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Marc Andreessen: Ditch sustainability and technology ethics if you want a better future
Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen takes the gloves off in his new Techno-Optimist's Manifesto
It’s been two days since venture capitalist Marc Andreessen published his much-discussed Techno-Optimist’s Manifesto, and I already feel as if I’m late to the party.
Reading through the flurry of attention it’s already received, the manifesto was clearly a hit for some readers as it flew the flag for full-speed technology innovation in the face of a web of lies about dystopian futures — unhindered by ethics, or responsibility, or even sustainable development.
For others, it raised a red flag for pretty much the same reasons.
Either way, the manifesto is stirring up discussions around the role of technology in society. And I’m all for this. We need more than ever to be talking about our relationship with the future in a technologically complex world.
Yet much as I appreciate Marc’s perspective in a number of places, I find his manifesto something of a spaghetti mess of cherry picked ideas that does anything but inspire optimism in me.
I live and breathe advanced technologies in my work. I revel in their potential. And I’m excited by the opportunities they open up. At the same time, I’m deeply cognizant of the possibilities of harm they come with, and the growing need to be innovative in how we navigate emergent risks.
This is why so much of my work focuses on pathways to innovating in ways that are socially responsive and responsible.
The trouble is, those terms “responsive” and “responsible” seem to have no place in Andreessen’s market-driven and permissionless techno-future. And that, to me, is a problem.
The manifesto starts out quite provocatively with the statement “we are being lied to”. The lies, it turns out, are that we’re being told to be “angry, bitter, and resentful about technology”; to be pessimistic; to “denounce our birthright — our intelligence, our control over nature, our ability to build a better world”; to be “miserable about the future”.
I’m not sure who the “we” are here, or who is doing the telling, but this doesn’t sound like the world I live in, or the one I study and write about.
Of course, there are deep concerns about the impacts of emerging technologies on lives, livelihoods, and and the world we live in. And for good reason — pretty much every problem we face in the world today has its roots in previous technological innovations.
But I also see excitement and optimism around new technologies and what they’re enabling us to achieve — as individuals and communities, and as a species. As humans we are incredibly adept at adopting new technologies and adapting them in ways that bring value to our lives.
In other words, our collective relationship with technology is complex. And it’s certainly not monolithic.
Yet by creating a polarizing and questionable narrative around the lies we’re told about the dangers of technology, Andreessen manufactures a stage on which he can do battle with a mythical foe — and hopefully come out victorious.
This sense of a fight comes out hard and strong in the manifesto as Andreessen talks about the enemies of technological progress — not people per se, but ideas that people hold and are guided by.
These “enemies” include sustainability, the sustainable development goals, social responsibility, trust and safety, tech ethics, risk management, and the precautionary principle.
I’m sure he’d of included responsible innovation to the list given half a chance.
I have to wonder if Andreessen simply doesn’t understand how these and similar concepts create pathways to innovating in ways that put people and humanity at the center of the process, or whether he’s just being provocative. The result though is a quite startling lack of awareness of the potential harm that unfettered and unthinking innovation can cause.
The reality is that we know from a wealth of experience across human history that technology can and does lead to harm. At a granular level, the power of emerging technologies cuts both ways — it has the power to destroy as well as create value.
The amazing thing is — and Andreessen gets this right — that the overall trend through history has been one of improvement through technology innovation, especially if you’re selective in your metrics of what constitutes progress and you brush over some of the details.
But by indulging in such technological “foreshortening” where the deep complexities of our technological history are reduced to over-simplistic trends, the pain and suffering in the detail is lost.
From a zoomed out utilitarian perspective, we clearly have material and medical advantages now that didn’t exist in the past. But when we zoom in and look at the human cost of progress, the picture is far less attractive — especially when viewed through the lens of different values and expectations around what brings meaning to life and personhood.
If we’re not careful, technological foreshortening becomes a neat way of saying that some people will inevitably suffer as we strive to build someone else’s dream of a better future, and that’s OK.
This, though is a utilitarian perspective that doesn’t sit well with me, especially when I begin to ask who decides who will suffer and who will thrive.
What makes this more complex still is that we live at a time where the consequences of our actions are increasingly unpredictable. This is partly a result of us pushing hard against the limits of living on a finite planet within finite resources, but with near-infinite ambitions. As a result, past technological successes are no guarantee of future wins.
It’s a little like stretching an elastic band and assuming you can continue stretching it forever. Sadly, the laws of physics quickly put paid to such childish notions.
It’s because of the granularity of the impacts of technology innovation, the growing non-linearity of the relationship between technological cause and societal effect, and the increasing uncertainty around whether we will always be able to innovate our way out of the problems caused by previous good ideas, that concepts like sustainability, trust, ethics, and responsible innovation are so important to our collective future.
These are not the enemies of a vibrant and promise filled future, but critical components of achieving it.
Hopefully as discussions continue around the Techno-Optimists Manifesto this isn’t lost, and more nuanced approaches emerge to how we can collectively build the future we aspire to.