162 Comments

I think there are two very different definitions of techno-optimism you and Marc are using. You're talking about the need to invest in new technologies and that when humanity has problems, the only way forward is new technology and innovation, and that all of our society should be focused on creation and exploration, not stagnation. Okay, I'm on board with that. Just tell me what to Venmo you for the ticket for that passage. You definitely have a much healthier, more inclusive vision.

However, that's not at all the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley which is being ridiculed by those of us in the technical field, or the tech press familiar with people like Andreessen and Musk. In their mind, a perfect world is ran by technology they own, and which is maintained by their indentured servants.

For example, on the one hand, Musk advocated settling Mars. It would be very difficult but an interesting, and long term, beneficial project. But he callously and casually says "yeah, a lot of people will die" and wants to offer loans for the flight to the red planet on his BFRs, loans which you'd pay off working for him. His version of techno-optimism is that technology will make life better. For him and his friends. If it just so happens to benefit the peasants too, cool beans. Meanwhile he's off ot promote neo-Nazi blue checks and tweet right wing outrage bait and conspiracy theories.

Likewise, Andreessen's worship of AI is rooted in Singularitarianism and Longtermism, he just hides it behind the "e/acc" banner in the same way Scientology hides Xenu behind offering to help with time management skills and annoying tics. He demands to have absolutely no controls, safeguards, or discussions against AI because he thinks that AI emulated how humans think (it does not), can be infinitely advanced (it cannot), and will at some magical point reach parity with humans in every single possible dimension (for stupid reasons involving a guy named Nick Bostrom), and he will then be able to upload his mind to a computer and live forever as digital oligarch (also for stupid reasons, these ones involving a guy named Ray Kurzweil).

If we say "wait, hold on, how can we train AI to benefit the world better," or "let's figure out IP laws around training vast AI models," he has a conniption because according to e/acc tenets, we are violating the march of progress because any interference with technology today might mean that a critical new technology or model isn't invented in the future, like the evil Butterfly Effect. That's the crux of e/acc in the end. The future matters. So much so that it's okay to sacrifice today and rely on humanity pulling itself from the brink an apocalyptic crisis even though it's stupid, expensive, and will cost many lives.

Finally, I feel like I have to point out that exponentially growing GDPs are great, but vast amounts of that wealth have ended up in very few hands. Unless people are going to be able to fully participate in the future and benefit from technology to make their lives legitimately easier, instead of working two jobs and a side hustle to maybe barely afford rent while buying is a deranged fantasy they don't even allow themselves to entertain anymore... Well, I've seen those movies. They don't end well.

But Marc is insisting that GDP growth can be infinite and so are the benefits, so we better get on his path of infinite trickle-down or he'll keep raging that the poors are spoiling his dream future of digital godhood because Singularitarians believe that technological advancement is the only thing that matters because it's exponential, and now also think that exponential development curve is tied to GDP. It's those broken, vicious, and inhuman ideas, along with his entitled self-righteous tone that are being picked apart and ridiculed. If he was genuinely interested in uplifting humanity instead of having a tantrum after a crypto blowout, we would take him more seriously.

Meanwhile, I read Andreessen's screed and am imagining us following down his path into the cramped, sweaty, natalist fleshpit of The World Within.

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I'm totally on board with techno-optimism. Capitalism and technological progress have been the two biggest drivers of a better standard of life for humanity (although I have to note that capitalism is pretty bad at distributing the gains).

As a society, it seems like we're still pretty immature in our thinking about the risks and externalities of new technology. In my opinion, too many people are either going full booster like Andreessen and ignoring any downsides, or full naysayer and making claims like a modest amount of misinformation on social media being one of society's major ills. People seem to have the hardest time taking costs and benefits into account. We also seem to have lost sight of material progress in particular. The most important thing we can do for people is to make sure they have food, housing, healthcare, and so on. But we seem to keep taking our eye off the ball and worrying about things like relative status.

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“Marc lists various “enemies” — not people, but ideas and institutions that he thinks restrict the growth of technology.”

Andreessen is just another whiney tech-bro. Apparently, he forgets taxpayers subsidized most of his education at a State Land Grant University. If he’s not baiting-and-switching naive investors with shitcoins. He’s far from a candidate for canonization. In fact, there are people much smarter and thoughtful than Andreessen that have worked for institutions such as DARPA whose names will never know. These are people who easily could have gone into private enterprise and earned much more. Personally, I’m weary of the worship of the tech-bro culture. I, too, an a techno-optimist, but I see Andreessen, Musk, Dorsey, et alia who are self-referential and give themselves far more credit than they deserve. Being a tech billionaire doesn’t give one license to expound as an expert on everything under the sun. The world and universe are much bigger and more important than the insulated billionaires of Silicon Valley.

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I had more fun looking at the clip art you chose for today's post than I had trying to even read one paragraph of Andreesen's screed. I fall in the Ed Zitron camp (see this week's Substack where he skewers Andreesen) that bloviating posts are just not worth my time these days. Clearly anyone can write on the Internet and even maintain a website (I've done both over the years) but they have to be judged by the content and in this case there is nothing there other than some Randian platitudes and general complaints. Folks should really pay more attention to Molly White if they really want to know where the future of Web3 and assorted other scams.

