One of the most remarkable things I’ve read in a long time is Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Silicon Valley venture capitalist and tech guru Marc Andreessen.
Andreessen comes off as an iconic figure of our time: a bona fide genius, wielder of enormous power, and visionary whose vision happens to be, well, evil. I don’t know how else to put it, frankly. Read this passage about Silicon Valley and the field that Andreessen helps lead. Emphases below are mine:
Corporate culture, civic responsibility, becoming a pillar of society—these are not venture’s concerns. Andy Weissman, a partner at New York’s Union Square Ventures, noted that venture in the Valley is a perfect embodiment of the capitalist dynamic that the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Weissman said, “Silicon Valley V.C.s are all techno-optimists. They have the arrogant belief that you can take a geography and remove all obstructions and have nothing but a free flow of capital and ideas, and that it’s good, it’s very good, to creatively destroy everything that has gone before.” Some Silicon Valley V.C.s believe that these values would have greater sway if their community left America behind: Andreessen’s nerd nation with a charter and a geographic locale. Peter Thiel favors “seasteading,” establishing floating cities in the middle of the ocean. Balaji Srinivasan, until recently a general partner at a16z [Andreesen’s venture capital firm — RD] and now the chairman of one of its Bitcoin companies, has called for the “ultimate exit.” Arguing that the United States is as fossilized as Microsoft, and that the Valley has become stronger than Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., combined, Srinivasan believes that its denizens should “build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.”
The game in Silicon Valley, while it remains part of California, is not ferocious intelligence or a contrarian investment thesis: everyone has that. It’s not even wealth: anyone can become a billionaire just by rooming with Mark Zuckerberg. It’s prescience. And then it’s removing every obstacle to the ferocious clarity of your vision: incumbents, regulations, folkways, people. Can you not just see the future but summon it?
This is the evil part. It is an extremely powerful gnosticism that really is creating the future, in which nothing stands in the way of the Empowered Self.
Where does Andreessen get this? From his miserable childhood growing up in rural Wisconsin. He never talks about that time, other than to say he hated it. He didn’t like his family, and they didn’t like him. Friend writes:
The few details Andreessen let slip to me suggested a climate of antiquity, superstition, frustration, and penury. “The natural state of human beings is to be subsistence farmers, and that was my expectation,” he said, adding that his world was “Scandinavian, hard-core, very self-denying people who go through life never expecting to be happy.” The family telephone was a party line, and the bathroom at his relatives’ farm was an outhouse. Everyone believed in dowsing and the weather reports in the Farmers’ Almanac. One winter, with money tight, his father decided to stop paying for gas heat, “and we spent a great deal of time chopping fu–ing wood.” The local movie theatre, one town over, was an unheated room that doubled as a fertilizer-storage depot; Andreessen wore a puffy Pioneer Hi-Bred coat to watch “Star Wars” while sitting on the makings of a huge bomb. He had to drive an hour to find a Waldenbooks, in La Crosse; it was all cookbooks and cat calendars. So he later saw Amazon as a heroic disseminator of knowledge and progress. “Screw the independent bookstores,” he told me. “There weren’t any near where I grew up. There were only ones in college towns. The rest of us could go pound sand.”
Andreessen’s vision of the future, and of his escape route, came from television. He told me, “KITT, the car in ‘Knight Rider,’ was a computer that could analyze a poison-gas attack. The car was magic—but now you can actually do all those things. A new car isn’t KITT, but it does have all the maps and all the music in the world, and it talks to you. Even the transporter beam in ‘Star Trek’ basically makes sense if you understand quantum entanglement. People are composed of quantum elements, so there is a path!”
The deeper you go into the profile, the more clear it becomes that Andreessen, like many geniuses, is on the autism spectrum. (I say that as someone who has recognized the same thing about himself, more on which in a second.) “A charismatic introvert, Andreessen draws people in but doesn’t really want them around,” says Friend.
The creepiest part of the profile comes when Friend goes to the 9,000-square-foot Xanadu in which Andreessen and his wife Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a Stanford professor who is the daughter of a Silicon Valley billionaire, dwell.
After some TV time together, the couple reads in bed, so that, she says, “I can fall asleep holding my beloved.” (She invariably refers to her husband as “my beloved,” rather than “Marc.”) “I ask him questions about things I got curious about during the day, so every night I’m going to sleep with a human Wikipedia that can go deeper and deeper and deeper, link upon link. In the past week, we talked about all the hardware components of a mobile phone, how binary code works, what might happen with drone regulation, and whether Putin is using Ukraine as a distraction from the financial crisis in Russia.” Once she’s dozed off, Andreessen returns to work in his home office, where, like a recharging cell phone, he gains energy through the night.
