, with right wing economists who equally blindly dwell back in the days of personal exchange between bakers, brewers, and farmers in quaint village life. Models of society built upon such simple lives all ignore the triumph that they applaud: the relentless march of technology has made the world, and hence the economy, vastly more complex with interconnections too many to compute, and interdependencies too many to enumerate. In other words the very success Andreesen wants to maintain into the future has rendered obsolete his worldview. This contradiction also appears lost on him.
It is ironic, is it not? The most ardent advocates of technological progress and the wonderful future it will bestow upon us all, live firmly in the past when they rely upon models of the economy that don’t recognize the consequences of the layers of complexity accumulated since the modern technological age burst on to the scene. We all know that economics as a profession suffers from this same irony. It too sought to simplify as the world became more complex. The result is the same in both contexts. A disconnect from reality that borders on a pathologically deliberate denial of the world as it is in order to ponder the quaintness of a past as if it were the present.
As an aside: this inability to keep pace with the complexities of modern economies was what produced the embarrassment called “total factor productivity”— aptly called a measure of ignorance — in economics. Rather than engage complexity by revising the core of their theories economists swept onward, accepted their ignorance, and, worse, started to write scholarly papers describing in graphic detail this ignorance as if it were knowledge.
But back to the machines, none of this is a denial of the obvious benefits of technology. We all live in a world that would be impossible to envisage or maintain without the technology that surrounds us.
Because of this I too am a techno-optimist. I believe there are still things to be discovered and developed that will add to humanity’s welfare, pleasure, and comfort. But I am also an advocate of care. Society has to be more involved into the trajectory of technology. This is especially true now as artificial intelligence is ever more deployed throughout society.
In this context, the odd behavior of the AI community many of whom are raising the alarm, is truly bizarre. These are the same people who are rushing headlong to reap the profits from what they are, simultaneously, describing as extremely dangerous. The moral equivocation in this stance is stunning. They are offloading the moral decision making onto the shoulders of society whilst at theme time resisting the urge to slow down.
This is a perfect example of the gap opened up between moral judgment and consequent behavior or accountability enabled by purist market thinking. Once we accept the marketplace as the ultimate arbiter of progress, as extremists such as Andreesen advocate and as far too many economists teach, we remove other sources of judgement and we forgo our capacity to progress along a more morally certain route. Instead, we are forever backfilling and correcting the past mistakes of innovators who sought to profit rather than proceed more carefully.
This can scarcely be called efficient in any true and rich sense of that word, although it might satisfy the cramped and narrow definition economists prefer.
In any case, Andreesen has done us a service by illustrating in detail how threadbare the underlying philosophy of Silicon Valley is. Further, he has shown us how naive and ignorant he and his ilk are. This knowledge ought shake us sufficiently to consider re-arranging our relationship with the so-called innovators who constantly impose their decisions upon us. “Move fast and break things” or it is “better to seek forgiveness than permission” probably sound great in an old college dorm or in a bar in Silicon Valley, but they are destructive childish vanities rather than socially acceptable behavior when they become the underpinning of business behavior. These people need to grow up and to stop living in the past. Perhaps then they can help lead us into the future.
The machinery question marches on …