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A techno-pessimist manifesto

A techno-pessimist manifesto
Photo by Joey Thompson / Unsplash
"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 which 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 which 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 which 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.

It seems clear that the Third World is, in the medium term at least, humanity’s future. The barriers which separate the First and Third Worlds are geographical accidents or legacies of the 20th or even 19th century. Everywhere they are visibly crumbling.

In even the medium term, the problem of curing the Third World becomes equivalent to the problem of preserving the First World from whatever is ailing the Third World.  Indeed it is not hard to find recognizable patches of Third World inside the First. If this does not strike you as the most important historical problem of our period, more travel may be indicated—or at least, just read a Paul Theroux book.

The two curves

The state of the Third World reminds us that there is not one curve only that matters to the human experience. The curve of technology matters—so does the curve of order.

Archimedes, after all, was slain at his whiteboard by a Roman soldier. In those days it was the Romans who were the barbarians—later the Germans, and so on. Part of the problem, for a pessimist, is our lack of any really impressive barbarians. Tacitus did not like the Germans—he did not want to surrender to them—but he respected them. But today, what is even out there to respect? ISIS? You gotta hand it to ISIS, but…

Today even in Kinshasa there are pockets of perfect order. As a mining oligarch, or whatever, you can live an absolutely beautiful life in Kinshasa. But in these pockets you are dependent on many forces, local and global, beyond your control. The system is fragile. A mixture of order and disorder is frightening, even in the pockets. It seems unstable—especially when it seems to be disorder that is advancing. The ultimate sign of order is a semiconductor fab, which places atoms with nanometer perfection. A new fab costs ten billion dollars. A five-dollar can of gasoline can burn it down.

Andreessen, no unsubtle thinker, is not a pure Pollyanna optimist. He too sees two curves. His falling curve is the curve of human spirit, thymos or thumos, whose loss gives us Nietzsche’s last men and C.S. Lewis’ men without chests. The last man is the human being—specifically, the human elite—at the end of a civilization:

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.

Our enemy is Friedrich Nietzsche’s Last Man:

“The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest…”

Andreessen’s curve predicts mine—because the role of thymos is to maintain order. Pride in maintaining order is a crucial element of a functional elite. When the elite loses this pride, or even develops its opposite—Luciferian pride in destroying order— trouble is on the horizon.

Historically, civilizations of last men tend to fall when they are overrun by barbarians. Technology can artificially forestall this fate—but as Hannah Arendt put it, every new generation is its own barbarian invasion. Barbarians may not even be needed. In the end, Walter Benjamin prophesied, the last man will simply put himself to death:

Humanity’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

Indeed, if present trends continue, “voluntary human extinction” seems likely to become a live political issue within our children’s lifetimes. You laugh.

The moral equivalent of war

So far, it seems as if Andreessen, with his Nietzchean critique of present-day elites, is more perceptive than me—if we accept that the secular decline in order is caused by the secular decline in thymos. That a decline in the will to create order might cause a decline in order is hardly speculative. So his second curve is more general than mine.

The innovation of techno-optimism is its determination to restore thymos in the only way that man has ever restored his thymos: war. That is: war, on behalf of technology, against the enemies of technology. Metaphorical war, but…

Andreessen knows what he is talking about, because he has seen at least one of these pools of thymic energy: Silicon Valley. It takes a lot of thymos to make a Facebook. It is not really a war, in the sense of getting your face ripped off by artillery. But when you have a really hard deadline it sometimes feels that way.

The idea of a “moral equivalent of war,” specifically as a cure for last-man syndrome, is not a new one in American philosophy. In fact, it is the title of perhaps the most famous American philosophical essay. As James wrote, in 1910:

We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built—unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a center of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.

Manliness! William James, of course, was a noted wilderness tracker and Indian-fighter who would die heroically at the Alamo. Oh wait, that was Davy Crockett. William James was a professor at Harvard. Even this problem is not a new one.

But James had a concrete, and quite remarkable, solution to the thymos crisis:

If now—and this is my idea—there were, instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow.

The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fiber of the people; no one would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's real relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life.

To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.

They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature, they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Wow! Uh… Mao? Mao Tse-tung? Mao Tse-tung, to the white courtesy phone… it is a  shock to find a core policy of the Cultural Revolution proposed, at Harvard, in 1910. Yet—is it actually a bad idea? Maybe the real Cultural Revolution has never been tried…

We do not usually think of life in 1910, before antibiotics and iPads and all that, as degenerately luxurious. Yet 1910 clearly did—and who is the expert on 1910, anyway? Us, or them? And how degenerate would William James find the typical zoomer?

