The Future's Going to Break Your Heart
And why that's a wonderful thing.
Yesterday Marc Andreessen published a techno-optimist manifesto.
Some of the worst people on the Internet predictably trashed it: life under late capitalism is terrible, you see, and hope is for rubes. (Maybe you’re just tuning in? Here, let me help you.)
It brought out those takes. Which is why I really wanted to like it.
In the end, though, I couldn’t. Among its other faults, it suffers from the exact Hayekian knowledge problem that it claims to find in others. The knowledge problem more or less trashes every comprehensive vision of the future, visions from Hayek-loving venture capitalists most certainly included. The future’s going to break everyone’s heart, and I say that as a futurist.
The Improving World
It may be heartbreaking, but here goes: for most people on earth, life today really is better than it was twenty years ago. Or a hundred years ago, or a thousand. We are driving back the darkness. We’re living longer and healthier lives. We’re more literate. We’re more connected. We’re wealthier in real terms, and we are rapidly eliminating subsistence poverty across the globe.
We have lately deployed new advances in bioinformatics and immunology whose full potential still lies well ahead of us. We’ve even made great progress at cracking the intractable protein folding problem—thank you, artificial intelligence—and more than anything else, these developments seem like reason to hope. The future’s going to look back at today’s AI panic and have a good hard laugh.
Other things being equal, technological progress is good. Yes, of course, other things are not always equal. No, technology won’t solve all of its own moral problems. If technology had to be unproblematic at all costs, we’d never have invented bladed tools. Andreessen’s entirely right about that.
Invention is good. Technology is improving. Weirdly, most of us would rather cry about it or deny it. I’d have been delighted if Andreessen had made that point and stopped.
But of course, he didn’t.
To this historian’s eye, quantitative science and technology are roughly half of what seems to make modernity special. Here’s the other half: We moderns are more concerned than ever with having the type of society that reflects the equal worth and dignity of all individuals.
That’s quite a project, if we may use the term. It’s rooted in the liberal and Kantian insight that individuals are not to be treated merely as a means to an end. People aren’t puzzle pieces, waiting for the central planner to place them where they’d always belonged. It’s contemptible to think of others, or oneself, in such terms. People are not mere tools for the achievement of social ends. They should not be constrained arbitrarily to any one outcome or any one social status. The open society is preferable to the closed.
That’s why we’ve rightly called out certain evils that the premodern world had looked on as merely natural: slavery, racism, religious bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. We’re better off without them, and increasingly, we know it.
On these scores, we are right, and the premoderns were wrong. That’s why it’s absurd to see Andreessen name checking neoreactionaries in his techno-optimist reading list: You think these are the friends of modernity?
I mean, I love the future too. But I do get the sense that some of those folks would sooner throw me into a bioreactor. If you want other people to be optimistic about the future, maybe don’t cozy up to Italian fascists? I know and admire a lot of the other folks on that reading list, and I am embarrassed for them.
We’re in the midst of two kinds of betterment right now, technological and moral. Andreessen is all in favor of the first, but he seems to hedge like mad on the second. (Did he really date the start of his supposed “mass demoralization campaign” to the start of the U.S. civil rights movement? Afraid so.)
So much the worse for him and his vision. I favor both of modernity’s great developments: The circles of Hierocles, the boundaries of our moral concern, are at last expanding, and the prejudices that used to keep us perpetually afraid of each other are being dismantled. Social distinctions are worn more lightly today than they used to be—between men and women, between gay and straight, between upper and lower socioeconomic classes. Wars and acts of violence have been growing fewer and less deadly per capita. By any empirical measure, racism has broadly retreated, at least in the developed world. We undoubtedly worry about racism more, but maybe that’s just the reason it’s going away. (No, that’s not a conclusion that either side will like. Today’s right wing seemingly wants an intractable race problem, and today’s left wing… also seemingly wants an intractable race problem. But as I keep saying: The future is going to break everyone’s heart. Let’s hope I’m right.)
I’m far from alone. At least some people have understood and articulated a similar vision ever since the Enlightenment. Diderot’s optimism about scientific progress and Kant’s optimism about moral and political progress are both vital, and both are worth saving. (No, neither of them were perfect. You’re correct. That’s just exactly how all of this works. I hope it’s sinking in.)
Either one of those trends, the moral or the technological, can fail in a wide variety of ways. Either can suffer reversals or be hijacked by bad-faith actors. (Degrowth, meet neoreaction. You’re in the same bin as far as I’m concerned.) Everything is dangerous. But—and I didn’t think this had to be said—the remedy for those sorts of dangers isn’t to add a touch of fascism.
Naively, perhaps, I’d like us to keep getting kinder to each other. And I’d like us to keep inventing. I’d like us to brave both of those risks. I trust that we’ll figure out the details as we go. That’s why I’m confident about the future. Not because it’s a guaranteed win for me or anyone else, but because we’re all worthy of living a lot better than we do right now, and we all have something to contribute to what could be a thriving and polycentric future. We should make something like that happen.
The Unkillable Knowledge Problem
Getting there, though, is hard. No one has a direct line to the future, which is always coming at us with knowledge that we can’t possibly have acquired yet. That’s true of everyone; we all know less than we think we do. That’s why we should disperse social and economic power through many different channels. Someone may find a part of a better future, and when they do, we want that option on the menu for us, too.
