"Techno-optimism" is a sign of V.C. crisis
It's not funny, V.C.s only do this when they’re in extreme distress.
I would say my main question about “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” an essay by the prominent venture-capitalist Marc Andreessen, is whether or not the goatse was intentional. The manifesto, published to the website of Andreessen’s fund a16z on Monday (it currently occupies the entire front page of the fund’s site), was originally accompanied by the following digital illustration, which many readers will recognize immediately:
Does this image of a cyber-sphincter, pulled apart by two strong hands, revealing a pixellated heaven inside, look familiar? Did Marc Andreessen--a man who certainly would like to be known as a funny online guy, familiar with the folkways of the internet, able to cut it up with regular shitposters on the e-streets--mean for his grand statement of purpose to be illustrated by an abstract version of the internet’s most famous and beloved shock image?
Sadly, probably not. The image has since been changed, the hands removed, the resemblance gone. It’s too bad, because before it was swapped out the goatse was about the only surprising or intriguing component of Andreessen’s manifesto--the only aspect that suggested a sense of irony or self-awareness.
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The rest of it is, well … you can read it yourself, though I can’t really recommend that. The manifesto is about 5,000 words; nearly every sentence is treated as a single paragraph, which makes it feel (at best) like Andreessen just dumping a notebook in which he’s jotted down some quotes he liked and lines that came to him in the shower, or (at worst, and more often) a LinkedIn post straining for profundity. He repeats himself and over-uses italics; he quotes Nietzsche at tedious length, and also Carrie Fisher. At the end he assembles a list of “Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism,” starting with three Twitter accounts.
The basic thrust of “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto” is that technology is the key to human thriving, and that certain malign elements in society--Andreessen names “experts,” “bureaucracy,” “sustainability” and “social responsibility” as “enemies”--have convinced us otherwise. These “enemies,” who “are suffering from ressentiment” must be escorted “out of their self-imposed labyrinth of pain,” for the good of humanity, and convinced of the error of their ways. Once their path is cleared, techno-optimists can make “everyone rich, everything cheap, and everything abundant.” Eventually, “our descendents will live in the stars.” He concludes: “We owe the past, and the future. It’s time to be a Techno-Optimist. It’s time to build.”1
If that sounds particularly familiar, it may be because “It’s Time to Build” is the title of a post Andreessen wrote in April 2020, in which he offers a broadly similar, if somewhat less lofty, argument: “The problem is inertia… The problem is regulatory capture… Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building?”
Well, yes, indeed. What are you building? One reason that, three and a half years later, Andreessen is reiterating that “it’s time to build” instead of writing posts called “Here’s What I Built During the Building Time I Previously Announced Was Commencing” is that Marc Andreessen has not really built much of anything. In the years since he determined that it was time to build, his fund invested tens of millions of dollars in a video-game Ponzi scheme that immiserated its players and a company that sells blockchain transaction records said to reflect ownership of ape cartoons. That’s not just not building; it’s so not-building it’s not even the opposite of building, which would be “destroying,” and has the benefit of relating to the real world in some way. It’s ”venture investing in crypto companies,” which is its own little onanistic universe, conceptually and practically unrelated to “building” entirely.
What Andreessen has been doing in lieu of building, and besides signing off on bad cryptocurrency investments, is spending a lot of time on Twitter. The key difference between “It’s Time to Build” and “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto” is that the former still sounds like an essay by a more-or-less normal V.C.--citing specific examples and evidence, explaining the steps in his thinking, diligently castigating left and right together--while the latter--quoting Nietzsche, Nick Land, and Thomas Sowell--sounds like the forum post of a guy who’s been reading some dumb shit online for the last few years. The inspiration and audience of this manifesto is the adherents and proponents of “effective accelerationism,” or “e/acc,” a Twitter community nominally centered around the promotion of unregulated, uncaring, and extremely rapid technological advancement but whose real attraction is smug own-the-libs shitposting.