When we look at the thymos crisis and compare the James solution to the Andreessen solution, it is remarkable how different these brilliant American intellectuals seem. Andreessen will restore thymos in two ways—by the direct energy of participating in research and development; by the indirect energy of supporting technology as a cause, like global warming, or the Palestinians.

Neither of these is convincing. While pushing forward the frontiers of human power over nature is indeed exhilarating, this experience is by nature itself limited to a few—unless that magic elixir that turns us all into Einsteins is invented.

And as a democratic cause, a movement of the crowd, technological accelerationism is a terrible product. The problem is that it is a good cause—a prosocial, orderly cause. It has no victims or scapegoats. It does not inherently harm or damage anyone. In short, it is like asteroid defense, not like climate change. You will never, ever see protesters gluing themselves to the road to get governments to spend more on asteroid defense. This is because defending the planet from asteroids is not a pretext for causing any kind of harm or damage. Since it does not gore anyone’s ox, any victory is flavorless. A harmless, prosocial cause is the worst kind of cause for arousing aristocratic thymos.

Whereas William James is just like: get a job on a salmon boat in the Bering Sea. You can still—just barely—get a job on a salmon boat in the Bering Sea. Not only does this thymotic cure have nothing to do with technology—it is technology’s opposite. Hm.

E.M. Forster would like a word

The ineffectiveness of technological acceleration, as a cure for the chestlessness of modern man, is hardly the biggest problem with the techno-optimist solution.  The problem is actually much worse.

Technical acceleration is not just not the cure for last-man syndrome. No—technology is the obvious cause of last-man syndrome. Andreessen is curing cancer with tobacco.

Look at James’ list of dirty jobs. Dishwashing, clothes-washing and window-washing! Half these jobs have vanished into the maw of the machine. And it is already clear that, over the next few decades, the present assault of AI on white-collar “bullshit jobs” will soon be matched by a robotic assault on manual labor—precisely the tool that is most useful for turning lazy, willful boys into mature and effective adults.

William James could never have dreamed of a world in which most humans are useless. As large language models become useful tools even in the most advanced research specialties, the thymotically exciting tip of the technology spear is only getting smaller. There are no jobs for chimpanzees. In fifty years, there may be no jobs for humans with an IQ of 85—at a minimum. Unfortunately, this is roughly the average global IQ today. The rise of the “zero marginal product” human is an inevitable consequence of the advance of AI.

The deleterious effect of technology on human quality is seen all across the bell curve. Technology is harmful to elites because it eliminates the difficulty and danger of the “moral equivalents of war” that are essential to the mature psychology of the normal human male. Technology is harmful to non-elites because it eliminates all the ways that they can be useful to themselves or others, and turns them into useless mouths.

To anyone trained in utilitarian economics, the idea that any kind of productivity increase could be harmful is deeply counterintuitive. In fact, there is a precedent for the negative impact of technology advances on societies: the negative impact of resource discoveries. The “resource curse” is well-known, if not well-understood.

The consequence of an oil discovery is that six people can stick a pipe in the ground and produce the nation’s entire GDP. The result is that there is nothing for anyone else to do. Everyone else has to eat, true—but their easiest way to eat is to get a share of the oil revenue.

Therefore they transition from the economic means of subsistence, producing stuff that other people need, to the political means—taking stuff that other people have. Human beings who are bored, incapable of productive work, and only know how to eat by taking, are the most dangerous force in the universe—especially in the absence of thymotic elites proud of the order they maintain. This is how the ten-billion-dollar fab gets burned down by a five-dollar can of gasoline—and how civilizations end.

Thus it is incredibly ironic for Andreessen to present the acceleration of technology as the cure for 21st-century athymia, acedia and anomie—which is actually the result of technical acceleration. You might as well cure AIDS by injecting yourself with HIV.

E.M. Forster, writing in 1909, had a better vision of the technically accelerated future. In his short story The Machine Stops, humanity is a population of spiritless, decadent socialites living underground inside the belly of a single giant planetary machine, which does everything for them. Then—the machine breaks. And the people just die.

We have learned a lot about building reliable systems. But people are fragile. We last men are especially fragile. There are a lot of ways for us to die.

Once again, history rhymes

Where did this ideology come from? While the connection is obviously a coincidence, techno-optimism is a curious historical match for another deeply American ideology from the 20th century: Trotskyism.

In Literature and Revolution (1924), Trotsky wrote:

Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. This does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. The machine is the instrument of modern man in every field of life…

Man, who will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build people’s palaces on the peaks of the Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to his own life richness, brilliancy and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous!

Narrator: nor was it.

More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training.

One can easily see Trotsky at Burning Man:

It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture—will lend this process beautiful form. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

Here again the “scientists, technologists, artists, and visionaries beyond our wildest dreams.” Was Trotsky the first “effective accelerationist?” Life takes you funny places.

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