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The Religion of the Engineers is the Hopium of Silicon Valley
More on Andreessen and "tech optimism"
Marc Andreessen’s recent “tech optimist manifesto” is one of the most significant statements of Silicon Valley ideology. As I’ve written already, it’s actually less a political manifesto than an apostolic credo for the Religion of Progress. The words “we believe” appear no less than 113 times in the text, not counting synonyms.
The core precept of this secular religion is faith in technology. From Andreessen’s opening section: “We believe growth is progress … the only perpetual source of growth is technology … this is why we are not still living in mud huts … this is why our descendents [sic] will live in the stars.”
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Andreessen invokes the right wing economist, Friedrich von Hayek, as one of the “patron saints” of this dogma. That might seem like a surprising assertion. Hayek was ferociously critical of what he described as the “religion of the engineers” – the efforts of Saint-Simon’s followers to create a quasi-messianic faith applying engineering insights to society. Their fervid belief in the inevitable benefits of progress purportedly justified the efforts of an elite to remake society along better and more rational lines.
Hayek quotes an early Saint-Simonian journal as describing a program to “develop and expand the principles of a philosophy of human nature based on the recognition that the destiny of our race is to exploit and modify external nature to its greatest advantage.” Compare to Andreessen: “We believe in nature, but we also believe in overcoming nature. We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.”
The obvious difference is that the earlier religion of the engineers glorified the state, while the new one glorifies markets (that’s why Hayek is one of its patron saints). But the similarities are at least as important. Both the old time religion and the new one invoke grand visions to wave away the mess, disagreements and complexities of the present. They depict those who oppose the actions of a tiny self-elected elite as champions of ignorance and enemies of progress. If we only just let the engineers run things, we could be sure that our descendants will have the universe for their inheritance.
I’ve been trying to work out my thoughts about the relationship between the old and the new religions of the engineers for years. Hayek plays an interesting and complicated role, as erstwhile CT contributor, Corey Robin has pointed out. His suggestion that rich elites will and should play a crucial role in guiding the progress of an apparently decentralized and pluralistic system helps justify the world-shaping ambitions of founders. So too, does Schumpeter’s theory of the entrepreneur and of the general benefits of monopoly. But my sense of what is going on was really crystallized by Daron Acemoglu’s and Simon Johnson’s recent book, Power and Progress.
This book gets Andreessen’s shtick down cold, in a book that was published well before the manifesto (Andreessen is expressing the collective wisdom of those around him as much as his own thoughts). Acemoglu and Johnson describe a standard optimistic mythology, according to which we are “heading relentlessly toward a better world, thanks to unprecedented advances in technology.” Whatever problems we experience are the birth pangs of a better world that is just around the corner. In their description, “[p]eople understand that not everything promised by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or even Steve Jobs will likely come to pass. But, as a world, we have become infused by their techno-optimism. Everyone everywhere should innovate as much as they can, figure out what works, and iron out the rough edges later.”
More specifically, the book explains exactly how claims about the awesome freedoms of the markets are interwoven with practical restrictions on people’s liberties. It emphasizes the importance of Jeremy Bentham’s ideas about the general benefits of surveillance for economy and politics: “before the panopticon was a prison, it was a factory.” These ideas paved the way for factories that turned workers into “mere cogs” and the later notions of Frederick Taylor and others who looked to use new technologies of surveillance to squeeze as much productivity out of workers. The standard response is that everyone benefits from this in the long run, but Acemoglu and Johnson stress that this is hardly a given. How the benefits are distributed depends on politics, and specifically on whether those who are on the receiving end are able to organize and ally with others, to create “countervailing power” that ensures that the benefits of new technologies are evenly distributed, and to avoid technological trajectories that maximize on exploitation rather than general benefits.
These historical lessons have relevance today. I’ve heard it said (correctly or incorrectly) that Andreessen’s tirade was largely motivated by his anger at AI skeptics. Certainly, one of his proposed articles of faith is that “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.” Acemoglu and Johnson point out that AI is regularly being used to replace workers or to surveil them. They stress that this is a political decision, rather than an inevitable consequence of technology. We can choose differently, and we ought to.
Like other religions - like Marxism too for that matter - the religion of the engineers is centered on a myth about the world to come. A lot of people talk about the influence of science fiction on Silicon Valley, and how people like Peter Thiel and the Paypal Mafia were inspired by Neal Stephenson’s ideas about money. Stephenson is an important part of the story that Silicon Valley tells itself about its present – the Metaverse, Google Earth and so on. But I can’t help wondering if the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks (cited for example by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk as core texts) are more important to the stories that Silicon Valley tells itself about the future.
Banks’ future is one where humanity (I simplify here – the Culture’s relationship to actual Earth-humans is complicated, and much happens in our past, Elsewhere in the Galaxy) has figured out how to produce universal abundance. Within very broad reason, the people of the Culture can have whatever they want, traveling the universe in massive starships, constructing vast Orbitals, glanding drugs, having lots of sex, changing gender at a whim (Musk may have changed his mind on that bit) and throwing wild parties, all overseen by more-or-less benign AIs. It’s a very attractive future, where socialism and libertarianism blur into each other.
I can’t say whether Andreessen’s manifesto is directly influenced by Banks’ novels, but its imagined trajectory at the least adjacent, with AI as “our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone” and a future in which:
We believe the global population can quite easily expand to 50 billion people or more, and then far beyond that as we ultimately settle other planets. We believe that out of all of these people will come scientists, technologists, artists, and visionaries beyond our wildest dreams. We believe the ultimate mission of technology is to advance life both on Earth and in the stars.
In contrast, I am reasonably sure that Banks would have absolutely fucking hated the tech optimist manifesto and the project behind it. His books have plenty to say about people who promise paradise tomorrow to justify purgatory and hell today. None of it is complimentary. His books are all about the complexities and the tragedies of politics.
There isn’t any room for complexity in Andreessen’s vision. The politics are all stripped out. There is only a struggle between the Good who embrace technological progress, and the Enemies of Progress.
The religion of the engineers is the hopium of Silicon Valley elites. It’s less a complex theology than an eschatological soporific, a prosperity gospel for venture capitalists, founders and wannabes. It tells its votaries that profits and progress point in exactly the same direction, and that by doing well they will most certainly do good. It should barely need pointing out that the actual problems and promise of technology lie in the current political struggles that this vision of the future waves away.
[also published at Crooked Timber as part of a seminar on the ideologies of Silicon Valley]
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