Monday, January 1, 2024

Thinking About Marc Andreessen's Techno-Optimism

The writer is the sometimes controversial* Curtis Yarvin to whom I was going to link when he was pitching the need for a monarchy in the U.S.of A., but I forgot.

From his Gray Mirror substack, Dec 20, 2023:

A techno-pessimist manifesto 
"One can easily see Trotsky at Burning Man."

Are you a techno-optimist? This is a serious condition—as common as prediabetes. Don’t laugh. You can treat your prediabetes—and your techno-optimism, too.

30% of Americans are prediabetic. All Americans are prediabetic, in a sense—we all have access to hot and cold-running corn syrup. It comes out of the tap. In 50 years as an American, statistics show, I have ingested a literal ton of corn syrup—a long ton. An imperial ton! I believe that major organs of my body, for example the pancreas, are this point primarily made from corn syrup.

It’s just the same with techno-optimism. As Americans—and we are all Americans now; location, even birth location, is just a detail—we are all techno-optimists. The American idea is the idea of techne, man-made order, creating a “city on a hill” in a new wild continent. As John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, said: “a city on a hill cannot be hid.” San Francisco is on a hill, or several, and it cannot be hid. Although sometimes we wish it could. (To be fair, the hills are the best part—“crime don’t climb,” as they say. Try pushing a shopping cart from the Castro to the Haight.) Technical and moral progress have always been equated in the American philosophy.

And how did that work out? How is that working out—for us Americans? Quite well, at first! But of late—well, opinions vary.

The Johannesburg protocol
Do you have an opinion? Do you doubt your opinion? Either you are a pessimist, and want to see that instinct confirmed—or you are an optimist, but want to be a scientific optimist: one whose belief is confirmed by doubt.

If you want to doubt techno-optimism, here is a cure—as an influencer, I have designed one. It will soon be available on my Web site, as a pill, for an incredible price. But you can treat yourself at home, now, with no profit to me! Well, not exactly at home…

I call my therapy the “Johannesburg protocol.” It costs about five thousand dollars. The protocol is: fly to Johannesburg. Spend a week walking around the city. Stay safe. Make sure your hotel has a generator. See Johannesburg—capital of the Rainbow Nation—see the future.

And when you get back, assuming you get back, take a day to think about how AI will fix South Africa. Or… VR will fix South Africa? Or crypto? Or whatever…

Brainstorm! Invite your smartest friends over! Microdose some shrooms! And when it’s 4 am, the fridge is out of Red Bull, the whiteboard is a seven-colored mess and the floaters are wearing off, you’ll realize—you are cured. There is something that was not in your old philosophy, but is in your new philosophy. Your optimism has been treated.

What you will see in Johannesburg is abundant physical evidence of a world that was functional 50 years ago, even 100 years ago, but is now halfway to Mad Max. Will it get all the way to Mad Max? As the magic 8-ball says, answer unclear—ask again later. There are, as always, twinkles of renewal…

Since such “points of light” may stimulate the malignant hope that Johannesburg therapy is designed to treat, the cure rate is not 100%. If it fails, if you see any signs of optimism returning, you need to go to a second-line therapy. It is more expensive and dangerous; it never fails.

First, warm up your stem cells with more of Andreessen’s Sand Hill Road hopium:

We believe technological progress leads to material abundance for everyone.

We believe the ultimate payoff from technological abundance can be a massive expansion in what Julian Simon called “the ultimate resource” – people.

We believe, as Simon did, that people are the ultimate resource – with more people come more creativity, more new ideas, and more technological progress.

We believe material abundance therefore ultimately means more people – a lot more people – which in turn leads to more abundance.

We believe our planet is dramatically underpopulated, compared to the population we could have with abundant intelligence, energy, and material goods.

We believe the global population can quite easily expand to 50 billion people or more, and then far beyond that as we ultimately settle other planets.

We believe that out of all of these people will come scientists, technologists, artists, and visionaries beyond our wildest dreams.

