WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Marc Andreesen is one of the US’s leading VC’s so what he says and thinks can influence tech and startup investments around the world.
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Silicon Valley is atwitter — original meaning intended — over a roughly 5,000-word pro-technology screed posted online Monday by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Rambling and at times incoherent, the document is likely to have the opposite effect of what the writer intended: It might well remind policymakers and regular citizens of the dangers of unbridled technology — and its unaccountable cheerleaders.
Dubbed “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto” Andreessen’s diatribe purports to be a celebration of everything that is good about technological advancement and unfettered markets. The opus — which name-checks oodles of thinkers such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Paul Collier and Julian Simon — also unfortunately comes across as an unhinged attack on some of Andreessen’s self-described enemies. It’s a list that includes (but is not limited to) socialists, Luddites, central planners, bureaucrats and, amusingly, monopolists.
Silicon Valley-types listen to Andreessen because he is tech-industry royalty. He co-founded Netscape, maker of the first commercial web browser, and later the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, whose investments have included Skype, Airbnb and the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase. At age 52, he has been at this for three decades. And he has had a lot to say over the years, including his much-repeated theme that “software is eating the world,” a prescient observation that turned into a winning investment thesis.
Andreessen also fancies himself a public intellectual. The lobby of his Sand Hill Road complex in Menlo Park is a library of books about the tech industry. And he once spoke frequently and openly to journalists before clamming up several years ago. He has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Twitter, for years seeming to post every thought that popped into his head, then going quiet, only to reappear again, particularly when his firm invested in Elon Musk’s acquisition of the site now known as X.
Andreessen doesn’t share his views for the sheer joy of airing them out, of course. He’s clearly concerned that lawmakers will put guardrails on Artificial Intelligence (AI) – which they should but are doing in a rather lame and fragile way.
“We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives,” he writes, deploying a royal “we” throughout to encompass other techno-enthusiasts who share his point of view. “Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.” In his view, AI is no danger; it is here to save us from ourselves – even as criminals quickly weaponise it to run all kinds of nefarious scams and damage.
Another agenda is at play here, of course. Not everything Andreessen Horowitz touches turns to gold. The firm has been a major investor in cryptocurrencies and stands to lose millions from that field’s implosion. Its investment in Twitter at a $44 billion valuation will likely never pay off. Andreessen might just need a win. And he isn’t above putting his thumb on the scale to oppose sorely needed regulation.
The venture capitalist’s grievances are many, as are his out-there pronouncements.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) “would turn people into zoo animals to be farmed by the state.” Global population “easily” could grow to 50 billion (from about 8 billion today)— “and then far beyond that as we ultimately settle other planets.” And he has a Fox News-ish fear of a grab-bag of hobgoblins: “the ivory tower, the know-it-all credentialed expert worldview, indulging in abstract theories, luxury beliefs, social engineering, disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable — playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences.”
He isn’t all paranoia though, fortunately. Andreessen laments the policy failure to promote nuclear power, something that many people see as a laudable goal when it comes to climate change, though he says nothing of nuclear waste or nuclear proliferation.
He’s also right that technological advances have improved the human experience in innumerable ways. He has nary a word to say, though, about the damage done by social media or the impact of concentrated power in the hands of so few — about what you’d expect from someone who has been on the board of Facebook since 2008.
He disdains government in all forms and mentions community in the manifesto only once: to praise the hardy entrepreneurs who “bring home the spoils” for their own lot.
You can practically see the chip on his shoulder — a grudge that might date to his post-collegiate days, when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign accused him of trademark infringement before the two sides settled out of court. He now whines that “our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades — against technology and against life.”
Oh, please. The opposite is true. Our society has rightly celebrated the epic achievements of inventors and builders of products that have brought us much joy and convenience. But we’ve long grown wary of self-serving tech bros (and their manifesti), who are more interested in making their next buck than the general welfare of those who buy their wares.