Do you support sustainability, social responsibility, tech ethics, or trust and safety? Congratulations, you’re an enemy of progress. That’s according to the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.
In his new self-published Techno-Optimist Manifesto, Andreessen presents his case for the advancement of technology under capitalism as “virtuous” and capable of creating “abundance that lifts all humans”. Along the way he champions trickle-down economics (famously effective at increasing inequality), claims technology can solve any problem and suggests that slowing AI development is akin to murder.
If you think such proposals sound divorced from reality, you’re right. The harms of the state of technology are many: rampant surveillance, consolidation of power, bias and discrimination in automated decision-making systems, worsening power dynamics and labour conditions as a result of automation, and threats to creative workers from generative AI. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the myriad concerns about social media. The suggestion that people ought to be indiscriminately optimistic about the trajectory of technology is insulting.
Andreessen lambasts academia for being “disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable – playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences”. I have never read a more apt description of Big Tech.
So why should we give this manifesto any time of day? As the co-founder of one of the world’s biggest venture capital firms, Andreessen holds significant power. And he’s far from alone in his thinking – the manifesto offers a glimpse into the belief systems of many tech billionaires. Echoes can be heard of Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous former motto: move fast and break things, of Sam Altman comparing OpenAI to the Manhattan Project, and of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ shared vision of space colonisation. These are the kinds of people who hold a disproportionate amount of influence over our collective digital future.
The Luddites were neither anti-technology nor anti-progress
Tech elites like to cast themselves as radical revolutionaries. But we find ourselves in a relentless cycle of sameness. Tech “disruption” rarely meaningfully replaces much. Rather it rearranges systems so that the disruptor turns a profit, and usually entrenches pre-existing inequalities. Take, for example, the way facial recognition exhibits racialised bias and exacerbates racism in policing. Or how Uber promised disruption but delivered regulatory evasion and precarious, exploitative working conditions for its drivers.
Concealed within the rhetoric of tech progress is preservation of the status quo. The future that tech elites imagine looks remarkably similar to the one we’re in: unchecked power, consolidated wealth, low regulation and minimal consequences when technology proves to be harmful. If we want to talk about actual radical change, let’s talk about abolishing venture capitalism.
It serves tech billionaires well to make it seem as though social progress is intrinsically linked to tech development. They cast themselves as our responsible shepherds; here to save humanity provided they retain the power, capital and market dominance to do so. Anyone who dares get in the way is dismissed as backwards or ignorant. This mischaracterisation goes at least as far back as the early 1800s and the Luddite uprising. The Luddites were neither anti-technology nor anti-progress, but were critical of the ways technology was being used for exploitation. But their name has been so powerfully tarnished it is now regularly used as an insult.
Then as now, when elites misrepresent techno-scepticism as dangerous or backwards, they are trying to direct attention away from rational concerns about manifestations of power and profit.
The brand of optimism wielded by prominent tech industry figures weaponises hope for a better future. It asks us to shy away from the political realities of technology as it stands in favour of a libertarian fantasy (or nightmare). But techno-optimism is not limited to Silicon Valley libertarians; it is also prominent in the futurist left, with some anticipating fully automated luxury communism in which automation is embraced to the fullest to bring forth a post-work society of leisure. Even if this future sounds more amiable than the one on offer from the right, it has a tendency to overlook reality.
Any meaningful, progressive – and dare I say, hopeful – view of the future of technology must be willing to engage with its politics, history and consequences. It is possible for technology to play a prominent and positive role in our collective future but this won’t happen by succumbing to a wilfully ignorant, starry-eyed vision of optimism. Rather it must make space for a politics of refusal; to be able to critically engage with the political economy of technology and to sometimes say no. If that makes me the enemy of progress, so be it.