If you had asked me on October 15th, 2023, how to self describe myself, I might say I was a techno optimist. But on October 16th, Mark Andreesen, the founder of Netscape, released the Techno-optimist manifesto, and I can no longer say that I’m a techno optimist.
In this episode we’ll walk through the quick scan of the document, and the red flags that it raised while looking through it, and where some of the problems lay in the underlying assumptions of the manifesto.
Technology. If you’ve listened to this podcast for more than a few episodes, you realize that that’s one of the underlying themes here, that I’m interested in technology, how it appears in popular culture, how it’s developed, it’s what I’ve researched, written about, taught about, and I think about it a lot.
I think about its promise and potential and what it can offer humanity. And if you had asked me on October 15th, 2023, how to self describe myself, I might say I was a techno optimist. But on October 16th, Mark Andreesen, the founder of Netscape, released the Techno-optimist manifesto, and I can no longer say that I’m a techno optimist.
I’ll explain why in this episode of the Implausipod.
When the manifesto was originally published, I gave it a quick scan, and that scan raised a number of red flags. And throughout the rest of this episode, we’ll look at those red flags as if they were laid down by a surveyor on the landscape. But before we do, I want to go into the value of giving something a quick scan, of jotting down your initial impressions.
I’m going to employ another surveyor’s tool, one of triangulation, of being able to hone in on the target by looking at it from different angles and directions, from different points of view. Because, as we talked about a few episodes ago, that empathetic view of technology requires that triangulation; of being able to step outside of one’s own perspective and view it from the perspective of somebody else. And this can be done for both things we find positive, and things that we find negative as well.
So as is tradition, we’re going to talk about something by chasing down a couple tangents first before we get back to those red flags. But bear with me, it’ll all kind of come together at the end.
So when it comes to the techno optimist manifesto, the thing that really struck me was the ability to identify those red flags, to spot them, to pull them out of the larger text. (And it was a 5200 word text. There was a lot going on in there.) but I think identifying these red flags speaks to something larger: the ability of experts or people heavily involved in the field to identify key elements or themes and figure out where a problem might be lying. It doesn’t matter which field it’s in: whether it’s a mechanic or medical doctor, academic or art historian.
And if that last one rings a bell, it’s because there’s a source for it. In his 2005 book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the process by which an art historian was able to evaluate a statue that was brought into the Getty Museum. and at a glance, the evaluators were able to identify key features that led them to believe that it was a forgery, that the statue in question had never actually ever been in the ground and subsequently recovered. It’s the ability to spot the minutiae of a given artifact or piece of art, and through long experience and knowledge and exposure, be able to determine its authenticity, the validity of a piece of work. And again, this isn’t just an academic thing. It goes across so many fields, crafts, trades, practices. It’s a key, essential element of them.
And to link it back to the ongoing discussions about AI, it’s one of those things that AI generated texts or artifacts often lack. It’s that authenticity. We can sense that there’s something off about the piece. As the saying goes, we can tell by the pixels. So this assemblage of tools that we have, the skills and knowledge and practice and experience, all come together to form what we might call a set of heuristics.
It’s similar to what Kenneth Burke calls equipment for living, and there he’s referring to literature and proverbs function in a way similar to the memes we talked about last episode, but these are the tools that we can use to judge something, and how we come to an assumption about what we’re seeing in front of us. We do this for pretty much everything. But when it’s something that’s particular to our skill or our particular area, then we can make some judgments about it.
And when it comes to those particular topics, perhaps we have a duty to communicate that information, to share that knowledge with the world around us. So that’s what we’re going to get into here with the techno optimist discussion and the red flags, because I’ve read a lot of the texts that Andreesen cites within the manifesto, but obviously have a radically different worldview, and we can, discuss why we might come up with those radically different interpretations at the end.
But before we do, I want to throw one more point into the mix, one more element or angle for our triangulation on the topic at hand, and something I like to call the Forest Hypothesis. Now, this is different than the Dark Forest Hypothesis, where we are, as a species are tiny mice in a universe filled with predators lurking in the darkness (which we’ll touch on next episode). Rather the Forest Hypothesis is related back to the Blink idea, that it’s a way of evaluating knowledge, of evaluating expertise. The Forest Hypothesis basically asks how much can you talk about on a given subject if you’re out in the forest away from any cell phone signal, Wikipedia, handheld device, book, or any other form of external knowledge, something that was extrinsic to yourself.
And it’s a good test. There are people that can expound endlessly on stuff that they know about, and there are those who may be less comfortable discussing things online, or in an academic setting, but you know when push comes to shove, they actually do know things, and they don’t have to just reach out to their Wikipedia on their phone. Now, the analogue to this is the bar talk phenomenon that we used to have, where no one had access to phones, and we’d get into discussions about who could recall what. We could call it the Cliff Claven Corollary, right, where we’re not necessarily sure in the moment, but we can use those rhetorical strategies to ask: “eh, does that sound right to you, or are you just, like, making that up?”