He pushed a button to unroll the wall screen, then called up Apple TV.
“My beloved” — you can practically see her stroking the Persian cat in his lap. More:
In March, Andreessen and his wife announced the birth of their son, who’d been carried to term by a gestational surrogate. They named him John, for Laura’s father. “I feel fantastic!” Andreessen told me. “He’ll come of age in a world where ten or a hundred times more people will be able to contribute in science and medicine and the arts, a more peaceful and prosperous world.” He added, tongue in cheek, “I’m going to teach him how to take over that world!”
You get the picture. These are two fantastically smart, indescribably rich people who farm out the gestation of their own child to someone who carried their baby — thus avoiding the unpleasant parts of being incarnate beings — and who live a life of luxury of which the kings of old couldn’t have dreamed. And they will raise this prince of theirs to rule in the world they are creating.
What kind of world is that? More Friend:
Last year, a programmer named Alex Payne wrote an open letter to Andreessen in which he observed, “People are scared of so much wealth and control being in so few hands. Consequently, wherever you and other gatekeepers of capital direct your attention—towards robots, 3D printers, biotech, whatever—you’re going to detect a fearful response as people scramble to determine the impact of your decisions and whims,” which only compound “lingering structural unemployment and an accumulation of capital at the top of the economic pyramid.”
Payne addressed his thoughts to Andreessen because Andreessen represents the Valley—both in its soaring vision and in its tendency to treat people as a fungible mass. But Andreessen waved away the criticisms as the ravings of “a self-hating software engineer.” When I persisted, he said, “Ordinary people love the iPhone, Facebook, Google Search, Airbnb, and Lyft. It’s only the intellectuals who worry.” He raised counter-arguments, then dismissed them: technology would solve any environmental crisis hastened by an expanding economy, and as for the notion that, as he said, “ ‘You American imperialist a*shole, not everyone wants all that technology’—well, bullsh*t! Go to a Chinese village and ask them.” Technology gives us superpowers, makes us smarter, more powerful, happier. “Would the world be a better place if there were fifty Silicon Valleys?” he said. “Obviously, yes. Over the past thirty years, the level of income throughout the developing world is rising, the number of people in poverty is shrinking, health outcomes are improving, birth rates are falling. And it’ll be even better in ten years. Pessimism always sounds more sophisticated than optimism—it’s the Eden-collapse myth over and over again—and then you look at G.D.P. per capita worldwide, and it’s up and to the right. If this is collapse, let’s have more of it!”
Global unemployment is rising, too—this seems to be the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates. One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!”
Dr. Evil cannot bear anything that smudges his pristine vision of a humanity freed from all limitations, free to fulfill any and all desires. So what if the man who makes his living from the strength of his back, because he does not have the intellectual capacity to work in Silicon Valley, sinks into poverty? Away with you, pessimist! We will have none of this Wisconsin Miserabilist thinking!
I think Andreessen and his tribe are so dangerous because they really do believe what they say. They don’t believe in anything but the glorification of the Self, and the emancipation of the Self from anything outside of itself. Ye shall be as gods. Where is the tragic sense, a glimpse of humankind’s limits, of original sin? Marc Andreessen is Dante’s Ulysses. From my book How Dante Can Save Your Life:
In Dante’s version of the Ulysses myth, the clever, silver-tongued captain used his intelligence and his oratorical skills to persuade his exhausted crew, recently returned to their homes and families after many years at war, to leave home and follow him on an exploratory journey beyond the known world. Why? To satisfy his curiosity about the world. In his encounter with Dante, Ulysses says that he allowed no duty, not even to his wife, children, and aged parents, stand between himself and fulfilling his quest for knowledge.
Ulysses sets sail for the West in a single ship with a faithful crew. As they approach the Straits of Gibraltar, Ulysses knows that he and his men have reached a boundary that their religion commands may not be crossed. And so the captain makes a speech to his weary men:
“‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who, in the course
of a hundred thousand perils, at last
have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness
‘of our senses as remains to us,
do not deny yourselves the chance to know—
following the sun—the world where no one lives.
