Thursday, November 2, 2023

Following up on yesterday's post

Via Scott Lemieux (" Checking in on the intellectual giants of Silicon Valley")

Max Read has perhaps the best analysis to date of Marc Andreessen's manifesto, and unlike Noah Smith and Ezra Klein, he has no interest in putting a nice spin on things.

The basic thrust of “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto” is that technology is the key to human thriving, and that certain malign elements in society--Andreessen names “experts,” “bureaucracy,” “sustainability” and “social responsibility” as “enemies”--have convinced us otherwise. These “enemies,” who “are suffering from ressentiment” must be escorted “out of their self-imposed labyrinth of pain,” for the good of humanity, and convinced of the error of their ways. Once their path is cleared, techno-optimists can make “everyone rich, everything cheap, and everything abundant.” Eventually, “our descendents will live in the stars.” He concludes: “We owe the past, and the future. It’s time to be a Techno-Optimist. It’s time to build.”

If that sounds particularly familiar, it may be because “It’s Time to Build” is the title of a post Andreessen wrote in April 2020, in which he offers a broadly similar, if somewhat less lofty, argument: “The problem is inertia… The problem is regulatory capture… Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building?”

Well, yes, indeed. What are you building? One reason that, three and a half years later, Andreessen is reiterating that “it’s time to build” instead of writing posts called “Here’s What I Built During the Building Time I Previously Announced Was Commencing” is that Marc Andreessen has not really built much of anything. 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 so not-building it’s not even the opposite of building, which would be “destroying,” and has the benefit of relating to the real world in some way. It’s ”venture investing in crypto companies,” which is its own little onanistic universe, conceptually and practically unrelated to “building” entirely.

While we're on the subject, let's look at some other recent A16Z investments.

In May 2022, the firm announced the launch of its largest fund to date at $4.5 billion. The fund is set to focus on cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies. The firm stated that $1.5 billion was allocated to seed investments while the remaining $3 billion would be earmarked for venture investments.

In August 2022, the firm announced it would be investing about $350 million in Flow, the latest organization begun by WeWork founder Adam Neumann. The purported aim of Flow is to create a branded product in the housing market with consistent community features, reimagining how real estate works in the US.  The decision was met with some criticism due to Neumann's previous business issues in his time at WeWork. 

The firm committed to $400 million in equity investment towards acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk that completed in October 2022.

Now back to Max

So why bother writing it all out, especially as a 5,000-word statement of purpose placed on the front page of your website? One obvious reason is marketing. a16z competes for start-ups just as start-ups compete for investment, and this kind of manifesto will be particularly attractive to some of them--in particular, the kinds of young right-wingers who tend to run defense and surveillance start-ups and probably use the word “based” in conversation. Andreessen Horowitz has spun up a whole “American Dynamism” practice that “invests in founders and companies that support the national interest: aerospace, defense, public safety, education, housing, supply chain, industrials, and manufacturing.” Its website cites the Apollo Space Program and the Manhattan Project as landmarks of American dynamism.

Praising such examples of highly centralized and coordinated government programs--not to mention investing heavily in businesses reliant on fat government contracts--would seem to contradict the glib anarcho-capitalism of the Techno-Optimist Manifesto. But both are symptomatic of a crisis in Andreessen’s world. After a decade of high-profile failures and embarrassments, venture investing is no longer seen as credible or reliable. The political economy of the U.S. has shifted in labor’s favor, and economists and wonks are increasingly in favor of industrial policy as an engine of growth and stability rather than free-floating individual investment. A V.C. confronted with this reality might both shift his strategy away from software platforms and crypto companies and toward the more reliable proposition of government contractors--and he might also grumble about all the people holding him back.

 [If you haven't already, this might be a good time to get a bit of historical context from our earlier post.]

Andreessen really wants to come off as erudite. As we said yesterday, "the length and pretension ("what the Greeks called techne") call to mind a sophomore philosophy major who came to a dorm room to bum some pot and simply won't shut up." Unfortunately, like Musk, his act is only convincing if you aren't familiar with what he's talking about.

 Read again,

As an example, take the citation of Nick Land--an English accelerationist philosopher who wrote impenetrable but influential books as part of the legendary Warwick CCRU before decamping to Singapore to focus on doing racist tweets--is particularly telling:

Combine technology and markets and you get what Nick Land has termed the techno-capital machine, the engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance.[…] We believe the techno-capital machine is not anti-human – in fact, it may be the most pro-human thing there is. It serves us. The techno-capital machine works for us. All the machines work for us.

For whatever it’s worth, this gets Land exactly backwards: According to his constitutionally pessimistic accelerationism “techno-capital” (not “the techno-capital machine,” Jesus--has Andreessen even bothered to read the stuff he’s approvingly citing?) is our boss, not the other way around; or, more accurately, it’s a kind of far-future alien intelligence using us for its own development and will discard and eliminate us when it reaches self-sufficiency. Land’s most famous quote is “Nothing human survives the near future.”

Look, I’m not really convinced that Land is particularly interesting as a theorist--to the extent he’s redeemable it’s as kind of accidental writer of cosmic horror, a 21st-century H.P. Lovecraft who has similarly turned his pants-pissing anxiety about race into a strikingly ugly but revealing cosmogony--but he is an honest-to-God Weird Freak, not airport-book guy going, like, “technology plus markets equals techno-capital.”


No comments:

Post a Comment