Techno-Optimists, ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ and Elitism of Ideas

Should we unfetter tech -- teach sand to think in the form of silicon chips and AI -- versus build guardrails around risky innovation?

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

October 19, 2023

At a Glance

  • Andreessen says the enemy is deceleration, de-growth, depopulation.
  • According to manifesto, AI is "alchemy" to technologists, their "philosopher's stone."
  • Andreessen compares holding back the development of AI that might save lives to murder.

On Monday, Marc Andreessen published his "Techno-Optimists Manifesto," encouraging a rejection of what he described as lies that foment anger, bitterness, and resentment of technology. Instead, he called for an embrace of technology as “the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential.”

The path of the futurist and industrialist is often fraught with questions of efficacy and ethics as well as outright roadblocks -- which might be necessary in some instances. The Industrial Revolution saw the emergence of steam engines, railways, and factories. It also may have had a hand in the rise of such conditions as black lung disease from inhaled coal dust.

The cause of innovation can include a chorus of voices that are not always in harmony on every sentiment or note. For example, Andreessen’s manifesto encourages readers to follow up with the works of others such John Galt -- presumably the Scottish novelist who wrote about societal changes triggered by the Industrial Revolution and not the fictional, unrelated John Galt from “Atlas Shrugged.”

If Andreessen did mean the fictional Galt, who wanted to shut down the motor of the world, there is much to discuss.

In his manifesto, Andreessen seemed eager to push back against positions that, by his summation, would harm the world by impeding development and growth through technology: “Our enemy is deceleration, de-growth, depopulation -- the nihilistic wish, so trendy among our elites, for fewer people, less energy, and more suffering and death.”

Related:Whatever Happened to the Workforce of Tomorrow?

The hot technology du jour, artificial intelligence, naturally got special attention in the manifesto, where Andreessen described AI as tech optimists’ philosopher’s stone. “We are literally making sand think.”

Opinions on AI, ranging from stopping it in its track to letting it run wild, continue to evolve especially as its influence and power grows. Andreessen believes vehemently AI can save lives if allowed to perform in conjunction with humanity to develop new cures and methods to address common causes of death. “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.”

Benefits of technology can be seen through medical discoveries, global communication, and access to information via the internet, which he also highlighted in the manifesto. On the other hand, not everyone wants sand to think. Contention about technology can surface from potential physical harms such as contact with hazardous materials, environmental damage through the consumption of natural resources and creation of pollution, and socioeconomic worries such as job displacement and widening wealthy disparity.

Related:Developers and the AI Job Wars: Here's How Developers Win

Technology plays a significant role now in the makeup of the world and it is on a trajectory to continue to escalate. Techno-capitalist-feudalism is posited by some economists as a path to totalitarian, authoritarian control in the hands of small groups at the top of the tech world who can dictate the shape of markets.

Andreessen expressed a belief in a free, naturally self-disciplining market that functions as a sort of “discovery machine” that can organize a technological economy, where entrepreneurs see opportunity to create new wealth by driving down prices. Further, a decentralized market, by his assessment, can harness “complexity for the benefit of everyone” in place of centralization, which Andreessen decried as a withering, oppressive construct.

Such resistance to centralization and other perceived impediments to innovation, individual achievement, and prosperity brings back the John Galt question -- does Andreessen want readers of the manifesto to look up the novelist or explore the fictional, controversial character from Ayn Rand’s dystopian world?

Related:DOS Won’t Hunt: A Disagreement With Neil deGrasse Tyson on AI

In this podcast, let’s dive deeper into the thinking sand see if Atlas shrugging accomplishes anything tangible with technology.

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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