Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen posted a manifesto on the a16z website, calling for “techno-optimism” in a frenzied, 5,000-word blog post that somehow manages to re-invent Reaganomics, propose the colonization of outer space and unironically answer a question with the phrase “QED.”
Andreessen’s vision of techno-optimism could seem inspiring: He imagines a Libertarian-esque world where technology solves all of our problems, poverty and climate change are eradicated, and an honest meritocracy reigns supreme. Though Andreessen may call us “Communists and Luddites” for saying so, his dreams are unrealistic, and founded upon a flawed premise that tech exclusively makes the world better.
First, we need to remember the biases that Andreessen brings to the table, mainly that he is absurdly wealthy (worth an estimated $1.35 billion as of September 2022) and that his absurd wealth is largely tied to the investments of his namesake tech venture fund. So, he inherently is going to push for his techno-optimist vision, because the success of tech companies means he gets even more rich. When you have a financial stake in something, you become biased: This is why, as reporters, we can’t buy Netflix stock, then turn around and write an article about why Netflix is going to have a great Q4.
But money can be blinding. Early on in his essay, Andreessen writes, “We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology.” A16z is increasingly investing in defense companies, including Palmer Luckey’s controversial startup Anduril, which manufactures autonomous weapons. Is war the problem these companies are solving? What does “solve” even mean in the context of conflicts like the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza — isn’t the true solution an end to conflict?
Another inconsistency lies in Andreessen’s assertion that “technological innovation in a market system is inherently philanthropic, by a 50:1 ratio.” He references economist William Nordhaus’ claim that those who create technology only retain 2% of its economic value, so the other 98% “flows through to society.”
“Who gets more value from a new technology, the single company that makes it, or the millions or billions of people who use it to improve their lives?” asks Andreessen.
We won’t lie and say that tech startups have not made our lives easier. If we’re out too late and the subway isn’t running, we can take an Uber or Lyft. If we want to buy a book and get it delivered to our doors by the end of the day, we can order it on Amazon. But to deny the negative impacts of these companies is to move through the world with blinders up.
Furthermore, it’s implicit — but not stated in Andreessen’s argument — that these platforms have effectively made large swathes of society renters, and the platforms, the landlords. Perhaps he needs a refresher on the ills of the “rentier economy” and how antithetical it is to innovators and entrepreneurship?
When was the last time Marc Andreessen walked through the streets of San Francisco, where wealthy tech workers pretend that they don’t see the homeless encampments outside of their companies’ HQ?
When was the last time Marc Andreessen talked to a poor person — or an Instacart shopper struggling to make ends meet, for that matter?
Andreessen’s argument is a contemporary rehashing of trickle-down economics, the notorious Reagan-era idea that as rich people get richer, some of that wealth will “trickle down” to the poor. But this theory has been repeatedly debunked. Again: Do Amazon warehouse workers really get their fair share?
At one point, Andreessen makes the case that free markets “prevent monopolies” because the “market naturally disciplines.” As any third-party Amazon seller will tell you — or anyone who’s tried to get Eras Tour tickets — this is a point easily disproved. Andreessen may argue that the U.S. market isn’t truly “free” in the sense that it’s regulated by agencies and the lawmakers who empower those agencies to enforce policy. But the U.S. has had its fair share of stretches of laissez-faire tech oversight, and each has spawned — not stifled — tech giants strongly inclined to crush competition.
Andreessen’s motivations are further crystalized when he makes a list of whom he considers to be his enemies.
In that section, he lists off what he feels has subjugated society to “mass demoralization.” On this list is a mention of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 17 objectives that were created to inspire nations to strive toward peace. According to Andreessen, these are the so-called enemies “against technology and life:” environmental sustainability, reduced gender inequalities, the elimination of poverty or hunger, and more good jobs.
How are these 17 goals against technology and life, when technology is already being used to achieve more life — already being used to make clean water, alleviate mass production and generate clean energy? He has a vague, empty way of writing that leaves more questions than answers; it brings forth the idea that he has probably never read the 17 Sustainable Goals, and that instead he is using it as a code word for something else. Then, Andreessen decries ESG stakeholder capitalism, tech ethics, trust and safety, and risk management as enemies to his cause.
What are you really trying to say, Marc? That regulation and accountability are bad? That we should pursue the development of technology at the expense of all else, in hopes that the world will be better if Amazon stock breaks $200 per share?
Andreessen has a coded way of speaking in general, so it’s no wonder that he takes such umbrage with the UN’s goals of supporting those most at risk. He talks about the planet being “dramatically underpopulated” and specifically calls out the way “developed societies” are dwindling in population, a seeming endorsement of one of the core tenets of pronatalism. He wants 50 billion people to be on earth (and then for some of us to colonize outer space), and says the “markets” can generate the money needed to fund social welfare programs. (We must repeat the question: Has this man been to San Francisco lately?) He also mentions that Universal Basic Income “would turn people into zoo animals to be farmed by the state.” (Sam Altman would no doubt disagree.) He wants us to work, to be productive, “to be proud.”
The missing link here is how we can use tech to actually take care of people; how to feed them, clothe them, how to make sure the planet doesn’t reach such high temperatures that we all just melt away. What is missing here is that San Francisco is already the tech hub of the world and is one of the most unequal places in the universe, both socially and economically. What is missing here is that the technological revolution made it easier to hail an Uber or order food delivery, but did nothing about how those drivers and delivery people are being exploited, and how some live in their cars to sustain a decent wage.
There are lines and lines to analyze in his manifesto, but it all goes back to the point that what’s missing here is life: the element of living and all its nuances. He takes an either “you are for technology” or “against it” approach to actually utilizing productivity to help make lives better. He talks about the economic frameworks that life is spun around, without mentioning the intricate ways it actually impacts people.
Plenty of tech giants speak of creating a world they have no grasp on. We watch as Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg “moves fast and breaks things” and then ends up testifying before Congress about election interference. We watch as OpenAI founder Sam Altman draws parallels between himself and Robert Oppenheimer, not stopping to think so much about whether or not it’s a good thing to push the limits of technological innovation at any cost.
Andreessen is a product — and an engineer — of a tech bubble that doesn’t understand the people whom it purports to serve.