Wednesday, November 1, 2023

From the people who told you crypto was the next big thing...

If you haven't already, you're probably going to be hearing a lot about techno-optimism in general and this manifesto by Marc Andreessen in particular and be warned, it's going to be bad. 

Of course, that won't be your first impression. Like effective altruism, which largely comes from the same bunch, the movement/philosophy sounds pretty good when presented in thumbnail form:

- The belief that technological innovation is the most important and certainly the most sustainable driver of economic growth is so obvious as to be a truism.

- The idea that we should focus primarily on increasing capacity rather than reducing demand is entirely reasonable.

- The notion that we should all be more optimistic about technology is a not particularly consequential but not objectionable approach.

If that were all there was to the movement it wouldn't exactly justify the hype but it would be mostly harmless. Unfortunately, that brief description leaves out the most important and troubling parts.

First off, the movement is very much an expression of prime Silicon Valley flakiness. Those of us who have spent too much time following the tweets and bizarre quotes from Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk, et al. will pick up on lots of familiar motifs and dog whistles, though particularly in the manifesto, those whistles tend to be pitched well within the range of human hearing.

When you get to the part about Andreessen's concern over declining birth rates in certain countries, it helps to know the context. We've done at least two posts on hipster eugenics, but in case you've forgotten, here are some relevant passages from the definitive Business Insider article by Julia Black. [emphasis and commentary added]

Malcolm, 36, and his wife, Simone, 35, are "pronatalists," part of a quiet but growing movement taking hold in wealthy tech and venture-capitalist circles. People like the Collinses fear that falling birth rates in certain developed countries like the United States and most of Europe will lead to the extinction of cultures, the breakdown of economies, and, ultimately, the collapse of civilization. [As has been pointed out numerous times (including this post by Joseph), these nations maintain a growing population though immigration which suggests that these particular pro-natalists have less of an issue with birth rates and more of an issue with which people are being born -- MP] It's a theory that Elon Musk has championed on his Twitter feed, that Ross Douthat has defended in The New York Times' opinion pages, and that Joe Rogan and the billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen [pretty much the king of Ithuvania -- MP] bantered about on "The Joe Rogan Experience." It's also, alarmingly, been used by some to justify white supremacy around the world, from the tiki-torch-carrying marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting "You will not replace us" to the mosque shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who opened his 2019 manifesto: "It's the birthrates. It's the birthrates. It's the birthrates."


The payoff won't be immediate, Simone said, but she believes if that small circle puts the right plans into place, their successors will "become the new dominant leading classes in the world." [Boy, that has a familiar ring to it -- MP]


These worries tend to focus on one class of people in particular, which pronatalists use various euphemisms to express. In August, Elon's father, Errol Musk, told me that he was worried about low birth rates in what he called "productive nations." The Collinses call it "cosmopolitan society." Elon Musk himself has tweeted about the movie "Idiocracy," in which the intelligent elite stop procreating, allowing the unintelligent to populate the earth.

The manifesto itself is basically a Randian/ libertarian screed with a few truisms and vague inspiring statements about technology. Not surprisingly, regulators and environmentalist are held responsible for most of the world's ills.

The main tenant of the movement when it comes to technology is the belief that, other than regulation, it is pessimism and doubt that keeps us from having this near utopia. Just as with the Great Pumpkin, flying cars and fusion reactors won't appear unless everyone sincerely believes.

 One of the many interesting contradictions in the movement is that they ache with nostalgia for the world of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program and all the other wonders from an era which, like all good Randians, they consider a dystopian hellscape. Remember, Atlas Shrugged was Rand's take on Eisenhower's America. 

These somewhat disturbing antecedents are reinforced by the extended passage from Nietzsche and the weird, almost chant-like cadences of the manifesto:

Our enemy is stagnation.

Our enemy is anti-merit, anti-ambition, anti-striving, anti-achievement, anti-greatness.

Our enemy is statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, central planning, socialism.

Our enemy is bureaucracy, vetocracy, gerontocracy, blind deference to tradition.

Our enemy is corruption, regulatory capture, monopolies, cartels.

[It might be fun at this to veer off topic and delve into how Andreessen made his fortune, but we need to stay on the subject.]

I apologize for this post meandering about without a coherent central thesis, but with this material, it's difficult to do anything else. The choppiness gives the feel if an interminable tweet thread while 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. 

All of which might be forgiven if there was anything here that could pass for a fresh insight or idea, but if you've followed Andreessen or Musk or Thiel or any of that crowd, everything here will be familiar and will not have improved at all in the retelling.

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