Newsletter Week 14: The problem with rampant technology; AI “assists” in the creation of journal articles; authors join musicians as Spotify serfs; plus three people to follow and three books to read.
Marc Andreessen says “trust technology.” Here’s why that’s dangerous
Mark Andreessen of the venture firm Andreessen-Horowitz published “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” I have to give him credit for putting down all the feckless and unsupported assumptions of the Silicon Valley fantasists in one place. His manifesto is getting wide circulation and is becoming popular in a college-sophomore-reading-Ayn-Rand vein. As an analyst of technologists and creator of technology for four decades now, and I feel a need to poke a few holes in this argument for how unfettered technology will solve all of society’s problems.
Here’s how Andreessen begins:
We are being lied to.
We are told that technology takes our jobs, reduces our wages, increases inequality, threatens our health, ruins the environment, degrades our society, corrupts our children, impairs our humanity, threatens our future, and is ever on the verge of ruining everything.
We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology.
We are told to be pessimistic.
The myth of Prometheus – in various updated forms like Frankenstein, Oppenheimer, and Terminator – haunts our nightmares.
We are told to denounce our birthright – our intelligence, our control over nature, our ability to build a better world.
We are told to be miserable about the future.
Our civilization was built on technology.
Our civilization is built on technology.
Technology is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential.
For hundreds of years, we properly glorified this – until recently.
I am here to bring the good news.
We can advance to a far superior way of living, and of being.
We have the tools, the systems, the ideas.
We have the will.
It is time, once again, to raise the technology flag.
It is time to be Techno-Optimists.
Optimists bore me because the devil is always in the implementation. Belief alone will get you nowhere. And of all things to believe in, “technology” is far too broad and varied to be an object of religious fervor. I don’t believe (broadly) in “technology,” “money,” “faith,” or even “love.” Sometimes technology sucks. Sometimes faith kills. Sometimes love is an excuse not to face reality. What I believe in is honest reasoning. And honest reasoning tells you that sometimes technology is bad, or even evil.
It is no coincidence that the whole first section of this is in the passive voice. “We are being lied to” sets up a straw man for Andreessen to knock down. No one realistically believes that technology is “bad” as this manifesto suggests. (Consider the miraculous mobile devices and internet that these techno-pessimists are using to complain about it.)
Naturally, the mechanism by which the techno-optimists are going to propel the world forward is unbridled capitalism. Here’s how Andreessen puts it:
We believe free markets are the most effective way to organize a technological economy. Willing buyer meets willing seller, a price is struck, both sides benefit from the exchange or it doesn’t happen. Profits are the incentive for producing supply that fulfills demand. Prices encode information about supply and demand. Markets cause entrepreneurs to seek out high prices as a signal of opportunity to create new wealth by driving those prices down.
The irony in this paean to free markets is that Silicon Valley investors like Andreessen hate free markets. Free markets constrain profits. Monopolies boost profits. Any VC won’t invest unless you can prove you have competitive “moats” — proprietary technology, patents, exclusive deals — that lock up customers and block competitors. The techno-optimist’s bible is Blitzscaling — a manual for how to grow so fast that competition can’t get a foothold. Among the world’s most valuable companies are Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple, companies that lock in customers, crush competitors, block new entrants, and as a result can ignore customer needs at little risk.
Then there are these gems:
The economist William Nordhaus has shown that creators of technology are only able to capture about 2% of the economic value created by that technology. The other 98% flows through to society in the form of what economists call social surplus. Technological innovation in a market system is inherently philanthropic, by a 50:1 ratio. 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? QED. . . .
We believe a market sets wages as a function of the marginal productivity of the worker. Therefore technology – which raises productivity – drives wages up, not down. This is perhaps the most counterintuitive idea in all of economics, but it’s true, and we have 300 years of history that prove it.
It is true that technology has raised the average standard of living and reduced poverty around the world. Hurrah!
It does not follow that every technology advance is good and there should be no constraints.
We are rapidly headed for a world where the skilled attain new skills and thrive and the unskilled find themselves with minimum wage jobs and priced out of anything desirable. Technology wins. Capitalism wins. Fuck the poor.
Of course, at the top of this list of great effects of technology is AI:
We believe Artificial Intelligence is best thought of as a universal problem solver. And we have a lot of problems to solve.
We believe Artificial Intelligence can save lives – if we let it. Medicine, among many other fields, is in the stone age compared to what we can achieve with joined human and machine intelligence working on new cures. There are scores of common causes of death that can be fixed with AI, from car crashes to pandemics to wartime friendly fire.
We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.
In other words, “trust me, this stuff is good for the most part.”
But the fact remains that nobody really knows where any given AI result comes from. AI behaves in ways that confuse its creators and is often wrong. But it’s “technology” so we are supposed to believe that of course, it will help us and save lives once we remove the guardrails.
And finally, of course, the plea to trust tech, trust money, trust capitalism, trust Andreessen and his cadre of dreamers:
We have enemies.
Our enemies are not bad people – but rather bad ideas.
Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades – against technology and against life – under varying names like “existential risk”, “sustainability”, “ESG”, “Sustainable Development Goals”, “social responsibility”, “stakeholder capitalism”, “Precautionary Principle”, “trust and safety”, “tech ethics”, “risk management”, “de-growth”, “the limits of growth”.
God forbid we should stop a minute and consider what a few white men with infinite power and no constraints could get to happen. “Techno-optimism” purports to be a collective philosophy. But instead, it really elects the high priests of technology and capital to make decisions free from regulation or constraint. Hey, it might work out great. Why not be optimistic?
Did you ever try to convince your health insurance company to cover your life-saving treatment?
Did you ever try to get your Tesla serviced?
Did you ever wonder why you have to waste time scanning your own products at the drugstore check out?
Or why the number of homeless people is exploding?
I’m not really bought in on techno-optimism. How about you?
News for authors and others who think
Academic publisher Springer announced an AI assistant to help people write science papers. “It has been specifically trained on academic literature, spanning 447+ areas of study, more than 2,000 field-specific topics and on over 1 million edits on papers published including those in leading Nature journals.” If there is a form of writing I’d rather not proliferate by AI, it’s passive, prolix, jargon-laden, and impenetrable academic prose.
Spotify in the UK and Australia will give its premium subscribers 15 hours of audiobook listening at no additional charge. Audiobooks are among the most popular and highly compensated pieces of audio content now available. It’s unlikely that licensing them to a streaming service will maintain that value. Ask any musician how that worked out for them.
Texas schools are blocking books while a federal appeals court decides if the extremely broad and vague Texas law regarding inappropriate books is unconstitutional. Multiply this by 50 different state laws and publishing in the US will become unmanageably complex.
Three people to follow
Kate O’Neill, innovative thinker and tech humanist.
Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe columnist and innovation whisperer.
Charles Mauro, foremost thinker of the essential discipline of “usability science.”
Three books to read
On This Day in History, Sh!t Went Down by James Fell (Bantam, 2023). Irreverent, profanity-laced take on what really happened in historical events.
Good Awkward: How to Embrace the Embarrassing and Celebrate the Cringe to Become the Bravest You by Hannah Pryor (Ideapress, 2023). Yes, a lot of us feel awkward. It doesn’t have to stop us from succeeding.
Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition by Stephen Shapiro (Amplify, 2023). OK, I’ll bite. Can we all stop being average now?