Readers who have spent any time on the political fringes of the internet will be familiar with “accelerationism,” a term used broadly to describe several related schools of thought whose main idea is that rather than resist or retard or even control economic, political, or technological change, we should accelerate it--all of it--for the good of humanity, transforming society, the planet, and possibly even humans ourselves, even if means becoming alien and unrecognizable. Though it has some obvious antecedents--Italian Futurists, singularity theorists--the “accelerationism” of the internet age has its origins in a group of freakazoid, purportedly left-wing philosophers calling themselves the “Cybernetic Culture Research Unit” at Warwick University in the 1990s, as this explanatory Guardian longread details.1
I’m personally not an accelerationist and I don’t think it’s particularly defensible as a proposition, but I have a well-documented soft spot for crank theories and fringe ideologies, and I have appreciated, on an aesthetic level if nowhere else, what has happened as it’s been taken up by all kinds of strange internet autodidacts and outcasts, as Josh Citarella has documented. “e/acc,” unfortunately, is what happens when Stanford graduates get a hold of it. On an practical level everything you need to know about “e/acc” is that its foremost proponent is an anonymous A.I.-company founder with a Twitter handle “@BasedBeffJezos” (one of the “Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism,” according to Andreessen’s manifesto); that is, it’s less an ideology or philosophy than an affective organizer for bored men over 35 with MBAs who admire Jeff Bezos and still laugh at circa-2015 Twitter jokes.
Andreessen’s post, which touts accelerationism in general if not “effective accelerationism” specifically, hits all of the familiar e/acc notes: Space colonization, a fixation on energy, an abiding contempt for “central planning.” In truth it’s all pretty familiar, and a little sad: In the hands of Andreessen and his ilk, the compelling weirdness of “accelerationism” becomes just a particularly tech-flavored brand of the same neoliberalism that has given ideological cover to the software industry for the last few decades.2
So why bother writing it all out, especially as a 5,000-word statement of purpose placed on the front page of your website? One obvious reason is marketing. a16z competes for start-ups just as start-ups compete for investment, and this kind of manifesto will be particularly attractive to some of them--in particular, the kinds of young right-wingers who tend to run defense and surveillance start-ups and probably use the word “based” in conversation. Andreessen Horowitz has spun up a whole “American Dynamism” practice that “invests in founders and companies that support the national interest: aerospace, defense, public safety, education, housing, supply chain, industrials, and manufacturing.” Its website cites the Apollo Space Program and the Manhattan Project as landmarks of American dynamism.
Praising such examples of highly centralized and coordinated government programs--not to mention investing heavily in businesses reliant on fat government contracts--would seem to contradict the glib anarcho-capitalism of the Techno-Optimist Manifesto. But both are symptomatic of a crisis in Andreessen’s world. After a decade of high-profile failures and embarrassments, venture investing is no longer seen as credible or reliable. The political economy of the U.S. has shifted in labor’s favor, and economists and wonks are increasingly in favor of industrial policy as an engine of growth and stability rather than free-floating individual investment. A V.C. confronted with this reality might both shift his strategy away from software platforms and crypto companies and toward the more reliable proposition of government contractors--and he might also grumble about all the people holding him back.
As an example, take the citation of Nick Land--an English accelerationist philosopher who wrote impenetrable but influential books as part of the legendary Warwick CCRU before decamping to Singapore to focus on doing racist tweets--is particularly telling:
Combine technology and markets and you get what Nick Land has termed the techno-capital machine, the engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance.[…] We believe the techno-capital machine is not anti-human – in fact, it may be the most pro-human thing there is. It serves us. The techno-capital machine works for us. All the machines work for us.
For whatever it’s worth, this gets Land exactly backwards: According to his constitutionally pessimistic accelerationism “techno-capital” (not “the techno-capital machine,” Jesus--has Andreessen even bothered to read the stuff he’s approvingly citing?) is our boss, not the other way around; or, more accurately, it’s a kind of far-future alien intelligence using us for its own development and will discard and eliminate us when it reaches self-sufficiency. Land’s most famous quote is “Nothing human survives the near future.”
Look, I’m not really convinced that Land is particularly interesting as a theorist--to the extent he’s redeemable it’s as kind of accidental writer of cosmic horror, a 21st-century H.P. Lovecraft who has similarly turned his pants-pissing anxiety about race into a strikingly ugly but revealing cosmogony--but he is an honest-to-God Weird Freak, not airport-book guy going, like, “technology plus markets equals techno-capital.”