And in the interest of full disclosure, much of the rest of the episode about the red flags came from two conversations that I had with different sets of colleagues about the techno optimist manifesto and the material espoused within. So much of the rest of this episode is going to be me recreating that discussion and talk off the top of my head as best I can. I’ll refer back to specific elements, but without further ado: why I am not a techno optimist.
So, as stated, the Techno Optimist Manifesto was published on the morning of October 16th, 2023. During the day, it started making the rounds on social media, on Mastodon, and elsewhere, and I saw numerous links to it, so I thought I’d dive in and give it a quick look. There’s been articles written about it since, in the intervening ten days or so, but I want to really just capture my thoughts that I had at the time.
I had jotted them down and had them in conversations with colleagues, as stated. So flipping through the manifesto, I kind of gave it a high level skim and a couple of things started to pop out. And these were the red flags that started to be a cause for concern. The first of those was some of the works cited. Now, one of those heuristics that we talked about earlier that you can use whenever you’re evaluating an article is kind of, you read it from the front, you read it from the back, and then you can read the meat of the article itself, which means take a look at the abstract or the introduction, and then take a look at some of the authors they’re citing, because if you’re familiar with them, that can give you an idea of where the conversation’s going to go.
But with respect to the manifesto itself, early on in the work Mark Andreesen starts referring to a number of economists that were influences for the work that he was producing. The first one he mentions is the work of Paul Collier, who wrote an influential book called The Bottom Billion, which talks about development and in the global south. There’s nothing really wrong there. He’s going into some interesting information about what’s happening in the developing economies around the world.
But then Andreesen goes on to cite Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman as influences. Now from a glance and, these are, you know, well known and respected economists, and Hayek in particular for his work on the Knowledge problem. But both of them were influential in other ways, and drove the policy for the Thatcher governments in the UK in the 70s and 80s, as well as the Reagan governments in the U.S. in the 1980s, So they had a very neoliberal bent to them and a lot of the underlying ideology from their economic works are what we still see in policy circles today. Taking a look at the state of the world and the economic system, we may want to questions those underlying influences, and seeing them in this manifesto is raising some red flags again. Now, even though, some economists like say Tyler Cowen would recently would include both Hayek and Friedman is part of the greats of all time, and again, I’m not disputing this: they have a massive influence. But those influences can have outsized effects for millions and billions of people across the world.
Some of the other elements that, showed up as red flags in Mark Andreesen’s work was the section of the manifesto, and just a quick second, whenever you declare something as a manifesto, that in and of itself is a red flag, it’s a cause for, just to maybe look at the document from a particular point of view, to go through it with that fine tooth comb.
A manifesto can be seen as like an operating manual, like “this is what we’re working with; these are our stated assumptions” and sometimes getting that down on paper is fine. It gives you a target that you can refer back to. But when we see a manifesto, we also want look at it with a greater degree of incredulity, to dig a little deeper on what’s included therein.
So in the manifesto, there’s this section of beliefs that Mark Andreesen goes through, where each sentence starts “we believe that dot dot dot”. And beliefs are fine, there’s nothing wrong with having beliefs, but it’s when we have beliefs that are contrary to evidence that it can become a problem. And in the belief section, you see a lot of these statements, where the belief is contra to evidence.
One of the things he says is they believe in… That energy should be too cheap to meter, and that if you have widespread access to this energy that’s too cheap to meter, then that can be a net societal good, and by and large, I agree. Now, the method they decide to get there is part of the problem. They say that through nuclear fission, they will be able to achieve energy that’s too cheap to meter. Now, this is part of the problem, because nuclear fission alone will not get there. Aside from the massive environmental costs of nuclear fission, of the plants that are currently existing (and I’m referring here to an article on phys dot org from 2011, that I still remember), and it was basically saying that at the time in 2011, there was 440 existing nuclear fission reactors that supplied, you know, a portion of the world’s energy. To supply the full energy demand through nothing but nuclear, we would need 15,000 additional nuclear reactors with all the associated costs, the fissile material, the environmental costs, and they’d still be putting out the, you know, the heat, the steam that is released from nuclear reactors. So, there would still be a massive environmental cost from transitioning to that source, and that would require building, like, ten reactors a day, every day, for like half a decade to get us close to those numbers.
There’s no way for us to… as a society build up that kind of capacity through nuclear fission alone. And Andreesen states that that would allow us to provide energy too cheap to meter that we could move away from an oil and gas economy. So, the actual path is through more passive elements like solar, wind, and alternative energy sources, but nuclear fission will not get there, and using nuclear fission to accelerate us into nuclear fusion is also a problem, in that nuclear fusion has always been about some mythical target 20 or 30 years down the road and much like AGI seems to always be off in the future. We’re never quite getting to that point. So citing that as a goal is necessarily a bit of a problem.