And into them will go… corn syrup. As John Winthrop—the Twitter anon—put it:

Actually, “America” is not “full.” We can fit another 46 trillion humans in there if we grind them into a fine powder and store them in giant grain silos that will occupy every inch of the country.

At this point, you are prepped for my risky but effective second-line treatment. I call it “Kinshasa therapy.” Stock up on fish antibiotics and bootleg hydrochloroquine, take a deep breath, and buy a round-trip ticket to the city formerly known as “Léopoldville.” Be ready to spend more like ten grand. It’s still worth it. Optimism is a terrible disease.

While there are only 20 million people in Kinshasa, that should be enough for plenty of “scientists, technologists, artists and visionaries.” Or at least it will be, once all its little girls can afford a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer… leave your phone in the hotel, and walk around without a map for a week. No, it’s not safe. Nor is Oakland…

The idea that there must be some instructional technology that can demographically convert the population of Kinshasa, taught early and thoroughly enough, into that of (say) Tokyo, is a fundamental axiom not only of techno-optimism, but of every kind of modern optimism. As with any axiom, you believe it or you don’t. If you do believe it, picture an alternate world B in which it wasn’t true. Once you have pictured that world—picture how that world would imagine an alternate world, C, in which it was true. Now, compare these three worlds—A, ours; B; and C. Which is more like A? B or C?

Remember, you’re a scientist—you don’t believe in anything till you have doubted it. Whereas if you had a religious mind, you’d start from the principle that God is good, then reason therefore that He would have made the world good—and humanity, of course, in His image, also good. You’re not thinking that way, are you? Just checking.

Whether or not there is or can be any elixir—technical, pedagogical or pharmaceutical—that can turn Congolese into Japanese, the visitor to Kinshasa will be struck by the extent to which, though nominally the capital of an independent country, this society is dependent on technologies and resources it cannot produce. A very fragile system!

Even in food. Africa—the continent—grows about 10% of its calories. The rest is corn syrup, from Kansas. Good times. You might think: why ship the corn syrup to Africa? Why not ship—the Africans to Kansas? Somebody is way ahead of you on that, pal. Will it not lead to more abundance? “Now, as I was saying, large language models…”

If you actually have a picture of how large language models will fix the Third World, let’s hear it. Note that “Third World” was, as recently as the 1960s, an optimistic term. No one can dispute how rapidly technology advanced between 1950 and 1970—exactly the era in which the Third World as we know it was born.

Johannesburg and Kinshasa have the same technology level as Palo Alto and Berkeley. The rules of physics are the same. Your iPhone works there. It wasn’t made there, but it could have been. The same textbooks and papers are available there as here. The human heart transplant was even invented in Johannesburg. Something has gone backward—it wasn’t technology.

The implicit premise of techno-optimism is that technology drives civilization. To fix any and all of the problems of society, just get out of the way of technology.

Across history, do we find this premise to be true? Usually, since intact civilizations rarely forget how to do useful things, technology advances monotonically within any civilization. Unfortunately, this implies that most civilizations fall at the height of their technical skill. This is a statistical illusion, but it should still make us think....

A quick trawl of the link-vault dredges up these headlines for stories that reference Curtis Yarvin: 

  • How computer programmer Curtis Yarvin became America’s most controversial political theorist 
  • Moira Weigel — Palantir Goes to the Frankfurt School  (new right wing tendencies within the tech industry itself.)
  • Inside the New Right’s Next Frontier: The American West 
  • Peter Thiel Is Taking a Break From Democracy
  • Curtis Yarvin wants American democracy toppled. He has some prominent Republican fans.
  • From Frankfurt to Fox The Strange Career of Critical Theory 
  • Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich
For me, the craziest thing is: I had never even heard of the guy until 2022. Meanwhile he was getting a whole bunch of folks all fired up. 
(I like the "Mouthbreathing Machiavellis...." line)