The Techno-Critical Manifesto
Being cynical of tech isn't the same as being "anti-tech"
Venture Capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z from here on out) caused quite the stir this week when it published "The Techno-Optimist Manifesto." The ode to being ‘pro-tech’ makes flashy statements about the transformational benefits of technology and its potential future impact. It also declares that anyone cynical, critical, or fearful of tech — hey, I guess that's me! — is "the enemy."
I don't have issue with “technology good.” Of course technology has had a transformational impact on society. The speed at which we progressed from hunter/gatherer cave dwellers to where we are now is thanks to all forms of technology.
What I do take issue with is labeling anyone with concerns as the enemy.
According to a16z, "Our society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades." It blames varying sources, such as "sustainability, social responsibility, trust and safety, tech ethics and risk management.” In other words, if you wish to halt the forward march of technology for the acceptable reason of "let's make sure this stuff is made with the right intention and delivers the desired outcomes," you can get the fuck out and close the door behind you. It is a strange tone to take: defensive, insecure and immature.
I'm going to say something obvious — don't all those things sound reasonable? Don't they sound like necessary stop gaps and protections to prevent the Wild West techno landscape from running a mock? The opposite of these is what, Theranos? FTX? Look at the gushing praise those two individuals got, especially Holmes. Without any of these precautions, and without critics holding people accountable, technologists have repeatedly shown that they can't be trusted, that they aren't in it for the greater good and that the fame, the ego, and the accolades are all more important. And we, the consumers, the human subjects on which the tech is thrust, always suffer the most.
As Joan Westenberg wrote in their excellent post, Marc Andreessen's Manifesto Won't Eat The World—
"Worse, the manifesto's aggressive, ends-justify-means tone is chilling. Portraying differing views as "enemies" breeds intolerance and extremism. Reasonable people can disagree without making opponents into enemies to be crushed. This path leads not to human flourishing but dehumanization."
The whole manifesto is a bad vibe. It shows that VCs live in a bubble and are out of touch with the rest of humanity. It puts a strange significance on the importance of material goods and abundance. It talks about how tech will create more jobs and higher wages but fails to mention that it's only during upswings (you get fired when the going is tough), and the emergence of AI will likely cut more jobs than it creates. Most glaring, there was no direct mention of climate change. We can wax lyrically about the benefits of technology, but with the planet due to combust into a ball of flames in 30 years — as impending a deadline as any — we haven't even figured out how to recycle yet. Technology does some amazing things, but for the past while, it hasn't been addressing the real issues the world faces. One part of the manifesto reads, "We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology." That's a fair claim. The problem is that most recent technological developments, like VR headsets or AI tools, weren't designed to solve a problem; they were solutions that were then applied to a problem.
I can't help but feel this isn't a manifesto for tech itself but a manifesto for the hype that surrounds tech. Let's not forget that a16z is a venture capital firm. Its goal is to make money, bucketloads of money. From its inception in 2009, it enjoyed one of the frothiest periods of startup boom, backed by the free-flowing money tap and virtually zero interest rates. It had a good run. It succeeded in making a lot of money. But the landscape had changed. The tap is drying up. Interest rates are high — and likely to get higher.
a16z's portfolio doesn't look so juicy right now. Its most recent IPO, Instacart, is down 27% already. One of its more successful IPOs, Groupon, is down 80% since it went public in 2018 (though a16z has long since cashed out). They branched out in crypto with their own fund — who didn't — and that fund is down at least 40%. Clubhouse, who reached unicorn status thanks to a highly-inflated valuation in a funding round led by a16z, is probably worth at least $0 now. Recently, the firm invested the largest individual check ever, some $350 million, to none other than Adam Neumann. True to form, they valued his new company, Flow, at $1 billion on nothing more than a whim. I'm sure that will work out fine? The firm also jumped in with Elon Musk's mission to take Twitter private and run it into the ground. That's one actually going quite well.
All this is to say is that a16z, like many other VC firms, relies on hype. But that's an old playbook, and it's looking more outdated than ever. The incessant fanfare around tech and startups and it’s golden boys is lower than it has been for some time, unless you pivoted to adding AI into your company or decided to "put it on the blockchain." It seems many VCs are feeling the pinch of the current environment and have their backs against the wall. And now they're pushing back, trying to deflect against the haters and build up hype around the tech industry again.
In their world, tech critics and people pushing for sustainability, social responsibility, trust and safety and risk management limit tech's exponential growth. Or, as Marc Andreessen put it —
We believe these captured people are suffering from ressentiment – a witches’ brew of resentment, bitterness, and rage that is causing them to hold mistaken values, values that are damaging to both themselves and the people they care about.
We believe we must help them find their way out of their self-imposed labyrinth of pain.
Nope. We're not in a “labyrinth of pain.” We’re not the enemy. We’re not anti-tech. We just want to see the incredible technological advances serve us, not vice versa. We’d rather they solve problems than create new ones. We want our data and our privacy protected. We want our lives protected. We want technology to co-exist with us, not cause divisions among us. We want those building it to have our best interests at heart. We've become tired of the mistakes made in the past and demand that the next wave of builders do better.
The voices that speak out against tech are an important vessel for holding the tech overlords accountable. Without them, we're silent, and we'll have to sit helplessly as a handful of people design the future of the world we'll live in — whether we like it or not.
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