Discover more from The Elysian
Yes, I am a techno-optimist
But with a few notes.
I loved it. It reminded me of when the Communist Manifesto sparked a thousand responses—like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Morris’ News from Nowhere, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. Socialist clubs popped up everywhere with pamphlets begetting pamphlets swirling through the zeitgeist.
I watched as some of our brightest minds debated the merits and demerits of the manifesto on the internet. Now that the papers have settled, I want to study Marc’s Techno-Optimism, what my favorite writers think about it, and form my own thoughts on the subject.
The Elysian is thinking through a better future. Join the literary salon!
Andreessen’s manifesto asserts that civilization was built on technology and that technology will continue to progress civilization.
We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology.
We had a problem of starvation, so we invented the Green Revolution.
We had a problem of darkness, so we invented electric lighting.
We had a problem of cold, so we invented indoor heating.
We had a problem of heat, so we invented air conditioning.
We had a problem of isolation, so we invented the Internet.
We had a problem of pandemics, so we invented vaccines.
We have a problem of poverty, so we invent technology to create abundance.
Give us a real world problem, and we can invent technology that will solve it.
Even if we didn’t invent the internet to solve isolation, for the most part, I agree with his take. We need to keep growing, keep advancing, and capitalism will be the driver that gets us there. It will eradicate poverty worldwide and create technologies like AI that solve nearly every problem, even as we power it all with nuclear fission and eventually nuclear fusion and thus cause much less harm to the environment in the process.
I think there is a lot of good the market can do, and even agree with his take that humans will ultimately act in their own best interest so we might as well use that behavior for the greater good.
We believe markets do not require people to be perfect, or even well intentioned – which is good, because, have you met people? Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”
Where I diverge is in his insistence on free markets. He believes capitalism should be unregulated and free to pursue technological advancement without the government’s red tape. It makes sense, he’s a venture capitalist who would very much benefit if the companies in his portfolio didn’t have to follow the rules. He even goes so far as to suggest that capitalism would fund social well-being without government interference:
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. We believe there is no conflict between capitalist profits and a social welfare system that protects the vulnerable. In fact, they are aligned – the production of markets creates the economic wealth that pays for everything else we want as a society.
Yes, capitalism has generated wealth, but unevenly favoring individuals like Andreessen. And yes, capitalism has funded social welfare programs, but only because that wealth was taxed by the government and then redistributed. AI is an incredible tool, but the people who make it called for its regulation and Biden complied, making it safer to use. And let’s not forget that our focus on nuclear fission is not because of the benevolence of capitalists, but because of government regulation of the industry, forcing smokestacks around the country to find a less carbon-emitting alternative.
That doesn’t mean regulation is always the answer—it’s currently impeding the growth of nuclear energy worldwide—but I don’t think the alternative is that it should have free reign. In his response, “the techno-optimist’s fallacy,”points out that nuclear is one area where regulation should very much be part of the conversation.
While the anti-nuclear activists drastically overstated the safety issues with nuclear plants and the difficulty of dealing with nuclear waste storage, it is true that these are real issues. Like if you just didn’t store the waste and flushed it down the toilet instead, that would be really bad. And while we should not regulate reactor designs so strictly that we are left using more dangerous sources of energy instead, this is obviously not a space where you want an everything-goes free-for-all… No matter how annoying the anti-nuclear people are or how over-burdensome the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be, it’s still not the case that the optimal amount of regulation is zero.
Andreessen lists statism, central planning, and bureaucracy among his enemies, and sometimes they can be. But I agree with’s response, “thoughts on techno-optimism:” Sometimes those enemies have turned out to be saviors:
The Covid vaccines and the wave of mRNA innovation they unleashed are only the most recent example, but the Manhattan Project began the nuclear age (and government funding has been crucial for nuclear power), the Human Genome Project launched the genetics revolution, DARPA helped create the internet, and so on. The NSF, the NIH, DARPA, BARDA, NASA, the national laboratories…all have a storied history of propelling forward the march of innovation (often to the U.S.’ great benefit). This is not “central planning” in the traditional Soviet sense, but it’s certainly statist.
As for bureaucracy, this certainly can be harmful to technological progress, but if done right, it can be a great help. For example, look at what NEPA—a law that allows private citizens to tie projects in court for years doing cumbersome paperwork even if they already satisfy all environmental laws—has done to our ability to build physical technology in the United States. The alternative to things like NEPA is a competent, efficient bureaucracy that can quickly determine whether projects satisfy environmental laws, and approve them rapidly if they do. That’s why more libertarians are recognizing the crucial importance of state capacity…
Anyone who thinks that technology is pushed forward solely by scrappy inventors in their garages, while government and big business merely parasitizes off of their labors, is deeply wrong. And anyone who thinks that technology is pushed forward solely by government planners, while the private sector merely parasitizes off of government’s efforts, is also deeply wrong.