We’re barely getting started and we’re already three flags in. Now, the next one is that in this area, they also self identify as apex predators. Earlier, on he draws a comparison to sharks in nature: move or die, and that ties into this apex predator bit later on. He says that they are predators, that they are able to make the lightning “work for us”. It moves directly from their to a return to the “great man theory” lionizing the technologists and industrialists who came before. Hmmm. Really? Do tell. Whenever you’re self identifying as a predator, that’s just like a massive red flag, a warning sign.
And I want to be clear, that there are aspirational elements to the work, it’s just that the aspirational elements are like flowers in a garden filled with these bright red flags.
I can get behind the aspirational elements, but even some of those have a massive disconnect with reality. They see the earth as having a caring capacity of like 50 billion humans. we can barely manage with the 8 billion that we currently have, which is massively overusing the resources available to the tune of requiring three earths worth at current consumption rates. And while the may be able to support 50 billion humans, but that would require a massive change in organizational and resource usage and resort in horrible inequalities across massive amounts of that 50 billion, with a very select few having anything close to the living standards that we have now or that are seen across much of the OECD nations, let alone the globe as a whole.
We see a number of other aspirational elements, other flowers in the garden, in quotes from Richard Feynman, Buckminster Fuller, and others, with odes to the transformative power of science to enlighten us and provide answers to the mysteries of the world around us. But this also comes hand in hand with a de-legitimizing of expertise, using the Feynman quote to propose a return to the “actual scientific method” using “actual information”. Whenever we start seeing echoes of the No True Scotsman fallacy in a text, making distinctions about what counts, once again, red flag. Actual information? Who decides? Isn’t that what science is about?
And from there, the Andreesen leans heavily into accelerationism. And again, this is a massive flag for me personally, whenever someone self identifies as an accelerationist, I start to seriously question everything they’re talking about.
Accelerationism is basically the belief that what capitalism really needs is for the gas to be put all the way down to the floor, to press the pedal all the way down so that we can actually hit “escape velocity” quote-unquote, and move quicker along the curve towards the singularity or whatever.
If you consider technological development as a curve, as a growth curve, then the only way to get higher up it is to go faster. Now, if you look at Geoffrey Moore’s work on innovation in Crossing the Chasm, which is an adaptation of Rogers’ work on the diffusion of innovations, of the innovation adoption curve, there’s a point where any new technology will succeed or fail, based on the point of low down on the slope. If I do the video version of this, we’ll put this on the screen, but basically at the low end of the slope, there’s this little thing, which Moore calls the chasm. And that chasm is where you have the innovators and early adopters have kind of picked up this new tech, and then you’re trying to take that product, that technological tool or artifact out to larger market, to get widespread adoption, and then see if it flies. Basically we’ve seen it with things like virtual reality or DVDs or home video recording, smartphones, whatever. There’s a point where the product might be under development for a while, and then the larger population says, okay, we can use this and they adopt it. And then it sees widespread distribution.
Accelerationism views that as a challenge and views tech more generally. And that, like we said, things need capitalism just really needs more gas, more fuel. Problem with it is that obviously you can’t necessarily tell what’s going to take off, what’s going to get adopted – you can’t necessarily make “fetch” happen, even if you’re a billionaire, and there’s a lot of problems when you start going that fast with no brakes. If the road starts to swerve ahead of you, you might not be able to change direction in time, and this is where the other side of accelerationism comes in.
You see, Accelerationism isn’t necessarily something that’s either left or right. There are accelerations on both sides of the political spectrum. There’s accelerationists on the right, that are pro-capitalist, pro-tech version seen here. There are other accelerationists on the right, and you can go check out the Wikipedia page to see what other groups are associated with it. There’s also accelerationists on the left who view that capitalism is inherently unstable and want to see it go faster because that will expose the iniquities in the system and help it go off the rails so something better can be rebuilt.
You see this in the works of like Slavoj Zizek and other academics on the left though. Zizek himself is kind of… Um, mid, I guess, but you’ll see that amongst those who are critics of capitalism, who also want it to go faster. There’s a problem with both these perspectives and the problem is basically that, and this is the problem I have with accelerationism is that it is a perspective of a tiny elite minority and would result in massive amounts of pain for millions and billions of people, while that acceleration is resolving itself.
While things are going faster, more fuel is getting added to the system. You know, the climatic change that we see because of more fuel literally being added to the system. Just the disruption that we can see happening would cause starvation, job loss, and untold pain and suffering, if the current systems we have are disrupted is also a problem. And so, from my perspective of doing the least pain, of not wanting to see humanity as a whole suffer, then accelerationism is necessarily a bad thing. Let’s find a different way.
