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  • Writer's pictureJake Browning

A Blinkered Take on Technology and Capitalism

Manifestos are silly things by nature. A glance at the manifestos of the 20th century reminds us that you need to have an immense ego to speak in the first-person plural and an absurd faith in your own intelligence and imagination to think you can envision the future. And the echoes of the Futurist Manifesto were probably lost on Andreessen in his Techno-Optimist Manifesto, despite the similar praise for technology, progress, and competition.

But even if my standards weren't high going in, I was still floored to see the comment that, in markets, "willing buyer meets willing seller, a price is struck, both sides benefit from the exchange or it doesn’t happen." Reading that, I knew full well the technologies that wouldn't be praised in Andreessen's piece: minimal wage laws, maximum hour laws, and other labor protections. I'm grateful that, as Holmes noted in his Lochner dissent over a century ago, the vast majority of voters in this country reject the economic theory that every contract we agree to is in our interest.

But it still disappoints to read it. The silence (or animosity) towards this kind of social technology is telling. Andreessen's praise of the free market is precisely that it is an unwieldy and out-of-control technology, moved by countless individual interactions and natural selection, rather than by any central planner or design. But he doesn't mention that, as a result of its out-of-control nature, it creates problems. It rewards things that are not in humanity's interest: lying about the safety or purity of products, unhealthy work conditions, toxic waste disposal, imperialist expansion, enshittification, impenetrable terms and conditions, privacy violations, staggering inequality, and numerous grim externalities.

You can argue these are costs worth paying. But it is worth pointing out, humanity has consistently used democratic means to invent chosen social technologies to protect against the market. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, was necessary to address the fact that the free market encourages selling dangerous, tainted products. As the old joke goes, "Friedman, Hayek, and Rand walk into an unregulated bar and order a drink. Three days later, they die of methanol poisoning."

Andreessen's confidence in markets is even more surprising when he combines it with his claim that humans can control the technology they create--that the machines will bend to our will and do what we want. (He obviously has an eye on the AI Doomers here.) This thesis requires showing the current shoggoth of human creation, Capitalism, can be controlled while still providing benefits. And if Andreessen believes we can control the market, he needs to be express some admiration for things like unions, NGOs, trustbusting laws, regulations and inspections, citizen committees, ESG, and sustainability initiatives. These are precisely what control the current complex technology and make it work right.

Andreessen instead seems to treat all such things as part of the hated "centralized economy." But the centralized economy was so tempting because the unregulated market was so monstrous: child labor, inhumane conditions, company stores, unlivable pollution, exploitative contracts, 80-hour work weeks, and on and on. It also led to profound market failures: the Beveridge report highlights that the market could not and would not meet the demand for healthcare, childcare, housing, and income. The invention of the welfare state was a correction of failed markets--and something fought tooth-and-nail by the free market crowd.

These market failures matter a lot and Andreessen seems blind to it. For example, it was the market that doomed nuclear energy. While hippies may have caused problems, the main issue is that nuclear plants require subsidies because they take too long to build and even longer to recoup their costs. The free market, left to its own devices, simply built more coal plants. The free market caused the climate crisis, and technology didn't help because it was too expensive. (And, good God, please don't suggest unregulated nuclear would have been cheaper.)

The truth is, a genuine techno-optimism can't be accelerationist; accelerated humanity is dystopian by nature, ultimately leaving our fate to an inhuman market and indifferent corporate actors. If you are optimistic about humanity's technological future, it is because you believe increasingly complex technology can be harnessed to benefit humanity through democratic means. And harnessing technology requires building new technologies--new regulations, oversight committees, and social institutions--that limit the deployment and development of new technologies. These technologies aren't there to stop the future; they are there to make sure the future is worth living in.

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Gary Bradski
Gary Bradski
21 ott 2023

I think neither you nor Andreessen have it right. Many market problems result from regulatory capture of once well intentioned policies. For example, clamping a bunch of regulations on AI now will probably just enthrone Google, FB, or OpenAI as the dominant AI hegemonies because they will have the office buildings of people who take care of compliance. One then can't raise money for some new paradigm because no one funds something that "can't compete" and so change is vastly slowed down or precluded. On the other (your side) markets are closer to "nature" which can be beautiful, but one also doesn't want to simply be "prey". What is needed is a more dynamic balance between control and market freedom. I'd…

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