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Oct 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

The uterine replicator seems just around the corner, technologically. Birth rates are gonna get real weird when rich people in developed countries can decant platoons of babies.

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Oct 21, 2023·edited Oct 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

So happy you inserted that paragraph about animals. Until I reached it I was getting worried that my brain was going to get stuck in an endless loop: “What about animals? What about animals? What about animals…”

Also, why are we so cheap and restrictive on medical research? There are a lot of medical issues to improve and resolve. Like only now has the US government started to get serious about osteoarthritis https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20230626928821/en/AngryArthritis-Founder-and-Osteoarthritis-Patient-Steve-O%E2%80%99Keeffe-Applauds-ARPA-H-Moonshot-to-Find-a-Cure-as-He-Works-to-Eliminate-Joint-Replacements

There should be an international treaty on medical research that pushes governments to spend more. The mRNA tech shows what can be done even in a short period of time when you have money and focus.

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Oct 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

This.

Effective acceleration of technology. Particularly AI.

Don't be a decel.

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Oct 20, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

What metric would you propose for judging whether innovation is accelerating or decelerating?

In other words, how can I even tell whether the optimists or the pessimists are correct about the rate at which fruit (low-hanging or not) is being picked?

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Good article overall - BUT the key thing missing in my opinion is any discussion of the negative externalities of techno-optimism. Yes, with the "right policies", that is taken care of - but realistically in our world, that simply doesn't happen. Some technologies make only minimal sense given the externalities.

Noah's seed example is a good one - the externality of depleting the ability to grow more trees is critical - in this case, his example is a small group where that effect is felt by the people who make the technology change - But in the real world, the externality is often an effect on others (pollution near industrial facilities, etc, etc and of course warming). So, the feedback loop is missing.

The hard problem isn't whether technology can advance or even be generally useful, but how to craft a system where those externalities fit into the equation of what is useful, feasible, etc.... Technology is likely to keep advancing no matter what (positive), but "normative" only happens to the overall population if the externalities really are dealt with.

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I appreciate the "sustainability is technology" call-out and I think it gets to a simple and much deeper disagreement between perhaps Marc and most of the people poo-pooing the manifesto. Everyone has a different definition of technology.

Let's take another "enemy" Marc calls out -- trust and safety. That's technology! In the social media context, it's a solution to "how do you scale conversation". It sometimes has the imprimatur of government, but it's largely a free market response. Meta has paid moderators. Reddit has volunteers and more granular communities. X is doing a free for all but you have to pay money. BlueSky and the Fediverse are trying more distributed approaches. Some will fail. Some will find product market fit. Some are more organizational or business methods than hard tech. Some are clever techniques like shadow banning. And some are actual hard tech than using machine learning.

Marc doesn't think that's real tech because he doesn't think trust and safety solve real problems. But if you buy that things like disinfo, polarization, harassment, spam, and social media induced depression are both real and bad, then attempts to solve this are as real a "technology" as attempts to cure disease or male pattern baldness or whatever else bothers people these days.

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Oct 20, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Techno-optimism is thus much more than an argument about the institutions of today or the resource allocations of today. It’s a faith in humanity — and all sentient beings — propelling ourselves forward into the infinite tomorrow.

Wow. A Vision for Humans.

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Nice article for the weekend

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Good luck. What's missing is ecology and the interdependence of species. You've left out the rest of life on the planet and the conditions it creates that allow us to survive. Humans are not smart enough to get a techno world right. We are, in fact, messing up the future with technologies that damage ecosystems. In other words, I feel you are thinking about it wrong, leaving out the rest of creation.

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Oct 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Noah, you've just made the case for teaching HumanEcology K-14!!!! Yea!!! Without first instilling the rationale for Active/Normative, the risks will be high. Human Ecology first gels the concept of healthy society and then develops it one on one so it can be experienced by choice in each student's life. Learning it early is key, so is making it experiential -- it then lasts a lifetime. When you can cook a meal responsibly and enjoy sharing it, you get the lesson. Human Ecology sets the table for a really big meal, everyone invited! If it was delivered via our public schools, both humans and animals and their ecosystems, might survive.

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Feels like Stuart Kauffman covered a lot of this 20 years ago - and more elegantly than any of these constructs, with his theory of the adjacent possible and that you even now have Jon Henrich effectively plugging Kauffman tightly into the most comprehensive and well researched picture of western cultural evolution with WEIRD people.... Is it that people haven’t read Kauffman or Henrich? Because if technology is a function of a cultural evolutionary process that grows in complexity and richness as agents and entities multiply and accumulate and which can’t be predicted beyond the inevitability of this accumulation - then the idea of having an opinion on technology is very much like having an opinion on evolution... you can have your opinion but there is a fundamental process at work which is independent of anyone’s opinions... or something like that. You can seek to understand the process - but the whole idea of evaluating and manipulating it and having opinions about it is logically like thinking one can command the wind.

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