Now, this is about the point where the Techno Optimist Manifesto gets into the list of enemies as well, and while that may or may not be typical for a manifesto, I think whenever you’re writing something and you have a enemies list, you know, that’s a warning flag in and of itself.
Now amongst the enemies for the technological optimist are things like sustainability, sustainable development, social responsibility, trust and safety, tech ethics, de-growth, and others besides. And when you start to look about who your enemies are, what you’re against, then you start wondering really what you’re for, right? So the concern here is that any kind of regulation or responsible governance is seen as an enemy, as something to be combated, to be avoided, to be dealt with. And aside from being a massive red flag, it reveals some of the under some of the underlying ethos as well.
This is what they’re against. They’re against regulation, things that were put in place for safety, for ethical use, for management, for sustainability, for our continued existence on the planet. And these are things they’re against. And I think that is, again, a massive warning sign. And from there we get to the last one.
The last red flag sign is a quote that comes up near the end. Now the quote is uncited, unattributed. We don’t see the conviction to actually state who this is from because that may be actually make it too obvious. The quote is as follows:
“Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.”
That quote is from Filippo Marinetti, from 1909, from the Futurist Manifesto which he wrote. If you’re not familiar with Marinetti, here’s the low down, and it’ll highlight the problem. Like I said, it was uncited, but if you know who Marinetti is and the story, then that is the biggest warning flag in the entire document, of the entire list of warning flags that we’ve already seen. Marinetti, of course, is the founder of the Futurist School in Italy and wrote the Futurist Manifesto in 1909.
Here’s some of the elements of futurism: technology, growth, industry, modernization. Okay, but also these other elements: speed, violence, destruction of museums, war as a necessity for purification… Hmmm. Now, Marinetti would go on to get into politics in Italy a few years later, and work with another group of Italians on another manifesto in 1919. That, of course, is the Fascist Manifesto, which he co-authored. So there’s a direct lineage from Marinetti’s work and elements of it that appear in that later manifesto and the works that that was adopted to as well.
If we take all these things, all these red flags together: a list of neoliberal economists, denialism and beliefs contrary to facts while downplaying education, self identifying as predators, accelerationism, lists of enemies, and citing proto-fascist literature. All this combined is a massive red flag and why I am not a techno optimist.
So, that being said, then how would I identify?
And that’s a fantastic question, because judging on the words alone, “Technical Optimist” is pretty close to where I am. I believe that technology can be used as an assistive tool, as we’ve stated prior, and that it can help people out, and is generally an extension of man, that we can use it for adding to our capabilities.
So I might be a techno-optimist, or at least I was until October 16th. Other terms I’ve seen floating around that I could self-identify as include things like techno revivalist, which is close, but not quite. That feels like it ties more into like experimental archeology, where we try and recreate the past or use methods of the past in the modern era to kind of figure out what they were doing. It’s a fascinating field. We should talk about it at some time, but that isn’t really where I am.
Solarpunk isn’t quite where I’m at either because, well, or cyberpunk either. I don’t think I’m really fit within any of the punk genres. I’m pretty straight-laced. I’m a basic B to be honest.
Taking the opposite stance doesn’t work either; I’m not a techno-pessimist. I’m generally hopeful for the opportunities that the new technologies can bring. I think that’s part of the challenge is that there isn’t a good line for where I sit. Aside from what is now defined as a techno optimist. And I don’t think it can be reclaimed because as I went through the number of red flags there, the well is really well… well and truly poisoned and with the breadth of reach that that particular manifesto got and the reporting that it saw in multiple areas, I don’t think that that would ever come back, even though much like Michael Bolton in Office Space, why should I change if they’re the ones that suck, right?
So I think techno-optimist as a term is where it is, and that will not change. But I am almost anything but that. And why? Well, part of it I think is just exposure and upbringing. As I said, I’ve had a significantly different path. One that doesn’t lead through Silicon Valley, one that’s not even in the same solar system as a billionaire.
When you have to go about the business of daily life, when you’re almost middle class, you’re going to have a very different view of technology and its uses, and how it can be used for exploitation as well. And I think that comes through in some of our work.
So, to tie this back to the beginning, to close the loop on why we had to triangulate with examples before we could assay the manifesto: if exposure and experience are what lead one to be able to make quick judgments about a particular work and see where the references are coming from, they also can allow one to see some of the harms that might come about from exposure to those statements as well. And that’s really what we’re trying to do: to bring some of those associations to light through this particular podcast episode.
So as I still search for a term: Retro Tech Enthusiast, just Tech Enthusiast perhaps, media historian, media archaeologist, etc. I’ll keep working on it. And once we figure it out – and the figuring it out is what I think is going to be the journey of this podcast as a whole – once we figure it out, I’ll let you know.
But if you have any great suggestions in the meantime, reach out and let me know at drimplausible at implausipod. com or on the implausi dot blog. I’ll see you around. Take care.