To a proper Hayekian, venture capitalists aren’t superhuman: Fear the Last Man all you want, but the Ubermensch does not exist. A venture capitalist has made a lot of money at least once, perhaps through the market, and perhaps not. But money doesn’t help with the logical impossibility of the mind foreseeing its own advance; money doesn’t even help with aggregating the always-dispersed knowledge that it would take to plan a whole society. We plan our society piecemeal—with venture capitalists proposing and the consumer often disposing—because it’s a lot better for one venture capitalist to fail than it is for everything to fail all at once. Do you and all your rich friends say you’re the smartest guy in the room? That’s nice. Here’s some limited power. Your title to keeping it is no more and no less than keeping the customers happy. That’s how we do things here.
Attempts at comprehensive social planning usually just show the inadequacy of anyone’s particular vision. Whatever is in our heads might be a part of the future, but what really gets us from point A to point B is haggling about it under uncertainty. And what makes a successful venture capitalist tomorrow is not a manifesto from yesterday. Tomorrow’s entrepreneurial success will look like a million transactions of a kind that maybe no one has yet anticipated. Sorry I don’t have more details; if I did, I’d already be in business.
We believe Hayek’s Knowledge Problem overwhelms any centralized economic system. All actual information is on the edges, in the hands of the people closest to the buyer. The center, abstracted away from both the buyer and the seller, knows nothing. Centralized planning is doomed to fail, the system of production and consumption is too complex. Decentralization harnesses complexity for the benefit of everyone; centralization will starve you to death. [...]
Our enemy is the ivory tower, the know-it-all credentialed expert worldview, indulging in abstract theories, luxury beliefs, social engineering, disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable – playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences.
All of this from an essay that offers an expert worldview, indulges in abstract theories, serves up luxury beliefs, proposes its own version of social engineering… It shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness.
Decentralization does harness complexity for the benefit of everyone, but it makes fools of us all in the process. Based on past trends, the future is most likely rich, healthy, literate, compassionate—and full of fools nursing busted theories. We’ll know that the future is unfolding more or less as it should if and only if it leaves every one of today’s futurists looking at least a bit foolish.
That’s why it’s both bizarre, and yet somehow expected, to find in his essay things like “trust and safety” and “risk management”—legitimate, straight-up consumer and/or capital goods—lumped together on an enemies list with “the precautionary principle” and “degrowth.”
Those things are not at all alike, and a venture capitalist lining them up for a parade of horribles won’t make them so. “I don’t want to make this product” is not the same complaint as “this ideology will wreck our entire society for decades,” and Andreessen would do well to admit the difference. Successful capitalists manage risk; they don’t damn risk management as an enemy. Trust and safety are valuable—because in their absence, deals don’t get done.
We all have our hobbyhorses, and I’m not immune. Neither are you. Neither, apparently, is Marc Andreessen. But writing about the future is where hobbyhorses go to die; everyone else sees them for what they are, and the fun’s all over.
A Public Policy for Futurists
The essay falls especially short on public policy. Is it really true, for example, that a Universal Basic Income “would turn people into zoo animals to be farmed by the state”?
Offhand I can’t think of any animals getting a simple, no-strings, choice-preserving cash payment in lieu of socially engineered, strings-attached welfare. Which is exactly what a UBI would deliver. I’d think the farmers here, if any exist—or the zookeepers, or whatever they are in this metaphor—would have to be on the side of more paternalism, and not on the side of less.
So here’s a development to confound a whole lot of social engineering: Empirical evidence already tells us that a UBI doesn’t kill the desire to work. But it might kill the bureaucracy, waste, and performative paternalism that plague our current welfare system, and that might not be so bad. An experiment in Stockton, California found that “participants have been less likely to get sick or go hungry, and more likely to start a business.” Not exactly animal behavior.
Crucial here is that you and I, and Andreessen and many others, will all have to haggle over the shape of the future before we reach anything like a conclusion. Which itself will always be provisional, because no one in the future has enough knowledge to solve their knowledge problems either. (Does a UBI let consumers and workers haggle on a more equal footing? Might it let them accumulate capital? Yes indeed, and that might be a good reason to favor it.)
Any economic order that does emerge in the coming years will still be flawed. Which is to say it’ll be like all previous economic orders, and like everything else that humanity ever touches. That’s why we should embrace the future—and also embrace the haggling that may come with it: Haggling is at least somewhat like what a good social system would actually do, which is to distribute power widely while preserving individual consumers’ and entrepreneurs’ choices in the future. And we are indeed doing more or less that.
Would our society benefit from Andreessen’s vision of a safety-free online experience? I wouldn’t bet on it, and the evidence seems to be running the other way already. But in the end, we’ll let the consumer decide. A good society graciously makes room for even the giants to fail. If you don’t like the vision that Andreessen offers, don’t buy his products, and be glad he’s not in office, and work to distribute power even more widely than it already is. The better future is probably the more polycentric one, not the less.
Don't want to haggle? Too bad. If you’re fighting for the future, you’re already in one of two games. It’s either the haggling game, where everyone gets some share of the control over their own lives and choices, or it’s the social engineering game—which seems easy to play, but ultimately, and at best, it’s only a game with words, and it’s doomed to fail when meets the real world: The knowledge problem is why good societies are allergic to manifestos.
We do still need people out there having visions of the future. But also we need humility, and consumer feedback, and serendipity—they’re the space that we leave for everything that we smart folks of today can’t anticipate. The future isn’t coming from any one person’s brain, and we should plan accordingly.
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