‘Consider how your souls were sown:
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’”
Inflamed with the craving to know the unknown, the men rowed toward the setting sun, into the open ocean. For five months they rowed. At last in the moonlight they caught sight of a distant mountain, higher than any the bold explorer had ever seen. Suddenly a tempest blew up. The boat sank; the captain and his crew drowned. Ulysses is damned for all eternity as one who gave false counsel.
To us, Ulysses appears as a hero, a man who risked, and lost, his life for the sake of expanding humankind’s knowledge of the world. To have died on a quest in pursuit of virtue and knowledge is a profoundly honorable thing, is it not? Why does the poet put him in hell?
In the Commedia, recall, sin consists not only in loving and desiring bad things but also in loving and desiring good things in the wrong way. For Dante, there is no more passionate love than the love of knowledge, the desire for understanding. Yet the love of knowledge for its own sake, like its unrestrained pursuit, corrupts and destroys. This has been a fundamental truth proclaimed by religion and wisdom traditions from ancient days. Consider Adam and Eve transgressing a divinely set boundary by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Consider Prometheus stealing fire from the Greek gods.
And then read this fantastic National Review interview with Matthew B. Crawford, author of the new book The World Beyond Your Head. He is the Anti-Andreessen. It sounds like he advocates a secular version of the Benedict Option. Excerpt:
My critique of the anthropology we have inherited from early modern thought has a couple of dimensions. The first is sociological, simply noticing how autonomy-talk is pretty much the only idiom that is available to us for articulating our self-understanding, and how inadequate it is for capturing lived experience. It is the idiom of commencement speeches, of daytime talk shows, and also of marketing: You’re In Charge, as the message on the handrail of the escalator at O’Hare puts it.
Living in a culture saturated with vulgar freedomism, you may develop a jaundiced view of the whole project of liberation inaugurated by Descartes and Locke. If you then revisit those thinkers, I think your irritation prepares you to see things you would otherwise miss. You are bringing a prejudice with you, but sometimes a prejudice sharpens your vision. Sensitivity to the present, and giving credit to your own human reactions to it, can bring a new urgency to the history of philosophy.
What stands out for me, and for other writers I have learned from, is that the assertions those enlighteners make about how the mind works, and about the nature of the human being, are intimately tied to their political project to liberate us from the authority of kings and priests. In other words, it is epistemology with an axe to grind, polemical at its very root. Yet this original argumentative setting has been forgotten. This is important, because Enlightenment anthropology continues to inform wide swaths of the human sciences, including cognitive science, despite that discipline’s ritualized, superficial ridicule of Descartes.
We need to be more self-aware about the polemical origins of the human sciences, because those old battles bear little resemblance to the ones we need to fight. [Emphasis mine — RD] In particular, it is very difficult to make sense of the experience of attending to something in the world when everything located beyond the boundary of your skull is regarded as a potential source of unfreedom. This is, precisely, the premise behind Kant’s ideal of autonomy: The will must not be “conditioned” by anything external to it. Today we get our Kant from children’s television, and from the corporate messaging of Silicon Valley. Certain features of our contemporary landscape make more sense when you find their antecedents in serious thought, because the tacit assumptions that underlie them were originally explicit assertions.
My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate. And this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about how our thinking is captured by obsolete polemics from hundreds of years ago. Subjectivism — the idea that what makes something good is how I feel about it — was pushed most aggressively by Thomas Hobbes, as a remedy for civil and religious war: Everyone should chill the hell out. Live and let live. It made sense at the time. This required discrediting all those who claim to know what is best. But Hobbes went further, denying the very possibility of having a better or worse understanding of such things as virtue and vice. In our time, this same posture of value skepticism lays the public square bare to a culture industry that is not at all shy about sculpting souls – through manufactured experiences, engineered to appeal to our most reliable impulses. That’s how one can achieve economies of scale. The result is a massification of the individual.
Read the whole thing. Every terrific sentence. The old battles bear little resemblance to the ones we need to fight. Yes. This.
And learn more about Matthew Crawford from Gracy Olmstead’s rave review of his book.
UPDATE: Several of you have objected, either in the comments section or in private e-mails, to my characterizing the guy as “evil.” In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t yielded to the temptation to play off his Dr. Evil bald pate to call him evil. I really do believe that what he appears to believe in is evil, but it was wrong of me to make that judgment on his character, and I apologize. I hate it when people do that to me, and I ought not to have done it to Marc Andreessen.