A new Silicon Valley manifesto reveals the bleak, dangerous philosophy driving the tech industry
In 1993, Marc Andreessen was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he also worked at the US-government funded National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
With a colleague, the young software engineer authored the Mosaic web browser, which set the standard for cruising the information superhighway in the 1990s.
Andreessen went on to co-found Netscape Communications, making a fortune in 1999 when the company was acquired by AOL for US$4.3 billion.
Since then, through his venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, the outspoken billionaire has become one of the most influential wallets in Silicon Valley. His investments – in companies including Facebook, Foursquare, Github, Lyft, Oculus and Twitter – have definitively shaped tech over the past 15 years. (He once described his approach as “funding imperial, will-to-power people”.)
Because of all this, it’s worth paying attention to Andreessen’s recent “techno-optimist manifesto”. Opening with the claim that “we are being lied to”, the lengthy blog post takes in a section on “becoming technological supermen”, musings on the meaning of life, and a long list of enemies. It offers a revealing glimpse into the philosophy of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, where more technology is the only way forward – and a warning about the kind of world they’re trying to build.
Tech utopia gone sour
Since Silicon Valley’s birth in the 1960s, its promoters have held utopian ideas about technology, from the “new communalism” of Stewart Brand to the cyber-libertarianism of Kevin Kelly and John Perry Barlow. In the 1990s, supporters of this “Californian ideology” saw the rise of the Internet as proof of the growing importance of technology (and the diminishing power of governments).
Andreessen’s essay shows what these ideals have become in 2023. The political and economic worldview beneath its ideas about technology is most visible towards the end of the manifesto, in a list of “enemies”.
Remarkably, these include “sustainability”, “trust and safety”, “tech ethics” and “social responsibility”. According to Andreessen, who describes himself as an “accelerationist”, such ideas are holding back the advance of technology and therefore human progress.
Although the manifesto purports to believe in democracy, what Andreessen really argues for is a kind of technocracy based on “economic strength (financial power), cultural strength (soft power), and military strength”.
This is a vision of dominance. By proposing to abolish concern with ethics and the environment, for example, individuals like Andreessen can have free rein to develop, promote and profit from their inventions (including those funded by taxpayers) without interference.
A colonial vision
We don’t have to look too deeply into history to find parallels to this kind of worldview. Simply put, it is the worldview of colonialism: it sees both nature and other people as domains to be conquered and exploited for “growth”.
Andreessen describes his mission in explicitly colonial terms: “mapping uncharted territory, conquering dragons, and bringing home the spoils for our community”. This is a worldview in which territories must be constantly expanded (“our descendants will live in the stars”) in a perpetual war for supremacy.
Technology has played an instrumental role in colonial conquest. Anthropologist Jared Diamond’s famous “guns, germs, and steel” were all technologies vital to the European conquest of the Americas. We might add to this list ships (including slave ships), navigation instruments, telegraphs, and so on.
Even the technologies of the industrial revolution – so important to the narrative of technological progress imagined by Andreessen and his ilk – were enabled by the availability and exploitation of cheap labour and markets in the Global South.
The mission of techno-optimists appears to be to pick up where the European and American empires of the 19th century left off, using technological, political and economic power to bully, coerce and bludgeon other societies into acquiescence.
For Andreessen, all this is supported, like colonialism, by a kind of social Darwinism. He sees an evolutionary war in which “smart people and smart societies outperform less smart ones on virtually every metric we can measure”.
Andreessen writes “technology doesn’t care about your ethnicity, race, religion, national origin, gender, sexuality, political views, height, weight, hair or lack thereof”. However, his talk of “America and her allies” and “our civilisation” suggests Andreessen himself cares quite a bit about these things. The West should, he implies, embrace its rightful place as the world’s technological (and civilisational) leader.
All this reveals some of what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs really think of the rest of the world, and of us (non-techno-optimists).
We should take it as a warning about the kind of world that Silicon Valley technologists want. It will be a world built with technology, yes, but also a world that values power, force and wealth over all else.
Andreessen is right about one thing: we do need technology. We are unlikely to solve many of the problems facing our planet without it.
But the stripped-down, raw, blunt version of technology – a technology without ethics, without values, and without a conscience – is not the only way. Instead, we need to support technological innovation and at the same time support democratic participation, pluralism, ethics and our natural environment.
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