I suppose I should have gotten in line with Marc Andreessen’s Techno-Optimist manifesto, the sprawling ode to technology and capitalism written recently by the famous billionaire and Silicon Valley legend. The manifesto is written with a reader like me in mind. I am a resident of a capitalistic society who has tasted the fruits of the open market, invested in order to provide for my family, and become a digital technology junkie in the process. In a sense, I’m all in. But reading the manifesto has confronted me with a question: how all in do I want to be?
In the essay, Andreessen celebrates the values and aspirations of techno-optimists, or capitalistic-minded souls who believe in the value of technology (especially AI) to make the world better. What does making the world better mean, and to what end? Marc offers a clue in a section entitled The Meaning of Life:
“Techno-Optimism is a material philosophy, not a political philosophy . . . We are materially focused, for a reason — to open the aperture on how we may choose to live amid material abundance.
A common critique of technology is that it removes choice from our lives as machines make decisions for us. This is undoubtedly true, yet more than offset by the freedom to create our lives that flows from the material abundance created by our use of machines.
Material abundance from markets and technology opens the space for religion, for politics, and for choices of how to live, socially and individually . . . ”
Consider the name of the section: The Meaning of Life. Now read these words again: “We are materially focused, for a reason — to open the aperture on how we may choose to live amid material abundance.” Is that what I aspire to be? Is this the meaning of life for me?
I hope not. Hey. I do like my vinyl records. My books. Nice things. I like providing for others. But seeing a manifesto that celebrates being “materially focused” makes me squirm.
In the section Becoming Technological Superman, he writes, “We believe that we are, have been, and will always be the masters of technology, not mastered by technology. Victim mentality is a curse in every domain of life, including in our relationship with technology — both unnecessary and self-defeating. We are not victims, we are conquerors.”
I’m not sure what he’s referring to exactly by victims, but I suspect he means everyone who is scared that AI will replace them (or as the digerati are fond of saying, “disrupt” — always a convenient word when you’re referring to someone else’s job being at risk). Anyway, those are rich words as I read them late at night while glued to my digital screen after a long day immersed in technology. I sure don’t feel like a master of technology as I write this.
If anything, I am confronted with a gnawing need to take a more nuanced perspective of technology — to take a step back and be mindful of what digital technology is doing to me and the world around me as opposed to for us. Digital has unlocked a world of sharing art in the moment on Instagram, but living in the digital world also means coping with the mental stress of doom scrolling and witnessing marginalized people such as the trans community constantly attacked on platforms such as Twitter/X and here on LinkedIn.
AI — the real focus of Andreessen’s attention — amplifies the good and the bad, for both better and worse. AI is the sword of the conqueror that Andreessen uplifts. But remember, it’s a double-edged sword. Spotify’s AI-powered algorithms do a remarkable job broadening your musical tastes — the all-knowing dorm mate you knew in college who knew about everything hip and new and enriched your world. Generative AI can help writers from ideation to creation and improve white-collar worker productivity in ways far beyond the scope of this post (so long as you are aware of gen AI’s flaws).
But AI is also a threat to fundamental human expression in the arts, too — a reality that was made clear even before the launch of ChatGPT, when Andreessen’s own company, Andressen Hurwitz, published a provocative post, “Art Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Machine-Generated.” The post’s subtitle “Why AI models will replace artists long before they’ll replace programmers” — gives you a good sense of its contents. I suggest you read it especially if you are wondering what the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike was really about. It’s written with the steely tone and focus of a business (with deep pockets) that views art as nothing more than a form of money making — a business that Andreessen founded.
And then of course there is the matter of who will benefit from this world of material abundance unleashed by technology. Certainly Andreessen, those in his orbit, and to some extent, people like me. But there is a vast gulf between Andreessen’s world and even someone like me living a middle-class lifestyle. Andreessen unwittingly underscored the vastness of this rift when he wrote,
Our enemy is the ivory tower, the know-it-all credentialed expert worldview, indulging in abstract theories, luxury beliefs, social engineering, disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable — playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences.
If anyone is living in an ivory tower, Andreessen and his Silicon Valley billionaire elite are. I have benefitted from American capitalism, but I have also tasted its underside, including job loss and a real fear of ever getting sick lest I actually need to go to the hospital and become financially devastated by the U.S. healthcare system (if you are self-insured as I am, you understand). I have material comforts, but they are fragile. When if ever has Andreessen experienced any of this?
There is a large swath of society that lives even farther beyond the reach of Andreessen’s world — those living on the wrong side of the digital divide. Many other writers have critiqued this aspect of Techno-Optimist manifesto far more eloquently than I would, including a thoughtful take by Amanda Silberling, Dominic-Madori Davis, and Kyle Wigger: “When Was the Last Time Marc Andreesseen Talked to a Poor Person?”
Read Andreessen’s manifesto. Then read “When Was the Last Time Marc Andreesseen Talked to a Poor Person?” for a dose of compassion and humanity to balance the techno-optimism. And after that? Look in the mirror. Take a hard look.