I don’t know the optimal amount of government input—sometimes it helps (like when governments ban single-use plastics), and sometimes it hinders (like when cities can’t build new housing). I tend to think government regulation is something that should be handled on a case-by-case basis, and then endlessly tweaked until we get the balance right.says the environment is one thing that has been very worth our incessant tweaking.
All the manifestoes in the world count for little against the burn of smog in the lungs and the trapping of heat in the atmosphere. Did we, in some cases, overcorrect? Absolutely. But the only reason we can even debate whether we overcorrected is because we corrected: The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and a slew of other bills and regulations did exactly what they promised.
He quotes the law professors J.B. Ruhl and James Salzman and their paper “The Greens’ Dilemma:”
In exchange for a cleaner environment, we adopted laws effective at modifying, slowing and even stopping traditional “brown” infrastructure seen as threatening environmental quality, such as highways, oil pipelines and industrial facilities. It has proven a very good bargain. While economic growth in the United States has increased more than fivefold since the 1970s, by most measures our environment is much cleaner.
Andreessen says he’s not utopian in his ideals, preferring to believe in “doing the best fallen humanity can do, making things better as we go,” but that constant tweaking is the very definition of utopian—to me and to many of the literary writers who came before me.
Smith takes issue with the word “techno-optimism,” saying that really it’s just “humanism.” I agree there too. After all it’s not technology alone that’s pushing us forward. It’s people using technology for good.
Assays in her response “on techno-optimism:”
Optimism is an action, not a belief. Techno-optimism is faith not in technology itself—a dead object—but in our ability (as engineers, researchers, advocates, citizens, etc.) to build tools that advance our shared wellbeing. The former is humanism; the latter is dogma.
Yglesias calls this the “techno-optimist’s fallacy:”
It starts with the accurate observation that technological progress has, on net, been an incredible source of human betterment, almost certainly the major force of human betterment over the history of our species, and then tries to infer that therefore all individual instances of technological progress are good. This is not true.
To understand this, consider digital surveillance technologies. The United States and China have chosen to use these technologies in very different ways. In the U.S., you’re likely to use webcams to keep track of your pet rabbit, or to film fun videos, or to stream yourself playing video games, or for various other enjoyable pursuits. In China you can do these things as well, but there’s much less privacy when you do them, because the state is always watching. And on top of those individual fun uses, China has employed networked cameras to create a digital panopticon where citizens are never free of the state’s prying eyes. For the country’s minorities, this panopticon is as terrifying as anything out of a George Orwell novel.
In other words, it’s society’s responsibility to use technologies for good instead of for evil.
Andreessen’s post is long, unwieldy, and at one point he simply lists a bunch of buzzwords he believes (ambition! bravery! risk! agency! evolution! truth!) which gives it the shape of a stump speech. He flings around so many vague ideologisms I might readily agree with one sentence then disagree with the next. “Yes, markets lift people out of poverty. No, they don’t prevent monopolies and cartels.”
The technologistannotated his copy of the manifesto, highlighting everything he agreed with in green and everything he didn’t in red. When Andreessen says “Techno-Optimism is a material philosophy, not a political philosophy,” Ben scribbles in the margins: “wasn’t there a whole section on communism?” A long arrow points to Andreessen’s section against statism.
Andreessen ends with the ubiquitous rallying cry “it’s time to build!” And this is where, in his response “techno-optimism is a sign of VC crisis,”asks: “ok, but what exactly have you been building?” Because Andreessen used that same phrase in an essay three years ago and we can easily look at his track record since then.
In the years since he determined that ‘it was time to build,’ his fund invested tens of millions of dollars in a video-game Ponzi scheme that immiserated its players and a company that sells blockchain transaction records said to reflect ownership of ape cartoons. That’s not just not building… it’s ”venture investing in crypto companies,” which is its own little onanistic universe, conceptually and practically unrelated to “building” entirely.
We might also ask: what has Andreessen not been building? Because it certainly hasn’t been housing.
In this way, Read thinks the manifesto is nothing more than a political soapbox—a way to attract new tech companies who are just as bright-eyed that they’re going to save the world and that their technology company is going to be the thing to do it! Even if Andreessen believes what he is selling, and even if we do too, that doesn’t mean it’s not a sales pitch.
But if Andreessen plays the hype man, well it’s a manifesto. I at least get the gist, and agree that we need growth, we need technology, we need to power it all with renewable energy (and specifically nuclear) and that that will solve a lot of the problems in the world. But like a lot of the writers mentioned here, I also have notes: We shouldn’t dissolve government regulation, let the rich do whatever they want, and expect them to build it.
But I’d love to know your thoughts. Comments are open to all subscribers on this one!