It looks like we are going to do another round of “tech will save us, if you let rich people do what they want!” nonsense, and it is all so, so tiresome. The latest trigger for this is Marc Andreessen’s five thousand word Reader’s Digest version of Atlas Shrugged Techno Optimist Manifesto. It is nothing beyond the predictable middle-aged venture capital bros insisting that the last thirty years, the last three hundred years, really, haven’t actually happened.
For those who don’t know, Andreessen wrote the Netscape browser and turned that bit of first to the market text parsing into a venture capital firm that made its money off investments in terrible companies like Facebook. Andreessen’s complaint, such as it is, is that the good forces of technology are being held back by its enemies, such as “trust and safety”, “academics”, (in the ivory tower, of course. One wonder if academics in their natural habitat of crappy cinderblock buildings are a threat, or if they only become dangerous after they have built their first tower out of ivory), and “tech ethics”. The whole thing is a childish rant (he claims he is on the “Hero’s Journey,” for crying out loud. Most fourteen-year-olds would be embarrassed by this tripe.) devoted to the idea that everything would be fine if society would just let people like him do what they want.
It is a bog-standard libertarian fantasy, in other words, written in prose that most high schoolers would be ashamed to show their friends in the lunch-time cafeteria. It is the best manifestation of the words of John Rogers I have ever seen: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Ringsand Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” Andreessen seems unable to accept two simple facts: he is the creation of regulations and tech is just a tool, not something special above and beyond society.
At the most basic level, Andreessen makes his money under the protection of government regulations. He is richer than he would otherwise be because the government keeps people with guns from just rolling up and taking everything he has. Sure, he could afford private security now, but he didn’t always live in that world. I imagine it would have been hard to invent Netscape if he had to worry about being killed every moment of every day.
His business is an LLC, which means that his personal assets are protected when things go wrong in his investments. His business is a series of gambles: throw money at companies in the early stage and hope that they succeeded well enough to overcome losses in other companies. This worked, to be a bit reductive, because the LLC structure protects his personal assets when investments go bankrupt. He would not be able to make such gambles if he was personally liable for the losses of the companies he invested in. Those structures are not natural — they are the creation of the government.
Most fundamentally to Andreessen personally, if the government had not invented the internet and then given it away to commercial interests, Netscape would never had made him any money and he would just be some nerd without the ability to manifest his delusions of grandeur.
More importantly, there is nothing special about technology. It is just a tool, like a billion other tools that humanity has used over the years. There is nothing fundamentally different about any of the tools that Andreessen waxes rhapsodic about. Nuclear energy, for example, is just a power source. It is a failing power source because solar and wind and other renewables are far outpacing it economically. Tools are just things we use. Sometimes their use makes things better, sometimes their use makes things worse. The idea that you should be optimistic about technology is akin to the idea that you should be optimistic about sports, or apples, or songs. It is a fundamental, category error. The only thing that matters, the only thing that has ever mattered, is how we put the tool to use.
And I suspect that is what is really eating at Andreessen. We know that his little pet projects have largely been failures. We didn’t tax the internet, we let internet companies (and most other industries) become monopolies (something he says in his little manifesto is impossible. No, really: “Markets prevent monopolies and cartels.” One reads that and wonders if Andreessen is a moron or a world-class troll.), we deregulated pretty much all businesses, we put the interests of capital above that of labor. And its lead to pretty much nothing good. the climate is in danger, people are less financially secure than in at least a century, people are more surveilled and thus less free than perhaps ever, and democracy is in peril in part because of the way social media operates. Even the pace of innovation has slowed.
Andreessen have been given carte blanche and have failed to deliver on their promises. And now that people are noticing, he is panicking and reverting to his childhood fantasies.
It has ever been thus. Two recent books, Progress and Promise (my review here) and Blood in the Machine (review coming later this week), highlight this simple fact. The industrial revolution made things worse for the majority of humanity for decades, even centuries. It was not until people fought back and ensured that the tools were used to benefit the majority that, well, the majority benefited. It is a lie that mere technological advances make things better for everyone. Andreessen is pushing back on the same revelations today, nothing more, nothing less. He merely and cynically wants to protect his outsized wealth and power by pretending that he represents some optimistic ideal.
He is just another in a long line of wanna be overlords, convinced despite all the evidence of the real world that they are special and thus deserving of special treatment. They aren’t, and the industry they represent is just like any other.
I say this as member of that industry, as a believer in its potential, and as someone who literally changed their life’s goals once he encountered it in college: there is nothing special about tech. It is just a tool. Andreessen wants to convince you otherwise so that he can capture the lion’s share of the benefits of that tool for himself. That’s all his manifesto is — just the oldest, most self-serving con in the book.